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.

Timely reminders from St. Paul in this time of pandemic

The Lord Is My Chef Breakfast Recipe for the Soul by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II
Wednesday, Memorial of St. Charles Lwanga and Companion Martyrs, 03 June 2020
2 Timothy 1:1-3, 6-12 ><)))*> + <*(((>< Mark 12:18-27
Photo by Mr. Raffy Tima of GMA-7 News, April 2020.

We thank you, most loving God our Father, for the grace of perseverance and patience in this time of the pandemic. We thank you for the gift of trusting in your love and mercy despite all the sufferings and hardships our people have been going through amid the callousness and insensitivity of our leaders in government who have allowed to open offices, factories, and malls without providing adequate transportation while keeping all houses of worship closed.

May they heed, O Lord, the reminders of St. Paul to Timothy:

“I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.”

2 Timothy 1:6-7

We pray for more courage for our leaders in government so they may not cower in fear to the threats of COVID-19 when there are so many measures to control its spread which they should have taken long time ago but have failed to do so for reasons only they know.

Give them courage to stand up to their superiors, to admit their faults and failures instead of being so concerned in building their image as strong and capable that deceive no one.

Remind us all, O Lord, that we own nothing in this life. Everything is yours even the power and authority we have that must be tempered with genuine love and concern for the people and most especially with self-control.

How sad, O Lord, that until now, there are people who insist on possessing persons like the Sadducees who cannot accept resurrection of the dead because they are stuck into the belief couples “own” each other:

“At the resurrection when they arise whose wife will she be? For all seven had been married to her.”

Matthew 12:23
From ShareCatholic.com

One of those who thought of owning people was the pedophile King Mwanga of Uganda who persecuted the Christians in 1885-1887.

Inspire us, Lord, with the examples of St. Charles Lwanga and companion martyrs who remained pure and chaste, choosing tortures and death than to give in to the sexual perversions and immoralities of King Mwanga.

Their martyrdom became the seeds for the growth of Christianity in Uganda.

Help us to lead holy lives, Lord, amid the many sufferings we have to endure especially at this time of pandemic worsened by those who do not seem to care at all about you and spirituality, of the elderly and the sick, of the poor and needy among us.

Keep us all strong and let us not be perverted by the corrupt among us, always bearing our share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from you, O God. Amen.

Call of the COVID-19 quarantine: a return to our contemplative spirit

Quiet Storm by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II, 29 April 2020

Photo by author, 2010.

This is again for my brother priests and fellow workers in Church communication: our extended “enhanced community quarantine” is a call for us to rediscover the contemplative spirit so essential in our communication apostolate. It is best that before we go in front of the camera, before we post anything at all, or even before we go out doing our social action, let us first have Jesus Christ in us.

After all, it is always Jesus and only Jesus we bring as priests in everything we say and do. Jesus is our life as priests and without him, our works mean nothing. Worst, it may be happening that it is not Jesus whom we are following when we fail to spend time with him in serious prayers that unknown to us, we are already replacing him by creating our own ministry apart from him.

Incidentally, we are celebrating today the Memorial of St. Catherine of Siena who is considered as one of the patron saints for those working in telecommunications and TV stations.

In one of her numerous “ecstatic” visions, it is said that when she was so sick in her room, she begged the Lord to give her a glimpse of the celebration of the Mass in their chapel. The Lord heard her prayer and thus, she became the first person in history to have celebrated Mass by “remote telecast”!

From Google.

Faith and technology

We have mentioned in our previous reflection that we now live our faith in a mass-mediated culture. Media is all around us. And there is always that intense temptation by the devil to put us on TV and the internet to be popular.

So, how do we interact with technology on a daily basis?

What are we posting on Facebook? Are we like the rest who are also hooked into TikTok with all the inanities that go with it?

How much time do we spend for social media and Netflix these days?

And how many hours do we spend before the Blessed Sacrament, excluding our Liturgy of the Hours and praying of the Holy Rosary?

From Google.

We are familiar with Marshall McLuhan’s dictum “the medium is the message”.

This we have seen in the past very evident in our ministry when some priests have transformed the South American telenovelas and later Koreanovelas into a gospel too that people felt like listening to reviews during the homily. And it had given some people the idea that every homily of the priest must say something about television shows! In fact, about three years ago, some priests have to be reminded by the CBCP during the Simbang Gabi to focus only on the Word of God and not on TV shows and jokes to get the attention of their congregation during Mass.

But let us not forget that later in his life, McLuhan added to his dictum that “the medium is the massage” to warn us that sooner or later, we can be eaten up by media that everything is reduced into a show – or a palabas in Filipino that means outward.

That is what a show is, a palabas which is empty or walang laman.

And shallow, mababaw.

