An opinion column by Teresa R. Tunay, OCDS, in "The CBCP Monitor", the official publication of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines. For feedback, please email teresatunay@gmail.com. Thank you!

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Faith by numbers



I don’t understand why supposedly prayerful, polite, educated, civilized persons would forward chain messages (via Messenger) that urge you to pray, and then to pass on the same prayer to a number of people in order to be divinely rewarded.  Here’s just one example:  “jesus christ is giving you mystery to take care of your family, you will give good news after 29 minutes nag try ako totoo, swerte daw ang makabasa nito kya pinasahan kita. Panginoon tulungan mo kami na malutas ang aming mga problema, bukas andyan na yong good news. Please sacrifice huwag mo tong buburahin hanggat di mo naipapasa sa 25 na tao. start now.”  There’s also one that urges you to make a wish and then pray just one Hail Mary, but it ends with “send this novena to 30 persons including me.  Don’t break the chain, you wish will not be granted.”  And there are so many others similar in purpose and in tone.
There’s no doubt the sender means well (I close my eyes to the ridiculous claims), but I can’t help wondering: why the particular numbers 25, 29, 30, or sometimes 18, 9 12, et al.  Have the superstitions about numbers crept into our consciousness, too, like for instance the Chinese?  Or is there something about their beliefs that needs to be “adjusted” by proper catechism?  
A broker friend of mine complains that “It’s very difficult to sell condo units with numbers that end in “4” because, as she rightly concludes, majority of condo buyers are Chinese investors, and that is also why condominium developers build high rises without a fourth floor.  In fact, their elevators skip the fourth floor.  The Chinese believe “4” is an “unlucky number” because it sounds like the word for “death”.  My broker friend observes “Nag-uunahan yung mga intsik sa units with number 8 because for them it’s a very lucky number. In fact the units on the 8th floor sell fastest, and sometimes even at a higher price.”   Interesting to note that many elevators also skip the 13th floor, “13” being believed as an unlucky number, this time by Americans. 
It is reported that the United States loses about a billion dollars on a Friday, the 13th.  The normally acquisitive American wouldn’t want to make a major purchase—car, house, boat, etc.—or sign a major contract on a Friday that falls on the 13th of the month.  “It’s bad luck”, a thought that has magnified into a phobia that has seemed to affect the rest of the civilized world, including numerologists.
One numerologist I know is a devout Catholic, but who sincerely, really sincerely believes there are “auspicious dates” for making big decisions or moves.  He once cautioned me against flying on a certain date I had decided to fly.  I didn’t listen to him because, as I teasingly spoke his language, “I have my own superstitions about numbers.  No number is a bad number for me; they all bring me good luck.  Try me.  Pick any number from 1 to 10.”
He said, “Four, the dreaded number.”   Easy, I quipped: four ends of the cross, proof of God’s love for us, reaching out to all four corners of the earth, east, west, north, south.  “Eight?”  Infinity—on and on and on, like the love of God.  “Six?”  Mary, the six-point star Star of Israel.  “Three?”  The Indwelling Trinity.  “Five?”  Jesus’ wounds on the cross. 
I interrupted our little game by playfully volunteering related information using his own science: “Our house stands on a rock, supported by 12 concrete posts—12 apostles.  From the street level to living room entrance you climb 39 steps—the 39 lashes Jesus suffered.  Our house is a simple box—four corners for the ground floor plus 4 corners for the second floor equals eight corners, infinity, remember?  Our street address is number 41:  “4” represents M (as in Mary), the 13th letter of the alphabet, 1+3=4; and “1” represents J (as in Jesus or Joseph), the 10th letter of the alphabet, 1+0=1.  You want more of my superstitions?  So don’t try to scare me with yours!”
It would be nice to study biblical numerology but really, I believe we don’t need such knowledge to rise above the petty threats of chain messages, or to brush aside the sincere but unnecessary anxieties of our “psychic” friends.  Just as all roads lead to Rome, for me all numbers lead to Jesus.  Then I can embrace as His will whatever comes.  And that’s the truth.  

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Lost in fake news


Question 1:  Why would people—often brilliant ones—create fake news? 
Question 2:  Why would supposedly intelligent and educated people believe and spread fake news?
Question 3:  If someone spreads fake news in social media with the intention of “informing everybody”—does it mean he or she may be straying from The Truth?
Answer 1:  People create fake news to gain power and to make money.    The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus defines “fake news” as “false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke.”   Wikipedia adds:  “Fake news is a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media…  with the intent to mislead in order to damage an agency, entity, or person, and/or gain financially or politically, often using sensationalist, dishonest, or outright fabricated headlines…”  And from Pope Francis’ Message (for World Communications Day 2018): “…fake news refers to the spreading of disinformation on line or in the traditional media.  It has to do with false information based on non-existent or distorted data meant to deceive and manipulate the reader.  Spreading fake news can serve to advance specific goals, influence political decisions, and serve economic interests.”
That’s pretty clear—fake news generators aim to gain power by influencing public opinion.  Plus, they make money twice—from the client who hires them to do the job, and from the so-called internet click revenue.  Fake news fabricators use websites to run fake news, and these websites accept advertisers.  Each time a reader clicks on an ad, money comes in for the website creator.  Fake news creators are experts at making sensational headlines or “clickbaits”—for example, “Pope endorses Trump”—to attract readers “who want to know the truth”.  Lies are big business, you see?   
Answer 2:  Even supposedly intelligent and educated people like some lawyers and doctors and university professors may unwittingly become purveyors of fake news.  People have a conscious desire for true information, but due to carelessness or personal bias, they are prone to consume—and spread—false information.  Messages may appeal to people because they respond to their own desires or prejudices, thus they not only accept such messages on faith, but also forward them without verification.  Classic examples of these are fake news that either praise or lambast political candidates, dignitaries. and celebrities.
What is called the “illusory truth effect” also plays a huge part in the propagation of fake news.  Recent research in psychology reveals that exposure to fake stories leaves a subtle impression each time.  Experiments prove that each time we receive a forwarded false story on Facebook, and then receive the same multiple times from more friends and friends of friends, the story grows more familiar and that familiarity, according to the experts, casts the illusion of truth: “The illusory truth effect comes to play when we hear or read fake news claims repeated, no matter how ridiculous or illogical they sound.”   Remember that law of propaganda attributed to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels: “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.”  A piece of fake news is a lie, so….?
Answer 3:   Yes, someone who spreads fake news in social media, even with the intention of “informing everybody”, may be straying from The Truth because he/she has become so anxious, contemptuous, angry, and emotionally fired up that he/she loses sight of what is good and doesn’t bother anymore to discern the data received in the light of Christ’s teachings.  (That’s what you get for squandering your hours on social media).  Pope Francis says “The tragedy of disinformation is that it discredits others, presenting them as enemies, to the point of demonizing them and fomenting conflict.  Fake news is a sign of intolerant and hypersensitive attitudes, and leads only to the spread of arrogance and hatred.  That is the end result of untruth.”
If you’ve been dragged into participating in this fake news thing, is there an easy fix to the problem?  It is correct to see it as a problem because one who is lost in the world of fake news has a divided heart. There is a sure fix but it may not be that easy: abstain from social media and reconnect with The Truth “I am the truth…” (John 12:6) until He makes you whole again.  And that’s the truth.


