Philippine Daily Inquirer
A tale of two prelates
TWO BISHOPS HAVE LOOMED LARGE IN MY CONSCIOUSness during these past weeks of transition for both our nation and our Church.
In a recent visit to Cambodia, I had the good fortune to meet Monsignor Enrique Figaredo, dubbed the “wheelchair bishop” for his tireless efforts in behalf of those maimed and disabled by themillions of landmines left on Cambodian soil. In nearly 25 years of ministry, Bishop Figaredo has journeyed with the Khmer people in their efforts to recover from the ravages of the Pol Pot regime. As the moving force behind the Jesuit Refugee Service, Figaredo focused his energies on aiding those most severely affected by the privations of postwar Cambodia. Most recently, as prelate of the Battambang Prefecture, Figaredo has overseen the creation of an oasis of hope amid the squalor and poverty of the Cambodian countryside.
“Welcome to the center of the world!” This was Bishop Figerado’s greeting when I arrived in his parish in Tahen, the showcase of his work in the Battambang province. The words of welcome also sum up very well the approach taken by Figerado and the rest of his team in helping Cambodians—the people are truly central to the effort. Less than one percent of the population, for instance, is Catholic, but conversion is hardly a requirement for participation in the Church’s various education, livelihood and health initiatives. The many volunteers aiding Figaredo are ever wary of miring Cambodians in over-dependence on foreign aid. (The nation has among the highest numbers of non-profit organizations per capita, second only to Rwanda.) The focus is always on self-sufficiency and empowerment, with the church witnessing to the gospel through the power of presence and solidarity.
Closer to home, I have been reflecting, along with the rest of the nation, on the witness of the late Bishop Francisco Claver. His recent death has triggered an outpouring of tributes for his dedication to human rights and social justice. The Philippine Daily Inquirer, among others, has eulogized him as the first Igorot bishop and a staunch opponent of martial law, and rightfully so. Claver is the acknowledged writer of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) “Post-Election Statement of 1986” which galvanized public opposition against the Marcos regime, setting off the series of events that led ultimately to the first Edsa Revolution. It is no exaggeration to describe his passing as the end of an era for the Philippine Church.
My last conversation with Bishop Claver, however, was about decidedly less serious matters. In a brief post-dinner chat at the Loyola House of Studies infirmary where he had been convalescing for the past several months, the bishop spoke about his disdain for the bland infirmary food and his desire to go back to his beloved San Jose Seminary. He could not wait to clear the mess on his office desk and to repair the pond he had constructed—using traditional Igorot stonework—on the seminary grounds. I half-jokingly reminded him before saying goodbye that those things could wait and that he truly deserved the moments of rest he was getting.
Shortly after the bishop’s death, I recalled this final exchange and could not help but think of how his desire to work, even on the most menial of tasks, spoke volumes of what he stood for. Perhaps Bishop Claver’s most lasting contribution to the Philippine Church is his insistence on the importance of “building up the local church.” In his final book, The Making of a Local Church (launched just a few months before his death), he carefully explains that establishing and strengthening the Christian community is the task not just of the hierarchy but of everyone, laity, priests and religious alike. This was a vision carefully crafted and painstakingly practiced in his more than 40 years of service as a bishop serving the communities of Bukidnon and Bontoc-Lagawe, and animating the social involvement of the CBCP. Claver saw the Church as a labor of love by the whole community, and he was impatient to resume his part.
Perhaps something of what these two bishops have stood for has captured the national imagination during these first weeks of President Noynoy Aquino’s administration. In his inaugural address, Aquino invited all Filipinos to participate in the task of nation building: “If I have all of you by my side, we will be able to build a nation in which there will be equality of opportunity, because each of us fulfilled our duties and responsibilities.” And by sounding this clarion call on a doable, concrete level—not accepting bribes, falling in line, outlawing the use of VIP sirens (“wangwang”)—Aquino generated much goodwill and enthusiasm at the start of his term. “ (No one gets left behind!), the new president has proclaimed. It is his invitation, to paraphrase Bishop Figaredo, to truly make the Philippines the center of the world for all Filipinos.
Aquino’s approach echoes the “philosophy of social change” which Claver develops in his final book. He summarizes this philosophy as follows: “Broad change in people as societies will not take place effectively unless the people themselves participate freely and conscientiously in the process from beginning to end, setting ends, deciding on means, planning actions, assigning tasks, doing those tasks, evaluating them when done, trying new approaches and so forth.” Our new president will do well to take this lesson to heart.
I can imagine Bishop Claver flashing a wry smile of approval in heaven.