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Pope Francis’ Call for Synodality in the Philippine Context, Part 1

Most Rev. Fr. Rex Alarcon, Bishop of Daet, Camarines Norte will be installed Archbishop of Caceres on May 2, 2024. With the long lull in the synodality push from within the diocese now is a good time to revisit Pope Francis’ call for journeying together towards a Synodal Church and talk about synodality in the Philippine context. It is important to do this early because there is not much movement or effort in this regard other than an “academic” exercise by Filipino Catholics.

Filipino Catholic mindsets are influenced by their bishops who see the Catholic majority in the country at 85% to be sufficient to stay the course and that the remaining 15% can be “graciously” yielded to other non-Catholics (Muslims, Protestants, non-believers). It is pure arrogance, and such a mindset has permeated among Filipino Catholics across the board (i.e., government, private industry, educational institutions, community, etc.) that having the majority “is okay” as far as decision making is concerned and not having to protect the rights of the minority.

The pope’s call for synodality has really no bearing on numbers – majority or minority – and it has more to do with real people’s experiences and daily living and how the Holy Spirit guides our lives. It’s about the People of God’s encounter and exchange of information – dialogue – listening to most churchgoers who constitute the fringes of society and yet, are never heard from because it has always been a one-way conversation.

For synodality to start evolving, a religious leader (i.e., new Archbishop of Caceres) should take the lead. Maybe someday he can become president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) where he can be a bigger force, but being Archbishop of Caceres is a good starting point where he has cognizance over the archdiocese including seminaries. A starting point for Bishop Rex Alarcon is to define for the laity the definition of what the Church is aside from it being a physical structure.

Since Bishop Charles Borromeo laid the foundation for sacred architecture (building design, ornamentation and ecclesiastical furnishing), Roman Catholicism has embraced it for a different direction or purpose. For centuries, the Vatican has pursued building beautiful structures around the world as an effort to counter the Protestant Reformation as envisioned by the Council of Trent.

Borromeo’s concepts of design included consistent use of numbers: 3 (Trinity), 5 (Pentecost), 7 (Seven Sacraments), and 12 (Twelve Apostles). He also advocated use of “platonic forms” like circles, domes and vaults as a way of depicting perfection and of the “heavenly realm.” His insistence to use odd numbers resulted in designs having clear centers and symmetric designs.

Bishop Borromeo’s preferred element is creating a “sacred aesthetic” that hemmed closely with Church traditions. In essence, it was an effort to insulate the Church from the emerging artistic creativity that was closely identified with the baroque aesthetic that the Protestants embraced. Siting was another element that Borromeo insisted on to give a church visual prominence. In practice, think of where the Catholic Churches are in Naga City and their centrality to the city’s important locations (commerce, education, access).

Similarly, the church should make use of topography (like a hill) to give it a raised platform for prominence. The Basilica Shrine and other Catholic Churches in Naga are adjacent to the Bicol River and give them prominence during people’s daily community activities (going to school, market, or malls). From the entrance of a cruciform structure to windows, doors and to the inside spaces of the church, Borromeo prescribed what can and cannot go in it. Even the location of the holy water vase being inside the church and not outside, to where the pulpit sits, Borromeo was very particular and detailed.

In all these prescriptions, Bishop Borromeo’s overall concept was for the laity to experience the Church of God and not to be overly proud about it. Over the centuries, the facility of the Church of God became the central focus of churchgoing – and not the people in it. Thus, most of the Church’s fundraising efforts are geared towards fixing, maintaining, rehabbing existing churches or cathedrals, or building new ones.

Pope Francis is reminding us that the Church of God that Bishop Borromeo envisioned had already run its course (Counter Reformation). He wants us to go back to the Acts of the Apostles to have a better understanding of what a Missionary Church is about and understand more who St. Borromeo was other than the Church design architect.

Bishop Borromeo worked so hard to make the Church more human and devoted his entire life helping the people of God become more like Jesus, more like the Kingdom of the Father. Following Borromeo’s lead of not just admiring beautiful cathedrals, as Christians, we can make a difference in the Body of Christ by reaching out in special ways to help those around us and “make the face of God more real in the world.

Pope Francis is telling us that synodality is our ticket in changing the world into the Kingdom of God by sharing faith in Jesus, living the Gospel and caring for others. The pope likens the Church as the “faithful people of God, saints and sinners, a people convoked and called with the power of the beatitudes.” The faith people he alludes to “have the characteristics of infallibility.” He makes a distinction between the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church versus the people of God that constitutes the Church of God.

“If you want to know WHAT the Holy Mother Church believes, seek the Magisterium,” said the pope during his address at the start of the Synod last year. “If you want to know HOW the Church believes, go to the faithful people who has a soul and because we can speak of the soul, we can speak of a way of seeing reality (that the Magisterium can’t), of a consciousness – of their dignity, their baptized children, and burying their dead.”

The doctrine on human dignity and the sacredness of the human is not set in stone. They continue to mature from pope to pope. Slavery and capital punishments that were once tolerated by the Vatican, have evolved. More recently, of course, is the blessing of same-sex couples, those separated from the Church, and those who fall under unusual categories like those who divorced. Pope Francis’ point of view is that criminals on death row still have a soul worthy of mercy.

Finally on theology, Pope Francis believes that it should be experienced in the flesh and in blood not just delivered from a pulpit as an idea or ideal. Theology must be contextualized with both the saint and sinner in mind, particularly for those from the fringes of society. “Walk the talk” is what the pope seems to be saying, much like scientific theories cooked in laboratories; it sometimes takes a total solar eclipse to verify or prove Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. (To be Continued)


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