The National Catholic Review

With Cardinal Jaime Sin sick and plans in the works to divide the present archdiocese into six smaller dioceses, church affairs in Manila, Philippines, are at a standstill. This provides an opportunity to reflect on what the church should be about once the changes are made.

Will the proposed changes in Manila be good or bad? There is no agreement. At a meeting of priests recently in Quezon City, the consensus seemed to be that the break-up of the archdiocese would be a good thing, since it would bring the bishop decision-makers closer to the parish level. Others fear the break-up will dilute the political power of the church. Instead of one prominent church voice on any issue, there will be six, which probably will not agree. This will give the government an opportunity to play some bishops off against the others. Will it ever be possible for some archbishop of the future to call on the people as Cardinal Sin did in 1986 and 2001 to bring down presidents who had betrayed their office?

Whether there are six dioceses or one, the church in Manila must first answer what it wants its role to be vis-à-vis the poor, who are now at least half the population and destined for even worse times ahead. Experts say the world of free trade will further complicate their problems. What the church does is crucial, since it is the only major institution in Philippine society with the proven power to renew itself and influence change at all levels.

The millions of increasingly poor, hungry and undereducated families in Manila and other cities of Asia are the number one challenge, not only to the church but to all institutions that seek a just and prosperous world. Cities, like countries, cannot exist with half the people or even fewer free and prosperous while the rest are miserably poor, without hope and powerless. Something has to give. It may not end in violent protest. There may only be a relentless crushing of poor people’s spirits, which could be worse.

What is said here about the church and the poor is meant first of all for the Philippines, but it can apply also to other Asian churches. Even the poorest national church is far from being a church of the poor.

At national meetings in 1991 and 2001, the church of the Philippines vowed to become the church of the poor—“to be with and for the poor,” to use the words of Bishop Francisco Claver. Critics from Cardinal Sin on down say it has failed to do so. Part of the reason may be that the phrase “church of the poor” has lost over the last 20 years or so all connection to a concrete time and place. “Church of the poor” and its companion phrase “option for the poor” may be the only survivors of what by today’s standards was the radical language of theologians, popes and bishops in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The phrases now float free of any real context, practice, social science theory or theology. They have the appeal of a vision, though the realization of such an abstract vision seems impossible to anyone who considers it seriously.

There was a time during the years 1960 to 1980 when people believed Philippine society could accept a real church of the poor, that is, a church where the poor had pride of place, and social change was expected to come from the organized movements of the poor. It was in keeping with the national resistance to the tyranny of martial law. But now times are different. At a class with major seminarians last year, I read the 2001 meeting resolution urging all to work to become the church of the poor. It spoke of imitating the poor Christ, taking up his cross and finding him in the suffering poor. When the seminarians were asked if the words spoke to them in any real way, they were honest enough to say the old words no longer meant very much. A church of the poor has a chance when large sectors of the society are struggling for change and social justice. It has little chance in a society committed to the values of the marketplace.

Perhaps times have changed so much that we should drop the rhetoric about a church of the poor and follow some other vision. Maybe, for example, the church here should follow Opus Dei, quite influential in the country, which seeks to influence change from the top. There are few if any poor people among its members, and little talk of the church of the poor in its circle. Religious movements are much more than a strategy for social change, of course. But talking only about that aspect of Opus Dei, it is fair to say that its members expect change to come from the upper classes, with the poor as largely passive beneficiaries rather than the principal cause of change, as in the church of the poor model. Traditionally the church has been more at home with Opus Dei-style theories of change than with the advocates of people’s participation and people’s power.

To consult the poor would seem a logical step, but recent efforts to do this have not been very useful. In a study by the Institute of Philippine Culture, urban poor/squatter communities were asked about their hopes for the church. One of these communities was Baseco, at the mouth of Pasig River. Six thousand families live there, most of them in homes built on stilts over mud and heavily polluted water. Sixty-six percent of the families live below the World Bank poverty income level of one dollar per day per person. The slum is part of the Parish of San Agustin, the oldest parish in the country, which also includes Intramuros, the old walled city with its historic monuments, tourist trade, luxury shops, restaurants and condominiums. The priests visit Baseco on Sunday morning. Most of their time is spent in activities in the old church, which is a favorite site for society weddings and baptisms. In most parishes there is a mix of well-off people and poor people, and priests usually spend their time with the well-off. The church is tied to the upper classes by tradition, lifestyle, education and a dozen other bonds that go back centuries. Few priests have made any serious study of the social and religious problems of the poor, and most share the anti-poor prejudices of the upper classes.

