Rooting for Apo Jack

As you read this, Sergio Utleg would have been installed as archbishop of Tuguegarao. In an interesting turn of events, The Ilocos Times, where articles critical of Utleg’s leadership have seen print, paid tribute to the religious leader in a full page feature in last week’s issue. The banner story also amplified the bishop’s anti-mining views. I have spoken enough about the bishop, and often in an unflattering light, but I agree that he ought to be commended for his anti-mining views. He is a lover of nature and crusader for the plight of indigenous peoples.

Jun-b Ramos, editor in chief of the North’s most enduring community newspaper, is said to have personally paid a visit to the archbishop-elect in his last days in Laoag. During the dialogue, Jun-b, aware that some Catholics feel of resentful of the paper due to some articles (including mine) critical of Utleg, assured the bishop that The Ilocos Times is neither against the Church nor its leaders, and that it only tackles issues that do well to be clarified and serve as wake-up call. The bishop, admired by many for his humility and gentle demeanor, explained his side on issues raised by some quarters. Inside sources say some powerful blocs in the Diocese, including leaders of the Knights of Columbus, have been prodding the bishop to file a libel case. Now, all is well, and rightly so. Filing a criminal case is not exactly the best way for Utleg to bid the Diocese of Laoag goodbye. Continue reading “Rooting for Apo Jack”

My mom’s Letter to the Editor: In defense of Bishop Utleg

I wish to take exception to Herdy La. Yumul’s column titled “Utlegged”, published in the other week’s issue of your respectable newspaper. While I support the young writer, who happens to be my son, in all of his undertakings, his rather harsh commentary on Bishop Sergio Lasam Utleg is something I do not approve of. In fact, I found myself weeping a lot because of the grief and agony the article gave me.

As a church volunteer, I have always known Bishop Utleg as an honorable person and a respectable church leader. He is humble and kind, caring and nurturing.  I appreciate very much that he sacrificed his whole life in the service of God’s people. I, my family, and many other churchgoers attest to his vast contributions in nurturing the spiritual lives of his constituents, and in helping uplift the lives of the poor and the oppressed. No doubt, he is well loved and well admired by his flock. Continue reading “My mom’s Letter to the Editor: In defense of Bishop Utleg”

Utlegged

YES, thank you for noticing the past tense. Sergio Utleg is set to leave the Diocese of Laoag to wear a heavier cap as archbishop of the Archdiocese of Tuguegarao.

Last June 15 at the Vatican, Josef Ratzinger, alias Benedict XVI, announced the new appointment. Utleg will succeed Diosdado Talamayan, 78, whose resignation has, after three years of waiting, finally been accepted by the Pope. Sixty-seven year old Utleg will serve the archdiocese with around 1.3 million Catholics, 82 priests and 122 religious.

I am happy with Utleg’s transfer, for his near six-year stint in the Diocese of Laoag was marked not as much spiritually as it was commercially. And it started on the wrong foot. Right after he assumed office as bishop of Laoag, the very first project to be completed was a swimming pool at the bishop’s palace.

Then the diocese worked closely with the Laoag City Government to have a mall built in a parcel of land where a heritage school building sits. “Of course, it’s about the money,” the bishop, in a personal meeting with your karikna, said of the unpopular move, explaining that revenues can be put to good use. But Utleg was all too willing to dismantle everything just to have the diocesan cash register ring louder than our famed bell tower. Boy, he even attempted (or, at the very least, condoned attempts) to wrap the churches in Laoag and San Nicolas with mall buildings. If not for the people’s strong resistance and fervent prayers, add to that twists of fate, these plans would have pushed through. Majestic Ilocos churches would have been irreparably utlegged.  Continue reading “Utlegged”

Uncle Gerry

I ALWAYS tell my students, almost all of them in their teens that, at this point in their lives, they probably enjoy spending more time with their barkada—with whom secrets are shared, ‘happenings’ are enjoyed, and brave youthful explorations are carried out—than with their family members, especially the oldies, whom they perceive as KJ, epal, and close-minded.

I remind my students though that, as I myself would find out myself when I was a teenybopper no more, many friends come and go, while the family, fortunately or not, remains.

I was browsing though old photo albums the other day to look for pictures we need for our parents’ golden wedding anniversary next month when I noticed in the prints someone who has always been present in important occasions like birthdays, graduations, and weddings. He has been there during happy moments, but even more in difficult ones.  He is a vital constant in our family.

The second youngest in a brood of nine, German Nicolas Labayog was the only among his siblings who lived with his parents, my lolo and lola, until their twilight years. He took very good care of them. He gave them all the reasons to be happy.  He always made them laugh even as he constantly reminded the octogenarians to wear their pustiso.

