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Wisdom from the grave

/ 01:40 AM October 10, 2014

They lie in their separate niches in the Jesuit cemetery in Novaliches, waiting, in Isaiah’s words, for “the glory of the Lord to be revealed” (Is. 40:5). There are rumors that Isaiah comes to visit them at times and they talk under the old trees. They are always in discussions, of course. How can such a group of Jesuits not discuss issues? We can listen in sometimes, as I did when I was there a few months ago for the burial of my old friend, Fr. Tom Steinbugler. I heard them talk of Pope Francis and the ambivalent reaction of some members of the Philippine Church to his calls to become the Church of the Poor.

Bishop Francisco Claver was talking; you could sense his urgency. He and the other priests seemed to sit around in comfortable chairs. “I really don’t understand,” he said, “why our bishops can’t give stronger support to the Pope’s efforts to help the poor. All our lives we prayed for such a pope. You remember how we wanted backing after the 1986 snap election, and Rome disappointed us. Now we have such a pope and I don’t sense any delight in the CBCP (Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines). Just the opposite. They appear neutral toward him, at best.”

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Fr. Joe Blanco said: “Bishop Cisco isn’t happy, as you can tell. I also wonder about our bishops, since the Pope is only asking them to do the very things they vowed to do at the Second Plenary Synod back in the early 1990s—that is, to be the Church of the Poor. We haven’t been able to achieve that, but we haven’t given up our determination to do it.”

Fr. Benny Mayo was the Jesuit provincial during the first years of martial law, when the basic positions between the Jesuits and the Marcos dictatorship were laid down. He was a very down-to-earth, realistic observer of people. “It’s a human reaction, the way I see it.

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Our bishops had committed themselves 110 percent to battling the Reproductive Health Law, then the Pope comes and tells the world that the Church’s concerns are much wider than those centered on sexual morality issues. It’s human nature to resent such a putdown, which is the way the bishops see it. They feel abandoned on the battlefield by their leader. It’s also possible they know some of the people fired in Rome, and maybe some are concerned about their own careers.”

Fr. Horacio dela Costa often began his talks with long historical run-ups. I remember one talk he gave to hacenderos in Bacolod in the early 1970s. He began by discussing Spanish shipping in the 17th century, the galleon trade, and the weaving industry in Iloilo, before getting down to talk about the minimum wage owed the sugar workers.

Now he began with the first Spanish missionaries to Latin America in the 16th century. He told his fellow priests that for decades the missionaries were not sure, or doubted, that the natives had souls. Only much later, because of some reformist Augustinian friars, did Rome determine that the Incas and all the tribesmen had souls. It took the missionaries years and years to assimilate what should have been clear on Day 1: that all men have souls.

Father Dela Costa said the value of working with the poor and accepting poverty and the poor as the focus of our religious lives is as difficult for our Filipino churchmen to fathom as it was for the missionaries in Latin America to accept that the naked, warlike natives they encountered had souls. The bishops can accept poverty’s importance notionally, to use Cardinal John Henry Newman’s categories, but not in a real way. There is no deep bonding between the bishops and the poor. It will take decades to develop.

Then he added: “Still, all of us, priests and bishops, have vowed obedience to the Pope and we must do what he wants. Go easy on the bishops, however. Remember the plank in our own eyes.”

Fr. Gaston Duchesneau, former head of the Jesuit social action center, the Institute for Social Order, never lacked for accurate but often discouraging comments: “I’d like to hear our Jesuits are better than the bishops, but I’m afraid we are not going to hear that. We are reacting very much like the bishops, I fear.”

The others muttered their agreement. “What then?” Joe Blanco asked. “We should never end a meeting without an action.”

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A voice came from one of the two niches that hold the gathered bones of 87 mostly Spanish Jesuits who were buried between 1860 and 1925 in San Ignacio Church, Intramuros. The church and their graves were destroyed along with most of Intramuros and 100,000 Filipinos in the American bombardment that finally freed Manila in 1944. The voice said: “I’m listening to your talk and I am impressed once again by your eloquence. I wish to go back to Father Horacio’s splendid remarks.

Yes, it will take decades to put on the mind and heart of poverty. We went through a similar discernment in the last days of Spain’s rule here. We had killed our brightest student. We had driven intellectuals from the Church and angered the peasants on our estates. There was no room for Spain here, yet most of us refused to accept the fact. We made only small adjustments and in the end we were blown away with the Spanish governors and generals.”

“What should we do, Father?” asked Father Dela Costa.

“Thank you, Horacio,” said the priest who had been Jose Rizal’s close friend and had walked with him to his death in Luneta. “You are our second brightest student. My advice is do something improbable. Do something about poverty to catch the hearts and imaginations of the young. Something that will show that we and the Church are open to a far different future than the undistinguished one facing us now.”

My friend, Fr. Tom Steinbugler, had been just placed in his niche. He hadn’t heard the discussion about the Pope and the bishops. I told him I’d be back, and I asked him to keep me posted on what his fellow Jesuits had to say about the religious-cultural questions of the day. I think I heard him say, “OK.”

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates ([email protected]).

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TAGS: Bishop Francisco Claver, Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, CBCP, Church of the Poor, Fr. Gaston Duchesneau, Fr. Horacio dela Costa, Fr. Joe Blanco, Fr. Tom Steinbugler, Jesuit, Jesuit cemetery, Novaliches
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