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COMMENTARY: Theologizing as a Way of Life

column commentary mindaviews

Speech during the Commencement Exercises of the St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City on May 16, 2024
(Note: This is the abridged version of the speech.)

It’s been a year since I volunteered for the local Church of the Prelature of St. Mary in Marawi City which I witnessed as both an existential and geographical periphery.

From here, I would like to share my humble and simple realizations, learnings and unlearnings in my most recent experiences through particular events that helped me a lot to see better myself as a young pastor, as a missionary, and as my way of living out Pastoral Theology, in making theologizing as a way of life.

“Hala, nagkabulingit ang pari!” a woman blurted out as I arrived at the small chapel in a far barrio composed only of few Christian families in a Muslim-majority community. I crossed a knee-deep river to be able to reach that small chapel. The previously 20-meter wide river had stretched to almost 80 meters because of the flood at that time. And so, when I reached halfway, the water was deeper than I thought. No matter how I pulled up my pants, the water still got my pants wet, including my underwear.

My shoes were filled with sand, good thing it was not a muddy river. Nevertheless, the sand were still in my shoes until I reached the chapel. Upon seeing me, it prompted a woman to say that indeed I got dirty. And since it was very uncomfortable having wet pants while celebrating Mass, I had no choice but to endure the discomfort. The least I can do was to remove my shoes and celebrate the Eucharist bare-footed. That allowed my feet to dry up and step on a dry floor.

Such discomfort, I would never experience in the city center. Such hurdles of crossing a river, having wet pants, wet underwear and being bare-footed while celebrating the Holy Eucharist on a Sunday morning, I would never have in our nice churches and chapels in the cities. Such a small congregation with a few hundred pesos as Sunday collection, would never happen in an affluent chapel in an exclusive subdivision.

Yet, the simplicity of those who waited in that small and poor chapel and the desire of that small Christian community to celebrate the Holy Eucharist on that Sunday morning, paid off everything. The grace of God is truly amazing! It rests not on things we easily see. Not on things that we are only comfortable with! Not on things that we can predict easily!

The grace of God rests in our community itself. The grace of God is among us and with us! And the grace of God filled those smiles and laughter over a simple lunch we shared. The grace of God, indeed, is unpredictable—as Pope Francis would say.

Being in a parish-community alone is truly not easy. The weight of the responsibilities can sometimes be overwhelming. Dealing with groups’ and individuals’ personalities in the parish can also be very challenging. Guiding the community to see another perspective, to teach others of new things and to learn new ways can be tiresome because of the grumbles and resistance. Yet, I realized that this is all part of community-building. I have to remind myself that I am no perfect pastor at all. I get dirt and muddy because of my own impatience, inconsistencies and capriciousness.

I would not deny as well that despite such surprises that gave me joy, there were times as well that I have reached to that point of making a big fuss because of being emotionally irritated.

The Prelature of St. Mary in Marawi was established precisely to respond to a particular need and mission. This local Church of Marawi is called to be a RECONCILING PRESENCE among the Muslim and Christian communities in the area through Dialogue of Life and Faith.

The late Bishop Bienvenido Tudtud, who was the first Bishop-Prelate of Marawi, envisioned this local Church to be at the forefront of reconciliation and peace-building because this area in Mindanao is so scarred by war, violence, cultural and religious discrimination, insurgency and terrorism.

Last December 3, 2023—on the first Sunday of Advent—an improvised explosive device or IED exploded at the gymnasium of the Mindanao State University main campus in Marawi at 7:11 a.m. The bombing was claimed by Muslim extremists inspired by ISIS. With this particular terrorist attack, let me tell you a story close to my heart. When the bombing happened, I only knew it after my first morning Mass on that Sunday.

You know, it was supposed to be an ordinary Sunday morning. Janin, who was one of those who died in the bombing, must have prepared herself to go for the Sunday Mass to be held at its usual venue at the MSU gym. The Mass was about to start at 7 a.m. Upon arrival at the place, Janin must have greeted her friends and the people familiar to her. She chose a space to sit as the Mass was about to start.

