(Part 2) Five Hundred Years at Work, continuing a Project that took root in 1521

(Part 2) Five Hundred Years at Work, continuing a Project that took root in 1521

MARCH 29, 2021– (continuation of Part 1) The second day of the conference “500 Years of Nation-Building: Understanding the Past, Leading Towards a Better Future” centered on a crucial element that the Spaniards brought with them into our islands five centuries ago: Christianity. An element, one can say, that has shaped and continues to shape the lives of many, if not the majority, of Filipinos, and that consequently has had tremendous effect on the way we live our social and political lives as a people.

How has Christianity influenced the development of Filipino culture and identity? What is Christianity’s place in the overall functioning of Philippine society at present? These are some of the questions that the Foundation posed for the second installment of the webinar series. To facilitate further reflection on these questions, the Foundation had the utmost privilege of having as speaker no less than His Eminence Cardinal Luis Antonio G. Tagle, a Filipino cardinal of the Catholic Church who has been the Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples since February 2020. 

Infusing the ‘Filipino Culture’ with ‘Jesus’ Culture’

Cardinal Chito Tagle, as he is commonly referred to, humbly started off his talk by saying that he does not claim to know everything about the topic. “I am just an observer, I also read, but whatever I could share with you, I will share with you tonight,” he good-naturedly assured the participants.

In the first part of his talk, the Cardinal focused on culture and its interactions with faith. Although there are many ways by which culture can be defined, he shared one particular definition which he encountered in the work of a Jesuit priest from Spain. It states that “culture is the whole complex of forms of feeling, acting, and thinking shared by a society which allows members of the group to survive, provides them a sense of identity and belonging, and gives their lives meaning.”

The Cardinal reflected on this definition, which he described as “modified classical sociological”, and noted how it points to what we may call the “interior part of culture.” While there is an external part of culture, he underscored that there is also an interior part of which the external is a manifestation, and which the latter reinforces.

He then brought up an observation by some anthropologists that even before the arrival of the Spaniards, there already appeared to be a set of common values or what they call a “common cultural matrix” binding the different islands of our archipelago. Examples of these values are the centrality of the family, the reverential attitude towards authority, the interpersonal way by which things are settled, the sense of gratitude, and certain signs of egalitarianism.

The Cardinal also mentioned that while culture has some stable elements, it is never fully restricted, but is always open to be influenced by other factors. “And in our islands,” he said, “one such influence was the arrival of the Christian faith.” 

He then marveled at how the teachings and narratives of the Gospel must have resonated with the cultural matrix of our forebears — for instance, the sense of a family, respect for authority, gratitude to a transcendent being, and interpersonal relationships, all correspond to concepts and images that abound in the Bible and the Christian faith.

His Eminence Cardinal Luis Antonio G. Tagle

The Cardinal highlighted, however, that the relationship between this cultural matrix and the Christian faith could be seen more in a relationship of dialogue than as a unilateral process. On the one hand, while our ancestors accepted the Gospel, it also challenged some of the cultural modes of the people. The cultural matrix was “purified”, so to speak, by the Christian faith. On the other hand, our ancestors did not only passively receive Christianity but absorbed it and gave it a Filipino flavor. “Our forebears,” he observed, “critically accepted what they thought was good and gave it an imprint which was theirs.”

The Cardinal mentioned that this dynamic is a process that continues, and must continue. “And this is one thing that probably we should focus on,” he urged, “a rediscovery of how Jesus could continuously make us Filipinos, good Filipinos… Good Christians, but because we are Christians, we are also good Filipinos. Purifying the Filipino.”

From the “interior part” of culture, Cardinal Tagle then turned his attention to the outward signs of culture that embody a people’s thinking, feeling and acting. Though cautioning that he is not a professional anthropologist, he shared some of the ordinary signs or bearers of a people’s culture which he learned from his own studies.

Culture, he said, can be seen in the way we arrange spaces, how we use our language, our concepts of heroes and heroines, rituals, food, our sense of time, among others. Through these externalities, we are able to express who we are and our worldview. “And here,” he appealed, “I would like to propose a meeting between our culture and Jesus’ culture,” 

“Jesus, as a Jew, had to observe the division between the clean and the unclean. But Jesus changed that. He touched people with leprosy, He allowed himself to be touched by a woman known to be a sinner. A new culture, a new way of perceiving space is proposed by Jesus,” said Cardinal Tagle. 

“Language — for the pious Jews, you don’t even mention the name of God, but Jesus called God, ‘Abba’, ‘Daddy’ — the closeness of God,” he stated further. “Who were Jesus’ heroes and heroines? The outsiders, the samaritan woman, the syrophoenician woman, those whom the pious Jews and their culture would not even consider as heroes. Authority — what did He do? He washed the feet of his disciples. A new culture is being presented by Jesus: the authority that bends and washes the feet of others. His sense of time — it is his Father Who determines his time.”

These, according to the Cardinal, are some elements where a continuing dialogue between the Filipino culture and the Christian faith could be pursued. “If our culture were to shift, we hope that the Christian faith, especially Jesus’ teachings, would be allowed by our culture to be a dialogue partner, so that the Filipino culture could be influenced by the Gospel.”  

