top of page

Bishop Ambo: New Missionary Situations in the Philippines

Talk of Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, CBCP President

Day 5 of the 2nd National Mission Congress

Delivered via the Facebook page and Youtube channel

of the CBCP Episcopal Commission on Mission

Dear brothers and sisters, thank you for inviting me to share some thoughts on the new mission situations in the Philippines. I hope you don’t mind that I revised the title a little bit. I changed the word “missionary” to “mission”. I just wanted to emphasize that mission situations are those that call for missionaries.

It is important to begin by defining the new mission situations in the Philippines within a present day setting that I would qualify in three ways: first, as postcolonial, second as post-conciliar, and hopefully also post-pandemic.


Within a postcolonial present-day setting, the Church's appreciation of the new mission situations requires a humble admission that some of the missionary methods of the past should be consciously repudiated in the present, and foremost among these is that conscious instrumentalization of the Christian faith for other goals that may have nothing to do with the gospel, such as the furthering of colonial interests.

At the risk of being anachronistic in the postcolonial setting, it is hard to apply the term “evangelization” in an unqualified way to the process that brought about the Christianization of the natives of these islands. Why? Because we are historically aware that what achieved the submission of the natives to Christianity was the work of missionaries backed up by mercenary conquistadors with a colonialist agenda. No doubt, some seeds fell on rich soil, but the method of sowing is the kind that we would rather not do again in our present circumstances.


Now within that post-conciliar, present based setting we recognize the second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II) as the most important move of the local Church towards a Philippine ecclesial appropriation of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II).

Pope Francis’ advocacy for greater synodality in the Church is a reaffirmation of Vatican II’s mission for the Universal Church, and PCP II’s vision for the local Church. I consider his conscious promotion of communion, participation and mission, to be a most appropriate approach to the missionary work of evangelization.


Now as regards the post pandemic, or how this global health crisis may have opened up new frontiers for mission, since it is not over yet, let me reserve that for my last point.


When we speak about identifying new mission situations in the Philippine setting, I take that to mean that we are in a constant search for new fertile grounds on which we can carry out our mandate to sow the seeds of the Kingdom of God, where they can properly germinate, grow and bear truth. For all we know, as the Marcan parable would put it, some of the seeds that have been previously sown may have failed because they had fallen on footpaths, on rocky ground, or may have been choked up by the thorns. We may look back and say in conscience, “We could have done better if only we had thought of at least preparing the ground before sowing the seeds.”

Now let me relate synodality and evangelization. Thanks to Pope Francis, we have found the less threatening word for the missionary work of evangelization, and I’m referring to the term “synodality” or “walking on the way together”.

Proselytization and Evangelization

Understandably, the term evangelization has a threatening effect for some countries because it is loaded with the historical background of colonialism. In most countries in Asia, where we are dealing with multi-religious and multi-cultural contexts, people, you know, tend to be suspicious of “evangelists”. I remember this was the reason why I myself was not able to get a visa at the Indian Embassy many years ago, the first time I attempted to travel to India. I had been invited to participate in a theological forum on New Evangelization on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of Vatican II. The invitation was from a theological school in Bangalore (also known as Bengaluru – the capital and the largest city of the Indian state of Karnataka.). When I showed the formal invitation at the Indian Embassy, the person processing my application at the consulate started to interrogate me about the purpose of my visit. He asked me to explain what this “new evangelization” thing was all about and what my involvement was in it. The man ended by saying, “Sorry, no visa for you. We do not welcome evangelizers in India.” I was shocked because I had never before been denied a visa in any country. Later I was told by some Filipinos that I should have simply asked for a tourist visa and said “I just wanted to visit India.” Apparently, they equate the word “evangelizer” with Pentecostal and Evangelical Christians who are aggressively proselytizing Hindus and Muslims in India. Even China, you know, Vietnam, Indonesia and other Asian countries share in that suspicious attitude towards foreign missionaries. For many people, evangelization is the same as colonization. They know from history that colonizers supported the Christian missionaries because they were convinced that Christianising the natives was the easiest and most effective way of colonizing them.