The Kyrie was sung and the Mass presider (Fr. Benigno Flores Jr., OFM) said the opening prayer. Then, all the people said, “AMEN!” As soon as they were about to sit to listen to the First Reading, there was an overwhelming flash of light, a deafening blast. Everyone was stunned. In a split of a second, all of them were down, shouting in pain and confused. Chairs broke and most of all, blood spilled on the floor.

Janin must have been already lying on the floor. At the last minute of her life, there must be great confusion going on. Her hair got burned. Her pants and a part of her shirt were burning. Yet, her back was so cold and her bones broken. Janin could not feel anything because of so much pain. Her agony could not be explained. Janine would like to shout and call for help. But she could not open her mouth. Pain was all over. Janin tried to move but could not until she was gasping for air. I was told by one of those who survived that he saw Janin trying to move her hands on the floor with her blood all around her. Yet, there were no words or any sound from Janin.

Janin, at her last breath, must have thought of her parents, of her siblings, of her friends, of her dreams, of her God who has called her. Janin closed her eyes and gave her last breath of life and embraced death to return to her creator.

As a people now, we also cry and wail for peace! We hope for healing! Such event was filled with evil and suffering. No one deserves such evil! Yet, in our cry for peace and healing, in our desire to worship without fear, in our dream to live in harmony—will all of these still be possible?

Yes, it is! And we continue to hope for peace and healing, for reconciliation and justice. Despite this tragic event, the mission of the Church to bring a reconciling presence in this vulnerable part of Mindanao does not stop and should not stop. More so, such events make us Christians to realize and work for a better world, for a peaceful community, for a just society.

With all of these, it is essential that our communities, indeed, whether it’s Christian or Muslim majority, will become a space of dialogue and understanding, of education and religious tolerance, and a space that actively counters violent extremism and radicalization that lead to terrorism.

Therefore, it is our moral responsibility that our communities will truly be a community of dialogue, of understanding and respect of each one’s culture and faith traditions. Remember, when we fail to give respect and understand our differences and impose our own understanding, perspective, belief and culture towards others, then these may create tensions and conflicts that will lead to hostility between cultures and peoples.

That is why it is one of the most important elements in peace building “to foster the spirit of understanding and dialogue.” At the very bottom of this, I believe that KINDNESS and CHARITY should not be forgotten as the foundation of fostering that spirit of understanding and dialogue.

Thus, I cannot forget the times when my prejudice against my Muslim brothers and sisters was challenged. May I tell you of an event that moved and humbled me very much. It was about mid-morning that our sub-mission team loaded our vehicle with 12 pieces of plywood to be delivered to Barrio Bakikis and to monitor the ongoing feeding of malnourished children. From the Parish Church, the barrio was about 10 kilometers with a shallow but wide river to cross.

It rained the night before. When we reached the river, it was still shallow and the water was clear, enough for us to see the sand below. We had crossed the river many times before. Yet, when we got there, ahead of us was a big truck loaded with sacks of cement already stuck in the sand.

I wanted to take the risk. To make sure, I asked Darwin, our local youth mission volunteer, to check the level of the water. It was very shallow, just below the knee. I took the risk and took the right side of the truck. I was confident because our vehicle was a four-wheel drive.

To my horror, our vehicle began to slow down once it was fully in the river. I felt the soft sand below, like mud. My confidence now gone, I knew there will be two vehicles stuck in the sand in the middle of the river. No matter how I stepped on the gas, the tires got more buried in the sand. I had to stop then, and prepared to get wet.

I was very worried and blamed myself for being so confident. People along the river watched us but no one dared to help us, at least not yet at that moment.

