Commencement Address Delivered to the Theology Graduates at the St John the Evangelist School of Theology, Palo, Leyte, on March 19, 2011
by Rev Msgr Lope C Robredillo, SThD
Vicar General, Diocese of Borongan
THE REV MSGR Benedict Catilogo, Rector of St John the Evangelist School of Theology, the Rev Ramil Costibolo, Dean of Studies, the Reverend Fathers, the Reverend Sisters, Graduates, Parents and Guests. Good afternoon. On this particular occasion, I would like to share with you some thoughts on the priesthood and the challenge of consumerism. Allow me to begin with two news.
Last week, we were told that, according to the Commission on Audit, the board of trustees of the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) enjoyed excessive benefits in 2009 to the tune of P88 M, or P11 M for each member, which could have been used for its stakeholders. Not so long ago, the Senate investigations disclosed that one general received P50 M pabaon (send-off gift), another P160, and still another P80. These two, both unconscionable, are just the most recent in the series of scandals that captured the headlines. The question I want to raise in relation to my topic is this: Why do many Filipinos sink into such morass of immorality in order to accumulate wealth? Since our actions always reflect an anthropological presupposition, we can add the question: What concept of humanity do these people involved in these scandals presuppose in their unconscionable behavior?
I raise these questions because, if these scandals disclose anything, it is that they imply a certain outlook of life and of being human. Of course, in Christian teaching, our common vocation is to become men and women for God and for others. We become truly human when we give ourselves to God and to the members of our society. Unfortunately, however, it seems that our society does not recognize this vocation. Quite the contrary, what people know today as their vocation is to make consumer’s goods the object of their life, for the simple reason that it is consumer’s goods that they find their identity in, and that their life is oriented to. In this assumption, we are what we have. We are what we consume. That is the brief description of what consumerism means.
That life is all about acquiring consumer’s goods seems to be the philosophy of life of many. When I asked a tour guide about his religion, he said he had none. So, what the purpose of living? I asked. He answered, I want to make money. It seems that people no longer want to be saints. Saints seem no longer to have relevance for many. Notice how town officials replaced street names of saints with names of politicians. People want to get rich—and quickly. In addition, consumerism posits a lifestyle. You do not simply aspire to be rich; you want to live like one. Hence, a certain lifestyle, which is actually artificial, is created. This new lifestyle is pursued, often relentlessly, since one thinks that this will provide the good life—la dulce vita, filled with satisfaction and happiness.
The problem with this is not only that possession of goods has become the be-all and end-all of life. The problem is that, many aspects of social life have become subordinated to it—morals, culture, and religion no longer decisively matter in the process of acquisition. What is important is not how you got rich; whether it is by hook or by crook, no one seems to be bothered about it. What matters is you a rich. Period. Indeed, it has become the principle by which people organize their personal lives, their relations to others and the whole society. What is of the essence is the acquisition of goods. Why become a lawyer? To pursue justice? No, to get rich. Why serve abroad? To make money. Why vote for this corrupt politician? He is the highest bidder. Why resign? A new much more financially rewarding job is being offered. Thus, if the GSIS board decided for themselves their humongous perks, obviously they never thought about the ordinary GSIS beneficiaries who find it difficult to claim even their paltry pension. Obviously, the Generals receiving the “pabaon” (send-off gift) were not thinking of the ordinary foot soldiers suffering under fire from the Abus’ bullets.
Under this philosophy of life, man exists for himself, and all others have to be used to satisfy his heart’s desire. No wonder, man has become subservient to consumer’s goods. He is now a victim, and has become a tool, a slave, both literally and figuratively. Thus, his conscience is not troubled by using Filipino women and men as drug mules to China in order to make money. When he engages in drug trade, he is not upset by the fact that thousands are hooked in drugs, deprived of their future. Take note, however, that in consumerism, what enslave people are not necessary bad things in themselves—they are enslaved to the business corporations they put up, the different palatial homes in several cities, and vacation houses in some beach resorts. If these things happen, and not a hoot is heard, it is because we now measure a man in terms of his capacity to have. We no longer look at a person in terms of his character, integrity. We measure him in terms of his appearance, possessions, status. No wonder the Vicky Belo business prospers, priests have to have PhD, MA, SThD, some even have 5 degrees appended to their name. politicians have become TV personalities, and clowns have become congressmen.
