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Understanding Synodality in the Context of the Philippines

by His Excellency Most Rev. Pablo Virgilio S. David, D.D.

Bishop of Kalookan and President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines

CELEBRATE ASIA IN MANILA [500 Years of Christianity in the Philippines and the 50th Anniversary of Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences - FABC]

I’d like to begin by thanking His Eminence Cardinal Joe Advincula for that very beautiful and very powerful homily which I call “Salubong Experience”. You know that the two images of the Risen Christ and our Blessed Mother have become the symbols of our Synod on Synodality. These two powerful images have accompanied our synodal consultations from the diocesan, to the metropolitan, to the national levels. Kasi, ang lakas ng dating sa atin ng ritwal ng Salubong, para sa pagdiriwang ng muling pagkabuhay. Honestly, noong una I was not very comfortable with the ritual of Salubong. Because I’m a Bible professor, and I used to feel awkward about, you know, the celebration of Easter as an encounter between the Risen Christ and the Blessed Mother, because I couldn't see it in the Scriptures at the start. You know? In John chapter 20, it was actually, salubong, an encounter between Mary Magdalene and the Risen Jesus. Well, this morning I was thinking to myself after listening to the first reading, that I was looking at the wrong places. That the salubong is there, and actually we have to read it in Acts chapter one and two, where the Blessed Mother is present in that upper room. We’ve got to use to call it the Pentecost experience, but the Pentecost experience is an Easter experience. Walang angel na bumaba para hawiin ‘yung belong itim, doon sa Pentecost narrative of Saint Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, pero ang pumapel na taga-alis ng belong itim ay ang Espirito Santo mismo na dumating bilang isang malakas na hangin, kakaibang klaseng bagyo. Ang alam nating bagyo naninira, katulad ng katatapos lang na dumaan na Bagyong Karding (Noru). Ang Espirito Santo ay isang bagyo na malakas pero naghahawi, nag-aalis ng mga lambong, mga itim na belo, upang masilayan natin ang Kristong muling nabuhay. There, the whole community of disciples is present. It is like a different rendition of the Johannine “behold your mother, behold your son” (Jn. 19:26-27). Now, it is, you know, to the mother, it’s like the Spirit is saying, “Behold your risen Son”, in the corporate Christ, which is the Church, the Mystical Body that Cardinal Joe was speaking about. In turn the Spirit says to us, “Behold your mother.”

I have organized this talk into three parts:

  • Part 1 – Our Philippine Synodal Experience in the Light of the 50th Anniversary of FABC,

  • Part 2 – On the Synodal Process Itself: The National Synodal Process ─ Highlights and Areas of Conversion from the Perspective of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines which I represent today, and

  • Part 3 – will be mostly in Tagalog: Mga Pagmumulat sa Karanasan ng Pakikilakbay sa Synod on Synodality sa Liwanang ng Salita ng Diyos

Part 1: Our Philippine Synodal Experience in the Light of the 50th Anniversary of FABC

Let me start immediately with part one: Our Philippine Synodal Experience in the Light of the 50th Anniversary of FABC. The bishops are preparing to join the plenary assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, from October 12 until October 13, 2022 in Bangkok, Thailand.

The context in which we are reflecting on the new pathways for synodality for the Church in the Philippines is this celebration of the 50th Anniversary of FABC, as well as our recently concluded celebration of the 500th Year of the Arrival of Christianity in the Philippines. I don't know if you are aware that FABC has actually been promoting greater synodality in the Church since its very inception. It has been known mainly for its insistence on dialogue. Of course FABC did not use the term “synodality”, but it has insisted consistently on dialogue. For us in Asia, FABC emphasizes that synodality has to take the form of a threefold dialogue: 1) with a religion of Asia, 2) with a culture of Asia, and 3) with the poor of Asia. Perhaps we can begin by replacing Asia with the Philippines, and then ask ourselves, “How we have fared in each of the three levels of dialogue while reviewing our own synodal experience in the Philippines?”

Firstly, with regard to dialogue with religions. Ironically, as regards interreligious dialogue, our disadvantage has been the fact that we are a predominantly Christian country. I say “ironically” because being predominantly Christian is precisely the reason why we have the tendency to be less concerned about dialoguing with other religions. Kasi, it is different talking about dialogue in a context in which you are the majority, than in a context in which you are a minority. The Catholics or the Christians in Thailand are minority, as they are in Vietnam, and in any most other countries in Asia. It is in the minority setting that the advocacy for religious freedom, tolerance, and dialogue usually becomes more palpable. It is a common tendency for us Catholics when we are the majority, to be presumptuous, you know, to throw our weight around, to be intolerant, or even less open to dialogue. No wonder, our efforts interreligious dialogue has remained admittedly, not very significant. The other communities of faith are actually even surprised when we bother to reach out to them as we did during the Synod on Synodality.

We have Catholics who simply take it for granted that we can just celebrate Masses in public spaces as if these belong to us. Sometimes, we just presumptuously occupy the streets and mess up the traffic for our possessions. Often without even bothering to coordinate with the local government units, or the barangays about re-routing the traffic. Hindi magandang attitude ito. It's the colonial attitude. You know? Which we're supposed to have outgrown because we're no longer in an age of colonialism. Pero ang lakas ng dating utak mananakop, and it is not good for dialogue. Usually, our reasoning is that we can always presume that the LGUs or the barangays will marshal the traffic, which does not automatically happen if we do not consciously attend to it; and it is when government officials happen to belong to other religions or other Christian denominations that we often become more conscious of the need for dialogue. Ayun! Then nakikipag- dialogue tayo. I call that a “self-serving kind of dialogue.” Dialogue, kapag tayo ay nasa posisyon of disadvantage.

