For the past 50 years the Catholic Church has been the most reliable ally of the urban poor. This may not be true with all parts of the Church or at all times, but in comparison with other powerful institutions, the Church has been outstanding in this regard. It has campaigned for justice and dignity for the poor. In times of trouble it has extended a protective arm to everyone working in poor areas for the people’s well-being. In times of sorrow the Church has been compassionate.
Cardinal Jaime Sin, on the eve of the third and final vote on the Urban Development and Housing Act (March 1992), phoned senators and House representatives, urging them to vote for the bill. How did these politicians feel being asked to support a controversial bill that was soon called “the lousy Lina Act” by its opponents? (Sen. Joey Lina was its principal sponsor.) Not only was the bill controversial, the presidential election campaign of that year was in its last months, so controversy was the last thing politicians wanted. Anyway, in the end they backed the bill, which has proven to be extremely important for the poor.
I heard Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales tell a roomful of government housing people, informal settlers and NGOs that the government should exert greater effort to understand the poor. He said the very poor are hungry and near desperate and have little time to worry about “cut-off dates” (sometimes if they were not present by a certain date in a site, they would not be resettled). The cardinal explained the poor cannot easily hold on to documents and many can’t read. He spoke, I thought, with a warm and understanding heart. We make things difficult for the poor, he said. The government later changed its policies.
I saw Bishop Julio Labayen lead a rally at the Philippine International Convention Center while a major public event was being celebrated. He demanded that the police bring back a young priest whom the bishop believed had been taken by the government and hidden away, perhaps to be tortured. He wasn’t worried about his image as a bishop. He wanted his priest back. Unfortunately, the bishop was mistaken. The priest had fled the country on his own. The priest’s own sister had lied to the bishop about his arrest.
Bishop Labayen and other bishops and superiors time and time again would help wives and mothers find their dead and tortured sons and husbands. Bishop Francisco Claver called down God’s vengeance, “gaba,” on those who tortured prisoners. What is said about the Catholic Church applies also to member churches of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines. They, too, had their shining moments.
As we have all noticed, not all Church people acted as well. In recent years interest in the poor has declined in the Church. Bishops and men and women high up in the Church show the same ugly biases against the poor as people who have never meditated on the Gospel. One group of priests wrote Mayor Alfredo Lim at Christmastime last year, pleading with him: “On our knees we are begging God that you, Mr. Mayor, do not allow those urban poor people to rebuild their homes.” Priests begging God and the mayor to stop the poor from rebuilding their homes—during the Christmas season!
A famous Jesuit, Fr. John Courtney Murray, once said, “Cruelty in a woman is unnatural.” Men are expected to be cruel at times, but not women. I believe we can also say, “Bias and hatred toward the poor on the part of religious people is truly unnatural.” We expect the Church to help the poor. We expect compassion from its leaders. After all, it is the Church of the Poor, and God has His own mysterious, abundant and “preferential love” for the poor.
We have a new pope who has put poverty and the poor at the center of Christian life. We have a new young cardinal who has shown he will follow in the footsteps of his predecessors in the service of the poor.
What must they do? John Lloyd, writing for Reuters in BusinessWorld last July 1, has suggestions: “Francis (and other bishops) has to inspire his priests with the zeal to reconvert their often semi-detached flocks into activists for radical social change. He must avoid the excesses of leftism, yet not collapse into mere populism. He must identify the Church with programs of poverty alleviation. He must develop practical answers to the unemployment of the young (maybe as pastoral assistants, aides to aged parishioners or menders of crumbling churches). He must be present at policy discussions on the economy and he must give social teaching some realist underpinning. The Catholic Church has a great many men (it’s chosen to marginalize women, for the most part) of high intelligence, of whom Francis, a Jesuit, is one. Let them bend their minds to address poverty’s constant companion—unemployment.”
Yes, hope beckons, but we ask all who can help to hurry. Half of our children go to bed hungry and live all day hungry. Our prostitutes are younger than ever. I’ve noticed pregnant women walking in the slums, sometimes barefoot. Their dresses are tight around their swollen stomachs. They have no money to buy a more appropriate dress. They have nothing to give their children but themselves.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates [email@example.com].