Wednesday, December 5, 2007


Casetta di Antonio Foundation, Inc.
Mailing Address: Unit 706 Herrera Tower, Valero corner Rufino Sts. Salcedo Village, Makati City 1227
Telephone Nos. 845-0876 *8958847

Dear friend and benefactor,

I thank the good Lord who has allowed our paths to cross.

Over the past 25 years of my priesthood, He has so graciously favored me with the grace of having met and known so many people like you who support me, share my dreams, and actually help me realize them, or otherwise put faith and trust in whatever I say or do. Many have journeyed with me and worked with me in the vineyard of the Lord. A great many, who have since moved on and charted other pathways, helped me set up and keep afloat for almost 15 years now, the Cogliandro Memorial Foundation, now known as Bahaybusko Foundation. Still a greater number have been willing and cooperative recipients of – and collaborators in – my educational and formative ministry since I was ordained in 1982.

As I reach a major milestone in my priestly life this 25th year, I cannot but look back with gratitude to both God and individuals who have so graciously and generously allowed themselves to become instruments of His providential care on behalf of those whom Divine Providence has given to my direct and indirect charge. Of these 25 years, the many years spent in direct formation work for would-be priests and young priests take pride of place in my treasure house of memories. To be sure, trials and mistakes abounded. I look back to them now with a heart filled with a tinge of sadness, but never with regret. But I look back, too, to even more abounding instances of unparalleled joys and successes. They fill me with hope, and goad me on to dream some more in view of whatever is left of the time I still have on loan from the Creator.

As you have done in the past, I personally request you to please go on dreaming with me. Having been in direct formation work for would-be priests and young priests up till now, I have dreamed of setting up another foundation that would help make what I, and others, do, and what others also dream of doing with a semblance of solid and institutional grounding.

I ask you to support my cause by contributing in any way you can to the CASETTA DI ANTONIO FOUNDATION, INC. The dream has been percolating in my heart and mind for many years now, but I need help as it makes its first baby steps towards institutional realization. Lack of time and resources have prevented me from coming up with a formal brochure to give more details. For now, all I can tell you for sure is that, with my siblings’ go-signal, we have designated a portion of my late parents’ (Antonio & Remedios) very modest property as initial boost toward the realization of this dream.

I, therefore, personally knock at your door for help. Be an active contributing member of the CAFI and be part of the on-going formation of younger religious priests.

One with you and with my brother priests,

Fr, Chito Dimaranan, SDB
December 8, 2007

N.B. For my readers from North America, Australia, and Europe, you may send your donations care of J.D. De Leon, 27872 Pebble Court, Hayward, CA 94542-2502 USA. Please make checks payable to CASETTA DI ANTONIO FOUNDATION, INC. Readers from Asia & Australia may get in touch with us through the above Philippine mailing address, or you may want to wire your donations directly to Union Bank of the Philippines, Account # 202 02 0015303, Calamba, Laguna branch.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Religious Life as a Journey and a Message of Hope

We have come now to the final reflection of this mountain meeting with the Lord and with ourselves over the past five days. All good things must end. No, I am not referring to my talks. I am referring to my stay in this beautiful, quiet place, along with the solitude and silence, the prayerful examples of all of you, and the receptive attitude that you all have given me.

To every one who is called to speak in public, some authors would advise the following three rules. First, have something to say. Second is, “stand up and say it.” The third and most important of all is, “sit down.” In my experience of 24 years, I sometimes do not follow these rules strictly. I cut corners and stay on longer on the second rule when I see one important thing on the part of the audience. Public speakers call it “audience sympathy.” You have shown me more than just audience sympathy. I don’t know whether you are just being polite or compassionate and merciful as the Lord, but that is beside the point. But there is one more reason why I refuse to sit down. You have made me president of the liturgical assembly, and I hold the microphone, so I would like to make maximum use of my 15 minutes of fame.

I made reference to the story of Thomas the Doubter in one of my talks. I would like you to know that I am very sympathetic to Thomas and his honest doubts. The last ten talks I have given are proof positive of that. I am firmly convinced of the fact that the best believers are those who struggled a little with their belief, who have a lot of personal investment in what they hold dear, for whom faith went beyond merely tucking cold, abstract truths neatly in a hermetically sealed compartment of the mind. Thomas’ faith was precisely not that. It wanted corroboration. It looked for support. It was a case of what St. Anselm referred to as “fides quaerens intellectum”- faith seeking understanding.

In our human tendency to focus on the negative, we sometimes do not look too kindly at Thomas’ doubts. This may well be the reason why tradition has given him the undying epithet, “the doubting Thomas.”

But I see more, not less. True to the main motif of the past 10 reflections I have shared with you, I would like to focus more on Thomas’ dream, and not his doubt. I like to cast my attention on his eventual development, not on his temporary faltering. I see in Thomas the careful circumspection of faith, faith that questions, not faith that is blind; faith that looks for further support, and more strength, not less. It is faith that is, like ours, simply and plainly human, subject to the normal and ordinary challenges posed by events, and the vagaries of time and place.

In this sense, for me, Thomas the Doubter is no different from Peter the Betrayer. Both were recorded to have had their own moments of weakness. One denied the Lord. The other doubted the Lord. But I would like to hasten to add one important detail. Both may have temporarily ceased believing, but both never stopped belonging. Believing and belonging … these are two intertwined aspects of the same attachment to the Lord. One builds on the other. One strengthens the other, but the temporary absence of one does not spell the total collapse of adherence and attachment to Christ. Thomas, who ceased believing for a while, never stopped belonging. He came, despite his disbelief. He came, precisely because he was looking for support in his faith. Vidimus Dominum, the other disciples told him. Thomas might as well have answered them, Desidero videre Dominum… Veni ut viderim Dominum. I want to see the Lord. I want to see his wounds. I want to touch his hands and his side. I came that I might see.

Peter the Betrayer thought better of his denials, all of three times. The Church that we belong to, the Church that we claim we love, is a Church of compassion. It is a Church where – lest you all forget – both saints and sinners belong together.

Compassion, mind you, breeds communion. The Risen Lord was the first to show this. “Thomas, take your hands and put them on my side. Touch my wounds in my hands.” Because of Christ’s compassion, the great divide between believing and belongingness was joined. Love shown so concretely is love that needs no proofs, no litmus tests, no surveys and evidences. Presence is evidence enough. And Christ’s love rendered all proofs useless and unnecessary.

Small wonder the response of Thomas made no reference to the wounds. He did not say, “I believe for I have touched.” No … his words were all in reference to the presence of him to whom he now pledges total, complete, and unconditional surrender: “My Lord, and my God!” We know the rest of the story of Thomas the Doubter. In his turn, he spent his whole life becoming what Scriptures say of those who saw the Risen Lord – witnesses. It was in turn to tell others: “Vidi Dominum.” And we all know what his witnessing led him to – martyria.

Yesterday, I made reference to Rabbi Byron’s claim that we all need to re-appropriate our wonder-working tradition as leaders of the faith. You might be asking what I may be referring to mostly. If you have followed my thread of thought over the past ten reflections, I am not exactly referring to being the miracle workers that the apostles were, doing spectacular healings, and grandiose miracles. That type of wonder working was more proper of the early, incipient Church, during the vitality of the beginning.

I am referring to something more achievable, more realistic, more sedate, and ultimately, more necessary. I have made reference to the fact that religious life as we present it now to the postmodern world may appeal less and less to young people. If we present an anemic picture of religious life as a glorified, more intensive version of lay spirituality, then we are not doing wonders. Thousands and thousands of lay people already are living their own equally valid version of a lay spirituality that has helped and still helps the growth and fecundity of the Church. By far the greatest thing that happened in the aftermath of Vatican II is the rise of so many covenanted communities of lay people in the world, who, while living in the world, still attend to the affairs of the Kingdom. They evangelize with passion and dedication. They build houses for the poor and organize communities to help them become not only worthy dwellers, but capable builders of their own communities, and architects of their own future. In a world of cynicism, despair, despondency, growing and worsening poverty of all kinds, many lay people have, indeed, become the wonder-workers that we used to be, that we are called to be.

