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Gospel according to Archbishop Soc Villegas


The Catholic Church, instead of constantly crossing swords with the government, should heed the call of the times: To listen to the people and preach the gospel of “Yes.”

For Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates “Soc” Villegas, incoming president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), the biggest challenge facing the Church is to become a “simpler, humbler and praying” Church.

The Church should be simpler in “terms of the purity of Gospel,” humbler in the sense that it should not be arrogant even if it possesses the truth, and a praying Church because the best it could offer the world “is to teach people how to pray,” Villegas said.

“But not just a praying Church in terms of more prayers in words, but really a contemplative Church. A Church that knows how to listen to the people, and to listen to God. A Church that knows how to keep quiet,” Villegas said in an interview at the CBCP office.

In short, the Church “doesn’t have to comment on everything,” and should be more discerning, and prudent, he said.

As another battle looms, this time over proposals to legislate divorce, Villegas said the Church would be wiser to follow Pope Benedict XVI’s teaching on “affirmative orthodoxy.”

Positive teaching

In essence, he said, this means teaching the Christian faith positively and proactively, and “teaching what the Lord teaches affirmatively,” not merely in reaction to error or heresy.

“I think the Church in the Philippines should follow the same trend. Instead of talking against divorce, we should talk about the beauty, sacredness of family life. Instead of talking against same-sex marriage, let’s talk about the dignity of every man and every woman, and the complementarity between man and woman,” he said.

After all, commenting on divorce and same-sex marriage only reinforces such concepts in the minds of youngsters, Villegas said.

“Our young people should hear the Gospel positively. That the Church is not the Church of ‘No.’ That the Gospel is positive, and the Gospel is about saying ‘Yes’ to God. The Gospel is about God saying yes to all of us, in spite of our weaknesses. So we should go along that line,” he said.

Instead of constantly “whining” about the errors of consumerism and modernism, bishops should speak positively about “what God teaches and what God wants to say to his people at this time,” Villegas said.

“Christianity is a big Yes. It’s the Yes of God to us, and it should be our Yes to God. And the No is secondary. In order to be faithful to that Yes, we have to be courageous in saying No. It should begin with saying Yes, and the No is a consequence of our saying Yes,” he said.

Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz reckoned that the two-year term of Villegas, which begins on Dec. 1 this year, will be “critical” as far as the Church’s teachings are concerned because of the divorce proposal.  (By tradition, CBCP officials can be elected to a second term, which is also their last.)

Sober and prudent

Cruz, who has observed Villegas up close since they both worked under the late Jaime Cardinal Sin, said Villegas wasn’t “reactionary” but sober and prudent.

“He’s intuitive, and courageous and at the same time prudent. These attributes have been molded by his being the right hand of Cardinal Sin,” Cruz said by phone.

“Archbishop Villegas acts and speaks as needed. He’s not the type to keep quiet, fold his arms and do nothing,” he said.

Sin made history when he went on air through Church-run Radio Veritas on the night of Feb. 22, 1986, to call on Filipinos to mass on  Epifanio de los Santos (Edsa) Avenue to back the Enrile-Ramos forces that broke away from the strongman Ferdinand Marcos.

Redactor’s role

Twenty-seven years later, his protégé is leading the Church in a very different socio-political context, but the separation of Church and State remains contentious.

As head of the conference of bishops, the 52-year-old Villegas sees his role as a mere “redactor”—editor—of the ideas of 96 active and 40 honorary members of the collegial body.

“Mine is really to redact, summarize and collate the sentiments, feelings and teachings of the bishops, and be their spokesperson. I’m not setting a new trend. I’m not even setting a new vision. It’s really listening to what the bishops will say,” he said.

But then again, the Church will always be a voice in Philippine society, Villegas said.

“The separation of Church and State doesn’t mean that religious values should not affect legislation and public policies. Because if our public values have no religious grounding, have no spiritual grounding, I don’t see how we can improve the lot of our people,” he said.

The reproductive health law, whose constitutionality is being questioned in the Supreme Court, challenges the Church to be “more proactive in protecting family and human life,” and is not an “insurmountable difficulty,” Villegas said.

That the CBCP was outspoken, if not critical, during the Marcos dictatorship should not come as a surprise, said Villegas, who was tapped by Sin to be his private secretary in July 1985 and ordained priest in October that year, four months before Filipinos revolted against Marcos.

Different milieu

It was a different milieu altogether, Villegas said.

“I think Cardinal Sin is irreplaceable, and Cardinal Sin was a particular gift to the people of the Philippines at that particular time,” he said.