Overall, 82 percent of Baseco people say they are Catholic, but the poorer the family the less likely it will identify with the church. Among the very poorest people of Baseco, only 50 percent do so. This is also true of other poor communities. The sociologist John Carroll, S.J., of Manila believes the church is losing the very poor as it did in Europe in the 19th century and in Latin America in the 20th. The very poor are going to Pentecostals and other small neighborhood chapels, where they feel welcome and at home.

Unfortunately, the poor of Baseco do not have many suggestions for the shape of the church of the poor. Only 200 to 300 people out of 30,000 go to Mass on Sunday. The great number, therefore, have no idea of the direction of the post-Vatican II church. What they have is a traditional understanding of the faith handed down over the years, diluted generation by generation, especially by their years in the city. In the rural areas traditional feasts and practices helped keep the faith alive.

They know God better than they know the church. Two thirds say God does not will them to be poor, and they give no hint that they are concerned about reward or punishment after death. The writer heard a bishop preach not far from Baseco that it was God’s will that the poor were poor, but if they bore the suffering willingly they would have a great reward in heaven. It was traditional teaching not so long ago. But the poor know God is not at all like that.

When asked what they thought was the most important thing the church or religious could do for the community, the people gave the following answers: provide free baptism, help the poor, give direction to sinners, build a big church, help children stay in school, teach the words of Jesus, help people unite for peace—not very clear guidelines for people eager to move toward change.

The overwhelming majority in Baseco want the church and other religious communities to carry out their traditional pastoral services, that is concentrate on prayer, catechism, counseling and worship. Very few said the church should give material goods. There is no hint that they expect church people to live with them in poverty, struggle with them for social justice, work to alleviate poverty or build together with the poor a more prosperous and moral community, all of which were important elements in the church’s vision of the church of the poor. The people of Baseco have no idea what the church has done elsewhere. They have not heard of the social encyclicals. This does not mean the people are not very spiritual. Nearly all can pray when asked to say a prayer at the start of a meeting, and when someone prays, even the tough guys make the Sign of the Cross and bow their heads.

Church leaders do not understand the political, economic, social and religious situation of the urban poor. In fact they usually share the prejudices of the well-off toward the poor. On the other hand, the poor don’t know the church. They do not know of its ideals and its possibilities. They cannot give the church much help.

Yet the problems of the poor grow. Young married people are poorer than their slum-dweller parents and grandparents were at their age, and the economic spiral continues down. Crime, drugs, domestic violence, prostitution and pollution are all worsening. Funding for education, health and poverty is less and less adequate. The church can help in a substantial way, but it seems ill prepared for the task.

Most priests and lay leaders interested in social action work still hope the church can become poorer and more closely linked to poor communities. It would help if some major religious order could spearhead such a movement, but there are far fewer religious in social action work now than there were in the past.

Perhaps supporters of a church of the poor must wait for the wheel of history to turn until social protest against the excesses of capitalism is again in the air. While waiting, they might plan how best to position themselves to take advantage of the opportunity when it does come. Now may be the time for individuals and small groups to experiment with ways of being with the poor and building communities of dignity and hope that can unite in a broader movement for change when the time comes.

Recently, with four Quezon City parish priests, I watched a demonstration by their parishioners outside city hall. The people wanted the mayor to help them get government land for their homes. At first the mayor refused to see them, but the leaders said they would stay there in his office till he made time. It turned out in the end to be a good meeting. The mayor promised to help 20,000 families get land.

When the people outside heard that the mayor, after the meeting with their leaders, was coming down to talk to the crowd, the women with drums and gongs broke into a Samba type dance. Women of all ages stepped out, swinging their hips to the beat of the drums, while the crowded shouted: “Ibigay ang Lupa. I-proclaim I-proclaim” (Give the land. Proclaim it, proclaim it). The rather reclusive mayor stood in the middle of the crowd, delighted, and promised again to help get the land.

The priests and this writer had been talking about the changes in bishops and the chances of a real church of the poor. An older Claretian priest, Desiderio Martin, thought that little would ever change, though there may be some progress. A younger diocesan priest, Stephen Sabala, thought that if one or two of the auxiliary bishops he knew were appointed, there might be real hope for change. They and the other priests had marched to city hall with their people and attended the meeting with the mayor. Such priests and poor people are enough to begin with. As the founder of the Highlander movement, Myles Horton, said: “We make the road by walking.”

Denis Murphy lives in Manila and works with Urban Poor Associates.

Comments

Ross Reyes Dizon | 1/7/2003 - 4:22pm
In “Is ‘Church of the Poor’ Just Rhetoric?” (01/06/2002), Denis Murphy recounts hearing a bishop in Manila preach “that it was God’s will that the poor were poor.” He also says that “priests usually spend their time with the well-off” and that only a few of them “have made any serious study of the social and religious problems of the poor, and most share the anti-poor prejudices of the upper classes.”