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

‘Walang forever’ is fake news


Isn’t it ironic that on March 19, the Solemnity of St. Joseph—family man par excellence who chose not to divorce Mary, the mother of Jesus—the divorce bill was approved on its third and final reading by Congress?  Officially known as House Bill 7303 or “An Act Instituting Absolute Divorce and Dissolution of Marriage in the Philippines”, the bill was voted on 134-57.  To date, the Philippines and the Vatican are the only states where divorce is illegal, and Filipino Catholics take pride in that.  But with a vote of 134 vs. 57… who knows what Senate will say? 
Filipinos are a family-loving people, we celebrate births and birthdays, we respect life, we love wedding anniversaries and happily-ever-after movies, and we truly believe that “walang forever” is fake news, manufactured by the broken hearted.  There is forever, and with the relics of St. Therese of Lisieux in our midst (since January 12) until May 2018, we may yet be inspired to imitate her parents, St. Zelie and St. Louis, to help us form virtuous spouses who would love their children enough to rule out divorce as an escape from marital trials—and yes, stay together, forever.
The Church did not make Louis and Zelie Saints because their daughter is a Saint; rather, the Church acknowledges that their daughter became a Saint because she was raised by saintly parents.  When Therese wrote “Holiness consists simply in doing God’s will, and being just what God wants us to be”, she must have had her parents in mind.
Before they met, both Zelie and Louis had wanted the religious life—he as a monk and she as a nun—but God wanted something else.  So they met (curiously, on a bridge) and barely four months later got married on July 12, 1858; he was 34, she was 26.  Still, with their consuming desire for sanctity, Louis and Zelie decided they would, while married, live a “celibate” life together—but God didn’t allow that either.  A priest soon advised them to do as married people normally do, have children, and raise them for God.  They obeyed the priest, but prayed for sons with the noble intention of offering them to the Lord as priests—but again, God had other plans.  They had nine children, and the only two boys God took back in their infancy, along with two girls in their childhood, leaving the couple five girls who grew up into adulthood and became nuns, all of them.  For decimating all of their dreams, did Zelie and Louis balk at God’s alternatives?  No, they would go with the flow.
Although their respective crafts and businesses kept Louis and Zelie busy, they were never too busy for their children.  Zelie would set aside her lace-making for two hours to “have a dinner party” with the girls and their dolls, and Louis would likewise play along, saying “I am a big child with my children.”  Unlike the other businessmen of their day, Louis and Zelie refused to open shop on Sundays, a day reserved exclusively for worship and enjoyment with the family.  The Martins’ devotional practices included early morning Mass daily, family prayers said regularly, and spiritual reading of favorites like “The Imitation of Christ” and biographies of French Saints.  In May, they would surround the statue of Our Lady of the Smile with plants and flowers in keeping with the Catholic tradition of devoting the month to Mary.  They would also go on pilgrimages—Louis visiting local churches and shrines on foot, and Zelie to Lourdes by train when she suffered from breast cancer.
The death of four of their nine children, while painful for the God-fearing parents, were to become tragedies that intensified their love for each other.  Instead of wallowing in their shared grief, Louis and Zelie poured out their affection on the surviving children, all girls: Marie, 12; Pauline, 11; Leonie, 9; Celine, 3; and the new-born, blonde and blue-eyed Marie Therese Francoise, who would after a hundred years come to be known as St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower of Jesus.  
About the pain of losing her children to death, Zelie would write in one of her letters: “When I closed the eyes of my dear little children and when I buried them, I felt great pain, but it was always with resignation. I didn’t regret the sorrows and the problems I had endured for them. Several people said to me, ‘It would be better to never have had them.’ I can’t bear that kind of talk. I don’t think the sorrows and problems could be weighed against the eternal happiness of my children. So they weren’t lost forever. Life is short and full of misery. We’ll see them again in Heaven.”  And in another letter, Zelie summed up the essence of parenthood: “When we had our children, our ideas changed somewhat.  We lived only for them.  They were all our happiness, and we never found any except in them.  In short, nothing was too difficult, and the world was no longer a burden for us.  For me, our children were a great compensation, so I wanted to have a lot of them in order to raise them for Heaven.”
Perhaps this is one value to be learned from the fourth visit of the relics of St. Therese of the Child Jesus in the Philippines.  Returning to our shores at a time when we are losing our children due to disasters, human traffickers, war, or a contentious vaccine, could Therese be hinting that we befriend and imitate her parents so that we may also cherish and raise our children as gifts from a loving God?
Relics bring the presence of Saints in our midst. No doubt there will be more stories of miracles or favors granted during the six-month duration of St. Therese’s relics’ visit in our country; churches again will overflow with people pleading for succor, even those who hardly go to church.  As we queue up to kiss or touch these holy remains and pray for favors through the Saints’ intercession, may we realize that our Church presents Saints to us not only for our edification or comfort but more so for our imitation.  But what if we do not receive the miracle we pray for?  Again, we take a cue from St. Zelie Martin who, dying of cancer, went on pilgrimage to Lourdes (France), praying to be cured.  Denied her request, she wrote in a letter:  “The Blessed Mother didn’t cure me in Lourdes.  What can you do, my time is at an end, and God wants me to rest elsewhere other than on earth.”
A faith that does not hinge on miracles but aims for surrender to God’s will—we can bring ourselves to ask that from God through Sts. Zelie and Louis.  Besides lobbying against divorce, perhaps there is little or nothing else we can do to sway our pro-divorce lawmakers’ thinking to ours.  We do not want divorce, but if worse comes to worst and it is passed into law we will in complete trust continue to be docile to God’s, persevering in marriage and parenthood, and like Zelie and Louis Martin, focused on “raising children for heaven”.  Because we know that deep within our hearts, God has planted the seed of forever.  And that’s the truth.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Clean our souls