But I suggest that that is not primarily the type of wonder-working we are called to do now. Being social workers has never, and ought never to be the end-all and be-all of our religious life. We do not need to be priests and religious to be that. But being professional men and women living holy lives based on the evangelical counsels, while journeying with a world of poverty, ignorance, discouragement, and lack of hope is what our wonder-working ought to revolve around in.

I am referring to us being living signs and beacons of hope. Priesthood and religious life that is open to wonder-working is a life that is open to hope. It is a life that transcends the sordid reality of a sinful world. It is a life that is willing to guarantee through personal and collective witness that life could be better, that society could be better, that there is a finality to everything in this world, and that that final chapter has been written in blood by the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Years ago, the great preacher and writer Fulton Sheen expressed so well what I am referring to:

Human nature everywhere, whether in the priesthood or out of it, makes one set of plans, and either God or events or someone in authority negates them. Life it seems, is like Sisyphus who pushes a stone up the mountain only to it roll down again. If other persons do not contradict our hopes, some impersonal fate seems to do so.

Earlier, I have shared with you a little of my personal passion, how others, especially superiors, may have trampled on my dreams, and left me holding an empty bag. I was in the throes of my narcissistic rage for a long while. In retrospect, even that painful chapter in my life has been a blessing. But that blessing is something one would rather not have to undergo at all.

Moltmann speaks about the very same experience in the life of Christ. Christ, on the night before he suffered, had withdrawn in order to be united in prayer with his Father. He prayed. No … he pleaded … If it be possible… Moltman says that “Christ’s request was not granted." God, his Father, rejected it. Moltman speaks of the true passion of Jesus Christ which began with the prayer in Gethsemane which was not heard, which was rejected through the divine silence; for his true passion was the suffering from God.

As priests and religious, most of our suffering really in one sense comes from God. No … not that God is the author of our pain, but in the sense that most of our pain really happens because we care for God, we care for his kingdom, and we try do His will. In the long run, we really suffer for God. We suffer because we are driven to do things with the best interests of God in mind. And in the depths of our pain, we cannot but utter with and like Christ, “My God, my God, why? … Why? Why have you forsaken me?” Moltman sees in all this the beginning of true hope.

At the point where men and women lose hope, where they become powerless and can do nothing more, the lonely, assailed and forsaken Christ waits for them and gives them a share in his passion.

This is what faith really is: believing, not with the head or the lips or out of habit, but believing with one’s whole life. It means seeking community with the human Christ in every situation in life, and in every situation experiencing his own history. Good Friday is the most comprehensive and most profound expression of Christ’s fellowship with every human being.

Beneath the cross of Christ hope is born again out of the depths. The person who has once sensed this is never afraid of any depths again. His hope has become firm and unconquerable: “Lord, I am a prisoner – a prisoner of hope."

You all have come from the plains to do this mountain-meeting with the Lord. If you remember, when the Lord is hard pressed on all sides, when crowds are literally all over him, asking to be touched, to be healed, to be saved from all sorts of maladies, the Lord would invariably and periodically go up to the mountain or to a deserted place to pray. I would like to think that he applies what some authors now call “oscillation theory.” To avoid what some others call “compassion fatigue,” the only way is to find replenishment from the Lord in prayer. Donald Messer, apropos this writes:

The danger of compassion fatigue ever threatens. Difficulties occur because of the stubborn intransigence of the evils we deplore. We tire from the constant struggle against seemingly intractable forces. To use the words of St. Paul, ‘we grow weary from well-doing.’

But believing and belonging, holding on to what is good, keeping together despite the differences that separate us, is the primary wonder-working ability that attracts followers. This is the wonder-working capacity that we need to explore and glory in – the wonder of the grace of consecrated life, a life that may not be popular, but a life that will remain valid a symbol of what, ultimately, we all long to possess – God, and His promises.

I would like to sum up all that I have been trying to tell you over the past five days (plus one). I have been talking of transcendence. I have been leading you to hope. I have been exhorting you to go on, walk on, march on, never mind if what we are going to, sounds more like the Emmaus of disappointment and sadness of two disheartened disciples. I have been inviting you to become what St. Paul finally attained: “For I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance” (2 Tim 4:6-8).

Donald Messer reports about Loren Eiseley who talked about his own suffering from a dry emptiness, and a massive sense of futility, and a foretaste of annihilation. Despite this, he woke up each morning at dawn and observed shell hunters scavenge for treasures by the seaside. He spoke about “a vulturine kind of madness” which overcomes these collectors. They would scoop out living specimens, favoring starfish, and put bag loads of them in boiling cauldrons. But one morning, he saw an even more astounding sight. A man, framed by a huge rainbow at dawn, was picking up some things and then would toss them into the ocean. He was picking up hapless starfish, raised stiffly on their legs, caught out of water by the rapidly receding tide. As he picked one, Eiseley said, “It’s still alive.” “Yes,” the man said. “The stars throw well. One can help them.” Eiseley later wrote: “I nodded and walked away, leaving him there upon the dune with that great rainbow ranging up the sky behind him. I turned as I neared a bend in the coast and saw him toss another star … For a moment, in the changing light, the sower appeared magnified, as though casting larger stars upon some greater sea. He had … the posture of a god.”

Eiseley ends up “joining the star thrower on the beach, spinning living starfish beyond the danger points, beyond the ‘insatiable waters of death,” writes Messer.’ “He joins the company of the star thrower, not as a scientist but as a fellow sufferer. By loving life, even the lost ones, Eiseley points to a God who not only creates unfathomable worlds of nature but who is also the God of the lost ones.”

We are called to wonder-working. And we are called to do this by joining the company of the star thrower, who is Christ. Hope is what we specialize in. Hope is the arena we move in. We see stars, despite our scars. We proclaim new life, in the midst of death. We deliver good news, beyond the so many bad news.

I end with the few Latin phrases I have quoted for you. My own, first of all … per agrum, ad sacrum! And two more: Ad augusta, per angusta! Ad astra, per aspera. As one who has been journeying on in this adventure called priesthood and religious life, I have learned the wisdom behind the words of St. Augustine: SOLVITUR AMBULANDO … things are solved while walking.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007



Working Wonders Beyond our Fears

The priest as wonder worker is all but lost in our times. The priest, like our drugs, has become generic. For the most part, he is seen, not as a wonder-worker, but as a dispenser, like the ubiquitous water dispenser found in schools, canteens, hospitals, offices, and church meeting halls. He dispenses the sacraments week-in and week-out. He preaches – or so he imagines – while doing nothing more than repeat what the readings have said, first in English, then in Tagalog or Cebuano, or in any of our more than 77 dialects. The priest is so generic that, like the proverbial chameleon, he adopts to the environment. He changes color along with the leaves, the bark of trees, and the contour of the ground. First, golf became the game de rigueur for priests on furlough on a Monday. Then it became karaoke bars, with chaste singing accompanied by a few rounds of drinks, hard or mellow, who cares what? Now it is the burgeoning badminton courts, the tennis grounds, and the country clubs of varying levels of comfort and levels of company from the old rich to the nouveaux riches, truth to say, the power wielders or the power brokers of our times and days.

An important book by Rabbi Sherwin[1] argues that, by the tradition that grew from the OT all through the NT times, the religious leader is one who “works wonders.” He writes that “the authority of the religious leader in communicating a theological and moral message that shapes behavior, ultimately depends upon the belief of his or her constituency that he or she possesses powers not vouchsafed to others. These wonder-working abilities are the ‘medium’ that allows for the ‘message’ to be effectively conveyed. Consequently, for clergy to regain their currently eroded religious and moral authority and social status, they must reclaim their role as wonder workers. Only in that way will they be able to effectively lead their communities and convey the moral and theological message that is their mission to impart. Only in that manner can they effectively influence the moral and religious behavior of their constituencies.”[2]

That says a whole lot about the embarrassing “miracle” (at least to the institutional mainstream Church) that El Shaddai leader, Velarde, is. Let us not mince words about it. He is, to use Byron’s term, no less than a wonder-worker. Whilst this is not the time to psychoanalyze either Velarde or the hordes of largely simple folks who follow his doctrine, all I am saying is that one of the many possible reasons people flock to him, from a pastoral counselor’s viewpoint, is that he is perceived to be a “wonder-worker.” This is the reason why so many flock to the evangelical sects that abound all over the world, particularly in Brazil and many places in South America. The point of commonality in all of their leaders is the fact that they are, rightly or wrongly, perceived to be “wonder workers.”

