Thursday, February 5, 2004

The MJ’s leap of faith

``Commitment,’’ the homilist said, ``is not staying in a place from which you cannot leave. It is letting go and holding on to a new call. The important thing is not that one spends a whole life doing something, but what one does with one’s whole life and how one does it. Commitment is the fine art of waiting for a thing to become for us what we thought a long time ago it was--makers of our history and partners in God’s mission. Fr. Joe, this was your dream and the dream of your MJ brothers.’’

That was Father Percy Juan MJ, noted missiologist, speaking during the mass at the wake of Fr. Jose Saplala MJ at St. Scholastica’s College chapel last Sunday. Fr.Joe, 68, died of cancer on Jan. 31. He was buried yesterday after a glorious farewell from kith and kin.

I had plans of writing about the MJ (Missionaries of Jesus) sometime back but I was waiting for the right time. Perhaps now is the time.

The MJ is a group of priest-missionaries (38 Filipinos, two Belgians and one American) that broke away in 2002 from the Belgian-founded CICM (Congregation of the Immmaculate Heart of Mary). The early Belgian missionaries here served the people of the Cordillera, spoke their language and lived among them. The CICM now run huge institutions such as Maryhill School of Theology and St. Louis University.

Those who broke away are among the best and the brightest and the most committed to mission. Father Joe, the first Filipino CICM, and the young-ish Father Percy Juan, former Father Provincial, were among them. This was a split that was bound to happen. East clashes with West, new wine tearing at old wineskins, and the idea of ``doing mission’’ no longer the same for everyone. Ad gentes as against ad extra. The former implies bridging the gap between faith and unbelief and being engaged in intercultural dialogue of life; the latter implies a geographical crossing over sort of.

It was a painful act of breaking free. Bloody and bloodied are understatements. It was a leap of faith on the part of those who chose the path less taken, a leap in the dark for only the brave. Yes, it is, when you sally forth with only the clothes on the your back and your shadow no longer allowed to darken the portals of what used to be your home, the cradle of your missionary vocation. That is not a figure of speech.

I have read the accounts describing what led to this—what happened at the congregation’s General Chapter in Rome, the exchange of letters, the hurling of accusations. Filipinos are ``power grabbers.’’ Wow. Why, a number of international congregations, European-founded at that, already have had Filipinos or Asians as either Superior Generals or members of the General Council. Magaling ang Pinoy.

I have also read the proposal to establish a second CICM Province in the Philippines—an offshoot of that debacle. Those who proposed this had hoped it would ``foster a positive tolerance for diversity…(and) allow for attempts to live and do mission differently and in a manner close to the Filipino mind and heart, integrated in the people’s way of life.’’ This would have eased the conflict.

Alas, this was not to be. And so on June 12, 2002, anniversary of Philippine independence and birth anniversary of the CICM founder Theophile Verbist, the parting of ways became complete.

The breakaway group chose Father Wilfredo Dulay, himself a gritty warrior, to be Coordinator General. The MJ is now under the benevolent protection of Archbishop Fernando Capalla, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines. Former CBCP head and canon lawyer Archbishop Oscar Cruz acts as MJ adviser.

It will take a while for the MJ, some of whom have logged 30 to 48 years as CICM priest-missionaries, to get pontifical status but this didn’t deter this band of brothers from breaking new ground and wading into new frontiers. A saint is not less a saint just because she or he is not yet canonized by the Vatican.

Religious congregations splitting in half is not new. The matter of division of resources and granting of benefits often add to the pain. Profit-oriented business corporations do better by their employees.

But that is not even the core issue. (Hey, it’s a labor issue.) Fr. Dulay described the issue thus: ``From the very beginning the congregational charism rested on two foundational pillars: mission ad gentes and mission to the poor... Has its actual practice deviated from the founding charism by devoting itself to pastoral work ad extra (attending to the pastoral care of Christians outside one’s own country) but neglecting mission ad gentes, which is the theological heart of mission: the good news must be proclaimed to all nations?’’

The ``rebels’’ had brought up the issue that 75 percent of the CICM missionaries around the world were taking care of Christians mostly and not leaving their comfort zones.

My two cents worth: I think ``jurassic’’ religious life, if it does not remain true to it mission and keep pace with the world, if it neglects contemplative prayer, will die out. New forms (lay communities perhaps?) will take its place.

Some years ago I wrote an investigative series on European congregations, on the verge of becoming extinct, doing massive vocation recruitment among little-educated Asians who would care for their aged. This alarmed our Bureau of Immigration. Europe is drying up. As someone said, ``The last surviving one will turn off the lights.’’

``MJ’’ was on the lips of Fr. Joe till the end. Some of his last words: ``By the grace of God, little by little, I began to understand the will of God. I began to understand what life is all about.’’