Health is wealth—it is true.  Ask those who have lost it, and you’ll know how sickness reduces one to a pathetic level of poverty that’s worse than mere economic want.  That is why when we are blessed with good health we should do our best to preserve it by using moderation in everything we do: no overeating, over-drinking, overworking, over-playing, over-worrying—no over-anything.  But there are those who—over confident of their “great health” and “fantastic immune system”—dismiss sound  health advice; when they finally fall ill and are put on a diet they would continue indulging their appetites, reasoning that “Me gamot naman eh!” (There are medicines anyway!).  This attitude afflicts many people whether they are learned or not, rich or poor, male or female, clergy or consecrated persons.  Then, when science or their doctors give up on them, they run to Padre Pio, or buy a pilgrimage to Lourdes, or light candles in some other popular shrine—begging for miracles.  I actually know of a few terminally ill persons who zealously did so, only to die without receiving the miracle they prayed for.  It is sad to see them die with eyes open and mouth gaping wide, still hoping for healing. 
The healing of the leper by Jesus (Mark 1: 40-45) is a story with many layers to it.  Usually, we see only the level that is readily visible, and that’s the kind of miracle people are wont to pray for—instant healing.  But isn’t it rather disrespectful to live carelessly—apart from Jesus—and then to ask Him to free us from the disastrous consequences of our carelessness?  It is, of course, unjust, but we Christians are taught that there is also God’s mercy to beg for, and so we go down on our knees and try to feel sorry for our sins.
Like the leper we ask Jesus to “clean me”.  Unlike the leper, our skin may be clean but our souls may not be.  Perhaps the leper’s skin is filthy but his soul is pure—who can say?  Note how he recognizes the Lord’s power, aware of his own deplorable condition.  And so the leper says, “If you wish, you can make me clean.”  Humble in his helplessness he leaves it entirely up to Jesus to make him whole again.
When we ask God to heal our bodies, why not first implore Him to help us clean our souls?  And so we humbly say, as the leper does, “If you wish…”

