Church eye-opener

Philippine Daily Inquirer

Our mother Church has been deeply wounded by the controversies in the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office that have erupted in the past two weeks…. There is no doubt that everywhere in the Church there is great sorrow. We your pastors are one with you. As shepherds struggling to love you like Jesus the Good Shepherd, we are sorry for the pain and sadness that these events have brought upon you.” Thus the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines apologized and expressed in a pastoral letter signed July 11 by its president, Bishop Nereo P. Odchimar, its “deep sorrow for the pain that the recent events have brought to you our beloved people.” The letter, to be sure, was issued in the context of the “surprising” revelations that at least seven bishops solicited and received from the PCSO expensive, luxurious Mitsubishi Pajeros – the logical insinuation of which was that these were for their personal use.

It turned out in the Senate hearing held a day or two after the letter’s issuance that the vehicles, though indeed bought with funds coming from the PCSO, were not Pajeros and, according to the bishops, were in fact used in conjunction with their dioceses’ various social action projects.

Unfortunately, lost in the Senate hearing may have been the most surprising, albeit very subtle, of all revelations: quite a number of Catholic dioceses and parishes, on their own, do not have the resources to effectively carry out their charities to the remote and, often, the poorest and most neglected villages in their sphere of service, thus the need to ask for external assistance.

In a sense, the “Pajero 7” controversy should be an eye-opener to both the Catholic hierarchy and the faithful. The poor dioceses do shock in a country that is virtually universally Catholic. In 2009, there were at least 91.8 million Filipinos and of that number, at least 63.06 million were Catholic. The Catholic Church in the Philippines is in a way a kingdom by itself, and every weekend sees millions of pesos flow into its coffers as offerings. But while churches in the other Christian denominations are taken care of and watched over by their mother churches and fellowships, Catholic dioceses and their leaders share no such bounty. In Catholic Philippines, the guiding principle is still generally “to each his own,” meaning, poor dioceses and parishes practically have to fend for themselves.

The Catholic Church “has more than sufficient resources to finance its charitable work without competing with countless indigent patients and legitimate charity beneficiaries,” Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman noted. Indeed, there are dioceses and parishes that are overflowing with donations and contributions, more than enough to keep the Catholic Church in the Philippines, as a whole, affluent. Yet there are impoverished dioceses where the clergy are practically “forced” to beg for scraps, never mind if the scraps come from the table of the politically powerful.

The example of Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz, who said he was offered money from politicians twice, which he refused both times, is not only the ideal for a Church whose bedrock is its Christian, moral teachings; it is an imperative if the Church must insulate itself from politics and partisanship. This should now be more obvious to the bishops – after this recent controversy.

In fact, in the same pastoral letter, the CBCP also assured the Catholic faithful that it will “reexamine the manner of our collaboration with government agencies for purposes of helping the poor, making sure that pastoral sensibilities are respected and the highest ethical standards are observed. We shall examine our values in the light of our vocation to be disciples of Jesus Christ.”

If the Church must follow through on this pledge and its leaders must lead themselves away from temptation, it is high time that it spread its wealth equally among its 85 ecclesiastical territories and 2,762 parishes in the country. Only thus can the Catholic Church in the Philippines truly become a kingdom of faith for the people, assuredly free from the influence of materialistic politics.

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