Spiritual Alzheimer’s

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

My favorite news head on that story about Pope Francis’ greeting to the Vatican Curia is from the Religion News Service: “Merry Christmas, you power-hungry hypocrites!”

RNS reported: The pope’s traditional Christmas greeting to the cardinals, bishops and priests who run the Holy See was more “Bah! Humbug!” than holiday cheer as he ticked off a laundry list of “ailments of the Curia” that he wants to cure.

 Christmas surely wasn’t merry for a lot of people in the Vatican.

 And some members of our local clergy must be having second thoughts about the wisdom of having Francis see for himself the state of the faith in Asia’s bastion of Roman Catholicism. Would Francis also recite a Pinoy version of the 15 Ailments of the Vatican Curia?

The pontiff looks like someone who personally does his homework and is attuned to world affairs. Consider his role in the historic rapprochement between the United States and Cuba. Would Francis say that “spiritual Alzheimer’s” can be catching and has infected certain Filipino bishops?

We can expect this pope, before he visits Manila and the Visayas, to read up on Philippine history, which is inextricably linked with the history of the Catholic Church in this country. Church interference in political affairs, as we all know, did not start in the House of Sin – a reference to the archbishop of Manila during the Marcos regime.

Among my favorite history books are the volumes of “The Philippines Under Spain,” containing English translations of original documents from Spanish archives starting in 1518, three years before Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan “discovered” our islands in the name of the Spanish crown (and met his death at the hands of Lapu-Lapu).

The documents, translated by the late Virginia Benitez Licuanan and Jose Llavador Mira, provide detailed accounts of the expeditions that brought “the Cross and the Sword” to these islands, including the ships’ cargo and the illnesses that afflicted the crew.

Accounts of the friars’ arrival in Manila, including correspondence from the religious leaders and military commanders, show that from the start, the two groups were engaged in a power play, feuding over the spoils of conquest and control over the natives.

 The situation reflected what was happening in Europe at the time. Christianity spread around the world with a lot of help from warriors who were after power, wealth and natural resources. The Church hierarchy fought with Europe’s kings, military commanders and, later, with civilian government leaders for political power.

Religion and power have always been linked.

Power-hungry hypocrites? The Vatican Curia surely was not amused… but everyone I know was. You could also see the amusement in the media coverage, in the smirks of the foreign TV correspondents and talking heads.

Behind the amusement lies the question: how much can even a rock-star-popular pope change in a system that has been entrenched for nearly two millennia? How far can he push his reform agenda?

*      *      *

For centuries the princes of the Catholic Church have lived like the princes of the temporal world, residing in real palaces and maintaining some of the largest pieces of prime real estate.

“Power-hungry hypocrites” have been fixtures in the Catholic hierarchy for centuries, and the “15 Ailments of the Curia” have afflicted this Church since its leaders tasted temporal power – and liked it.

There were rare exceptions. In the 13th century an Italian friar named Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone turned his back on his family’s wealth and founded religious orders whose members became known for their vow of poverty.

Giovanni, nicknamed Francesco, became Saint Francis of Assisi. It says a lot about the mission of Argentina’s Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, that he picked Francis as his papal name.

 But how many members of the clergy are like Francis? Priests, bishops and cardinals behave like our politicians who can’t let go of the perks and trappings of power rather than Saint Francis of Assisi.

 In our country, the constitutional provision on the separation of church and state has always been nothing but a statement of intent, ignored by both religious leaders and the political establishment that courts their support.

That incestuous relationship prevented the passage of the Reproductive Health Law for over a decade, until a popular president who didn’t need religious support finally got it through Congress.

*      *      *

Foreigners have often asked me why there seems to be a lot of corruption, murder, thievery, philandering and general nastiness in Asia’s bastion of the Roman Catholic faith.

I tell them that among the reasons must be a failure of spiritual leadership.

If the princes of the Church behaved more like shepherds rather than royal princes and focused on matters of the spirit, perhaps this country of prayerful people could become a much better place.

I began losing my way – or my shepherds began losing me – a long time ago, in my pre-teen years, when an elderly priest stomped out of the confessional and, in a booming voice, berated me in a crowded church after I confessed that I missed Sunday mass once.

No teacher or any other adult came forward to console me as I fretted about eternal damnation and the embarrassment of a public scolding by the parish priest.

We outgrow childhood terrors; overcoming disillusionment with our faith is harder. There may be no redemption for this lost soul, a believer in contraception and gay rights and divorce, but over the years I also felt sad when I saw church attendance falling.

The Catholic Church, at its best, is a powerful force for good. Christmas in particular evokes all the goodness I have always associated with the faith: the hopefulness and readiness to share one’s blessings, the optimism that life eventually will get better.

All the rituals of Christmas take me back to that place where goodness abounds, where light triumphs over dark and drives away all fears.

The Catholic Church has also lost its way and needs to go back to that place. Pope Francis, torch in hand in the darkness, is leading the way.










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