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Pastoral Letter on Filipino Spirituality

This Pastoral Exhortation on Filipino Spirituality is the last of the comprehensive reflections on the vital issues of our society which the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has issued in response to Pope John Paul II's appeal to prepare Christians for the coming of the third millennium. We, your Bishops, who are mandated by Christ to proclaim his Gospel with fidelity and love, have written it in our national language, Pilipino, because its important message is meant to reach the hearts and minds of all our faithful and not just the educated class. It is written in simple language so that non-Tagalogs will not find it too difficult to read its important reflections.

Why is it of vital importance that we reflect on our spirituality as a people? It is important because the quality of our spirituality tells us who we are as a people. It confronts us with the question, if we are a people who treasure the values of truth and justice and compassion, have we then succeeded in creating a society that nourishes and promotes these values which are dear to us and which express our true selves? And if we have thus far failed to create a just, humane and peaceful society, where do we draw the strength and inspiration to engage in the arduous task of reform and renewal?

Our spirituality defines who we are. We are a pilgrim people on our way to our true home. We are pilgrims who made a covenant with God pledging to contribute our talents to the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. We are pilgrims bearing a unique spirit which gives direction to our journey – the spirit (kalooban ) of Christ.

But is this spirit of Christ truly also the spirit (kalooban) of the Filipino?

To answer this question, the first part of the pastoral letter entitled Paglalarawan studied some sayings which pass on the wisdom of our elders from generation to generation. Examples of such sayings or proverbs are: "May loob sa Diyos ang taong iyan." And: "Madali ang maging Kristiyano, ngunit mahirap and magpaka-Kristiyano."

It also reflected on our popular customs which express our desire to touch, smell, to be close to the sacred and the holy. This we witness in shrines such as Quiapo church where the faithful press and the feet of the Nazarene to their wounds. The way we celebrate the great feasts of the liturgical year such as Christmas is also described. In particular we see that when Holy Week comes around, the center of Filipino life shifts to its traditional rituals of penitensya, pabasa, siyete palabras at salubong.

The Marian shrines and statues that are the objects of fervent devotion by Filipinos were also studied, for Filipino spirituality is eminently Marian. The Filipino who is ill sends his/her petitions to Mary's shrine in Peñafrancia or Manaoag. When we go on long, risky travels, we have Masses said in Antipolo. Out of 27 religious shrines in the country, 18 are in honor of the Mother of God.

The emergence of charismatic renewal movements and similar laity-led movements was analyzed for clues as to the nature of the prevailing spirituality of their members. It was noted that they satisfied the Filipinos' need for being part of a small community where he/she was recognized and could meaningfully participate in its ceremonies.

In view of the variety of ways by which Filipinos express their spirituality, can we identify what might be the predominant characteristics of Filipino Catholic Spirituality? The second part of the pastoral letter entitled Pagkilatis looks into this question. We think that a useful description of the essential traits of the Filipino Catholic is found in the Catechism for Filipino Catholics (nos. 34-44) which lists the following five traits, namely: Filipinos are first of all, family-oriented. It is in the bosom of their family that Filipinos find security, stability and a sense of belonging. Secondly, the Filipinos' sense of hospitality leads them to be meal-oriented ( salu-salo, kainan). Our traditional greeting even for strangers is: "Tuloy po kayo at kumain muna tayo." Thirdly, Filipinos are kundiman-oriented whose lyrics often talk of sufferings endured. Fourthly, Filipinos are bayani-oriented; we are natural hero-followers of the malakas leader. Finally, Filipinos are spirit-oriented as seen in our popular beliefs about spirits dwelling in homes, trees, persons.

But the condition of the world today and of our nation in particular challenges us with new questions, namely: is this all there is to Filipino spirituality? Have all our devotions and rituals and beliefs merely produced Filipinos who are family-centered, lovers of salu-salos and sentimental kundimans, bayani, and spirit oriented? Are these not also the values to be found in non-Christian societies? And do they suffice to enable Filipinos to create a national community where justice and freedom and peace reign?

Our history sadly tells us that we have failed to create a society we can be proud of. The previous 3 CBCP pastoral letters give us a picture of what kind of society we have produced as we enter a new millennium. Our political structures and processes have not matured for lack of transparency and accountability. Our economic policies and programs have failed to lessen the gap between the rich and the poor. Our cultural habits prevent us from nourishing values of compassion and common courtesies that are the foundation of a civilization of love and peace. We can conclude that our very spirituality is in need of reform since in its present state it does not have the maturity and the inner strength to transform our society and build up a new Filipino.

In the third and most important part of this pastoral letter entitled Pamantayan sa Pagpapakabanal, we, your Bishops, point to Jesus Christ as the sole answer to our quest for a more mature spirituality. For the Pilipino kalooban cannot stand on its own as the sole basis of our spirituality. For it is necessary that his kalooban be configured more and more to the kalooban of Christ.

What are the salient characteristics of this kalooban of Jesus Christ?

It is a kalooban that abhorred a spirituality that limited itself only to externals. Of such persons he had this to say: "This people honors me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me." (Mk. 7:6) Instead of this hypocritical spirituality, the Lord of the Jubilee, Jesus Christ, proposed one that was concerned with moral issues such as justice for the poor, forgiveness for those who sinned against us, liberation for those enslaved by political and economic forces. In place of a culture of pride and power ( malakas), he gave an example of how we are to relate to others, by humbly washing the feet of his disciples.

By making Christ's kalooban our now, we can then transform ourselves. With the grace of his spirit in us, we can widen our love of family to embrace the wider community. Our salu-salos become occasions for inviting the hungry and the thirsty to our table. The sentimentality of our kundiman matures into developing our latent strong feelings for compassion towards those without clothing and shelter. Our hero-worship is redirected to Christ who bravely drank the bitter chalice of suffering and death for our salvation. And our spirit-orientation predisposes our hearts to love a prayerful and meditative life and to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in all our endeavors.

The last part of the pastoral letter is a Panawagan. It is cry of hope and on the part of pilgrims. For we do not know what lies ahead of us as we journey into the third millennium. The air is filled with rumors of impending catastrophes. For some, it is a time for anxiety that the last days have come; others see portents of a cosmic crisis.

Our state of anxiety is not unlike that of the two weary travelers on their way to Emmaus. They journey without a clear direction; they walk dragged down by anxiety; they are travelers without hope. All this was to change when the unknown Christ met them on the road, explained to them why Christ had to suffer and die, and in the familiar gesture of breaking bread opened their eyes to his presence. Only then, did they realize that their goal was to proclaim a Gospel upon whose values a New Jerusalem would arise. We, too, must realize that we shall carry the Cross in our journey and that the Eucharist is a summons to act and bring the justice and love of Christ in rebuilding our society into a New Philippines.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ. The Great Jubilee is not a time to focus on regrets and denunciations over the failures of the past. It is the chosen time for the annunciation of a new future, a new beginning, a new endeavor to establish in our fair land a new Jerusalem, a new Philippines peopled by Filipinos with a new spirit, the spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ which empowers them to be the architects of a nation built on justice, peace, forgiveness, respect for life and fidelity to God.

We cannot fail in this task. Christ has left to us his Spirit, the Spirit of Hope who once brooded over the chaos of the world and breathed into it kaayusan. And always by our side, as wanderers of the long journey home, is our beloved Mother Mary, the Morning Star that lights up our lives to end the darkness of night and ushers us into a new dawn.

Let us then rejoice and be glad that we have been found worthy to celebrate the Great Jubilee!

For the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines:

10 July 1999


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