Monday, March 16, 2009

A Basically Decent People

“If we go by the media reporting today on crimes of violence, graft and corruption, abuse of power, the many grave social ills that plague our nation, we have to wonder about our claims to Christianity. Yet we should not exaggerate our failures. But neither should we minimize them. There is much of the Gospel that has become part of us—compassion, forgiveness, caring, piety—and makes of us a basically decent people. So even as we speak of change and renewal, we see we have a solid base to build on. . .”

The words quoted above are from the final document of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines which was held back in early 1991. I quote them here because what they lamented 18 years ago about “crimes of violence, graft and corruption, abuse of power” etc. still characterize very much—perhaps even more depressingly so—our life today. And they also carry a message that we sorely need to remind ourselves of today.

That Council was called for the purpose of renewing our life as a Church—and through the Church, the nation. But today, a full 18 years later, that renewal still eludes us. So we try again as we have tried again and again with each season of Lent—as we are doing right now in this Lenten season of 2009. Each time we do this reviewing and repenting, the current year always seems to be worse than the last. And that’s the reason I quote here what the PCP II said in 1991: to remind ourselves that, whether our social ills are the same or worse, we nonetheless are what the Council says: still a basically decent people, still possessed of “a solid base to build on” for the momentous and ever-pressing task of religious and social renewal. A make-believe, self-deceiving attitude? I don’t think so. The alternative is to give in to the temptation to despair.

The Council document urges us not to exaggerate nor minimize our failures. A balanced way of assessing hard reality, it is something we might be lacking in these difficult days. I strongly suggest hence that we ponder them over and over in what is left of this Lenten season. For the times are hard. And the temptation is there to despair, crushing, deceptive. But good times or bad, our task of evangelizing presses us on. And no matter how daunting are the circumstances of living, no matter the difficulties put in our path in our stumbling efforts to be faithful to the Gospel, the persistence of wrong-doing, the rampant corruption, the never-ending thieving, all that is bad in the politics of the nation, we must press on confident that somehow, despite our weak faith and weaker doing of its mandates, God’s grace will come through and work good despite our many evils.

But what is that “solid base” that the PCP II document says we are to build on? I thought I’d best answer the question with something I learned as a young priest.

Back in the mid-60s after ordination, I was sent to Bukidnon while still engaged in graduate studies to familiarize myself with the work of our Jesuit missionaries there. I remember attending a meeting of priests where one of them used “nominal Catholics” to describe the people’s faith and their practice of it. An Italian missionary, freshly exiled from Communist China, on hearing the term went ballistic: “Nominal Catholics, my eye!” he stormed. “You don’t know what you are talking about!” We were all taken aback by the vehemence of his outburst. In stunned silence, we listened as he went on more calmly:

“None of you have had the experience of living in a non-Christian milieu. I have. In my old mission, people suffered much from the incursions of bandits. These would barge into town, ravaging the helpless townspeople, robbing, raping, killing. Time and again, after their raids, you would see raid victims lying around murdered in the streets. And nobody would dare touch them. Killings happen here too at every fiesta. [Bukidnon in those days of heavy migration from the Visayas was like the Wild West of cowboy-Indian lore in the States.] But here, when killings occur of total strangers, sooner or later, without fail, someone would come and take their bodies off the streets, care for them unasked. Theirs are the acts of real Christians!” And he ended with the observation that our people were no less Christian than his own in his native Italy.

Basic decency—we Filipinos have that? Bombarded as we are day in, day out by horrendous reports of corruption and sleaze, it is easy to forget that we are, despite our bad press, by no means a nation of criminals. The sins of the few are generalized to the many, their evil repute foisted on the many, and we suffer, not only in the way the rest of the world looks at us but in a real diminishment as well of the good life.

But precisely because this is so, we have to ask why the many good and decent folk allow the not so good and not so decent few to flourish and decide for us what we are to suffer. So, as our thoughts turn towards repentance and metanoia, I suggest we give that question more than a passing thought. For the answer we give it will be hard proof of our claim to Christianity and will help bring the peace of Christ more deeply into our life as a nation.

A basically decent people—the corruption of some should not, does not, make us less so. But all the more reason then that we build our Lenten renewal on the fact.