With our grandparents gone, Uncle Gerry, although now based in Hawaii with his super beautiful wife Auntie Elsie, is the unifying force in the Labayog Clan. He would encourage us to gather and celebrate as a family, occasions big and small.  He would not be physically present anymore, but we would always feel his love. He would know if some members of the family are at odds, and would go at lengths to negotiate peace. I and my cousins each have our own stories to tell of gratitude and appreciation of Uncle Gerry. He tells you he is proud of you, and you would feel that he means it. He gives sound advice in a very tempered way and helps you realize your follies but never judges. He has ultimate belief in one’s capacity to do good.

I know he has mixed feelings about me right now. Continue reading “Uncle Gerry”

Fr. Jose Agustin

A STABLE income.  House. Car. Good education for the kids.  Just when they have attained financial success, my parents felt an existential void, a void waiting to be filled.  Something was missing.  They were searching.  They were wanting.

And then there was Fr. Jose Agustin.

Back in the 70’s and 80’s, mom and dad would visit Fr. Joe at the parish rectory nighttime to ask questions like, “What is the Immaculate Conception?,”  “Will non-Christians go to heaven?,” “Why can’t we confess our sins directly to God?”  Soft-spoken and gentle in every way, Father Joe, although tired from a day’s work in the parish, would patiently and passionately answer each query, and my parents would always go home enlightened and eager to visit again. Continue reading “Fr. Jose Agustin”

Church of the Pool on the take?

BUT OF COURSE.

Archbishop Oscar Cruz, an indefatigable anti-jueteng crusader, revealed recently that eight to twelve Catholic dioceses are benefitting from illegal gambling operations.  One wonders if the Diocese of Laoag is among them.

This sense of wonder is not without basis.  A retired archbishop, the longest-serving leader of this lone diocese of Ilocos Norte, openly admits that his beautiful house was built for him by a known jueteng lord.  My sources also attest that some structures in the diocese were either built or renovated with help from operators of the popular numbers game.

Note, dear karikna, that I am not against jueteng per se.  As a sociologist, I have previously written that jueteng exists not much because government officials and the police allow it, but more because the people need it.  Where the government and church fail, jueteng fills gaps and satisfies needs.  It provides jobs, it gives people hope.  “False hope!,” some people may point out,  but false hope, dear karikna, is always better than no hope at all.

You see, jueteng to me is not among what I would consider as major, major social problems.  What disturbs me is the patent hypocrisy by which the church deals with it.

“Receiving money from and betting on jueteng is a grave sin,” says Sergio Utleg, Laoag bishop, citing moral grounds.

A more candid stand, however, was made no less by the late Jaime Cardinal Sin, the most influential Filipino prelate ever.  “If Satan appears to me and gives me money, I will accept the money and spend it all for the poor. It is not the practice of the Church to ask donors where their donations come from. Our duty is to make sure all donations go to the poor,” he posited.

At least, Sin had the interests of the poor in mind. Under Utleg, the first structure to be constructed was not a church and neither was it a facility for our impoverished brethren.  It was, of all things, a capricious swimming pool by the bishop’s palace. Continue reading “Church of the Pool on the take?”

Academicians critique priest’s book on Aglipayanism

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FR. ERICSON JOSUE is one of few Catholic priests I admire. Besides being bright and hardworking, he is humble and sensitive. We have known each other since our early teens (when he was still so lanky while I was then too fat), and I have always held him in high regard.

While other priests were busy attending parties, grooming expensive dogs, and constructing an ostentatious swimming pool in the Bishop’s Palace, Ericson had been busy writing books. Only in his early thirties, this son of Pasuquin has already published his second research output. “Out of the Depths”, which came out last December, tackles the phenomenal rise and eventual decline of Aglipayanism.

Well-meaning scholars must be given support and due recognition, and so I encourage my students and friends to read the book, if only to generate intelligent and enlightened discourse, a rarity in the Church (and government) these days.

Here, allow me to share excerpts of an interview conducted by students with Professor Fides Bernardo A. Bitanga, who teaches Sociology of Religion in the Mariano Marcos State University. Bitanga is also the new Editor-in-Chief of Sabangan, a social sciences publication in MMSU.

Continue reading “Academicians critique priest’s book on Aglipayanism”

Mom’s reaction

My mother’s reaction: You were very disrespectful to the bishops. You should respect them because they have sacrificed their lives. I am not going to buy any copy of the Ilocos Times anymore.

Herdy’s Riknakem: 1) I don’t think I was disrespectful. I was just offering honest observations; 2) Bishops live very comfortable lives. But yes, everybody has a cross to bear; 3) Thank you for bearing with me; 4) Okay, Mom, if you don’t feel like buying a copy, you can check the online version instead.

Kissing the hand but avoiding the ring

BISHOP SERGIO UTLEG sent me an email asking if I could meet him personally regarding my previous column [“Slap the Bishops: Support the Reproductive Health Bill (IT, Nov. 10-16)].

