Contemplative bishops for the poor

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(Speech delivered by Archbishop Socrates B Villegas on the occasion of the 108th Plenary Assembly of the CBCP)

How may we describe the past six months behind us since we last met as a conference of bishops? I cannot resist quoting Charles Dickens–”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

We were visited by the strongest typhoon in the world two months ago but the Lord has blessed the Church in Mindanao with its first Cardinal, Cardinal Orly Quevedo, OMI.

Thousands died from the storm surge in Leyte but it also brought us a admirable surge of charity worldwide.

The best of times, the worst of times! Blessed be the name of the Lord!

As you leave this Blessed John XXIII Hall on your left side, we have put up a small chapel for the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for the whole duration of the plenary assembly of the bishops of the Philippines. Religious sisters and seminarians, lay devotees and fellow disciples will kneel before the Lord in silence praying for us bishops. They are praying for us their pastors. The flock is praying for their shepherds. The lambs and sheep are praying for us their pastors.

This is the Church of the new evangelization. Let us allow our flock to transform us their pastors into contemplative shepherds of the people.

Indeed it is only when we bishops become contemplatives like the Beloved Disciple resting on the chest of Jesus that we can truly serve and teach the flock in full freedom—freedom from seeking one’s “own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Phil 2:21), freedom from the fascination of political or social gain, freedom from the insane and unreal attraction of popularity in the world.

To be contemplative bishops is to become truthfully honest, cheerfully loving and passionately zealous teachers of the flock, bishops serving the Lord in total freedom detached from vainglory.

It is from this contemplative starting point that we can look at the recent happenings in our country. We cannot look at the devastation of typhoon Yolanda and the massive destruction wrought by the earthquake in Bohol from the eyes of CNN or ANC.

We must look at these events with the eyes of the Lord, feel with the heart of the Lord and act with the hands and feet of the Lord. Our best contribution to the rehabilitation in Samar or Leyte, Bohol or Zamboanga is Christ.

We send help because of Christ, in Christ and through Christ. Our task is not just to build new homes that can be washed away again by the next storm surges. Our mission is not just to send food for the hungry and give water to the thirsty.

The Christ that is in me reaches out to the Christ that is suffering. It is Christ reaching out to Christ. We will miss this point if we are not contemplative bishops. We can even reduce NASSA and the CBCP into just another philanthropic institution and we are not. We are Christ’s.  Christi sumus!

As we launch the Year of the Laity in preparation for the five hundredth anniversary of the first Mass and baptism in the Philippines, let us heed the caution of Pope Francis that in planning Church programs and projects, we resist the temptation of talking of “what needs to be done” like spiritual masters and pastoral experts who give instructions from on high.

We must go out of the Pius XII Catholic Centre, stay focused on the Lord and reach out sincerely to the distant poor and the wayward children of God. We cannot allow the Year of the Laity to create more circles of elite and closed-in lay groups sometimes called mandated organizations.

We need to reach out to those who are angry at us bishops, those we have disillusioned and those we have misled or confused by our excessive misplaced prudence or unbecoming lifestyle.

The Year of the Laity is not only for the supportive and loyal laity but for the critical and distant ones more importantly those who disagreed with us on the RH law, those who hurl accusations at us fairly or unfairly. They are children of God too, our brothers and sisters, members of our flock also.

We can do this if we are soaked in prayer as contemplative shepherds of the people freed from fear and rejection, carrying the mark of Christ scourged, crucified yet risen.

But how are we to discern that our movement towards contemplation is not an escape from pastoral realities?

The fruit of prayer is always greater charity for the poor. If prayer does not increase love, it must be only a soliloquy. If contemplation does not lead to action for justice and charity, it might have really become the shabu of the bishops, an addictive flight from reality.

It is the encounter with Jesus in prayer that must guide our response to the poor.  The poor are not just curious ciphers on a statistical report.  The poor are not just the unlettered, the unwashed, the uninitiated, the uneducated, the unhealthy, the naked, the exploited, the trafficked, and the infirm gazing into our eyes for human recognition.

They are those about whom Jesus said, “Whatever you have done or not done to one of these the least of my brothers and sisters that you have done or not done to me” (cf. Mt. 25:40).  Jesus makes himself one with the poor.  From his Cross, Jesus gazes into our eyes and touches our hearts with love.  It is his love which calls forth our response in love as bishops of the flock.

That we all be contemplative bishops bringing the joy of the Lord to the poor! May we be those bishops, only those bishops, always those bishops! Let us move on.

Thank You!


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