Monday, July 23, 2007

3. SIGN, SYMBOL, & SONG: Learning to Celebrate Beyond Our Discouragement

Stephen Rosetti, (2005) a Catholic priest himself who is also a psychiatrist, gives me the perfect opening lines for this reflection:

Sometimes people ask me if ministering to priests in difficulty discourages me or assails my love for the priesthood or the Church. Of course, there are moments when I feel upset by what I have heard or I am saddened by their grief. If I lose the ability to be touched by genuine tragedy or if I am no longer angered by egregious behavior, then I have overstayed in this work. But, such moments have been fully overshadowed by a stronger grace.

I have grown in my admiration for our priests. I have been given a stronger love of the priesthood and the Church. In their weakness, these men have shown me the immense dignity of the priesthood and the beauty of the Church. In vulnerability, grace shines more brightly in the human spirit. I have come to know, even more clearly, that the priesthood is a great blessing for the people of God and for those who are its recipients. The laity have instinctively known this truth for centuries. Sometimes we priests forget this reality. We ought never to forget.” (p.10)

We ought never to forget. Forgetfulness is a dangerous disease. Forgetfulness is a vice we, as priests and religious, cannot afford to have. Our Christian faith, we must recall, is based a whole lot on the fundamental ability to remember, on our capacity to look back, look into ourselves and our present-day realities, and look far into the future … our future, God’s future, our future in God. Christian life is nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else but a life of gratitude to God who is the source and origin of all that is good. And gratitude thrives best in remembering. Remembering is what we Christians do best.

No wonder that as religious, as members of the clergy, we are at our best when in the context of the Eucharistic celebration. Years of formation, training and studies have drummed it into us and made it almost second nature to us when we are engaged in sign, symbol, and song – when we celebrate what we commemorate, when we narrate to each other and to the world what we commemorate and celebrate.

We are a people of the narrative. We are men and women with a story. And although, at times, what people read into our life narrative is not worthy of the meta narrative that is salvation history that we have offered our lives for, still when in the context of sign, symbol, and song – the liturgy – we are in our best element. Garbed in the full sign of our priestly, prophetic, and kingly roles, we priests take on the role that is not ours by right, but by vocation – to act in persona Christi capitis, to be an alter Christus, to do as Christ did, teach as he taught, heal as he healed others, and journey with others as he did.

I would like now to unpack these three important words that sum up who and what we are vis-à-vis the task of remembering that is ours as a community of believers.


We live and move and thrive in a universe of signs. The Church is a sign, a big one. The big word for it that we know all too well is sacrament. It is essentially a sign, let me add, an effective sign of salvation, a sign of God’s continuing presence in the world, a presence that saves.

We are extensions of that one big sign. By virtue of holy orders, by virtue of the original consecration at Baptism, we were not only signed. We were sealed – sealed with character, an indelible mark on the soul that sets us apart, in the Biblical sense of being sanctified, being set apart by, and for, God, and for people. In a very real sense, we are SIGNED, SEALED, AND DELIVERED!

Our being signs, and our being marked are not meant to be terminal goals. We were not called to be frozen delights. We were called and chosen to go and bear fruit – in plenty, not in want. It might do us good this time to look at the many times our being signs (pardon the tautology) loses its significance. And how do we lose significance? We have to go back to Scripture. Christ said it long ago. When salt loses its taste, what good is it for other than being thrown and trampled underfoot? (cf. Mt 5:13)

We blunt our nature as signs when we allow our unredeemed selves to take over even those activities that we do best, when our human nature and its tendencies take the better of us and wreak havoc on our relationships, our work, and everything else we do. As professionals, we are subject to the so-called “rule of thirds.” A high proportion of us clergy and religious are at risk for present and future difficulty. Conrad W. Weiser (1994) writes that “the attraction of less-than-fully functioning persons to religious professions is not new.” High proportions, Weiser goes on to say, of professional populations are psychologically damaged and at risk. His estimate is as high as 30 per cent. Sperry (2000) corroborates this. He writes:

The reality is that individuals with a narcissistic pattern are attracted to ministries, particularly high visibility ministries and positions of leadership. Furthermore, narcissistic ministers are becoming increasingly common in religious organizations, including parishes, religious communities, and in diocesan and other ecclesial offices […] narcissism is one of the six common neurotic personalities in religious settings. (p. 13)

In the manufacturing world, tools are not meant to last forever. Even planes are subject to what is known as metal fatigue. Every part, every sinew, every rivet and joint is checked periodically for wear and tear, and those parts that are worn and torn are rehabilitated, rejuvenated, or replaced.