Some Filipino nationalist historians usually refer to this as the symbiotic relationship between “the sword and the cross” during the Spanish colonial regime, or “the Bible and the rifle” during the American colonial regime. You know, and of course in American colonial regime introduced mainline Protestantism into the country and brought in some Protestant missionaries as well.

Francis himself speaks pejoratively of the term “proselytization” as a method of evangelization in many ways. Some methods of missioning during the colonial period were actually worse than proselytizing, especially those that had no qualms of conscience about forcing a religion on natives as a means for political subjugation. That may not have been the motive of the missionaries themselves. I know, but it was the main agenda or the conquistadores. Proselytization through mass baptisms and mass indoctrination to the Christian religion is definitely not what we understand by evangelization.

According to Pope Francis, you know he even calls it “something else”, “You know, proselytization, that is something else,” he says. You can indeed “Christianize” people without necessarily evangelizing them. For Pope Francis, evangelization is more about synodality, about being on the way together. It is about deciding together which way to go, which direction to take in our common journey.

The Emmaus Journey

The best biblical text for this is the Lucan story about the recent Christ appearing as a stranger to two disciples on the way to Emmaus (Lk. 24:13-35). Those two men were actually escaping. They were running away from Jerusalem, which they had associated with a failed project of a failed Messiah. Saint Luke gives us a good template for mission in his description of the stranger’s moods first. He drew near to them, walked with them, joined their conversation, and listened to their tragic story, along the way. He allowed them first to express to Him their griefs and their aspirations. Only after that did he begin to open to them the scriptures in order to help them make sense of their traumatic experience in Jerusalem. Saint Luke tells us how these men by just walking and listening attentively to the Messiah, incognito, began to feel like their souls had been rekindled with hope, and they had begun to understand why things had happened the way they happened. He also narrates how this new found friend on the way whom they wanted to host, who was the one who ended up playing the host for them and breaking the first morsel of bread for them. It was supposedly a gesture that finally opened their eyes and allowed them to recognize Him through the breaking of the bread. First, he entered into communion with them, and then he vanished from their sight. This is the text that best describes to us Jesus’ own pedagogy for mission. There is nothing triumphalistic about it. He simply draws near, walks with, and enters into a conversation with fellow travellers on the way.

You know, this reminds me very much of the experience of pilgrims who meet each other along the Camino de Compostela in Spain, and spontaneously develop a friendship that deepens into a kind of spiritual bond that enables them to find some light as they travel on the way searching their hearts for their lives through destination. The stranger who turns out to be the Risen Lord eventually disappears after rerouting their journey. By walking with them “on the way”, that synodality, He brings about communion, participation and mission. For Pope Francis, that is essentially what evangelization must be about. It is about synodality. Jesus coming into our lives as a stranger who walks with us on the way.

Now let me proceed to the main objective of this session, which is to articulate what I consider to be the new mission situations in the Philippines. Summed up in seven points, some of them are not necessarily new as such, but they are situations that might require some novelty in our mission approaches:

First, Reorienting Traditional Parishes towards Mission to the Peripheries;

Second, Basic Ecclesial Communities and the Mission to Build Basic Human Communities;

Third, Preparing Catholic OFWs for Mission Abroad;

Fourth, Shifting Missionary Paradigms: From Inculturation to Intercultural Dialogue;

Fifth, New Ministries for New Mission Situations;

Sixth, Lay Participation in the Churches Mission as Agents of Renewal in Society; and

Seventh, How the Pandemic Opened the Cyberspace and the Digital World as a New Mission Situation.

