Philippines: Door to Asia

Priest Tells of Church’s Strengths, Challenges

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ROME, JUNE 8, 2012 ( The Philippines are the door to the Far East for the Catholic Church. The first missionaries arrived in 1521 and today, with close to 100 million inhabitants – 80% of whom are Catholics — it presents a very different picture to the rest of Asia. 

Johannes Habsburg interviewed Father Jan Thomas Limchua for the weekly program “Where God Weeps,” in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need.

Q: Is your vocation an isolated case or are there vocations to the priesthood and the religious life in the Philippines?

Father Limchua: The Philippines is a country where there are so many Catholics, there are also so many young people who respond to the call to the priesthood, to religious life, and also to consecrated life. The seminaries are full of young men who know how to respond to the Lord’s call.

Q: The Philippines is the door from which the mission begins, not only for Asia but for the whole world.

Father Limchua: Yes, there are many priests, for example, here in Europe, who are in charge of the pastoral care of migrants. They work in the dioceses here, because of the vocational difficulty here in Europe and also in the United States.

Q: Asia is a continent of hope for the Church. It is a very young and incipient Church in the majority of countries. What do you think is the role of the Philippines in the evangelization of Asia?

Father Limchua: We can say that it is a mission not only for priests but above all for the laity. There are no many Filipinos working outside the country seeking to help their families. However, they also leave the country with the intention of living the faith. When they work, they also share the faith. For example, here in Rome, and in many parts of Europe, there are Filipinos who work in homes and look after children, taking care of families, they teach children how to pray. Faith is not just about receiving, it is also about giving. And these Filipinos who have also received the gift of faith from their parents, share the faith with the other people.

Q: When meeting with the bishops of the Philippines, the Holy Father spoke of the need for “a greater understanding of the faith and morality of the Church.” The people of the Philippines are open and fervently Catholic. Why does he have this concern?

Father Limchua: The Holy Father’s concern is that all the pastors of the Church be real teachers of the faith. We are not a young Church in the Philippines, we are a Church with roots from the missionaries, but all of us must grow in the faith. Although the faith of Filipinos is noted, for example, at Sunday Mass, we need to grow in the truth of the faith.

At times it’s a faith that is too “sacramentalized”: it’s focused more on popular piety, on the Church, but we must all make an effort to know the truth of the faith. Faith is not just a popular, emotional question of devotions. It is about encountering the Lord as Teacher of the faith. And the Holy Father also says this because now we, as country and as Church, are fighting against some laws that are being proposed against the family.

Q: What are the dangers that assail the family today in the Philippines?

Father Limchua: As always, the Church is the voice of conscience and she must teach the truth about the human being, about the family and about the presence of a Christian in society. At present the Church wants the faithful to reject certain laws proposed by the Congress. Laws that, for example, take away parents’ responsibility to teach their children the truth about sexuality. With this law, that responsibility is placed in the hands of the State. They also want to control the population with contraceptives.

Q: Reflected here is the philosophy of eliminating poverty by eliminating the poor. However, poverty exists. What does the Catholic Church propose to surmount poverty without eliminating the poor?

Father Limchua: They always use the poor. They use the poor to say that “because of the poor we cannot grow as a people.” The real problem is not the poor, the real problem is the moral corruption. The real problem is, as nation and government, not responding to the social reality. This mentality must be eliminated because they always blame the poor. The Church is very ready to say the truth and she is not afraid. The poor must not be measured in these things because the real problem is not the poor.

In difficult times in the history of the Philippines, the Church has always been the voice of truth when speaking of human rights the moral corruption that is present in the government. It’s not the role of clerics, of bishops, to enter into politics. However, the Church is calling us not only to proclaim the faith and to live it, but above all to proclaim and state clearly what the role of the laity is in the social context, and what the role of the Church is to help society.

Q: The Holy Father expressed some concerns about support of the clergy. How can the hierarchy and the faithful support priests in a correct and appropriate way?

Father Limchua: The great danger for the priest – and I say it also in a personal way – is to be an activist or a social official. The danger is to forget why he is a priest: he is in the world to proclaim Jesus Christ.