As part of the crisis of priesthood, brought to the fore by the Long Lent of 2002, as Weigel[3] refers to the onset of the clergy scandal in Boston and elsewhere, the crisis of identity of the priest has been part of the erosion of the perception of the priest in times past as a wonder-worker. One recent author I’ve read reported how, when he was invited to say Mass in a particular parish in the US, the head lay minister told him bluntly as he was giving assignments for the distribution of communion: “You Father, you distribute communion in the choir loft. This is to tell people that you are just like everybody else.” I don’t know what sort of theology was drummed into you while in formation, but I have always been, and still remain, an “ontologist.” No, the priest is not like everybody else. He is equal in dignity with all men and women, that’s for sure, but his ordination has made him different, set apart, by virtue of the power vested on him. Different doesn’t mean superior. Being different doesn’t mean you are “more equal than others,” to use that famous phrase from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” From the ashes of all this talk about equality and equal rights, and a misunderstood “lay centered” Church, we see rising an emasculated image of priest who is expected to preside but not to rock the boat too much, expected to do “wonders” but within strict bounds of democracy and fairness and equal opportunities. No wonder we are left only with so-called “sacramental ministers” who do their duties with dispatch, but not with panache, who preach but only about pious things and good things, politically-correct stuff that do not rock the boat too much. By trying to please everybody you please nobody. And you end up like a glorified altar boy, sashaying round the altar to fulfill a ritual, not a meaningful encounter.

But I am not about to get you off the hook just because you are different and called to do wonders. Now, I go to the most important idea that Sherwin shares with us. In many words, he simply tells us, that as clergymen, as religious leaders, we have to re-appropriate the wonder-working capabilities of the biblical religious leaders. I quote:

“For the religious teachings and the wonders of the religious leader to be considered credible and authentic, he or she must exhibit the sources of his or her authority as a religious leader, as a person of God in his or her daily lifestyle … Put another way, the mission of the religious leader is to convey a message. In order to effectively convey a message, he or she must enjoy a close relationship with the giver of the message, that is, God. He or she must have an intimate knowledge of the content of that message, that is, an in-depth religious learning. He or she must live the message, that is, he or she must live a life that embodies religious faith, spiritual development, personal piety, and moral rectitude.”[4]

This needs no further commentary. But there is more. Sherwin says that “a person with such characteristics can convey the message through the medium of various types of wonder working.” This wonder-working, according to Sherwin, quoting Jack Bloom[5] happens when the clergyperson is a “symbolic exemplar,” that is, when he “transforms a mundane moment into a sacred occasion, a routine place into a holy space.” By the power vested in him, his every word, gesture, blessing, healing, praying over people, preaching, counseling, or simply being with people, becomes his wonder working tools.

I would like to refer back to my title. Peter was walking on water[6] for a short while, on the strength of the Lord’s command. But he chickened out. He began sinking. He noticed the gales more than the guidance of the Lord. To me, this was a foreshadowing, a clue to the character of Peter, that will climax sadly with his denial of the Lord for three times. This may well be the image of many of us priests who may be losing our resolve to be the martyrs and witnesses we are called to be. I am fully one with Michael Heher[7] who in the last chapter of his outstanding book, refers to the lost art of walking on water, for the simple reason that we have lost the yen for martyrdom, for self-sacrifice, for apostolic generosity. I take this to mean we are no longer working wonders for we have decided to be comfortable. We have decided to follow the mainstream. We have become generic priests with generic jobs, delivering generic homilies, doing generic baptisms, and generic services. The other hurtful word for this is mediocrity. And mediocrity does not do wonders. Mediocrity does not rock the boat. Mediocrity does not save. Heroism does. Martyrdom does. Being up there on the cross with Christ does, or at least being down there with Mary and John, while all the rest have chickened out and went their own frightened ways.

The last time mediocrity struck me as a word was 1984. In the movie “Amadeus,” the character of the envious, scheming, and resentful Leopoldo Salieri struck me immensely. To me he is the perfect example of what not to be if we want to be wonder workers. A copy cat, and a poor one at that, he always defined himself in terms of what the boorish and upstart Mozart could do. He was always comparing himself with him. And every time, he became angrier, while Mozart rose higher in the estimation of the royal court. He was seething with inner rage at that upstart, at that impertinent and boorish young man, whom he was trying with might and main to outdo. He never succeeded, even when he stole the work of Mozart and made off with it like as if it were his own. At the end of his life, the old Salieri was pensive, repentant perhaps, but was clearly insightful when he said: “I am the patron saint of mediocrity.” Mediocrity obviously did not take very far.

I cannot but end this final reflection with a lengthy quote from Heher. I dare not “spoil no whisper, blur no expression” for I believe every word he writes:

To the extent that we are unwilling to join [Peter] there, unwilling to take the attendant risk that we could, like him, end up flailing about, looking silly and nearly drowning, we will look as cowardly and sound as whiny as we are. ‘Please, please, please, come to the seminary,’ we plead. But what do we teach them to do in the seminaries? To be as bright and creative as they can? To take chances? To be ready for a life of sacrifice? Do we train them for resilience and generosity? Do we insist they manifest a capacity to live intimately and maturely upon this planet? And why should we expect if of them if we don’t expect it of ourselves? This is my prediction: until we change our ways, the young will not see the excitement in our way of life. The dreamers, the talented ones, the visionaries and geniuses, the ones God may indeed be calling, they’ll go somewhere else with their enormous energy. Instead we will continue to attract men in early middle age, those, excuse me for saying this, ready to settle down.

‘Please, please, please, get involved in our parishes,’ we implore our parishioners. But what do we ask of them? To give out communion? To donate sacrificially? To attend one of our self-help seminars or Bible studies? To jump through the hoops of our sacramental preparation? Where is the excitement in that? Where is the call to real service, for trusting faith in troubling times? We have come to consider high attendance at anything as a sign of success; we have forgotten that, on Pentecost, the standard was a bit higher; people had to be on fire.[8]

Our normal tendency is to be rather blaming of Peter who didn’t trust the Lord’s hand. But as Heher says, we can also focus on the moments he in fact walked on water. It is possible. It is possible to regain our stature as wonder-workers. Heher asks, “Could it be that turbulent waters are in fact best suited for walking?”

Maybe we need to face our fears, our insecurities, and allow the people who journey with us a glimpse about our real selves, who, like Peter, may be struggling with our faith. Again I quote Heher:

As has often been the case in the history of the Church, the baptized trust more those leaders who let themselves be seen drowning and worse. I think our parishioners want fewer of our bright ideas and more of our empathy and honest response to life. In short, they are attracted to priests who know how to take chances – not just any chance and not simply for the sake of the thrill – but chances they perceive are prompted by the Holy Spirit; from such priests parishioners will find the guts to be courageous and docile disciples themselves.[9]

[1] Byron L. Sherwin. Workers of Wonders: A Model for Effective Religious Leadership from Scripture to Today. (Lanham,MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. c. 2004).

[2] Sherwin, op.cit., p. xiii

[3] George Weigel. The Courage to be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church. (New York: Basic Books, c. 2002). He attributes the phrase to Fr. Richard John Neuhaus.

[4] Sherwin, op.cit., 0. 147

[5] Ibid., p. 141

[6] Matthew 14:22-33

[7] Michael Heher, op. cit.

[8] Heher, op.cit., pp. 172-173

[9] Ibid., pp. 174-175

Monday, September 24, 2007

9. I PLAYED BUT YOU WOULDN'T DANCE: Learning to Become Joyful Beyond our Loneliness

Recent studies on priests, at least in America, show two seemingly contradicting truths. The first is that priests in their first five years after ordination appear to be “as happy and fulfilled as other American men their age.” This finding is corroborated by no less than Dolan, who, in his foreword to the book by Rosetti says the same, but goes right into the other side of this seemingly paradoxical reality. Dolan says that while “over 90 per cent report high satisfaction with their call and ministry, the public perception is that priests are not joyful, and that the priesthood is in a life-threatening crisis, and that many priest, while internally happy, come off as crabs and malcontents.”