Reorienting Traditional Parishes

Well, because we practically equate mission with “missio ad gentes”, we have tended to ignore the fact that the people we are being sent to, need not be very far from us. They may just be around us, out there in the margins, in the periphery society. People who are treated by most modern societies as if they did not exist at all. Our present-day parish communities, you know, have a strong tendency to deteriorate into old and tired institutions that are on a “maintenance mode”, and have been “parochialized” in the negative sense of the word. They tend to cater mainly to a minority of Church-going traditional Catholics, whose homes are situated within the vicinity of the parish church, while the majority who live in the margins of the parish remain uninvolved. The call to redirect the attention of the “church-going Catholics” outward to the unchurched Catholics is now becoming a new mission situation in the Philippine Church. No wonder the Pope’s invitation to “go out to the peripheries” during his 2015 visit, struck a deep chord in the hearts of Filipino Catholics. Only through a missionary reorientation of our traditional parish communities towards the peripheries can we get them to outgrow parochialism, or what Pope Francis calls “self-referentiality”.

In our Diocese in Kalookan, we have made our humble attempts to do this by establishing what we call “mission stations” and “mission centers” in the urban poor communities that surround our traditional parishes. Although most of the people in our slum communities also identify themselves as Catholics, one might classify them must be “unchurched type”, who do not really count themselves as included in the regular parishes that normally cater to the “church-going type”. The “Churched Catholics” come mostly from the vicinity of the centro, where the “parishes” are geographically situated. In most instances, those who count themselves as “regular parishioners” are locals who distinguish themselves from the new settlers from other places. On the other hand, the “unchurched type” of Catholics are usually local migrants coming from the provinces, where most of them also lived in the peripheries as laborers or as landless agricultural workers.

Margins of the Church

Those in the margins of society, almost always, are also in the margins of the church. This despite PCP II’s goal of growing into a Church of the Poor, for lack of ordained diocesan priests to deploy in these places, we in Kalookan have relied on full time missionaries from Lay Renewal Movements and consecrated missionary congregations who had signified their willingness to partner with us in attending to these new mission frontiers in the peripheries. Since the priority is not immediately to build parishes, but basically ecclesial communities, in many instances, full time lay individuals missionaries are more equipped in laying the foundations for community building, because they are not so preoccupied yet with the typical parochial duties of parish priests. Nevertheless, these mission stations remain connected to their mother parishes, and are able to impact the parish community positively towards redirecting their attention outwardly to the peripheries.

The parish priests often get invited by the mission chaplains to celebrate Masses for them in the streets and covered courts, and provide for their sacramental needs. They are also able to bring along lay volunteers from the centro, engaged in parish ministries, to work on forming new volunteers for these mission stations, for traditional church ministries like Liturgical Ministries, Formation Ministries and Social Action Ministries. In this way, the traditional parishes have gradually reoriented to the peripheries and get to participate in mission.

This reorientation has also been very effective in counteracting the disease of “clericalism” that causes the stunting of the laity in the traditional parishes in terms of communion, participation and mission. You know it is important to note that it is usually the priests who are already oriented towards a more participatory church who would tend to go beyond delegating nearly consultative roles and functions to the traditional councils like PPC, Parish, Pastoral Council, Parish Finance Council, Chapel Pastoral Council. Have you noticed they’re all councils? They are the ones who would be more open to sharing some executive roles or functions to the laity.

Within every council, we would usually have executive committees that do not need to consult the parish priest when it has to do with implementing pastoral plans that have already been approved in pastoral assemblies, in the spirit of synodality. In most other clericalized parishes, these councils usually cannot even hold meetings without the parish priest around. They tend to function in the mode of the Pre-Vatican II mandated organizations that will do only what they are “mandated” to do by the clerics.

But in parishes where councils are already oriented towards PCP II’s goal of renewed integral evangelization, the laity usually get more involved in pastoral assemblies. actively participating in the goal setting, in the setting of pastoral objectives, and in the formulation of short term and long-term pastoral plans as well as in implementing these plans. You know these augurs very well with Pope Francis’ called for greater synodality within the Church.

The Mission to Build Basic Human Communities

One of the big challenges to building (Basic Ecclessial Communities) BECs in the urban poor setting is the growing sense of individualism, even among the urban poor. It is not unusual, you know, even for people living in slum areas to be strangers to their neighbours, in spite of their proximity, physical proximity to one another. And this is partly caused economically by poverty and the “survival mode” in which they find themselves as they adjust to the urban setting.

