Bishop Teodoro Bacani had almost 250 priests in stitches with the following anecdote. A religious sister stayed for a few weeks in an urban poor community. With each scene of abject poverty she encountered, she would inevitably say, “Kawawa naman!” (What a pity!) Stumbling upon a naked, soot-covered child, she blurted out, “Kawawa naman!” Observing some out-of-school teenagers loitering in the neighborhood, she commented, “Kawawa naman!” Seeing a funeral cortege for a man killed in a gang war, she cried, “Kawawa naman!”
The barangay captain, exasperated with the nun’s reactions, asked her: “So sister, what do you plan to do about all this poverty in our community?” The good sister replied: “Well you know, I came here not to serve, but to observe.” And the barangay captain exclaimed, “Kawawa naman!”
Bishop Bacani’s story struck home, not only because of the caricatured reactions of the well-meaning but rather naïve nun. Surely the priests also saw in the nun a portrait of their own shortcomings in looking after the impoverished in their respective communities. The priests were, in effect, laughing (perhaps nervously) at themselves.
This spirit of self-assessment animated the recently concluded Clergy Discernment Congress at San Carlos Seminary in Makati City, organized as part of the Church’s commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II). Convened in 1991, PCP II sought to provide directions for the Philippine Catholic Church as she entered the new millennium. One of the chief goals set by the council was that the Philippine Church should be a “Church of the Poor.” Thus the congress was an opportunity for the clergy to examine their own individual commitment to the disadvantaged, as well as to assess how the Philippine Church as a whole has fared in fulfilling her mandate to be a “Church of the Poor.”
In its conciliar document, PCP II expressed in no uncertain terms the role of pastors in fulfilling this mandate: “The ‘Church of the Poor’ will mean that the pastors and other Church leaders will give preferential attention and time to those who are poor, and will generously share of their own resources in order to alleviate their poverty and make them recognize the love of the Lord for them despite their poverty. Pastors and other Church leaders should, by way for instance of pastoral immersion, be directly knowledgeable of the life situation of the poor among their flock.” (# 129)
The humbling consensus among the clergy gathered in the congress was that the Philippine Church was nowhere near this ideal of a “Church of the Poor.” Or to paraphrase Bishop Bacani’s anecdote, the priests had to admit that they were largely observing the poor rather than serving them.
Starting with the basics, however, the congress examined the very way in which priests observed or understood the problem of poverty. Concurrent workshops looked closely at the “new faces of poverty” priests encountered in their ministry. Representatives from clergy and laity ministering to contractual laborers, migrants and overseas Filipino workers, informal settlers, indigenous peoples affected by climate change, and other sectors were invited to enlighten the clergy on the challenges of serving the marginalized in the 21st century.
One of the highlights of the congress was an adoption of a novel analytical tool to examine these new manifestations of poverty. Fittingly summarized in the acronym “IRIS,” the framework helped the clergy to observe poverty with “new eyes,” the better to serve the poor.
This analytical tool involves looking first at the prevailing “ideas” or mindsets which allow certain sectors to be marginalized within society. Next, it entails examining “resources” to see how the presence or absence of material goods and control over them can aggravate or alleviate poverty. It also requires looking at “intelligibility,” i.e., the whole area of culture, to see how cultural presuppositions reinforce prevailing patterns of marginalization. Finally, the framework recommends an examination of “shifts,” of the possibilities of changing configurations of ideas, resources and intelligibility in doable ways so as to effect societal change.
In the end, however, the priests were made to realize that these new ways of observing will be useless if they do not translate into concrete service. Bishop Luis Antonio Tagle, in his closing exhortation to the congress, wryly pointed out that once priests are ordained, they often head “downhill in servanthood, and uphill in kingship,” a description which again drew fits of self-deprecating laughter from the priests. He thus urged the clergy to “be disturbed” for themselves, for the Church and, above all, for the poor.
As the Reproductive Health bill debate rages on, the Church and her priests will no doubt be cast in an unflattering light by many critics. Perhaps the Clergy Discernment Congress points to a subdued but fitting response on the part of the Church to the challenges of the times. The first step to meaningful service involves an inward turn toward self-assessment, toward a humble examination of faults and failures. Turning outward, the Church should then strive to see old realities with new eyes, so that new ways of understanding and alleviating poverty may emerge. Lastly, the Church should be sufficiently disturbed by what she sees, so that from simply observing she may shift to serving the poor and the marginalized, so as to become truly a “Church of the Poor.”