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On Bishops and Pajeros

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While growing up in a small subdivision in Quezon City, I kept wondering why the priests in our parish church, who always preached the joy of simple living and who extolled how “blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven,” lived in luxury in a mansion that used to be owned by a former senator. They had maids and drivers, and waded in a big pool to get relief from the summer heat.

I learned later that the priests belonged to the order of the Augustinian Recollect Fathers, or the Recoletos, owners of San Sebastian College-Recoletos on Claro M. Recto Avenue and of six other exclusive schools in the Philippines.

The question kept recurring in my mind for many years, and instead of getting answers, a few more questions occasionally cropped up. Why is it that the Roman Catholic Church does not have a single school that offered free education to at least the very deserving of the poor? Why is it that all the schools that it operates are for the children of the wealthy, the only ones who can afford to pay the astronomical tuition fees and kind of lifestyle that such schools demand of their students?

After graduating from the Manila Science High School in 1969, I was among the graduates who qualified for a scholarship at the Ateneo de Manila University on Katipunan Avenue in Quezon City. But the scholarship offered only free tuition, so when I was interviewed by the Dean of Admissions, I asked if they could give me a monthly stipend so I could buy the needed books and clothes that I needed to at least not feel insecure in the company of those filthy rich students. The dean said if they did that, it would set a precedent and all the other scholars would ask for a stipend. So, I went to the University of the Philippines and never regretted it.

The reluctance of the Jesuit-owned school to offer a stipend to a few deserving scholars despite the millions that it earns every semester from its rich students strengthened my perception that the Roman Catholic Church that was supposed to serve the poor does not really care for the poor.

The Church rakes in billions of pesos in contributions from its faithful, many of whom belong to the poorest sector of the population, but one can count in one’s fingers its projects that would benefit the poor directly. Where does it bring its billions?

They have at least P18 billion in investments in some of the country’s biggest corporations, including the giant San Miguel Corporation, where eight of the top 100 stockholders are religious orders, aside from the billions more in real estate properties, and yet they still compete for meager funds of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) that, under the law, should be appropriated for the needs of the poor, such as hospitalization, ambulances, medical equipment, etc.

Such was the case with the recent expose by current PCSO officials that revealed that at least seven bishops were given a total of P6.9 million to purchase brand-new SUVs and vans during the term of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who has mastered the art of giving away government funds to gain loyalty.

One bishop, who was known to be very close to Arroyo, even asked the latter in a letter to give him a “brand new 4×4” as a birthday gift. He got a check for P1.7 million which he used to buy a brand-new Pajero, the preferred vehicle of traditional politicians. What a shame!

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) defended the “donations,” and maintained that their “conscience is clear.” Tell that to thousands of patients in dilapidated government hospitals, many of them forced to share a small cot or lie down on corridors while awaiting a hospital bed to be vacated. Tell that to residents of small barangays who have to bring their seriously ailing kin to distant government hospitals on board a tricycle for lack of ambulances. Tell that to relatives of poor patients in hospitals who have to go back and forth to the PCSO every day to get their meager medical assistance. Tell that to the poor family living under the bridge that can’t even get a cent from the PCSO to buy a decent meal.

How can their conscience be clear when the bishops violated their own Statement on Gambling issued in 2005 that said: “…the CBCP has made it a collective policy:.. to refrain from soliciting or receiving funds from illegal and legal gambling so as not to promote a culture of gambling; and to encourage church personnel and church institutions to refrain from doing the same, even when the objective may be that of helping the poor”?

Why can’t the Roman Catholic Church, which is awash with billions in cash, get a few millions from its funds and buy these bishops the SUVs and vans if they think they really need them to “serve the spiritual needs of the poor”? Why can the Church spend hundreds of millions of dollars to settle sexual abuse cases, and not have a few million pesos to buy these bishops the “needed” vehicles? Why is it that each time they need to build a church, they have to ask for donations from their parishioners and not get from their billions stashed in banks and various investments to do so? Why is it that each time they need to help typhoon victims, they have to ask for donations from the parishioners?

Where does the Church bring the millions collected from parishes all over the country every Sunday? Where do the religious orders bring the millions collected in tuition fees in their exclusive schools? Where do they bring the millions earned from their stocks in some of the country’s largest corporations?

Faced with these questions, I can’t understand where the bishops were coming from when they said their “conscience is clear” when confronted with the PCSO scandal. And my thoughts bring me back to those Recoletos fathers in that huge mansion in my youth.

By Val G. Abelgas




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