We ought to give a little more attention to our materiality as signs. We ought to look at ourselves from the point of view of the wear and tear aspect even of our personhood, our abilities, our efficiencies. At some point in our formation, formators ought to have helped us identify and name our humors, our antipathies, sympathies, affections, and angers within the wider context of our sexual and relational selves( Wister, 1994).

The basic point I am trying to make is this. If material tools and machines get their furlough time in the garage, a time for re-tooling, a time to be honed up, the sign aspect of our personhood, with all its warts, faults and foibles, also needs to have a chance at being redeveloped.

Weigel (2002) refers to this as “reform.” He speaks of such as what the French word “ressourcement” points to, which means, trying to get back to one’s originating form, that is, going back to the basics. Among other things, it means going back to such basics as prayer, asceticism, self-denial, holiness of life, etc. He writes: “Christian communities that maintain their doctrinal identity and moral boundaries flourish. Christian communities that fudge doctrine and morals decay.”

Heher (2004) affirms this and traces out a similarity between the Old Testament High Priest and the ordained minister of today, as one who should divest himself of so many things in order for him to do what he is called to do:

We are aware of how much we have to put on to be priests: the mythic image, the weight of representing the Church, the outrageous demand that we act in persona Christi. But perhaps we have lost the sense of how much we have to take off as priests. No one talks much about asceticism nowadays, but it is essential to anyone trying to live a spiritual life, for it is the hard, human work of getting free of all unnecessary claims, especially of getting past our various illusionary images of ourselves, our fig leaves, if you will.

We all have projections of ourselves that block us from seeing that unique wonder God created and loves. But to strip off all those things is not easy. A narcissist looks in the mirror and sees what he wants to see, or at least, what he wants others to see. A masochist sees just what he fears. Only a saint looks in the mirror and sees what God has wrought (p. 22).


Let me go now to the second word. I refer to the Greek meaning of the word which is a little richer than the English. A symbol, etymologically, cannot be taken apart by itself, disconnected with something else. A symbol is literally something “thrown together” with something else. It means to be united to some other reality, to be one with that other thing. As such it is the opposite of something thrown or wrested apart from something else. Symbol refers to a perfect fit, a perfect adequation between two distinct realities. Its opposite (dia-bollon) connotes disunity, brokenness, difference, and separation.

In our narcissistic-prone postmodern world, in our individual-individualistic world characterized by the so-called Filipino culture of insecurity, many a time, the symbol that religious life ought to be, that priesthood is supposed to be – the symbol of communion and unity, is blunted and rendered meaningless. Sometimes, the fit between the individual and the community is no longer there. There are so many “lone rangers” roaming around the religious landscape here and all over the world. There are far too many of us who go it alone, do it our own way, and do it with impunity. For a good number of us, religious life effectively has become a perfect launching pad for our own versions of the Challenger spaceship. For some of us, the only reminder that we are connected with the congregation, if ever we can talk of such, are the three letters that follow our names – our passport to donations, our entitlement to receive the praises and the purses of the unwary rich who offer us money in the spirit of misguided trust that we are still in good graces with the Church, with the Congregation, with the Superiors.

The challenge for everyone is to maintain that symbolic nature of our lives, of our persons, our works, and all our initiatives. And that symbolic nature has to do essentially with what the Lord himself prayed for, at a difficult moment in his public life: “that they may be one, even as you and I, Father, are one” (Jn 17:22).


