Category Archives: Readings in Religion

Batik-inspired Good Samaritan

This unusual rendering of the central event of the Good Samaritan parable, a color lithograph by the Dutch artist Lion Cachet, from 1896, caught my eye when I visited Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts last September. It took me some time to figure out why. Finally, I read the explanatory text. Turns out the piece was inspired by Indonesian batik – a modest example of the colonial periphery making an impact on the center, and a nice inversion that parallels what happened on that road between Jerusalem and Jericho.

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Column: The Good Samaritan parable as news story

Published on September 17, 2013.

Some readers have asked about the “writing experiment” I attempted last month at the Loyola School of Theology, when I sought to discuss the church-media dynamic by, among other things, rewriting a famous Gospel parable. Perhaps the best way to explain what I was up to is to show, not tell. If you will allow me then, here is an extended excerpt:
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Column: Back to Ninoy, forward to PCP 3

Published on September 3, 2013.

I promised reader Lyndon Rutor I would link to columns I’ve written before that argue an important historical truth: that Jose Rizal and Ninoy Aquino followed the same path to heroic martyrdom. They suffered in the last 10 years or so of their life in the name of a higher cause; they chose to risk a return from exile; they embraced the near-certainty of death.

These columns may be found through the search function or the tag cloud in my Newsstand blog (at johnnery.wordpress.com). One, in particular, may serve to stand for all the others. In “The Aquinos in our life,” the third installment of a four-part series prompted by the death of Cory Aquino and written in August 2009, I repeated a distinction between the old and the new Ninoy that I first discovered in late August 1983.

“What became obvious to me and to many others, after Ninoy was assassinated and Filipinos who grew up during the martial law era scrambled to discover a clearer picture of the new martyr, was that the man who died on the tarmac . . . was very different from the helicopter-riding whiz kid whose political ambition had known no bounds.”
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Column: Looking for church at the #MillionPeopleMarch

Column catch-up, all over again. This piece was written after the so-called Million People March, and was published on August 27, 2013.

In August 1999, or just over a year after the popular Joseph Estrada took office as the country’s 13th president, a major protest rally brought the Makati central business district to a standstill. A hundred thousand people, perhaps 120,000 at the most, occupied the intersection of Ayala Avenue and Paseo de Roxas; they were there, mainly, for three reasons: They went to signal their disapproval of the Estrada administration’s Charter change campaign; they went to sympathize with the plight of the Manila Times, then recently shuttered, and the Inquirer, then undergoing the second month of an unprecedented advertising boycott, both in circumstances many believed to have been orchestrated by Malacañang; not least, they went because Jaime Cardinal Sin and Cory Aquino asked them to.
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Column: What would Ignatius do?

Still playing catch-up, but only six more to go before the Newsstand column archive becomes current. Six entirely different columns, beginning with this one on the Ignatian approach to discourse. Published on July 16, 2013.

Having been asked to play a small part in the second Ignatian Festival this coming weekend, I have found myself in the last several days wondering what it is exactly that draws me, again and again, to Ignatius of Loyola.

The author of the Spiritual Exercises and the founder of the Society of Jesus was an extraordinary man. The contradictions of his life would give a soap opera writer pause: a vainglorious soldier become ascetic priest, a restless romantic turned organization man, a stoic (wounded in the siege of Pamplona, he underwent leg surgery twice without so much as a complaint) who shed tears at Mass.

Not least, at least for me: An indifferent writer, who could change lives with the turn of a phrase.

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Column: Let us now praise a holy man

Excerpts from a pastor’s journal. Published on July 9, 2013.

“I think it is now three years since I last used a typewriter,” Pope John XXIII began a letter to his brother. “I used to enjoy typing so much and if today I have decided to begin again, using a machine that is new and all my own, it is in order to tell you that I know I am growing old…” He had just turned 80.

Shortly after he died, about a year and a half since sitting at that typewriter, his spiritual notebooks and some of his letters and special prayers were published as “Journal of a Soul.” A few years later, I found my father’s copy of the book; I have been reading it, on and off, ever since.
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Column: The true test of a Catholic vote

Published on April 16, 2013.

I see that Brother Mike Velarde of the El Shaddai Catholic charismatic renewal movement is up to his favorite old trick again: preaching to the converted. With the usual fanfare, he named the first six senatorial candidates endorsed by the so-called White Vote, a bloc of Catholic Church-affiliated organizations, at a prayer assembly last Saturday. It is no coincidence that five of the six are doing well in the surveys.

