Sacerdos in Aeternum (a priest forever) | Fr. Rommel M. Arcilla:


(Note: The following article is a transcription of the late Mons. +Jose B. Molina’s response to the speech of The late Most Rev. Archbishop Leonardo Z. Legaspi, O.P., D.D during the First Bikol  Priests Congress. I was just a theology seminarian then. This is one of his (Mons. Ping’s) speeches that immortalized his memory in my heart. Requiescat in Pace Mons. Ping!)


(A Reaction to the Speech of the Most Rev. Leonardo Z. Legaspi, O.P., D.D.)

Rev. Msgr. Jose B. Molina, P. A., V.G.


After that inspiring and almost passionate talk, what is needed is not a reaction but a response.


I hate to do this, but I have no choice but to start my response on an apologetic note, just like Msgr. Joe Rojas. I wish I had had the time and opportunity to write down my response. Doing justice to the talk requires no less for, as we all know, the Archbishop’s is the defining talk of this congress. However, and without blaming anyone, I got a copy of the talk only last Monday when I registered, so I am forced to respond thinking on my feet, which is a dangerous thing to do because thinking on one’s feet is not far removed from thinking with one’s feet.


The premise of the Archbishop’s talk, namely, that the identity and role of the Bikolano priest of the future that will have to be seen in the context of the Bikol Church of the future, is very well made. It was very helpful that he dedicated the first major part of his talk to giving a profile of the Church of the future. And when I was reading this portion of the talk, my reaction was one of excitement. I was excited to see how the Archbishop, who is considered a theological giant honed by pastoral exposure and experience, would concretely apply the insights of a great Dominican theologian and confrere and the vision of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines to the Bikol Church. But then the good Archbishop stopped short of this. Having given us a general profile of the Church of the future, he refused to do the dirty work of concretizing it in the Bicol context, and instead threw the work squarely into our lap. When I realized this, I said to myself, “daya”. But on second thought, I saw the wisdom of the Archbishop’s decision. He was practicing precisely what the Church leader today and in the future should practice. He would not do the thinking for his priests and his people; he would allow those under him to think for themselves. He would let them participate, collaborate. The collegial approach, the presbyteral approach: this is what he wanted, and we must thank him for it.


So I have the impression that the Archbishop purposely gave us only one-half of his talk. Hence, my reaction to his talk will take the form of an attempt to give the other half, that is, of taking up his challenge to this congress to try to concretize in the Bikol context what he presented in general terms, which is really a task of this congress.


I have jotted down four major points of the talk to which I wish to react. There is another major point, which he entitled “Bishops in Dialogue,” but that is an area where even angels fear to tread.


  1. The first major point has to do with the vision of the Church of the future as a Church of the Poor. We cannot escape the challenge anymore. As the Archbishop, echoing Yves Congar, puts it, the Church of the future in the Philippines, and therefore in Bikolandia, will have to be a Church “that has special love for the poor.” My question is: should it be merely a church that has special love for the poor, or should it be a poor Church that has a special love for the poor? And consequently, is the Bikol clergy called to become merely a clergy that has a special love for the poor, or a poor clergy that has a special love for the poor? In other words, how do we incarnate poverty in the Bikol Church of the future? Is poverty on the part of the clergy an essential requirement of the Church of the Poor called to become a Community of Disciples? Is poverty a conditio sine qua non of discipleship?


  1. This brings us to the second major point of the talk: the Church of the future as a Community of Disciples. My question is: can we become a Community of Disciples without becoming a poor Church? The classic gospel instance of the call to discipleship is the story of the rich young man. Jesus told him, “Go sell everything you have and give to the poor; then come, follow me.” Does this mean that becoming poor is a conditio sine qua non for discipleship? Note that Jesus did not ask the young man to become poor in spirit only: “Go, sell everything and give to the poor.” You cannot sell everything and give to the poor and still be poor in spirit only. You will become literally poor. So the question we face is: what place shall we give to poverty in the life and ministry of the future Bikolano priest?


And when we talk of poverty in the life of the Church and of the priest, we cannot help but draw in the idea of the Cross. Poverty is a necessary form of the Cross. We have to ask, then, what place will we give to the Cross in our life and ministry? It has crossed my mind just now that we are all honestly trying our best to be effective in our ministry. So, we have all kinds of programs to enhance our pastoral knowledge and skills. We want to learn management by objectives, to work according to well-defined pastoral plans, to know all sorts of technique which are all very good and even necessary. But in the last analysis, where does our strength and power really come from? If we are to follow St. Paul, we will have to say that the sole source, not only the main source I would say, of our power and strength as ministers of the Gospel is the Cross. The question then is: when people look at us, the Bikolano clergy, do they perceive us as men marked by the cross? We can expand this and return to a point mentioned yesterday by Bishop Varela, namely, that the Bikolano priest is not reputed to be rich. That may be so, but I think we will all agree that our people do not perceive us to be poor. That being so, and if poverty is an essential requirement for the success of our ministry, I wonder how effective we will be.


