Crowd in Luneta during the most recent papal visit, est. 6M people, source: interaksyon.com

Turning a bitter line into grace

on THAT recent comment about the Catholic Church

When I saw the headline yesterday announcing that comment on the Catholic Church, my first reaction was to gloss over it. It’s not a thoughtfully engineered accusation. I shouldn’t take it too seriously.

We all know the spectrum of characters in the Church is wide. Cardinal Tagle is oh-so-different from the SUV receiving bishops from a few years ago. Pope Francis, who insists on going around in tiny cars, is definitely unlike the mansion-dwelling bishops in other parts of Europe. There are lay Catholics who have devoted their entire lives to service, in contrast to those who treat their employees like dirt.

Besides, even if he no longer identifies with his religion, sacramentally speaking, he still belongs to the Church. He, like many of us, was baptized Catholic, which means the Church has left an imprint on his soul no human being (including him) can dissolve or erase. It’s obvious that he wouldn’t agree with this theological truth. But how about the majority of us that call ourselves catholic? Does he realize that when he detracts the Catholic Church, he’s hitting an intimate part of many, if not most Filipinos?

The Catholic Church does not only mean the clerics who run the Church’s bureaucracy. The Catholic Church means all Catholic believers. The Catholic Church means the millions of Filipinos who kneel quietly in pews throughout the country each Sunday and strive to live honorably and honestly. So, when he critiques the Catholic Church without qualification, he overlooks the countless Filipino Catholics who lead pretty decent lives. Many of them probably even voted for him.

I agree with him there are pockets of corruption and abuse within the institutional Church. But I’ve also met many inspiring individuals whose lives radiate the love they encounter in worship: Mothers who spend sleepless nights tending to sick children. Husbands who struggle to stay faithful to their wives in a culture that claims infidelity is almost normal. Men who choose to resist the lure of pornography because they believe in the dignity of women. Single mothers who choose to keep the life of their unborn children. Business professionals who leave lucrative careers to teach the young and serve the underprivileged. Priests who risk their lives and endure loneliness to serve communities in far flung and under developed areas. Nuns who live and die with the poorest of the poor.

These silent heroes belong to the Catholic Church. In fact, they are her stars. Although he didn’t intend to, his unqualified comment silences the power of their witness. In this way, his words rob them more than those Catholics who don’t bother to live out what they believe. (I mean, even Christ was harsh towards religious hypocrites. I’m pretty sure if we ask him, he’ll quickly say that corrupt, hypocritical “catholics” are his worst representatives. He won’t say they’re full of you know what— he’s too merciful for that kind of language. But he’d probably give them a scolding as bad, or worse than what he did to those temple money lenders.)

So even if I don’t take the presidential critique too seriously, I think it provides a wonderful opportunity to ask ourselves what ‘Catholic Church’ really means. The Church should not be measured according to her hypocrites. Her real ambassadors are those who strive to give her a good name. Those who have sacrificed a lot to make her a palpable community of love and redemption.

To honor their work, and turn his bitter line into an opening for grace, I’ve decided to speak for these unseen saints, and notice their heroism. These invisible individuals are the true face of the Catholic Church. Their unpublicized stories are the real measure stick of what the Catholic Church is full of. He might try, but he can’t make us forget that this kind of goodness exists. He can’t make us forget that what pulsates at the Catholic core is a goodness more powerful than death.

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