THERE are many dramatic conversions in church history, like the conversion of St. Augustine, that of St. Francis of Assissi, of St. Ignatius of Loyola, of St. Camilo de Lelis. These conversion stories have great impacts in Church History, but none is as dramatic and as far-reaching for the life of the Church than that of St. Paul. The 14 letters of the New Testament that are attributed to him attest to this, 14 out of 21 letters, 14 out of 27 books of the New Testament! Not only the sheer number of the writings of Paul, but also the themes that they deal with show his greatness. They deal with important themes of the Bible like, how we are made acceptable to God or the question of justification, the role of the Holy Spirit in Christian life, the Church as the body of Christ, baptism as participation in the life of God, Christian and Jewish relations, Christian worship, the importance of faith and love, just to name a few. What would our New Testament be without Paul? The significance of Paul is also highlighted by the fact that his writings are the earliest written witnesses to the Lord Jesus and the situation of the early church among the New Testament writings. The first 10 years when New Testament writings came, years 50 to 60 AD, all have the genuine letters of Paul—Thessalonians, Romans, Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon. Yes, Paul has a unique importance in the New Testament, and consequently, a great impact on our Christian faith. This is why the whole Church celebrates his conversion as a great feast.
We have to accept that Paul deserve his fame for he did exert great sacrifices in carrying out his mission. Yet, Paul’s place in the history of salvation is set by God. It was God’s choice. When Ananias complained that this Saul to whom he was asked by the Lord to anoint was a known persecutor of those who follow Jesus, he was told "Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites.” (Acts 9, 15) Paul’s conversion, and subsequently, his mission, was grace, and he recognized this. Thus he wrote to the Corinthians: “Last of all, as to one born abnormally, Jesus appeared to me. For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective. Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them; not I, however, but the grace of God (that is) with me.” ( 1 Cor 15, 8-10)
Paul’s conversion is grace, as all conversions are. This is why the sacrament of reconciliation is called in popular parlance as confession, not so much though as a telling of sins, but as a confession, a proclamation, of the Lord’s goodness to give us the grace of conversion. We go to this sacrament because we are already graced with conversion. What is admirable in Paul is that, as he wrote, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and this grace to me has not been ineffective. I have toiled all the harder!” He really fulfilled the great mandate of the Lord after the resurrection to go out to all the world and to proclaim the good news to all creation.
We see the conversion of Paul not just as a turning away from persecuting the Christians, but the start of his mission to preach Christ to all. So he came to Damascus no longer as a persecutor but as a proclaimer of the faith. Once he came to know Jesus, nothing could stop him from announcing him.
Pope Benedict XVI in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, wrote: “In no way can the Church restrict her pastoral work to the ‘ordinary maintenance’ of those who already know the Gospel of Christ. Missionary outreach is a clear sign of the maturity of an ecclesial community… The Church must continue her prophetic defense of people’s right and freedom to hear the word of God, while constantly seeking out the most effective ways of proclaiming that word, even at the risk of persecution. The Church feels duty-bound to proclaim to every man and woman the word that saves.” (VD 95)
In our context here in the Philippines, let us aim our sight at 2021, 10 years from now. In 2021 we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the coming of the Christian faith in our shores. What can we present to the universal Church after 500 years of our Christianity? Should we still remain a receiving Church? We are still dependent on foreign aid for our apostolic programs. If we examine the amount of money the Philippines receives from Propaganda Fide, with the amount we are giving to it, we are indeed a receiving Church. Our Alay Kapwa, the Lenten program of the Philippine Church pales in comparison to the Lenten program of Germany, of small Switzerland, and even of not so Catholic Australia. They have more vigorous Lenten programs that enable them to help our country, while we, with our more than 80 million Catholics, we cannot even answer the calamity calls of our own people from our Alay Kapwa. On the average, 0.017 centavos is donated by every Catholic Filipino to the Alay Kapwa, our nationally endorsed Lenten campaign program!