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

An open letter to my daughter, the nun


My dearest daughter:  Let me begin this letter with a plea for pardon.  I am aware that what I am about to say may sting you, and yet in conscience I believe that my silence might hurt you more.  I have spent countless nights turning these thoughts over and over in my head—specifically since last Christmas when for a few days we had the privilege of having you at home with us and enjoying all those family reunions and parties—agonizing over how I could share with you my observations without sounding like a meddler.  I do not know how it happened but after you had gone and life went back to normal, bits and pieces of those holiday moments with you would flash back to mind, very much like a silent movie trailer challenging me to listen to what was left unsaid.
Strangely I would catch myself seeing you not just as a nun but also as a daughter I had given up for good, for God.  In fact, I would see through your religious habit the tomboyish grade-schooler, the spunky papa’s girl, the teen-ager beginning to notice boys and scare them away with her high IQ, the budding young woman we had hoped to give us brilliant grandchildren in time, and the radiant “bride of Christ” crowned with roses on her “wedding day.”  As the women’s lib generation would say: “You’ve come a long way, baby!”  Maybe your mom is just getting old and worrisome, but I cannot help singing to you along with Diana Ross your own favorite song, “Do you know where you’re going to?”
Where you are going, my daughter, is my rightful concern, too, in spite of the security you enjoy within the convent walls.  Your being a nun creates expectations in others, whether you like it or not—expectations which, by the nature of your vocation, you may not just take for granted.  The public expects you to be different—because they believe you to be several notches above us in virtue or holiness.  You are aware of this, as your numerous anecdotes about receiving special treatment from strangers reveal.  We, your family, have our own expectations, too, that in the spirit of fairness must not be ignored.  Like all others, rightly or wrongly we do believe you are somehow morally superior to us, after all, you have “given up everything” for God.  As a consecrated person, do you not feel obliged, for love of God, to be what people expect and believe you to be?  And does not God have expectations of you as well?
I hope you will not take offense at my temerity, but for now I do not want to call you “Sister”; instead I just want to think of you as Nina, my daughter who happens to be a nun. I as the woman who brought you to this world feel morally obliged to speak out now, for I do believe God has expectations of me, too.  I may not have a Ph. D. as you do, but child, if your two doctorate degrees teach you to dismiss as grumblings the observations of one who has given birth to and raised six children, then I will not think twice about twisting your ear so you can hear your mother ask, “Do you know where you’re going to?”
As a much younger nun, you were a perfect blessing to us, I’d dare say.  You were much easier to get along with, for one.  You were a model of congeniality and humility for all of us; your nephews and nieces adored you and listened eagerly to your bible stories; your cousins sought your advice; even our house help revered you as you would always volunteer to do the dishes, sweep the floor or change the curtains while vacationing with us.  Your father and I secretly felt very proud of you as we did not have any doubts anymore that you were in the place God had called you to be.  But last Christmas, I sensed a disconnect between that young nun and the 45-year old “Superiora” you are now.  What bothers me is you seem unaware of the effects your ways now have on others.  Or, do you care at all? 
Take, for example, that time when, besides the lechon paksiw and other holiday take-home food you had been given, you asked for the unopened bags of chips and chocolates.  Did you not notice the furtive glances from those at the table as you—loading them into a huge bag—were saying “Walang ganito sa kumbento eh!”  I was quiet lest you think I was depriving you of a little luxury, but I was thinking, “My child, if they don’t give you junk food in the convent, there must be a good reason for it.”  It alarms me as your mother to realize that your appetite for such “goodies” has made you forgetful of your doctor’s warning about the threat of diabetes—and your very own concern about weight gain.
I also noticed something in your conversation.  While it was good that you sounded very well informed about world news—and your nieces and nephews said  you were “cool” to be abreast of internet trends and social media—I missed the way you used to make us see mundane affairs in the light of the gospel.    It was something only you in the family could do—lead us to the Lord through your insights as a daughter of the Church.  Years ago I had felt sure your higher studies, your travels abroad, your interaction with anointed men, and your assignments to important posts would make you an even better story-teller, enriching our lives and drawing people closer to the Lord, but last Christmas I saw that it did not happen.  At one point you even expressed dissatisfaction over the homily of a bishop.  If I had been blind (and therefore could not see your religious habit), I could swear I was just listening to a college professor who may not even be Catholic at all!  I felt sad. 
I as a mother also felt sad for your siblings when you acted disappointed since none of them could accommodate your request for a ride back to your convent.  I know they had done that for you willingly before, but people’s needs change, and so do their priorities, and it upset me that you, Sister Nina, were too insensitive to empathize with them.  They now have growing families, with countless familial duties to cope with, but because they—not even your kuya—could not directly beg off and risk displeasing you, they had to rely on me, your mother, to plead for your consideration.  When I suggested you take a taxi instead, and you snapped, “Such a small favor to ask, and no one can help?  You know I’m afraid to take taxis!” I seethed inside and managed to stifle a curt “Afraid?  So where is your God?”  That night I couldn’t sleep.  I wondered what traumatic thing you had suffered that made you dread taxi rides; you used to take taxis, jeepneys, buses, and tricycles without fuss before you entered the convent.
Your religious habit opens many doors for you—you know how our people hold priests and nuns in high esteem.  People believe you are “malakas kay Lord” and count on your “hotline to God” to obtain favors for them.  But not all of those whom you help are poor, and those who are not have rewarded your friendship and intercession with gifts only the well-off can afford—like iPads, gadgets, branded bags and shoes, etc.  Has this gotten into your head?  Subtly ignited a sense of entitlement in you?  Or am I just guilty of inordinately taking your religious vows more seriously than you are?  Nina, my child, forgive me if I have been too harsh on you, but I only wish to let you know that with what I have seen and heard of you now, I am missing the young nun  we all knew many years ago who by her purity and simplicity spoke to us of a divine reality to strive for in this life.  I have a few more years left before I join your father in the afterlife.  I pray you will look for that young “bride of Christ” and find her still alive in the core of your being, because when I am finally reunited with your father, I am sure he will ask about you; I do not want to have to tell him, “I am sorry I lost her.” 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

How do we solve the problem of Duterteeeeee?