The third word has to do more with what can help us bind ourselves a little more to each other and to the Church and people that we serve. I refer to the riches of the liturgy that is known as the “fons et culmen” – the source and summit of our Christian life. There is identity in the two realities that the liturgy is. It is not just one and the other in varying proportions. No, it is both, at one and the same time. If it is the source, then it is where being sign and symbol is expressed, nurtured, and is developed. If it is the summit, it is there where our being sign and symbol reaches its fullness and perfection.

We are at our best when we celebrate singly in the presence of other people. Or so we claim. But I would like to suggest that we are at our fullest selves as acting in persona Christi capitis, when we celebrate together with our brother priests and religious, not only in the presence, but also together with the people we journey with. Melody is just idea floating in the mind’s ear. Melody can exist of itself even without being heard. Melody can remain as such even when it is not hummed. But a song is never a song until it is sung. And when sung, it is a picture and reality of bondedness, of oneness, of collaboration and cooperation. Words and tunes coalesce. Poetry and music collaborate. And the end product is a unified object of art and beauty, greater than the sum of its parts, because it has become a distinct and unified whole.

We religious and priests as individuals are a motley lot. Each of us is great in our own right. Each of us is important in our own right. We are each distinct melodies in the symphony of life. But melodies alone, no matter how beautiful, can ever make a symphony. Tunes alone can never make a song.

The Lord, too, has said it long ago. “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (JN 12:24).

I would like to propose that we re-appropriate what we have been doing so often in the course of our communal lives. I propose that we make of our daily exercise of sign, symbol and song – the liturgy – a perfect launching pad of the Challenger Spaceship of our religious and apostolic lives.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


N.B. This is the second part of the series of talks I am posting on installment basis.

History is a very great teacher. Countless times, we have seen how the famous words of Julius Caesar “delenda est Carthago,” was applied with reference to the Church. Despots and princes alike, who hated the Church to the bone, and who have resolved to raze it to the ground, so far, have not managed to do so. Not even bad Popes, sinful Bishops, and unworthy priests as we all are, at least some of the time, over the centuries, have succeeded to destroy the Church. Nay more, when troubled times came her way, when major difficulties and challenges rose to prominence, setting the Church on the brink, as it were, God raised up women and men who rose towering above the challenge, becoming bigger than the problem, bigger than the world, bigger than life itself, and becoming not only beacon, but also bastion of hope, holiness, and solid steadfastness.

At certain times, more than others, wounds may have festered. Trials may have raged on and on, and rocked Peter’s boat to the moorings that people may have wished and prayed those same problems would simply go away. But as trials grew, grace grew all the more. As sin took hold, grace took stronger hold. As human weakness held sway, divine strength became even stronger.

The best example we have is the serious breach in the unity of the Church that took place on account of the Protestant Reformation. It was, to all accounts, an unhappy chapter in the history, not only of the Church, but also of humankind. The Church was tested to the very core – her unity, apostolicity, catholicity, and holiness lay in seeming shambles.

But we all know the rest of the story. That story is still unfolding, still taking place. From the ashes of the reformation came the new springtime of the counter reformation. If my history serves me right, the centerpiece of this reform was the priesthood – the renewed clergy – a reform that caused the institution of the seminary as the venue and font of a vision of a renewed Church.

In this second reflection, I would like to focus on ourselves as the protagonists, recipients, and architects of this ongoing vision. As priests and religious, we are at the forefront of all attempts and efforts at advancing this vision.

Let us look at ourselves. Given the anemic responses of the young people we propose to, given the many sad realities we encounter even right within our own backyards, right within our own religious houses – the lack of unity, the state of broken camaraderie and our propensity to be looking at one another’s faults and failings – and talking about them in backroom discussions, our faith in the holiness of the Church gets jaded somewhat. Given the petty politics that characterize not only our country, but also our Church, our congregation, not excluding the centuries-old mutual distrust and distance between secular and religious clergy, we are not any different from what Rolheiser (2001) suggests as people who look for God, with lighted but shattered lanterns. If it is true, as Rolheiser claims, that “we live lives of quiet agnosticism,” and that “our faith often feels like doubt,” (p. 10) we who are at the vanguard of promoting what the Church stands for, including holiness, might be on shaky ground ourselves.

