250 - january 2003

Brothers in Communion with the Poor

 

Bro. Karl M. GasparCSsR

 

A paper presented at the

National Convention of Religious Brothers of the Philippines

University of St. La SalleBacolod City

October 18 to 202002

 

 

[In this conference Br. Karl Gaspar presents Oblate Brother Mauricio ZUYCO as an example of a religious brother who is close to the poor and sure of his identity. The author’s considerations may contribute to our own ongoing reflection on the vocation of the Brothers. – Sub-titles added by the editor.]

 

I

t is very significant that we gather as Brothers here in Bacolod City in time for the Masskara Festival. [“Mass” means people and “kara” face. A festival where revelers don elaborate masks and costumes and dance to Latin rhythms Mardi Gras style.] It provides a symbol useful in probing and celebrating the identity of the Brothers. Bacolod City isof coursethe gateway to the island of Negros.

 

When we hear the name NegrosI am sure various images appear in our minds whether or not this is the first time we visit this island. There is the image of the "social volcano" popularized by the former Bishop of the Diocese of Bacolod Bishop Antonio Fortich. For anthropologists and historiansthere is the image of Papa Isiaothe legendary revolutionary hero whose sacred space in Mt. Kanlaon is akin to Hermano Pule's Mt. Banahaw.

 

There is also the enduring image of the contrast between the rich landlords and the oppressed sacadasthe migratory agricultural workers from Antique whose lives have been chronicled in dramatic documentaries such as the explosive book of Fr. Junie Jesena S.J. entitled The Sacadas of Negros which appeared in the early 70's.

 

As Bro. Armin mentioned […]there is also the image of that boy whose emaciated face appeared on the cover of Asiaweekrevealing the massive extent of hunger and malnutrition here in Negrosduring los tiempos muertosthe last years of the autumn of the dictatorship of Marcos when the price of sugar collapsed. I remember that period vividly because 1985 was the year I did my postulancy among the sacadas in La Granjajust outside Bacolod in a sugar cane plantation owned by one of Marcos' cronies.

 

Given these imagesI find it most appropriate to share some thoughts and reflections on the topic that was assigned to menamely“Brothers in Communion with the Poor.” If there is oneplace in the country where poverty in its stark reality can face you squarely in the eyeit is here in Negros. If there is one spot in the entire archipelago where a Brother can truly be in communion with the poor it is here in Negros – the land of contrasts and contradictions. The leitmotif of the mask – as embodied in the theatre's iconic symbol of the masks of joy and sorrow – is  a fitting symbol of this island. 

 

The mission in Kulaman

Howeverallow me not to talk about the poor of Negros but of another place – in KulamanSultan Kudarat – where I am now based as part of the Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Team (RIMT).  In the process of familiarizing you with this settingI will tell the story of a Brotherwhose life in communion with the poor reveals a Brother's identity that we should imitate and celebrate.

 

Kulaman is a plateau located in the Cotabato Cordillera that traverses MaguindanaoSultan Kudarat and South Cotabato. It is part of the homelandthe ancestral domain of the Dulangan Manoboa people indigenous to this area. In the adjacent areas are the homelands of the Teduraythe T'boli and the Magulndanaon Muslims.

 

It has been renamed as the municipality of Senator Ninoy Aquinoalthough most people – Manobo and settlers – still refer to it as Kulaman. Until the late 1950's Kulaman's population was composed solely of the Manobos. From the late 1950's until the 1960'sIlocanos and Pangasinenses migrated from the coastal areas of Lebak and Kalamansig to this plateaudreaming the Mindanawon dream of acquiring a piece of land to till.

 

In the 1970's when the logging companies penetrated this areathe second wave of migrants settled in this plateaunamelythe IlonggosKaray-as and Capizeños. In the 1990sIt was the turn of the Cebuanos coming from other parts of Mindanao including Davao and Zamboanga.

 

Today Kulaman has a population of roughly 40000 with only 8000 Manobos. They have been displaced from their homeland as the forests have vanished. Today in the midst of dazzling landscapes and awe-inspiring scenerythat is some of the most beautiful on this side of Mindanaopoverty is the lot of the majority of the peopleboth Manobos and settlers.

 

A Brother came to Kulaman

It was in the mid-1980s that a Brother came to Kulaman and his lifework and witness as a religious Brother constitute the stuff of  legends. He continues to be beloved by the people of Kulaman long after he left the place in the late 1990s. His story is already woven into the oral history of this plateau and everyone – both Manobo and settler – remember him fondly. 