Eighteen months into office and still, Rodrigo Duterte escapes identification; well, at least as far as my little world is concerned.  Whenever two or more people are gathered, and the discussion drifts into politics, there Duterte is in the midst of them.  Whether it’s a casual chat between cabbie and passenger, a family reunion, or a no-holds barred exchange between friends or among media colleagues, I find myself having to articulate more seriously than I would want, an opinion about the Philippines’ 13th president. 
Due perhaps to my occupation as a media person, I am always, always asked “What do you think of Duterte?”  I maintain that I don’t think of Duterte at all, but an answer is expected of me just the same.  Just two weeks ago, at a small gathering of religious and laypeople, the subject of Duterte inevitably sprung up; then a nun grinned and broke into song, a la Sound of Music: “How do you solve the problem of Duterteeeeee?”   Aye, there’s the rub!  I don’t see Du30 as a problem.  Were I to join the nun in a duet, I’d change the lyrics into “How do you solve the puzzle that’s Duterteeeee?”
I love solving puzzles, from the simplest kindergarten stuff to Mensa’s mind bogglers—and the strangest chief executive that Pinas has ever had must be a puzzle somewhere in between.  From everything Duterte has revealed of himself since pre-election time to the present, I see as a work in progress.  Neither the man nor his work is a simple thing, and so the relationship between him and the people—as the Facebook population would say—is necessarily “complicated”.  It would be imprudent (and a waste of time) to say anything conclusive about him or his work, in reaction to his actions, because he himself appears to be a bundle of contradictions.
Earlier on, when “PRRD” was just beginning to be exposed through media, I would cringe at his cussing (as we say, “Ang lutong magmura!”), being embarrassed for the Filipino people.  “Gawd, what would the international community say, we have one of the most foul-mouthed leaders in the history of the world?”  And I’d also frankly criticize him for his brazen display of misogyny, particularly when he joked that he should have been the first to rape the murdered Australian woman missionary.  “Kadiring presidente”, I’d hiss.  But as time marches on and the man reveals more and more of himself through word and deed, I—for the sake of my blood pressure—am finding it judicious to view him with a little more Christian empathy.  The man seems unhinged, but being so is not without its uses. 
He’s unconventional—attending important functions in T-shirt and jeans, or a barong with sleeves rolled up, with total disregard for diplomatic refinement—but so is his inaugural menu.  Avoiding unnecessary burden on the national coffers he chose to feed the dignitaries with munggo and danggit.  Impressive conviction—how many of us would dare do that?
He contradicts himself.  He once declared, with clenched fist, that he would ride a jet ski to plant a Philippine flag on a contested island grabbed by China.  But now he’s playing footsies with China and tightening the noose on the United States.  Does he know what he’s doing, or is it part of a clever strategy?   He once said he’d kill his own children if he found out they were using drugs, but is now mum on the six-billion peso shabu shipment from China that dragged his son’s name into the controversy.   Once rejecting being compared to the loose-lipped US president Donald Trump, he said “He’s a bigot, I am not.”  Months later, after a friendly phone chat with Trump where the latter expressed support for his drug war, Duterte totally forgot that he might be dealing with a “bigot”. 
He carelessly makes promises he can’t keep.  Remember when he swore he’d stop cussing because his daughter was getting the flak in school on account of her president-father’s laughable foul mouth?   He tried, his speech became bland, but only for a week or so.  And also that incident when he said God talked to him on the plane, and he promised never to cuss again because “a promise to God is a promise to the Filipino people”?   And that campaign trail promise to rid the country of drugs in three-to-six months?  See the pattern?  Same banana.
He trivializes matters.  He blurts out something infuriating and then turns around and says he’s just joking.  Irate over the pronouncement of US human rights experts about the drug killings being a crime under international law, Duterte exploded into expletives, called the experts “stupid”, and threatened to pull out of the UN, only to say later he was just joking.   At a campaign rally he said about the raped and murdered Australian missionary:  "Nakita ko ang mukha, maganda… sabi ko sayang, na rape, pinilahan nila.  Galit ako dahil na-rape siya, pero maganda, naisip ko, dapat ang mayor ang pinauna nila.” (I saw her face and I thought, 'What a pity... they raped her, they all lined up. I was mad she was raped but she was so beautiful. I thought, the mayor should have been first.)   His office defended his “joke”, saying it was simply “how men talk,” but later on issued an apology to pacify furious female voters.
If people can’t tell when he’s joking and when he’s not, it’s probably because the man himself doesn’t know how to make heads or tails of the problems in his hands.  He sounded funny and bragging when he said, campaigning, “If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out.  Because I'll kill you…I'll dump all of you into Manila Bay, and fatten all the fish there."  But thousands of drug related deaths later, mostly of drug users and pushers who “resisted arrest” by the police, we realize Duterte wasn’t joking about fattening the fish in Manila Bay, by feeding them the small fry.  A funny joker president?  Scary, to say the least.
Joking or not, Duterte makes brash off-the-cuff remarks that should easily earn him the title of “Pambansang Kahihiyan”.  Anyone who causes him displeasure he cusses as a “son of a whore”—former US president Obama and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon (“a fool”) over human rights issues, and Pope Francis (“you son of a whore, go home and never come back”) for indirectly causing him to get stuck in a traffic jam.  Du30’s mouth also spewed obscenities when the European Union urged his government to investigate human rights abuses, calling the EU hypocrites, giving them the dirty finger, and accusing them of "atoning" for their ancestors’ sins and "guilt feelings" over occupying other countries in the past.
Are his intentions noble?  Is he a misguided maverick?  He always says he loves his country and would get rid of anyone harming it or hurting the Filipinos.  But the drug users and pushers are Filipinos, too.  So why is he vowing to kill the country’s alleged three million drug addicts—“I’d be happy to slaughter them as Hitler massacred the Jews… to finish the problem of my country and save the next generation.”  Or does he simply enjoy shocking polite society, as when at a meeting with businessmen, he bragged about being a womanizer thus, "I was separated from my wife. I'm not impotent. What am I supposed to do? Let this hang forever? When I take Viagra, it stands up."
If the surveys are to be believed, PRRD seems to be still enjoying a high trust rating.  Why?  Is it because he pushed for free education up to college, higher salaries for soldiers and teachers, more services for the poor, the purge against corrupt officials, etc. etc.?  I for one, though neither a fan nor a critic of the man, think his warrior nature served the country well when he put his foot down on the terrorists during the Marawi siege.  The first video I saw of it was of the ISIS recruits burning the cathedral and bashing the images inside.  The fact that the terrorists are well funded from abroad shows this is a real threat to the country, and the president for once acted as a president should—with determination to fight off the invaders.  I shuddered to think what could have happened had the one sitting in Malacanang then been any of his rivals—Roxas, Binay, Poe, or (RIP) Santiago?
If everything is wrong about Duterte, then not everything could be right about the 16,000,000 Filipinos who put him into office.  They heard him during his campaign.  They knew he was a womanizer.  They enjoyed his jokes and his kanto-boy cussing, and yet they counted on his promises and voted for him.   Lest we forget that the Philippines is not just its president, or the president and his supporters, but is each and everyone of us, we need to discern more in order to make of ourselves the best we can be for the sake of our country and the future of our children.  How do we solve the problem of Duterte?  Accept that in spite of our purest intentions there are things we cannot change—surely not the habits of conflicted leaders that go against our grain or violate our standards of decency—and so try to focus on changing ourselves.  We can help ourselves through prayer and obedience to the Father.  How do we solve the puzzle that’s Duterte?  How do we face the challenge that’s Duterte?  Like it or not he is a challenge to our faith, our humility, our charity, and our avowed desire for God’s will to be done.  And that’s the truth.        



Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Of relics and expectations


With the fourth visit of the relics of St. Therese of Lisieux in the Philippines, we may expect another surge of devotion for one of the country’s most popular—if not the most popular—Saints.  Although claims of miraculous healings or conversions have been made since her relics’ first visit in 2002, visit organizers admit that they have yet to document, gather, investigate, and authenticate such stories for them to hold water as an evangelizing tool for the Church. And that takes time.
Devotees venerate the relics of St. Therese  at the Carmel Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Tuba, Benguet

 Our crowd-drawing events—for instance, the Black Nazarene procession, papal visits, fabulous Holy Week processions—seem to reveal the Filipino predilection for spectacle and drama.  (Remember the “EDSA Revolution”?)  The long queues to kiss a believed-to-be-miraculous image in shrines (Manaoag, Antipolo, Quiapo, Padre Pio, Divine Mercy, et al) or during the veneration of visiting relics all over the country also present an interesting study of the Filipino’s faith in divine intervention.
But lest we forget that divine intervention does not always come in the form of earth-shaking events, let us remember that St. Therese herself did not ask for miracles but instead walked the path of the “little way”, missing “no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”  And let us not forget, too, that Therese’s desire for holiness didn’t come by itself—she was even such a temperamental child that her mother didn’t quite know how to handle her—but instead was unwittingly absorbed through the nurturing of God-loving parents, Zelie and Louis Martin, the first married couple proclaimed as Saints by the Catholic Church.
Discalced Carmelite nuns pose for a souvenir shot with Therese before the Saint goes to La Union 

Indeed it could be said that the Church did not make Louis and Zelie Saints because their daughter is a Saint; rather, the Church acknowledges that their daughter became a Saint because she was raised by saintly parents.  I surmise that when Therese wrote “Holiness consists simply in doing God’s will, and being just what God wants us to be”, she must have had her parents in mind.  Before they met, both Zelie and Louis had wanted the religious life—he as a monk and she as a nun—but God wanted something else.  So they met (curiously, on a bridge) and barely four months later got married.  Still, with their consuming desire for sanctity, Louis and Zelie decided they would, while married, live a “celibate” life together—but God didn’t allow that either.  A priest soon advised them to do as married people normally do, have children, and raise them for God.  They obeyed the priest, but prayed for sons with the noble intention of offering them to the Lord as priests—but again, God had other plans.  They had nine children, and the only two boys God took back in their infancy, along with two girls in their childhood, leaving the couple five girls who grew up into adulthood and became nuns, all of them.  For decimating all of their dreams, did Zelie and Louis balk at God’s alternatives?  No, they would go with the flow.
About the pain of losing her children to death, Zelie would write in one of her letters:When I closed the eyes of my dear little children and when I buried them, I felt great pain, but it was always with resignation. I didn’t regret the sorrows and the problems I had endured for them. Several people said to me, ‘It would be better to never have had them.’ I can’t bear that kind of talk. I don’t think the sorrows and problems could be weighed against the eternal happiness of my children. So they weren’t lost forever. Life is short and full of misery. We’ll see them again in Heaven.”  And in another letter, she summed up the essence of parenthood: “When we had our children, our ideas changed somewhat.  We lived only for them.  They were all our happiness, and we never found any except in them.  In short, nothing was too difficult, and the world was no longer a burden for us.  For me, our children were a great compensation, so I wanted to have a lot of them in order to raise them for Heaven.”
Perhaps this is one value to be learned from the fourth visit of the relics of St. Therese of the Child Jesus in the Philippines.  Returning to our shores at a time when we are losing our children due to disasters, human traffickers, war, or a contentious vaccine, could Therese be hinting that we befriend and imitate her parents so that we may also cherish and raise our children as gifts from a loving God?
Relics bring the presence of Saints in our midst. No doubt there will be more stories of miracles or favors granted during the six-month duration of the relics’ visit; churches again will overflow with people pleading for succor, even those who hardly go to church.  As we queue up to kiss or touch these holy remains and pray for favors through the Saints’ intercession, may we realize that our Church presents Saints to us not only for our edification or comfort but more so for our imitation.  What would we do if we do not receive the miracle we hope for?  We take a cue from St. Zelie Martin who, dying of cancer, went on pilgrimage to Lourdes (France), praying to be cured.  Denied her request, she wrote in a letter:  “The Blessed Mother didn’t cure me in Lourdes.  What can you do, my time is at an end, and God wants me to rest elsewhere other than on earth.”  A faith that does not hinge on miracles but aims for surrender to God’s will—perhaps that is what we should pray for.  And that’s the truth.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Bethlehem without borders