It can be seen therefore that the more fundamental problem about consumerism is not simply about being rich, or about being materialistic. More than that, it has become an outlook of life. We can even go farther; it has actually become a culture. It has become part of the thought patterns of society. It is the way we think, and the way we live. Which is why, it is very difficult for many to escape its influence. They have become captive of consumerism. As one might know, people do not look at Tibet with envy, despite the high idealism of its monks. People no longer view China as an enemy of Christianity because it espouses communism. To the contrary, we ape China because in a few years, it might even overtake the United States to emerge as the leading economic power. Why pass the RH bill? Is it far-fetched to assume that many want to have it approved because of the millions involved? Fetuses have to be aborted because additional children affect our pattern of consumption. Indeed, consumerism leads to a culture of death. One wonders whether even the voice of the Church is being drowned in the whirlpool of consumerism. Her voice no longer seems to command attention; look at the RH bill issue—even the Church has to make her power felt in order to bring home her message.
What then can we, as Christians, say? Consumerism is a big challenge to Christianity. It is likewise a humongous challenge to the priests of today and the priests of tomorrow. It essence, it represents not only un-Christian outlook but also inhuman philosophy of life and values. And it would be unfortunate if the Church and her ministers co-opt it. It would be a disaster for the Church if bishops and priests become captive of the tentacles of consumerism. I believe that the great problem that the Church and her ministers right now face is not the problem of pedophilia, despite the fact that it is widely published. Neither is it the problem of communism or atheism. Rather, it is the problem of consumerism, and what could be more catastrophic than consumerism consuming the passion of priests and bishops? If the Church will be almost irreparably damaged in the future, it will not come from pedophile priests and bishops; it will come from priests and bishops who are drowned in consumerist mentality. That would be of tsunamic proportion.
My dear graduates, my dear future priests: this challenge should not remain unanswered. If Council of Trent has stressed that priesthood is always linked with the community, obviously part of its implication is that priests should be able to speak to the community they serve. Hence, if their people are being engulfed by consumerism, they have to exercise their prophetic role to protest against the overwhelming culture. They have to be clear about this single message: to be human is not to have; to be human is simply to be. This is not easy because it is to go against the current, it is to go against values being bombarded on us in television, it is to go against what people think is normal. But that is precisely what it means to be a priest as prophet. Prophets are abnormal people, they are fools. St Paul himself declares that he is a fool for Christ. In our time, only a fool does not accept kickbacks, only a fool refuses donations from jueteng. As prophets, priests must not be afraid to protest against this consumerist culture.
It is important to recall that Christianity was born as a protest. Early Christianity was not engaged in accommodation; on the contrary, it was a countercultural community, and Jesus really meant it to be. Let me cite some examples. Consider his words: “You know that the men considered rulers of the heathen have power over them, and the leaders have complete authority. This, however, is not the way it is among you. If one of you wants to be great, he must be the servant of the rest; and if one wants to be first, he must be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life to redeem many people” (Mark 10:42-45). Undoubtedly, the early Church had to be different—it lived a different way of life and treated people in a way different from how normal society of the Roman Empire treated them.
That Christianity has to be different finds its roots in the conception of the people of God in the Old Testament. In the Holiness Code, God declares: “You are to be holy to me, because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own” (Lev 20:26). God intended Israel to be different from other nations, which is why he personally chose them to be his own people. But in what way was Israel to be different? From the way of life that the people had to live: “Therefore, take care to follow the commands, decrees and laws I give you today” (Deut 7:11). These laws bound Israel, not other nations. For this reason, since Israel was organized in terms of God’s covenant, with its own laws and decrees, its social structure was obviously far different from those of the neighboring nations.
No wonder, the Church of the New Testament was clearly a counter-cultural community. This is the reason why the NT letters use metaphors to emphasize this character. Allow me to give one example from 1 Pet 2:9: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy; now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world….” Take note of the contrasting terms: “darkness and light,” “no-people and people of God”, “without mercy and with mercy”, “citizens and aliens and strangers”. Notice also the adverb: “once” and “now.” Thus, the Church is clearly different in terms of its election and its life.
