[NOTE: I realized only now that ten years ago I personally interviewed in Quiapo Church Monsignor Josefino Ramirez – the prelate who has been controversially linked to businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles. It was my hubby Alan who wrote out this story for Christmas of 2004 on why tragedy strengthens the Filipino’s faith in God. This could also help explain the record crowd at Thursday’s Feast of the Black Nazarene.
The year 2004 was not much different from 2013 last year in terms of adversity. In May 2004, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo won in a heavily tainted election. Filipino truck driver Angelo de la Cruz was abducted in Iraq in July. A typhoon devastated General Nakar town in Quezon and four other towns on November 30. And Arroyo’s presidential rival Fernando Poe Jr died unexpectedly on the 14th of December.
I’d like to share with you Alan’s story in South China Morning Post, which resonates to this day.]
This Christmas closes a year of tragedy for the Philippines. But even after typhoons, earthquakes and floods, the population’s faith remains unshaken, writes Alan Robles
Typhoons, landslides and earthquakes; political instability, massive corruption and economic crisis. The tragedies and misfortunes that crowded the Philippines this year would be enough to shake anyone’s faith in God. Anyone other than the Filipinos, that is.
In Asia’s only majority Catholic country, adversity and suffering drive believers closer to their church, rather than away from it.
According to Monsignor Josefino Ramirez, the 58-year old vicar-general of the archdiocese of Manila, the more difficult the times, the more Filipinos seek solace in church.
‘God is our last resort, everything is in his hands,’ he said. ‘Many of us believe these trials are not ends in themselves, they are just there to strengthen and unite us.’
This was evident in the aftermath of the recent devastating typhoons, when scores of Filipinos – many working through church organizations – turned out to volunteer their services or donate food and clothing, and raise money to help the disaster victims.
‘The Filipino Catholic is aware of life’s hardships; it’s part of Catholic indoctrination,’ said Ed Tirona, 60, a retired businessman who’s involved in church work and is a member of the Council of Laity of the Philippines.
He said that although Catholics accept suffering as part of life, they are far from being apathetic.
‘There’s a growing belief that faith not acted on is nothing’ and as a result, ‘more and more Christians, particularly Catholics, have organized themselves for interventions in social issues like homelessness, environmental degradation and justice’, he said.
Catholicism arrived in the Philippines more than 400 years ago as an accomplice to colonial conquest. The Spaniards forcibly converted the inhabitants of the islands and in each town made the church the literal and figurative center of existence. Friars, who for centuries enforced blind adherence to Catholic dogma while abusing their powers, became symbols of oppression and ignorance.
Still, the colonial experience produced a Christianity that runs deep. According to columnist Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, ‘we internalised Christianity itself so well, forgetting it was the hated Spanish friars who brought it’.
Mr Tirona said the reason Filipinos are such ardent Catholics lies in tradition. ‘It’s the religion we’ve inherited – and we don’t seem to have had any conflict with it,’ he said.
At its core, Catholicism in the Philippines seems to have always been both personal and transactional, with the believer making bargains with a God who both blesses and punishes. Mr Tirona said that while a Filipino Catholic ‘runs to the church or goes into deep prayer when things seem out of his control, at the core of his actions is a deep faith in an Almighty that is both a provider and one who punishes with great retribution.’
Celso Ramos, 48, a former Manila vagrant who now works with Monsignor Ramirez as a leader in an outreach program for homeless people, said he goes to church ‘to ask for God’s mercy – if you have a problem you pray to him and wait for his solution’.
His attitude is summed up by the common Filipino expression, ‘bahala na ang Diyos’ – it’s in God’s hands. Some see this as a sign of apathy, but Mr Tirona doesn’t think so. ‘It’s not apathy – it’s limited options, the absence of a better choice,’ he said. ‘You try your best within the limit of your resources, and in the absence of a better alternative, you leave it to God. This is the Filipino.’
Interestingly enough, while up to 85 per cent of the country’s population of 80 million is baptized Catholic, only a fraction of this number might actually be going to church. A 13-year-old study suggested that only 10 per cent of Filipino Catholics actually attended church regularly. Asked about the missing 90 per cent, Mr Tirona said that ‘if you’re a member of an organization, perhaps what you value is identification with that organization So you just attend the meetings if you feel like it.’
But Monsignor Ramirez said the figures might have changed since the study was conducted. He says that in the minor basilica of Quiapo, where he officiates as the parish priest, ‘we used to have only three masses everyday, now we have 12 to 14’.
He also pointed to a new trend – the holding of masses inside banks, offices and schools. The ethical implication, he said, is that people become aware that their office is a place of sanctification, that they have to be honest there.
Of course, what perplexes Filipinos themselves is why, given this abundance of religiosity, their country continues to rank among the world’s most corrupt. To Mr Tirona, it’s a matter of lack of indoctrination: ‘we lack a well-formed conscience.’ He said this is because the Filipino Catholic needs to develop a deeper insight into the teachings of the church.
Monsignor Ramirez said ‘we are not sincerely practicing our faith’ and in particular singles out the country’s leaders, for not setting an example.
As an institution, the Catholic Church has had rocky relations with successive governments. Entering the 21st century, the Philippines might nominally be a secular state, but it is one where it is impossible to escape the influence of religion. It pervades everyday life, culture and politics: in this year’s presidential elections, not only were Catholic charismatic groups seen as blocs that would deliver votes, the head of one such group actually ran for the presidency himself.
At this level, very little distinguishes the institutional church from any other vested-interest group dabbling in politics. One of the year’s more sordid deals was President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s appointment of the choir master of one Catholic group to head Manila’s light railway system – apparently as a trade-off for votes.
On hot-button issues such as family planning, birth control and sex education, the Catholic hierarchy has hardline, conservative positions – stances which could affect the government’s own development policies.
But at the grass-roots level, the Catholic Church is very active in promoting specific programs, such as poverty alleviation. Monsignor Ramirez, for example, has organized a program to help feed Muslim refugees in his parish. ‘They asked me if I would use the program to convert them,’ he says. ‘I said, ‘No, it’s for everyone who needs food’.’
Perhaps it’s at that level where Filipinos excel as Catholics – in their compassion and willingness to help, not in trying to apply doctrine to the framework of development and politics.
Christianity has become so engrained in the Philippine character that it has become almost a badge of identity. This is the only possible explanation for why Filipinos seem to renew their religious devotions once they settle abroad.
Mr Tirona said: ‘I think when they go abroad they cling to their faith and feel more secure.’ In the process, he said, some of the Filipinos even become evangelizers.
There’s a story of workers who went to a Gulf country and ended up converting the households they worked for to Catholicism. It would seem that while you can take the Filipino out of Catholicism, you can’t take Catholicism out of the Filipino.
Additional interviews by Raissa Robles