Q: Have we fallen prey somewhat to this, having priests who are too active or “sacramental officials”?

Father Limchua: Yes, in general, it is a problem. When the priest forgets his mission and forgets his union with Jesus Christ through prayer, through the celebration of the sacraments, through his personal relationship with the Lord, he loses the reality of his priesthood. The Holy Father is worried about this. The bishops are our superiors but they are also our fathers. All of us – bishops and priests, as people, must be together, journey together to rediscover the mission that Jesus Christ wants to show us. We must be in the world to proclaim the truth of the faith, to proclaim that Jesus Christ is the Lord. The faithful must pray for priests and help them to live their priesthood in keeping with what the Church teaches. We must not confuse the layman with the priest or the priest with the layman. This is a danger that Paul VI also pointed out. The vocation of the laity is to be in the world; the vocation of consecrated priests is to be with them … In these times, the world does not need a “superstar” priest. Today it needs a true priest, who loves the Lord, who is in love with the Lord. Without this the priest loses his identity.

Q: As a young priest, what do you ask your bishops in this regard?

Father Limchua: The bishops, as all of us who are human, certainly need to improve on some points. In the context of the Philippines, the bishops are improving a lot their personal relationship with priests, because of the difficulties that exist. The danger for priests  is also to forget that the bishop is his father, that the priest and the bishop must grow together as people of God. Right now they are doing many things about this. I think that the best thing the bishops can do is to be real fathers for their priests.

Q: Curiously, Islam preceded Christianity in its presence in the Philippines. In some areas in the south of the country there have been tensions. How is the dialogue with Islam going? Is it a danger for the of Catholics?

Father Limchua: Sometimes we think that Muslims “are like this,” but in reality — on entering the Muslim world, on talking with them – we we have common points. Right now the Philippine Church is using these common points to dialogue, to seek the best way to live together. In the south of the Philippines, 10% of the population is Muslim and there have been violent incidents. They have also killed some missionaries, priests and also a bishop. The Philippine Episcopal Conference has a Commission (Bishops-Ulama Conference): a group of bishops and of Mus
lim leaders who dialogue and seek common points. They are also seeking peace, the best way to coexist with Christians.

Q: Have the recent tensions and confrontations been for social and political questions or for religious questions?

Father Limchua: Some radical Muslims think that Mindanao is only for Muslims, so this is an ethnic and religious question. However, if we ask each one of the Muslims, they don’t think like this. They think that the earth is for everyone. That everything is gift of God and all of us must work together to improve our relationship.

Q: In different areas of Asia the presence of Islam is very significant. Can we say that if we don’t find a positive solution in the Philippines, we won’t find one anywhere?

Father Limchua: Yes, but above all as a people, as a nation, we must grow together, be together, and help one another mutually, especially in Mindanao, where there are also so many poor. If we continue with the violence we aren’t helping the country. And I think the best way is to dialogue with them, to seek common points, to say the truth about the human being, and to respect the dignity of the human being.

Q: Has the Catholic Church in the Philippines lost faithful to other Christian groups?

Father Limchua: Yes. Filipinos are very religious and they have a mentality of knowing and thinking that God is for them, but at the same time they lose somewhat the reality of the truth of the Gospel. Formation is lacking as is witness on the part of the Church and on the part of the faithful. We all must improve on this point.

Moreover, the Church is dialoguing with the Christian groups, especially now with this law that the Congress is considering. Because the issue of defending life is not only a religious or moral question: it is a question that stems from the natural law. It’s not necessary to have faith to defend life. It’s part of our human nature. This fight is not only of the Church. We must all defend life. On this point there is a dialogue to work together to defend human rights, above all now that they are in danger. With this law that the Congress is now considering, if approved, others will follow that will destroy human life, social life. This is not only a fight of the Church.

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The interview was conducted by Johannes Habsburg for the weekly radio and television program “Where God Weeps,” realized in cooperation with Aid to the Suffering Church and Aid to the Church in Need.

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