I am not sure a similar study on priests in the Philippines would reveal exactly the same results. Given our proverbial natural propensity to be joyful and optimistic as a people, given the cultural positive attitudes by and large of our people to priests and religious, in general, I am not too sure that we are looked upon and perceived in general as sour and dour – at least as a general rule.

However, it wouldn’t be out of place in a forum such as this, to be speaking about joy. After all, we’ve heard it so often in the past, “a sad saint is a bad saint.” Consequently, if we look at our life and role and ministry as a way to sanctify ourselves and others, nothing stands in the way of this work of sanctification more than being crabby, being sore, being perpetually malcontent, like as if we have an axe to grind against the world, against everyone and everything.

The bad news is that in any given population, in any basket of apples picked at random, you have good apples and bad apples. We do a spontaneous, natural act of selection everyday at table. Although we say it’s the same banana, not all bananas are alike. We naturally pick the better one in the bunch, and the bad ones, generally remain in the bunch, till they become too ripe to eat and which will then be made into banana bread or given an extreme makeover and turned into pudding. You know that well enough.

Given our long training in the context of the seminary, serious pathology would most likely be screened out. There is a natural selection process that takes place in the wisdom of the seminary system introduced by Trent a long time ago. Rosetti, for one, claims that we have few cases of schizophrenia, psychosis, or seriously bipolar. Although it can, and, does arise, particularly from the ranks of those who more or less belong to my generation, priests are no more prone to such pathologies as the general population. As Rosetti says, priests are sick not because they are priests, but because they are human.

But I agree with Rosetti that we do need to talk a little about what we oftentimes pass off as garden-variety “sadness.” Whilst major depression is not part of the list of typical presenting problems of priests, a more subtle, low level, chronic, and milder specie called dysthymia is. This mild depression is something that few priests (and lay people) would even recognize, let alone, accept. But a trained observer just has the nose and the eye for it. Dysthymic people cannot remember the last time they were really happy. They shuffle around with a defeated look, downcast gaze (and some of them mistakenly define this as “profumo sanctitatis”). They shun the noise, the garrulity, and the legitimate joys afforded by everyday life, in the name of detachment and usually hie off to their rooms, or offices, and brood (which they call reflection).

On the opposite side of the spectrum are hypomanic individuals who seem unable to sit down for any length of time alone. They need something to perk them up all the time. They need to be at the center of the action. They need to be there where life happens. They have the chronic niceness syndrome, always available to help damsels in distress and anyone in real or imagined distress, for that matter. They are always huffing and puffing for the next sick call, the next talk, the next Mass, and the next “happening.” Take them away from that type of frenetic activity and they become sullen, withdrawn, or restless, and anxious. Whilst it is by no means pathological in the clinical sense, hypomanics may go through such a frenetic lifestyle, and can claim they do it because of their “apostolic zeal,” and “thirst for the kingdom,” but all they really do is meet an undefined need to be active, to be doing something, to be up and about, and to be saving the whole world. Cardinal Laghi’s famous quip comes in handy: “The Church already happens to have a savior.”

In my modest experience in leadership, and in my equally modest training over the recent past, and as a perpetual student of human behavior, particularly over the past 24 years of my priesthood, of which number more than half was spent in the context of formation, I cannot agree more with a recognized expert in the field all over the world – Rosetti – when he writes that the more common presenting problems of priests and religious are the following: narcissism, passive-aggression, and dependent personality problems.

I know I am treading on dangerous territory. I am walking on a mine-studded field that some of our dioceses and religious congregations in the Philippines are in. It is my educated opinion that of the three, narcissism seems to be the more prevalent in the Philippine setting. I have no hard data to present. My venturing into this field, along with the modest training I had in it, was really born more out of personal interest than on talent. But I see signs of it everywhere. The handwritings are on the wall, and all of us will be well advised to give a look, more at ourselves and less at others, and see just how much this moral and psychological evil has inflicted, and continues to inflict wounds on our communities, on our own personhood, and on the Church as a whole.

I start with the most difficult. Sadly, there is no known cure for them. These are the dashing debonairs of our society. They are talented and gifted. And they don’t just know it. They flaunt it. They make sure you know just what they are capable of, no matter if they are simply imagined. They are the narcissists in our midst. If we go by the rule of thirds that I quoted earlier on, then we should have reason to be worried, to be very worried. At least 33 per cent of clergy, not excluding us, may be in there. Narcissists are focused solely on themselves. They are the ultimate standard to anything. They are charismatic. They appear charming and kind. They know what they want. They know what to do. But you should never cross them. Once you do, you incur their wrath forever. Narcissists see the wrong thing in everybody else except in themselves. They cannot handle criticism. When crossed, their repressed anger is let loose like a dam. They burst like an over-inflated balloon and fly off the handle. They walk out of meetings in a huff, making sure that everybody gets indicted and figuratively sent to hell. They have no qualms about cursing others behaving like they are not capable of making mistakes too. They can even curse the Holy Father, the Superior General, and, if you’re just a local superior in a small community where he belongs, woe to you. You are just peanuts to this bulldozer who has no problems riding rough shod on anyone who stands in his way. All hell will break loose if you don’t do according to his plans. The narcissist’s tendencies, given enough time, is laid out in an intricate web of control, known to psychologists as “projective identification of control.” With enough time, and when (horror of all horrors), the non psychologically intuitive superior puts him in power, the narcissist will lay down a firm, and intractable mechanism of control, and everybody will have to toe the line, and literally kowtow to his every whim and wish, which usually is reinforced with a gruff, a grunt, and a growl. Weiser writes: “Narcissistic clergy operate on the force of personality, and they tolerate no real peers. They may court superiors in order to see themselves as peers of superiors, but they are not interested in genuine exchange. Narcissists are fickle in friendship, judge others in terms of usefulness, and reject people with bitter criticism, a criticism they always spare themselves. Idealization and devaluation is the technical term for their process of boom-and-bust courtship of others.”

The next in line makes a perfect fit for the narcissistic leader. The dependent personality is one whom the narcissist would simply love to have around. Such personalities form perfect part of the narcissist’s “groupie” or clique, individuals that are easily manipulated. Weiser describes them thus: “Depressed/dependent persons have no confidence in their own emotional strength or intellectual abilities. They feel powerless over events and relationships and are often willing to sacrifice anything, including their wants, needs, or themselves, for a sense of belonging equated with safety, security, and love.” Needless to say, such dependents would always love to belong to a small group because that group gives them a sense of security which they are looking for. If you are a small community and you have a clique like that, and you are the superior, you are in for a great deal of resistance. There is not much you can do unless of course you go down to their level and pander to their need for security and belongingness, in which case you would then be guilty of manipulation. Dependent personalities have difficulty asserting their own opinion. They don’t want to say their opinion because they fear being rejected or disliked. In the meantime, their resentment grows, especially if they already feel rejected or alone. Poorly differentiated since childhood, they always look for someone else to prop themselves up, someone else who could meet their nurturance and affiliation needs, someone else who could fill up what is lacking in their personality structure. These dependents are the perfect individuals to be looking for elderly matrons who can mother them, protect them, especially when, in their healthy imagination, they are not cared for in their communities. The bad side of it is, they tell sob stories to people around. The community is put in a bad light, and the hapless, unwary superior is condemned unjustly for being such an uncaring, unfeeling, and insensitive superior who does not act fatherly at all to his subjects (read: himself in particular).

The third most common malady is that of the passive-aggressive. They don’t fight openly against anyone. They just don’t do as agreed. They are not openly aggressive, but it doesn’t mean they are as meek and gentle like lambs. No… they hit you when they think it is most timely, where they think it would hurt you most. They appear to be obedient, nodding their heads in approval of what leaders tell them, but they show a pervasive pattern of passive resistance (low-key rebellion) and negativism. These individuals always feel cheated, unappreciated, and misunderstood. They are always complaining to others. The tragedy grows when they find dependent lay people, who also have very strong needs for succorrance, who literally come to their rescue supplying for what they think their poor priest or brother friend is unjustly deprived of. This includes food, gadgets, and if they are well-to-do, even cars at the poor priest’s disposal. Some even go to the ridiculous point of providing a room where they “are always at home and welcome at any time of day – or night.”