That is the sorry state of our many social communication efforts in the Church when we have Masses that have become like entertainment shows, priests becoming entertainers, church buildings and decors that look like videoke bars evoking none of the sacred, and tarps and posters that are all hype without any evangelical meaning.

Observe also how our presentations and shows in our Catholic schools and parish halls have become mere repetitions of what are on television that have left many of us now stuck in Emmaus who could no longer find the way back to Jerusalem, even to Jesus because all we see are the fun and excitement, the glitz and the glamor of media.

And of our massaged ego.

Road to Emmaus from clarusonline.it

Keeping technology in its place in the Church

We are not saying modern communications is evil; the Church has always been clear that these modern means of communications are in fact a gift from God. Vatican II asserts that it is Church’s “birthright” to use and own these modern means of communication for evangelization (Inter Mirifica, 3)

Our challenge in the Church is to keep these modern technologies in its proper place.

A technological culture is not the most hospitable environment for religious belief, but neither is it necessarily hostile. If we are to find a way of expressing our faith in this technological culture and of speaking to and with the people formed by this culture we need to take time to consider how we, as individuals and as a faith community, interact with technology on a daily basis.

James Mcdonnell, Communicating the Gospel in a Technological Age: Rediscovering the Contemplative Spirit (1989)

In a story posted by the CBCP News two days ago, it reported the experience of Filipino priest Fr. Jun Villanueva who contracted the dreaded COVID-19 disease in New York City last March shortly after he had arrived to study there.

Assigned in a parish in the heart of the Big Apple, Fr. Villanueva tells how he spent his days of being “alone literally and emotionally” as “moments with God”. But, his turning point came after recovering from the corona virus when he began celebrating Mass alone:

“I really cried when I first celebrated Mass without churchgoers. There’s no one in the Church except Jesus,” he recalled. “Then I realized that the Mass is not a show but our union with Jesus, whether there are people or none,” he said. “I started to look at the situation from that perspective”.

Fr. Jun Villanueva, CBCP News, 27 April 2020

That is the first step needed to put technology in its proper place in the Church: that we bring back Jesus Christ whom we have banished in the name of our ministry and vocation. The more we think of putting so much “art” and other things to “enhance” our liturgies, then we banish Jesus Christ.

This is the other pandemic we have refused to stop in the Church: triumphalism, the overdoing of things for God that in the process we actually put more of ourselves in the ministry and liturgy than of the Holy.

Is there anyone or anything greater than the Lord?

Remember St. Theresa of Avila: Solo dios basta!

And, like our saints who guide us closer to God, the only way to have Jesus and bring him back in our lives and ministry, in the church as institution and building is through the contemplative spirit of the priests.

It is a good thing that the catch call these days is that the “return to normal” is actually a “return to basics” like washing of hands, covering of mouths when sneezing, and most of all, a return to God.

From Google.

The spirits of modernity characterized by constant changes and technological efficiency do not jibe so well with the demands of the Gospel of Jesus Christ who have always reminded us of guarding against the temptations of the material world.

Jesus tells us to practice poverty but the world tells us to be wealthy.

Jesus asks us to forget ourselves and follow him but the world tells us to be popular and follow the limelight.

Jesus tells us to go down and be humble but the world tells us to rise up and go higher!

The other day, Jesus reminded us in the gospel:

“Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him the Father, God, has set his seal.”

John 6:27

Most of the time in the Church and in our lives as priests, we have to be “inefficient” like “waste time” doing nothing in front of the Blessed Sacrament; have less of everything like food, money and clothing; be silent to listen more than to speak and talk more.

The contemplative spirit is about poverty and going down while the world tells us to be wealthy and to rise and go upwards.

The contemplative spirit is to be silent and trusting always in the Lord rather than relying on our own powers and abilities.

Here is James McDonnell again on the need to rediscover the contemplative spirit in communicating the gospel in this modern time.

“The contemplative spirit is an attitude of mind and heart that enables us to focus on the essential, important things. It refuses to be hurried or rushed into premature rejection or acceptance of technology. If we Christians allow it to inform our use of communication technologies we shall learn to be realistic, but always hopeful, able to love and reverence our culture even as we strive, with God’s help, to transform it.”

Communicating the Gospel in a Technological Age: Rediscovering the Contemplative Spirit (1989)

Take heart, my dear brother priests: we are representatives of Jesus Christ, our Eternal Priest. We are not entertainers and pleasers of anyone but of God alone. We do not need followers and likers. And we have so many other things to do than TikTok and Facebook or Instagram.

Let us go back to Nazareth to be silent and hidden so we can return to Jerusalem to await for further instructions from the Lord. Amen.

“Supper at Emmaus” by Caravaggio. From Google.