 

Everyone knew he was a Brother and they called him by that name. That name could easily be KUYA for those coming from LuzonMANONG or MANOY for the Bisaya and KAKAY for the Manobo. He was everywhere around the parish; he walked all of its roads and trails to reach out to the peopleespecially the poor. In the decade that he was assigned to this placehis heart was always aflame with the desire to be in communion with the poor and he did everything he could to be at their service.

 

When I first arrived in Kulaman in June 2001I immediately found out that he was a legend in this place. When I introduced myself as a Brother; they didn't ask anymore what was the difference between a priest and a Brotherwhether I was proceeding on to the priesthood or not and all those questions that at times can be irritating. […] In such a rare settingI met a people who understood the vocation of a religious Brother.

 

Bro. “Mau”

Indeedthanks to Br. Mauricio (or Mau) ZUYCOOMI the identity of a Brother is quite clear in Kulaman. And we are privileged to have Bro. Mau with us here today at this assembly.

 

Bro. Mau is from this islandspecifically KawayanNegros Occidental. He was born here on February 81938. When he was nine years old this parents migrated to Marbel now known as Koronadal City. When he was twenty years oldhe joined the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. His first profession was in 1960 and his final profession in 1967.

 

Before coming to Kulaman in the mid-1980's he worked in the Notre Dame school of Marbelthe Notre Dame Press and among the Teduray in Upi. He assisted in setting up the Notre Dame schools of TubuanFantilMandalayKabug-kabug Blala and Upi-Nuro. He even did work as assistant Vocation Director.

 

Bro. Mau in Kulaman

But it was in Kulaman that Bro. Mau reached his full potential and in the process carved out an identity of a religious Brother that is first and foremost rooted in the Gospel's call to be in communion with the poor. Along with his OMI confrereshe responded to the urgent needs of the Manobo through adult literacycommunity-based and agricultural development projects as well as assisting them in defending their ancestral domain from the encroachment of land-hungry migrants and logging companies.

 

Howeverhe was also very much concerned with the welfare of the migrant settlers. At a time when the government was quite slow in responding to the educational needs of the childrenBro. Mau brought together concerned citizens andtogetherthey put up the Notre Dame school of Kulaman in 1986.

 

Both the poverty situation and the massive deforestation pushed him to become engaged in ecological projects. He urged the people to plant fruit trees like jackfruit durianrambutanpomelo and avocadoand trees to bring back the forests like narralauanbagrass and eucalyptus. This became a passion as he himself planted hundreds of trees. Today the once barren hill on which the church was built is an oasis of trees which have produced seeds that became seedlings that became trees to protect the watershed.

 

By the time Bro. Mau wrapped up his decade-long ministry among the poor Manobos and settlersas well as defending Mother Nature thereKulaman was no longer the same place as when he arrived there in 1985. Before he moved on to a new assignment in the island of Bato-batopart of the Sulu islands that the Oblates servethis time to administer to the TausogSama D'laut and Christian settlershe had served the people of Kulaman well. And their grateful hearts always remember so that whenever Bro. Mau comes to Kulaman for a rare visitthere is a spontaneous fiesta to honor him. Years from now when all of us will have disappeared from the face of this earthI would not be surprised if the people would canonize him as San Mauricio de Kulaman.

 

The story of Bro. Mau is instructive for the theme of our convention. Through his life and witnessBro. Mau has probed into as well as celebrated his identity as a Brother. Having personally seen the fruits of the unfolding of this identityI am very much convinced that this is the same identity that would help all of us promotenurture and deepen our vocation as Religious Brothers. During this post-modern era when the question of identity has become a central issue for individualscommunitiesgroups and even peopleswe as Brothers would benefit from appropriating an identity forged in the actual commitment made by Brothers like Bro. Mau among and in communion with the poor.

 

A diversity of ministries and services

Today there are many Bro. Maus in our midst here in the Philippines. There are other Brothers working among the lumad (native peoples) – the Marist Brothers in Palawan and South Cotabatothe Claretian Brothers in Basilan and Ipilthe Franciscan Brothers in Zamboanga del Sur. There are Brothers working with street children and youth in trouble with the lawlike the Brothers who set up and run the Kuya Center in Quezon City which might leadin the words of Bro. Dennisto the founding of the Kuya Brotherswith Chad as the first novice.

