(First of two parts)
IS faith only for the afterlife?
Eminent sociologist Randy David pondered the question in his recent column “Culture, faith, and the Black Nazarene” on the yearly phenomenon of millions of Filipino faithful flocking to and devoutly parading the Quiapo Church icon in early January.
“On one hand,” the University of the Philippines professor wrote, “the Nazarene devotion seems to signify the continuing vitality of faith in the life of the Filipino. But, on the other, I cannot help wondering if this tremendous collective power can ever be harnessed as a positive force in the building of a prosperous nation and a decent society.”
Fr. Catalino Arevalo shares David’s desire to see religious fervor harnessed for future development. In his Sunday mass homily, however, the leading theologian from the Society of Jesus stressed that religious festivals already offer immense value for believers now.
Devotion gives hope
Prayer and ceremony sustain their hope that God will eventually uplift them. This faith gives comfort and helps sustain the drive to improve lives. With faith, the poor go about their daily struggles to provide for their families, work for a better tomorrow, and live by the Gospel despite the pressures and inducements of deprivation. And that, says Fr. Arevalo, constitutes great goodness and even holiness.
This daily effort is akin to Jesus’s own exertions as a Jew of limited means in Roman-occupied Israel. No roaring ride or dazzling digs for Him, but the everyday quest for bread and other basics. Fr. Arevalo also notes that it is hard for the well-off to truly understand this endless grind of the underprivileged, who still find room in their tough existence for devotion to God
In sum, if one correctly understands the good Jesuit, faith isn’t just for some future world built by human striving or bestowed by divine mercy, but for people’s betterment today.
What religion is all about
Of course, in the eyes of faith, rites and devotions are first and foremost sanctifying acts which enable earthbound human nature to participate in the heavenly and supernatural. That’s what religion is all about, whatever may be its more visible effects and potentialities in the world.
Sure, faith has been harnessed for human edification, social justice, and charitable works, as well as, sadly, subjugation and war. Christian monks conserved, advanced and spread knowledge, as religious institutions of learning have done to this day. Christian morals have underpinned the struggle for human rights and freedom through the centuries, though many believers have also oppressed and exploited others.
And while religions have their excesses and failings, from the Inquisition to terrorism, they also have immense capacity for reform and renewal, as Pope Francis now espouses. In sum, belief in God does impact on human civilization, for better or worse.
Worshipping as God’s children
Nonetheless, for all those influences of religion on the world, let’s not forget every faith’s primary objective: communicating with the Eternal and Infinite. For Christians, liturgy and devotion convey their God-given status as His children, delighted with Him, depending on Him, devoted to and trusting in Him completely.
Thus, in last Sunday’s Gospel reading for the Holy Child feast in the Philippines, Jesus admonished: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matthew 19:14). God Himself showed us how to approach Him as children by His own childhood. That is one great significance of the Sto. Niño celebration.
Along with the seven sacraments, devotions like novenas and processions express the faithful’s adoration of the Almighty and veneration of His saints, and convey their praise and gratitude for His bounty, and petitions for His forgiveness and providence.
Even if such sanctifying effects were all that were achieved by the three million devotees in the Black Nazarene procession in Manila and last weekend’s million-strong throng in the Cebu Sinulog feast for the Holy Child statue, these communal acts of faith would have done their job.
For national character and unity
But of course, those outpourings of devotion have done much for the nation as well. Much has been extolled about the Filipino’s resilience in the face of disasters, poverty, and oppression. That hardiness must owe something to the faith and hope in God, staunchly believing in the midst of helpless agony that His grace and succor will eventually come to assist our labors.
The Holy Child, Sacred Heart, Immaculate Conception and other statues adorning many homes and offices are not just objects of devotion, but also symbols and assurances of heaven’s aid in our earthly endeavors. And that cannot but help believers work harder, weather inevitable setbacks, and persevere till success comes. That can only be good for progress.
Religion also instills morality, justice and compassion, for the God that preaches those virtues cannot be expected to bless those who violate them. To be sure, many people with icons ensconced in their homes and workplaces do not practice Christian virtues. But a good number of devotees do, perhaps even a majority. And that helps advance ethics, equity, and charity in the nation.
Indeed, many a Nazareno or Sinulog participant has pledged not only to join the annual procession, but also to turn away from past vices and abuses. Among the mass of hands pushing, touching and reaching out for Quiapo’s cross-bearing Christ and Cebu’s smiling Infant Jesus, there are tens of thousands no longer toasting booze, betting on numbers, beating wife and children, picking pockets or pocketing bribes.
Last but certainly not least of religion’s bounties for the nation is its unifying force. Not even rock concerts and political rallies can bring Filipinos together in the millions the way Nazareno, Sinulog, and a papal Mass can. Elections mobilize tens of millions, sure, but they are hugely divisive. In religious activities, on the other hand, believers set aside ideological, political, commercial, social and other differences to pray as one, as countless Filipinos will during the National Day of Prayer later at 5 p.m.
Perseverance, morality and unity — these are immense bounties for national advancement from the Philippines’ outpourings of faith.
(In his article, Prof. David also observed rightly that many Christians practice devotions, but still commit sins and crimes with no remorse. We’ll tackle that issue on Friday.)