Papal Legate in Cebu
Cebu City: The week-long 51st International Eucharistic Congress here has drawn a much smaller assembly than earlier expected, but through Archbishop Jose Palma of Cebu, and most especially through Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon, who came to represent Pope Francis at the conference, the Church delivered most stirring messages on the Eucharist, which are likely to be talked about among thoughtful Catholics for some time.
Supported by his brethren at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) whose regular January meeting he had hosted a few days earlier, Palma welcomed the Papal Legate and all the other delegates to the IEC, which was being held in the country for the second time in 79 years. He spoke of Cebu as the cradle of Christianity in Asia, which will be marking the 500th anniversary of its arrival in the Philippines by 2021, and as the home of the martyred Pedro Calungsod, second Filipino martyr after St. Lorenzo Ruiz and the patron of Filipino migrants and youth.
Under a blazing afternoon sun, which prompted the Papal Legate to say “the moon is hot in Cebu,” Cardinal Bo presided over the opening Sunday Mass at Plaza Independencia, with Cardinal Piero Marini, president of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses, Archbishop Giuseppe Pinto, the Apostolic Nuncio, CBCP President Archbishop Socrates Villegas, and Palma himself as principal concelebrants, and with Cardinals Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato, Gaudencio Rosales (Archbishop Emeritus of Manila), and several hundred bishops, archbishops and priests concelebrating. For health reasons, Cardinal Ricardo Vidal, the archbishop emeritus of Cebu, was advised by his doctors to stay indoors.
Catholic politicians were barred from campaigning, and the only notable political personalities noticed by the media were City Mayor Mike Rama, former Deputy Speaker Pablo Garcia and Vice President Jejomar C. Binay, who melted inconspicuously into the crowd and were noticed only when they came up the stage to receive the Holy Eucharist. A small fire broke out close to the plaza during the Mass; this summoned the mayor to the scene, but was hardly noticed by the crowd.
Linking heaven and earth
In his remarks, Palma spoke of the Eucharist as the sacrament that “connects Heaven and Earth in Jesus Christ.” Recalling Pope Francis’s visit to the Philippines last January, and the love he has shown to Filipinos, particularly the victims of natural calamities, he thanked the Pope for sending Cardinal Bo as his representative. And he thanked Bo for his visit.
A former president of the Myanmar conference of Catholic bishops, Bo is one of the youngest cardinals in the Church, in terms of membership in the College of Cardinals. He was raised to the red hat only on February 14 last year, and has been Archbishop of Yangon for the past seven years. He showed his common touch and his facility with languages by throwing in some Filipino and Cebuano sentences into his English text, which delighted the largely Cebuano-speaking audience.
Palma and Bo both agreed that the Filipinos’ love for the Pope has helped to increase their devotion to the Eucharist. This, in turn, has strengthened and should continue to strengthen the Filipinos’ unity to Christ. In this extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, it should produce numerous missionaries of mercy among Filipinos. But a “dichotomy” exists between the Eucharist and life, which every Catholic Christian should bridge, Palma said.
Love for the Pope
In his homily, Cardinal Bo’s occasional drift into Cebuano and Filipino gave local color to his address. “Pope Francis loves you very much,” he said. “Ang atong Santo Padre gihigugma kamong tanan. Kayong lahat ay mahal na mahal ng Santo Padre,” which the crowd met with enthusiastic applause.
He lauded the Filipinos for their Catholic faith. In many parts of the world, Catholicism means Filipino presence, he said. This was not the first time I heard this word of praise. It seems to be an opinion shared by so many others, a well-deserved reputation that has spread around the world. In my travels abroad, I have come to know more Filipinos by chance inside a church or before the Blessed Sacrament than in any other place.
From Hong Kong and Singapore to the Middle East, Filipinos (particularly the El Shaddai) normally lead the music ministry and other parish activities. But our piety sometimes bubbles up into a show of pietism, and tends to become superficial. We also sometimes see the most devout individuals practice various forms of superstition. This was probably why Cardinal Bo said adoration is not enough.