Initially, I was bent to shun the proposed meeting because I don’t exactly love being in awkward situations. Convinced, however, that what the bishop has to say deserves my ear, I obliged.

I thought of inviting the bishop to our place for dinner, but my mom, a daily communicant and church volunteer, strongly opposed. It was one of the rare moments she was not proud of me, she panicked at the prospect of the bishop discovering that I am her son.

So, on Wednesday evening, I asked my friend Angelica Salas to accompany me to the Bishop’s Palace to meet His Excellency. Putting her best foot forward, my usually vivacious Mareng Angge transformed into a “mayuming katekista” the soonest we stepped on palace grounds.

A blue barong-clad Utleg welcomed us at the Palace lobby and led us to his office. And when we were seated, he looked at my eyes and flashed a toothy smile for a few seconds that seemed to me like eternity. He began the conversation by asking why I wrote of him as a bishop “best known today not for anything spiritual”. He said he was curious to know, and wondered if it was because he is often seen bicycling. Continue reading “Kissing the hand but avoiding the ring”

Bishop’s Invitation

HIS EXCELLENCY SERGIO L. UTLEG, D.D., Bishop of Laoag, wrote via email to ask if we could meet personally re: my column last week.

I will, of course, oblige to the bishop’s invitation, although it feels awkward as this is my first time to sit down with a church official to talk about a serious issue.

The invitation to dialogue speaks something about this prelate who, despite espousing stances opposite to mine, has my respect. I feel humbled.

With healthy anxiety, I look forward to meeting the man and gaining from his thoughts.

Slap the bishops

I GREW UP KNOWING EDMUNDO M. ABAYA, D.D., yes, that bishop known for nothing worthy of notice, save his lavish birthday parties attended by politicians and society’s who’s who. So, I have never really been a fan of bishops.

No, not know, when we have a Sergio Utleg, best known today, not for anything spiritual, but for ardently supporting the construction of a mall that will displace a top-performing elementary school, and will, consequently, lead to the tearing down of heritage structures .

I vaguely remember receiving the sacrament of confirmation as a kid almost two decades ago, but, from what I can recall, a bishop gave me the ceremonial slap-on-the-face to initiate me to Christian maturity.

I am not sure though whether the Roman Catholic Church is exactly a bastion of maturity. Here we speak of the same church which persecuted Galileo Galilee for presenting his discovery that the earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around. This is the very church which kept silent while millions of Jews were tortured and murdered during World War II. This is the church headed by Benedict XVI, that pope who triggered violence when he spoke careless remarks against Islam shortly after he assumed the papacy, and who is now bent on beatifying Pius XII, the architect of silence during the Holocaust. And, yes, you are right, this is the church that spanks Jueteng lords with one hand, and accepts “donations” from them with the other.

This is why in this religion that thrives on blind obedience, it is a breath of fresh air when well-meaning individuals dare to defy the bishops. This is what 55 professors from Ateneo de Manila University did when they issued a statement in support of a very important piece of legislation which, yet again, might just go down the drain, thanks to the influence of our bishops. Here I am referring to House Bill 5043—The Reproductive Health Bill, which seeks a national policy on reproductive health and family planning. Supported by development organizations and women’s groups, the bill aims to address maternal, child health, and nutrition problems, especially among the poor, by promoting modern methods of contraception and by providing age-appropriate sex education in public schools.Feeling the pressure from the bishops, Gloria Arroyo, known for doing anything and everything in the name of political survival, threw in a near-fatal blow to the bill when, in her last State of the Nation Address, she tried to win divine approval by sidelining modern methods in favor of natural family planning (NFP). Presidential allies in Congress, recipients of the many blessings that go with being chummy with the leader of one of the most corrupt countries in the world, are expected to follow their idol’s lead.

The group of Ateneo professors, which includes some Jesuit priests, came out with a position paper titled, “A Call of Conscience: Catholics in Support of the RH Bill,” that looked at the bill through various lenses — the social sciences, philosophy and theology. In the paper, the professors pointed out that “Catholic social teachings recognize the primacy of the well-formed conscience over wooden compliance to directives from political and religious authorities.”

“We believe it is possible for Catholics like ourselves to support HB 5043 in good conscience even as we recognize, with some anguish, that our view contradicts the position held by some of our fellow Catholics, including our bishops,” they said.

More than the arguments they set forth, what struck me with the position paper is the tempered manner by which the professors presented their views. Disappointed, piqued, and feeling insulted by the bishops’ pronouncements on a number of issues, I’m afraid I cannot do the same.

Contending that sex should be done only in the context of procreation, the church demonizes the use of modern artificial means of contraception.

