AS A TOKEN OF GRATITUDE, Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales last month gave his pectoral cross (that huge accessory that hangs on a prelate’s chest) to someone who, in the cardinal’s opinion, has served the Catholic Church well.
You might be tempted to think that the recipient of such honor is a human rights advocate, or an anti-gambling crusader, or a vanguard of the environment, or a brave journalist, or a catechist who has sacrificed her whole life in the service of God’s vineyard. Well, karikna, don’t give in to such temptation. Yet again, you might be expecting too much of the church. And expectation is a cause of suffering.
Rosales’ pectoral cross went to Felicidad Sy, matriarch of the family which owns the SM retail chain. The Sys handed the church a cash donation that was so big, Rosales, who admits to having “a close relationship with the family”, promised not to disclose it.
Not just one, but two.
In mid-2008, another illustrious archbishop also presented the Sy family his pectoral cross. The Most Reverend Diosdado Talamayan of the Archdiocese of Tuguegarao, another long-time friend of the family, made the gesture in appreciation of the many cash donations the Chinoy capitalists have given his archdiocese.
There’s nothing wrong with giving gifts. Nothing’s wrong with accepting donations either. I am not surprised that the prelates are receiving huge sums of money, I’m just dismayed that they would come from where they come from.
Henry Sy is arguably the wealthiest businessman in the country today, and one of the most successful in Asia. Forbes Magazine reveals that the taipan is now worth 3.1 billion dollars, earning him a spot in the prestigious magazine’s Global Billionaires List. As of late last year, the SM retail chain counts in its fold 33 department stores, 24 supermarkets, 13 SaveMore branches, 13 Hypermarkets and 15 Makro outlets. There are also 3 SM malls in China.
Sure, Sy’s hard work and business acumen catapulted him to success, but such success is tainted by the taipan’s unfair labor practices aimed at generating more profit. Every time a mall is to be built, local governments are titillated because of the jobs that the new business establishment is expected to generate, but look closer.
According to my online sources, the SM fleet of malls now has over 30,000 contractual employees throughout the country. Management, in an attempt at euphemism, prefers to call them “trainees.” This means SM actually hires as high as 120,000 per year because they fire 30,000 employees every three-to-six months. Hiring its manpower through a recruitment firm associated with the Iglesia ni Cristo, SM management prefers INC members because their church bars them from joining labor unions. No wonder only a measly 2,000 of the corporation’s entire workforce are unionized. Given the weak labor union, management goes on a rampage in violating workers’ rights and welfare.
With contractual employees deprived of benefits that regular employees are entitled to, Henry Sy’s math is easy. Low salary plus no benefits for workers equal to more profit. And then, to relieve his conscience of burden, Henry Sy, using his pious wife as emissary, donates crumbs of his multi-billion riches to the church and, presto!, they receive two iconic symbols of divine approval—the bishops’ pectoral crosses.
Quite disturbing that the church, by accepting donations from “contractualization king” Henry Sy, affirms the morality of unfair labor practices. But what should we expect from our church anyway? She herself is not known to be caring to her own workers. In some parish convents at night, you would find dogs (the expensive type, not the askals), sleeping on the couch while church laborers try to catch sleep on the cold floor. I also know that church workers are meagerly paid, and, in many instances, their salaries are even delayed.
This accounts for their discontent when a swimming pool was constructed in the Bishop’s Palace shortly after Sergio Utleg was installed as head of the Diocese of Laoag. It was like Henry Sy constructing new malls while his laborers and their families are deprived of decent lives they deserve. Oh, what can I say? Birds of the same feather flock together. (Sorry for the cliché, and my apologies to bird lovers.)
I have no evidence that Utleg and Sy have close ties. It is not farfetched, however, that Utleg is a protégé of Talamayan who was his boss for a long time. Since his ordination in 1968, the former served in the Archdiocese of Tuguegarao until he was appointed Coadjutor Bishop of Ilagan in 1997. Utleg’s apprenticeship under Talamayan, who recently celebrated his silver anniversary as bishop, should explain why Utleg is all-too-excited to have a mall built in a church property amid strong opposition from stakeholders, conservationists, and ordinary folks. As it looks now, oppositionists’ voices are like cries out in the desert.
Still, those who are fighting against the mall project should not lose hope. The swimming-pool controversy notwithstanding, I have never ceased believing that Sergio Utleg is capable of doing things noble. He was believed to have supported activist Grace Padaca, a person with disability, who challenged, and all the way to cathartic victory, the powerful Dy family of Isabela in the 2004 gubernatorial race. Utleg may deny having ever shown partisan color, but the fact remains that people perceived him to be endorsing Padaca, and politics, you see, is a game of perception. Padaca turned out to be a good leader, even receiving the 2008 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service. Considered as the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize, the Magsaysay Award is the most prestigious recognition one could get in the world’s largest continent.
That is why I rebuked some of my friends who insinuated that Utleg’s arm could have just been bent by the city government into supporting the mall project. Not the type who is afraid of political warlords, this bishop knows what he wants and stands by his principles. As Chairman of the Episcopal Commission on Indigenous Peoples, he even occasionally leads his flock to rallies in Mendiola.
I would be the first person to cry if Utleg later on decides to hand his pectoral cross to the owner of Bellagio Holdings, Inc., winning bidder of the Laoag City mall project. If at all, it is Utleg’s turn to teach his seniors Rosales and Talamayan a lesson or two by presenting his pectoral cross to an individual who offered to the church something that Henry Sy’s gold and silver could not afford.
The bishops, when not busy going through business contracts and ignoring people’s manifestos, might want to revisit Mark 12:38-44. The gospel story tells us of Jesus posting himself near the collection plates in the temple where he can observe the contributions being made. Rich people came by with bags of money which they poured into the trumpet-shaped vessels. Then came one poor widow who gave two small coins.
Jesus commended the widow’s offering by saying, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
Fellow columnist Steve Barreiro once told me in jest that he kissed the bishop’s ring anyway because “It’s a political ring, pare.” He was reacting to my previous article, Kissing the hand but avoiding the ring, which detailed my rendezvous with Utleg.
But oh, so true, the ring is political, and the pectoral cross is now commercial.
Indeed, today’s crisis, more than economic, is spiritual.