Welcome to our CBCP 116th Plenary Assembly!
I also asked permission from the good Archbishop of Cebu, Archbishop Jose Palma, to say this: Maayong Pag-abot dinhi sa Archdiocese sa Sugbu! Viva Señor Sto. Niño, Pit Senyor!
And since we are still in the first days of the first month of this year, let me say to all of you, Happy New Year!
This is my first time to address you in this way; never in my life did I ever think that I would address you in this way!! Thank you for your vote of confidence … And as I was thinking of what to say to you this afternoon, my thoughts brought me to the recent past of our life together as the Catholic Bishops here in the Philippines, and while my thoughts were on the past, I could not help but mention to all of us this afternoon my sense, and I don’t doubt our sense, of gratitude for and recognition of the wonderful work of Archbishop Socrates Villegas, our immediate past President. And so, let me say again to you, Archbishop Soc, our sincere thank you.
And while looking at the recent past, it was a year of both joys and sorrows, of smiles and tears. Last year, in this context of looking at the past, I can mention our sad realization of the gravity and seriousness of the widespread use and menace of illegal drugs in the country, and our deep sadness and very serious concern over the many deaths related to the anti-illegal drug campaign of our government, and other deaths related to the drug problem. Then, who can forget the painful and tragic war in the City of Marawi? A war that escalated us to an international issue with ISIS. And recently, up to the end of last year, we had typhoons Urduja, Vinta, and Agaton that brought the loss of many lives, and destruction of homes and properties. More than a hundred families celebrated their Christmas attending to their dead, and with the loss of their homes, they celebrated Christmas in evacuation centers. Now we have the eruption of the Mayon Volcano with reported initial evacuation of about 40,000 people.
And so much sadness was upon us when we lost Bishop Rodolfo Beltran of the Diocese of San Fernando La Union, and Bishop Leopoldo Tumulak of the Military Ordinariate. With so much grief, we bade farewell to Cardinal Ricardo Vidal of Cebu, a very noteworthy priest, bishop and cardinal of the church here in the Philippines. We mourned the passing away of Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos of Butuan, the death of Bishop Christian Noel of the Diocese of Talibon, and the death of Bishop Elenito Galido of Iligan.
But joy was in our hearts when, in January of last year, two bishops were ordained and installed in their respective dioceses: Bishop Alberto Uy as Bishop of Tagbilaran, and Bishop Victor Bendico as Bishop of Baguio. In February, Bishop Socrates Mesiona was ordained and installed as Bishop of Puerto Princesa. And Archbishop Gilbert Garcera was installed as Archbishop of Lipa in April. In July, Bishop Danilo Ulep was ordained, and in August he was installed as Bishop of Batanes; and in November of last year, Bishop Mel Rey Uy was ordained and installed as Bishop of Lucena, and just recently, in January of this year, Bishop Rex Ramirez was ordained Bishop in Palo and a few days later installed as Bishop of the Diocese of Naval. And in November of last year, we joyfully welcomed Archbishop Gabriele Caccia, our new Apostolic Nuncio. And on this, a trivia: I believe that Archbishop Caccia is already familiar with the Philippines. Because he is a classmate of our own Archbishop Barney Auza, the Holy See’s Permanent Observer in the UN!
And also many acts of witness of faith in the lives of our lay faithful bring inspiration and profound joy to our hearts as bishops in the midst of pain and sorrow. Allow me to share with you a very particular and local experience of mine in Davao, a story of generous self-giving in the midst of our people’s pain and sorrow, and hopefully such a story will let you see similar ones in your life. In the terrible fire in one of the shopping malls of Davao City during the 8th day of the Misa de Gallo, 38 lives were lost, and 37 of these were all employees of a Call Center located in the building of that mall. The 38th fire victim was an employee of the mall who went back many times into the fire to rescue people, and he was able to rescue about 80 people until his last attempt into the burning building to rescue more people when he himself was swallowed up by the fire. Or the story of Bp. Edwin dela Peña, where in the terrible situation in Marawi, Muslims and Christians worked together to serve all people in evacuation centers. These are stories that truly make our hearts hopeful and “joyful.”
And in the days ahead, we, as bishops, will take a major part in the preparations for the jubilee of the 500th centenary of the beginnings of Christianity in the Philippines; and as part of our nine-year preparation for this jubilee, this year is proclaimed as the Year of the Clergy and Consecrated Persons. This year also, I believe, is a great opportunity for us bishops to deepen our sense of appreciation and gratitude for the priests and religious in our local Churches, they are truly gifts to us. A few of them have brought to the Church pain and shame; but many of them, countless of them, are really our source of joy, pride, and inspiration.
Also, the recent Seminar on the Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis has pointed out to us the big and important task before us: the crafting of a new Ratio Nationalis.
And in our national socio-political situation, we have this big issue of the proposed change of our Constitution; and mainly related to it is the move to change our form of government to a Federal one.
But I cannot help myself but mention this – the great opportunity for our local Churches – that those deep in addiction of illegal drugs can come to us, the Church, as a mother that welcomes them home, to their home, with open arms (see E.G. nos. 46-49). From my experience, they are most comfortable and confident to accept and bring themselves to be helped through the initiative and work and programs of the Church. It is an opportunity for us once again to proclaim that each and every life is sacred. Each and every life is to be loved and treasured. We do not want anybody to be killed.
Another thing I want to mention is that the long series of natural calamities, which a good number of times were made worse by man-made mistakes, were occasions when our local Churches’ Social Action Ministry and our Caritas offices made wonderful witness in the work of bringing help and comfort to those who suffered in these situations. I propose that as individual bishops in our respective dioceses, we take a second look at how to further strengthen the capability of our Social Action Centers and Caritas offices as they participate, not only in bringing aid to victims of calamities, but also in strengthening our communities in their disaster-preparedness capabilities and in their awareness of tangible acts of mercy as rooted in the Gospel.
It is in such a complex situation, with my very poor attempt to describe it, that we situate our ministry. And with this, I remember what Pope Francis, in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, said: “I dream of a ‘missionary option,’ that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedule, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation” (E.G. no. 27). And Pope Francis continues, “The bishop must always foster this missionary communion in his diocesan Church, following the ideal of the first Christian communities, in which the believers were of one heart and one soul (cf. Acts 4:32). To do so, he will sometimes go before his people, pointing the way and keeping their hope vibrant. At other times, he will simply be in their midst with his unassuming and merciful presence. At yet other times, he will have to walk after them, helping those who lag behind and – above all – allowing the flock to strike out on new paths” (E.G. no. 31). Let us keep hope vibrant, be truly unassuming and merciful and open to new paths!
Needless to say, we go forth with our people facing these challenges ahead but always ever mindful of the “grace of office” that the good Lord will certainly shower us. While we are challenged by Pope Francis telling us that: “Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way.’ I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities” (E.G. no. 33). Let me end with this simple and profound reminder of Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium: “The important thing is to not walk alone, but to rely on each other as brothers and sisters, and especially under the leadership of the bishops, in a wise and realistic pastoral discernment” (E.G. no. 33).