His Excellency Benigno S. Aquino III
President of the Philippines
During a general audience with Pope Francis
Colonialism was brought to our shores, partly by the efforts of the conquistadores, and partly through the efforts of the Church. When the clergy in that period was asked how they justified the injustices committed during the colonization of the Philippines, they responded by saying: the Kingdom of God is not of this earth.
With Vatican II however, this changed: Instead of being a pillar of the establishment, the Church began to question the status quo. My understanding of the changes inspired by Vatican II, and of the influence of liberation theology, was the notion that temporal matters affect our spiritual well-being, and, consequently, cannot be ignored. Two passages from scripture come to mind.
The first comes from Matthew, Chapter 22, Verses 36-40, in which a Pharisee posed this question to Jesus Christ, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”
The clear link between the two greatest commandments, as Christ put it, is further emphasized in another passage. In Matthew Chapter 25 Verses 35-36, Christ said, “For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’”
The Gospel challenges each member of the Church to go beyond almsgiving and mere charity, and to be concerned with injustice in temporal matters. We were further taught that if we do not intercede to make each person capable of exercising true freedom of choice, then we are not our brother’s keepers. One of the examples given to us involved a certain question. If it is a sin to steal, who is the greater sinner: the desperate man in an impossible situation forced to steal to feed his starving family, or the politician with an insatiable greed who, despite not having real material needs, stole from the public coffers?
When the Church engaged in temporal matters, it was truly working to bring the Kingdom of God apparent in this world. It was a living Church, a source of nurturing and support for the faithful, at a time when movies like “The Cardinal,” “The Shoes of the Fisherman,” and even “Jesus Christ Superstar” elicited deeper thoughts on how to further deepen the faith.
These teachings have been central to my family’s advocacy, which is understandable considering what we, along with millions of Filipinos, went through under the dictatorship. Then-President Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972, when I was 12-years-old, beginning an era in which the most fundamental rights of many Filipinos were flagrantly and routinely violated. It was in this environment that I came of age. In a sense, I had a front row seat to that tyranny and persecution. After all, the dictator wasted no time in having my father, one of his most influential and vocal opponents, imprisoned.
Martial Law deprived our family not only of a loving husband and father. Many of our friends avoided us. There were few who dared speak up. One of those was Fr. Toti Olaguer, SJ, who, right in the heart of the dictator’s most secure prison, had the courage to speak the truth about Mr. Marcos’ abuses, even as he was being videotaped. Many others in the Church, such as Jaime Cardinal Sin, Bishop Francisco Claver, and Bishop Antonio Fortich, just to name just a few, truly lived their faith and acted as followers of Christ in being their brothers’ keepers.
The courage and daring displayed by the clergy solidified my belief: Especially during the Martial Law years, the Church of the poor and oppressed shone vividly. The clergy was always at the forefront of those wanting to emulate Christ and carry the burdens for all of us. Indeed, they nourished the compassion, faith, and courage of the Filipino people. This allowed millions to come together as a single community of faith and make possible the miracle of the EDSA People Power Revolution.
Perhaps we had grown so accustomed to having this Church, always at the forefront of championing the rights of all, especially those of the marginalized, that we found it hard to understand its transformation. We were taught that the Catholic Church is the true church, and that there is constancy, for it upholds the truth at all times.
Hence, there was a true test of faith when many members of the Church, once advocates for the poor, the marginalized, and the helpless, suddenly became silent in the face of the previous administration’s abuses, which we are still trying to rectify to this very day. In these attempts at correcting the wrongs of the past, one would think that the Church would be our natural ally. In contrast to their previous silence, some members of the clergy now seem to think that the way to be true to the faith means finding something to criticize, even to the extent that one prelate admonished me to do something about my hair, as if it were a mortal sin. Is it any wonder then, that they see the glass not as half-full, or half-empty, but almost totally empty. Judgment is rendered without an appreciation of the facts.
I understand I am only human, and thus, I am imperfect. I ran for the Presidency despite my discomfort with the trappings of power, because if I passed up on this opportunity to effect real change, I would not have been able to live with myself, especially if the situation worsened. But in this effort, the participation of all is necessary. Everything I have said has not been to criticize, but to speak the truth, for the truth shall set us all free. If we are able to settle our differences, can we not benefit our people quicker?
This is why I was struck by what Your Holiness recently said to the Curia, when you warned them of the illnesses that not only Christians, but anyone in a position of power, is prone to, including that of thinking one’s self immortal or indispensable, and the danger of becoming sowers of discord through gossip and grumbling.
I appreciate and respect Your Holiness, for your role as a unifying and revitalizing voice, not just among Catholics, but also among all peoples of goodwill. Your statements bear witness to the compassion and understanding of Christ. Exhibiting the same humility, you eschew the trappings of your position, even to the necessary security preparations, which, I should admit, has been somewhat of a security nightmare for us. [Laughter] In all seriousness, who can deny that Your Holiness is truly living the life of one who is dedicated to advocating for the oppressed and marginalized?
I believe that you are a kindred spirit, one who sees things as they are, and is unafraid of asking, “Why not?” Some of your statements might have been shocking or offensive to some peers. But Your Holiness is meant to be the instrument through which the Kingdom of God is allowed to flourish. In your example, we see the wisdom of continuing to ask, “Why not?” We see joy, a sense of authentic service, and an insistence on a true community of the faithful. We thank the Lord for other kindred spirits like Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, Father Catalino Arevalo, and Sister Agnes Guillen, who have always been voices of reason, and who are spiritual people who will always be natural allies, along with so many others. We would like to think that even more will join us in the truth, in the fullness of time.
In the fight to transform society, one cannot help but be heartened by the fact that we are not alone. When we tread this path with people such as yourself, along with the millions you have inspired, we gain the courage to do what needs doing, the optimism to dream about what we can achieve in unity with one another, and the opportunity to turn that dream into a shared reality, with the grace of Almighty God. The Filipino people, in whose name I welcome you today, ask your blessing; may we find more mercy and compassion in our lives.
Thank you. Good day.