If the priesthood prolongs the mission of Jesus and the Church, and if priestly ministry is to serve the community it is found in, it therefore follows that the priesthood must be by nature counter-cultural. Hence, because a priest is chosen to be different, he has also to live differently. After all, that is the original meaning of “holiness”—one is set apart, one is clearly different. Holiness is exhibited in one’s creativity and capacity to give to others. But how? How do we, as priests, face the temptations of consumerism? I will not dwell on how consumerism should be refuted theologically. I assume that your four years of Philosophy and four years of theology provided you with enough materials to arm yourselves against claims on the virtues of consumerism. If you do not have enough arguments at hand, I will not allow you to graduate, if I were your Dean of Studies. What I am more interested in are the pastoral, but essentially prophetic, means to combat it. Of course, there are many ways, but let me focus on three points.
First, a priest has to know exactly his identity. I am not, of course, going to make a discourse on priestly identity—I presume that you, graduates, have enough of that in the classroom. What I mean is that we have to be aware that, more than any other, priesthood is a form of “being.” When one is aware of that, then, he acts like one. When a priest goes to the restaurant, theaters, airplane, hotel, or when he is with politicians, police, beggars, he always acts like a priest, not somebody else. When he speaks, laughs, argues, calls the attention of the sacristan, talks with giggling girls, he always does so as a priest. The temptation of the priest by consumerism is precisely to have a different identity—some of us want to be jet setter, experts in tourism, connoisseurs of wine, political clowns and fashion models. Others want to go into the buy-and-sell business, become contractors, and TV personalities. Spiritual directors, of course, will always insist on prayers and other means to safeguard this priestly identity, but in the long run, it is really about being able to say—I am a priest, and my true identity does not consist in having more. I am content with who I am: a man for God and for others—that is who I am.
To be sure, it is difficult to be contended with who I am, because, with the pervasive influence of a consumerist mentality, there is always the temptation to define myself in terms of what I have. There is the tendency to think that my priesthood becomes more meaningful and fulfilling if I have a big parish, if I have more women friends, if I have a fabulous rectory and church, if I have bigger deposit in the bank, if I have a good influence over the bishop, if I have visited more cities than the rest, if to my name are attached more than one abbreviation—MA, PhD, SThD, JCD, SSD. Not surprisingly, in this kind of life, our days are cluttered with appointments sometimes without much consideration of their priorities. Yet, one might ask: what about the priest who is assigned in a small barrio, who is sick with cancer, who is paralyzed, who has no money in the bank, who has not earned any civil or ecclesiastical degree because he was unable to finish his thesis—is he less than a priest? Does one think he cannot experience the joy or happiness of being a real priest, because of his altered, lowly and uneventful circumstances? One can only say “yes”, if he defines priesthood in terms of having. Listen to this: in the face of temptations of consumerism, there is no substitute for a priest who can say, “Whatever the circumstances, I am a priest, and I am content with it.” Of course, the greater challenge is to be faithful to it, to stand by that statement.
Obviously, this calls for simplicity of lifestyle. In a society like ours where consumerism fills the atmosphere, it is not easy to be simple. For one thing, our seminary training can appear less than modest and even seems not to encourage it. Each seminarian has his own room, he lives in a building where water, electricity and food are not a problem, and sometimes, he can even sit in a classroom that has air-conditioning. Life in the seminary, of course, may not be luxurious, but it is certainly with ease, if compared with how the majority of Filipino students live. Still, simplicity of life should be part and parcel of being a priest. Probably no one can be more simple that of Jesus Christ himself, the High Priest—he was born to a very poor couple, he had no house to call his own, he did not even own a burial ground, he had a simple job, he clothed himself with tunic. Similarly, St Paul adopted a very simple lifestyle: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Phil 4:11b-12). If Jesus and Paul lead a life of simplicity, there is no really why a priest should cultivate a taste for luxury.