Please, please, make no mistake about this. Please do not misunderstand me, for as it were advocating a secularistic kind of society that is intolerant of religious expression in public spaces. No. I don't agree with that kind of an attitude either, but there are countries where all communities of faith are equally given the privilege of using the public space for their festivals and often even with the support from the other religions.

Synodality with other religions is actually more than peaceful coexistence, or even more than dialogue. It is also about pro-actively discovering spaces of partnerships and collaboration about opening our Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) to promote, to be promoters, not just of basic Christian communities, but basic human communities.

In our Philippine synodal journey, the aspiration for ecumenical dialogue has been more significant than interreligious dialogue, and for obvious reasons. It is mostly in Mindanao where interreligious dialogues figure more prominently in the diocesan synodal reports, and they look back to the Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Council which paved the way for the bishops-ulama encounters and dialogues. Yet, kahit wala tayo sa Mindanao, here in Luzon and in the Visayas where we happen to be majority, we cannot deny the presence in our midst of our Muslim traders, of Taoist, and Buddhist Chinese-Filipinos, of Iglesia ni Cristo, of Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and of indigenous peoples, indigenous communities that have held on to their animist faith. It is in the realm of social advocacies that ecumenism and interreligious dialogues have tended to be more productive. Examples of these would be the common concerns for the climate crisis, and the protection of our common home, advocacies for good governance and responsible citizenship, for clean, honest, accurate, meaningful, and peaceful election, as in PPCRV work, which is ecumenical by the way. For a peaceful resolution of conflicts, for the protection of human rights, for the defense of human life, for land reform, for campaigns against corruption, etc.

New avenues have been opened in our relationship, in particular with the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, because of the 500th Year of Christianity Celebration, and the CBCP’s joint statement with the Iglesia Filipina Independiente that has endeavored to heal the historical wounds that have alienated them from us, from the Roman Catholic Church. We also feel the defensive position of our traditional church-going Catholics towards Pentecostals and Evangelicals that have been actively engaged in what many Catholics, you know, suspect or regard us “sheep stealing”, pagnanakaw ng kawan; and the common suspicion is that these groups are out of proselytize, and that they are consciously aiming at converting hordes of unchurched Catholics to their fold.

Well, this synod experience has been humbling for us, because we have heard remarks from some of them. Remarks like, “Would you really rather keep them distant from the Christian faith? The ones you call unchurched Catholics.” “Would you rather keep them distant from the Gospel than allow them to hear God's word through our evangelical efforts?” “We're not forcing them to join us. We only invite them,” they say. We know that they are mostly baptized Catholics, but they claim that they do not feel at all like they belong to the Catholic Church. Many of them are baptized but they know very little about the Christian faith. When you hear remarks like this, you're humble.

Now, secondly, with regard to dialogue with the poor, the synodal consultation has been a very humbling experience for our parishes, especially in regard to reaching out to the unchurched, who constitute the majority of Catholics. I see it has been very humbling, and sorry for repeating. It has been very humbling to admit that in spite of PCP2’s (Second Plenary Council of the Philippines) vision of promoting a Church of the poor (this was also mentioned by Cardinal Joe), the poor have remained not only in the margins of society, but also in the margins of the Church. The sectoral dialogues during the synod have also opened our eyes to the great tendency in our parishes, to often be focused only on our “churchee” concerns, to be inward looking, to be self referential (if I may use the vocabulary or Pope Francis), to be parochial in the negative sense of the word. We have tended to limit the Church involvement of the laity to serving the Church, rather than serving society as members of a servant church. Let me repeat that. We have tended to limit the involvement, the Church involvement of the laity to serving the Church, rather than serving society as part of a servant Church.

Most parishes have felt a certain awkwardness. For example, about dialoguing with a sector that calls itself the LGBTQ+, or with single parents, or with separated couples, or families who are living in a not so ideal family situation. There are people with disabilities (PWDs) who bewail the absence of PWD friendly facilities in our Churches, or even the availability of sign language interpreters for the hearing impaired. We have heard that the painful experiences of families about the apparent lack of compassion of the Church when they lost their family member because of depression, that their loved ones could not be blessed in the Church because their family member had committed suicide. The most common remark had to do with the poor people, unable to avail themselves of the Sacraments, because some of them say they could not afford the fees. There are stories of abused women and children, wishing that they could seek refuge in the Church in times when they had to run away from their abusers, and not find shelter. And senior citizens who wish that the Church could establish more facilities that could attend to abandoned elderly people. The most common and rather painful remark that we have heard very often in our synodal consultations, was the general impression that the poor felt discriminated against in their parishes, that many priests and leaders have tended to be more welcoming towards the wealthy and influential, that the visit them more often, favor them for parish leadership roles, as in Parish Pastoral Councils, and Parish Finance Councils. Even more painful was the common remark that many Church leaders, clerics or lay, do not bother to listen to their voices, or express concern about their struggles to earn a living, or to have decent dwellings, or to send their children to schools, or to protect their human dignity against those who exploit them economically.