Thursday, September 30, 2004

Shrine for the poor

Call it congruence, synchronicity or what, but this week brought a couple of church-related news that are good news.

Rising fast in Tandang Sora in Quezon City is a shrine, Santuario de San Vicente de Paul, dedicated to the cause of the poor of the city. It is named after the 17th-century French saint who dedicated his life to the very poor.

The Santuario’s raison d’etre sounds best in Pilipino: ``Ang tunay na esensiya ng Santuario de San Vicente de Paul ay hindi tumutukoy sa malamig na semento at matayog na pader. Ang Santuario ay ang mga taong bumubuo nito. Ang mahihirap ang tanging buhay ng Santuario, at ang mayayamang nais magbahagi ng kanilang biyaya sa mahihirap ang magiging katuwang nito na magsisilbing kamay at paa para sa patuloy na paglago. Ang Santuario… ay yayakap sa lahat ng uri ng tao, mayaman man o mahirap. Misyon ng simbahang ito ang bigyan ng sapat na atensiyon at pagkalinga ang mahihirap at kulang palad.’’

For those who don’t understand Pilipino: ``The essence of Santuario de San Vicente de Paul lies not in the cold concrete and the high walls. The Santuario is the people who form it. The life of the Santuario draws mainly from the poor, and the rich who want to share their blessings with the poor are the partners who would serve as hands and feet so that it will flourish. The Santuario will embrace all, both the rich and the poor. This church’s mission is to give attention and care to the poor and the less fortunate.’’

The Santuario will cost P100 to P150 million, I am told. Structures could vanish in a wink, but the spirit and vision behind them, if nurtured and built into hearts, could remain for all time. Church is more than just structure, we all know that, and this shrine that is taking shape is already showing in concrete how a church lives and breathes and thrives. But this is jumping the gun.

The cost would have made me groan had I not known about the spirit behind the project. Well, it wasn’t as if the money was all there in the beginning and suddenly it was all going to be poured into a cold structure. But, as the saying goes, if you build it they will come. The funds came as the building progressed, and the poor, yes, even the poor, continue to give their widow’s mite, because the shrine is theirs, and they know they belong. This is their cathedral. They say it speaks to them of hope.

Come to think of it, the so-called ``church of the poor’’ need not literally be a replica of the hovels that the poor live in, though I also do not want to see a gilded edifice soaring in the midst of destitution and the people who run it enjoying five-star comfort.

The Santuario is within the six-hectare seminary grounds of the Vincentian Fathers who run ministries in that part of Quezon City. Yes, they’re doing an amazing job over there, especially at the Payatas garbage dump.

According to Father Atilano Fajardo, the awe-struck project director who has not ceased being amazed by how fast the dream is becoming a reality, they started with a mere half a million pesos. I hope the P150-million ``investment’’ will multiply a hundred-fold and generate more concern of the city’s most neglected.

Held last Sunday, on the eve of the feast of St. Vincent, was a ``lakad alay’’ (walkathon) that started from the QC Hall and ended at the Santuario site. Walking together were the poor and the not so poor of the church as well as city officials. Mayor Feliciano Belmonte read the city ordinance declaring St. Vincent the ``patron of the urban poor of Quezon City.’’ (A city ordinance? Isn’t this crossing the church-state demarcation line?)

The structure is, first and foremost, a place of worship. It is a gathering place. A bridge between people, between rich and poor, Fr. Atilano says. It will be a ``listening church that becomes the voice of the unheard.’’ To be built into it are programs to help the poor. These should form the centerpiece, if you ask me. The city government has promised to be involved in the programs. But I hope politicians keep their hands off or it will be messy.

The church is a combination of classic and modern complemented by Filipino highlights. The history of the Philippine church and ``preferential option for the poor’’ will be depicted on the stained glass windows and the walls. Noted artists are donating their talents for these. The church will seat about 2,000 people. There will even be a catwalk for stage presentations. At the ossuary in the basement, one can view a depiction of Filipino burial customs.

Why build the shrine in these difficult times? The primer answers: ``Precisely because of the poverty we see around us, the shrine will serve as a visible representation of how one’s life should be dedicated to the service of the poor, while at the same time serve as an inspiration for all Filipino Christians to be of service to those most in need.’’

Indeed, it is a sign of contradiction. I say this as a compliment.

If you want to be involved, contact Fr. Fajardo at or 9309387. Don’t’ lose your cool if the woman who answers the phone asks: ``From what company? And what are you going to talk about (with Father)?’’. I wanted to tell her I was an ailing prostitute who wanted to help.


Ongoing in Manila is the international convention of the United Evangelical Mission which is tackling globalization, human rights, the AIDS crisis, economic injustice and violence against women. The UEM is an organization of 34 member churches in Asia, Africa and Europe. High on its agenda is the negative effects of globalization.