Stop looking for Cardinal Sin
At the Meet Inquirer Multimedia forum last Monday, Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, addressed an unspoken assumption common to many of the questions directed at him. “We should not look for another Cardinal Sin because he died already. And let’s give him rest.”
The questions, including many that popped up in the Inquirer’s social media timelines, assumed that opposition to the wanton killings in the Duterte administration’s so-called war on drugs and to the relentless campaign to reimpose the death penalty needed a stronger voice from the Catholic Church—perhaps like that of Jaime Cardinal Sin, the archbishop of Manila who summoned millions of Filipinos to Epifanio de los Santos Avenue in 1986.
The pastoral letter the bishops issued on Jan. 30, which was read in every church in the Philippines the following weekend, was the “strong statement” the people were looking for, Villegas said. It
denounced the killings as a moral issue and drew a clear line: “To consent and to keep silent in front of evil is to be an accomplice to it.” But, Villegas said, the situation when Sin served as archbishop was “different from how it is now.”
He gave an explanation based on the Catholic faith’s understanding of charism, the ministry of gifts. “So times have changed. So Cardinal Sin, in a matter of speaking, was God’s gift to the Filipino people at that point in our history,” he said. “And I think, if you look for Cardinal Sin in 2017, it would be unfair to Cardinal Sin, it would be unfair to God, it would be unfair to the leaders that God sent to his people because the situation is different.”
He added: “God sends leaders to his people according to the needs of the people at that particular time.”
That leads to the inevitable question: Today, a time the Catholic bishops themselves characterized, after much reflection and more prayer, as “a reign of terror in many places of the poor,” who are the leaders sent to serve the people’s needs? And what, really, is the role of the Church in this “particular time”?
Villegas emphasized the need for specific action from the rest of the Church—that is, the Church understood not as institution but as people. Beyond the pastoral letter, Villegas said, what was more important was “concerted unified action from God-loving people.”
“Don’t focus too much on the strength or the strong words that pastoral letters may contain.
After a while they are bound to be forgotten, but actions of compassion, justice, and truth are longer lasting, and that is the bigger statement,” he said.
This was a theme he returned to again and again. He noted that the “Walk for Life” scheduled for Feb. 18 was organized by lay members of the Church. He pointed to the lay organizations working away from the spotlight on the rehabilitation of drug addicts. He aired the hope that the laity would respond to the pastoral letter: “But even if the government does not act on it, we are hoping that people of God would act on it positively.”
The lay members of the Church should take the lead, then. But the archbishop did not say Church leaders would abandon their responsibilities.
He acknowledged that the Church was still seen as a sanctuary for people fleeing the enormity of sin or crime. The implication was that the Church’s nationwide network of churches and parishes and pastoral outposts would continue to offer refuge to those seeking safety and restitution.
And he also pointed to the principle underlying Cardinal Sin’s example. “It was walking a tightrope, striking a balance between being a prophet of denunciation and yet [being] a minister of healing and reconciliation. And until now, that is clearly our mission,” he said.
“We will denounce what is evil but we will also offer the ministry of healing to those who are willing and ready to receive it.”
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