All this reminds me of a “Faith in Focus” article in the 11/28/1998 issue of America. The author, William J. Brennan, S.J., recounted how he reacted when he found out that Ernesto “Che” Guevara burst into tear when he saw the terrible poverty of the place he was visiting in Guatemala City. The place that made “Che” sob so much that he suffered an asthma attack and had to be rushed to a hospital where he nearly died was the same place Brennan had visited six months earlier, a muddy shantytown of tenant farmers who had been driven off the land. These farmers’ dwellings were “precariously perched on the slopes” and would later on, added Brennan, “be bulldozed away under the watch of soldiers with rifles, because they constituted a wretched sight for tourists.”

Unable apparently to get out of his head the contrast between the Communist’s reaction to the poor and his own, Brennan made the resolution that if he was ever asked to pronounce a vow of poverty again, he would object. “I could promise dependence on my religious superior for money,” said Brennan, “but I would be unable to call that poverty. ‘Poverty’ was a real word in a real world.”

Ross Reyes Dizon | 1/7/2003 - 4:22pm
In “Is ‘Church of the Poor’ Just Rhetoric?” (01/06/2002), Denis Murphy recounts hearing a bishop in Manila preach “that it was God’s will that the poor were poor.” He also says that “priests usually spend their time with the well-off” and that only a few of them “have made any serious study of the social and religious problems of the poor, and most share the anti-poor prejudices of the upper classes.”

All this reminds me of a “Faith in Focus” article in the 11/28/1998 issue of America. The author, William J. Brennan, S.J., recounted how he reacted when he found out that Ernesto “Che” Guevara burst into tear when he saw the terrible poverty of the place he was visiting in Guatemala City. The place that made “Che” sob so much that he suffered an asthma attack and had to be rushed to a hospital where he nearly died was the same place Brennan had visited six months earlier, a muddy shantytown of tenant farmers who had been driven off the land. These farmers’ dwellings were “precariously perched on the slopes” and would later on, added Brennan, “be bulldozed away under the watch of soldiers with rifles, because they constituted a wretched sight for tourists.”

Unable apparently to get out of his head the contrast between the Communist’s reaction to the poor and his own, Brennan made the resolution that if he was ever asked to pronounce a vow of poverty again, he would object. “I could promise dependence on my religious superior for money,” said Brennan, “but I would be unable to call that poverty. ‘Poverty’ was a real word in a real world.”

James F. Belzer | 1/31/2007 - 12:09pm
Denis Murphy seemed discouraged in his article “Is ‘Church of the Poor’ Just Rhetoric?” (1/6). He may be right to be discouraged unless the church does in fact take his advice to pause and reflect on what it should be about.

I was very much involved with the poor of Manila back in the 1960’s. I walked on the planks that connected the shacks “built on stilts over mud and polluted water.” I was happy to read that while several generations have passed and some of their Catholic identity may have been lost, the poor still know what they want and need. When asked what the church could do, the poor had clear answers, though Mr. Murphy did not regard them as helpful. He and the church need to listen better.

They want “free baptisms.” When the stipend for a baptism, the mark of a disciple of Christ, equals a week’s wages, they certainly have a good starting point. The poor just want their children to be members of the body of Christ, the church, for all members of the church to be equal. Sounds clear to me.

They want “to build a big church.” Parishes in Manila in the 60’s counted over 100,000 people. The number has probably increased. Most churches could accommodate 1,000 at most. You would need 100 Masses on a weekend to get everyone into the church. The poor want the Eucharist. In the seminary we used to hear, “It is the Mass that matters.” Sounds like the poor have pretty good theology.

They want someone “to teach the words of Jesus.” They want to love one another, to share the little they have, to live in peace. Most of the poor cannot afford a Bible, so for them faith comes through hearing. Teaching comes primarily from example. As St. Francis said, “preach the gospel, with words if necessary.”

The people of Manila are great Catholics in the best sense of the word. They understand the words of St. Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go. You have the words of eternal life.” What they need is not pity but support. What they need is not more bishops but more priests to baptize their children, provide them with the Eucharist and preach the Gospel by word and example.

For years the church in Manila tried to make up for the lack of priests by bringing in foreigners, but that has failed. Isn’t it time to start ordaining viri probati? There are thousands of proven, devout, faithful, married men who could serve their fellow poor admirably. I knew them when they were squatters and public school students in the 60’s. They are ready now, even though they do not know it. Ordaining the poor is the way to make the church of Manila a church of the poor.