But let us not just look at our finances whether we are still a receiving church or a giving church. What about our missionary outreach? We can readily point out to our 10 million OFWs who gain the praise of many bishops in other lands since they fill up their Churches. But this is not a program of our Philippine church. This is a phenomenon that we as church did not and do no intend and, sad so say, not even support. We do not have, as church, any vigorous, coordinated effort to be a missionary church, not even just to accompany our OFW Catholics. The Episcopal Commission on Migrants and Itinerant Peoples and a few religious congregations are left to fend for themselves to answer this great need.
In Verbum Domini Pope Benedict tells us: “Following the example of the great Apostle to the nations, who changed the course of his life after hearing the voice of the Lord, let us too hear God’s word as it speaks to us, ever personally, here and now.” (VD 122) We cannot afford to just continue what we are doing now. We have to provide leadership to the whole Philippine Church in these 10 coming years so that 2021 can find us more of a giving than a receiving Church, a more mature ecclesial community, that is.
How are we to prepare to 2021? I do not aim to pre-empt our forthcoming discussions in the plenary sessions, if we ever talk about this. My humble take on this is not to discuss again what we have to do, but to simply seriously put into practice PCP II. This year is PCP II’s 20th anniversary. It was meant to help us be a more integrally evangelized nation by the turn of the new millennium. The new millennium has come and we are now 10 years into it, yet when I read PCP II again a month ago, it is as if I was reading a document written this year. Most of the things have not changed. What have we done in these 20 years? Many of us believe that PCP II was Spirit-led. It shows us the right path to take. But have we taken it seriously?
Allow me to point out just a few of the decrees to show how far-reaching the council was and how we have not serious acted on it:
Very few maverick people spoke of climate change and care of environment back in 1991, but article 31 states:
“The Church, through the initiatives of the CBCP, should develop a comprehensive theology of stewardship and, in the light of this theology, should make ecology a special concern of the social action apostolate down to the parochial level, with the end in view of making everyone a true steward of God’s creation.”
We are saddled with the Reproductive Health issue now. We should have not been if in these 20 years we have acted on Art 29:
“The Church, faithful to her teachings, should call on the responsibility of all concerned to help present the notion of responsible Christian parenthood as contained in Gaudium et Spes, Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio. In this sense, a broader, more decisive and more systematic effort should be undertaken to make the natural methods of regulating fertility known, respected and applied.”
Presently our response to the RH issue is to lobby not to allow the bill to be passed but, I wonder how many of our dioceses have serious programs to promote natural family planning methods? Art 115 section 6 states:
“Tithing, after a good pastoral catechesis, shall be introduced with the end in view of the gradual abolition of the Arancel System.”
I wonder how many dioceses have moved away from the Arancel System since 1991? Art 25 #3 mandates:
“As an urgent solution to the problem of poverty in the country, and following the example of the early Church, all dioceses and parishes must set aside a collection or fund specifically for the poor and needy to be disposed of without red tape.”
Is helping the poor part of our diocesan and parochial budget, or does it come only as an afterthought when calamities strike, and so we resort to appealing to the people because the Church of the people has no funds for it?
I just gleaned through 4 articles to illustrate that PCP II as a document is still valid. We just need to seriously execute it. And if we do, we will be a renewed Church, self-sustained and missionary, able to engage the world in spreading the faith by 2021.
As Church we need a conversion similar to that of Paul. We need to be thrown to the ground, blinded by searing light of the Word of God. Let us pray for this grace, since every conversion is a grace. But in a way, we are already graced by PCP II. Let us work all the harder then, so that the grace may not be in vain, pushing forward, not minding what is past and be lost in finger pointing, not running aimlessly, not wasting our punches in shadowboxing, but running in order to attain the prize of victory.
(This is a homily delivered January 25, 2011, feast of the conversion of St. Paul, by Bishop Broderick Pabillo, Auxiliary bishop of Manila and Chair of the Episcopal Commission on Social Action, Justice and Peace, to the bishops who were gathered at the Pope Pius XII Catholic Center in Manila in preparation for the January 2011 Plenary Assembly)