In such a setting, where “original sin” takes the upper hand in our selves, in our communities, in our congregations, religious houses, and dioceses, it becomes very hard for all to live in serenity and joy. It becomes a real challenge. Joy in the community is never to be achieved through short-cuts. Joy is never to be achieved by short-lived tactics like watching movies, and eating out, and finding time for some artificially contrived opportunity to do some backslapping camaraderie that masks an underlying river or resentment and dissatisfaction that is more intrapersonal than interpersonal. Joy, says, Kahlil Gibran, is but sorrow unmasked. Joy is something we ought to work for, sweat for, and sometimes, even cry for. Superiors are the first in the line of battle to assure that joy becomes real, genuine, and not based on flimsy props like food, parties, and gifts. Sometimes, the only way is to suffer through temporary anger misdirected at them by really helping the individuals to learn how to cope with their own issues. Sending them for processing and therapy may be painful, but mere paternalistic benevolence never resolved any big problem in the Church in history. Compassion alone will not clinch it. We also need clarity. And clarity means you have shoulders broad enough to suffer undeserved pain. I have climbed 13 Philippine mountains. I have even been held hostage in our highest peak down south for three days, together with seven others, half of whom were foreigners. You know what is the loneliest spot on earth when there is no one else to share it with? The mountain peak …

What is the use of being atop Mt. Everest if no one ever knew, if no one ever cared? What is the point in trekking alone to Mt. Pulog and then being overcome by the sheer awe and fascination of being higher than the clouds and there is no one else to hear your shouts of glee and triumph?

That is what superiors sometimes are … lonely on top. It is, indeed, lonely at the top. But you never know until it hits you in a moment of clarity that being lonely does have its joys. Joy is but sorrow unmasked. Here is a proof of a story recounted by Rosetti:

He was a seminarian during WW II. Thrown into a concentration camp, he survived. He came to America, was ordained a priest, and sent to a remote mission. He spent yeas building a church, building a community, praying and saying Mass every day. People never came. They ignored him. Years after, he resigned. The Bishop trekked all the way with him to inform people the parish would be closed. The people didn’t like the idea. When asked why despite the fact that they never attended anything, they answered: “You cannot take away the priest. If you take him away, you take away our only light.”

He was stunned. He stayed. And after that, the community began taking part.

No further commentary is needed. Joy is but sorrow unmasked. We priests and religious are supposed to be bearers of joy, gospel joy. And last thing I heard is, this joy can only happen if we take up his cross, and follow him. You better believe it.

The Gospel allusion in the title of this reflection illustrates the fact that also Jesus expressed some frustration. Referring to a game children played – some kind of “follow the leader,” Jesus complained, as children would: “I played but you wouldn’t dance.” We are called to learn how to grow beyond our loneliness, beyond our hopelessness. And this also applies to joy.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

8. THAT THEY MAY BE ONE: Learning to Become Men of Communion Beyond our Social Fragmentation

We live in a fragmented world. Society all over is disintegrating at least in some way. Civilizations are in conflict. If we are to believe what Samuel Huntington wrote, then we have reason to be afraid, mortally afraid, much more than we ought to be worried about the global warming phenomenon that threatens a great meltdown of our polar ice caps.

We do not even have to go too far down the road to see that our society is disintegrating. We do not even see eye to eye on who should be leading this country. We never liked any president. We are neatly divided between issues. Not even our Bishops present a united front. Some are dancing paltsy waltsy with questionable figures, and some are downright inimical to certain high profile political bigwigs. Such a state of affairs is not a monopoly of our political system. In our parishes, in our communities, in our schools and apostolic ventures, there is a whole lot of intrigue, of subtle alliances and groupings, of cliques that do more harm than good. We are back to the Filipino culture of insecurity that I was talking about in the first day.

And yet, we claim we are a Eucharistic breed of men, favored like no other with the grace of being able to confect ordinary bread and transubstantiate it into the Body and Blood of Christ our Lord. We preside at reconciliation liturgies. We mediate between warring families, siblings, and groupings in and out of our regular turf. We talk endlessly about unity. We pray even unceasingly about it. We minister, indeed, to a broken world. We minister to a society – and to ourselves – for whom unity is still a distant dream, perhaps a pie in the sky, a process that not even God, by his allowing us to chart our destinies in our freedom, can do with dispatch, and at a pace we all would like to have.

Our prayer, like that of Christ’s, is still “Lord, that they may be one.” But the good Lord had a second portion to that prayer which we cannot ever hope even to get anywhere near to …”even as you and I, Father, are one.”

And this is where our reflection would bring us to. It leads us to the absolute foundation and basis of the unity we pray for, and that foundation is nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else but the Trinitarian God.

We priests are a spoiled lot. We generally get what we want. We speak and the whole retinue of parish staff gets into action. We ask and we receive. We preach and we expect compliance. We expect no less than obedience. In our pride, there is a tendency to rely solely on procedures, techniques, and tactics to get things moving. We think we are the Savior, even if the Church already had one, as Pio Laghi wisely cracked. We think unity could be had if only we made the right moves, embraced the latest group process from Wharton school of business, or the Kennedy School of Public Service.

But unity is first of all God’s work because first of all it is what God is. It is what God wants and it is what God does, ever so subtly, ever so slowly. His pace does not get beyond our pace, even if he could. And the reason is simple. He wants unity not despite us. He wants unity because of us. He wants unity for us. And he wants it done with us, not without us. This means, to paraphrase Forrest Gump’s wise momma, “The pray-er is, as the pray-er does.” Handsome is as handsome does. Unity happens when we work for it together … each one of us … all of us all together now … to get there.

To get there, we must work together. But we need to define what this working together really is all about.

I call it doing Eucharist. Eucharist is something we do. It is a verb. It comes from a deep need to be grateful. For gratefulness is what being Christian at bottom is. Louis Evely, back in my College days, wrote in one of his popular books, “If you have nothing to thank God for, there is nothing Christian in you.” But Eucharist is not something we do alone. It is something we do together.

It almost sounds strange, but we priests and religious are called to be Eucharistic men and women. But before we can be Eucharistic, we first need to be grateful people. When we get what we want, when we can command and commandeer people and get them to be doing things at our beck and call, when we feel entitled to receive, we cease to be grateful. People who get and grab are never grateful. They think it is their right to have things. But people who receive, reply with gratitude. To get is too violent. To receive is to be gracious and magnanimous with praise and thanks. Just look at how Mary prayed. Magnificat anima mea Dominum! For a whole slew of reasons … for whatever reason … come what may, happen what might, everything is seen as gift … everything is seen as grace.

Allow me to call your attention to what robs us men of the innate and natural capacity to be gracious recipients of gifts. It is inner violence. It is anger. Surprised? Yes. Nothing blocks our capacity to be grateful more than anger that clouds our minds and psyches from the good that we ought to rejoice in. Remember what I told you in one of my first talks? In formation we first need to define our humours, our angers, our sympathies, and antipathies before we can define who we are. Rosetti puts it more clearly: “The journey of Christian human formation is a journey out of anger into gratitude and joy.” All too often we talk, and rightly so, about our need to turn away from disvalues like materialism, consumerism, and the culture of death, as Rosetti points out. But he goes on to say that all too often again, we fail to include that which destroys our humanity so surely and so subtly and that is what anger and inner rage does to us. The forces of evil and Satan, the father of lies have all conspired to lead otherwise good men towards dysfunctional and catastrophic behavior patterns that affect so many people. Satan is very much active in the sin and sickness of anger that is allowed to grow, to rise in power above the shadows and dark recesses of denial and secretiveness.

Satan, as we know, loves to work under the cloak of deceit, secrecy, and suspicious silence. This is how inner rage attacks otherwise good men in our midst. We allow anger to fester. We allow it to increase. We cover it up with a perpetual smile and apparent good-naturedness. We refuse no request. We are available for anything at any time of day or night. We drown ourselves in work, all spiritualized in the garb of apostolic zeal and cura animarum. But we don’t say is what harms us – the seething resentment, the scalding anger that builds up like a dormant volcano that all of a sudden erupts and manifesting itself in terms of subtle and not-so-subtle rebellion, nonconforming behavior, bitter and sarcastic remarks against others, especially superiors, reading too much from otherwise innocent behavior and remarks from them, and that all too common Filipino tactic – avoidance and evasion, the cold shoulder treatment, not going for prayers with others, not going for meals together with others, etc. Satan just loves to work in the shadows.