Adoration not enough
“Adoration alone makes us a devotee,” he said. “But being a devotee is one of the easiest things—-debosyon kay Santo Ninyo, debosyon kay Jesus Nazareno. It is good, but not enough. Christ is calling us to be His disciples. To carry his cross. The Mass of a devotee ends in an hour. But the Mass of disciples is unending.”
Quoting John Chrysostom, Bo said the Eucharist and the poor are inseparable. ”In a world that kills children in the womb, in a world that spends more on arms than on food, in a world that continues to have millions of poor, the Eucharist is a major challenge to all of humanity. Can we feel the presence of God in our brothers and sisters?” Bo said.
Citing statistics from the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), Bo said 20,000 children die everyday of starvation. This is “silent genocide, the biggest terrorism in the world,” he said.
War on iniquity
An economic system that does not treat human beings as commodities is possible, Bo said. Taking off from St. John Paul II, who once called the Philippines “the light of Asia and the world,” Bo said the Philippines has shone its light on all of Asia; as the biggest Catholic community in the region, its urgent task is to declare war on the forces that keep millions in poverty and expose thousands to unsafe migration, he said.
“The Eucharist calls for a third world war. A third world war against poverty. A third world war against the cruelty of dogs getting sumptuous organic food while more children die of starvation,” he said. In this, the Filipinos must be agents of peace and reconciliation.
Recalling the words of a Filipino Jesuit bishop of happy memory, Francisco Claver, who once called the Philippines the world capital of natural disasters, Bo commended the Filipinos for their natural resilience in the face of so much adversity. This was most recently shown during the super typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan, which prompted the Pope to visit last January.
All throughout the last three days, reflections on Christian hope dominated the congress. On Monday, at the Mass commemorating the conversion of St. Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles, Cardinal Marini reminded the assembly that this conversion had something to say to every Christian. For what begins as self-conversion must ultimately be shared with others. The world needs to be converted from the false attractions and baubles of materialism to the true treasures of the Spirit.
The words uttered by the Church in Cebu were among the most significant we heard about the Eucharist and life in the last few days. It is a matter of genuine regret that these failed to gain enough attention from the mass media, even in Cebu, which seem to have more time and space for other things.
Look at the people
As a pilgrim in search of meaning, I tried to listen closely to all the exegetes and the experts at the conference. But I seemed to find more meaning in the simple devotion of the people. There is something truly marvelous about them, especially the poor, despite what some tend to dismiss as “folk Catholicism.” It is a work of grace. These last few days I saw the most ordinary men and women and the world at large in prayer. Prayer in all its forms– liturgical, personal, oral, mental, silent prayer.
Not all of them, I’m sure, have heard that among the prayers, the Eucharist takes the highest form; that, in this prayer, the Church relives the passion and death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ; that the species of bread and wine are turned, by the words of transsubstantiation, into the body and blood of Our Lord. This is why the Church declares in Vatican II that the Mass is the source and summit of Christian life. Yet they uniformly show the Mass the reverence and awe proper only to God. Although those with battered knees are no longer obliged to kneel at Mass, I saw elderly women in that condition, fall on their knees at consecration.
Why do you pray?
But one of the most unforgettable conversations I had was with a foreigner, who wanted to talk about prayer. Why do I pray? he asked me. What reason do I have to pray? It was not an everyday question, so I was caught a little off-guard. I tried quoting Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, who was believed to have said man is born to pray. Praying is breathing; without the oxygen from God, the spirit dies. Having heard of my devotion to Saint Josemaria Escriva, he asked me how I would reconcile that statement with what the Saint of Ordinary Life says, that man is born to work, as birds are born to fly?
I said one does not contradict the other.
I understand St. Josemaria to say that one must sanctify one’s work until it becomes a prayer; that by one’s ordinary work, done extraordinarily well, one prays and transforms one’s life into prayer. This is but fair: for there is not a millisecond in one’s life when one is not a creature of God and owes whatever he is, or has, to Him. He nodded at my answer, so in turn I asked him: “In your case, why do you pray?” He disposed of my question with one short question: “What else is there?”
So to the question at the beginning this article–Has Faith a future in our troubled Age?–I propose another question, Without Faith, is any future at all conceivable?