A simple lifestyle is the secret of faithfulness to priestly identity. But at the same time—and this should be emphasized, it is a prophetic gesture that brings home the message that lavish lifestyle is contrary to the Gospel. Also, it gives witness to the transitoriness of this world. As Paul puts it, “The time is short. From now on, those who use the things of the world, [should live] as if not engrossed in them. For the world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31). As a witness against consumerism, a priest cannot spend most of his nights in socializing, or a large chunk of a year in travels abroad, or his days in endless dinners, drinking, mahjong sessions, shows, and excursions. When one engages in so many appointments that have little to do with the priesthood, they make him succumb to the temptation of identifying the priesthood with who he is with or with what he has. Little will be left for reading God’s Word and for care of the little ones. At the same time, they engender so many pressures, and in the end blood pressure shoots up. Priestly life is meant to be simple; more than that is an abnormality. To me, it is certainly very unsightly see a priest transferring to a different parish as his new assignment, bringing with him 5 truckloads of his accumulated personal belongings, equipment and paraphernalia.
Which brings us to this point: the greatest temptation that makes a priest succumb to consumerism is his own possession. Here, I do not have to mention how much money one has deposited in the bank, because that seems too obvious to require comment. Others are not so. One has to examine whether having two or three brand new cars, a vacation house in Boracay is within the limits of simplicity. One has to consider whether his stockpile of shoes and clothes, and yes, even fancy and fabulous vestments and sacred vessels with their famous signatures, does not border on superfluity. One has to ask whether he really needs up-to-date and costly cell phone, VCRs, TV set, Notebook, Ipad, Ipod, and fabulous gadgets and expensive dogs and exotic animals in order to be effective ministers. For the life of me, I still cannot understand why a priest has to own one or two private houses, or a condo unit in Global City when there is already a convento to shelter him from the rain. But even more important, one has to examine whether all these acquired things make him closer to God, and enhance his priestly character, improve his homilies, and deepen his life of prayer and improve his relationship with others.
Finally, and this is my last and third point, I really feel—and this is my belief—that simplicity of life and priestly identity would get him nowhere unless he makes himself insecure—yes, you heard it right, not secure, but insecure. Ordinarily, a priest, like any other person, is sometimes blind to the fact that the form of this world is passing away; he sometimes forgets his identity because he wants to be secure now and in the future. Living well today always implies that one cultivates the proper social appearance, right connection, good social networking and diplomacy. His concern for security in the present forces him to limit his vision to himself. Of course, I would say that all this is normal. After, who would reject a worry-free life? One can always say that there is no substitute for a kind of living where everything you need is within your reach. Just look at advertisement, offering us wares that free us from worry—from feminine napkins to car batteries. That is human need, and advertisement caters to that need.
Come to think of it: consumerism makes one think that financial security will assure a person of a happy life. The refrain is, one cannot be happy and be contended unless he is financially stable. Not surprisingly enough, insurance companies have mushroomed because they answer a created need in a consumerist society. No wonder, it is not difficult to accept a pabaon of P50 M because, with the prospect of retirement when perks will no longer flow, that amount will surely help in making a secure future. But even worse, like other elements of consumerist culture, accumulation of wealth not only subordinates morals to it, but action is judged on the basis of its effectiveness in the success of acquisition. Even family values are jettisoned, and good family relations are broken only because of one’s desire to amass wealth. Thus, there is no moderation in greed.
And yet, one has to take Jesus’ words on this point not simply metaphorically but quite literally: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air, they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?... Why worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is throne into the fire, will he not much more cloth you, O you of little faith?” (Matt 6:25-30).
I seriously think that if a priest is to stand by his identity, if he is really convinced of leading a simple lifestyle, there should be an element of insecurity in his life-experience. He cannot be faithful to his prophetic ministry if everything around him gives him a sense of security. When a pig is full, there is nothing more to do but sleep. A priest cannot testify to the transitoriness of this world if he continues to cultivate friendship with the security that worldly life offers. On the other hand, his insecurity will reinforce that idea that priesthood is really about “being”, not “having”. After all, priesthood is, before anything else, an ontological gift. Therefore, insecurity makes him human, enhances creativity, and therefore makes his vocation even more real. It brings him back to the reality that being a priest is actually about character, virtue and integrity, not about accumulation of passing things. At the same time, it opens his eyes to the workings of God, to his providential care, and makes him realize that there are values higher than financial security. There is no substitute in finding security in the arms of God. It makes one realize that in the final result, priestly life is about being wholly for God and for others. There is, therefore, no reason to be obsessed with a worriless future. One has to leave room for God. That would be enough. Solo Dios basta.