From dust we came…

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

For the start of the Lenten season, that was surely a heartening sight for the Catholic Church: the faithful lining up to have their foreheads daubed with ash, for the first time since the pandemic.

All places of worship are back to 100 percent capacity, and it looked like people were eager to return to churches.

It’s a country steeped in religion. And partly because of this, some people have wondered why Asia’s bastion of the Roman Catholic faith has a serious corruption problem and has long been the homicide capital of the region even before the days of tokhang.

There are so many lessons imparted by the faith that, if internalized and applied to daily life, can create a great nation.

But how is the faith being taught in this country? For the majority of children who are in the secular public school system, it’s not being taught at all.

For children enrolled in the private schools operated by the religious orders, Catechism classes start at an early age. Such schools are not all expensive like Assumption or Poveda; the religious orders also run schools for the lower income families, like the Espiritu Santo Parochial School, where I finished primary and secondary school while growing up in Manila’s Tondo and Sta. Cruz districts.

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From Kindergarten to senior high school, our school day started with a prayer. We attended mass in the school church once a week. Catechism was taught by nuns.

Early on, the concept of right and wrong was hammered into us, along with the basic teaching of Jesus Christ, which is to love one another as He loved us. Capitalizing that “He” and other pronouns referring to the Holy Trinity is a gesture of respect inculcated in us from childhood, which I will probably carry to the grave.

We internalized the hierarchy of sins. There were the seven deadly or capital sins, first identified by Pope Gregory I in the 6th century and expounded on in the 13th century by St. Thomas Aquinas: pride, greed, inordinate lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and laziness. These are countered by the seven virtues of humility, charity, chastity, gratitude, temperance, patience and diligence.

The cardinal sins can lead to heavier venial sins and the graver mortal sins, including willful violations of the 10 Commandments.

Concepts of punishment for transgression, forgiveness, absolution and redemption were part of the teachings on sin. For unrepentant recidivists, the eternal fires of hell awaited.

That image of burning in hell forever – scary for children – was eased by the idea of each one of us having a guardian angel, and the idea of the Holy Trinity plus Mother Mary watching over us and perpetually keeping us company. The belief that we are never alone can scare away the monsters of childhood.

It’s magical imagery, and the lessons imparted on what constitutes right or wrong, if carried over indelibly through adulthood, can build strong societies. I don’t know if Catechism is still taught these days.

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Jesus Christ also gave us the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Other faiths have the same teaching: treat others as you would like them to treat you.

In our culture, the joke is that this has become twisted into doing unto others before they do unto you.

We have laws in the secular world, with a long list of offenses that carry graduated penalties. There are efforts to inculcate the basic concepts of right and wrong that underpin the laws, starting in grade school.

In my case, my mother has often wondered what happened to my religious upbringing; where did she go wrong? I always joke that the answer is my immersion during my impressionable teenage years in the University of the Philippines.

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In the secular public schools, the Department of Education is pursuing a “Makabayan” or patriotic framework.

The framework has disciplines represented by the acronym SIKAP: S for Sibika (Civics); I for Information (and communication technology); K for Kultura (Culture); and AP for Araling Panlipunan (Social Studies), Pagpapahalaga (Values Education), Pangkatawan (Physical Education), Pangkalusugan (Health), Pantahanan (Home Economics) and Pangkabuhayan (Entrepreneurship).

Through legislation, subjects on Good Manners and Right Conduct have been restored in the basic education curriculum. Effective implementation may have to wait though until the retirement of the icon of crude language, the president of the republic himself.

Lessons on Civics and Culture start in first grade. Unfortunately, there are too many adults setting a bad example in uncivilized behavior and acts that are downright criminal, so lessons in Civics can be quickly forgotten or disregarded by impressionable youths.

Civics and Catechism lessons can seem unrealistic, especially for those who are direct beneficiaries of a rotten system. A child can go to the most expensive school operated by religious orders. But if the child grows up in a family that has prospered from drug trafficking, jueteng or plundering public coffers, in an environment of entitlements courtesy of taxpayers, Catechism lessons can seem as alien as Krypton and Wakanda.

As people go through life, concepts of right and wrong can be further muddled by the fact that thievery and dishonesty are richly rewarded in our dysfunctional democracy, and people can even get away with murder, literally.

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Public officials who style themselves as pious churchgoers have been indicted for plunder. Religious groups don’t provide moral guidance but merely behave like personality-driven cults and serve as influence-peddling power brokers, ruining hopes for the development of a merit-based society.

In such an environment, lessons on sin, punishment and redemption become meaningless, and the concept of heaven becomes like Santa Claus.

A country that has lost its compass – whether based on concepts of morality or civic responsibility – is doomed. Politics and immense wealth, instead of serving as enablers for individual and national progress, become like carcinogens, feeding on the host mainly for their own unsustainable growth and survival.

People find religion and God, it seems, only when they see death approaching. Only then do people remember the commandments particularly against killing, stealing, adultery and lying or bearing false witness. Those who die with such mortal sins are the ones condemned to the eternal fires of hell.

As people contemplate their return to dust, they become receptive to concepts that have so far eluded scientific validation: life after death, Purgatory, final judgment and the possibility of eternal damnation.

By that time, the damage caused by one’s sins – whether against the laws of God or humanity – can be difficult to undo.



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