Still on the point of becoming a Community of Disciples, how will this take place? If we are to become a Community of Disciples, we have to consider seriously the place and role of the laity, the empowerment of the laity, as the Archbishop rightly pointed out following Cardinal Congar. But just what do we mean by empow of the laity? Does it mean giving them greater roles, more responsibilities in the Church? If that is what we mean, then we have not actually let go of the framework of the Church as institution, which, as the Archbishop has correctly pointed out, has to be de-emphasized in favor of the concept of Church as communio. When we think of roles and responsibilities in the Church, we are still thinking, I believe, in terms of the Church as institution. So, just what do we mean by the empowerment of the laity? We need to ask the question seriously and come to an accurate answer.


For a starter, I wish contribute this idea: Empowering the laity means enabling them to accomplish the mission that properly belongs to them. PCP-II reminds us that this mission is in the world, in the socio- economic-cultural milieu. And there, their mission is to be the light, the salt, the leaven. But how do they become light, salt, and leaven? What is required for them to be able to enlighten, to salten, to leaven the world? Let me put it in another way. The laity are placed in the world to contribute to the transformation of that world, in our case in the Philippines, to establish a society based on justice. Let us remember, however, that it is not only Christians who can play that role. But Christians have a unique and distinctive role to play, a unique and distinctive contribution to make. Let us add, moreover, that the uniqueness and distinctiveness of their contribution will determine the validity and relevance of that contribution. Unless that contribution is unique, it will not be a real contribution. Christians as Christians will not be needed in the transformation of society unless they can offer a unique contribution, a contribution that only Christians, that only the Christian laity can give. Now, where does the uniqueness of this Christian contribution come from? Here I venture to say that it comes from faith, the Christian faith. The government does not work out of faith, the other NGO’s are not there out of Christian faith. It is only the Christians who are there out of their faith. So, a crucial question arises: how is the faith, the Christian faith, of our lay people? When our people enter the world arena, do they bring into it their Christian faith? In the first place, do they have the faith, the authentic Christian faith?


To answer this crucial question, I would like to suggest that we make use of two interrelated concepts that I feel are very helpful in evaluating the state or quality of our people’s faith. I have in mind the conepts of natural religiosity on the one hand, and (authentic Christian) faith, on the other. There is an observation that our people do not have christian faith; what they have is mere natural religiosity (dressed in Christian externals). The main characteristic of natural religiosity is avoidance of and flight from the Cross; the main characteristic of authentic Christian faith, on the contrary, is the embracing of the Cross. It is hard to deny that in their religious life the majority of our people are motivated by the avoidance of the Cross. How shall we explain, for example, the popularity and attraction of El Shaddai for our people? It is clear. You take out your wallet, empty it, and God will fill it — and you are freed from the cross of poverty. You want to go to Saudi Arabia but you can’t get a visa–call upon El Shaddai and the next day you have your visa, and you are saved from a heavy cross. Is it not true that the majority of our people try to be religious and to be a regular church-goers so that God look kindly upon them and take away their many crosses? This, it is said, is natural religiosity. I do not remember now the source, but I have come upon a study that says that 85% of our people do not go regularly to the sacraments–they are desacramentalized. Only 15% go regularly to the sacraments, are sacramentalized. But not all of this 15% can be called truly evangelized, possessing mature Christian faith. Only 1.5% are not merely sacramentalized but truly evangelized. We have to face the fact that the majority of our people are still in an infantile stage of Christianity. I prefer the term “natural religiosity” to describe this stage.


Thus, the greatest need of our people as far as their faith life is concerned, is to move from the stage of mere natural religiosity to a mature Christian faith. In other words, empowering the Bikolano laity will mean for the Bikolano clergy today and in the future leading their people away from the land of Egypt that is the natural religiosity to the promised land that is mature, authentic Christian faith.


III. The next major point of the talk has to do with conversion. The Archbishop apologized for giving too much emphasis to conversion. I honestly feel that he had no need to apologize. As a matter of fact, I think he did not give enough emphasis to the theme. However, may I say that we must be very careful and accurate in how we understand conversion, because it is very easy to misunderstand this concept. I remember, hapilly at that, that right after the close of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines, Bishop Teodoro Bacani, who played a major role in the drafting of the acts and decrees of the Council, wrote a kind of a “pahabol” in the PCP-II newsletter. He said that the Council surprisingly did not give enough space to conversion. The reason, I think, was that the Council took it for granted that conversion is indispensable to and indistinguishable from renewal, which was what the Council was all about. But Bishop Bacani had in mind, not the ongoing or continuing conversion, which was written all over the. Council documents, but the initial or basic conversion.