JV Ejercito, Koko Pimentel, Cynthia Villar, Antonio Trillanes and Gringo Honasan rank among the Top 9 in the latest available Social Weather Stations survey; only Mitos Magsaysay is—as of that mid-March survey—statistically still outside the probable winners’ circle.

In other words, even without Velarde’s White Vote, five of the six candidates stand a good chance of winning a Senate seat. By a kind of political alchemy, many of these candidates will feel a sense of gratitude, perhaps even a sense of obligation, to Velarde for the endorsement—even if in fact they did not need it. It will be 1998 all over again.

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Column: Does the Holy Spirit read social media?

In which I suggest, ever so gently, that two cardinals revisit their theology of the media. Published on March 26, 2013.

The retired cardinal archbishop of Manila, Gaudencio Rosales, had a ready answer when asked, upon returning from the conclave in Rome, why the media failed to predict the identity of the new pope. “God does not read social media,” he said.

That is the quote as found in Lito Zulueta’s comprehensive March 17 report in the Inquirer. On Zulueta’s Twitter account, the quote, tweeted at least a day before the newspaper came out, specifically names the third person of the Holy Trinity: “because the holy spirit does not read social media” (no caps).

The Wall Street Journal’s Southeast Asia Real Time blog remembered Rosales’ quip in the same, specific, fashion. Cris Larano’s engaging post quoted Rosales as saying: “The joke in Rome is that Pope Francis was elected because the Holy Spirit didn’t read social media … or watch CNN.”
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“Habemus Papam”

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The third edition of the March 14, 2013 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer–which went to press past three in the morning.

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August 20, 2013 · 7:12 am

Column: Tagle’s pope; Benedict vs the media

Published on March 12, 2013, at a time of heightened speculation about the possibility of a pope from Asia.

I haven’t finished reading Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle’s dissertation, a theological thriller titillatingly titled “Episcopal Collegiality and Vatican II: The Influence of Paul VI,” just yet, but one passage has struck me with the force of revelation.

“But Paul VI also poignantly laid bare the irony at the heart of the papacy: the divinely instituted center of communion constitutes in the present time the greatest block to Christian unity. The lofty view of the papal office supported by a sure faith is cast in an almost tragic shade.”

This insight, which I understand Paul himself recognized, is sandwiched between a recapitulation of his “abundant reflection” and “innumerable musings” on papal primacy as the gift of the first Vatican Council, and his “slow acceptance” of the teaching that supreme power over the Church was shared by the communion of all bishops, “united to its head.”

This tension which Paul felt with all his being reflected one of the central challenges of the second Vatican Council. In Tagle’s formulation: “Collegiality as a mark of the renewal of Vatican II must be related to the papacy as defined by Vatican I. This issue proved to be one of the most contested in the council”—and gave Paul, perhaps the most conflicted of all 20th-century popes, “the most torment.”
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Column: A “small” pope

Like many others, I was stunned by Benedict XVI’s resignation. I spent the next several days after the announcement in a frenzy of research and reading, trying to make sense of it all. This column, published on February 19, 2013, was an attempt to pull all that reading together.

Even the most generous-spirited praise for Pope Benedict XVI cannot avoid making comparisons. Here, for example, is theology professor Vincent Miller, in a deeply sympathetic essay published in the Jesuit magazine America. “From the beginning of his papacy, in the shadow of John Paul—then called ‘the Great’—Benedict has struck a lower profile. Of course he lacked his predecessor’s charisma, but his gestures were so often intentional.”

Even an editorial critical of the charismatic John Paul II, in the weekly Tablet, slides easily into comparative-speak: “Pope Benedict’s legacy is largely spiritual and intellectual rather than public and spectacular, like that of his predecessor.” (The Tablet’s leanings can be guessed from the nickname, a play on another meaning of “tablet,” that its critics have bestowed on it: The Pill or, for emphasis, The Bitter Pill.)

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Column: Taking a swipe at the Cardinal?

Published on January 29, 2013. It seems Inquirer.net added videos to the story some time after my column came out.

A Jesuit friend I esteem cried foul recently over Karen Boncocan’s characterization of a major homily given by the new Cardinal Archbishop of Manila, Luis Antonio “Chito” Tagle. (The homily, on the occasion of the Feast of Jesus the Nazarene, was read, or rather extemporized, on Jan. 9, but I read my friend’s e-mail to me only the other day.)

My friend wrote: The “news report about Chito Tagle taking a ‘swipe’ against the RH Bill makes gratuitously speculative assertions that I think are inappropriate for a news report. If she [the reporter] were an opinion writer, one could let that pass. But she is supposed to be reporting news and what she does is make assertions here that cannot, in my view, be squared with the actual text of Chito’s homily. Would you know anything about whether this is just a lapse or according to some kind of editorial policy?”