A Christian who recognized me as the new priest crossed the river with his motorcycle. He volunteered to get help from Barrio Bakikis. He noticed that there were strong men by the bank of the river, but expressed his dismay to me because those men will not be able to help us. They were Maranaos who at that time must have been fasting because it was the Holy Month of Ramadhan. They could not help us and not willing to help us this time. “They do not have the strength,” he said. This was understandable. Well, I can only blame myself. The man went and called for a rescue.

After almost an hour, no rescue arrived. The tires were slowly buried in the sand. I became more worried and anxious. Meanwhile, several small and 4×4 cars had crossed the river and offered us no help.

However, something inspiring happened. It began with a young man, he was a Maranao, who tried to cross the river with his motorcycle from our side but got stuck too in the middle.

Immediately, Mimi and Pearllyn, our two lady youth mission volunteers, offered help to him. The three of them pushed the motorcycle. But to the disappointment of the man, who did not understand Cebuano, his motorcycle got more buried in the sand. Out of my frustration while looking at them, I came and helped them, too. The only way to rescue it was by carrying the motorcycle. And so we carried the motorcycle with all our strength. Finally, he was able to cross the river.

To my surprise, he did not go ahead to his destination. He secured his motorcycle and left it, then went back to us. By that time, a few men from Barrio Bakikis arrived to help us, but their combined strength was still not enough. The young Maranao joined in the rescue, and lo and behold, other Maranaos who were merely watching earlier joined us in the river. The young Maranao personally tied the rope and led in pulling our vehicle. Another Maranao man volunteered to drive. Others went to the back to help push, and another group lined up in front to help pull the rope.

Simultaneously, the car engine kicked then together we pushed and pulled. We did that in three attempts until we have secured the mission car out of the river. There were more than 20 men who helped out, both Muslim-Maranaos and Christians. Everybody was delighted and everyone shared a victorious smile.

Well, I realized, it was indeed a wonderful sight. Not just because our mission car was rescued finally, but I saw a rare event where kindness was overflowing like the river.

I realized, kindness can cross barriers, boundaries and differences, may it be in our language, culture and faith tradition. Our team has experienced kindness from people we did not expect. Indeed, kindness from strangers is inspiring and infectious. As kindness inspires and moves people, it also touches our heart and soul. Thus, kindness itself is like a river. It freely flows and flows abundantly.

In another occasion, last September 2023, Bishop Edwin dela Peña let me borrow his 22-year-old Mitsubishi L300. Together with seven youth ministers from the Prelature of Marawi, we left Balabagan at 4 a.m. to attend the Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference – Youth Congress in General Santos City. It was an eight-hour drive.

After an hour of driving and bumping into a big pothole on the highway, the engine stopped and the lights gone. Then suddenly, smoke came out just below the driving wheel. I was the driver and I was terrified because the smoke became fire. The wires below the driving wheel were on fire. I immediately shouted and instructed the youth to get out of the vehicle at once.

I got nervous and did not know what to do. I don’t even know how to change tires, how much more to save a burning vehicle. All I could do was to blow in an attempt to put out the fire. I was so lucky. The fire was put off after a few attempts. I realized then, that we were already in a deserted area in Maguindanao Province.

Since it was a highway, big trucks would surely pass by. I was so thankful when the first big truck arrived. The driver was Cebuano speaking. I was so relieved and asked for help. But to my disappointment, the driver and his crew refused to help us. Our vehicle conked out as we were going downhill, while they were going up, in a curved road and thus a blind spot for other vehicles. The driver explained to us that it was difficult for him to park and help us. A few more trucks passed by and told us the same reason.

In the situation we were in, I felt it was useless to call for help. Yet, a few minutes later, a 10-wheeler truck arrived, the driver and his buddy saw us and then stopped. Both of them spoke only Maranao who could hardly understand Tagalog, and not even a single Cebuano word. Luckily, two of the young ministers with me were fluent in the language. There we were, speaking back and forth via translators as I explained our situation. In less than 20 minutes, the vehicle was running again. The Maranao driver even volunteered to drive us until we reach the safest area in Maguindanao.

