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Sunday Lifestyle

An inter-faith perspective on Lent

MANO-A-MANO - Adel Tamano -

I’m a Muslim married to a Christian and I live in a country where the vast majority of people are Catholic. So Lent is something that I am familiar with. But apparently not familiar enough because when I interviewed Father Melvin Castro, the executive director of the Episcopal Commission on Family of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), for my ANC show Tamano Perspective, my understanding of what the real purpose of the Lenten season was deepened. In fact, I started to see commonalities in the aims or goals of Lent and the purpose of the Islamic observance of Ramadan or the fasting season. Additionally, I have to say that I was very impressed by the genuine humility, kindness, candor and tolerance of Father Melvin.

Essentially, the interview was an inter-faith dialogue on the relevance of Lent to the lives of Christians, explained in a way that I, as a non-Christian, could understand.

These were the three main points that I learned from Father Melvin:

1. Lent is about sacrifice and alms-giving. I was a little surprised to learn this, specifically in regard to the giving of charity, which is one of the five pillars of Islam. I don’t say this as a critique but as a simple observation — in the Philippines, it appears that some of the focus of the Lenten season has centered on vacations and visiting churches. While, of course, people are free to observe the season as they wish and I’m in no position to judge anyone’s religiosity, nevertheless, I appreciate the importance of alms-giving, particularly in a country where so many are poor. In fact, I’ve always believed that the primary aspect of any faith was to teach its adherents to help others. I don’t believe that religion should be a primarily personal endeavor. You can be the most saintly person but if you don’t use your skills and resources to better the lives of others, what’s the use of your virtue and holiness? What is the use of being religious if it doesn’t serve your community and your family?

2. It really isn’t about not eating meat during Lent but rather sacrificing something you desire. Father Melvin said, in regard to abstaining from meat, that the true sacrifice during Lent isn’t substituting delicious seafood for meat because, in the end, there really wouldn’t be any real renunciation but only a substitution. So if instead of eating steak, you eat lobster; then what would a person observing Lent really have given up? He said that one way to observe Lent would be to eat simple bread and water. Again, I make no judgments on how people observe their faith — there are more important things like charity and virtue compared to abstaining from meat — but I do see the value of sacrificing food to honor your faith. As a Muslim, I don’t eat pork, which means that I don’t eat ham, pepperoni, lechon, etc., which is hard to do in a country where most viands contain pork. But I do abstain from pork because it is a sign of my being a Muslim. And imperfect as I am in the practice of my faith, I am proud and grateful to be a Muslim. I know for a fact that I would be a much worse person if it were not for the Islamic ideals that I aspire for. So the point really isn’t ditching meat — or in my case not eating pork — but signifying that during the Lenten season, or at least a day or two of it, that those who follow the Catholic tradition honor their faith.

3. During Lent, and after, the Catholic Church is for sinners and saints alike. Obviously, there are observant and non-observant Catholics, as there are with Muslims. So I asked Father Melvin about those Catholics who lived lifestyles contrary to church values, for example, those who lived a homosexual lifestyle, had ongoing adulterous relationships, or who practiced extra or pre-marital sex. Were they allowed to participate in Lenten observances? Father Melvin’s answer struck me as incredibly tolerant and honest: he said, first, the Catholic Church is not an exclusive enclave for the holy and pious. In fact, he pointed to Christian history wherein tax collectors and even prostitutes later became the most fervent of Christians. Second, he referred to the Catholic Church as a “mother,” adding — and this subsequent statement I thought was a powerful one — that “ a mother cannot turn away her own children.” Father Melvin also made a most honest admission to me: he said that perhaps some of the most sinful people were even priests. What was important, according to him, was that those who were in what he termed “irregular” situations or lifestyles should regularize their situation. But whether this “regularization” would happen or not, the important point for me was that, at least on the basis of the example and statements of Father Melvin, there are priests in the Philippines who have a great tolerance for those that may be deemed simply “sinners” by the overly self righteous in our country.

Lastly, as my final point and message for the Lenten season — and this may seem a little off-topic but I need to say it — let me provide another inter-faith perspective on Lent. Also, since this is a personal advocacy, let me apply this to the issue of peace in Mindanao.

Whether for Muslims or Christians, religion has the power to transform our lives, to make us better persons, and to make our communities more just, caring and peaceful. Christians have the Lenten season and Muslims observe Ramadan, and while both are very different religious celebrations, the main purpose is the same: to teach self-control, to purify our bodies and minds, to offer sacrifice to God, and, ultimately, to bring peace to our lives.

Unfortunately, in Mindanao, instead of focusing on what is good and common to both Islam and Chiristianity, some people have used religion to destroy the peace in order to further their own interests.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. And if only Filipino Christians would imbibe the true spirit of Lent, and if only Muslims would truly live out the significance of Ramadan, then, most certainly, we would be well on our way to finding long-elusive peace in Mindanao.

CATHOLIC CHURCH FATHER FATHER MELVIN LEFT LENT MDASH MELVIN MINDANAO
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