“Communicating hope and trust in our time.”

- Pope Francis

In the face of a hostile leader (and/or consenting fellow believers)

Rev E B Belizar, Jr., SThD

“Persecution is wrong not because it is cruel, but cruel because it is wrong.”

TO be sure, the relationship has never been, as the millennials put it, “a bro-mance”. In fact, it has been hardly friendly. From the day the Philippine Catholic Church protested the drug-war-related killings,—many of which have remained unsolved to this day—priests, bishops, Catholics in general have been at the receiving end of verbal attacks from the country’s leader, the likes of which have never been known or heard before. “The Catholic Church is the most hypocritical institution…” “Your God is stupid, unlike my God”. “There’s only one God. You cannot divide God into three, that’s silly.” “You don’t have to go to church to pay for these idiots”. “Pero itong mga obispo ninyo, patayin ninyo, walang silbi yang mga gagong yan (But these bishops of yours, kill them, those fools are useless). All they do is criticize.” “Kayong mga tambay d’yan, pag dumaan yang obispo ninyo, huldapa ‘yan maraming pera ‘yan p***** i** n’ya (You loiterers there, if your bishop passes that way, rob him, the S*********** has plenty of money).” [Laughter.]

That the presidential spokesman often defends these words, indefensible as they are, as “mere hyperbole” uttered “for dramatic effect” and to stress the “abuse he suffered at the hands of a Catholic priest” not only is an untruthful denial of reality but also is an insult to human intelligence. If those words came out of an ordinary citizen speaking publicly, he would have scarcely escaped a public backlash or a litigation, to say the least. But in the Philippines those words are often met with laughter, always prompting the spokesman to declare them as “mere jokes” or “hyperbole”, reactions that have become by now so predictable that one could anticipate them at the evening news. 

Yes, laughter and even the clapping of hands are often observed after the leader’s tirades against the Church. As if to add salt to injury, those words were most recently seemingly ratified by an 81 percent approval rating from the obviously mostly Catholic public. Inevitably one has to ask: Are Filipino Catholics so mistrustful of their Church leaders that they have become indifferent to, if not approving of, them being pilloried verbally and their faith attacked? Have so many Filipino Catholics who support their leader hook, line and sinker, in effect, also become willing consenters to their Church’s and their faith’s persecution? It is, in fact, difficult not to come to this observation when considering the realities at work between the current leader of government and the Church, including the Christian faith she stands for. Though they still go to Church especially during popular feasts of the Poong Nazareno (Black Nazarene) and the Santo Nino (the Child Jesus), it is not easy to tell how evangelized the faith behind Filipinos’ lavish devotions or whether they clearly appreciate what they believe in and are ready to defend their faith in the face of the current attacks against it. On the other hand, to expect Filipino Catholics to defend their faith also entails that they have been adequately prepared to do so, something Church leaders might not be able to assure. Consequently to ask whether or not Filipinos Catholics’ awkward silence and the seeming public indifference to the attacks amount to a consent to the persecution of their own Church could lead to other questions, like: Do they not constitute a big statement on the real status of their faith formation, or the lack of it? Or do they not show the depth of their fear of what their government leader can do if they do not go his way?

It is good that several bishops did not let, and will not let, the chief executive’s very serious attacks go unanswered. But we the Church must first be clear as to what we wish to achieve by any response being contemplated and made public. Are those objectives aimed at defending the faith or merely at expressing an emotional tit-for-tat? As to the latter, no one should ignore the fact that the chief executive has shown himself to be a master counter puncher in that he easily returns criticisms hurled his way with worse criticisms or actions against his critics. He has a huge and deep arsenal of anger and mud on the Church and her leaders that he keeps digging up to the delight or approval of his minions. We should not aim to counter anger with anger. Paul the Apostle’s words should lead us: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21).

It could be helpful if Church leaders listen attentively to what our people are saying in continuously approving of such a leader who constantly sends their Church such vicious attacks. They may not necessarily be saying that they are abandoning their faith. Nor do they reflect a negative understanding of what the Church or her leaders really are; but they could reflect an image of the Church as it is painted, however unfairly, by their leader, as well as by the local and worldwide media fixed on the sex and authority abuses within her walls. Even if this imaging is both unjust and woefully incomplete, any reaction that could be seen as an arrant and arrogant defensiveness will only serve the cause of the persecutor and his persecution. I find the words of the Master himself very compelling: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (Jn 15:18).

That persecution could come from baptized Catholics is particularly painful. But this is not a first in the history of the Church; there are enough instances in previous ages to indicate that ours is not a unique situation. It is, however, a constant challenge and invitation for the Church in the Philippines to a serious and continuous examination of conscience and to a re-appropriation of the truth that conversion, like charity, must begin and continue at home. In the final analysis, despite the pain and the gloomy state of Church-state relations, it is also true that we are staring at an opportunity in the face. Before us is an opportunity at an “imitatio Christi”, an imitation of the Master. 

It is an opportunity to take up a beatitude: “Blessed are you when they revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you, falsely, on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt 5:11-12).

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