We are a people of dialogue. As such we have the moral obligation to search for the truth in freedom, the truth about God, about life, about ourselves, our country, our society, our world and the events around us.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

An Easter Tragedy

As I write I have in mind our fellow Catholics who are survivors of the killer typhoons in Luzon and of the giant tsunami in the neighboring Asian countries. I include here those relief workers who are also Catholics. How will they celebrate Easter this year? Without the church buildings, the images of the Santo Entiero (the dead Christ), of the Resurrected Christ, and of the Mater Dolorosa (the Sorrowful Mother) etc., what kind of celebration will theirs be? Or will there be a celebration at all? When calamities of such magnitude happen, Easter would certainly be difficult to celebrate. I know because I had witnessed personally an Easter tragedy.

It was 4 a.m. in the early dawn of April 1992 in the City of Iligan, my former diocese. I was supposed to be up before 4 a.m., to be in front of the platform just outside the entrance of St. Michael’s Cathedral. On this platform were 15 little “angels” who would welcome with flowers and sing Regina Caeli to the meeting of the images of the Sorrowful Mother and her Resurrected Son. Heavily tired due to previous Holy Week ceremonies I was not able to wake up on time.

At four o’clock the constant ringing of the house phone made me jump out of bed. A frantic Msgr. Labiste, Cathedral parish priest, was on the line with a shocking news. Someone threw a bomb on the spot where I was supposed to be standing during the Salubong. All the children died instantly –—15 of them. Many more were wounded. Hundreds of people screaming in fear and running away from the scene. It was shocking as it was heartbreaking to see those lifeless little children and the wounded writhing in pain on the pavement full of blood, just outside the Cathedral!

As we scurried around bringing the dead bodies to the funeral parlors and the wounded to the hospitals, I was thinking very deeply … was I the real target? Why? Would I be one of the dead or the wounded? Why did I oversleep? Easter means new life. How would I celebrate it now?

As I look back now to that horrible experience I realize that God is never absent in human suffering and pain. He is never separated from us, not even for a split second. The reason is because by His power He keeps us and the world in existence. And so He is with us all the time, even in times of tragic deaths and calamities. Why He would call people back to Himself by means of a killer typhoon, giant tsunami or deadly bomb on Easter day, we do not know and we can never know. If we knew we would be God. He knows what He is doing. He is the author and giver of life. With the blameless and upright Job we can only say: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, naked shall I return. Yahweh gave, Yahweh has taken away. Blessed be His name!” (1:21) And the Scripture writer adds: “In spite of this calamity, Job did not sin by blaspheming God” (1:22).

To avoid blasphemous complaints against God when tragedies hit us, I find helpful these words from A Portrait of Jesus by Joseph F. Girzone: “As humans, we find it impossible to break out of a human way of thinking. Consequently, when we think of God, it is difficult for us to consider God as He is, and we end up reducing Him, giving Him a sex, molding Him into an image we can understand. As a result, we make Him one of ourselves, with the same myopic human vision of life and the same views and values and hang-ups that condition us to respond to situations the way we do” (page 103).

Archbishop of Davao
President, Catholic Bishops’ Conference

March 20, 2005

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Why is This Friday Good?

Someone wrote that nothing matures to perfection without pain or something analogous to pain. It is true. It is common knowledge. Everyone knows that a perfect gymnastic form, for instance, is not acquired overnight. The athlete has to undergo a lot of practice, a lot of repetitions. The long practice involves a lot of sacrifices. These sacrifices are mostly self-deprivations which entail pain, bearable pain.

The pain is bearable because, for one thing, it is voluntary. The expectation of mastering the art or the game lightens the pain, thus making it easily bearable. The hope of winning the contest and the forthcoming award and the accompanying fame already reduce the burden of physical exertions.

The same principle is also operative in the process of self-mastery, of acquiring self-control, of training in self-discipline. All of which is also part of what we call Christian asceticism or the practice of acquiring Christian virtues. A real virtuous person is one who has undergone a lot of voluntary self-deprivations, most of which are painful, like fasting, abstinence, mortification, long hours of prayer and meditations, etc.

This same principle has been translated into a paradox with a Christian flavor. It says “there is no life without death” or “there is no Easter Sunday without Good Friday,” etc. Here Good Friday refers to suffering, pain and death, and recalls the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection which He has to undergo to redeem us from the slavery of sin.

Christ’s pain was redemptive and salvific. But how can human pain and suffering be also redemptive and salvific? For others? Not just for oneself? Not just for my personal transformation?

St. Therese of the Child Jesus, recently proclaimed Doctor of the Church, has her answer. She says, we join Jesus in His suffering and offer our pain for others out of love as He did. This was what she did in her own little way inside the monastery. How does she explain this teaching and experience?

She says that the Church, of which we are all members by baptismal consecration, is the Body of Christ. Just as the human body lives because of the blood coming from the heart, so the Church lives because of love coming from the heart of Christ. When we fill our hearts with the love of Christ and offer everything we experience, especially pain, out of love for the other members of the Church, our offering acquires, or rather, participates in the redemptive power of Christ. We have this privilege because of baptism.
St. Therese stressed that this voluntary offering of our pain is not to be done as a payment for sin or, as they say, an act of reparation. It must be done purely out of love because God is Love and Mercy. Reparation emphasizes only the justice of God or the God of justice who demands payment for injustices done to Him. We alone can never make an equal payment for the sins we commit. Only Christ can and did do it for us and with us.

We must therefore join the Heart of Jesus and be set afire with His love. We must offer our pain and sufferings, hardships and deprivation together with the pains of Jesus on the Cross so that we can participate in His self-immolation for the redemption of the world.

This is the real message of Good Friday. This is the reason why this Friday is Good.

Archbishop of Davao
President, Catholic Bishops’ Conference

March 6, 2005