Quick question: How many Filipino Catholics go to church? In his Powerpoint presentation on this Year of the Laity 2014, Salesian priest and leading Filipino theologian Francis Gustilo flashed the disturbing, if not alarming answer: only about one in every seven Filipinos baptized in the faith—13 million of the estimated 85 million faithful—are church-goers.
Absent at masses and other liturgical activities are an estimated 72 million souls counted as Catholics, but missing in action, so to speak. In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis made special mention of these nominal believers as priorities for evangelization.
“Ordinary parish ministry,” instructed the Holy Father, should reach out to “members of the faithful who preserve a deep and sincere faith, expressing it in different ways, but seldom taking part in worship.” Many readers may find some of their family members, particularly the young, in this group.
Another mission thrust, Pope Francis added, should be “the baptized whose lives do not reflect the demands of baptism,” as his predecessor Benedict XVI told the 2012 Synod of Bishops. Those sisters and brothers in the faith “lack a meaningful relationship to the Church and no longer experience the consolation born of faith.”
Reach out to the ‘unchurched’
As a current member of the International Theological Commission advising the Supreme Pontiff, Fr. Gustilo, professor of Fundamental Theology and of Spirituality at the Don Bosco Center of Studies in Parañaque, would have read those papal words and perhaps commented on them as part of his ITC work.
In his talk at Our Lady of Pentecost Parish Church in Loyola Heights, Quezon City, last Thursday, however, the Pope’s namesake was concerned less about the theological permutations of Catholics not practicing the faith, but the needed actions to bring those “unchurched” millions, as he put it, back to Jesus Christ and His Church.
It’s not an easy task. With about 6,000 priests and 12,000 nuns in the country, Fr. Gustilo calculated that he and his fellow religious would need to woo back to church 4,000 less committed Catholics each. That’s about one lapsed believer every day for the next eleven years.
But the Don Bosco man had a far better idea: Why not harness the 13 million faithful who do go to church in the mission of evangelizing the 72 million who don’t? Clearly, Fr. Gustilo was paying close attention to the first major document crafted and commented upon by the ITC for Pope Francis.
The paramount mission of all believers
Mobilizing every Catholic for evangelization was exactly what the Holy Father advocated in Evangelii Gaudium. All the faithful must join hands in the mission of preaching the Gospel and bringing the world closer to God. Quoting John Paul II’s 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio (Mission of the Redeemer) in parts, Francis declared:
“John Paul II asked us to recognize that ‘there must be no lessening of the impetus to preach the Gospel’ to those who are far from Christ, ‘because this is the first task of the Church’. Indeed, ‘today missionary activity still represents the greatest challenge for the Church’ and ‘the missionary task must remain foremost’.
“What would happen if we were to take these words seriously? We would realize that missionary outreach is paradigmatic for all the Church’s activity. Along these lines the Latin American bishops stated that we ‘cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings’; we need to move ‘from a pastoral ministry of mere conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry’.”
In sum, the paramount activity of all Catholics is to proclaim the Gospel through their lives and words, and bring fellow human beings to Jesus Christ in the Church, so that all souls may be saved.
Evangelization begins at home
So how do 13 million church-going Filipino Catholics bring back the 72 million unchurched? Fr. Gustilo’s game plan is to start at home.
That’s where he himself began: in his own family home, where his older brother’s family lived together with their parents. While Kuya was himself an active member of two religious movements, Fr. Gustilo observed that there was no belen or Holy Family scene at home in December. “There was a Christmas tree, but no belen,” he recalled. Moreover, as in countless other households, especially among the affluent, the children were more interested in Facebook than faith books.
Fr. Gustilo suggested that the whole household have weekly “liturgical Bible study” of the coming Sunday mass readings, initially led by a colleague of his. His parents and his brother obliged. After the expected reluctance in the first few weeks, the Thursday evening sessions stirred the family’s interest.
And enthusiasm: Kuya’s youngest son wanted the Bible sessions moved to Monday, so they have more days before the coming Sunday mass to share insights with others. Having received the wisdom and joy of God’s word, the family wants to share it.
Pope Francis recounts that very experience of joy in the Gospel, as his exhortation is titled: “Thanks solely to this encounter—or renewed encounter—with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption . . . Here we find the source and inspiration for all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?”
Eight years to touch six souls
Last Thursday’s talk on the Year of the Laity is part of the Philippine Church’s preparations for the 500th anniversary in 2021 of Christianity’s arrival in the archipelago. In 1521, Ferdinand Magellan’s three religiously christened Spanish ships, the Trinidad, the Concepcion, and the Victoria (named after a Marian church), brought Christ to Cebu.
Friars baptized its ruler Rajah Humabon, his queen Hara Amihan, and 800 subjects. As a christening gift, Magellan gave her a wooden statue of the Holy Child Jesus. Priests also celebrated the country’s first mass on nearby Limasawa island. Even after the Spaniards left, Cebuanos venerated the Santo Niño image, as colonizer Miguel Lopez de Legazpi found in 1565, and celebrated today in the Sinulog festival.
In the years toward 2021, the Church strives for renewed vigor, sanctity, relevance and evangelical zeal. And one of the best ways for believers to mark the quinticentennial is for each one to bring six less devout Catholics back to church over the coming eight years. And with God blessing our efforts, the 72 million will again be embracing Christ. Amen.