Mga guyang ginto sa piling natin

Lawiswis Ng Salita ni P. Nicanor F. Lalog II, Ika-26 ng Marso 2020

Eksena hango sa pelikulang “The Ten Commandments” noong 1956.
Tinuturing ng mga Hudyo
ang pagsamba ng kanilang ninuno 
sa guyang ginto 
ang pinaka-nakakahiyang yugto
sa kanilang kasaysayan 
nang talikuran nila sa ilang
butihing Diyos hanap katapatan lamang.
Mula noon hanggang ngayon
guyang ginto ang naging larawan
na siyang kumakatawan sa ating 
mga sinasambang diyos-diyusan:
salapi at kayamanan, 
kapangyarihan at katanyagan,
lahat iiwan, tatalikuran makamit lamang.
Hindi ako kumibo noong una
kahit napupuno ng nag-aalimpuyo
na galit at ngitngit sa mga balitang sumisingit 
mga VIP para sa kakaunting testing kit;
ngunit nang itong si Koko Pimentel
hindi nagpigil, di napasupil
ako ma'y kumulo ang dugo sa gigil.
Di niya inalintana mahawahan
mga karamihan ng sakit na di pa maunawaan
siya pa ngayon ang nangangatuwiran 
sa kanyang kapabayaan at kapalaluan
pakiwari siya ay tama at kawawa
kaya sa kanya ang madla
nagalit halos siya ay isumpa.
Ito ang malungkot na katotohanan
nalantad sa isang iglap ng kapabayaan, 
kahangalan at kayabangan
silang mga halal at makapangyarihan
sa taumbayan walang pakialam
sila na mismo ang guyang ginto
na ibig sila ang sambahin at paglingkuran!
Kaya nga aking mga kababayan
huwag kalilimutan mga taksil ng bayan
huwag nang ibalik sa luklukan
dahil ngayon pa lamang ay nagkasubukan
sa oras ng kagipitan tayo ay kanilang iniwan
hindi dapat pagkatiwalaan
sapagkat sila'y mga propetang bulaan.
Larawan mula sa Chabad.org

The power of God

The Lord Is My Chef Breakfast Recipe for the Soul

Monday, Week 3, Year 2, 27 January 2020

2 Samuel 5:1-7, 10 ><)))*> ><)))*> ><)))*> Mark 3:22-30

Photo by author, sunrise at Camp John Hay, Baguio City, November 2018.

Praise and thanksgiving to you, O God our loving Father in heaven! How amazing we are now at the final stretch of the month of January 2020, passing through many darkness that have cast over us spells of gloom and sadness, disappointments and fears, even hopelessness.

Yet, you never failed to shine upon us the bright lights of love and mercy, power and grace in Jesus Christ our Lord that we are still awake and so alive this Monday morning, ready to face another week of work and school, challenges and trials.

In our readings today, O God, you remind us of the need to be filled with your power and grace to accomplish your will despite many obstacles.

David in the first reading was able to unite all the tribes of Israel and drove away other peoples to make Jerusalem their capital city and your dwelling place. Indeed, in whomever your power rests, nothing is impossible to achieve.

But how unfortunate and tragic when people refuse to recognize your power, O God, resting on your Christ – your Anointed One – Jesus of Nazareth!

Like the scribes of his time, there are still some of us who believe in the power of other men and women than of your power in Jesus we often doubt and refuse to believe in.

The scribes who had come from Jerusalem said Jesus, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “By the prince of demons he drives out demons.” Summoning them, he began to speak to them in parables, “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.”

Mark 3:22-24

Bless us, O God, with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to recognize your power in Jesus Christ by first claiming it in your most holy name. To claim your power, O God, is to submit ourselves to your power to forgive our sins, to cleanse us of all evil, and most of all, to do everything in your glory.

Fill us with your power and grace, O Lord, so we may accomplish your work this week. Amen.

Photo from Google.

Forgetting God

The Lord Is My Chef Breakfast Recipe for the Soul

Wednesday, Week XXXII, Year I, 13 November 2019

Wisdom 6:1-11 ><)))*> <*(((>< Luke 17:11-19

Altar of the Carmelite Monastery, Guiguinto, Bulacan, 12 November 2019.

Lord Jesus Christ, forgive us when most of the time we are more like the nine other lepers you have healed than the lone Samaritan who returned to thank you.

How easily we could forget your goodness and kindness to us!

Worst, when we are strong and powerful, in total control of almost everything in life, we deliberately forget that we share only in your authority.

Let us heed your reminder today:

Hear, O kings, and understand; learn, you magistrates of the earth’s expanse! Hearken, you who are in power over the multitude and lord it over throngs of peoples! Because authority was given you by the Lord and sovereignty by the Most High, who shall probe and scrutinize your counsels!

Wisdom 6:1-3

May we come out clean and pure before you in our exercise of your power and authority. Amen.