 

There are also Brothers working with the sick and training health workers like the Alexians the Sons of Mary and the Hospitallar Brothers. There are Brothers attached to formal school systems responding to the need to train poor students to acquire agriculturalvocational and technical skills in order to assist them in combating poverty. The extension programs of our schools run by Brothers have become bridges to a brighter future for the poor communities we serve like the one Bro. Vince is administering here in Bacolod.

 

There are many many more on the listand thank Godthe list is increasing. We are not wanting in models and actual concrete experiences of Brothers who have shown a deep capacity to be in communion with the poor. Since even before Vatican II until todaythere have been Brothers who have shown us the way to follow in Jesus' footsteps. As they actually took the journeys towards fulfilling their missionthey consequently forged an identity that was clear in the eyes of the very same people that Jesus himself served in his own lifetime.

 

Roots of the Brother’s identity

Today in the midst of globalizationthat Bishop Chito Tagle has morally defined as rootless (walang ugat)ruthless (walang awa) and futureless (walang kinabukasan)and in view of the many exhortations of Church documentsfrom Acts and Decrees of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II)to Vita Consecratawethe Religious Brothers in the Philippines are called to reclaim and re-appropriate an identity which at its heart is rooted in the Gospel challenge to serve the least of our brothers and sistersthe poor and oppressed in our midstJesus' anawim in today's world.

 

In this regardit is important for us to anchor our visions as Brothers in both our time-space context and in our faith-vocation context.

 

There is only one space on which we can ground our visionsnamelythe space occupied by the very source of light we seek. John reminds us who occupies this space. "All things came to be through himand without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was lifeand this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darknessand the darkness has not overcome it." (John 1: 3-5).

 

Our visions can embody this light because our very own identity is rooted in Jesusthe source of lightas our brother. We are Brothers because Jesus is our brother – Jesus is our “Kuya”“Manong”“Manoy”“Kakay”. This is a cultural context that is potentially a rich mine for theologizing on the Brother's identity. (For this reason we hope more superiors will send Brothers to study theology so that we need not rely on clerics to theologize about our vocation). As Jesus exhorts everyone to be brother and sister to one anotherwe follow Him and do as He commands. As Jesus is brother to allwetoocan be Brothers to everyoneespecially the most abandoned. […]

 

Vita Consecrata states that Brothers take part in the "mission of proclaiming the gospel and bearing witness to it with charity in the everyday life" (No. 60)In our every day lifeJesus is the farmer in the fieldsthe laborer in the marketplacethe slum-dwellerthe street-children.

 

With our brother Jesus as modelwe have the audacity to evolve visions that can be a source of light for others. As we relate to Jesus our brotherwe also link ourselvesin solidaritywith our brothers and sisters in need. In the words of Bro. Joel Giallanza CSC: "Through our relationship to the Lordwe demonstrate the possibility of living the example of Jesus in today's world... (characterized by) selflessness... and service to others... To do what brothers do is a clear expression of the importancenecessityand urgency of Jesus' example for today."1

 

Promoting peace and unity – Relationships

One concrete response to the challenge of becoming more grounded in our communion with the poor involves internalizing a vision to establish relationships with people that demonstrate the possibility of living in peace and unity. Giallanza has these words to offer: "The rich diversity represented in social politicalreligiouscultural and ethnic differences is too often used as a basis for creating divisions among people. And as the barriers supporting those divisions become strongermutual destruction appears more effective and efficient than cooperative dialogue. Conflictviolencewar then become the usual ways of dealing with differences in life. To do what brothers do means making every effort to show that the differences among people are graces and blessings to be celebratednot burdens and bothers to be shunned.”2 In this regardwe can pick up on what Bro. Armin said yesterdayreferring to the challenge for us to denounce George Bush's proposed war on Iraq as was suggested by the esteemed Inquirer columnist  Conrado de Quiros.

