Migrant Missionaries

Interview With Auxiliary Bishop of San Fernando, Philippines

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PAMPANGA, Philippines, FEB. 7, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Filipinos might be materially poor, but they have a richness to share with other countries: their Catholic faith. So, while poverty is forcing emigration, these migrants are becoming missionaries. 

This is the reflection made by Auxiliary Bishop Roberto Calara Mallari of San Fernando.

Bishop Mallari spoke with the television program "Where God Weeps" of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need. 

He noted a link between migration and the so-called problem of population growth, suggesting a solution from a global perspective. 

Q: You were ordained a bishop on your 48th birthday. What significance did this have for you? 

Bishop Mallari: For me it was like being born again because I felt that becoming a bishop is like an experience of death also. In fact, when I was discerning, I would tell the Lord that if it is not his will then he should take my life. 

Q: Do you mean death as in a death to the life that you knew up to this point? 

Bishop Mallari: We all have desires in our hearts. I just wanted to be a simple parish priest in a rural area where I could plant vegetables, but to become a bishop meant to do a lot of things totally different from what I wanted. 

Q: Benedict XVI wrote a pontifical message for you from which I quote: “Teach, dear son, the faithful of the Archdiocese of San Fernando to acknowledge the presence of Christ in every man and to find him in all people, especially in the poor." What impression did this message have on you as a young bishop? 

Bishop Mallari: It was really a challenge to me. Actually, throughout my life as a seminarian and as a priest this has been a struggle. I kept asking, why is it so easy for me to recognize Jesus in the Eucharist? It is so easy to kneel down and show him how much I love him, yet it is so difficult to see him in the poor and the suffering when, in fact, the human person is supposed to be the masterpiece of creation and created in the image and likeness of God. I would say that it is a struggle but I try to make this effort to see Jesus in every person because this is what I believe. 

Q: So this message really touched you at the heart of your challenge? 

Bishop Mallari: Yes. Jesus is asking us to see him in the faces of the poor and many times it is hard to see. The first thing I did then was to set up a “desk” for the poor in my own office because I feel as a bishop that my door must be open to them. It is easy to refer them to the social action department of our archdiocese but I felt that my office should have the resources to immediately respond, at a moment’s notice, to the needs of the poor that come. 

Q: How would you describe the faith of the Filipino people? 

Bishop Mallari: We are still growing but we need to mature in the faith. We are the only Christian country in Asia but there is so much corruption. It is a challenge for the Church to really reach out to the political leaders and at least challenge our lay leaders who are committed Christians to run for government office. We need to instill into the people that to run for office is the ultimate sign of love, which also means sacrifice, and that this is necessary to bring about the social change and transformation of our society. 

Q: Many of these political leaders would have gone through Catholic schools and universities. How does the Church look at the educational system to address the problem of corruption and are you taking steps in this? 

Bishop Mallari: We are trying to address this. There is a tendency to think that because we are already Catholics that everything is and will be OK and we do not have to do anything about it. We now feel that we should emphasize the development of the Catholic character within the Catholic schools. We have to constantly remind our students of the Gospel message: not only in knowledge but the challenge of living the faith. It’s one thing to be baptized; it’s another to live the faith daily. 

Q: The question of poverty and the disparity of wealth is one that is still present in the Philippines. In fact, it is growing. How does the Church address this problem? 

Bishop Mallari: In my diocese, we’ve continued a program started by the first bishop, which invites the rich [...] to give to a collection for the poor. The images of the Virgin and the cross travel from one parish to another and the collection from the previous parish is then given to the next parish and distributed to their poor. This is, in a small way, an opportunity for the rich to share with the poor. 

Q: This poverty has provoked Filipinos to move abroad as guest workers. Some have suggested that the Filipinos have overtaken the Irish in communicating the Catholic culture throughout the world, particularly in Islamic countries. Is this still the case? 

Bishop Mallari: Yes. In fact, today we have about 9 million Filipinos living abroad. Last year it was 7 million. It is still growing. The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines has agreed that we should encourage our migrants to be missionaries and to be conscious of this faith that they have and this treasure they possess. While we are poor materially, we have this richness in us that we can share with other people of other countries. 

Q: The Philippines has the fastest growing population in Asia, provoking talk of population control legislation. One bill introduced by the government has been the Population Control Act (Reproductive Health Bill). What are these proposals and what is the danger to the family from these proposals? 

Bishop Mallari: First of all, the Church is against the introduction of the artificial contraception content in the bill and the legalization of it. The government has been accusing the Church of imposing her ideas, but the Church is actually promoting freedom. The state should not dictate to families regarding this matter. It is a family affair. It is something personal and every family should make a decision for themselves. The state has no right to push this into a bill -- to the point of legalization -- and it appears that if one doesn't follow the program, the individual may be subject to incarceration. This is actually part of the Reproductive Health Bill. 

Secondly, we know for a fact that many of these artificial contraceptives are abortifacients -- that is, they cause abortions. 

Q: First of all, is this population growth a real concern or is it an artificial problem? Secondly, if it is a concern what alternatives can the Church offer to these contraceptive bills? 

Bishop Mallari: This issue of population should be seen within a global perspective. Today a lot of countries have “graying" populations: in Europe, America, even Japan and Singapore and other parts of Asia. I think we have to look at the population of the whole world and the fact that we are open to migration. Many parts of Europe, for example, need a lot of caregivers and I think the Filipinos can offer this service to these countries that need it. 

Regarding contraceptive alternatives, the Church is doing a lot to propose an alternative, which is the "natural family planning" method. It is natural, respects the dignity of the human person and is an occasion for the couple to know themselves -- the dynamics of the relationship. The husband has to get involved in the process and they have to talk about the process that the woman is going through -- the women’s perspective. 

Q: Are you optimistic for the future of the Catholic Church in the Philippines? 

Bishop Mallari: Yes very much. In fact, I’m happy to know that migration is helping our Filipino Catholics to mature. I was in New Zealand and I was happy to hear from the bishop of Hamilton that the Filipinos there are giving life to the parishes in the various dioceses in New Zealand. He was telling me because they are asking us to send a priest to New Zealand. If a priest goes there to help, however, he advised us not to establish one parish for the Filipino community because, as he said, we will be depriving all the other parishes of the presence of the Filipinos. And hearing that from him made me very happy. I had the opportunity to celebrate one of the Masses in Auckland and was very happy to see the Filipino community leading the choir and serving the mass. 

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. 

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On the Net: 

Where God Weeps: www.WhereGodWeeps.org 

Aid to the Church in Need: www.acn-intl.org