Maayong hapon kanatong tanan! Magandang hapon po sa ating lahat!
Thank you for this privilege. Usually, the organizers will give me a chosen topic to reflect upon and share. This time, however, I was given a free hand on what to reflect on.
I chose to reflect then the very theme of our gathering these days. Celebrate in gratitude! Live out Radically our Commitment to the Path of Synodality with the Rural Poor for Genuine Agrarian Reform, Justice, and Peace!
The first exclamatory statement immediately caught my attention. It was only last 2022 when I was asked the same by the RMP-National to share my thoughts on our journey as rural missionaries amidst the pandemic and repression. The situation was totally different then.
We were filled with uncertainties and fears brought about by many factors: questions from the ranks of CBCP and even within the Conference of the Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (CMRSP), the trump-up charges, the court hearings, the constant red-tagging of members, the freezing of funds, the limiting work atmosphere, etc.
I remember reflecting on the bold statement, ‘We are missionaries!’. I recalled my journey then in becoming a rural missionary, from being a deacon attending BTR in Cabadbaran to being a red-tagged priest now. The situation two years ago was gloomy and sad.
And I managed to share my struggles with unwavering hope. Today, we are asked to smile and leap, and Celebrate in Gratitude! It is with great surprise that come here with resurgent hope, meaningfully celebrating our 30th general assembly!
With this celebrative mode, I asked myself, what are we grateful for? What to celebrate? Or What does gratitude really mean for us rural missionaries?
I did cursory research about gratitude, and I found various reasons to be thankful for it. First, being grateful falls in the tradition of our Church. In the scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, are laden with words of thanksgiving.
Last Christmas season, we contemplated the Magnificat of Mary. And before we welcome the New Year, we must have recited the Te Deum. Our daily liturgy is filled with grateful phrases from Psalms to Canticles. ‘Give thanks the Lord for he is good; his love endures forever’ (Ps 136:1).
We are simply thankful as we ‘honor the gifts we have received’ from the Lord. Secondly, I found that celebrating in gratitude does not presuppose being grateful only for the good things that happened to us. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2638), we are taught that ‘every event and need can become an offering of thanksgiving.’
A professor-theologian, Jason McMartin from Biola University said astutely, that ‘painful experiences are gifts themselves’. Hence, we are grateful not only for the blessings but also for the pains. He went on to say that our ‘gratitude to God is our response to our suffering.’ For this reason, McMartin said that our thankfulness amidst the pains and suffering will draw us closer to God and will also expand our vision.
We can only proclaim the Gloria and Alleluia after undergoing the horrible episodes of the Passion. The pains and sufferings we have is a portal to a deep encounter with God. When we celebrate in gratitude, we recognize those pains and sufferings as impetus for our joyful celebration. In the thoughts of a spiritual writer, Mary Mohler, gratitude in pain is a sanctifying process.
When we celebrate in gratitude amidst the pains and suffering, we become closer to the Lord. Lastly, to be grateful means to radiate the blessings and gifts that we have received. A renowned German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, succinctly said that ‘Christian gratitude disseminates God’s love to others, the poor, the needy, especially through the works of mercy.’
Hence, our celebration of gratitude is not mere festivities but of accepting a renewed challenge to the works of mercy and justice. It is not only personal and ecclesial but also socio-pastoral.
As we sing the Magnificat, we are reminded that we thank the Lord for his works of mercy and justice: ‘He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate, he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty (Lk 2:51-53).
As rural missionaries, celebrating our 30th general assembly, we are grateful not only for the present but primarily for the past. We should know what we are thankful for. We recognize and celebrate the efforts of the founding members of RMP as they responded bravely to the call of the signs of times then.
We honor and continue to emulate as well those who have given their lives for this noble cause. We thank those who served the national secretariat in the past as well as those who serve in the peripheries.
We thank our lay mission partners who tirelessly work with us despite the harassment and attacks. Personally, I am grateful to those who introduced me to this ministry, Sr. Letty Daral, MSM, and Sr. Lydia Lascano, ICM. I am still awed and inspired as I witnessed the sacrifices of Sr. Frances and Mrs. Amy Pond, among others. I am grateful to Sr. Elen Belardo, RGS, who faced every storm that came with calmness and audacity.
In general, I thank the MSM congregation for their labors and pains as they courageously face insurmountable attacks both inside and outside the Church. And for many of us, silently working with the rural poor in the different outskirts of our country.
