Page last updated at 03:20 Asia/Manila, Tuesday, 21 January 2014 PH
Through the work the Center for Research and Communication has carried out for several decades now in helping heads of local government units (LGUs) to formulate development plans that can uplift the conditions of the poor in their respective territories, I have been in close touch with the realities in some of the most depressed economic regions of the country, such as Aurora Province, Bicol and Eastern Visayas. Very recently, I spent some three weeks in the island of Mindanao during the most trying circumstances when bombs were exploding in key cities of both Northern and Southern Mindanao. In all these places I have met priests of the Catholic Church, both secular and religious, who are heroic in their presence among the poorest and most neglected individuals, especially in the rural areas. I can understand how these priests are torn between assuming predominantly secular roles like fighting for justice, eradicating poverty and improving governance on one hand, and carrying out their main role as teachers of the faith and ministers of the Sacraments on the other.
As we continue to celebrate the Year of Faith in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, I would like to remind the priests whom I have met and many others all over the country about a document that was issued after a Synod of Bishops just two years after the completion of the Vatican II. Entitled Ultimis Temporibus, this joint statement of bishops from all over the world may give some light on the main role of priests even in such trying times as we are facing today in the Philippines. In referring to the temptation to be overly involved in secular and political activity, the document emphasized that "the priestly ministry, even if compared with other activities, not only is to be considered as a fully valid human activity but indeed as more excellent than other activities, though this great value can be fully understood only in the light of faith. Thus, as a general rule, the priestly ministry shall be a full-time occupation. Sharing in the secular activities of men is by no means to be considered the principal end nor can such participation suffice to give expression to priests' specific responsibility. "
Some priests have asked me in these different places where I have been involved in development work if they are still free to exercise their rights as citizens of the country in trying to improve the socio-economic conditions around them. It seems that the bishops in their Synod in 1967 anticipated their question when they collectively wrote: "In circumstances in which there legitimately exist different political, social and economic options, priests like all citizens have a right to select their personal options. But since political options are by nature contingent and never in an entirely adequate and perennial way interpret the Gospel, the priest, who is the witness of things to come, must keep a certain distance away from any political office or involvement."
I know that it is easier said than done for the priest to abstain from political activity when he sees so many injustices and sufferings especially among the poor. But the answer here is for the priests to invest a lot of their time and effort to instruct in doctrine and form in values the lay people in their respective parishes so that it will be the task of the laity to sanctify the temporal realities and look for the solutions for which they may be more technically and professionally qualified than the clergy. Ultimis Temporibus has an advice that may seem extreme to the "activist priest." Taking all things into consideration, I find the advice full of common sense and wisdom: "In order that he may remain a valid sign of unity and be able to preach the Gospel in its entirety, the priest can sometimes be obliged to abstain from the exercise of his own right in this matter. Moreover, care must be taken lest his option appear to Christians to be the only legitimate one or become a cause of division among the faithful. Let priests be mindful of the laity's maturity which is to be valued highly when it is a question of their specific role."
I would like to cite a specific diocese in which the bishops and priests have been acting in the most exemplary manner in following the guidelines described above. I am referring to the diocese of Palo, Leyte. As any regional economist would know, Leyte and Samar in Eastern Visayas are among the poorest provinces in the country. In the diocese of Palo, Leyte, there have been lay people--both in the government and in the private sector--who are constantly being instructed and formed by their bishops and parish priests in the social doctrine of the Church and authentic Christian spirituality. The clergy in these provinces are devoting full time to their role as instructors in the faith and formators in Christian values and virtues. I am sure that there are other dioceses that have the same or even better conditions as regards the role of the priest. I just happen to have more intimate knowledge of what is happening in the Palo diocese. May their tribe increase. For comments, my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.