Category Archives: Readings in Religion

Column: Not ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative,’ but ‘radical’ Catholic

Published on January 27, 2015.

To Church-watchers, the pivotal moment of Pope Francis’ five-day visit to the Philippines may have been his unscripted remarks at the Meeting with Families, on Jan. 16, at the Mall of Asia Arena. When he invoked Pope Paul VI (by name) and his predecessor’s controversial encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (by implication), it was global news—but it was news for the wrong reasons.

In particular, it was the following passage (about 140 words in all) that led many observers or commentators to speak of the Pope’s “conservative” turn, or to cite it as confirmation that the first pope named after the saint of Assisi was not as “liberal” as he was reputed to be. Continue reading

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Column: The Pope’s challenge to the powerful

Published on January 20, 2015.

At the final press briefing Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, held with Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, the long-serving Vatican spokesman attempted “a synthesis of the trip”—Pope Francis’ first visit to the Philippines, his second to Asia, and his seventh outside Italy since his election in March 2013. The substance of the Pope’s remarks was the second element of Lombardi’s synthesis.

He noted “the coherence of the message of the Pope: integrity, corruption, scandalous inequality, poverty.” Especially that last point: “The poor at the center of the Gospel.”

This was an echo of Francis’ own summary of his message to the Filipino faithful, which he explained in the news conference on the flight from Colombo, Sri Lanka, to Manila. (Hats off to Pia Hontiveros-Pagkalinawan, who if I’m not mistaken became the first Filipino journalist to ask Pope Francis a direct question.)

“The central message of this trip will be the poor, the poor who want to carry on; the poor who suffered from Typhoon ‘Yolanda’ and who are still suffering the consequences; the poor who have faith and hope. The people of God, the poor, even the exploited poor, those who suffer many injustices, material, spiritual and existential. I’ll think of them when I’m in the Philippines.” Continue reading

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Column: The Pope and the politicians

Published on January 13, 2015.

It is a safe bet that many Filipinos want the upcoming papal visit to be a politician-free zone. Even the politicians themselves are wary, all too aware that just being seen with Pope Francis as he visits the Philippines could be mistaken for that new state of disgrace we can call “epal-ness” or, worse, as an abuse of political privilege. With the exception of the Pope’s courtesy call in Malacañang, there is good reason to keep the apostolic visit free of politics—but not necessarily of politicians.

I would wager that Pope Francis himself, while acutely conscious of the corruption, the venality, the self-seeking and self-perpetuating culture of politics, would welcome politicians of all shades of conviction in his audiences. He has the same high regard for the calling of politics that the pope of his formative years in the priesthood, the intellectual diplomat Paul VI, expressed often and emphatically.

In a characteristically candid interview with veteran Vaticanista Andrea Tornielli in December 2013, he spoke about the relationship between the Church and politics. Continue reading

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Column: The most important papal visit

Published on January 6, 2015.

The most consequential papal journey of the year will not be to Sri Lanka or even to the Philippines next week, although Pope Francis’ second visit to Asia is important indeed. It will be in September, to the new center of gravity of Catholic conservatism: the United States.

Apart from its intrinsic importance, then, the Pope’s second-longest journey outside Italy to canonize the Apostle to Sri Lanka Blessed Joseph Vaz and to condole with the victims of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” in the Philippines can also be understood as a series of way stations en route to a historic encounter in Pittsburgh. (His longest journey, longer by a few hours, was the eight-day swing to Brazil in 2013.)

I do not wish to minimize the significance to the fourth papal visit to the Philippines. I understand that the Pope wanted to visit the country as early as late 2013, or just several months after his election—after all, it hosts the largest Catholic population in the world’s most populous continent and, despite the parochialism of much religion news in the country, plays a pivotal role in Asia in the new evangelization.

Unlike the visit to Seoul (his first to Asia, in August last year) and the one to Colombo that’s coming up in a few days, there is no beatification or canonization ceremony to perform in the Philippine visit. Unlike his visit to Rio de Janeiro in July 2013 or the one to Istanbul last November, there is no World Youth Day to grace or Joint Declaration to announce in the Philippines. He is, simply, a pastor visiting his people. Continue reading

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Column: Rizal as Catholic

Published on December 30, 2014.

The mature form of Rizal’s thinking on the Catholic religion can be found in his correspondence with a former Jesuit teacher. Written in his Dapitan exile between September 1892 and the middle of 1893, the five letters addressed to Fr. Pablo Pastells, SJ, are Rizal’s attempt to examine “what little has been left to me by the shipwreck of faith”—that last phrase an allusion to a remark from yet another Jesuit mentor.

What exactly was left? Not enough by the standards of his day; a surprisingly robust amount, by today’s measure. He was no longer a practicing Catholic, but remained very much a cultural one. (I believe this is why he ridiculed the notion, repeated by Pastells in one letter, that he had become a Protestant. Part of this cultural Catholicism was precisely the religion’s embrace of reason. To appropriate a quote from a third Jesuit writing two generations after Rizal: Catholicism “was a reasonable faith.”)

The following excerpts (from Dr. Robert Yoder’s excellent online resource, now maintained by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines) paint a vivid picture: Continue reading

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Column: #popeselfie

Published on December 23, 2014.

I have had the privilege of writing on Pope Francis for different media in preparation for next month’s pastoral visit. Writing has helped turn anticipation into active waiting—very like Advent. Like many, I am drawn to the Pope’s emphasis on mercy and compassion; but I am also magnetized by his candor, his demonstrated capacity for frank talk.

On Oct. 26, for instance, I wrote a “Daily Reflection” for INQUIRER.net, on what Pope Francis considers Christ’s “most powerful message.”

