Bishop Julio Labayen on revolution and spirituality
Yesterday while I was working on the column for today, I received word that Bishop Julio Xavier Labayen passed away early in the morning. He was three months short of 90. I had to put on hold the column piece I had begun. And, through his writings and my recollections of my associations with him, enter virtually into the essence of this man, this Carmelite priest, this “revolutionary” bishop who quietly shook the ramparts of the Catholic Church in the Philippines by his radical stance on the oppressive structures of society and the poor.
But not to forget: Labayen insisted on one all-important, binding ingredient in well-intentioned pursuits, be they political, ideological, developmental or religious: spirituality. (His biography, “It is the Lord,” by Sr. Ma. Dulce Emmanuel F. Inlayo, OCD, is available at Claretian publications.)
I still have the transcripts of my interviews with and articles I had written on him. I wish I could share them in one fell swoop. Here are excerpts from one I had written:
Who is Bishop Labayen? A line I had written made it as a blurb on the back cover of his book, “Revolution and the Church of the Poor.” Had I known it was going to be used, I would have volunteered something better. Here it is: “Bishop Julio Xavier Labayen, a member of the Order of the Discalced Carmelites, is viewed by many as ‘controversial,’ having figured in clashes with the Marcos dictatorship. In a sea of conservatives in the Philippine Church hierarchy, the bishop is considered a voice in the wilderness.” Pardon the mixed metaphors in this intro to my Q&A that came out in the Inquirer in that frenzied week of Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1995.
I did stress his being a Carmelite—steeped in the spirituality of mystics John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila—to contrast with his being perceived as a leftist by the military and even by his colleagues.
In his book, Labayen attempted to present the Church of the Poor from “the perspective and analysis of revolution.” The book was not an apologia for some Church people’s romancing Marxism and so-called liberation movements. Far from it. What Labayen wanted to see was “a letting go of what has become irrelevant and obstructive, a going beyond… a dying to what has ceased to serve life… .” What he was driving at was the failure of revolutionary movements to deliver. Some things just didn’t work. Or don’t work anymore. Or were bound to fail.
“What I write here,” said Labayen, “is the fruit of my 33 years of pastoral experience as the bishop prelate of Infanta (Quezon)… interwoven with the dark strands of trials, crisis, harassment, persecution and marginalization, and also with the bright strands of pastoral breakthroughs, deep insights, qualitative turning points, reassuring faith-experiences of the living God of history, His/Her comforting presence in the midst of abandonment, and discovery of the fathomless depths of the human spirit.”
But before tackling revolutions, Labayen presented two models of the Church—the “imperialist” Christendom model and the Church of the Poor. In this context he said that “while the Church may be historically shaped and conditioned by history, the same Church was founded by Jesus Christ to shape history.”
In Chapter 5 (“Where did revolutions go wrong?”) Labayen made a straightforward criticism of revolutions abroad. He cited Europe and China and lingered in Latin America, Nicaragua especially, where the Church played a vital role in the revolution. “In the initial process of revolutions,” Labayen wrote, “the outcomes either fall short of the initial noble intentions or, sometime after victory, short-change the masses.”
At home, Labayen cited the failure of the Christians for National Liberation (founded “with the intention of having a Christian presence in the revolution”) “to influence the revolutionary process to make it more humane, compassionate and less rigid.”
He noted that cultural and psychological perspectives were often not taken into consideration in revolutionary affairs. It cannot all be politics and economics, he pointed out. The human factor is important. The human heart, the human spirit, he argued, also seek to be liberated.
But of course, he presented another paradigm—Christ. Not the one who is conveniently portrayed as a radical to polarize social classes, but the Christ who preached about an interior revolution in the human heart and spirit. The bishop was on to another plane. Labayen, the social action man, was not shy to say: “Those who are committed to revolution often think that the interior journey of the human heart and spirit is tantamount to copping out of the struggle… considered reactionary [and] will delay the revolution.”
He urged revolutionaries to “consider the essential condition for a genuine and lasting revolution which is that of a radically changed human heart and spirit. In other words, a spirituality for/of revolution.” He dared suggest that they “understand the contribution of the mystics and psychologists… It may well be that here we encounter a yet untapped inner resource that we have not harnessed for revolution. Could it be that herein lies the ingredient that is lacking for the satisfactory and fulfilling outcome?”
I was stumped by this. I had long waited for someone to say this.
Dig into your inner well, he exhorted, then offered words from San Juan de la Cruz’s Spiritual Canticle: “And then we will go on/ To the high caverns on the rock/ Which are so well concealed;/ There we shall enter/ And taste the fresh juice of the pomegranates.”
If, as they say, John of the Cross, if peeled and stripped of the Christian layers, is really a Buddhist monk, I think Bishop Labayen, if stripped of his activist label, was truly a contemplative, a monk at prayer, on his knees in the bloody fields of battle.
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