But I have it on the authority of Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities) that the worst of times may, concurrently also be the best of times. Let me illustrate.

In the aftermath of the many and repeated alleged and substantiated scandals that hogged the headlines from what Fr. Richard John Neuhaus called the “Long Lent of 2002” (2002) that shook the faith of people all over the world, Dickens’ paradoxical statement came out true. Scores of scathing books filled the bookshelves, fueling the hatred for the Church, of people who only needed just a little more prodding to unleash their hatred. But alongside them were scores of brave, sincere, and honest reflections on the sad and undeniable event from both clergy and lay who rose to the occasion by helping countless people go on searching for God despite their shattered lanterns. A cursory glance at the Amazon website would be enough to convince anyone that the great news of redemption precisely is called great because the message is far greater than the reality of a fallen and sinful world – never mind if, here the sinners are precisely those who should be delivering the good news. One thinks especially of individuals, quiet and discrete professionals who should know more than anybody else the full extent of those dark days when all that people could hold on to were shattered lanterns.

Among the names that stand out is Stephen Rosetti, a priest psychiatrist who, in the words of Louis Cameli, “shifts the focus of considering today’s priesthood from problems to possibilities” referring to the former’s book “The Joy of Priesthood.” (2005) But rising higher than anyone was the solid and steadfast stalwart of priestly fidelity and holiness transcending immense challenges that we all saw in the person of Pope Wojtyla, John Paul II of happy memory. Who of us can ever forget that final wave of a blessing that was the only thing he could manage in one of his final days on earth, despite the pain brought about by his illness? Who of us can really honestly deny to ourselves and to others the great love he had for the Church and the world, and the great solicitude he showed for priests and religious? Judging by what he wrote on us priests, by what he taught about us religious, especially three monumental documents “Pastores Dabo Vobis,” “Vita Consecrata,” and “Starting Afresh from Christ,” we cannot but see just how valuable we are to him, to the Church, and ultimately, to God.

He was a man who had a ring-side view and personal knowledge of the life and struggles of priests all over the world. He, more than any other, knew by dint of personal experience, how pain and suffering of whatever kind, can either make or break anyone, depending on the eyeglasses that one wears to look at them, depending on the prism that filters the difficult reality.

All I intend to do in this second reflection is to suggest and offer a filter that we all know about – but which we all too easily forget when the going gets rough. Those of us who are, or have been, in leadership know that apart from neurotic (or self-inflicted) pain, leaders and superiors do have more than their fair share at times of what is known as existential pain. Although I am loathe personally to refer to superiors as being up there on the cross like Christ, there is some ring of truth to it. Chances are, they would tend to suffer a little more on occasion, even as they can make their subjects also suffer needlessly on account of their actuations and unwise decisions.

After 24 years as a priest, I can personally assure you, I have seen suffering from both sides of the fence, and for one who is a pastoral counselor himself, I know that a great deal of them cannot be attributable to neurotic pain. I have reached rock bottom in many ways. At the height of my pain, which I report partly in an article I wrote in Lantayan (2004) journal last year, I was not only walking around with a shattered lantern. Everything I saw was shattered and appeared like ugly protruding shards: broken dreams, broken trusts, broken relationships, broken friendships, etc.

We all have our own personal stories of brokenness. But the worst form of such brokenness, we must admit, is that which we inflict on Christ and His Body, the Church by our sinfulness. To be honest to ourselves, weren’t we treading on uncertain ground every time news of other fellow priests whose dirty linens were suddenly exposed by the prying and ever-present media? Weren’t we just a tad more curious about the juicy details and, under the guise of disgust and subtle disdain for the poor priest or fellow religious, we were really inwardly trembling that “there but for the grace of God, go I?” We could possibly be even as guilty as hell of a similar infraction or impropriety, or – in our self-mitigating language – some of us would now refer to as inappropriate behavior?

Yes … If we are to be honest to ourselves, we would just as readily admit to the pain we cause God and His Church, as to the pain others inflict on us.