“‘First, it needs to be said that in preaching the Gospel a fitting sense of proportion has to be maintained. This would be seen in the frequency with which certain themes are brought up and in the emphasis given to them in preaching.’

“We can understand Pope Francis’ repeated emphasis on mercy as an attempt to restore a sense of proportion to Catholic discourse. In one of his very first homilies as pope, he introduces the theme in a memorable way.

“‘I think we too are the people who, on the one hand, want to listen to Jesus, but on the other hand, at times, like to find a stick to beat others with, to condemn others. And Jesus has this message for us: mercy. I think—and I say it with humility—that this is the Lord’s most powerful message: mercy.’ Continue reading

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Column: Did Pope Francis lose the battle?

Published on October 28th, 2014.

I can understand the struggle-for-reform narrative that allows commentators to call the outcome of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on Pastoral Challenges to the Family a setback—but I doubt whether Pope Francis sees it that way. The narrative arc is clear, for example, in James Politi’s dispatch from Rome dated Oct. 26: “[I]t is hard not to see the turn of events in the Vatican this month as a setback for a Pope who has energized the Catholic world with his quest to make the religion more accessible and modern.”

It is even more hard to see the turn of events as going according to the Pope’s plan, but I will attempt to show, if not exactly that, then at least the nearest thing: That the Pope could not have seen it as a setback, and himself as “losing the latest battle.” (Politi again.) Continue reading

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Column: The quotable Pope: 7 ‘astonishing’ statements

Published on October 14, 2014.

Reading various interviews that Pope Francis has granted since at least 2009 (when he was still archbishop of Buenos Aires), I have realized that behind the pastor with the common touch is a priest of deep culture and massive learning. Three sets of interviews, in particular, reveal a man with a sure sense of self and a certain, expressive, style.

Beyond his celebrated quotes—“pray for me,” “the church of mercy,” “the culture of encounter” and perhaps most famously “who am I to judge?”—he has given us in these three interviews a trove of precisely calibrated statements, that either force us to reconsider something familiar or see something altogether, and wholly, new. Continue reading

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Column: Benedict and Francis on social media

Published on June 3, 2014.

In a column I wrote over a year ago, I teased the country’s two cardinal-electors for asserting, in a news conference they called after they returned from the conclave that elected Pope Francis, that the Holy Spirit did not read social media. It was their good-natured way of expressing just how surprising the turn of events had been: the first resignation of a pope in 600 years, the first pope from the so-called New World, the first pope to be named after Francis of Assisi.

But I thought it was a mistake, theologically, to consider any form of media to be off-limits to God. I traced my argument back to Benedict XVI’s own thoughts on social media. As it happens, in the message he prepared for last year’s World Communications Day, Benedict had chosen to focus on social media. The title of the message was a useful summary: “Social Networks: portals of truth and faith; new spaces for evangelization.”

If online social networks are spaces where the evangel can be shared, then by definition it cannot be off-limits to the source of the same good news. Continue reading

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Column: Jinggoy et al as Pontius Pilate

Published on April 22, 2014.

I realize that many Filipinos will readily volunteer a comparison they think more apt: Jinggoy Estrada, Bong Revilla, Juan Ponce Enrile and others deeply implicated in the pork barrel scam are Judas. The defining act of the crimes they are charged with is the act of a traitor; that is, someone who betrayed the people’s expectations, the public’s trust.

But it is also possible to argue that the senators and congressmen and their staff who allegedly looted pork barrel funds are, in fact, Pontius Pilate. Allow me to make that argument, but first I must prove another point: Pilate’s liability in the judicial murder of Jesus Christ is not the learned helplessness of a pragmatic bureaucrat (“What is truth?”), but rather the sophisticated use of the political power of a ruling elite (“What I have written, I have written.”) Continue reading

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Column: The Pope’s older son

Published on March 18, 2014.

I liked the way it was phrased: Pope Francis has “an older son problem.” That seemed to me to be exactly right: The context was both biblical and within the framework of a famous parable of mercy. Hearing eminent Vaticanista John Allen Jr. say it out loud was satisfying indeed. The definition of the problem itself hinted at the solution. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I had the chance to hear Allen deliver his lecture at the 50th anniversary rites of the Divine Word Seminary in Tagaytay City last Wednesday, and see him engage in conversation with Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle in Quezon City the following day, at a fund-raising dinner.

Allen has been a constant reference in my Newsstand blog; he is the primary English-language source for Vatican news, and his reporting on the last days of John Paul II, the remarkable papacy of Benedict XVI and Francis’ turn on history’s stage has been marked by deep understanding of both the Vatican as a beat and Catholicism as a creed, and (not a small thing) by boundless energy. Continue reading

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Column: ‘If a sermon goes on too long…’

Published on December 24, 2013.

Before you listen to tonight’s Christmas Eve homily, you may want to prepare for the ordeal with the following joke. “We know… that both [the faithful] and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them!”

Ah, you might say: That’s exactly how I feel. Or perhaps: I didn’t realize the priests themselves dreaded the sermon. But the passage’s puckish note almost gives the author away. In a year of papal surprises, Pope Francis wrote an extraordinary document, classified as an apostolic exhortation in the Vatican’s elaborate schema, that enjoins all Catholics to rediscover and share the “joy of the Gospel”—and was itself proof of that joy, rediscovered and shared.

Much of the coverage I’ve seen or read on the Pope’s apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” however, focuses on the startling denunciations of consumerist capitalist culture to be found in it. One of the most quoted passages is a stinging rhetorical question: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” (I am humbled that Francis’ first example of what he calls “an economy of exclusion” involves the use, or misuse, of journalistic judgment.) Continue reading

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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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