Published Date: November 16, 2010
By Karl Gaspar
In a Third World setting such as the Philippines, social transformation cannot take place unless the ordinary people – the masses – take an active role in effecting such transformation at all levels: individual, family, community, the nation-state and even at the cosmic level, given the reality of climate change today.
Change agents used to emphasize the need to highlight agency if society is to change from injustice to equality, dysfunctionality to unity, from slavery to emancipation of oppressed sectors. A change of heart leads to justice, peace, harmony and progress.
In time, there was a realization that, for all the Church did to change people’s hearts, the structures of society remain oppressive and disenfranchise those who are marginalized in a society dominated by the rich and powerful. Landless peasants, unemployed workers, indigenous peoples, subjugated women and others are still pushed to the margins.
Using tools of analysis that pinpointed the unjust structures of society, many change agents among pastoral workers concluded that there was need for the conscientization and organization of the poor and the oppressed. Transformation of peoples and the economic, political and social structures of the nation-state will come about only if there was a mobilization of the masses for their own liberation.
Organizing urban poor settlers, landless peasants, agricultural workers, indigenous peoples, women and even middle class citizens was the call of the moment during the tumultuous years of martial rule.
Then came People Power. New insights were gained in the course of the mobilization of the masses, some of whom were not part of the organizing work of civil society agents, including church pastoral workers. Ordinary Filipinos held on to religious icons and expressed a belief system that aspired to liberation from the evils of martial rule. With courage in their hearts mobilized from various sources, the masses were willing to risk their lives.
The book The Masses are Messiah: Contemplating the Filipino Soul is the result of two years’ research. To conduct interviews and focused group discussions, the author traveled all over the country asking two questions: Is there such a thing as Filipino spirituality? If there is, is this transformation-oriented?
The study concluded that, indeed, there is such a thing as Filipino spirituality and it is transformative at all levels: self, family, community, nation-state and cosmic. But it is at the level of the ordinary people – the masses – where this spirituality is best manifested. It is also there among those in the middle sectors especially those belonging to civil society organizations who are at the support of the struggling poor.
The roots of Filipino spirituality
The first part of the book’s title – The Masses are Messiah – is taken from a poem written by a young Filipino who was one of the first young people who resisted the Marcos dictatorship. Eman Lacaba, a poet and philosopher went to the best schools in Manila including the Ateneo de Manila University. Beyond the confines of traditional church structures, he sought the space where he could walk his talk, namely, to be on the side of the poor and the oppressed.
Hundreds of Filipinos would take the same path of resistance and martyrdom including priests, religious, Basic Ecclesial Communities, lay leaders and those at the forefront of the struggle. How did such deep commitment arise? What were the roots of their militancy that empowered them to overcome their fears and embrace a life that paralleled the one of THE Messiah?
The book traces these roots to the indigenous belief system of our ancestors in the pre-conquest era that serves as the bedrock of our spirituality as a people. It was one that linked us to the spirit world in terms of our aspirations for good health, prosperity and well-being. It highlighted the sacredness of all creation; all species on earth were part of a whole web of life. It focused on our needs of “this world”, rather than “the world out there”; it had a matriarchal angle and thus was gender-inclusive.
Thus for time immemorial, our people’s spirituality was attuned to the challenges of constant transformation. Ironically, the Hispanic Christianity that the Spanish friars introduced to the islands negated many of these elements which are now much more appreciated in the post-Vatican II Church. However, despite what the friars did, our ancestors held on to the core of their indigenous spirituality. That made possible the rise of the religious social movements in Central Luzon which Rey Ileto brought to our attention in his book – Pasyon and Revolution.
During those revolts, the masses’ spirituality helped them connect to what they could mobilize from within themselves as a messianic people and even as they linked to the Messiah manifested in various icons – the Sto. Nino, the Santo Entierro, the various angels and saints and even Mary with her various titles such as Mother of Perpetual Help.
The relevance of Filipino spirituality today
The Church in the Philippines – especially from the perspective of the institutional, hierarchical and clerical Church – today is again at the crossroads. On one hand, there are the moral issues that she traditionally considers very important including issues of the reproductive rights, abortion, divorce and the like.
However, in a society where secularization is beginning to have an impact, especially among the urban middle-class sectors and the media. The Church is painted as outdated and finds herself at loggerheads with those advocating for lesser control from such institutions. The youth also find themselves not caring about such moral injunctions.
On the other hand, many people expect the Church to take a strong moral stance on issues that have become very urgent, such as genuine land reform, workers’ rights, assistance to overseas Filipino workers, women’s subjugation, ancestral domain of indigenous peoples, militarization and human rights, mining and other ecological issues.
While there are Church people who have spoken strongly on these issues, many Catholics are disappointed that there is very little discussion of these issues. And where there is little talking the talk, there is even less walking of the talk.
At these crossroads, the Church needs to re-imagine and reconstitute the pastoral-missiological fields to identify the kind of engagements church workers should have so that they can truly witness to the Gospel and make a difference in the lives of the most abandoned who continue to be marginalized on the basis of their class, ethnicity, age, gender, culture and faith traditions.
Karl M. Gaspar CSsR is director of the Alphonsian Lay Formation Institute of the Redemptorists in the Cebu Province. He teaches at the St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute in Davao City and the St. Mary’s Theologate in Ozamis City.