But the pain that we admit to as caused by us to others, otherwise known as sin, is the same pain that is redeemed. It is the weakness that makes Christ’s strength comes out supreme. It is the brokenness that is mended by grace, that attracts the compassion of the Savior, that merited his suffering and death on the cross.

That brokenness admitted to, that pain accepted as inflicted by ourselves, that admission and confession of our weakness is what conversion is all about. It is that which we would like to set out on. It begins now. The journey is as difficult as can be. I always love to describe the process of salvation in terms of what early Christians love to think of themselves – as people on a journey, as wayfarers. They are pilgrims - people out traversing per agrum – through the rough, uncharted terrains of life on earth. But the end goal is the holy, the sublime, the divine – the sacrum!

Per agrum ad sacrum! This is what we as priests and religious need to rediscover and reappropriate right now. We need to get back to basics. We need to get right back to certain unpopular concepts … like asceticism, conversion, self-denial, and good, old, sequela Christi.

Our journey is a learning game. We can only grow in proportion to our gain in insight. And this learning takes us beyond. It is learning that transcends, that rises above so many earthly realities, not excluding pain. But above all, it transcends sinfulness – our own first of all, and that of others. Either or, it means forgiveness from God and for others.

As a therapist, one of the more common causes as far as I can tell of so much intrapersonal issues is the inability to forgive. No, I am not talking of the spats we have with each other and the way we armor ourselves in our almost daily experiences of disagreements. I am referring to a deep inability to come to terms with our past, our childhood experiences. Most of the times, the more difficult phase of the process is not really to be forgiving to an authority figure in the past. The more difficult phase is to even accept that a mother or father whom one has idealized so much in the past is the very person who needs to be forgiven, who needs to be released from the bonds of unacknowledged anger and resentment.

All it takes for the process to begin is to accept that one has been wounded in some way. All it takes is for one to name and claim the hurt, so that one could go on towards taming it, lest it lives on and on in the form of blame.

We all could learn a lesson from toddlers and small children. What you see is what you get. Children have not yet learned to be phonies and fakes. When they are sad, all of them is sad. When they are happy, all of them, too, is happy. No pretenses … no put-ons … no facades. But alas, as we grew older, we learned the vices of adults … adults who showed a poker face even when they are seething inside. We adults are experts at repressing, at pushing things down. We put on a role. And in the process, we lose soul. We lose integrity. We lose that hidden wholeness which was ours by birthright. As Palmer puts it:

We deal with the threat by developing a child’s version of the divided life, commuting daily between the public world of role and the hidden world of soul ... As we become more obsessed with succeeding or at least surviving in that world, we lose touch with our souls and disappear into our roles. The child with a harmless after-school secret becomes the masked and armored adult – at considerable cost to self, to others, and to the world at large. (p.15)

Monday, July 9, 2007

1. LIVING BY FAITH, NOT BY SIGHT: Learning to Grow Like Lilies in a Sea of Corruption

N.B. I am posting the first in the series of talks given to a group of religious priests and brothers during their Spiritual Retreat:

When George Bernanos’ (1937) classic “The Diary of a Country Priest” came out of the French press in the 1930s, with its disarming presentation in prose of “the very simple trivial secrets of a very ordinary kind of life,” those who were “called to serve God” enjoyed a social stature and esteem that can be termed no less than phenomenal. Serving God in the priesthood and apostolic religious life was held high in the estimation of women and men all over the world. If we are to judge by how American popular media even up to three decades later presented the genteel image of the local priest, vocation to the priesthood and religious life was at an all-time high, and anyone could only conjure up positive feelings when the image of the priesthood and religious life came into mind.

We do not have to belabor the obvious in our times. Being in the same line of battle as I am as a priest and religious, you all know that those mainly positive and sympathetic feelings which used to be attached to our person, to our work, and to our roles have all waned and faded to a considerable extent.

Just look at how hard it is to push our usual product – the fostering of more and worthy vocations to religious life and the priesthood – despite the oftentimes “hard sell” and intensive “sales pitch” that we all make. Our invitation, our call, our subtle and not-so-subtle invitations, oftentimes fall on unenthusiastic ears, more attuned to the ubiquitous cell phone beeps and tones, than to our at times pathetic preaching, rousing, and calling.

