Church assets and the laity

December 30 is marked as Rizal Day everywhere in the country. But in the small town of Betis in Pampanga, where I grew up, this special day is also celebrated as the feast day of St. James the Apostle (Santiago Apostol). There was a time when the annual procession of the town’s religious icons at dusk, which served as the high point of the fiesta, was preceded by a civic parade featuring the statue of the national hero Dr. Jose Rizal.

I remember joining the early afternoon parade as a grade schooler in Boy Scout uniform, and later walking the same route in my Sunday outfit for the procession of the saints. In my child’s mind, I always thought the two events—symbolizing allegiance to the nation and to the Church—were continuous with one another. But, this tradition has long ceased, perhaps signifying the growing distance between citizenship and spirituality.

Today, Rizal is remembered mainly on his birthday, June 19, and the commemoration is mostly confined to school premises. Dec. 30 is now wholly devoted to “Apung Tiago.” The exquisitely adorned Betis Church remains open throughout the day, welcoming visitors and pilgrims from everywhere.

As a proud son of Betis, I like escorting guests to this church that the Augustinians first established in 1572. The structure itself has undergone many transformations through the centuries. Being a community of artisans, Betis has been able to maintain the beautiful interior of its church, including a ceiling whose painted images constituted a visual catechism for my generation. But the full splendor of Betis’ religious heritage comes alive during the procession, when all the carriages bearing the different saints to which the town is devoted are wheeled out of their sanctuaries, usually the capacious basements of the town’s elite homes.

Last Dec. 30, while showing the church to some visitors after lunch, I noticed that some of the carriages were already inside the church.  One of these was partly blocking the austere baptistery, the small room beside the main church door. I found out later that this was the statue of the Nuestra Señora de la Consolacion y Correa (Our Lady of Consolation and the Cincture), which depicts Mary with the Child Jesus in her arms. This particular image of Mary shows her wearing a cincture or belt. The story is told that Santa Monica, the mother of San Agustin, was blessed by an apparition of Mary, during which the latter gave her the belt as a symbol of her consolation. Monica had been despairing over her son’s unruliness in the wake of her husband’s death. Mary’s gesture not only comforted Monica, it also transformed Augustine into a pillar of the Church. The Augustinian Order traces its origins to the devotion to this statue.

I didn’t know all this until someone, taking advantage of the almost empty church during that warm and lazy afternoon on Dec. 30, climbed up the carriage and stole the image of the Child Jesus, detaching it from the embrace of the statue of Mother Mary. Sculpted from solid ivory, the icon is one of the original statues that accompanied the Augustinian friars in their Betis mission. One of these days, it may resurface in some rich collector’s private altar, with a market value appropriate to an artifact of a pious age. But to us who lived in its comforting shadow, it is priceless.

The theft of Church assets is nothing new, and it will probably become more frequent as Filipinos lose their reverence for the things that used to hold them spellbound. From a broader sociological perspective, however, the phenomenon calls urgent attention to the need to develop ways of collectively protecting and preserving heritage that lies outside the sphere of the state.

Traditionally, Church assets were the sole responsibility of the clergy and the few select families that actively supported the work of the Church. This was consistent with the logic of a hierarchical society, though it was far from being an ideal arrangement. It is not uncommon to hear of parish priests who shamelessly monetize church assets, often in cahoots with the families to whom they have been entrusted. Even after the 1991 Second Plenary Council of the Philippines, when “lay empowerment” became a byword, the laity remained generally passive in relation to the clergy, mostly assisting in liturgical services.

With Pope Francis at the helm of the Church, this setup will likely be shaken up in the Year of the Laity. But, as in the case of politics, the transition to a more democratized Church will be far from smooth. The laity may be taking over the administration of the local church even before the conditions that make this feasible have taken shape in the womb of the old community.

The theft of the Augustinian icon from the Betis Church illustrates some of the ambiguities that may arise when parish councils begin to assert their control over church assets. The icon had been under the care of one family for decades when the parish council supposedly demanded its “return” to its rightful owner, the church. As it turned out, however, the failure to designate a responsible safe-keeper under the new arrangement exposed the icon to the risk of pilferage.

Many years ago, the Jesuit scholar Fr. Horacio de la Costa asked, “What does it mean to be a Catholic? What does it mean to be a lay Catholic? What does it mean to be a Filipino Catholic?” In various declarations, he observed, the Second Vatican Council sought to answer these, but only in part. The full answer, he said, “…can only be a concrete answer, a response to a diversity of concrete situations; and this completing response can come from no other source than the laity itself.”

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