I have to tell those superiors who may be in this difficult situation. You need to differentiate yourself in a healthy way. You need not blame yourselves if one or two or more of your confreres seem to have it against you. On many occasions, whilst you may be the object of anyone’s anger, you ought to be mature and differentiated enough to know that you are not necessarily its cause.

We need to become Eucharistic men. What exactly does this mean? Does this mean being pious and giving that pitiful, wan look during Mass? No. I mean digging deeper into oneself to see what is there in us that is not very Eucharistic. Where does all that inner rage come from? What is really the root cause of that anger? Becoming Eucharistic persons is exactly being like the two disciples on the way to Emmaus. They were bitter, sad, angry and disappointed. The one they were relying on, left them in the lurch. He was crucified. They were now orphaned by a leader of their hopes who would have socked it to the Romans. But he was dead.

I would like to think that before they could be Eucharistic, they first had to let go of all that anger and disappointment, and self-pity. They were open about it. They talked among themselves about it. They even spoke of their disappointment to their unknown guest who at some point began journeying with them. They were processing themselves and allowed themselves to be processed. By the time they sat down to supper, they were ready to be Eucharistic. They were ready to give thanks, because they were already grateful and joyful. And their joy was made full … when they realized the gift of presence of him who offered, of him who gave away, gave thanks, broke, and shared.

Eucharist is all about brokenness shared and admitted and accepted. It is all about receiving and giving thanks for what one has received. When we, as priests and religious, as brothers in the Lord recognize our brokenness and our woundedness and confess it to one another, we are ready to do Eucharist. We are ready to be men and women of communion. And the only reason for this is simply this … we also have first become men and women of compassion … compassion for ourselves, others, and all who, like us, are journeying in pain.

I end with a beautiful one-liner from Catherine Dougherty … “Love and joy are fruit of faith, sacrifice, and pain.”

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

7. BEHOLD YOUR MOTHER: Learning to be Tender-Hearted Beyond our Cynicism

Recent studies on priests in America in the aftermath of the clergy scandal of 2002 show that a good number of them nurture a positive attachment to Mary, the Mother of God. They speak of Mary in loving and affectionate terms. A number of studies both here and abroad show that the relationship between mother and son, in the early life of the priest influences a whole lot the adult priest’s ability to adjust to a demanding priestly life and role. My own findings in my dissertation confirm what we have always informally conjectured – that mothers in many more ways than one, are truly mothers, too, of our vocation.

In my last reflection, I talked about the ambience that makes us, the environment that shapes us to be the best we could be. Polar bears need the vast icy expanse for them to thrive. Priests need the ambience of a prayerful life to be true to their role and ontological nature as acting in persona Christi.

I would like to add an additional element to this ambience of prayer. I would like to call this, together with Gerard Manley-Hopkins, not only the ambience and habitat for us priests, but our atmosphere, the air we breathe, the air without which we would be limping, gasping for life, for that breath of intimacy that humanizes us, that makes us get closer to the full stature of Christ, who is and who was son of Mary, woman, mother, lady, queen. Allow me, at the risk of boring some of you, to quote a beautiful poem of Hopkins. If you remember your literature, you would know that this poem capitalizes a whole lot on simile, metaphor, and personification.

The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe

Wild air, world-mothering air,
Nestling me everywhere,
That each eyelash or hair
Girdles; goes home betwixt
The fleeciest, frailest-flixed
Snowflakes; that’s fairly mixed
With, riddles, and is rife
In every least thing’s life;
This needful, never spent,
And nursing element;
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink;
This air, which by life’s law,
My lung must draw and draw
Now but not breathe its praise,
Minds me in many ways
Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindles to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race –
Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemed, dreamed; who
This one work has to do –
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.

I say that we are wound
With mercy round and round
As if with air: the same
Is Mary, more by name.
She, wild web, wondrous robe,
Mantles the guilty globe,
Since God has let dispense
Her prayers his providence:
Nay, more than almoner,
The sweet alms’ self is her
And men are meant to share
Her life as life does air.
If I have understood,
She holds high motherhood
Towards all our ghostly good
And plays in grace her part
About man’s beating heart,
Laying, like air’s fine flood,
The deathdance in his blood;
Yet no part but what will
Be Christ our Saviour still.
Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now
And makes, O marvelous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn –
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death;
Who, born so, comes to be
New self and nobler me
In each and each one
More makes, when all is done,
Both God’s and Mary’s Son.
Again, look overhead
How air is azured;
O how! Nay do but stand
Where you can lift your hand
Skywards: rich, rich it laps
Round the four fingergaps,
Yet such a sapphire-shot
Charged, steeped sky will not
Stain light. Yea, mark you this:
It does no prejudice.
The glass-blue days are those
When every colour glows,
Each shape and shadow shows.
Blue be it: this blue heaven
The seven or seven times seven
Hued sunbeam will transmit
Perfect, not alter it.
Or if there does some soft,
On things aloof, aloft,
Bloom breathe, that one breath more
Earth is the fairer for.
Whereas did air not make
This bath of blue and slake
His fire, the sun would shake,
A bleat and blinding ball
With blackness bound, and all
The thick stars round him roll
Flashing like flecks of coal,
Quartz-fret, or sparks of salt,
In grimy, vasty vault.
So God was God of old:
A mother came to mould
Those limbs like our which are
What must make our daystar
Much dearer to mankind;
Whose glory bare would blind
Or less would win man’s mind.
Through her we may see him
Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.
Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
Above me, round me lie
Fronting my froward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there
Of God’s love, O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer:
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child.

One of the most memorable books I have read as a college seminarian was a spiritual autobiography written by Brother Raymond, OCSO entitled “The Man who Got Even with God.” I have always been making a pitch for this book in my work with counselees and directees. Long before the popular attractiveness of Henri Nouwen and the likes of Ronald Rolheiser came to the scene, this book already made its mark as something that addresses itself to human beings with red blood flowing through their veins. This was as passionate and honest a self-report as that of Nouwen’s and Rolheiser, the precise reason why they are popular authors.

Here is a struggling man, who talks to his fellow struggling men, who is candid about his disappointment, even his anger against God. His story is not the hopelessly anemic and sugar-coated, anesthetized, and vacuum-sealed hagiographical reports of the lives of saints, but a story of a man with real passion, with real hunger, and with real anger against an equally real God, who allows bad things to happen to good people. The high point of the story from which he took the title was the challenge and the threat that he hurled against God at the height of his anger and frustration, being the impulsive and mercurial character that he was: “I’ll get even with you, God!” And he did. He became as saintly as an ordinary sinful mortal could be … maybe not a saint with plastered looks and glassy eyes, and one whose name appears in the elenco dei santi e martiri, but a saint as normal, ordinary sinful people could be, who sins more than just seven times a day.

But this is all beside the point I am trying to make. What I am pointing to is just as remarkable as his human way of relating to God, with his warts and all, but also his earthly and eminently human way of relating to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the mother of us all. He wrote: “The man in us needs a woman; the knight in us needs a lady; and the child in us needs a mother.”

I faintly remember a speaker back in the day when I looked at studies as a chore, and not a passport to liberation, when we would spend a great deal of the time sleeping in class, and complaining about professors who were talking against each other. Our professor in Spiritual Theology, a relatively known writer, told us that devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary ought to have at least three characteristics. It ought to be tender, true, and loving. If I understood him well, in between naps and chitchats, such devotion must be first, truly human with real human feelings. Such was a basic minimum. The heart must come into the picture. There is no such thing as a devotion to an idea. That, to my counselor’s mind, would be an OC thing (obsessive-compulsive trait). Second, it must be true. It cannot be all heart. The mind must cooperate in the whole venture. Heart and mind ought to work in tandem. One does not offer oneself to something not known, not understood, not perceived in toto. But the third has to do with the level of execution. It is the level, not only of knowing and feeling, but of action. The basic order of battle for the cognitive-behavior therapist is simply this: cognition, emotion, action. What we know, how we feel about what we know, explains what we do.