We recognize, of course, the efforts of our present National Secretariat for this bold move to convene and celebrate this 30th General Assembly. Indeed, we need to celebrate not only for reaching this long but precisely for remaining in our radical stance through the years up to the present. Our coming together here is already worth celebrating.
Our celebration today is something that we cannot simply do in the past years and something that we did not expect to happen too soon. We suffered in different ways. Most of us are still suffering until now. But as we have heard above, suffering should not dampen our celebration of gratitude. We should take our suffering as a fuller identification with Christ. We should allow our suffering to expand our vision.
If you ask me, how did I manage the attacks against me and even my family to some point? I must be a hypocrite if I say I was not affected. I took everything in stride and in my knees. But my suffering is nothing in comparison with the very people I am working with.
There are still Lumad leaders whom I know who are on the run while I sleep comfortably in my rectory. Our lay partners continued to suffer in isolation while I could still move freely even amidst the shrinking spaces. But we should never forget that our suffering is not something unexpected, but they are the very part of our ministry like ‘thorns in the flesh’ of St. Paul. It is but proper then to thank God for all our sufferings.
When we learn to accept the sufferings because of our ministry, we start to feel that we are never alone. Mary Mohler advised that we should end our day with gratitude by listing the thorns and praises we encounter during the day. According to her, as we do this process, ‘The roses on the list start to smell sweeter as you’re thankful for the thorns.’ When we celebrate in gratitude today, are we thankful for the thorns too?
II – Live out Radically our Commitment!
Celebrate in gratitude! Live out radically our commitment!
Our celebration of gratitude is essentially connected with our radical commitment to the gospel imperatives. In my personal conversation with former Pagadian bishop, Emmanuel Cabajar, he emphasized that the gospel in itself is radical enough. Literally, the term radical from Latin, radix means root. It implies that the gospel is rooting for our salvation, or the message of the gospel impels us to go to the roots of our problems. Hence, following the gospel entails radicality at the very least. To be radical is to be rooted in the gospel.
That is why we profess first the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience because we believe that our commitment to the poor is a consequence of our closer imitation of Christ. Following the words of Bonhoeffer, our celebration in gratitude should lead us to serve the poor for whom the gospel was first announced. To commit to serving the rural poor then is an inevitable consequence of our celebration.
To be grateful for the past years means to project ourselves deeply into the future of continued selfless service to the poor. But before we thrust ourselves into the radical ministry that we are called for, we need to dig deeply first ourselves into the fiber of the gospel. Bonhoeffer said that ‘gratitude arises not from the inherent capacities of the human heart but only from the Word of God.’ He must have made this pronouncement as a protestant theologian with ‘sola scriptura’ doctrine in mind.
But our rootedness in the gospel is not optional either. It is from the gospel that we continue to hear the voice that constantly calls us to participate in the work of integral salvation. Bonhoeffer commented further that ‘Christian gratitude makes unique judgments.’
It means that our being grateful should lead us to a clarity of faith. When we encounter the Lord in His word, we see clearly where we are heading. As rural missionaries, we make use of many tools to serve the rural poor, but we only listen to the authority of a singular voice.
We only have one Shepherd whose voice will surely lead us all to the restful waters and verdant pastures (Ps 23). It is to this voice that we can radically commit our lives. It is by following this voice that Fr. Elias, told us yesterday, that ‘will define our being a member of the family of Christ.’ Our intimacy with the gospel will help us discern and filter other voices that may lead us astray. His voice will lead us to radical service for the poor.
Our commitment to serve the rural poor is as good as our commitment to read and reflect on the gospel. In the gospel, we are always reminded of the call and commitment of the disciples. The gospel defines to us clearly what discipleship is – a participation in the mission of Christ. It implies this often-negligible truth that it is Christ’s mission in the first place.
To forget this essential truth of our faith will lead us to the danger of falling into the ideology of our self. We commit ourselves to the mission that is entrusted to us only. In the gospel, discipleship means relying constantly on the Master. It means to be truly Christ’s disciples is an act of faith. We can commit radically only when we have faith in the Master.
Only the agenda of the Master can we entrust the radical commitment of our lives. As a rural missionary working among the Lumads of Mindanao, I must admit that many times I have relied on my own intellect and strength. It is through the difficult circumstances that come along my ministry that pounded me to realize that my work is primarily God’s work, and I must rely on everything to Him. It is humbling but at the same time empowering.
If I am continuing to commit myself to doing ministry in the periphery today, it is because I found the connection between my work and the words of the Master. I can face great difficulties and debacles because I know that I have a powerful Master whose work I do. In the words of St. Paul: ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ (Eph.4:13).
