The Roman Catholic Diocese of Laoag, established in June 1961, celebrates its Golden Jubilee this year, and I should feel excited. This must be something big and meaningful. After all, Ilocanos are a deeply pious lot and we, as with the rest of the nation, are predominantly Catholic. But I feel uneasy, dear karikna, because of certain circumstances that surround the celebrations.
I came to know of the Church’s golden jubilee in a rather odd way. In November last year, Luvee Hazel Calventas-Aquino, a friend and colleague in the university, expressed to me her discomfort over a tarpaulin streamer that was hung very conspicuously near the side entrance of the St. William Cathedral in Laoag. Most churchgoers take the side entrance, and so it is very difficult to miss the streamer. “Why post it there?” Luvee asked. And it is not only Luvee, many other well-meaning parishioners shared the same sentiment.
Let me describe to you the banner. It is huge, really huge, billboard sized. Even if you have an eye problem, it would be difficult for you not to notice it. Featuring the latest model of a car brand, it bears an attractive picture and a catchy line which goes, “Find out why 10,000 customers chose the new Honda City. Honda: forever change the rules.” In the middle of the streamer is an invitation which goes: Inquire Inside.
Inquire inside? Since when has the Cathedral become a car sales center? I have previously written about ash trays being sold inside the parish church in another town, but a car this time? It turns out the nice car is the grand prize for the Grand Raffle Draw the Diocese was holding in line with jubilee. And I surmise that hanging the billboard in the most visible part of the Cathedral was part of their promotional strategy.
This reminds us of the incident when Jesus got angry with traders inside the temple. “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Diocesan administrators may reason that the streamer was not hung inside, but just the same, God’s temple was made to appear as a trading center for cars.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with cars, and nothing wrong with wealth. But we must be wary about the signals that we send, and more so the church, which relies mainly on symbols, rituals, and traditions. Our consciousness is already barraged by messages of materialism and the trappings of mundane life, the last place we would like to see a ‘commercial’ is in a church where one would long to reflect, meditate, and worship. Lolita Chestnut, a balikbayan from New Hampshire USA, felt uneasy, scandalized even, that the raffle draw was being promoted in the daily masses she attended in Batac. The congregation was strongly encouraged to buy tickets, and the prizes, just like a litany, were enumerated with much gusto. Also during the mass, right before the final blessing, ticket sellers were urged to remit the money they made from the tickets. This was most likely the scenario in all Catholic churches in the diocese during the months leading to the raffle draw held in mid-April.
The Grand Prize—a brand new Honda City—was eventually won by Fr. Danilo Laeda, the diocesan vicar general who, in terms of administrative powers, is second in rank to the bishop. Other priests, meanwhile, also bagged cash prizes.
I believe that the draw was done with all honesty and integrity, and that Fr. Laeda, a ruminant theologian and prolific writer who has my respect, won fair and square; I heard he bought a lot of tickets amounting to over a thousand pesos. Yet there is a great degree of discomfort on my part that certain prizes would go to the priests themselves. In corporate events, employees and their relatives, up to a certain degree of consanguinity and affinity, are barred from joining promos. I am not even raising here the issue of propriety and delicadeza. I am just asking: “Would it not be better to allow the laymen to benefit from their bonanza?”
And I am not saying this out of bitterness, as I have been previously accused by Church officials and religious bigots each time I raised an issue. Yes, I bought two tickets (worth a hundred pesos apiece) for the raffle, but only at the prodding of my mom, who is a daily communicant and most active parishioner. I have always maintained that raffle draws are just a sanitized form of gambling. Yes, it may be legal. Yes, it may be for a good cause. But each time the Church sponsors games of chance, it compromises its moral authority to speak against gambling, legal or otherwise. What is the essential difference between a jueteng operator doing bola, a casino supervisor overseeing blackjack, and a bishop drawing numbers from a tambiolo? But of course we already know that certain bishops do receive Jueteng payola.
There are many other ways to celebrate the Diocesan Jubilee, (the big day, incidentally, is on June 5, my birthday), such as strengthening the Church’s social action program which, credible insiders say, has weakened under the term of current Laoag prelate Sergio Utleg. Yet there is another undertaking which overshadows whatever meaningful activities the Diocese has lined up for the centennial celebrations—the construction of a mall in a prime lot owned by the Church. People have mixed emotions about the project. Many say it will further promote a culture of consumerism and that it will unbearably congest the city’s central district. Yet some contend that this is all for good as it will provide jobs and will stimulate the local economy. One thing is sure: the Diocese, still enjoying the perks of a feudal past, will rake in hundreds of millions from the lease contract. No matter the economic debate, dear karikna, the Church is better off focusing on its real role of leading the people closer to God’s kingdom.
“Inquire inside,” the streamer admonishes the Christian faithful, “for the car that changed the rules forever.”
But how can we forget that Jesus Christ entered Jerusalem not on a fancy car, but aboard a lowly donkey. As a king riding on an animal most humble, the good Lord set the rules of salvation that will do us so much good, especially in this year of great jubilation, not to, for all the gold and silver in the world, change.