I WATCHED the live feed of the Pope Francis-led thanksgiving Mass at Vatican City last Sunday, March 14. Thanksgiving because the Catholic Church celebrates this year 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines.

Part of Pope Francis’ homily said:
“On this very important anniversary for God’s holy people in the Philippines, I also want to urge you to persevere in the work of evangelization — not proselytism, which is something else. The Christian proclamation that you have received needs constantly to be brought to others. The Gospel message of God’s closeness cries out to be expressed in love for our brothers and sisters. God desires that no one perish. For this reason, He asks the Church to care for those who are hurting and living on the fringes of life. God so loves us that He gives Himself to us, and the Church has this same mission. The Church is called not to judge but to welcome; not to make demands, but to sow seeds; not to condemn, but to bring Christ who is our salvation.

“I know that this is the pastoral program of your Church: a missionary commitment that involves everyone and reaches everyone. Never be discouraged as you walk this path. Never be afraid to proclaim the Gospel, to serve and to love. With your joy, you will help people to say of the Church too: ‘She so loved the world!’ How beautiful and attractive is a Church that loves the world without judging, a Church that gives herself to the world. May it be so, dear brothers and sisters, in the Philippines and in every part of the earth.”

In the midst of dwindling priestly vocations everywhere on the one hand and shifting global demography on the other, I thought the Catholic Church has a strategic opportunity to evangelize the world through Filipino migrants. Not to proselytize, as the Pope cautions, but by dedication to their work, their jovial countenance and cheerful mien, peoples of the world will know that Filipinos are true children of light.

I wrote in “From the Philippines to the world, with love” (The Manila Times, Sept.19, 2019):

“The world’s most affluent countries face uneasy forecasts of demographic weather due to their aging populations and falling birth rates. Poor to middle-income countries with healthy birth rates, like the Philippines, can map their future with an eye for invasion by their geriatric caregivers.

“A 2018 study by Persistence Market Research projects that the global aged care services market will hit the $2-trillion mark by 2026. It also estimates that the geriatric population (aged 65 and older) will hit 2 billion by that same period. Japan (27 percent of total population), Italy (23 percent), Portugal (22 percent), Germany (21 percent) and Finland (21 percent) lead all countries with the highest elderly population; in the United States, 19 percent of the projected total population (or 65 million of 345 million) will be 65 years or older by 2025, according to populationpyramid.net.

“Traditional values of respect for elders and close family ties give Filipino caregivers a distinct ‘competitive advantage’ over other exporters of contract workers in this niche; the Filipino caregivers and health workers are widely accepted and preferred worldwide by foreign clients who are under treatment, according to a 2017 joint study by Japan’s Rissho University and Hosei University.”

The Philippines is a bountiful harvest for the Christian gospel. Philippine Statistics Authority data show that up to 91 percent of Filipinos belong to the Christian faith; and 81 percent are Catholics. That converts to around 81 million believers, making the Philippines the third country with the greatest number of Catholics, behind Brazil and Mexico.

But while a great majority of Filipinos have embraced the Catholic faith, some are not convinced. President Rodrigo Duterte’s vitriol against the Catholic Church is well known. He has called the Catholic God stupid, offering to teach Him how justice should be applied among mortals. He has mocked Jesus Christ as one who is “hindi nakakabilib” for having allowed himself to be crucified. He cursed Pope Francis. He has vilified the leaders of the Church. Urging people to read a book that documented infidelity among priests, he proclaimed that the Catholic Church would not live another year.

On social media, I also read comments like “carrying their cross since 1521 made you forget about being stabbed with their sword.”

The argument, it seems to me, is that religion has been used to propel imperialism. In this context the imperialist agenda justified then, as it justifies now, the robbing and killing of peoples in the larger scheme of creating wealth and advancing hegemony for the colonial power.

But as I pointed out in last week’s column, colonization of the Philippines that started in 1521 was equally driven by evangelization. The pre-Vatican II Catholic Church believed that salvation was almost impossible outside of it, which I imagine inspired — even compelled — the zeal of the missions. And there was, during the era of the missions, the so-called “patronato real, a papal concession of religious affairs to the king in exchange for material support to the missionary campaign.”

The Catholic missions needed funds and security for their work in unknown parts of the world. In exchange, the King had a hand in the evangelization work carried out by the Catholic Church. In the Philippines, for example, the Governor General could choose which religious order would be in charge of a particular diocese or parish.

That zeal had yielded for the Catholic Church the outcome of becoming the largest organization in the world providing services to the poor through its charities, orphanages, schools, hospitals, prison ministries, etc. In the Philippines, Church workers have helped bring the marginalized sectors from the fringes to the center, as it were, from the peripheries to the mainstream, through community organizing and social action. They were instrumental in organizing cooperatives and credit unions in rural areas, labor unions in cities and sugar workers in Negros. During the atrocious reign of martial law, some priests like Conrado Balweg in the Cordilleras and Santiago Salas in Samar, among many others, joined the communist rebels to resist government forces that served the interests of businesses exploiting natural resources in their respective areas.

In a world shaped by my Catholic faith as purifier of the human soul to merit petition for God’s mercy that hopefully would lead to salvation and eternal life, I consider the Catholic priests as the most powerful group of people there are in this world, next to the poor.

In my Catholic world (Matthew 32:40), the poor are the most powerful people on earth, because just as people who have guns can plan and carry out summary killings, the poor have the power to summarily send you to eternal salvation.

On the other hand, priests, by administration of the holy sacraments, have power, with cooperation from the faithful, to purify our souls and heal us from spiritual corruption and decay. Again from Matthew, this time verses 18:19: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

In the context of one’s faith in God and hope for eternal life, what power can be greater than that which redeems people from their sins and spiritual death?

But priests are human beings. They follow the world and are vulnerable to its charms. And because power corrupts, they can be agents of corruption themselves. In that sense Mr. Duterte resonates — although not fully justified — when he uses official government time and resources to denounce priests as infidels and hypocrites. Indeed, the flock is witness to priestly vows being violated all the time.

The alternative view is that while the scandals involving the clergy have defiled the Church to the point that, in my layman’s limited understanding, has reached a level where the gates of hell have been opened, gnashing at the very foundations of the Church, the priests could, with their power, have done worse. The next level would be close enough to debase, even deny, the one who gave them authority to build the Church.

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