Many of them remain as transient, and they move from place to place because of unstable jobs and their preference for places close to their workplaces. Another factor is their cultural alienation, as local migrants in their host communities. Getting integrated in this “new communities” often comes as a big challenge for lack of shared ethnicity, lack of shared vernacular languages, or shared cultures having been uprooted by their life circumstances from their islands or their provinces, or their regions of origin. Usually, the only common denominator that could connect them to some of the locals is their shared poverty. The diversity often also includes religious affiliations and degrees of exposure to such religions. The additional challenge for unchurched Catholics living in the peripheries, is the fact that they are often surrounded by neighbours who might also not share their traditional Catholic religious worldview, even if they also identify themselves as Catholic. They expressed their catholicity, basically through popular religious beliefs and practices that are outwardly Catholic, such as their veneration of images of saints on their home altars.

You know, in an article I wrote recently on Basic Ecclesial Communities, I pointed out that our BECs are not yet truly ecclesial, nor truly “Christian”, if they are able to live and promote a communitarian life only with fellow Catholics, if they are not able to serve as catalysts of change in society. I would expect them to promote, what I would call “Basic Human Communities”, meaning that they do not keep only to themselves, like little “isolated ghettos” that are too assertive of their difference from other Christians or other communities of faith. Otherwise, they will just end up replicating the same parochialism and self-referentiality that is typical of most of our old and tired institutions. They will be more of the same. They will hardly serve as a ferment of renewal in the church.

In this regard, the thoughts that Pope Francis has laid out in his recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti can be of great relevance. Please take note, Pope Francis encourages Roman Catholic Christians to promote what he calls “solidarity” and “social friendship”; and how best can we participate in this undertaking then, by mobilizing precisely those who have been disenfranchised by the antique weighted models, those who have been relegated in the margins of society. Who else would be in the best position to take the lead in redesigning better and more humane societies than those who have been excluded by the old system?

The Call to Mission for Our OFWs

To what extent has the local Philippine church grown from a “mission receiving church” to a “Mission Sending Church”? Although we have also sent countless Filipino religious missionaries in many countries abroad, it is important to recognize that the deployment of millions of Catholic OFWs in many countries abroad has likewise created a new mission situation ad gentes. Pope Francis has referred to them jokingly, as “smugglers of the faith” or “contrabandistas de fe” in Spanish.

Missions used to be spearheaded mainly by missionary religious congregations with OFWs. We have lay Filipino Catholics who informally assumed an “accidentally missionary role” in the countries in which they find themselves. Their quiet presence and humble forms of service that they render to their host countries constitute a strong evangelical form of witnessing.

Speaking to Filipino migrant Catholics gathered together in Rome to celebrate the 500th Year, Christianity, Pope Francis urged the Filipinos, and let me quote directly from him, “to persevere in the work of evangelization.” He said, “The Christian proclamation that he received needs constantly to be brought to others.” He also expressed how this could be carried out more concretely by asking us “to care for those who are hurting and living on the fringes of life.” (There is your word “periphery” again.) In that gathering, Pope Francis warmed the hearts of our Catholic OFWs when he said “you received the joy of the gospel and this joy is evident in your people, in your eyes, on your faces, in your songs, and in your prayers, in the joy with which you bring your faith to other lands.” He also humoured us by referring to OFWs as “smugglers of the faith”, because he said, “wherever they go to work, they saw the faith” and he regards their “discreet and hardworking presence” as “a testimony of faith through humble, hidden, courageous and persevering presence”.

Well, this gift of our migrant Filipino Catholics, especially OFWs who are becoming our new missionaries, is at the same time of challenge. It is no doubt a gift because they are now bringing new life to the Catholic faith in the countries where churches have become empty and the faith has grown cold. They also represent the Church of the poor, since many of them come from the poorer sectors of the Philippine society, who have been forced to leave their country in search of decent means of empl