Lake Wood (AsiaNews) – For the strongest among us, life expectancy can reach 70 . . . 80 years. I think that after 40 years of my life, 15 of them as a priest, 8 as a missioner and 1 at the helm of a parish, I can take some time out to reflect.
When I was a child my parents taught me that Jesus was the centre of life. They did not really do so in words so much as in deeds. As a teenager, I learnt much from Comunione e Liberazione (Communion and Liberation). It taught me that in its fullest sense true liberation only comes from communion with Jesus in the Church. My studies, above all the writings of von Balthasar, proved to me that “only love—that of Jesus which gives life through obedience to the Father—is credible.”
Many tried to convince me that what counts is helping the poor fill their bellies and put up buildings. I feel sorry for them because they just wasted their breath. After all these years I am more convinced than ever that we cannot be saved and cannot build anything good in this world if we do not convert to Jesus and follow him into His Church.
A certain ideology that claims to be Christian argues that the poor as poor are inherently good and that the rich as rich are inherently bad. Others believe that to get out of poverty the have-nots must do what the haves do. In my experience the size of one’s bank account does not determine whether one is good or bad. I have met rich people who were good and others who were wicked. I have also met poor people who were good and others who were not.
When Jesus speaks of beatitude, he is referring to the “Blessed [. . .] in spirit” (Matthew 5:3), that is those who place their trust and hopes in Jesus, not in themselves or in things of this world.
Demagoguery is another lie or temptation whose path I have crossed in this bit of time that is my life as a person, priest and missionary. Some say: “Vox popoli, vox Dei”. The voice of the people is sometimes the voice of God. Sadly, that voice shifts with the wind.
Just remember what happened on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Or, to limit myself to the Philippines, remember the mass rallies for and against one president or one dictator and his family.
If the Gospel is truly the Gospel, I am not sure that Jesus ever followed majority opinion nor did the thousands of martyrs who throughout the centuries gave their lives for Christ. And yet there are those who still wish to see the Church governed as a democracy as if truth could be decided by a majority vote and the Church reduced to some kind of social association mindful of not bothering others too much with its moral, spiritual or eschatological discourses.
I suppose you are asking yourself what I am doing to live by the principles I just mentioned. Good question! Well! I hope that my commitment here in Lake Wood are a sign and instrument of Christ’s presence in the community that was entrusted to me. According to the Church (see Lumen Gentium, for example), the priestly vocation is to sanctify, teach and govern the people of God. And this is what I am trying to do.
I sanctify (munus sanctificandi) by celebrating the Sacraments in ways that are valid, worthy and dignified. Among them I confess, something which remains central to Church doctrine despite attempts to push it aside as Protestants have done. Too often, people do not seek it because people have not been made to understand its value.
I teach (munus docendi) because after so much time and money invested in my theological training it would be a waste to make me do what I don’t know (like building churches or working on farming projects).
I teach and train others, especially community leaders (ministers of the Eucharist and the Word, catechisers, chapel presidents, etc.) by giving courses but also through pastoral decisions. For example, I tell people that the Sacraments are neither mine nor anyone else’s but Christ’s and the Church’s. I tell people that for them to be valid and useful they require certain conditions and preparation. There are those however who think that they are things that can be bought. Another example is how we celebrate Patron Saints. Feast days are not mere folk festivals or country fairs; they are moments in the liturgical calendar with a purpose which is to give Christians the chance to spiritually renew themselves. Consequently, they must be celebrated according to the liturgical schedule (and not that of merchants) and without some of those activities that experience has shown to be against people’s best interests (such as gambling or dancing where young men bid for the right to dance with young women, etc.)
Lest we forget, eternal salvation depends on the choices made in this life (and which only God can judge), not from the number of wakes, funerals, or remembrances one attends (at best they might reduce one’s time in Purgatory). Hence, if someone left the Church for another Christian Church or another religion, he or she cannot be buried according to Catholic rites (Code of Canon Law, nº 1184). I say this not to judge anyone (for only God judges) but to remind everyone that choices made in this life must also be respected after death.
Access to the Eucharistic Communion is premised on a prior union with Christ through the baptism and a lifetime without major faults. Those who are not baptised and those who objectively live in ways contrary to Christian morality (for example, people who are separated and living in a common law relationship with someone else) cannot receive the communion. For many this might seem obvious but in this part of the world it is not. This explains why I have made some enemies.
What must be understood is that belonging to Christianity is much more important than belonging to a tribe, clan or social group. It is the latter that must be inspired and moved to action by the spirit of the Gospel, not the other way around. Sadly, we are light years from understanding the self-evident truth that the Gospel is “in the world, but not of the world”.
I govern (munus regendi) in the sense that, as I said before, the Church is not a democracy where things are decided by a majority vote. The Church is instead a communion, a company led by destiny where responsibility is given hierarchically and sacramentally, not by election or popular selection. In short, after listening as it is right to all those who have something to say (and for this I have increased the opportunities people have to express their ideas and thoughts) I make the (often unpopular) decisions. Of course, I can make mistakes (I am not the Pope) and for this I ask the Lord to give me the necessary humility and courage to own up to my mistakes and ask forgiveness as well as the wisdom to start over. However, this does not mean I can delegate the responsibilities that are properly those of the ordained minister; on the contrary.
Now, one may ask how I, as a priest, can help the many poor in the community. This is a legitimate question. Like all Christians I, too, shall be judged by God on the basis of my love for others for is it not written that “I was hungry and you gave me food” (Matthew, 25:35). And yet, I feel uncomfortable to answer such a question because of something else the Gospel says, that is that “when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing (Matthew, 6:3). I must however justify the many offerings I received from friends and relatives.
So what are my duties? The first one is to help the sick who cannot afford medical treatment. The second is to enable poor kids to go to school (at least to elementary school). The third one is to respect the evangelical principle according to which people are given proper compensation for their work. In my case, this means giving some remuneration to those who contribute more pastoral work.
I am however still convinced that the greatest help one can give to others—be they rich or poor—so that they may live in greater dignity is to make them understand that liberation in its fullest sense comes from conversion to the Gospel. This liberation makes people fear God without dreading spirits or death. It allows them to go beyond tribalism and embrace the Catholic vision whose goal is the common good, not that of any particular group. Of course, only God, who judges what is in people’s heart, knows whether their efforts and hopes have succeeded.
I hope that I and everyone else can have the opportunity to fully experience the evangelical beatitude that comes from being poor in spirit, confidently giving ourselves to God, our guide in joy and sadness, in richness and poverty, in life and death, now and forevermore.