But, of course, sex is not just for procreation. It is an act of intimacy meant to express feelings that words cannot make manifest, of making ‘the other’ feel loved in a way so passionate, of celebrating the joys and pleasures of togetherness. What do the clergy know about sex to begin with? (With due apologies to those who sired children and molested altar boys) They seem to believe that they are above it and so they embrace celibacy. And, by shunning sex, they have created a mystical image for themselves. From that mystique springs forth, or so they hope, their authority.

If you are an overseas worker who unites with your spouse only once in a long time, or if you are the wife of an abusive husband who demands sex anytime he wants it, or if, very simply, your menstruation is irregular and so you cannot rely on NFP, why should you avoid modern methods? The bishops seem incapable of respecting couples who in their “most secret core and sanctuary” or conscience, have decided that their and their family’s interests would best be served by using modern methods. These bishops intrude into your matrimonial bed, and you allow it?

The church says that the use of condoms and pills is anti-life. Sometimes, bishops would even entertain illusions of being science wizards and ridiculously link contraceptive pills with abortion. But who are taking them seriously anyway? Most Catholics I talk to favor modern methods of contraception and they do not feel guilty about their stance, which is why bishops, not content with grandstanding in pulpits, now want to bang the legislative gavels, too.

When we talk about life, we go beyond thinking about quantity, and deal with its quality. We wonder why the bishops are not disturbed about population growth. They say, “but the bible tells us not to worry because even the birds find something to eat.” (Matthew 6: 25-34) Beyond this lousy exegesis, however, four out of ten Filipinos complain of hunger, making the Filipino people, now numbering over 90 million, one of the top five hungriest in the world. Unemployment is depressingly high. And poverty stands at alarming levels. I am sure the bishops know these, unless Their Excellencies got so cozy living in, where else, but their Bishops’ Palaces.

Could it be that the Church wants the population to remain bloated so more could avail of its paid services? Last time I checked, the St. William’s Cathedral charges 300 to 600 pesos for baptism, plus 100 pesos for every godparent. And the church earns on death as much as it does in life. The thick piles of envelopes they collected last All Souls Day reveal this. And all you need is some saliva and holy water. Quite a profitable business, isn’t it? And to think that religious organizations are exempt from paying taxes.

Moving on, the bishops say that by teaching sex education in schools, young people are led to engage in premarital sex. This is outrageous. If at all, the culture of silence on sex leaves young people wilder and more curious. Because adults do not talk about it, they are forced to launch their own expeditions on a trial-and-error basis. This results to unwanted pregnancies, abortion, and even sexually transmitted diseases.

Ideally, it is the parents who should talk to their children about sex, but we concede that this is simply not the case in our culture. Parents wishfully think that their children will remain innocent forever and, on their part, children feel awkward discussing sex with mama and papa. A young man’s first source of information about sex, apart from media, is his peers, who, needless to say, are just as vulnerable as he is.

Part of the subject Sociology 1, I teach Family Planning to my students, and because I believe in choice, I present both the natural and artificial birth control methods. I am firmly convinced though that such education on safe and responsible sex must begin in high school for it is in the earlier adolescent years that the youth begin their explorations. When I graduated from high school, for instance, ten percent of the girls were pregnant. You can imagine how much more young women bear children while in college. It will be more shocking to know how many of them have undergone abortion, risking their own lives in the process.

So, what course of action do we take when our sense of good reason now defies the wisdom of the bishops? There are a few options. Best thing to do is dialogue with them and ask them to reconsider their stance. But reconsider they never will as their immense pride emanates from the infallibility of their big boss, the pope. For those who are unlucky (or lucky!) not to be educated in Catholic schools, the pope is always right when it comes to dogmatic teachings on doctrine and morals.

Another thing is to just stay in the church and ignore what the bishops say. This is what most Catholics do. I, however, am uncomfortable with this set-up. I cannot continue to be part of a church that considers my acts, born out of conscience, as anti-life, sinful, displeasing to God. I wish to live in a state of grace, not of apathy and hypocrisy. This now leads us to the third option: leave the church and find another group that respects your human sensibility.

Even after you leave the Catholic Church, however, the madness of the bishops shall follow you wherever you go in this country that is yet to recover from the nightmares of Padre Damaso and Padre Salvi. Given the immense pressure the church exerts on our government, Filipinos—Catholic or not—are deprived of help they rightfully deserve. Such is the case of H.B. 5043.

There are a few bishops that I admire though. One of them is Jacinto “Jack” Jose, Laoag’s pride and now Urdaneta’s treasure. But I admire him not because he is a bishop, but because he is a man of virtue. And virtue, of course, is no monopoly of men with cute purple caps.

Not all bishops are in heaven and countless souls who defied them are in God’s loving embrace as you read this.

It’s time for Catholics to mature. It’s time to ‘slap’ the bishops.