My point in these remarks is that when we talk of conversion, it is usually in terms of ongoing, continual or continuing conversion. But the truth is that we cannot even talk of continuing or ongoing conversion in the Church unless there has been an initial conversion in the first place. The majority of our people, and I include myself here, need first to undergo this initial conversion before we can consider the promotion of ongoing conversion. This initial conversion, as was pointed out in my small group discussion yesterday, can be put this way: you are moving, knowingly or unknowingly, in a direction away from God, and then the grace of God hits you. You stop, you turn around or “pivot,” as it were. (That is why somebody in our group called it “pivotal conversion.”) You pivot and face the opposite direction, and then you start walking in this new direction. The walking in this new direction is the ongoing conversion but the initial, the “pivotal” conversion has to take place first.


Now, this is my question, and please take it in the spirit it is made: do we have programs in our parishes whose main objective is to ensure that our people undergo the initial, the pivotal, the fundamental conversion? If we do not have, if we work for conversion in terms of ongoing conversion, what may happen is this: that we may be helping our people move faster and more determinedly away from Christ because they have not yet made the initial turn- around. (This may also apply in our seminaries. The young men who come to our seminaries must have first made that initial conversion, and if they have not, should it not be the task of the seminary to ensure that the initial conversion has taken place before it takes on the task of ongoing, continuing formation?)


  1. Now to the last part, the second major part of the Archbishop’s talk: on the personal life of the priest. I was touch when the Archbishop started talking of the personal life of the priest of the future. In a rapidly changing world, he said, the priest is bound to feel lost, lonely and confused. How true. Let me just point out another side to the situation of the priest in a rapidly changing world. He is not only confused; his feeling is one of being not needed anymore. In this rapidly changing, scientific, technological world, the priest is starting to feel that the services he used to give to the people and for which the people needed him and because of which he played a central role in the life of the people– those services have been taken away from him by the practitioners of the various secular professions. Many of the things that only the priest could do in the past are now better done, and more competently done, by the doctor, the psychiatrist, the social worker, etc. It seems that this technological world is telling the priest, “We do not need you anymore. All we need is competence, and we have it.” So where does the priest find himself in that kind of world? In the margins, he is marginalized, he feels un-needed, and so he loses his self -esteem and self-confidence. What happens next? He falls into the temptation to re-acquire the centrality of his role in the life of the people, to be wanted and neede again, to have an impact once again on the life of society equal to the impact of those whom the Archbishop calls the architects of the modern world.


What is the nature of this temptation? Father Henri Nouwen gave a talk, later made into a book, addressing precisely the issue of the role, the form of leadership of the priest of the future, of the 21st century. He says that the strongest temptation of the priest today and in the future is the temptation to “relevance.” Has the modernizing world makes the priest more marginal and irrelevant, the priest will in turn strive to re-acquire his impact-ful role in society, to be “relevant” again. So, wanting to make a difference in the life of the people, he will start to acquire skills in the various sciences and areas of human endeavor. Thus, he becomes a hyphenated priest: a priest-jourtnalist, priest-doctor, priest-psychiatrist, priest-politician, because this is how he can hope to make a difference among his people. The temptation to relevance.


But then, Fr Nouwen says that giving in to this temptation will not solve the problem, either for the priest or for the people. He says that when Jesus subjected Simon Peter to a final qualifying examination for the shepherding of his flock, Jesus did not ask Simon Peter if he knew group dynamics. He did ask Peter if he knew vision-making, or if he familiar with the Gantt chart, or how many languages he could speak, or what was his specialization in theology. Happily, he did not even ask Peter if he had ever betrayed a friend in the past. He did not even ask Peter, “how do you feel when you hear a cock crow ?” Nothing of that. He ask, as Cardinal Vidal reminded us yesterday, just one question, but a question that he asked thrice, and with greater insistence each time. And the question was, “Simon, son of John, do you love me? Do you love me more than these?”


Nouwen says the priest is threatened by the increasing efficiency and success of the modern world, and he wants to join in, to be part of that efficient and successful world. But Nouwen cautions that behind this apparent efficiency and success is a world of despair. And you can have an idea of the situation of that world by looking at its children. How do the children of that world look? It was TIME magazine I think that described the children of that world in these terms: this modern, efficient and successful world is peopled by 12-year-olds who get pregnant, 17- year-olds who contract HIV, 18-year-olds who have had two or three abortions, 30-year-olds with two broken marriages behind them, and 70- year-olds who ask for assistance in killing themselves. In other words, people who feel rejected by the very architects of this efficient and successful world. People crying out, according to Fr Nouwen: “Is there anybody out there who cares? Is there anybody out there who has time for me ? Is there anybody out there who loves me?” And Nouwen says, the technical, efficient and successful architects of this world cannot hear that cry–they are too busy architecting an efficient and successful world. There is only one who can hear and answer healingly that anguished cry– the servant/shepherd who can answer Jesus truthfully, “Yes,Lord,you know that I love you.”


Thank you.

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