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Pope Francis’ Call for Synodality in the Philippine Context, Part 3

Catholic education in the Philippines is very expensive. For a country that is predominantly Catholic, the cost of Catholic education is beyond reach for ordinary Filipinos. In Naga City, from Naga Parochial School, St. Joseph School, Ateneo de Naga (AdeN), to Universidad De Sta. Isabel (USI); these private Catholic schools are only affordable to well-off families. It is doubtful that a family in the fringes of society can even afford it unless given a scholarship or some form of a subsidy.

These schools, however, enjoy a reputation of providing high quality and strong academic foundation’ and there goes the rub. For most students belonging to poor families and are enrolled in mostly over subscribed public schools, their Catholic education will have to come from elsewhere. Most of them who fill the pews, will have to contend with their Sunday edification from their Cura.

This is really nothing new because this is precisely what the Spanish colonizers had in mind and one of the enduring legacies. During their time in the Philippines, Spanish education was centered on religion. Aside from catechism, the friars taught Latin and Spanish grammar (languages used in religious ceremonies and the Tridentine Mass). Frankly, the Spanish educational system was meant to keep the natives faithful by maintaining Church’s authority over the lives of the Indios (colonized Filipinos).

This system continued until the Americans introduced a modern public education system at the end of the 19th century with the English language as the medium of instruction. The American patterned education was the same one used against Black slaves in the U.S. The Americans, much like the previous colonizer, did not want an enlightened citizenry to revolt against the colonizers.

Although Spain colonized the Philippines for over three centuries, they did not create a public education system that would have normalized speaking Spanish. Despite the shorter American tenure, the English language was spoken more widely throughout the land and has easily supplanted Spanish/Latin. The American educational reforms in the Philippines had a much longer staying power and are still felt until today, with the Filipinos’ continued English language proficiency and their undying support for democracy.

The Spaniards built seminaries in the Philippines to allow the knowledge transfer to the locals by training local priests. There was a controversy over the approach. Before then, priests were formed in institutions such as Santo Tomas and San Jose Colleges that were not diocesan seminaries. Diocesan seminaries at the time (Naga included) according to Fr. Leo A. Cullum, S.J. (Philippine Vice Provincial, Philippine Mission) were “deficient and haphazardly administered.” Bottomline, ecclesiastical training had much to be desired.

Queen Isabel II, following the wishes of the Council of Trent, intervened and directed the staffing of conciliar seminaries (Colegio-Seminario) by the Fathers of St. Vincent de Paul. Colegio-Seminario accepted even those who had no intention of entering priesthood. Pope Pius XI rescinded that order and made seminaries exclusively for training priests. With changeovers of popes and royalties (queens, kings), the sorry state of seminaries (academically and financially) continued despite efforts by religious orders to improve it.

The Jesuits became part of the efforts to train and develop priests until they were kicked out from the Philippines in 1768. They returned during the American occupation in the early 20th century and resumed their missionary work. It was not until after WWII that seminaries in the Philippines became fully integrated. The Jesuits expanded Ateneo de Manila into other seven Ateneos including AdeN.

The Jesuit tradition in education is laudable for its approach to develop human excellence grounded “in the presence of God, and encompasses imagination, emotion and intellect.” Education in the Philippines, however, seminaries included, is geared towards functional/practical literacy. Such an educational approach, relies heavily on memorization. Memorized literacy, according to experts, robs the students of the ability to learn a practical approach to critical thinking, thus, the inability to exercise analytical thought and freedom of speech for the sake of innovation.

Archbishop Rex Alarcon has an opportunity to review the educational approach not only for the diocesan seminaries, but other Catholic schools. Creative endeavors must be deliberately exercised for it to synthesize with critical thought. Cognitive skill such as memorization is good for acquiring knowledge of facts and information but is limited to doing better in quizzes or test-taking and results in surface-level comprehension.

Catholic schools and certainly clerical education in seminaries must go beyond mere memorization and the ability to read English narratives. A priest needs a deeper understanding of the Canon laws and papal encyclicals’ intricacies and nuances, be knowledgeable on social realities, and an in-depth understanding of the law to be more effective and well-rounded. Life is not only all about morality and priests need to move beyond theories. They need to have a strong sense of ethical responsibility (and perhaps avoid some bad publicity for the diocese).

On a practical level, priests should not only be capable of reading and writing in English fluently; they must be able to deliver effective yet practical homilies. Over a decade ago, Bicolano Cardinal Jose Sanchez who was then a member of the Holy See (Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for Clergy) and the Roman Curia visited San Diego for the 75th year jubilee of Ina’s coronation. He was also there to address complaints from Filipino priests regarding the local diocesan bishop. Cardinal Sanchez not only sided with the bishop; he also lamented the poor delivery of homilies by the local Filipino clergy.

Filipino Catholics are at a critical juncture of change with Pope Francis’ call for synodality. His call for reform and dialogue was made with great discernment and courage. For priests to understand him, they need to get to know him, read his myriad writings, and contemplate on the historical importance of the moment. Filipino priests are in demand in many places in the global sphere and can be the Catholic evangelicals that Pope Francis’ is yearning for.

By producing top quality, critical-thinking priests Bicolano priests Bicol seminaries can be agents of change through ecumenism, in highly divided societies and a world dominated by conflicts. The world is religiously diverse and there are significant differences in beliefs and practices. Religious pluralism is recognizing such religious diversity and not necessarily proselytizing. In the context of Filipino Catholicism and religiosity, perhaps inculturation can begin by consciously articulating Philippine indigenous sensitivities without compromising the integrity of the Gospel.

Philippine Catholicism, and for that matter, the Filipino identity has been highly influenced by the Catholic Church with how it views social justice and nationalism. But at the same time, the source of such influence has and continues to be associated with power, elitism, and exploitation. Perhaps the good Archbishop can include a synthesized version of liberation theology into the curriculum that is apropos to the local scene but with similar dimensions articulated in Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium.


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