I am talking about good, old fashioned talk about human willing. It is the level of the doing. Forrest Gump, for all his being intellectually challenged, understood well what his mother used to tell him repeatedly: “Stupid is, as stupid does.” Agere sequitur esse. Action follows nature. Doing flows from being.

We are back to the ambience thing. We are back to the natural and supernatural habitat we move in as frontier beings, the habitat of the natural and the habitat of the supernatural – the order of nature and the order of grace.

Sister Bridge McKenna, I think, explains best what this closeness to Mary is all about for priests and religious like us. She hits the target when she alludes to the fact that in Mary, the two orders of nature and grace shines out so well, so clearly, so realistically. In her view of Mary and our relation to her that cannot be said to be high falutin theological insight, she nevertheless tells it like it is for us in her statement that is full of wisdom and insight. Urging priests to love Mary as sons, she said: “No wonder you priests are so close to her, for you both look at Jesus – she on earth and now in heaven, and you, in the Eucharist – and you both say, as no one else can, ‘This is my body; this is my blood.’”

When was the last time you saw your relationship to Mary in that way? When was the last time you imagined your relationship to Mary put in parallel lines with her relationship with Jesus, her Son, and our brother? Doesn’t this remind you of that worldly song “Somewhere Out There?” Beneath the pale moonlight, lovers see each other because they see the same big star in the firmament. That star unites people in love. That same star brings them towards closeness, intimacy, even in the distance, even though they are out of sight. Even in an earthly sense, we mean it when we say, we live by faith, not by sight.

How true are the thoughts of Hopkins! He refers to Mary as our atmosphere, the air we breathe, that among other things, filters the bright light of the sun, and makes them it bearable, makes it gently visible. Like the stained glasses in churches, the sun’s rays which symbolize God’s grace are sifted and filtered, and doled out so that we could withstand it, so that we could benefit from it in doses that we can bear. Truly, Mary is the Mother of Grace, not in the sense that she is its origin, but in the sense that as co-mediatrix, all that grace from the supernatural order, comes to us in the natural order, in a way that we can assimilate, and that way is provided for us by Mary, woman, lady, mother, queen, air wild, world-mothering air, as Hopkins calls her.

The role of mothers in priestly and religious vocations is beyond dispute. We do not need doctoral dissertations to show that. But we do need to know exactly what that role is, for better or for worse. Each of us needs to clarify exactly what role she is still playing right here, right now even if you are well into your thirties, or forties, whether you have transitioned through midlife, or you are currently going through its throes or woes, or joys, or triumphs as the case may be.

Recent decades of research by object relations psychologists have shown the world just how much primary caregivers have influenced, made or broken individuals through a poorly managed process of separation-individuation during the first 36 months of a person’s life. What transpired in those first three years, from the individual’s so-called “private logic” and point of view has immense consequences in the way we, even as priests relate to God, to authority figures, to mother figures, and to the Church, and the Congregation we belong to.

The late John Cardinal O’Connor of New York understood this very well when he wrote:

In my judgment, nothing advances vocations as does devotion of priests to the Eucharist and to Mary: I don’t know that any statistical studies have been done, but from what I observe, those dioceses in which Perpetual Adoration is widespread, personal Eucharistic worship on the part of priests is habitual, and devotions to Our Lady are highlighted – those are dioceses in which vocations flourish. Vocations aside, however, I am sure you will agree with me that commitment to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and to Mary, Mother of Priests, is as strong a lifeline as any priest could hold on to. I know how much I need that lifeline.

Connor, in relation to this, gives the following lines that help clarify the point of our reflection:

Mary might easily be called the Mother of Priests, since she is the mother of Him from whom their priesthood derives. Not only that, our Lord entrusted Him mother to the care of John, the beloved disciple, who stood in for each of us. Mary is, therefore, the universal mother of all humanity, not by a figure of speech, but by a command of her Son. All of us were spiritually begotten at Calvary; priests, then, can claim Our Lady’s spiritual motherhood in two ways. Finally the story continues beyond Calvary. Spiritual writers often note the presence of the Blessed Mother with the Apostles, awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Church. Her prayers, they tell us, were directed to her Son, specifically for those men He had chosen and appointed to spread His Gospel. Because of her closeness to the Church at its inception, the theology of the priesthood has always emphasized that the call of each priest has its origins in the merits of Christ and His Blessed Mother.

But all this does not detract from the primary topic of this reflection. Given our Filipino natural propensity to be rather close to our mothers in general, given the fact that culturally and historically and spiritually, we have always been known as “el pueblo amante de Maria,” we priests and religious could not afford to be any less, any different, any more disjointed from this laudable cultural, theological, and spiritual heritage. Whilst we are exhorted to give a close look at the way we look at the figure of woman, at the figure of mother as primary caregiver, at the image-representation of woman-mother in our psyche, we are also exhorted today, to build on what already is there – the tender, true, and loving devotion that most of us have for Mary.

We would do well to end this reflection with a prayer to Mary, the Mother of Vocations:

O Most Holy Virgin, we come to you to implore a great grace, in behalf of all the peoples of the earth. We ask of you laborers of the Gospel. You are our Mother and Queen of Apostles, you have obtained the grace of their ministry. Through your intercession, every vocation has come. Obtain for your Church and the whole world numerous and chosen priests, apostolic and holy persons, who are fervent with zeal and charity. Remember the command of your Son Jesus, when He said: “Pray therefore, the harvest Master that He may send workers to His harvest.” Hear us, O Mother, for the greatest comfort of the Most Holy Heart of Jesus. Amen.

Mary, Mother of Vocations, pray for us.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

6. TAKE THIS CUP AWAY IF POSSIBLE: Learning to Pray Beyond our Suffering

Stephen Rosetti writes about the sad fact that most priests “are simply not praying enough.” He recounts a dialogue he had with a priest who came to him for some form of help. To his question: “Do you pray,?” the immediate retort was, “I have no time to pray!” His answer to him was, “Then you don’t have time to be a priest.”

Recent dramatic changes in climactic patterns all over the world, among other things, have reminded us about how the whole web of natural life in the world is intricately and delicately interwoven and interdependent. A recent issue of Time magazine has for its cover the admonition: “Be worried. Be very worried!” On the cover picture we see a solitary and seemingly worried polar bear, marauding gingerly over literally thin and vanishing ice on what less, than a decade ago was solid slab of icy stability and comfort for thousands of them. Miles and miles of solid icy seas were the bears’ natural habitat. What they are and where they live, the conditions that surround them, including the air that they breathe, the ice that they walk on, and the seals that co-inhabit their shrinking and progressively disappearing world, are simply intertwined and interconnected. The simple lesson to learn among others is simply this. Bears thrive on ice and floes, and subzero temperatures that, in turn assure them their steady source of nutrition. Polar bears just aren’t made by the Creator to be sashaying in slush and melted snow. They are meant to walk on solid ice. They thrive on the cold. Take them out of that and they vanish from the face of the earth.

I would like to use this as a backdrop for my topic on this sixth reflection. Prayer is to priesthood and religious life, as ice and floes are to polar bears. One cannot thrive without the other. Remove one and the delicate balance is upset.

Fish is to water, as prayer is to priest. More than this, long-standing tradition traces a link between prayer and the priest’s ability to suffer meaningfully, suffer salvifically, and suffer evangelically, in the way Christ would have us do. In the words of Connor, “the taking up of the cross never has been, nor could it ever be, foreign to the priestly life. In fact, it is one of the essential ingredients.” Connors quotes Van Zeller, who wrote:

The priest may not be departmental in his relationship to Christ and to Christ’s members. He cannot choose to follow Christ in His preaching but not in His suffering, to worship His incarnation but neglect His act of redemption, to preach His transfiguration and not to practice His doctrine of the cross, to follow Him in His charity but not in His Gethsemani. The disciple must be as his master, the servant as his Lord. If Christ is the Divine Mediator, the priest is the divinely appointed human mediator.

The link between prayer and suffering is clear from Van Zeller’s words. The link between prayer and the priest who is called to be like unto Christ, by “patterning [his] life on the mystery of the Lord’s cross,” is equally clear.

