A Joint Pastoral Letter of the Catholic Hierarchy of the Philippines

Introduction.  Pope John Paul II’s visit to our shores– a grace-filled event for the Church of the Philippines– is today a year-old memory.  He came, he said,

to strengthen  my  brothers and sisters of  the Catholic Church in  their  faith  in our Lord Jesus Christ,  who is our  justice and  our peace,  our greatest treasure  and  the one source of  our hope. (Manila Airport Address, Feb. 17, 1981)

Today, on the anniversary of his visit, we look back at the event in gratitude and awe.  And we ask ourselves to what extent we were strengthened in our faith, renewed, revivified, by our passing contact with the Vicar of Christ during those few days of his presence in our midst.  The euphoria is gone, the excitement, the fiesta atmosphere, the superficialities of the visit.  And now, a year later, we must ask if the more positive and profound aspects of the Pope’s coming continue to confirm us in our faith.

It is a sobering question, one that no one else can answer for us except ourselves.  It is a question, too, for which Pope John Paul himself provided the standards against which we can weigh our answers.  For he gave us a measure, first in what he did, and second in what he said.

The Pope’s Acts.  The Holy Father travelled the length and breadth of our islands, offered the Eucharistic Sacrifice practically everywhere he went, spoke to Filipinos from all walks of life.  In all he did, the magnetic quality of his faith touched us all,  blessed us all.  But of all the events that took place in his pastoral visit to us, it was the beatification of Blessed Lorenzo Ruiz and Companions that may well encapsulate the entire burden of the message of his acts.

The beatification rite at the Luneta was significant in the one fact that it was performed outside of Rome.  This is significant enough.  But more significant was the choice of Manila for the beatification of 16 martyrs, one alone of whom was a Filipino.  That was a distinct honor accorded the Church of the Philippines as a whole.  But the honor, we see clearly, carried with it a tremendous challenge — and herein lies the deepest significance of the Holy Father’s  beatifying act.  In declaring Lorenzo Ruiz blessed on Philippine soil, he spoke to us in a way that his words could not.

The Pope’s Words.  What he sought to tell us in his acts, the Holy Father took pains to spell out in explicit terms.  We, the Bishops of the Philippines, spent four days at our annual meeting in Baguio last month pondering his words–the many talks and sermons he gave during his visit–and we will be issuing the results of our reflections for your own consideration.

The Pope had a message for all of us, differently nuanced, differently worded to suit each audience.  But in practically every talk he gave, there was a theme that ran like a unifying thread through all he had to say–the theme of our sending, our mission, our apostolic responsibility as a Christian nation.  In effect he was telling us, again and again:  “You have been blessed with the precious gift of faith in the Lord Jesus.  You must now begin to share that faith with others in the vast continent that is Asia.”

We can cite quote after quote to illustrate this central theme of his, but one will suffice.  At the last Mass he celebrated for us in the city of Baguio where he addressed himself to our ethnic minority brethren, he said

• I wish to tell you of my special desire:  that the Filipinos will become  the  foremost  missionaries  of  the  Church  in Asia.  (Baguio Address, Feb. 21, 1981)

And to this he added the thoughts of Pope Paul VI, spoken in Manila a full ten years ago:

• At this moment one  cannot but think of the important calling of the people of the Philippine Islands.  This land has a specialvocation  to  be  the  city  set on the hill, the lamp standing on high  (cf. Mt. 5, 14-16)  giving   shining   witness   amid   the ancient  and  noble cultures of Asia.  Both as individuals and as  a nation you  are to  show  forth the  light of Christ by the quality of your lives.  (Ibid.)

Our Reflections.   The Holy Father sought to confirm our faith by throwing us a heavy challenge.  We doubt he will be satisfied with a response that does not come up to that of Lorenzo Ruiz and his witnessing unto death.

How do we respond?  We look at ourselves and we see mostly our poverty.  True, as the Holy Father himself pointed out many times, we are a blessed people, rich in things of the spirit, strong in our familial bonds, a happy people.  But the fact remains:  we are a poor people — and poor in more ways than one.  Economically we belong to that immense class of nations that are called undeveloped–a pauper among paupers without the means even to feed ourselves adequately.   Culturally, we are outside the pale of the  Great Traditions of Asia, the ancient heritages of the peoples of India, China, Japan, and other Southeast Asian nations.  And religiously we are much dependent still on the more established Churches of the West for personnel and resources, even for ideas, for initiatives.

But go we must, in our poverty, to share of our poverty.  Our very impoverishment may well be our unique contribution as a Church and as a people to the evangelizing task of the universal Church.  We share even in our need, out of our need, and the power of our preaching of the Gospel will be in this: that we are poor.  Paradoxically, this is our strength, and most of the good others see in us spring from this strength.

We are not really starting from scratch as far as our sharing with other Churches is concerned.

The Fil-Mission Society, founded in 1965, shortly after the 400th anniversary celebration of the Christianization of the Philippines, is a fledgeling missionary society of Filipino diocesan priests.  Its numbers are small and it struggles against great stronger odds.  It awaits a more generous response from the whole Philippine Church.

Religious orders of men and women have been sending greater numbers to work outside of the Philippines and many more are offering themselves for the task of mission in other countries.  It is a trend about which we cannot but be happy and hopeful.

Lay men and women, too, have started to go in growing numbers to do apostolic work outside of the country.  Lay missioner groups are beginning to form and develop in many parts of the country.   They deserve our strong commendation and support.

We can dream up ways and means of stepping up the number of Philippine missionary personnel.    But however imaginative we are,  however successful we may be in raising their number, we cannot get away from the fact that Christ’s mission task for all of us starts in the home, in the parish, in the community.  For it is where we must begin to share of ourselves, to be men and women for others.  Enlarged to the national consciousness, this fundamentally Christian trait of being for others will have to erupt into a giving of ourselves to other nations and peoples, a sharing that will mark us off as truly and maturely Christian.

Conclusion.   Blessed Lorenzo Ruiz is sometimes described as a reluctant martyr, a man who found himself in a situation where he had no alternative as a man of faith but to die for that same faith.  But once he saw what  was asked of him, we went to his death–rejoicing.  The first Filipino candidate for sainthood, a layman and a missionary, is given to us by the Holy Father himself as the model and patron of our mission as a people.

We could well describe ourselves, too, as reluctant missionaries, diffident, hesitant.  But just as Blessed Lorenzo Ruiz, in the moment of truth, wholeheartedly gave his life for his faith, so  too, must we, even as we hesitate, begin to walk the painful paths of our own witnessing.  Because now we see with a clarity that cannot be denied –because it is an imperative of faith itself–that we must go forth likewise and share our precious faith with all of Asia and the World.

We ask the Blessed Mother to whom we Filipinos are bound by strongest devotion to intercede for us as we go on mission.  And with her we pray that the Lord who sends will be with us as He promised–in all His power, with all His love.

For the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines:


Archbishop of Davao

CBCP President

February 17, 1982