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The Secret Pact

/ 01:00 AM December 18, 2015

A friend sent me a text message last Saturday, asking if I heard the news about a secret pact entered fifty years ago by bishops committing themselves to truly building a Church for the poor. This friend then added that we (the work of Gawad Kalinga) had been on the right path after all, and that this pact might have influenced Pope Francis to have a special love and service for the poor.

Of course, I had never heard of the secret pact, not until I received the text message. And I learned soon enough that CNN had been airing news about it although there had been no mention about it at all from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the Philippines. Of course, I wasted no time going to the Internet to read about it.

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It is called the Pact of the Catacombs. What I read from two articles about it say that in November 16, 1965 (50 years ago), towards the end of the Second Vatican Council that was ongoing at that time, around 40 bishops gathered to celebrate mass in an ancient basilica in the Catacombs of Domitilla. The catacombs contained the remains of over 100,000 Christians from the earliest centuries of the Church.

The Second Vatican Council was the historic gathering of all the world’s bishops that set the Church on the path of reform and unprecedented engagement with the modern world. Hoping to change the course of history of a Church that had been characterized by dominance and hardline posture, Vatican II sought to launch dialogue with other religions, Christian and otherwise, endorse religious freedom and moved the mass from Latin to the vernacular.

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A special concern, though, of many bishops, was to truly make the Catholicism a “church of the poor,” as articulated by Pope John XXIII before convening the Council. The bishops who found their way to the catacombs that November evening were among the most committed to building that church of the poor.

As the mass concluded in the vaulted catacombs, each of the prelates came up to the altar and affixed his signature to a brief but passionate manifesto that stated, in its essence, to “try to live according to the ordinary manner of our people in all that concerns housing, food, means of transport, and related matters.”

The signatories vowed to renounce personal possessions, fancy vestments and “names and titles that express prominence and power, and they said they would make advocating for the poor and powerless the focus of their ministry. In all this, they said, “we will seek collaborators in ministry so that we can be animators according to the Spirit rather than dominators according to the world; we will try to make ourselves as humanly present and welcoming as possible; and we will show ourselves to be open to all, no matter what their beliefs.”

The document would become known as the Pact of the Catacombs, and the signers hoped it would mark a turning point in Church history. Instead, the Pact of the Catacombs disappeared, for all intents and purposes.

I have a healthy memory of fifty years ago to today where my Catholicism is concerned. By November of 1965, I already had a short stint in a seminary triggered by a youthful interest in a priestly ministry. A product of both the La Salle Brothers and Jesuit priests, I always carried a private interest in the dynamics of the Catholic faith, most especially regarding the actuation of the leadership of the Catholic Church in the Philippines.

Sadly, it has not been a church for the poor. There have been references to it as a church with a preferential treatment for the poor. And I cannot discount the fact that there have been efforts to do charity work, knowing personally some priests and nuns who were devoted to the poor. Unfortunately, they were not part of the hierarchy of the Church, not the prelates who were seen and heard by the faithful of the Philippines.

Charity is mostly about alms, not the social justice that can confront poverty. Charity has always been part of the Church, but not as much as politics. If the public behavior of the its hierarchy is the basis for the character of the Church, then it has been more about politics and very much less about poverty. All the more if we set as its vision the commitment contained in the Pact of the Catacombs, then the Church failed, utterly.

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The Philippines is about poverty, and has always been since the establishment of the Catholic Church centuries ago. It may be that poverty is the result of politics, the wrong and greedy type of politics. What I would like to highlight, though, is that the political approach to poverty has consistently failed. I believe in an opposite sequence, that poverty alleviation is the effective way to political reform and not the other way around.

The Pact of the Catacombs actually offers the template on how to dismantle poverty. It said that Church leadership should give the example in simple living, in being with the people, including in their poverty, and denying the pomp and perks of power and position.

It seems to me that poverty will persist in accordance with how leadership in the Church, in the State and in business will regard the poor. If leadership does not regard the poor as priority, then it will devote its attention and resources to other concerns of greater value.

I believe that the bishops who signed the pact 50 years ago saw this and committed to be one with the people they served. They sought to prioritize the poor and powerless, to be humanly present and welcoming, to be open to all no matter their beliefs, to be animators of the Spirit rather than dominators according to the world.

Can the Pact of the Catacombs resurrect, can the aspirations of those who signed it still find new disciples today?

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