Thursday, July 3, 2008

Faint church presence in sea tragedy

I thought about this over and over.

I would probably be excoriated for saying this but I wish the zeal and over-eagerness of the nuns, priests and brothers who were falling all over themselves to support, surround and sustain (for weeks and months) NBN-ZTE whistleblower Rodolfo Lozada Jr. were also seen in the aftermath of the recent sea tragedy that claimed more than 700 lives.

Falling all over themselves, translated in Filipino, is nagkakandarapa.

I didn’t see that same zeal in the wake of the sinking of the Princess of the Stars and I felt let down. I thought the Catholic Church as an institution and as represented by its consecrated members (the clergy, the religious priests, nuns and brothers) was generally lukewarm to the victims and the bereaved after the sinking of the Princess of the Stars.

Sure, several days after the tragedy, there was a handful of nuns who went to comfort the grieving in Cebu. I commend the Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo who went out and reached out. Masses were held.

But I expected more. I expected the consecrated members of the church to be falling all over themselves, yes, nagkakandarapa, to be present to those in need.

The day after news of the tragedy came out, countless families came to the Manila and Cebu offices of Sulpicio Lines to inquire about the fate of their loved ones only to be met with a blank wall and a huge wave of rejection. There was no one to answer their questions. And even if questions could not be answered then, there was no one to face them right away. And to listen.

Not a few lost their composure. There was screaming and weeping and fainting. One man even climbed up a tower to amplify his pleas. Behold parents, spouses, siblings and children overcome with emotion, crouching on the floor, their legs turning into jelly and their wits taking flight.

In the beginning there was only the media for the families to vent their frustrations on. The media could only listen, record and report, but they were not expected to immerse themselves in the grief or find answers and solutions.

It was during that hour of sudden darkness and gloom that these families needed caring individuals to prop them up. A shoulder to cry on, a listening ear for their mountains of fears, a hand to hold as their knees gave way. These were not 10 people, these were in the hundreds and they were all crying for help.

Some came alone or with their next of kin bearing photographs of their missing kin—a wife and child, both parents, siblings, grandchildren, entire families. Many didn’t know where to start, where to go. They felt lost and betrayed. Their minds were blank, their hearts leaping out of their chests, their innards in knots.

Who was there to give the most basic emotional support? The indemnities and the legalities could come later. Rescue and retrieval operations were another matter. But behold the grieving who were by themselves and marooned on an island of sorrow.

Surely the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) would be there to set up shop. The grief experts will later be brought in. But it was during those initial raw moments when nothing made sense to the families, when even the ship owners were themselves in a mess, that persons of compassion were needed.

Gina de Venecia of Ina (Mga Inang Naulila) and wife of former Speaker Jose de Venecia went to the scene. She had known raw grief, having lost a daughter during a fire. She had known dread as she watched fire engulf their home and waited for news about her daughter who was trapped inside.

Public Attorney’s Office head Persida Acosta and her team would later also come. Overcome with emotion, Acosta broke into tears as she faced Sulpicio Lines officials.

It helps that one has experienced overwhelming grief, loss, failure and rejection in this life. It helps that one has known numbing shock and what it’s like to have one’s brain swirling and then to grapple with a pain that has no name. If one survives scathed but sane, one becomes more compassionate and empathetic.

But the Christian churches shouldn’t be strangers to suffering, Christ’s passion, death and resurrection being in the heart of the Christian faith. So please convince me that church response was not lukewarm.

Sure, the church laity could themselves have gone to the scene of pain. But well, you go there and you could be suspected as an opportunist, a cell phone snatcher or a budol-budol practitioner. The religious with their identifying symbols would be more credible. I know nuns who’ve shucked their veils but when their symbolic presence is needed in televised political activities, they search for their moth-eaten veils.

Why not a sea tragedy for a change? Missing out on a few episodes of a favorite telenovela wouldn’t hurt. (I know nuns complaining about fellow nuns who are addicted to telenovelas. Do these TV shows now take the place of Vespers and Compline?)

The Catholic Church in the Philippines has a so-called Apostleship of the Sea (apostolatus maris) which is supposed to look after the needs of Filipino seafarers working abroad. Its patron must be Mary, Stella Maris, Star of the Sea. With many big sea tragedies occurring here, this apostolate should also now look after the welfare of sea travelers on Philippine waters.

Again, I say, please convince me that church response was not lukewarm.

Last week I wrote about the heroism of the nuns who perished in the 1983 MV Cassandra tragedy. They should serve as examples to those on dry land, like a lighthouse on a darkened churchscape.