St. Paul in time of Covid-19: need to be focused more on Jesus

Quiet Storm by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II, 05 June 2020
Ceiling of the main altar and dome of the Malolos Cathedral, 12 June 2019. Photo by Mr. Lorenzo Atienza.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the most severe test the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines has ever faced, striking on the final year of her preparations for the quincentenary of the coming of Christianity in the country.

Making things worst is the “unfriendly” Administration whose policies contradict almost every known Church teaching, from the most basic GMRC and decency to the sanctity of human life.

In this three-part series of reflections, I wish to share with you my brother priests and lay partners in our ministry some lessons I have found in the life and teachings of St. Paul the Apostle that is centered on the person of Jesus Christ.

He never gave specific instructions and answers in dealing with the many issues and problems that confronted the early Church that may help us in the present generation; but, he had taught us to be always centered on Christ, measuring everything in him and his Cross.

Now I am reminding you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you… Through it you are also being saved… For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: the Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.

1 Corinthians 15:1-3
A sculpture of St. Paul the Apostle upon the entrance to the Malolos Cathedral by the renowned ecclesiastical artist Mr. Willy Layug. Photo by Mr. Lorenzo Atienza, 12 June 2019.

The gospel thrives most in hostile environment

St. Paul lived in a time very similar with ours when great developments and changes were overtaking the world with the usual problems of poverty and inequalities due to growing materialism, and persecution of the Church.

Instead of seeing them as problems, St. Paul saw them as opportunities to spread the Gospel because his sole focus was the Lord Jesus himself and his Cross.

In fact, all who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. But wicked people and charlatans will go from bad to worse, deceivers and deceived. But you remain faithful to what you have learned and believed…

2 Timothy 3:12-14

When the former Mayor of Davao City assumed the presidency and started lashing out us priests and bishops with his profanities and vitriol including blasphemies against God and Pope Francis, we all expressed our indignation and opposition.

And rightly so! – even in fighting for Kian and those fallen by tokhang as well as the victims of injustice and fake news.

As days moved into months and years, with more vulgarities and lies dished out by the man at Malacañang, there also appeared some silver linings over Pasig River but many of us in the clergy have refused to see and admit— that some of his accusations are true. Although these are more of the exception than the rule, there are indeed some priests leading inauthentic lives far from their vows of poverty and celibacy with others pretending to be shepherds of souls who do not smell like their sheep because they are more keen in amassing wealth and gaining fame and popularity.

Worst of all are those who have sold their souls to politicians for some petty favors and a taste of power, of being seen with the rich and famous.

I am not putting down our priests. There are more good and holy priests working faithfully and silently not only in our country but everywhere in the world.

What I am trying to say since our “persecution” by the present Administration began, this is a wake-up call for us priests to shape up and regain our bearings in Christ.

Actually, it had been coming since the previous Administration, too. For the longest time we have been lording it over the people with our abuses and excesses hiding in the excuse as “alter Christus” but, now the changing times have finally caught on us, demanding more transparency and honesty on our part.

Like with the experience of St. Paul, these situations of “persecution” with a pandemic are calls for our conversion in Christ anew, something that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has been insisting that we priests go back to Jesus, especially in the Blessed Sacrament.

Photo by Mr. Lorenzo Atienza, ordination to the diaconate at the Malolos Cathedral, 12 June 2019.

Like St.Paul, priests are first a witness of Jesus Christ

This time of crisis due to COVID-19 and the continued “persecution” by an unfriendly administration that has continued to keep our churches closed for no sane reason at all can be a grace-filled moment for us if we allow Jesus Christ to shine in us by bringing hope and inspiration to our people saddled with so much burdens due to COVID-19 and the government’s inconsistencies in managing the pandemic.

It is here where we are most expected by the people to be at the forefront but – unfortunately – we have been silent in asserting our religious freedom to worship within the rules and protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Only Bishop Pabillo of Manila had spoken against the “laughable policy” of allowing only five and ten people inside the church in areas under ECQ and GCQ, respectively.

Making matters worst was how the CBCP issued its statement reminding us priests and bishops to follow the directives and guidelines set by the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on Emerging Infectious Diseases regarding the celebration of the Mass! Instead of supporting the lone voice championing our rights to celebrate Mass in public, the CBCP just repeated the same situation when Jesus saw the crowd who have followed him to the wilderness, “sheep confused and lost without a shepherd” (Mt.9:36).

How sad we have given up the fight so easily to have our churches opened in the transition from ECQ to GCQ.

More sad now are the bishops and priests again in the news – filled with fire and courage – speaking out loudly against the anti-terror bill recently passed by Congress.

No problem fighting oppressive measures by any administration but to miss out that same fervor and zeal for our own rights and duties to provide the essential spiritual nourishment of our people at this time is something disturbing, something St. Paul would not allow to happen.

Yes, it is part of our priesthood to fight for people’s rights but always in the light of Jesus Christ.

St. John Paul II had shown us in recent history what it is when while still a priest and later as bishop in Poland, he spoke only of the words of God in the scriptures and fruits of his prayer that he was able to tore down the Iron Curtain his homeland and eventually throughout Europe.

St. Paul never played partisan politics like our Lord Jesus Christ, considering how they have lived at a time rife with occasions to be politicized. He never missed addressing social issues in the light of the gospel as he wrote one of his friends – presumably rich and influential – regarding a slave named Onesimus:

To Philemon, our beloved and co-worker… Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord.

Philemon 1, 15-16

How sad when we priests speak of so many things like current events and other trends without giving the people the Word of God.

It is even a scandal when we priests are more busy with social advocacies forgetting we are first of all a “man of the Word” according to Vatican II.

Let us not forget St. Paul’s reminder that though we are in the world, we are not of the world:

Do not conform yourself to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.

Romans 12:2

The gospel of Christ thrives most in hostile environment and situations but that does not mean going out like activists with clenched fists and raised voices walking the streets. We are not going to change the world; Jesus will — if we can proclaim him in words and in deeds.

The other week as we neared the conclusion of the Easter Season, one of the first readings on weekdays touched me so much, wondering if we priests can also say with all sincerity St. Paul’s words at Miletus when he spoke to the presbyters of the Church of Ephesus before sailing to Jerusalem for his trial:

So be vigilant and remember that for three years, night and day, I unceasingly admonished each of you with tears… I have never wanted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You know well that these very hands have served my needs and my companions. In every way I have shown you that by hard work of that sort we must help the weak, and keep in mind the words of the Lord Jesus…

Acts of the Apostles 20:31, 33-35

According to St. Luke, after those words, the people wept loudly as they threw their arms around St. Paul and kissed him. He was so loved by the people because of Jesus Christ, not of his very self.

Surely, like Jesus, St. Paul stretched out his arms and hands more to pray over people after hearing their confessions and problems, spent longer hours praying in silence or writing his letters to the various churches he founded, strengthening and inspiring them in Christ than be out on the streets seething with anger against any despot and regime.

On Monday our second part in the series, Fighting our detractors like St. Paul in time of COVID-19.

St. Paul saying goodbye to Ephesians at Miletus on his way to Jerusalem to face trial.

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