III – The Path to Synodality with the Rural Poor
Celebrate in gratitude! Live radically our commitment on the path of synodality!
My ministry among the rural poor led me to the ugly reality of our society. Spending time with the Lumads and the rural poor made me realize always how much I need to learn from them and from their situation. I learned my theology in the seminary, but my faith increased in the periphery. The Lumads and the poor taught me basically to question the authenticity of my commitment to God. Their life is always a question of my lifestyle.
They have lived through the statement of St.Thérèse of the Little Child, ‘everything is grace’ while I feel guilty wallowing in my excess. My work with the Lumads and the poor has often led me to embarrassment due to my sense of entitlement.
No matter how I journey with them in the street rallies or in the ‘bakwit’ march, I have always a fallback. But the poor that we are serving is not different from the God that we worship. In the book, Jesus Today, by a Dominican priest and apartheid advocation in South Africa, Fr. Albert Nolan, it was mentioned that to be mystical is also to be socially engaged. Our prayer should lead us also to question the capitalist economic system that engendered poverty.
Our liturgy should allow us to denounce the unjust structure that further stumps the growth of the majority. Our contemplation should impel us to work for a just and lasting peace. After spending 11 years with my former religious congregation, the Rogationists, only by being a secular priest working among the poor I fully appreciated the gift of my vocation.
The emphasis on synodality is considered a paradigm shift in our Church today. With its corresponding sub-theme: Participation, Communion, and Mission, the Church tries to regain its very identity. The path to synodality is not a new path to our Church. For the past years or centuries, it has been its way, however lately, only been less traveled.
RMP is one of those Church organizations that selflessly chose this lonely and perilous road. Since its conception in 1970, RMP has trodden this unpopular path using the beacon of the gospel and the reading of the signs of times. Since then, we had been walking neither ahead of the rural poor nor behind them. We had been journeying by their side. We suffer with them. The synodal path that our Church now is ushering us into has always been the path of the RMP.
This morning, Fr. Ben Alforque, MSC emphasized this by underlining the ‘great prophetic role of RMP in the project of synodality.’ Our celebration today is nothing but an affirmation of this path and hopefully a stronger resolve to maintain the course.
Maintaining the course of this path is not easy. The synodal path is only one but it has many crossroads. Every time we encounter each crossroad, we are asked to choose that path of Christ. When we choose to serve the rural poor, we need to stand by that decision whenever we encounter difficulties.
Decision at the crossroads is what defines us as missionaries or true disciples of the Lord. When I was doing my fieldwork, I encountered a situation that, according to my mentor at the academe, warranted me to leave or abort my work. If I decide to leave, it would be for my comfort. And so, I decided to remain.
My experience would pale in comparison with what our sisters and lay partners had undergone or still undergoing. They too opted to remain. During the difficult times in the seminary, my father wrote me with a quotation, ‘When the going gets tough, the tough gets going.’ Commitment to the poor can be seen well in the worst of times. This is also what radicality means – to face the surge of the storm with enduring spirit. We have been tested. We had always been tested. And we will always be tested. To stay on the synodal path is a constant series of tests with a series of negotiations and re-negotiations that would lead to tough decisions.
Fr. Romano Guardini, a German priest, whose teachings impacted greatly the life of young Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, said ‘He who gives must do so with reverence for the one who receives.’ We serve the poor not because we are reverend brothers or sisters, but rather because we also revere their lives. For Fr. Guardini, ‘if there is no mutual respect, gratitude perishes and turns into resentment.’ We avoid the pitfall of bitterness and regret because we know that at the end of the day, we are just privileged laborers in the vineyard of the Lord. We celebrate in gratitude today because we find solidarity among the poor as one family of God. We thank the rural poor for reminding us of who we really are. And they remind us of where we are going. We are not their savior, but we serve them because they too are our brothers and sisters in need. It is good to ask if we are serving the poor as our equals. As our equals, our involvement with them will challenge our lives. Our work with the poor is not simply our sideline, but our utmost priority. How many of us, who serve the poor, are willing to change the course of our lives?
In this synodal path, we need always to understand that the very journey is also our destination. We are not journeying with the rural poor because of our preferential option for the poor only. We join in their struggle to bring about integral salvation to the poor and marginalized sector because deeply that is exactly what the mystery of incarnation is all about. The journey or the struggle itself consists already of the bold proclamation of the gospel.