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Column: The post-RH Church and “the medicine of mercy”

A suggestion about a way forward, after the dramatic passage of the controversial RH law. Published on Christmas Day 2012.

A loyal Catholic, I thought I proved my loyalty by supporting the controversial reproductive health law. In the wake of its contentious, historic passage, I am moved to consider what, from a layman’s perspective, the Church hierarchy in the Philippines might do to recover its position of influence.

(Having thrilled to the sound of the Catholic bishops’ courageous pastoral letter of February 1986 being read aloud in an open field, removing the last shred of doubt about the fraudulence of the Marcos regime, I am mindful that Church influence can be both positive and profoundly necessary.)

I take my bearings, in large part, from what I understand to be the authentic legacy of John XXIII, the “Good Pope John” who convened Vatican II. Three extraordinary statements of his—two speeches and an apostolic constitution—define the position of the Church in the modern age with wonderful humility and great clarity. The first, read on Jan. 25, 1959, introduces the idea of an epochal ecumenical council; the second, the constitution released 51 years ago today, on Christmas Day 1961, convokes Vatican II; the third opens the council’s first session on Oct. 11, 1962. (I am using the translations provided in the website devoted to Bishop BC Butler, an eminent council father, at vatican2voice.org.)

Perhaps these three statements, revisited, can help the Philippine Church find the right way of proceeding, after the passage of the RH bill.

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Column: “When we find ourselves alone and abandoned”

What was Rizal’s concept of “intellectual tradition?” The Philippine chapter of PEN asked; I proposed one possible answer. Published on December 11, 2012.

I WAS delighted to take part in last week’s Philippine PEN Congress, at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). The year’s theme was on the role of the writer as public intellectual; the panel I served on, the first in the two-day conference, was tasked with drawing the context of a Philippine intellectual tradition. “You can discuss perhaps your work on Jose Rizal,” read the invitation from National Artist Bien Lumbera and film critic and fellow Inquirer editor Lito Zulueta, chair and secretary of Philippine PEN—and so I did.

I focused on a letter Rizal sent the priest Vicente Garcia, one of the first to defend the “Noli,” because it seemed to me to best sum up his ideas about just such a tradition. After I located the letter in the context of Rizal’s correspondence (using the Alzona translation), I proceeded to make my case, as follows:

It took Rizal more than two years after first hearing of Garcia’s gallant defense, and some 10 months after the “little treatise” was published in La Solidaridad, before he found the occasion to write the priest himself. He was working on the “Fili” in unhappy Madrid, and at the same time preparing to return home via a doctor’s detour through Hong Kong. I do not know if he ever received Garcia’s reply; I would like to think he did and the reply is simply no longer extant, because his letter of Jan. 7, 1891 was—in a word—a cry for help. It was not so much to thank Garcia, “but to seek light for the uncertain need of the future.”
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Column: Vulnerable journalists and angry revolutionaries

Published on November 27, 2012.

Do journalists, generally speaking, earn higher salaries than civil servants? The pattern of views I heard at the Media Nation conference over the weekend, which dwelt on corruption in the media, suggests that the reality is dramatically different—especially in the provinces.

In fact, almost everyone at the conference agreed that “local” journalists (a label, by the way, that many of those working in provincial newspapers or radio stations despise as insufferably Manila-centric) are more vulnerable to corruption. A large part of the reason is their economic situation. It should be self-evident, of course, that economic need alone does not explain the prevalence of corruption, in media or in other sectors. The knowing reader or viewer can easily name a handful of already wealthy media personalities for whom corruption is (or looks to be) a way of life.

But if the testimony of veteran media professionals is any guide, need can drive the desperate to extremes.

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Learning from John Paul II

The first thing that struck me, when I read the English text of Pope Benedict XVI’s “Declaratio” on the Vatican Radio website, was this passage:

I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.

I thought the Pope was referencing his predecessor’s last years in office, when Pope John Paul II’s Petrine ministry was precisely service “with prayer and suffering.” Referencing, and then finally rejecting, that sainted example, because of the present-day conditions in which the Roman Catholic Church found itself: “so many rapid changes,” “shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith.”

I understood these phrases to mean a recognition of the stasis that had characterized Vatican decision-making in the first years of the 21st century, when Pope John Paul II’s ministry of suffering had offered believers everywhere a source of inspiration, but also a cautionary tale of governance.

PS. Amy Davidson of The New Yorker was thinking along the same lines.