Tough times are ahead of us. Rough sailing is what we all are exposed to in our times.

Whilst our secular counterparts in the local Philippine Church can boast of overflowing seminaries and inadequate facilities and funds, we religious are left scraping and scrounging for what is left at the bottom of the barrel of the great field of harvest, but with so few laborers to haul and gather it in.

A double whammy has hit us, and still hits us with full force … the perceived loss of priestly identity in a changing and confusing postmodern world, and the lackluster valuation attached to religious life, in a church that looks at lay people as occupying the central place both in theory and in practice, in theology and in pastoral praxis.

When Bernanos’ great classic came out of press, the priest, not the lay people, was at the centerpiece of Christian life, or at least that was what was perceived by a theologically-challenged society. Everything revolved around Monsieur le Cure. He was the local counselor. He, too, was the resident expert in a whole lot of issues, mundane or spiritual. He was healer of spirit – and many times, of body, too. He was wonder-worker. He was the local school headmaster. As prime sacramental minister, he “said Masses” for others in mumbled words that only he could presumably understand. He had a direct line to God, and he was at his best while presiding at a liturgy that only he knew best, only he was an expert of, and only he could do rightly according to prescribed lines written in red – the rubrics. The priest, the local religious brother, or sister, every one who “served God” in a most visible way, dressed as everyone was in a very distinctive and visible manner, was among the ranks of the collective wonder-workers equivalent to the OT wonder-workers like Moses, Aaron, the judges, and the prophets.

Life was simple. Society was neatly divided into a clearly defined hierarchy of leaders and followers, preachers and hearers, the ordained and the non-ordained, clergy and laity – and there was not much anyone could do to upset such a divinely ordained arrangement.

But alas, the aggiornamento brought about by Vatican II, which everybody bandied about as a weapon, but which in reality was poorly digested and insufficiently internalized, let alone, understood, shook this seemingly unshakeable set-up to its foundations. The results? … a rapidly eroding sense of identity of priests, and, with the emphasis on a lay-centered Church, a corresponding loss of identity of the religious brother, or sister.

This is what happened in the international scene. But on the local front, there are other factors that seem to have factored in. Take the two-tiered culture that social scientists now love to talk about when referring to what James Fallows (1987) derisively called the “damaged culture” that is the Philippines. I refer to the two contrasting cultures that our people belong to: the dominant culture, and the popular culture (cf. Ramirez). The dominant culture is represented by a tiny percentage of our society. These are the ones who, like us, are conversant in English, who managed to get a relatively higher education, and who rule the political and economic roost in the country. But underneath this dominant culture – effectively foreign educated – is that which is represented by the greater majority of our people – the popular culture, populated by the teeming poor, the hoi polloi, those who only speak regularly and who communicate in the vernacular, or in popular Taglish, who hold no real power in society, who are usually victims of political manipulation, who, ironically, make the warring two giant TV networks rich, who make Globe, Smart, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever go laughing their way to the banks, what with their shampoo sachets, phone cards, cell cards, and really expensive products pushed in “affordable” little pouches that give them temporary status and prestige without pinching their pockets too much.

Rising above the din of the two contrasting culture is the overriding culture of insecurity. This is the culture of insecurity that explains why religious life has lost its drawing power. When there is no security in Pre-Need plans, when there is no security in terms of government welfare, when there is no material security in banks and financial institutions, the only security left is a brother, a sister, an aunt, an uncle, a mother or a father who is strong and gutsy enough to go abroad, to risk life and limb eking out a living, and possibly sending his or her children to school, rather than being together at home looking at an empty ceiling.

In such a complex situation, whilst priesthood as a vocation has not lost its luster and drawing power, religious life with its traditional symbols revolving around giving up, sacrificing, and renouncing, may have taken a beating. In a country where far too many people have already, or still are giving up so many dreams and possibilities for sheer lack of opportunity, in a society where far too many are really living daily in so many types and forms of deprivations, caught as we all are in this pervasive culture of insecurity, religious life and the way it is presented, may find it very hard to attract eager and willing new adherents.