I must tell you that at times, it gets a little embarrassing when, during my frequent times-off with lay people who are friends, with people I minister to, the request for prayer always comes up. But are we, really? How many times have we sounded hallow, promising people prayers and then knowing deep inside our hearts that all we could really manage over the past 5 or 6 years or even decades was a few minutes of hurried and mumbled prayers, usually the minimum prescribed for the Liturgy of the Hours? How many times have assurances of prayers come out of our lips but not out of our hearts?

We are simply not praying enough as priests and religious. In our sophisticated and relatively learned faith, we have lost a little of the simplicity of ordinary people who really made of their days holy days through a regular rhythm of prayer that would shame the most educated among us equipped with the most beautifully bound and gilded Book of Christian Prayer. I have my own little confession to make that still embarrasses me. Over the past 24 years as a priest, I have been propagating devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. My first convert was my own mother. Back when I was a first year high school student in Don Bosco in Mandaluyong, I was struck by the Salesians’ passionate plea for us Bosconians to cultivate a filial devotion to Mary Help of Christians. That first encounter with Mary I had never left my heart. I was hooked. But not for long. I passed on the devotion and the prayer leaflets to my mother. From 1968 onwards, till the day she died in 1990, no single day passed by without her praying the prescribed prayers for a devotee of Mary. She prayed to her much more than I ever did, more than I ever cared to.

Very recently, I received a call from a friend and former colleague in the Catholic Scouting Movement. Back in the day when I was the National Chaplain, in 1988, I introduced a Scout Executive to Mary Help of Christians. I have not met him nor talked with him after I left Mandaluyong in 1990. But the call sounded familiar. It all convicted me once again. Here comes one I introduced to Mary 18 years ago and now telling me he had indeed seen what miracles are, as Don Bosco, promised his followers.

The turf that I, as a priest, ought to be moving around in, the ambience that should have dictated my life of ministry – no doubt many and varied – has been occupied by people who mean what they say when they pray: “Lord, teach us to pray.”

It is significant that the request came from his disciples. Prayer is the disciples’ original turf. It is the ambience where priests, not polar bears, ought to be at home in. Rosetti, with a little tinge of humor, writes that there are several reasons why priests do not pray. The first sounds very familiar to us active religious. We are infected with the virus of activism. Performing, producing, delivering results are the usual gauge by which people measure our level of success and achievement. A priest who builds and constructs gets noticed much more than one who prays and spends time with the Lord. A second reason, Rosetti writes, comes from the very people who ask us to pray for them. One morning preparing for Mass, Fr. Rosetti was deep in prayer until one woman nudged him and said: “O Thank God, I saw you when you are not doing anything.” In this world of results and achievements, praying is a useless occupation. One is not doing anything if one is praying.

But what I think is the most disturbing reason not to pray is what many of us might not be willing to admit. We are afraid of what will surface, as Rosetti states. Some priests, according to him, are actually afraid of God.

Some of the most memorable utterances of Pope John Paul II may be important to recall at this point. In his best-seller “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” he spoke about not being afraid. Harking back to the homily he delivered back in 1978 when he officially took office as Bishop of Rome, he hollered back then in his youthful, stentorian voice that remained etched in my memory: “Be not afraid.” He spoke with authority. He spoke with panache and passion. And one of his strong messages anent this was: “be not afraid of God.”

That struck me then as odd. Why would the Pope talk about something that ought never to happen. Why would anyone be afraid of God? It dawned on me that it is more common than we often imagine. Haven’t we heard anyone tell us how they wouldn’t want to hear homilies and attend Masses, simply because that would make them responsible for what they did? They preferred to stay in the state of ignorance for ignorance would serve always as a convenient excuse for them to go on doing what they do. Sometimes, it is all about being afraid of oneself instead of being afraid of God. Rosetti writes:

Some priests do not pray because they are afraid that the personal hurts and pains buried in their own hearts will surface. They have to face themselves; it is no accident that the spiritual masters have said the spiritual journey begins with self-knowledge. When the mess that lies within each of our hearts surfaces, it is painful to deal with. But facing ourselves is essential for a deep inner healing. The spiritual journey cannot begin in earnest without it.

I have a little theory in addition to what Rosetti says are the reasons why priests do not pray. I think it is some kind of a passive-aggressive revolt against God. I am of the opinion that priests who suffer and who find no meaning behind their suffering may nourish deep but unacknowledged anger and resentment against God. Deep in denial, they do not get in touch with their real feelings. The feelings, instead of being identified and named and accepted are buried. But what is buried does not disappear. They come out in some other form. And for a non-violent culture as we are, it often comes out as quiet passive-aggression. It comes out as the inability for, and the lack of interest and dedication to prayer.

The ecclesiastical landscape is filled with a lot of sore losers, of wounded foot soldiers, and cynical erstwhile platoon leaders. I know. I was once one of them, perhaps, I still am in some way. But there is something salutary about accepting that we have been beaten black and blue instead of pretending there’s nothing wrong, keep a stiff upper lip and grin and bear it. Suffering does come our way. It is part of the whole package of mysteries that came with the gift of life. We all know this in theory. But when suffering knocks too close to our doors, comes too close to where we are, we protest, like Job, like Jeremiah, like Jonah.

I have been a religious and a priest long enough to know that there is politics and political maneuverings in the Church that we love. There are cliques and unholy alliances. There, too, is naked ambition everywhere. There, too, is envy and greed. It is all part of the package of human sinful tendencies, what we used to call concupiscentia, back in the day. And the bad news connected to all this, is that it all causes suffering. When the political machinery of an ambitious cleric begins to churn, it can ride rough-shod on anyone in its path, and pity the one who happens to stand in the way. On not a few occasions, I was right there on the path of such a machine. I stood bravely and proud. But I lost despite my gallantry and misplaced pride. It took a big toll on my sense of trust, on my sense of attachment to mother Church. I became on overnight pariah, believing but not belonging; being present while not being all there; visible but hardly audible. I was in pain. I was in protest. And I was not praying.

At this point, I would find it salutary to be reminded of what Connors writes about us priests who may be deep in pain and other forms of suffering:

Each priest has the consolation of knowing that his share in Christ’s sufferings is not unique to this particular vocation; every soul in the world who has taken the following of Christ seriously has embraced the cross, and with all of them the priest enjoys a great solidarity. If one may speak of the vocation of suffering being accepted in life situations in any order of priority, the priesthood would be high on the list, if not first; it would be extremely difficult for a man to speak to people about faith if he has never struggled with doubt; to speak to them about suffering if he has not experienced his own darkness. In fact, it is entirely possible that a man who has been given great responsibility will bear a cross of similar proportion.

Again, Connors quotes Van Zeller, who speaks of our Christian priesthood as distinct from the OT priesthood in the sense that offerer and sacrifice are found in the one and the same personhood of the priest himself:

The man who celebrates Mass is, mystically and figuratively but nonetheless significantly, on the paten of the Suspice and in the chalice at the Offerimus. It would be a mistake to think of our Mass and our position in it as separated into parts: I, the man, as the subject; the sacred species, the material element, as the object; God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, as the end. But because Christ is at once priest, victim, and end of His own sacrifice, so we can think of ourselves, made one with Christ in His sacrificial act, as directed towards the same Father in the same redemptive act.

This reflection is for all of us who are wounded in some way. I ask you in the name of the late Pope John Paul II, never to be afraid of man, never to be afraid of the Church, and never to be afraid of God. At great moments like our ordination day, our 5th, 10th, 15th, 20th, and 25th anniversaries, when we are in control, when we are in the saddle, when we are put atop pedestals for reasons deserved or undeserved, life seems rosy and most promising. The world seems like an oyster for us. The future always looks bright. But it is when suffering that is, at least to our mind, undeserved comes our way, when through the same mysterium iniquitatis that we were speaking of, someone rides rough shod over our sense of self, our personal dignity, all the values we were holding onto for decades, and we feel we are left holding an empty bag of failed friendships, broken dreams, and broken promises, the late Holy Father’s stentorian voice – the voice of the true and good Shepherd, beckons us never to be afraid, never to be afraid, and to go on learning to pray beyond our sufferings. I end with a famous quote from one who has seen more than just life, but also a whole of undeserved suffering, St. Teresa of Avila:

Nada te turbe
Nada te espante.
Todo se pasa.
Dios no se muda.