By Teresa R. Tunay, OCDS   On my last birthday, I was struck by the cruel truth that I will this year be celebrating my 73rd Christmas.  Seventy-three, OmG, it’s like ice water thrown at my face.
I usually dedicate my birth month to examining my life and meditating on mortality—and it helps that it’s the month of all Saints and all souls.  Last November turned out to be nostalgic—which confronted me with the fact of aging, because nostalgia is a right most deserved by those coming closer and closer to the grave.  Thinking, “God, how many more Christmases will You give me before You finally call me back?”, I reviewed my Christmases as far back as memory could take me, and asked myself which of those brought me closest to the baby Jesus.  It’s a no-brainer: the Christmas that did this was that which etched itself earliest in my memory—with the help of the creche in my Uncle Jose Fermin’s house, painstakingly put together by his wife, Tita Chol.
This “belen” was the highlight of my childhood Christmases—a huge table by the Christmas tree (live pine) covered with sand to contain a miniature Bethlehem, not only Mary, Joseph and the baby in a manger, but also the Three Kings, a caravan of camels, shepherds and sheep, goats, cattle, a rooster (!), and an angel floating over the manger and holding a ribbon that said “Gloria in Excelsis Deo”.  These plaster figurines fascinated me endlessly, introduced me to Bethlehem, and fuelled my imagination as I fondled them, in the same way that maybe a little boy today would play war games in his mind with plastic soldiers or “Star Wars” figurines.
The “belen” would since then accompany me through life.  When I was a young girl, Christmas decorating was a family affair where everybody had an assignment; I was expected to help make the “parol”.   When I reached my teens, I was put in charge of the “belen”, but my creations were nowhere near Tita Chol’s elaborate tableau—just a few cardboard cut-outs of the most important characters propped up on a bed of “hay” on top of the television cabinet, or a ready-made “scayola” set placed beneath the seven-foot Christmas tree, among the gift-wrapped empty boxes.

However, there was one Christmas I was too busy to keep up with the “belen” tradition—being in the thick of preparations for a wedding.  In fact, on Christmas night, my fiancé and I were in Quiapo, ordering flowers for our wedding the next morning.  
The time came to bring Bethlehem to our own cozy home through a “belen” for our little son.  It was fun to craft my own nativity scene from cardboard cones and crepe paper, at times supplementing the catechesis with an assortment of pretty nativity-themed Christmas cards collected through the years.
It was exhausting for me in my 20s to braid together career and homemaking (I was wife, mother, tutor, nurse, yaya, diplomat, psychologist, etc.) so that there were Christmases without any manger scene at all in our house—just a white Christmas tree fashioned from tissue paper and shiny balls, or worse, a foldaway meter-tall plastic evergreen, a mere ghost of the fresh pine Christmas tree of my childhood.  (By then it was already a crime of sorts to cut down Baguio pine trees).   But what we didn’t have in the house we enjoyed outside of it; we would drive around to gawk at life-size crèches in town plazas and churches, and the motorized Christmas tableau that was then the pride of COD Department Store in Cubao, and years later, Greenhills.
One day we received a Balikbayan box from the United States; inside was—Wow!—a 19-piece ceramic nativity set my mother-in-law Flor de Liz had painted at an arts-and-crafts class for senior citizens!  How sweet of her!  With lights, décor, and props added, it was to become a conversation piece for many many years in our modest home, so gorgeous even Tita Chol would have loved it!  But now… what’s left of the set is stashed away in a storeroom; I don’t think I’ll ever want to put it up again.
I had lent the whole set to a retreat house, putting it up myself.  I was happy to share my joy to so many retreatants and guests, but when it came back to me, the Baby Jesus was missing, and a lamb, and a camel, too!  Were they broken?  Pocketed by some child who couldn’t resist their cuteness?  None of the staff could tell—as though the trio merely vanished into thin air.  It saddened me a bit, for what’s a crèche without Baby Jesus?  Never mind the sheep and the camel. 
Now that I’m recalling its glory days, and about to savor my 73rd Christmas, I find that the nativity’s magic can still transport me back to the age of innocence, imagining that the Baby Jesus (after years of being displayed in our living room) had grown tall enough to mount a camel and look for the lost lamb.  “That’s why they disappeared,” I tell myself and muse, “for all I know I was the lost lamb, with one leg caught in quick sand, slowly being sucked into a system that served many gods but had no time for the One True God.”  Irony of ironies, in reality I’d gotten lost while looking frantically for God, unaware that in my meandering He was looking for me.
Do I now have a nativity scene at home?  No, I don’t.  Tell me if it’s due to old age.  In the Holy Land where over several years I have escorted pilgrims five times, I have strolled in the Shepherds’ field in Bethlehem, venerated the place of His birth, walked down Via Dolorosa bearing a token cross, done the whole pilgrim route over and over again it’s like the classic “been there, done that”.  It matters little to me now whether or not I have a crèche in my “hermitage”, but I do seriously wonder how Jesus would feel about the state of Bethlehem today, in the light of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this endless fight over borders.  A carol rings between my ears: “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…”  I cannot say Bethlehem today lies still.  Peace is elusive in the place where the Prince of Peace was born.  Were Jesus to revisit Bethlehem today as man, would he weep over it as he did over Jerusalem before he was crucified?  And would he be welcome there?
We can outgrow Santa Claus, but we should never outgrow Bethlehem.  In spite of all that Bethlehem has been through, we continue to celebrate the fact that our Savior was born there, and pray that one day we can say to the Lord Himself, “I am Bethlehem; come, be born in me.”  The carol reverberates inside my head: “O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray.  Cast out our sin and enter in, be born to us today…”  As I write this, I pray that each of us may become a Bethlehem without borders, witnessing to the love of God for all mankind.  And that's the truth.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Precious facts about St. Therese of Lisieux