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“A decision of great importance to the life of the Church”

Still stunned, some six hours after I first saw the news flash on TV. Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign by the end of the month is unprecedented in the modern age; the last time a pope resigned, Christopher Columbus had not even been born yet. That is to say, when Gregory XII resigned in 1415, to settle the so-called Western Schism, the “New World” wasn’t even a concept. Pope Benedict’s bold, striking decision brings us—suddenly, dizzyingly—to uncharted waters.

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Column: What if the Church is in error?

One thing I love: Whenever I write on religious or theological matters, I almost always receive lengthy, well-considered responses written in a spirit of fraternal correction. Most of them arrive by email, although several come through the door marked “comment thread.” This column, which prompted several such responses, was published on September 18, 2012.

After 45 De La Salle University professors issued a statement in support of the Reproductive Health bill early this month, a distinguished alumnus of La Salle (and Harvard) wrote a powerful rejoinder. I cannot agree with all the points raised by Bernardo M. Villegas (or BMV, as we all referred to him at the Center for Research and Communication where I worked two decades ago), but I thought his response was both muscular and gracious, emphatic and respectful, at the same time. Continue reading

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Column: Supporting the Ateneo professors

Published on August 28, 2012.

The misreading of the memo that Ateneo de Manila University president Fr. Jett Villarin wrote to his university community on the vexing issue of the Reproductive Health bill was both unfortunate and immediate. The original story that appeared in the Inquirer completely misunderstood the import of the memo, or the effect it had on the professors who wrote an impassioned, rigorously argued statement in support of the bill; as a result, a good number of readers thought that the Jesuits had thrown the professors to the dogs. Continue reading

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David’s The Holy Family

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Hands down, the most affecting portrait of the Holy Family I’ve ever seen. “The Holy Family,” by the Netherlandish master Gerard David, hangs in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts — or at least it was there the last time I visited, and when I took this close-up. I was drawn first by the color and the small scale of the work; according to the museum’s notes, it was first used for private prayers, some 500 years ago. And then the mood of the painting struck me: It is a portrait of anxiety, of a recognizably ordinary family consumed by worry or rumors of an incomprehensible fate; poor Joseph did not even have time or chance to clean his fingernails.

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“Only love defeats exhaustion”

The late Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini’s “spiritual testament”–an interview he gave three weeks before his death on August 31, 2012–is much more nuanced than early news stories reported it, but also much more hard-hitting. The indispensable John Allen offers NCR’s translation.

I have also included a PDF file here on Newsstand, because the interview is something I think I will be referring to over and over again; it is a keeper. NCR Martini

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Partial truths about the Philippine Revolution

The epilogue of John Schumacher SJ’s Revolutionary Clergy begins with a summary of four “certain stereotypes”, or partial views, or (if understood ideologically) outright myths of the Revolution that in my view is a marvel of lucidity and precision. Immediately after the summing-up, he hastens to clarify that “all of them contain some greater or lesser portions of the whole picture of the Revolution” (and all ignore, to a greater or lesser extent, the role of the Filipino clergy as “an essential element” of that same  Revolution).

I thought it might be worth our while to run those four paragraphs (from Schumacher 1981: 267-268) here, as a reminder, in Schumacher’s words, of “the one Revolution and the many revolutions.” Continue reading

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“But my cause is good and that is enough for me”

When Pablo Pastells SJ chided Rizal, then in exile in Dapitan, for not dedicating himself to worthier causes, Rizal replied with an eloquent defense, and a ringing affirmation of the least or even the lost cause. I think of his answer as his fanfare for the common man, but on closer reading it reveals itself to be a reply that is, at one and the same time, earnest and ironic. (I do not know if Pastells, at one time Rizal’s spiritual director, sensed the irony of it all.)

What follows is a series of three translations; the first is Raul Bonoan SJ’s, from his definitive Rizal-Pastells Correspondence; the second is Encarnacion Alzona’s, from Miscellaneous Correspondence of Dr. Jose Rizal, one of the many volumes prepared, somewhat hastily, for the Rizal centennial in 1961; and the third is Roman Ozaeta’s, from his translation of Rafael Palma’s biography of Rizal (the title by which we know it now, The Pride of the Malay Race, is Ozaeta’s own; Palma’s award-winning work, somewhat unimaginatively, was called “Biography of Rizal”).

The Spanish original, as reconstructed by Father Bonoan (but without the Spanish orthographical marks, due to my ignorance), follows after.

