“What do I own and what owns me?”
I kept repeating these words to myself as I walked around Quiapo one Saturday afternoon recently. I had arrived early for a Mass I was supposed to concelebrate at the Basilica of the Black Nazarene, with nearly an hour to spare. I considered taking a side trip to Divisoria, but traffic along Recto was at a standstill. Hordes of people were making the trek to Tutuban, 168 and the other popular shopping centers in the area. I decided instead to take a slow walk from Carriedo all the way to Santa Cruz, laboriously navigating between shoppers and vendors hawking clothes, toys, and every other imaginable product. The Christmas rush is indeed on, I told myself.
And then the question returned, like the persistent, unavoidable refrain from a sappy song: “What do I own and what owns me?”
These words are actually the title of a short volume authored by Daniel Conway and distributed in the Philippines by the Assumption Fathers, through Bayard Publications. The book chronicles the ideas of the late Archbishop Thomas Murphy, who is relatively unknown in Philippine circles but famous among American Catholics for his tireless advocacy of “a spirituality of stewardship.” Church stewardship is usually associated with marshalling resources for church communities and ministries, through activities such as fund-raising, building construction and the like.
But for Murphy, stewardship is something more fundamental. Living out stewardship involves taking stock of what really rules our lives, to see if we are truly free to dispose of what we have for a higher purpose. It is entirely possible for us to be governed by the material things we possess or manage, even as we use them to serve noble ideals. Thus the constant need to examine our actions and our priorities—to ask, in other words, “What owns me?”
I was tempted to conclude (perhaps unfairly) that there was little evidence of genuine stewardship in the raucous rabble of Carriedo that Saturday. But this local scene looked positively benign compared to accounts from the annual American shopping frenzy after Thanksgiving. Beginning as early as midnight of “Black Friday” (named as such because it is the time of year when retailers turn a profit or “go in the black”), multitudes flocked to shopping malls nationwide to get first dibs on holiday season bargains.
In many instances, the shopping rush turned downright violent. Shoppers were trampled underfoot as store gates opened. A woman pepper-sprayed 20 fellow shoppers to get an Xbox 360 on sale. A man was shot in a parking lot by a robber preying on a family that had just bought presents. A grandfather was beaten unconscious by security personnel. He was suspected of shoplifting after tucking a video game in his pants, to assist his grandson who was being crushed by an unruly crowd.
Businesses and buyers have both been blamed for this sorry state of affairs. But the fact that these incidents happen every year shows how consumerism truly holds sway, with people purchasing and selling goods to fulfill created rather than actual needs.
True stewardship, however, is not limited to the acquisition of property. In recent weeks, we have held key figures from both sides of the political divide to a higher standard, a standard which hews close to what true stewardship is. In the midst of complex legal wranglings, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is being asked to account for various abuses during her years in power. The Supreme Court has ruled that Hacienda Luisita, the vast sugar estate owned by the Cojuangco side of President Aquino’s family, will be distributed to farmer-beneficiaries. Leaders past and present have been taken to task for their stewardship of the power and wealth entrusted to them, and many have been found wanting.
Murphy reminds us, however, that stewardship goes beyond the dictates of the law. In one of his many addresses on stewardship, he states: “Sure, you and I own a lot of things legally, juridically, but the question, I think, that is behind stewardship is: Of all the things we juridically own, what owns us? What owns me?”
Reflecting on these ideas, Conway asserts: “The goal of stewardship, as a way of life, is to get to the point when we no longer have to ask what it means to be a good steward . . . . gratitude, responsibility, generosity, and the willingness to give back with increase have become second nature to us.”
I finished my reflective though tiring stroll in time to concelebrate Mass at Quiapo church. It was a Mass to commemorate 40 days after the murder of Fr. Fausto “Pops” Tentorio. The Mass also coincided with the first Sunday of Advent.
Perhaps it was no accident that our preparations for Christmas began with the remembrance of a man who was a genuine steward of the peoples and communities entrusted to his care. In his defense of indigenous people’s rights and opposition to rapacious mining interests, Tentorio was very well aware of what he had “to give back with increase.” Father Pops knew who owned his life, and was ready to give it up in fulfillment of his mission.
“What owns us?” We can best prepare for Christmas by asking ourselves this question.