My bishop, the bishop of Tandag, Raul Dael, used to tell us that ‘dream is not a destination… it is part of the very journey we have.’ In the same manner, our fight for rights, justice, and genuine peace, is not just a goal for us. When we journey with the poor, we realize that it is us who are participating in their lives.
Our communion with the poor and marginalized sectors of our society is not only limited to the liturgical celebration but also concretely seen when we are falsely charged or red-tagged or even killed together with them. We suffer with them just as Christ suffers with us. Our mission is not far, it is within us. It is first our very identity. We are sent to suffer with them too. As our 2022 statement said, we are missionaries!
The path of synodality may be one with many crossroads but this path has its various phases – the rugged terrains, the paved highways, the muddy detours, the broken bridges, the uphill climb, and even apparent dead ends. All of us know literally that we trod where there is no road in sight. We do so because the road map to the mission is not visible, but it remains in our merciful and compassionate hearts attuned to the heart of the Master. We can only see this when we are immersed in the life of the Master.
In the gospel of Mark, Jesus called his disciples first ‘to be with him’ (3:13-19). Only by then can we truly walk the synodal path when we walk first with the Master. Concretely, this synodal path is not limited to the familiar apostolates of our dioceses and congregations. In the beginning, we march for the rural poor, the rights of the farmers, land to the tillers, and oppose agro-industries. St. Pope John Paul II taught us, in his book: ‘Crossing the Threshold of Hope’, that ‘anything that oppresses the human person is evil’.
Today, with our renewed identification with Christ, we should be ready to confront social issues that continue to trample on the lives of the rural poor, the farmers, the laborers, the Lumads, etc. Specifically, we promote and protect the environment today because we know that upon its destruction, the poor will be mostly affected. We renounce corruption in the government as the poor bear its negative consequences. We join the Lumad struggle for self-determination to preserve their identity, defend their unique culture, and protect the next generation. We continue to preach against the dichotomy of our faith to promote integral salvation.
IV – Celebrate in Gratitude through the Eucharist!
As Catholics, the perfect act of thanksgiving is the celebration of the sacred mystery of the Eucharist. The term eucharist in Greek, ‘eukaristien’ means ‘thanksgiving’. We are most grateful primarily because the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross ‘sets all of creation free from sin and death, consecrates it anew, and returns it to the Father, for his glory.’ The Eucharist is the ‘culmen et fons’ or the summit and foundation of our struggles. We take all our strength and inspiration in the word of God and the body and blood of our Savior. At the same time, we submit all our efforts to Him, our Master.
For us, rural missionaries, the Eucharist is not only a mere liturgical celebration that is relegated to the spiritual sphere of our lives. Rather, the Eucharist is a reminder for us of the triumph of the cross. Amid our suffering, there is an awaiting victory that has been won already by the Master.
The Eucharist should help us remember the washing of the feet in John’s gospel. In the last 2019 national convention, Fr. Querico ‘Dodoy’ Pedregosa, OP, reflected this on his invitation for ‘downward mobility’ or servanthood before our leadership. Fr. Dodoy reminded us that in the Last Supper, Jesus presented himself to His disciples, not as their leader but first as their lowly Servant, a vulnerable slave at that, giving them an example of humble service. As rural missionaries, we exposed ourselves as vulnerable ministers to the evil machinery of a tyrannical regime. From a non-violent Master, we are thrust into the world of violence to defend the rights of the oppressed and to renounce the injustices of our time.
In his newly published book, Jesus for Filipinos, a Cebuano theologian, Fr. Ramon Echica, reflected on the social dimension of the Eucharist. According to him: ‘If the Passover meal was in the context of the Last Supper of Jesus on earth, and if the Eucharistic celebration takes into account this final meal of one whom we consider our Lord and Savior, then it is wrongheaded to think that the Eucharist must be completely divorced from concrete historical realities.’
In other words, at the recesses of the Eucharistic spirituality, there is an embedded aspiration for man’s emancipation from every form of oppression or slavery. When we celebrate mass, we not only glorify the Lord but also draw strength from Him to participate in His world of salvation or liberation.
Let us celebrate in gratitude! Let us live out radically our commitment! Let the synodal path strengthen our resolve to fight for the people’s rights, justice and peace, and the integrity of creation!
Fr. Raymond Montero-Ambray is the Ecology Ministry director and head of the LGBTQIA+ apostolate in the Diocese of Tandag in the southern Philippines. The priest is a staunch environmental and Indigenous Peoples’ rights activist.
This Biblico-Theological Reflection was delivered by Fr. Ambray during the 30TH national assembly of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines