Thursday, August 27, 2009

A 'participatory' Church would challenge hierarchical power, bishop says

Union of Catholic Asian News
August 26, 2009

QUEZON CITY, Philippines (UCAN) -- Retired Bishop Francisco Claver, in his new book, "The Making of the Local Church," shares his vision of a participatory and inculturated Church.

The Jesuit anthropologist spoke with UCA News about the tensions such a concept has created within the Church, including the challenge it poses to the established power structure.

Bishop Claver, 80, was the first bishop to come from the indigenous Bontoc people of the northern Philippines. He was ordained in 1961 and appointed the first bishop of Malaybalay, in the southern province of Bukidnon. He served there until 1983.

From 1995 until he retired in 2004, he headed the apostolic vicariate of Bontoc-Lagawe. He also served in the 1980s as chairman of the Philippine bishops' Commission on Social Action, Justice and Peace.

On Aug. 24, two days before he was to launch his book at the Jesuits' Loyola School of Theology in Quezon City, he shared with UCA News the highlights of his ministry and the insights he gained, including his vision of Church.

The interview follows:

UCA NEWS: How do you define the "local Church"?

BISHOP FRANCISCO CLAVER: It is a Church of bishops, priests, Religious and laity trying in their own way to make the Gospel come alive in their communities, where members interact as Christians and human beings.

You highlight inculturation in your book.

Inculturation is the dialogue between the people and the Spirit, and it must take place at all levels of the life of the local Church. Faith is a gift of the Spirit, and culture belongs to the people. If you put the two together, then the Spirit will talk about Gospel values, and inculturation is trying to put the cultural values and your faith values together.

Why did the movement to build the local Church slow down?

Take a look at the literature -- theological journals talk about the local Church very commonly. It's only Rome that is insisting on "particular Church" and other terms. That cardinal from the Roman curia I wrote about in the book, telling us at the 1998 Synod (for Asia), "Let's talk about the 'Church in' not 'Church of' Asia" -- that's all part of this attempt to fight it.

Why does Rome prefer "Church in Asia"?

If you just say "Church in," then its part of a power structure. You are just a small part, whereas "of" means there is more independence. That's why I insist on using "local Church." The bishops of Asia used that term in their 1974 Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences plenary assembly. Even then, the bishops said the Church in Asia must not only be geographically "in Asia," but speak with an Asian voice, act in Asian ways so we can be authentic Asian Christians.

But during the Asian Synod, that cardinal objected to the term and proposed instead "Church in Asia." I don't oppose the term, but it is not wrong to say "Church of Asia" and "local Church." It is in consonance with what Vatican II said about the nature and mission of the Church.

Will this vision of "local Church" materialize without Rome's acceptance?

Well, let's not talk about Rome. Let's talk about what's happening on the ground, about renewal from the bottom. The big thing about changing clerical culture is to start mostly from the ground, with laypeople interacting with their priest. If it is taken from the ground, it is very emotive. That is why I make much of the Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs). If what happens in the BEC takes place also at the top, this whole idea of participation, we can have a genuine community of disciples.

What are the key elements for this to succeed?

Anthropologists are the first ones to say culture change is not going to be easy because it impacts the values of people. You cannot change values overnight. The more you talk about it the better.

How do BECs promote the local Church?

In BECs we stress discernment. Let the people discern and realize what the values are and what changes are taking place. We stress shared faith communities.

Who will lead that discernment?

Cultural village philosophers: the people.

People have complained about priests blocking BECs.

Priests are the biggest obstacle. That's why we start with the philosophy of change. My own experience in Bukidnon is an example. I wanted to start BECs. I had 30 priests, all Jesuits, and only a few of them -- four or five young ones -- were open to it. So with the five, we went ahead and developed this. Only little by little, when the others began to see what was happening, did they take an interest. When I left in 1983, out of 35 parishes 33 were fully in line with the BEC. Lay leaders and priests must understand and accept what change is going to take place.

What examples of discernment and people's participation do you give in your book?

There was a layman who talked about ideology. At a recollection I asked why Marxist ideology seemed more attractive than Christianity. One of them said the Marxist ideology and methods were clear, but as Christians we just have to be able to walk in darkness and discern what the Gospel tells us to do.

I was flabbergasted, because this was a man with not even a high-school education, and an indigenous person at that.

I had also written a pastoral letter saying it was not right for Christians to participate in the referendums that (Ferdinand) Marcos had scheduled to show that people supported his regime. These mocked their dignity as a people. I wrote that boycotting the referendums was the most moral action to take.

But when families got together to discern my letter, I was surprised they decided the husband would boycott the referendums and the wife would vote. The family is very much part of the Filipino culture. The father could have gone to jail, but someone has to take care of the children. So it is also out of responsibility that they decided to do this, with their culture meeting what the faith says.

When you see this happening, you begin to ask yourself whether we can have this in the whole Church -- thoughtful people making responsible decisions. Isn't that what participatory Church is all about?

It seems obvious. How come it has to be pointed out?

I think it's about power. That's why I criticized clerical power in the book. I mentioned in the book that for some clerics, it's not so much about unity but uniformity. We tend to emphasize doing the same thing, but we can have unity in diversity.

You say this book is a summary of your episcopacy, but is it more than that?

Even if I talked about my experiences in Malaybalay and Bontoc-Lagawe, readers have said they recognize that I am talking about the whole Church in Mindanao (southern Philippine region). I also discussed in the book the symbiosis between Church and state. The BECs are not only aiming for change in the Church, but also in wider society.

What is the impact of poverty on BECs?

It's easier to build BECs in poor communities. It's very hard in cities, because some people don't care, but also because people are more cosmopolitan.

A BEC works better in the rural set up, where people still have a sense of community, gathering around the village chapel, and nobody is a stranger to anybody. That's one of the objections of some priests about getting this started in cities, but I say that's even more reason to get it going there.

Use your imagination to get people together. A BEC has to be tied in with the parish, with the diocese, with the local Church. It should not be apart like a ghetto (or) it becomes a sect. That's why I also point out its difference from voluntary organizations and from mandated organizations. BECs are non-selective, unlike the Knights of Columbus and other groups. BECs accept people who are baptized.

When you started as a priest, did you imagine you would envision such a Church?

No, I didn't. We were trained in the old Church, with Latin and so on. Then Vatican II came and it was revolutionary.

Do you anticipate the movement on the ground will weather resistance from the hierarchy?

It depends on the direction the Church takes. I'm hopeful for the Philippine Church, because in PCP II (Second Plenary Council of the Philippines, 1991) at least the Church already said this is what we want to be. It takes a long time, bishops have to learn. People talk about differences between conservatives and liberals, but I say that's not our problem.

Our problem is between close-minded conservatives and close-minded liberals. They have all the answers. That's why when you talk about the participatory Church, you have to make much about the learning Church. That's the problem of bishops. They always think they are going to teach, and are not looking at the other side, the learning part.

In writing this book, were you mindful of the shortage of priests?

I faced the question: Why do you call it ecclesial when to be ecclesial you have to have the Eucharist? BECs don't have the Eucharist. The Church teaches about the centrality of the Eucharist, but if it cannot provide a priest for this, it might come to relaxing the rule on celibacy. What I point out here is the contradiction of the Church. If you are the one who talks about that centrality of the Eucharist, and you are the one who engineers it so that people don't have the Eucharist, you are contradicting yourself. We make it more important that the celibacy rule is followed even if people are deprived of the Eucharist. It was the Church who imposed that celibacy rule.

What other points in the book do you expect will draw a reaction?

The point I brought up about this whole canon law on consultative-deliberative votes of bishops. That's precisely what's wrong with the Church, and we haven't faced up to that thing of power in the Church. I'm raising the question of participation in the Church. I'm telling the Church you are not respecting human dignity, and I criticize a consultative-deliberative vote because where it concerns the life of the community, the people have a right to have a say. Even in a democracy, people are consulted, but by stressing this law, the Church is emphasizing power.

What exactly do you oppose in this law?

In consulting, I may ask your ideas, but already from the beginning my mind is made up. That consultative process is a farce. For example, in synods the documents are already written up, or there is a consultation, but it is only the Pope who writes the final statement. He could do that without consulting.

Well, it all hangs together. There is a lot there in the concept of participatory Church -- there is power, there is inculturation. That's why the "local Church" is a very threatening concept for the hierarchy.

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