And if the CBCP was relatively silent on the scandals in the government in the first decade of the 2000s, it was not because of fear of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who took over the remainder of Joseph Estrada’s presidency in 2001 and was elected President in 2004 amid charges of fraud.

Cruz observed that while the Church was active in spirituality, it was “quiet” on its social doctrines at a time when Arroyo was besieged by scandals.

Villegas, himself a member of the CBCP during the tumultuous years of the Arroyo administration, offered an explanation: “It was not Marcos, it was not Arroyo, it was not Estrada, it was not Ramos that was the motivation of bishops from making statements in every presidency. Rather, it was the fruit of prayer.”

“Coming from prayer, it was the discernment of bishops that it was prophetic to make a stand against the snap election of 1986. It was also coming from prayer that the bishops made statements against policies of the first Aquino administration, Ramos, Estrada, Arroyo and the second Aquino administration,” he added.

Even Sin’s exhortation to Filipinos over Radio Veritas from his home in Villa San Miguel in 1986 was a product of discernment through prayer, and Villegas was a witness to that event.

Between him and God

Sin began consulting theologians as early as 1985 on how to handle scenarios arising from Marcos’ decision to call a snap election, but nothing had prepared him for that night he had to summon the people to Edsa to defy Marcos.

“The scenario of Feb. 22, 1986, was not even studied or considered. So when he called on the people to go out to the streets, it was really between him and God. He just went to the chapel and told me to put him on Radio Veritas,” he said.

Villegas was “shocked” by Sin’s decision, and he feared that Marcos would order his security forces to disperse the multitudes, and that Sin would get the blame for the massacre. But he said Sin assured him, “The Lady (Virgin Mary) won’t allow that.”

Villegas served as Sin’s secretary for 15 years, plus another three years as auxiliary bishop, much longer than the time he stayed with his parents in Manila. And looking back now, he said Sin never prepared him for the CBCP presidency.

Through the years, this turned into a father-son relationship, and one had only fondness for the other.

“I don’t think there was any intention on his part to prepare me for anything. On my part, I wasn’t preparing for anything,” Villegas said.

“I don’t think he prepared me to be a bishop, or to be president of CBCP. Those years that I served him had been useful for me as a bishop and I hope will be useful in the years ahead,” he added.

Cruz said Villegas seemed to have imbibed the spirit of Sin’s sense of “critical collaboration” with the government, but added that Villegas was his own man.

Taking a stand

Recalling their CBCP days, Cruz said Villegas “took a stand” on the Church’s social teachings, and he was “part of the honing” of pastoral letters issued by the Church when the Arroyo administration was “drowning in corruption.”

“He learned from Cardinal Sin,” he said. “I don’t think he’s a protégé. He will be his own man.”

But Villegas said he was proud to be called Sin’s protégé. “I’m proud to have been mentored by a great man of the Church like Cardinal Sin. Who I am as a priest, as a bishop, my attitude, my philosophy in life, I owe to him,” he said.

Villegas said the most outstanding lesson he learned from Sin was to “love” priests, who dedicate themselves to God after leaving home and family.

“He really [instilled it in] me: The priest must be loved. He left everything, he has no wife, he has no children. The bishop must love his priests, and related to that, the bishop must love his brother bishops,” he said.

Bruce Lee fan

Villegas, the youngest of three children, grew up in Pateros. He attended high school at San Juan de Letran in Manila, where the discernment of his calling began in his encounter with action-movie star Bruce Lee.

He was a big fan of Lee, and collected articles about him, and watched his movies. Serendipitously, he came across one of Lee’s last musings on life before the actor died. It read: “The cup realizes itself only by being empty.”

The high school freshman was so “disturbed” by it that he became distracted in class, getting zero in a quiz for the first time. He was called to the office of the principal, who quizzed him about his lack of focus.

“Sir,” he said, “Bruce Lee is dead.”

“So?” the principal said.

Villegas proceeded to explain that he was troubled by Lee’s words.

“I wanted to do something bigger than what I’m doing now. I’m even willing to die now,” he said.

Fortunately, the principal understood, and introduced him to San Carlos Seminary.

After graduating from high school, he enrolled in San Carlos Seminary. He remembered going to class clutching not a Bible but his album of Bruce Lee clippings.

“He was my idol,” Villegas said. “And then in the seminary, in our first retreat, I realized that my teenage idol was not the original after all. Because 2,000 years ago, Jesus said, ‘If a seed dies, it bears much fruit.”’

That’s how his journey began.

 First posted 12:31 am | Sunday, August 4th, 2013

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Tags: Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) , Catholic Church , Religion , Socrates Villegas

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