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The Bishops and the Gospels

“People read and admire the Gospel
with its love so inspiring and true,
but what do they say and think
of the Gospel according to you?

You are writing each day a gospel,
take care that the writing is true.
For the only gospel some will read
is the gospel according to you.”

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These words are part of a poem whose author I do not know. A few Sundays ago, a few classmates from the Ateneo and their wives met for a mini-reunion in Wichita, Kansas, where the classmate host, Dr. Eustaquio Abay, is the founder and a major stockholder of the Kansas Spine Hospital. His hospital does only surgery for the spine, and is a cutting-edge version of specialized tertiary health care. At the end of our weekend festivities, we had a recollection in a convent ran by the Order of St. Joseph. We each were given a poem, and the sentences above come from that lovely piece of beauty and wisdom.

Once in a while, we receive a gift we do not remember asking for. Yet, that gift is very special, so much so that we know we do not deserve it. This one is wisdom wrapped in poetry, and I appreciate it so much. It serves as a powerful reminder about how we are supposed to live our lives in the context of what the Bible teaches – how our manifest behavior can be like a living bible to those who love us, who look up to us, who follow us.

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How timely, then, are the words of the poem now that the controversy of the Pajero Bishops and the PCSO is passing by our lives. In our country where 80 percent or more are tagged as Catholics, 50 percent of more than 90 million Filipinos consider themselves as poor. That being the case, it is safe to assume that most of them do not own a Bible, or have read it. But it is also safe to assume that these same poor Filipinos understand to some extent that they are members of the same religion, and look up to the religious – priests, brothers, nuns, bishops, and cardinals – as role models.

Role models, then, are living gospels to those they influence. In the Philippines, priests and nuns constitute the majority of the religious. These same priests and nuns are the representatives of the Church to the people, especially the majority poor. But ours is a very vertical society. Control of authority and resources are not in the hands of the many, not in the hand of priests and nuns, but in the hands of bishops and cardinals. Bishops and cardinals are the hierarchy of the Church, equivalent to Malacañang and the Congress. Their lives and actuation become de facto gospels, guideposts of morality and translators of the Bible into daily living.

There was much ado about the term “Pajero Bishops” from a senator who appeared like trying hard to pander to the bishops in the senate hearing last Wednesday. It seemed that, as a politician, he was unaware of the real battle that was going on. The current controversy is not about the kind and brand of vehicles asked by bishops from the PSCO, it is about something most fundamental. It is about Catholicism in the Philippines which claims a flock of 80 percent or more of the population and the massive poverty of this same 80 percent or more. It is about this poverty in a country that has been controlled by the Church with the State for 400 years. It is about poverty that is deeply rooted in landlessness and a Church that has wallowed in so much land without buying it, and to a great extent, without making much of it productive.

There have been many remarks from those who automatically run to the defense of bishops (I cannot say in defense of the faith or the Church as the body of Christ) that the Church hierarchy has been dragged into an avoidable controversy because of politics. There is much truth to the fact that the Church in the case of the Pajero Bishops was dragged into the political arena. What is not true is that it is the PCSO, or the government, that has dragged the bishops into a political fray but the bishops themselves who have found it convenient to play politics to retain its historical control. Not all the bishops, of course, but enough of them, and noisily enough to be heard and felt by their counterparts in government and by the more interested in Philippine society.

How quickly the bishops and the senators forget that Edsa One and Edsa Dos had the Church centrally in the midst of the most political exercise of a democracy – people taking their premier position as the stockholders of the republic and terminating their chief executive officer. The Catholic Church in the whole of Philippine history has been as political as the State. Worse, the Catholic Church had for a long, sustained period running into centuries played footsies with the State. Ask GomBurZa, ask Jose Rizal. Bishops and the highest ranking officials of the Church have been traditional partners, not adversaries. That is why poverty had never been resolved because Church and State did not have a check-and-balance relationship; it was always collaborative.

Bishops are human, too. That is a fact, but it is not an excuse. There is no excuse for bad behavior, there is no excuse for unethical behavior – not for ordinary human beings, and most especially, not for the highest role models of the Catholic Church.

The Church has survived bad leadership, and it will continue to do so. That is largely because of the conviction, passion and humility of many of its priests, brothers and nuns. That is because of the most active faithful of Catholics who have no voice but have much of the work in the parishes. Because of the silent ones, because of the religious who shun publicity, and politics, because of those they inspire, the Church survives. Many will say that the Church survives because of Jesus Christ, but it seems to me that He does this through the same silent and humble workers in His vineyard.

The CBCP, regardless of the ugly controversy which was anyway just waiting to happen, has made a stand, a good stand. It is not about returning the vehicles that some bishops had asked for from PCSO, it is about returning to a posture that is reflective of what Catholicism stands for – with Christ in the center and service to Him and humanity, especially the poor, as the main human activity. I believe in the sincerity of an awakened CBCP, and I look forward to being inspired by the gospels of their lives.

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