Grace Upon Grace
Fr. Jason H. Laguerta
This is how we can describe the recent events which placed the Church in the Philippines front and center of ecclesiastical as well as mainstream news and conversations. We don’t say this with triumphant haughtiness but with overflowing gratitude and joy.
As we are about to celebrate the five hundred years of Christianity in the Philippines, we are awed and humbled by the appointments of Archbishop Bernardito Cleopas Auza as Apostolic Nuncio to Spain and Andorra and His Eminence Luis Antonio G. Cardinal Tagle as Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Two Filipinos, now serving the universal church with key responsibilities.
It also warms our hearts to hear no less than the outgoing Apostolic Nuncio to the Philippines Archbishop Gabriele Giordano Caccia talking about us this way, “I don’t think I will find anywhere in the world people as friendly, as smiling, as open, as affectionate, and as devoted as here in the Philippines.”
To put things in context, Spain brought Christianity to the Philippines 500 years ago. And now, Spain’s papal representative is a Filipino. The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (formerly Propaganda Fide or Propagation of the Faith), established 400 years ago, was tasked to take care of the territories that were “discovered” by Spain and Portugal, the islands of the Philippines included. Now, it will be headed by a Filipino.
How do we make sense of all these? Surely, the Lord has a message to us somewhere that we must discern and tease out beyond congratulatory greetings and jubilant messages. Although the designations are personal to Archbishop Auza and Cardinal Tagle, their significance and impact involve all of us. What they carry with them is a history of a colonized people and a culture shaped by the Christian faith. What it means is a challenge that we have to start unpacking and exploring.
JEWELS OF THE PAUPER
“But as poor as we are, we yet have something,” wrote Fr. Horacio de la Costa, SJ in the 1940s. We have music and faith. They have kept us afloat and enabled us to hold our ground come what may. From lullabies to funerals, we sing, we say Mass, we give thanks. We do not glorify poverty. But even the poor have some good news to tell. And in fact, the poor are the privileged recipients of God’s preferential love. They are the first proclaimers of God’s boundless mercy.
This is how we make sense of what is happening today, “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike (Mt. 11:25)”.
What we lack in economic capital or military strength, we more than make up in our happy and gentle people, our songs and traditions, our faith and devotion. Indeed, it is more fun in the Philippines. Not because we love fiestas and pageants. But because we don’t miss the forest for the trees.
Archbishop Caccia exhorted us to wholeheartedly give Cardinal Chito to the “bigger Church”. Who would have thought centuries ago that one day we would be asked to give and not just receive? Cardinal Chito is one of our jewels, a jewel of the pauper. His music. His faith. Our gift to the world.
FROM EAST TO WEST
When the 16th century adventurers circumnavigated the world, they moved from west to east. Historians can better explain or perhaps debate on the motives and intentions of the conquests and explorations. But one thing was clear, they were seekers. They were searching for new lands, new routes, and yes treasure and spices.
When they came to our islands, they had with them their flourishing culture and civilization. They carried with them the Christian faith, specifically the Western Iberian form of faith. Give and take we could say that some things they brought were good for us and some things were not. Depending on which side of the fence you are, Christianity could be one of the good or it could be one to be blamed for many of the ills that afflict our country today.
The meeting of the west and the east produced a culture that is so unique in Asia. Compared to our immediate neighbors, we look and sound Castilian than Austronesian. This unique fusion of the west and the east in us is an identity issue that we have yet to settle and fully integrate. My opinion is that many of our societal problems spring from our inability to face our identity crisis - not in the personal but social sense of identity.
Nevertheless, the West have to realize that the tides of change have been reversed. This is not 16th century anymore. The east is coming. It has been since Enrique of Malacca. Filipinos have long “conquered” the world. And now, Archbishop Auza and Cardinal Tagle, by their person and ethnicity, are like Joseph in a foreign land occupying an "amoris officium", a task and duty of love, for their elder brothers in faith and history.
PRIMACY OF MISSION
Personally, it breaks my heart to see our beloved Archbishop go and be uprooted from our midst. In a massively divided country, his is a calming presence. In an environment full of vitriol and empty rhetoric, his language is a call to listening and dialogue, respect and acceptance for both the one lost sheep and the ninety-nine others who have no need of repentance. His leadership, often misconstrued and underappreciated, is to bridge and not to alienate, to reach out and not to judge, to seek conversion than condemnation. His gestures of empathy and compassion always point to Matthew at his table and Peter by the Sea of Galilee.
His smile, even in the midst of pain, speaks of courage and strength, humility and childlike simplicity. Explaining why he laughs all the time, he told a roaring crowd, “I take myself lightly but I take my God seriously.” His tears are reflections of his deep intimacy with God and the human condition. He once said, "I cry easily. I guess when you're before a great mystery that you know is beyond you - a calling, a grace, a mission - then you tremble and at the same time you're happy.”
For so many years, ever since he was an unassuming young priest from Imus, we have listened to his powerful homilies and inspiring reflections. We often leave his conferences and lectures shaking our heads, “Galing talaga ni Chito!” (Chito is so good!). In the past few days, we have been seeing the same tender priest, now a Cardinal Prefect on his journey to Rome, like the apostles Peter and Paul. He is trying very hard to be his old jovial self. But we know he is going through his paschal mystery. His Gethsemane. His Peniel. He wrestles with God. He struggles with his doubts like Mary of Nazareth.
But he’ll come through. As he always does. Because in the end, in the midst of the darkness and uncertainties, he remains faithful to his life statement, “It is the Lord.” Dominus est. And this is also true for us, especially in the Archdiocese of Manila. The cloud of anxiety and fear is before us. But at first light we shall surely see someone standing at the shore of our parishes and communities, “It is the Lord.” Dominus est.