The sun already rose by the time we negotiated that curved road going down the mountain.

From these moving and humbling experiences, there are two invitations that I can always remember as I continue to encounter people of different cultures and faith traditions.

First, to be kind to everyone no matter who they are. To be able to express our kindness to a person in need of help reveals our innate goodness. This makes us more human. Indeed, our context in Mindanao is not limited with the differences of our culture, religious belief or political alliances, but rather it is being enriched by being humane, as brothers and sisters.

Second, to let kindness flow and see how it inspires others and brings changes into our hearts, minds and into our way of life. Kindness is not a calculated act of charity and does not even count the cost. It does not expect anything in return because kindness is an expression of a truly generous and happy person. Let us remember that peace and true happiness would always go together.

From these recent experiences, I also offer further challenges to the graduates. You must have realized already what I have also realized, but anyway, let me remind you again of these things.

Our theological preparations and studies are always meant for the building of the kingdom of God here on Earth, of being able to participate fully and consciously in realizing the promise of a new Heaven and a new Earth – to a blessed life in all its aspects. Let our theologizing as our way of life be a “force” then, just like the spirit of charism that we have as religious, that would lead us to become a good missionary. One of its signs is our availability for the people, the frontier where we are sent to as missionaries.

And theologizing as our way of life should also lead us into the reality of the world rather than departing from the world. And as Christians and religious, this would allow us to have a sound prayer life and not to spiritual elitism.

We remind ourselves, a sound prayer life is founded on “GRATITUDE.” When we are grateful, it makes us recognize the many gifts that we have received from God. Gratitude of the heart makes a person recognize the giver of gifts. Gratitude also inspires and motivates us to express our joy in words and actions and it is through this attitude that we relate and communicate with God. Our prayer life then is founded on gratitude and joy and not on duty or mere obedience to the structure.

And we warn ourselves of the “Spiritual elitism” that is based on fear and blind obedience to rituals and traditional devotions and practices. It is merely a display for the sake of being seen. When this is our way of life, then, we become rigid, unforgiving and ungrateful. We will tend to speak of high theological ideas, take pleasure on spiritual realms but indifferent to what is currently happening in our surroundings.

That’s why we are called to learn and unlearn beyond our classrooms. In this way, we grow daily in our everyday life with the ups and downs or even to get lost at times. It means that it is okay for us to experience difficulties in facing our issues and concerns, in asking questions when we become confused and even when we lost our way in our journey. What we experience will also help us develop and purify our theologizing as our way of life.

It is important to remember that the God we encounter is a God of History. As missionaries or even as Christians, we encounter God not in the clouds but among us, of God’s people and in all of God’s creation.

Our theologizing as our way of life, then, is a constant touching of the divine that remains spontaneous. Consequently, the spirit is always filled with surprises where we always encounter joy and sadness, trust and doubts, faith and fear, love and hate.

We are also constantly challenged of being in touch with reality. In our language as Redemptorists, we call it “el distaco.” It is not alienation from the world but to be able to detach ourselves from anything that may hinder us from welcoming God in our life and from encountering our brothers and sisters, to detach from whatever that may prevent us from being free and life-giving. These may even mean like the comforts that we enjoy, the structures that we cannot let go or even institutions within our life as religious that pull us back towards mediocrity, passivity and indifference.

Finally, to all of us present this evening, make this event a reminder for all of us, learners, seekers and teachers of theology, that God is among us, God is with us. May we dare and take the risk of encountering, welcoming, knowing, and embracing Christ, in making our theologizing as our way of life, that we may have the grace of a life that is free and life-giving. Hinaut pa. Inshallah!

(Jomil C. Baring, CSsR, was ordained as Redemptorist Missionary Priest in 2017. He was born in Davao City in 1989, now serving as Parish Administrator of San Isidro Labrador Parish, Balabagan, Lanao del Sur, as well as Youth Director of the Youth Ministry in the Prelature of St. Mary in Marawi City.)

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