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Project 2021: The Road to 500+

by Fr. Jason H. Laguerta



And the countdown begins!

Without intending to be too excited, we happily start our journey to the Great Jubilee of 2021. Five hundred days of preparation. Five hundred days of tracing the footsteps of our forebears in history as well as spotting the contemporary manifestations of grace and God’s fidelity.

The quincentennial calls for a celebration, no doubt. But it also offers us an opportunity to look back at the past, take stock of the present, and carve a path for a future of Christianity in the Philippines. There is always the danger of overemphasizing one element over another. But I think it is fairly understandable given the magnitude of the occasion. What is important is we walk together, hand in hand in synodality and solidarity.

There have been many (and surely there will be more) reflections offered to explain the significance of the 500 YOC (Years of Christianity). Going beyond the debates on whether it is worth celebrating or whether the first mass or baptism is the basis of the historical marker, it is I think more worthwhile to discuss the dynamic relationship of Christ-Culture and the critical challenge of Church-Relevance.

How did the gospel of Jesus Christ influence and change our local culture? How did and does our indigenous culture give a particular form and shape to Christianity? How do we, as Christians of today, understand and express our faith? How effective are our efforts and methods in transmitting the faith to the new generations?

In other words, how do we unpack the theme of 500 YOC, Gifted to Give? We can parse the theme in two halves. The Gift: How did we receive and appropriate the gift of faith throughout history? The Giving: What kind of faith do we give to the world? To my mind, these are the more salient issues and perhaps the hard questions that we should be asking ourselves as we prepare for 2021.


CHRIST AND CULTURE

Although it is necessary to commemorate the “arrival” of Christianity, it is also equally important to focus on the “reception” of Christianity. The “arrival” focuses on events, history and the original “givers”. The “reception” focuses more on culture, meaning and the “receivers”. From what I gather, we seem to be busy with the “arrival”, we tend to overlook the “reception”.

How did we receive Christianity? There is no simple explanation. And we cannot remain in stereotypes. The best way, therefore, to inquire is to look at culture, its concrete manifestations and expressions. Looking at the present face and form of Filipino culture and society, we cannot help but notice the ambivalence and irony of everything. The only Christian country in Asia yet one of the most corrupt. A predominantly Catholic population and yet one of the most unequal. A fun-loving, hospitable people and yet lately has become mean and hateful of one another.

We have to try to uncover why we are what we are today - incurably resilient but tragically divided.

Pope Francis says that we are in urgent need of self-criticism. Not to be cynical or self-defeating but to understand the truth about ourselves. For a meaningful 500 YOC, this should be our starting point and we should not be afraid of it. The vital question that begs for an answer is: Has the core message of Jesus become constitutive of our identity and culture? If yes, in what forms? If not, how do we let Jesus in, no matter how late it is?

Reception of Christianity is not just about being transformed by the values of the Gospel. It is also about appropriating the faith in a unique Filipino way. Christianity changes the culture. But culture also “changes” Christianity. In the more obvious realm, the Filipino brand of faith charms the world. Our fiestas, devotions, music, exuberance always create an impression on others. But in the more implicit realm of attitudes and spirituality, we have a lot of critical thinking to do. If the Filipino faith is flourishing, how come we have very little to show in the works of mission, justice and social transformation?


CHURCH AND RELEVANCE

Another aspect that must not be forgotten is the present situation of evangelization especially of the young generations. What good is 500 if it also ushers in a decline of fervor and rise in religious indifference? The nine-year preparation with different themes would be wasted if we don’t take an honest look at the state of evangelization in our parishes, schools and other ecclesial communities. Relevance is calling us out of our complacencies and business as usual stance.

Pope Francis talks about personal and pastoral conversion as a key component of new evangelization. Many of our structures and ways of doing things have been drastically disrupted by the “new things” of the twenty-first century. Technology, megatrends and “rapidization” of lifestyle have created new realities we have never even thought of. And yet we act as if things are the same as when the Church was still the center of people’s lives and our doctrinal instructions followed without question or doubt.

A nostalgic and romantic remembering of our glorious past is good. It gives us a sense of pride and joy. But it would be tragic if we limit ourselves to symbolic re-enactments, rituals and coffee table books. Let us use 500 YOC as an impetus for a real pastoral conversion and missionary option. And conversion happens when we encounter the person of Jesus of Nazareth who can give our lives “a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

At all levels and sectors of our ecclesial life, in every sacristy and pockets of poverty, we need Jesus, the real Jesus who turned things upside down for the people of his time. For 500 years we have been living as cultural catholics. We were born, baptized, confirmed, married and grew up Catholics. We are like the fish who does not know what an ocean is, because all his life he has breathed and lived in it. It is easy to take things for granted when there is not much effort to have them.

But if we take Jesus seriously, we will begin to understand that he “means business”. His message of love of God and love of neighbor requires a response and a commitment. It may even push us to make daring choices and bold decisions. This is the risky adventure of faith. And this is where we should focus our energies on. Elsewhere they call it intentional discipleship. Pope Francis calls it missionary discipleship. Faith and conversion should not be assumed when one is baptized. Faith is primarily a gift offered by God. But it necessitates an assent, a fundamental option to make Jesus the center of one’s life. There is a very good case for the statement, “We have been sacramentalized but not evangelized.”

The 500 YOC is a crucial moment in our history. Shall we continue with our default systems and modus vivendi or should we radically accept that things have to change? And they must happen immediately. And the catalyst for change is not a plan of action but a loving and intimate relationship with a person: the person of Jesus Christ.

GIFTED TO GIVE

Let us not allow the gift of faith to remain stuck in the trappings and the ephemeral. Let us open it and treasure what is inside of it. A person who has fully embraced the gift of faith cannot but be a giver of the same gift. One who has been evangelized shall be an evangelizer in the end. A disciple who has fallen in love with Jesus will be a missionary of his love. This is what Project 2021 is about. To call out new spirit-filled evangelizers who will carry the torch of the Good News to 500 YOC and beyond.

Recently, I heard a speaker say, “The church is not something we inherit from our past. The church is a gift on loan to us by the future generations. The question is: what kind of church are we leaving them?” As we start our countdown to 500 YOC, let our journey to the past embolden us to transform the present and make us courageous missionaries of hope.

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