Did you know that in Baclaran church, by the parking lot, stands a gazebo with a life-size statue of St. Therese of the Child Jesus?  The railing behind the statue is heavy with locks left by the faithful—a fairly new practice in our country, imitating the love-lock tradition in many cities in all the continents of the globe, where love-struck romantics swear undying love by fastening a lock with their initials to a bridge, and then tossing its key to be buried forever in the river below.  (Yes, like Pont des Arts over the River Seine, in Paris).
So far, love-locks on a bridge are unheard of in the Philippines, but on the railings protecting a Saint’s statue, yes. The love-lock tradition must have been brought to the Baclaran church by OFWs who have seen the practice abroad. The last time I saw it, the Baclaran locks were the most numerous behind St. Therese’s statue, and they seemed to represent wishes and petitions to this favorite Saint.  “Sana ma-approve na yung application ko to work in Dubai,” said one devotee I chatted with.  “Hiling ko ke Sta. Teresita magbalikan na yung mga parents ko, para mabuo na ulit ang pamilya namin,” said another.  A third one said after fastening her lock, “Nagtirik din ako ng kandila for my secret wish, but no, I’m not walking on my knees in the church.”
If Baclaran’s “wish-locks” indicate a fondness or a great faith in St. Therese of Lisieux, one wonders how well these devotees know the young French saint.  The following facts may spur their interest to know St. Therese more intimately: 
St. Therese was a spoiled brat. As a 22-year-old nun, Therese herself admitted, “I was far from being a perfect little girl.” Testimonies during the process of Therese’s beatification included a
 letter written by her mother, Zelie Martin (now also a Saint) which said: “I have to slap this poor baby who gets into frightening tantrums when she cannot have her own way. She rolls about on the ground in despair as if all is lost. Sometimes she is so overcome she almost chokes.  She is a very high-strung child.”  Zelie also wrote of Thérèse and her sister Celine: “My little Celine is drawn to the practice of virtue; it’s part of her nature; she is candid and has a horror of evil. As for the little imp, one doesn’t know how things will go, she is so small, so thoughtless! Her intelligence is superior to Celine’s, but she’s less gentle and has a stubborn streak in her that is almost invincible.”  Therese was to write in her mature years, as though in appreciation:  “The loveliest masterpiece of the heart of God is the heart of a mother.”
St. Therese’s “Little Way” began in Scriptures. St. Therese’s “petite voie” or “little way”, which was to greatly influence and inspire the faithful to this day, started as a spark she felt upon a chance reading of Proverbs 9:4, “Whosoever is a little one, let him come to me.”  She was to write later: “I will seek out a means of getting to Heaven by a little way—very short and very straight, a little way that is wholly new. We live in an age of inventions; nowadays the rich need not trouble to climb the stairs, they have lifts instead. Well, I mean to try and find a lift by which I may be raised unto God, for I am too tiny to climb the steep stairway of perfection… Thine Arms, then, O Jesus, are the lift which must raise me up even unto Heaven. To get there I need not grow; on the contrary, I must remain little, I must become still less.”   
St. Therese’s greatest desire was to become a missionary.  As a young contemplative nun, Therese desperately wanted to be a missionary in Vietnam where the Lisieux missionaries were to
found the first Carmelite Convent in the Far East.  But a painful bout against tuberculosis ended her life at age 24, leaving her dream unrealized.  On her death-bed, she is reported to have said, “I have reached the point of not being able to suffer any more, because all suffering is sweet to me.”  In all the nine years of a life of obscurity in the Carmelite Convent of Lisieux, she never went beyond its walls, and yet she came to be proclaimed Patron Saint of the Missions due to the numerous miracles in mission lands attributed to her intercession.
St. Therese inspired St. Teresa of Calcutta.  Born Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in Macedonia, “Mother Teresa” chose for her religious name “Teresa” as the Carmelite Saint’s simplicity inspired her to be “little” and to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.  Many of Mother Teresa’s dearly remembered words echo those of the French nun who died 13 years before Mother Teresa was born.  St. Therese wrote “I’m a little brush that Jesus has chosen in order to paint His own image in the souls entrusted to my care”; Mother Teresa said, “I am a little pencil in the hand of God who is sending a love letter to the world.”  St. Therese wrote, “My vocation is love”; Mother Teresa said, “Our vocation is the love of Jesus.”
St. Therese had Saints and revered souls and celebrities among her devotees.  The long roster of devotees of St. Therese of the Child Jesus includes: St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, American journalist turned Trappist monk Thomas Merton, French singer Edith Piaf, martyr of Auschwitz St.

Maximillian Kolbe, Filipino bishop Alfredo Obviar, Nobel laureate Henry Bergson, Pope John Paul I Albino Luciani, Pope Francis Jorge Mario Bergoglio, etc.  Speaking to journalists on the plane to visit the Philippines in January 2015, Pope Francis spoke of his special devotion thus: “When I don’t know how things are going to go, I have the custom of asking St. Therese of the Child Jesus to take the problem into her hands and send me a rose.”  Enjoy this video of Jorge Bergoglio speaking about his devotion to St. Therese long before he became pope:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2LTR4_4h2Xw
 St. Therese’s pilgrim relics will visit the Philippines for the fourth time.  The Saints’  relics bring us into contact with the person and remind us of their great love for God. It might delight her devotees—Baclaran lock-lovers included—to know that next year, from January 13 to May 31, 2018, her pilgrim relics will be brought for veneration to various dioceses all over the country.  The theme this time will be “Salamat,
PE Benedict XVI venerates St. Therese's relics.
St. Therese!”  Her previous visits—which were attended by kilometric queues of devotees wherever she went—were marked by a shower of graces, favors, and miracles, all attesting to the love of God; thus the theme of gratitude for next year.  In fact, everyone is invited to share their story of miracles big or small obtained through St. Therese.  Do you have a story of gratitude to share?  Go and write it, as it might even become part of a special documentary about the Little Flower that is being prepared for her forthcoming visit. Email your story to
SalamatStTherese@gmail.com  We end this piece with a wish-prayer from St. Therese: “May you be content knowing you are a child of God.”