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Formation, not Construction

By Julma M. Narvadez

It has been said “many times, many ways” that the pandemic has brought to the fore what really matters. Certain realities have become so apparent in our individual as well as in our collective lives. More and more citizens, as we now bear the brunt of wrong choices during elections, have seen how incompetence in government causes unspeakable and prolonged suffering. Will these realizations create a sea change? Will the resolve to lead better lives be strong enough to bring about a just society? Only time can tell. But if recent pronouncements from the Church leadership will be taken to heart, hope is not only a flickering light. It is as bright as the noonday sun.

Succinctly, Caceres Archbishop Rolando J. Tria Tirona, in his January 2 pastoral letter, describes how “most Catholics receive sacraments and take part in social action activities... but do not give much time in understanding the faith through formation. Eloquently, he asserts “when we discover the beauty of what we believe, we gain a new confidence in the truth of the message.” Directly, he instructs “religious instructions and catechetical formations must be given importance in our parishes and schools.”

On January 28, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines issued a pastoral statement which, in part, said “We commit ourselves to education, formation and catechesis in the Spirituality of Stewardship for our clergy, religious and laity in our dioceses, parishes, communities and families, in view of adopting a concrete stewardship program in our dioceses to replace the arancel system as soon possible.”

Both documents were issued in the context of the 500th Year of Christianity in the Philippines. The first calls for renewed commitment to the Church’s mission; the second seeks to fortify a “spirituality of stewardship.” While they seem to discuss distinct “areas of concern,” mission and stewardship are inseparable. And as already pointed out by the bishops, both must begin in and be sustained by Christian formation.

Formation is the softest of soft infrastructure. Between facilities and services, development is usually judged by what can be easily seen such as the road networks and the skyscrapers. But what spells the difference between what works and what stinks is the quality of services made available to the people. What good is a state-of-the-art medical facility if its personnel lack bedside manners?

However, formation distinguishes the Church’s mission from public service and altruism. A doctor attends to the sick because the Gospel impels her to do so and not merely because she wants to advance her career. The apathetic are moved to compassion not because they feel good about sharing their resources but because Jesus Himself cared for the poor. One wrestles with his pride, not to gain approval from his peers, but because Christ is closest to the humble. Formation breathes life to all that is good done in the name of faith and love of God. Without it, our expressions of faith are simply representations of an ideology and fund raisers for noble causes become platforms for self-promotion and not authentic charity.

Unfortunately, between formation and construction, we are easily impressed by massive columns, captivating domes and shiny markers inscribed with names of wealthy donors. Certainly, we are grateful for the faith of our ancestors. Their commitment to the Church is evident in historic churches and landmarks. We are blessed that this tradition of generosity continues to this day. But in the midst of widespread corruption, worsening poverty and ravaging typhoons, to what extent will spectacular architecture influence the way society lives?

In this pandemic, one truth that surfaced ever so clearly is that positive change will not emanate from a rotten scoundrel. And we, the quarantined, have learned that social transformation can come true only when change happens in ourselves. This is what our religion teachers and catechists call “conversion.” Christian conversion begins in the formation of conscience, and not construction.

While edifices can inspire, stone-cold concrete cannot replace human experience of the presence of and connection with the Divine. Formation is akin to the diligent care and attention of parents so their children grow in virtue. It is the painstaking and never-ending process of learning and becoming so one can live out his faith and share it with others. Like a light that shows the way out of the proverbial cave, it must not dim.

Thus, similar to building and beautifying Easter towers, formation requires human and material resources, real time and actual treasure. Are we ready to part with our cash so parishes will have more catechists who can continuously learn new teaching techniques? Are we willing to shell out from our savings so we can equip our youth to minister to their age group which consists most of our population? Can we forego worldwide online entertainment so families living in shanties can own religious educational materials in a language they understand? Can we put priority on the sincere and sustainable, instead of the “shining, shimmering, splendid?”

If we want political dynasties to be a thing of the past, if we want concern for the poor to be translated to social justice, if we want the Church alive in our homes and neighborhoods, the first step is not by constructing physical structures. We start by forming hearts and minds and we begin with ourselves.

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