“And let us not be afraid,” he added, “the Gospel will make the Filipino culture more humane and more liberated. […] If we can allow selfie culture to modify the Filipino culture, if we allow social media to reshape our culture, why not allow the Gospel to interact again and again with our culture? It will do no harm, it will only make us better people, better Filipinos,”

In his reaction to the talk of Cardinal Tagle, Dr. Jose Maria Mariano, Professor Emeritus and former president of the University of Asia & the Pacific, as well as adviser and Honorary Fellow of the Universitas Foundation, focused on the integration of Christianity into the Filipino culture and psyche, as can be seen in our language and in our customs. Dr. Mariano mentioned how Filipinos are known for their cheerfulness – a trait that is ultimately rooted in Christian hope. We are also known for our hospitality, which finds correspondence in the Christian virtue of charity. The same also holds true for our strong family ties.

At the same time, Dr. Mariano affirmed the insight shared by the Cardinal that Christianity provides an opportunity for the purification of our culture. “[The Cardinal] has opened to us about Jesus changing culture, he has changed his own Jewish culture. And that the influence of the Gospel to make our culture more humane, more liberated is a very real one, and we have already experienced that,” Dr. Mariano commented.

He then brought up the challenge that faces us as we move forward to the future: that is, the challenge to present to the world the character of a people that has integrated Christian faith into a unique national identity.

Dr. Jose Maria G. Mariano

Christianity’s role in our becoming a people and a nation

In the second part of his talk, the Cardinal examined the meaning of “Filipino identity”. In the course of this examination, he reflected on the difference between a people and a nation, and their relation to the idea of a state.

In this part of the discussion, Cardinal Tagle cited an article written by Archbishop Roland Minnerath of Dijon, France. The archbishop wrote that a people is a natural grouping of human beings characterized by common features, whether it be a religion, customs or languages. But he says that in the development of history we see that a people is not a static or closed reality. Rather, a people formed on an ethnic basis may integrate individuals or groups from other ethnic groups. On the other hand, a nation is “a result of the willingness of the people to live together, to share the same institutions, to refer to common roots in history.” 

Going back to the idea of a Filipino identity, the Cardinal then asked, “We who have a rich diversity of cultures, languages, cuisines, tastes, songs, dances and arts, have we decided from our hearts to be one people? To say we belong to each other? Have we become one nation that bears the name Filipino?”

At this point, Cardinal Tagle maintained that the Christian faith can play a significant role in this quest of ours to become one people and one nation. According to him, this is all the more needed in our present context where there is a growing culture of “alienating individualism.”

The cardinal stated that the assertion of the dignity of every individual person, and the appreciation of the personal self are good and necessary for society. However, “this healthy process of the affirmation of the worth and dignity of an individual person created in the image of God and His likeness has been pushed to an extreme called individualism.”

“The individual and the community have become enemies, they seem to be contrary to each other. And the good of the individual, self good, seems to be contrary to what we call the common good,” noted the cardinal. He further pointed out how individualism eventually ends up negating the individual person. “For an individual not connected with others, with the Earth, with creation, loses one’s identity too. Individualism becomes a self-defeating enterprise. The truth is that human persons are fulfilled both individually and socially at the same time.”

And here, said Cardinal Tagle, is where the Christian faith can be re-animated. He spoke of the experience of Jesus, who drew near to those who were isolated during his time. He called Matthew, a tax collector who probably cheated on his own people. He invited himself for a meal to the house of Zacchaeus, he who was not invited to the houses of others and who never invited others to his house as the invitation would most likely be rejected. The cardinal also talked about how the sinful woman washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and how Jesus said that what she was doing will be remembered in memory of her. And likewise, the Roman centurion who, after Jesus breathed his last, said, “Certainly, this is the Son of God.”

“These were all ‘outsiders’, these were all people who were not considered as persons, they were the ‘non-persons’, but Jesus integrated them.”

Cardinal Tagle then made mention of a recent encyclical issued by the Holy Father Pope Francis entitled “Fratelli Tutti” (“All Brothers”), which conveyed the message that all of us are brothers and sisters – a message that the Pope considered a contribution of the Christian faith to all cultures. Cardinal Tagle expressed his hope that we Filipinos could allow this basic insight of the Judeo-Christian faith to dialogue with our identity, “so that we could be more welcoming as a people, especially to those who are not treated by society as full persons.”

In relation to this, the cardinal cautioned against another threat to our culture, namely the ‘throwaway culture’ – a culture of throwing away objects because they are already out of style. Unfortunately, he mentioned that “even human beings are thrown away when they are no longer seen as useful; even values are thrown away when they appear to be a block to individualism.” 

“But the Christian faith is not about throwing away. It presents to us the horizon of gift, every person is a gift, even those that society wants to throw away is a gift,” he said.

The Cardinal concluded his talk by reiterating that there is always a dialogue between our culture and the faith that we have received. What is important, he said, are the values, whether they be cultural or Gospel values. But there is a need for us to exercise our freedom in choosing these values, as against other options. And having chosen these values, the Cardinal stated that we must live them by acting on them repeatedly, and then passing them on to others. -universitas.ph