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Congress of Mercy hears plea from streets

MANILA (SE): The Catholic Church in The Philippines was weighed but found wanting in responding to the issues that confronted the people, especially the poor, over the past year.

During national elections in May last year, the Church-based Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting tried to give expression to a Church committed to making a difference in the political arena.

Unfortunately, there was not much evidence of an organised effort to educate the people on what a vote really means, or make them aware of their right to be an active participant in the creation of a just and humane society.

The faith life of The Philippines continues to be largely circumscribed by the traditional celebration of the sacraments.

The bishops and priests may be cognizant that faith should have real and actual socio-political implications, but faith-based action in the socio-political life of society remains sadly underdeveloped.

There is no strong evidence in parishes, in the form of programmes, organisations or movements, that shows Christian life includes social and political involvement as an integral expression of faith.

On the issue of the burial of the former dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, in the country’s resting-place for heroes, only a few, including Archbishop Socrates Villegas, expressed dismay and frustration at the government move.

The bishops’ conference finds it hard to speak with a unified voice and this occasion was no exception.

But maybe the area in which the Church has struggled most is in responding to the blatant war on the poor being waged by the president in the guise of an attack on the drug trade.

As the Philippine Church walks on egg shells around the volatile Rodrigo Duterte, the Congress of Mercy, a worldwide gathering on the theme of the mercy of the Lord and showing mercy towards each other, was not even game to mention his campaign of hate and blood against the poor by name.

The best it could raise on the eve of the congress, which ran from January 16 to 20, was a rather veiled mention to the situation in the host country, which is going through a human rights crisis.

However, as the congress, which attracted over 4,000 delegates to the Philippine capital, got underway a different story began to unfold.

Bishop Rupert Santos spoke strongly in defence of those whom he described as having committed errors, saying that the challenge is to restore them to society, not have them liquidated.

“Mercy is connected with life and life is connected with the environment,” the bishop told the gathering. “In general, it is always to love life, to live life and to defend life. So there should be a message that witnesses to the focus of life. Life must be promoted, life must be preserved and life must be respected.”

However, this is proving to be easier said than done.

Duterte had anticipated such words coming out of the congress and in the run up launched a stinging attack on the Church, singling out the bishops as the greatest hypocrites in the country.

The solid support Duterte has inspired in his fellow citizens for the blood-letting has also left the Church at a loss in figuring out a response. Priests in Manila report that to say something even slightly critical of Duterte in a homily is to know that 90 per cent of your congregation is no longer listening.

But the Church is not the bishops, and other groups—especially the sisters and organisations for the poor—have worked at the grassroots to build up support for protest, which has gained some ground.

The government anti-narcotics war has already killed well over 6,000 people, including the innocent as well as children who just happened to be in the way.

Twenty-three-year-old Alvin Jhon Mendoza died in a hail of bullets in a Manila street on October 12 last year. His only crime was being dressed in a black shirt and brown khaki shorts—similar clothing neighbours explained was worn by a man on the police hit list.

Mendoza was already dead when the trigger-happy police asked who he was and if he had travelled under the alias of Juanito. He had not.

Duterte labels the innocent as collateral damage, brushing off their deaths as a matter of bad luck. But the common thread linking the dead is poverty.

But on these matters, there is a deepening silence of the Church as an institution as represented by its leadership, the bishops’ conference.

However, Bishop Broderick Pabillo spoke bravely to the congress in January stressing that the Church cannot remain silent and helpless in the face of the many victims of the government.

“We cannot remain silent, because this is another way to terrorise the people. Now the time has really come to be heard,” the auxiliary bishop of Manila stated, adding that he believes the Church is close to the bereaved families who cannot rely on receiving a fair trial in the courts.

He lamented that the fiasco around the burial of the former dictator, Marcos, as a hero, reflects that The Philippines has not learned anything from past mistakes and experiences.

But the voice of the poor child in front of Pope Francis during his visit in January 2015 asking why God allows the children to suffer reverberates once again.

Bonifacio Tago asks in an article posted on UCAN why the lost children, the widows of victims of criminality, the hungry and the poor are crying for justice and waiting for Philippine Church leaders to make God’s saving presence felt, visible and tangible in their lives.

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