Defending the faith

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - March 6, 2019 - 12:00am

Looking at the photo of a priest before a smoking pile the other day, the glutton in our news desk wanted to know what was burning.

She was told that it was a pile of palm fronds used in the previous year’s Palm Sunday, now being burned for the ashes that would be daubed on the foreheads of the faithful today, Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent.

It was her first time in her decades of existence that she learned about this. All along, she admitted, she thought the same charcoal used for barbecues and lechon were crushed into ashes for today’s ritual.

She had an opportunity to get back at her colleague who was laughing at her: he wanted to know where the palm fronds were stored for a year after the Palm Sunday blessing.

You don’t store the palaspas, she told him triumphantly; you display it at the entrance of the house, to welcome Jesus into your home.

Both are Christians, but how many of us are familiar with the rituals and teachings of our faith?

In this season dedicated to pondering the suffering of Christ, of contrition for sins in hopes of redemption, Christendom is preoccupied not with the details of Lenten rituals, but with the sex scandals that keep rocking the Roman Catholic Church all the way to the Vatican.

Even Christian churches that broke away from Rome must be affected and saddened by what is happening.

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In the wake of the scandal, President Duterte, the most famous victim of child sexual molestation by the Catholic clergy in this country (the accused molester has been named, and the Church has not denied it), has given multiple versions of “I told you so” in his speeches.

Still, it bodes well for the Catholic Church that the scandal is finally out of the closet and being investigated, with some of the guilty being punished. Many victims may never get justice, but if the ongoing cleansing turns out to be as thorough as hoped for by the dismayed faithful, the Church might yet see redemption. What doesn’t kill the Church should make it strong.

Credit goes to the still immensely popular Pope Francis, for not sweeping the problem under the rug like his predecessors. Surely the sins of the fathers – to borrow the title of one of Duterte’s favorite books – has been an open secret for a long time in the Catholic Church.  

The sex scandal is threatening to produce more lapsed Catholics. In this holy season of Lent, it is also reviving discussions on the relevance of religion in modern life.

There are people who invoke religion as an excuse to give free rein to their inner beast. Torture, murder and armed violence continue to be perpetrated in the name of faith.

But religion also continues to be a catalyst for a lot of good all over the planet. Not just through charity work, but in encouraging responsible behavior as citizens of a country and as citizens of the world.

People dwell on the teachings of their faith to ponder life’s mysteries, and to seek answers to the unexplainable. The idea that we are never alone, that there is a supreme being watching over us, that good would triumph over evil – these concepts provide solace in moments of loneliness and despair, and hope in the darkest hours.

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Christianity inculcates the belief in the inherent goodness of every human being. There are nations that don’t need religion for the human empowerment, kindness and compassion engendered by faith.  But respect for those who do want to believe in religion is enshrined in our Constitution.

President Duterte has been accused of disrespecting the Catholic Church, but has for the most part ignored the criticism, continuing to skewer the Catholic clergy at every opportunity.

Duterte has not been completely immune to public opinion, however. When his ratings plunged last year following his remark about God (other people’s, he stressed) being stupid, he backpedaled. And he’s not rude to all. Addressing concerns raised to him in a letter by Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, about the threat of violence against priests and bishops, Duterte said his feud with the Church was personal and he did not want harm to come to the Catholic clergy.

Yet fears persist that Duterte’s remarks about the sins of the fathers are encouraging abuse and even deadly attacks on priests and bishops.

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The controversy has raised questions on how far Filipino Catholics are prepared to go to defend their faith and its embattled shepherds.

And this being an election year, there are also questions on whether the country might see for the first time a Catholic vote.

Catholics, for whom the exercise of free will is among the bedrocks of the faith, don’t have a tradition of voting as a bloc in our predominantly Catholic country. But there’s a growing buzz about a movement that’s mobilizing to change this.

The emphasis of the movement, according to the buzz, is on espousing values that promote the sanctity of life, liberty and human dignity, apart from Church teachings on faith, hope, charity, compassion and kindness.

Many of the faithful may not know the stories behind the rituals of Lent. But they surely know at least some of the values that their faith stands for.

It remains to be seen whether the nascent movement can gain sufficient traction to wield influence in time for the midterm elections in May. If not, the movement could play a role in the next presidential race in 2022.

I don’t know yet who the players are in this movement. But there must be some representation from the Church.

The bishops have started calling on the faithful, through the power of the vote, to “be involved” in deciding the direction that the country will take, with emphasis on “the common good.”

Battle lines are being drawn, and it’s a battle that will be closely watched.

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