My job in this opening reflection is to invite you to transcend what sounds like a sour and dour prognostication from a fellow religious and a brother priest. This, I would like to do in the next nine remaining reflections that are coming your way. This morning, I start with the basic foundation that is a conditio sine qua non of our ability to keep our sense of balance, and maintain a sense of trust and faith in the validity and symbolic robustness of the identity, role, and image of the priesthood in the context of religious life, and religious life in general.

I refer not so much to a theology. Whilst I firmly believe that what you see is what you get, what you comprehend is what you also love, I also believe that merely drumming up a high-falutin theology beyond what you already know, what you already cherish and hold on to, won’t clinch the issue. I suggest that what we need most is a spirituality, a spirituality of transcendence, a basic openness and a stance of trust for a God who calls us to growth, a God who beckons us to follow the course of nature that is ever on the march, ever on the rise, ever on the process of rising above one’s weaknesses, one’s sinfulness, one’s limitations.

Parker Palmer(2004) describes vividly what this raging culture in terms of the image of a blizzard. The blizzard, he says, can make us lose our bearings, our sense of direction, and can send us adrift in a sea of white snow, hopelessly lost in our own backyard. The blizzard refers to “economic injustice, ecological ruin, physical and spiritual violence, and their inevitable outcome, war.” (p. 1) He quotes Merton, who wrote: “there is in all things … a hidden wholeness,” although Palmer says that often it sounds more like wishful thinking. Apropos wholeness, Palmer writes: “wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness – mine, yours, ours – need not be a utopian dream, if we can use devastation as a seedbed for new life.”(p. 5) He quotes the poet Rumi, who said: “If you are here unfaithfully with us, you’re causing terrible damage.”

He counsels us to live whole lives. “The divided life, at bottom, is not a failure of ethics. It is a failure of human wholeness. Doctors who are dismissive of patients, politicians who lie to voters, executives who cheat retirees out of their savings, clerics who rob children of their well-being – these people, for the most part, do not lack ethical knowledge or convictions … But they have a well-rehearsed habit of holding their own knowledge and beliefs at great remove from the living of their lives.” (p. 7)

In a state of national insecurity that we Filipinos are in, it is so hard to live united lives with each other. It is a perpetual challenge to be whole and entire for the causes that we choose to espouse, for the congregation we decided to be part of. The poet Rumi, as quoted by Palmer, has a mouthful to say to us at this juncture: “If you are here unfaithfully with us, you are causing terrible damage.” (p. 7)

I suggest that what we need is to trust ourselves and our confreres, and our Church enough to be able to claim our right to grow beyond the sea of corruption, to become holy beyond our sinfulness, to celebrate beyond our discouragement, to grow beyond our weakness, to serve beyond the need for affirmation and recognition, to pray beyond our suffering, to be tender-hearted beyond our cynicism, to become men of communion beyond our social fragmentation, to become joyful beyond our loneliness, and claim our ability to walk on water like Jesus did once beyond our fears.

If you notice, I capitalize a whole lot on the key word “beyond.” This summarizes my call to transcendence. Where the world invites us to be covered over, overwhelmed, and inundated by the so-many pressing concerns and problems of our society in the country and in the world, I would like to invite you to get to a level that gives us proper perspective. They say distance lends enchantment to a view. I say more … To go up higher, to rise above the din of so many conflicting and contrasting values and needs that hem us in from all sides, is to gain perspective. And perspective does not just lend enchantment. It gives one a fresh way of looking at things. It offers one a vantage point from which to see the bigger picture. And where one sees the bigger picture, there is a greater possibility of seeing the whole, the totality – the holy as God sees it. For God can – and does – write even with crooked lines.

The world that we live in now is patently inimical to our values. Droves do not come banging at our doors asking to enter the fraternity of men who espouse values different from a culture of insecurity that our country and people are enmeshed in. Priesthood in religious life, and religious life plain and simple, do not anymore attract the fancy of readers that once avidly read Bernanos and his honest, simple, and disarming account of his life as a country priest. Praised be to God, he and countless others who lived before and after him found holiness and fulfillment in the priesthood, and so did countless others in religious life.

