The Church in the Wilderness

by Archbishop Socrates B. Villegas

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Message of Archbishop Socrates B. Villegas


The message of Archbishop Socrates B. Villegas at the Opening of the 113th CBCP Plenary Assembly, July 9, 2016, Pope Pius XII Catholic Center, Manila. Before the debate over the Reproductive Health Act in 2012, Philippine bishops were “heard and respected,” but now the Church is a “Church in the wilderness,” the president of the bishops’ conference said on July 9, 1916.

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Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, July 9, 2016

Message of Archbishop Socrates B. Villegas at the Opening of the 113th CBCP Plenary Assembly, July 9, 2016, Pope Pius XII Catholic Center, Manila

Fifty one years have passed since the closing of the Second Vatican Council and twenty five years since the celebration of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines. Vatican II addressed the important relationship between the Church and the modern world. PCP II embraced the vision of a Church as a community of disciples, a Church that wants to be known as a Church of the poor.

How has the Church in the Philippines been for the past fifty years? How have we been as bishops since President Marcos in 1965 to President Duterte in 2016? How has the CBCP been since the presidency of Cardinal Julio Rosales at the conclusion of Vatican II until now? Where are we? We reached where we are right now owing to the many turnings of grace that our Church has seen for the past half a century.

The first of the turnings was a turning to prayer and piety in the sixties.

The Cursillo movement, the charismatic renewal seminars, the block rosaries, the reform of the liturgy, Masses in the vernacular, the inculturated Church songs—all these created a new life and vigor for our Church. More men participated in a Church that used to be women dominated. We heard the Church challenging everybody to be holy.

The call to holiness is for all and we equated holiness with prayer. From the path of prayer and piety, we made a gentle turn to a street called faith that does justice. We saw this in the seventies and early eighties under the cloud of a military dictatorship and repression.

Critical collaboration was the CBCP mode of relationship with the State. Often it was more critical than collaboration. It was like walking on a tightrope seeking the will of God and working for the good of the suffering country. We saw how some of our priests and nuns got enthralled in godless ideologies and violent means for social change. The basic ecclesial communities were responsive to the call for total human development and liberation. Many of us were young passionate churchmen in those years.

The Church path of faith seeking justice made yet another turn to towards the path of peace and development under the post 1986 people power revolution.

Without the military repression and an authoritarian regime, would the Church still be relevant? Many of us saw ourselves more collaborative than critical and sadly in some instances, co-opted by our former comrades in rallies now occupying top government positions. We were consulted as bishops; we were heard and respected. Our recommendations were mostly heeded.

The turning to peace and development made yet another dramatic twist with the passage of the reproductive health law as a turning point. It was a turning to the wilderness. It felt like we were voices in the wilderness proclaiming a teaching that our people could not identify with. Our pastoral letters were unheeded, mocked and ignored.

We were speaking a language that our flock could not understand. When we appealed for morality, our people laughed at vulgarity. When we challenged indecency, we were despised and ridiculed as archaic.

When we preached about marriage and family life, we were dismissed as uninformed bachelors. We are called shameless hypocrite children of whores. It felt like the Church was like Ysmael son of Abraham sent to the desert to die.

We are in the wilderness like the wilderness of the Lord’s forty days of prayer and fasting; like the wilderness of the Israelites after crossing the Red Sea.

The temptation to change stone to bread is almost irresistible; the temptation to be spectacular and jump from the dome of the cathedral unharmed is strong; the temptation to bow down to the tempter is great; the temptation to complain reminiscing the melons of Egypt is hard to resist.

One million Christians have been killed worldwide for the past sixteen years. The violence against Christianity is not just physical but political, ideological and cultural as well said Cardinal Robert Sarah.

But the wilderness is also for purification and prayer. It is also for returning to the basics without the trappings and icings. The wilderness beckons us to stay with the Lord and return to the essentials. The wilderness tests our readiness for martyrdom.

If, in the days of the persecuted Church, the blood of her martyrs was the seed of the faith, so too, in our times, the zeal of Catholics and the ardor of its people — clergy and laity alike — will bear witness to the Spirit of God who moves the Church ever forward, boldly, fearlessly and always mercifully in the wilderness!

Pastors of the Church in the wilderness will courageously defend and vindicate the rights of the poor and the oppressed, even when doing so will mean alienation or persecution from the rich and powerful” (PCP II, #131).

Let this be our commitment.

We will stand up for the moral right. We will resist the moral wrong. We will stand and defend every person’s life and dignity. We will shield the weak from harm. We will protect the confused from error.

We will guide and enlighten the lost. We will teach, even it seems like a voice in a hostile wilderness, till the day we die, that right is right and wrong and wrong and we will not withdraw from mission of the Lord. Our call is not to be successful but to be faithful.

The Church may be a voice gone hoarse proclaiming Christ in the wilderness with only a handful listening; but in the wilderness, the best in us shines forth.

“I charge you proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.

For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teacher and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths.

But you, be self-possessed in all circumstances; put up with hardship; perform the work of an evangelist; fulfill your ministry. (2 Tim 4:2-5).


© Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines

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