‘The grace to weep, to be ashamed’
Pope Francis stirred our hearts once again when he addressed victims of sexual abuse committed by members of the clergy. His words could very well be for many other clerical transgressions that diminish human beings. His opening lines conveyed pure pain:
“The scene where Peter sees Jesus emerge after a terrible interrogation… Peter whose eyes meet the gaze of Jesus and weeps… This scene comes to my mind as I look at you, and think of so many men and women, boys and girls. I feel the gaze of Jesus and I ask for the grace to weep, the grace for the Church to weep and make reparation for her sons and daughters who betrayed their mission, who abused innocent persons.”
The biblical scene that Pope Francis used to depict betrayal and shame I now juxtapose with a recent shameful incident involving a priest in Cebu who publicly humiliated a 17-year-old single mother who was having her baby baptized. In front of a small crowd he shamed her by saying that the baby was a product of sin and that, though innocent, the baby will bear the result of the parents’ sinful act, and so on and so forth. The other disgusting things he uttered I don’t want to repeat here. Spoken in Cebuano (which I understand), the shaming was so shocking I wished I were there to defend the teenager.
While the priest was trashing the young mother, everyone in the baptismal party remained calm and humble. To describe the priest as bastos is to make an understatement. If I were to defend the teenager I would not do what the priest did; I would not shame him publicly right there and then though the temptation would be hard to resist. I would go after him when the baptismal rites were over and tell him off gently while his gaze met mine.
My mouthful: “But didn’t Jesus forgive the woman caught in adultery? Didn’t he challenge her stoners? Why would you humiliate a young mother, not out of her teens, in front of people during a sacramental rite? What do you know about the circumstances of her pregnancy? She’s young, she made a mistake. Didn’t Pope Francis show compassion when he baptized the baby of an unwed couple?”
I will hold my tongue and not tell him off that there are priests who fornicate.
Well, the teenager’s family knew the perfect way of getting even, if not seeking grievance. That very night last Sunday, the grandmother, Jievelyn Gonzales, 37, uploaded the baptismal video on Facebook. It went viral, with more than 30,000 shares as of two days ago. Netizens were enraged.
Follow-up reports revealed that the young mother had wanted to end her life at some point. She was depressed and distraught when she realized that she was pregnant. Despite the emotional state she was in, she decided to keep her baby. The teenager said she wished the priest had talked to her privately instead of publicly berating her. Forgiveness was a difficult thing to do, she said.
The offending priest is Fr. Romeo Obach, CSsR (Congregation of the Holy Redeemer founded by St. Alphonsus Liguori in 1732). The Redemptorist Fathers run Baclaran Church, to where countless Filipinos flock to seek the intercession of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
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A footnote: The late good Fr. Louie Hechanova was a Redemptorist who held a high position in the congregation. He wrote a book on the historical, cultural and spiritual significance of the Baclaran Marian devotion. (I wrote a review of it.) Fr. Rudy Romano, who was abducted by Marcos elements and who remains missing to this day, was a Redemptorist. Brother Karl Gaspar, a theologian and former political detainee, is a Redemptorist. I know the contemplative Redemptoristine nuns. A friend of mine who was once a political detainee, and who spent decades in development work among the poor, became a Redemptoristine.
Priests make mistakes and they, too, get to taste humiliation. Getting bashed on the Internet by tens of thousands of netizens is no joke. But we do not know where he was coming from, what personal issues he was grappling with at that time, whether he had a hidden antipathy for pregnant women, etc. Clearly, the priest needs healing himself.
Here is Father Obach’s apology: “I am now making a public heartfelt apology to the mother of the child and her immediate family. The words I said and the rude attitude that I showed before I performed the rite of baptism last Sunday at the Sacred Heart Chapel was indeed unbecoming.
“I deeply regret that I have done this. I only later realized how cruel my ways to educate and impart lessons for the said event. I am deeply sorry to the mother of the child, her relatives, the sponsors and witnesses of the incident. I am sorry to the Internet viewers, to media listeners and viewers for the mistake I personally admit. I am deeply sorry and I humbly ask your forgiveness.”
Obach’s superiors have temporarily barred him from publicly performing his priestly duties and are trying to make it up to the offended family. Yes, there’s more to be done by members of the clergy and the religious. Right now, the Association of Major Religious Superiors of Men in the Philippines is holding its regular conference in Bohol.
I have asked the Office of Women and Gender Concerns (I am in the board) of the Association of Major Religious Superiors (of Women and Men) in the Philippines if we can take up this issue. There is so much that we Christians—of the Catholic kind, especially—can learn from this incident of cruelty.
Like Pope Francis, we pray for “the grace to be ashamed” and “that the remnants of the darkness which touched you may be healed by the embrace of the Child Jesus, and that the harm which was done to you will give way to renewed faith and joy.”
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