This particular passage, incidentally, figured in the Indonesian appropriation of Rizal. A high-profile feature article on Rizal in the December 30, 1944 issue of Asia Raya ran the passage (in Indonesian), and two years later a short-lived political magazine published in East Java ran it again. I suspect the young Indonesian journalists at that time of great upheaval heard the fanfare, and took arms. Continue reading

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Column: Ambassador Pacman’s boxing diplomacy

Published on June 8, 2010. I forgot to include in my short list in the first paragraph one unexpected encounter with a Pacquiao fan: In Hong Kong, a Sri Lankan war reporter asked me: So, do you know Manny Pacquiao? When I told him that as a matter of fact I had covered a training camp of his in Los Angeles, his eyes lit up, and he started talking, in fascinating detail, of Pacman’s most recent fights.

On business trips in recent weeks, I got a first-hand look at the worldwide fame of Manny Pacquiao. Whether it is a banker in Hong Kong or an airline employee in Jakarta or a taxi driver in Singapore, Pacman is now “top of mind,” when talk comes round to the Philippines.

It was in the last encounter, with a pleasantly loquacious cab driver on the (relatively) long drive to Nanyang Technological University [in Singapore] last Friday, that I began to see a pattern—and an idea began to seize me. Continue reading

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Cory’s coming-out speech (at Ninoy’s funeral)

Copied from “Human Society No. 21,” published by the La Ignaciana Apostolic Center on September 1, 1983. The day before, Ninoy Aquino’s funeral had drawn millions of people into the streets. Titled (perhaps by the issue editor?) “New Turn of Events,” this was Cory Aquino’s response to Jaime Cardinal Sin’s homily at the funeral Mass in Sto. Domingo Church, in Quezon City. We did not know it yet, but it marked her assumption of opposition leadership. (In copying the remarks, I retained the misspellings and floating commas.)

I talked to Ninoy for the last time on August 20, 7 p.m., Boston time, which was August 21, 7 a.m., Taipeh time. He told me that he would soon be leaving for the airport. I told him I was informed that Gen. Ver had warned any airline bringing Ninoy in that Ninoy would not be allowed to disembark, and that the airline would be asked to fly Ninoy back to his original port of embarcation.

Ninoy said that they could not do that to him because he is, was, and always will be a Filipino. And he told me that most likely he would be rearrested and brought back to Fort Bonifacio. In that case, he said he would ask Gen. Josephus Ramas to allow him to call me up. If, on the other hand, he would be placed under house arrest, he would call me up as soon as he arrived at our home in Quezon City. Then he told me that if we were brought back to Fort Bonifacio, there would be no need for me to hurry home. Instead, he said I should take my time finishing my packing. And in the event that our children and I would be issued passports, he said that I should take our three older daughters on a side trip to Europe.

Our only son Noynoy and our youngest daughter Kris were scheduled to leave for Manila a week after Ninoy arrived.

At 2:30 a.m., Sunday, August 21, Boston time, the phone rang and my oldest daughter Ballsy who answered it, was shocked when Kyodo agency in New York, asked her if it were true that her father had been killed in the Manila International Airport. They were asking for her confirmation. UPI and AP also called asking for verification; but it wasn’t until Congressman Shintaro Ishihara of Japan called me from Tokyo and verified the shooting report, that my family had to accept the cruel fact that Ninoy had been shot dead.

The children and I cried when I told them of the bad news. After a few minutes, we all knelt down to pray the rosary and ask the Blessed Mother for help.

We arrived in Manila on Wednesday, August 24. I could not believe my eyes when I saw a huge crowd at our home in Times St. waiting patiently in line to view Ninoy’s body. I was overwhelmed by this extraordinary display of love and devotion.

I had asked that my children and I be given a few minutes to be alone with our beloved Ninoy. We wanted to have him to ourselves for a few private, and cherished moments. From that first night of our return to Manila, my children and I continue to witness an even greater display of love, respect and admiration for Ninoy.

Our friends have been very kind and generous to us; but even more comforting is the sight and presence of countless men and women who did not even know Ninoy but are now helping to make our lives a little less difficult by demonstrating to us that we are not alone.

The huge throng that met us the other day when we journeyed from Tarlac to Manila must have numbered in the millions. They had waited for hours and hours under the hot sun and no doubt had gone hungry and thirsty but had patiently waited if only to catch a glimpse of my husband’s hearse.

If my children and I appear to be brave during this, the most difficult period yet of our lives, it is because we know that this is what Ninoy would have expected of us. It is also because of our faith in God, and the belief that he is now helping us in this, our greatest need.

And so today, I wish to thank all the Filipino men and women, young and old, who have demonstrated to me, to my children, to Ninoy’s mother and to his family, that Ninoy did not die in vain.

Ninoy, who loved you, the Filipino people, is now loved in turn.

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