That same holiness is never subject to the changing circumstances of time and place, never mind, if that very set of circumstances is favorable or otherwise. God and his invitation do not become obsolete simply because people have decided they are obsolete.

And holiness, being God’s work first and foremost, grows even in the most unexpected places. Like the lily, it grows surrounded by the dirtiest and blackest of waters. Priesthood and religious life are similar to the lily. They are called to – and can indeed – grow while surrounded by a sea of corruption and sin. At bottom this is what our priesthood and religious life all boils down to. As Michael Heher (2004) puts it so nicely, “we priests are not hopeless, at least not yet. We have plenty of resources, human and graced. And we have all committed ourselves to live by faith, not by sight…”

Monday, July 2, 2007




Life, in general, is never a clearly defined, mono-polar reality that can be neatly described in one-sided and absolutist terms. Like all of reality, it is seldom, if ever, an “either/or” but a “both/and” experience. Priestly life, in all its natural and supernatural richness, and religious life, in all its multi-faceted nature, both share in this bi-polar, and at the same time, unitary nature of all reality in this world.

This paradoxical, multi-faceted nature of reality is partly what this series of reflections on the priesthood and religious life is all about. Given the breadth and the depth of their essentially mysterious nature that one can only hope to approximate, situated as priesthood and religious life are in a world that daily grapples with ever increasing complexity that can never be fully encapsulated in neat and categorical statements, these reflections are an attempt – my own, first of all, as a priest and religious myself – to articulate my own - without doubt, feeble and sorely deficient and partial – understanding of the mystery that both states of life are for me and for other priests and religious like me.

These reflections were born out of necessity. Although I have been lecturing on Moral Theology for at least 14 years now, the theology of the priesthood and religious life has never been my special focus and interest all through this time. An invitation, accepted willingly, I must say, from a religious congregation of men, sort of forced me to do this series of reflections, for which as the reader can easily see, I have liberally sought inspiration from luminaries and persons whose brilliance of mind and spirit, I can only hope to emulate.

All reflections, except the eleventh and the last, follow the same format. Two seemingly irreconcilable poles are presented by every title. In all sub-titles, I suggest a possible resolution and integration of both poles. In all reflections, I have been guided by the multi-faceted nature of all reality I have just referred to, priesthood and religious life included. I refer to a series of tensions that priesthood and religious life are faced with. In this regard, Tillich, as explained by Cozzens, is my model and mentor. Sermons, he reportedly once wrote, “first need to address the ambiguity, pain, and privilege of the human condition.”

In the first ten reflections, what I modestly propose to my readers is essentially a glimpse of some of what, at least for me, are salient elements of the existential human and earthly condition faced by the priest and religious in our days, more precisely, the “ambiguities” and the “pains.” But I also would like to refer to the endless possibility, or “privilege” born of grace from above, that is inherent to this mysterious supernatural call and gift from God that priestly and religious vocation is, that makes it possible for weak men that all priests and religious are, of becoming what the Lord, in His wisdom and mercy, has originally intended them to be.

In the following pages, therefore, my modest aim is to offer, with a great deal of help from other more capable authors and theologians, my own contribution towards helping myself and others to find meaning in our priesthood and religious life, situated though it is (like it always had been), in a world of tension, of polarities, of ambiguities, and of pains.

But I would like also, in the same vein, to claim the privilege and the promise attached to that capacity for meaning-making that is the hallmark of our unworthy participation in the priesthood, prophethood, and kingship of Christ.

Thus, in the last reflection, I lay claim to that gift of hope that comes with faith in the power of the Spirit, who, ultimately, enables us priests and religious to face the darkness both in the present and the future with that same love and courage shown by no less than Christ, the one, true, High Priest. I make a plea to my brother priests and fellow religious, to go on believing and belonging, and to allow our priestly and religious life to become at one and the same time, a journey and a message of hope for all.