Bernardo M. Villegas
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Including the Poor in Society

           Fifty years ago, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council defined clearly the primordial role of the Catholic laity in establishing a just society in which all, especially the poor, share in the fruits of the goods of the earth.  In the "Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity,"  it was clearly stated that "the apostolate in the social milieu, that is the effort to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the community in which one lives, is so much the duty and responsibility of the laity that it can never be performed properly by others.  In this area the laity can exercise the apostolate of like toward like.  It is here that they complement the testimony of life with the testimony of the word.  It is here where they work or practice their profession or study or reside or spend their leisure time or have their companionship that they are more capable of helping their brethren."

          Today, these words have been given more urgency and concreteness by Pope Francis in the Apostolic Exhortation entitled "The Gospel of Joy."  I hope the Catholic laity in the Philippines can demonstrate to the Pope that they are actively responding to his pleas to "include the poor in society" when he visits us for the first time next year.  The Pope will not accept any excuses:  "No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because  their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas.  This is an excuse commonly heard in academic, business or professional and even ecclesial circles.  While it is quite true that the essential vocation and mission of the lay faithful is to strive that earthly realities and all human activity may be transformed by the Gospel, none of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice:  'Spiritual conversion, the intensity of the love of God and neighbor, zeal for justice and peace, the Gospel meaning of the poor and of poverty, are required for everyone.' "

          This appeal is especially addressed to Catholic lay people who are in politics, business, the academe and nongovernmental organizations involved in the restructuring of economic society to make it more inclusive. Professionals in these fields are the ones who can respond most directly to the following appeal of Pope Francis:  "The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed, not only for the pragmatic reason of its urgency for the good order of society, but because society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises.  Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses.  As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world's problems or, for that matter, to any problems.  Inequality is the root of social ills." The Pope, who will travel to Palo, Leyte in mid-January next year will not be satisfied with stop-gap or band aid solutions in resolving the scandalous poverty situation in our country in which a fourth of the entire population live in dehumanizing poverty.  In fact, in some areas of Eastern Visayas the poverty incidence can be as high as 50 per cent.

          I am sure the Pope will be very happy to visit several projects in Palo, Leyte that are examples of "welfare projects which meet certain urgent need."  Among these are homes for orphans and for the aging poor as well as socialized housing for those displaced by Typhoon Yolanda.  He, however, would like to be told a lot more by the Catholic laity of Eastern Visayas, which is a microcosm of the entire Philippines.  He would like to see the national as well as local government officials exerting more effort and devoting more financial resources to improving the quality of basic education for the children of the poor.  He would like to see more rural health clinics.  He would like the poor to have greater access to potable water and  electricity.    Real estate companies should partner with the Government to put up more affordable houses for the C, D, E homes, some for rental and others for actual purchase.  The unemployed and underemployed, especially among the fisher folks and coconut farmers, should be given alternative skills in construction and tourism, the two sectors that are likely to grow rapidly in the region in the next five to ten years.  

       Most importantly, both national and local governments should cooperate to endow the whole region with more farm-to-market roads, irrigation systems (especially in the coconut areas to enable the farmers to diversify into high-value crops such as vegetables, fruits and livestock), post-harvest facilities and agricultural extension services.  Large agribusiness firms should partner with cooperatives and small farmers in increasing the productivity of sugar farms and to introduce such new crops as coffee, cacao, cassava, palm oil and other high-value plantation crops.  To achieve this transformation of the rural areas in the region, there must be more imaginative approaches to agrarian reform that will make possible nucleus estate farming and other cooperative forms of increasing the productivity of the land.  The Philippines is notorious for having the lowest productivity in practically all agricultural crops in Southeast Asia. All these efforts to uplift the poor can be an answer to the Pope's plea in "The Joy of the Gospel":  "It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare.  Why not turn to God and ask him to inspire their plans?  I am firmly convinced that openness to the transcendent can bring about a new political and economic mindset which would help to break down the wall of separation between the economy and the common good of society."  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.