 

Bro. David Werthmann CSsR adds to this reflection: "Religious life has always existed as a prophetic response to society's needs at a particular time. Today's world is full of broken relationships: physicalemotional and sexual abuse; political strife and war. Certainly among the greatest needs in contemporary society is the witness of people coming together in communityliving a shared faithsupporting one another's personal growth and well-beingworking side by side in relative peace and harmonygrowing close to each other...and to the Lord."3

 

True fraternity

Closer to home and situating himself within the reality of AsiaBro. Armin Luistro FSC posits: "The scandals of division even in multi-racial and multi-cultural Asia bring to the fore the prophetic witness values of a community lived in authentic brotherhood. Almost all forms of violence in the region are hatched and perpetuated by a male-dominated military or pseudo-military organization which corrupts the true meaning of fraternity. Societal and Church structures are too hierarchical and tend to emphasize power more than servicework more than relationshipsaccomplishments more than personhood. It is easy for Religious brothers to fall into this same trap."4

 

In concrete terms this vision calls on Brothers to be engaged in the various movements that help to bring forth harmony among various groups whose differences have led to conflicts. In our country and the neighboring countriesthis includes conflicts between people of various races and ethnic groupsreligions and faith traditionsclasses and cultures. Male chauvinism and patriarchal structures that have oppressed women have also led to gender tensions and conflicts. If we are Brothers imbued with this visionwe must engage in movements for inter-faith and inter-ethnic dialogue and gender sensitivity! Such engagements do not necessarily involve high-profile interventions that demand much financial and technical resources. Some of the best inter-faith dialogue initiatives today are done in terms of the ministry of presenceof being immersed among the ordinary folks and doing ordinary things together in everyday life.

 

Being an elder brother

This vision can also be linked to our prevailing culture where an older brother is called “Kuya” or “Manong”. In many Asian culturesthe eldest brother occupies a very important role. In the absence of parentsit is the eldest brother whom the parents commission to look after the younger ones. Long after the younger brothers and sisters have families of their ownthe “Kuya” still monitors their well-beingmaking sure that they are never lacking of their basic needs. In Pauline termsthe religious brother is "the firstborn among many brothers." (Rom 8:29). In the words of Vita Consecrata: "The religious are called to be brothers of Christdeeply united with him...; brothers to one another in mutual love and working together in the Church in the same service of what is good; brothers to everyone in their witness to Christ’s love for allespecially the lowliestthe neediest; brothers for a greater brotherhood in the Church" (No. 60).

 

Solidarity with the most abandoned

Once morethis vision is concretized wherever the Brothers are able to express this solidarity with the most abandonedwho are also the most marginalized. In some instances this could involve responding directly to those who are hungry by offering hot soupto the sick by treating their illnessto the prisoners by visiting them in jailto those without homes by offering shelter. But other Brothers might respond to the structural causes of the  impoverishment of the poor by involving themselves in justicepeace and the integrity of creation. Whether their involvement has short or long-term impactthe Brothers show compassion by serving the poor.

 

Not a non-cleric

There isindeeda need for us to project a positive and better-defined identity in terms of following Jesus in our vowed lives. Until todayBrothers grappled with an identity crisis manifested by the problem of identity projection. For such a long timewe and other people have defined our identity in negative terms: we are non-clericswe are un-ordainedwe are not seminarians or Cursillistas. In other wordswe make people understand who a Brother is by what he does. All these have consequently led to ambiguities as to who the Brothers really are. It has been referred to as "blessed ambiguity" which is also the title of a book that came out of a Brotherhood seminar sponsored by the Conference of Major Superiors of Men and the National Assembly of Religious Brothers and the Christian Brothers in the U.S. If one views this through the lens of a post-modern perspectivethe ambiguity is not necessarily one that we should be worried about.

 

A vowed person

There is an areahowever that we should not be ambiguous about in our vocation as Brother and it is linked to our identity as a religious. And ultimately that identity is in how we live our vows of povertycelibacy and obedience. Bro. Giallanza has these words to offer: "Brothers must live in such a way that they can make the Pauline recommendation‘Be imitators of meas I am of Christ’ (l Cor. 11:1) with confidence and integrity. If we believe that our God is incarnational then the example of our own lives must be the first of all our responses to the simple question‘What is a Brother?’ Againwe must ask ourselves about our willingness and ability to make that response."5

 

Conclusion

My contention is thaton the one hand the ambiguity disappears when we are located in the space where Jesus' act of redemption continues to unfold. On the other handour identity becomes crystal clear when we are able to appropriate the call of Jesus to follow him while witnessing to the Good News to the poorthe memory of our ancestors (including the founder of our congregation and its early members)the charism of the congregation as contextualized or inculturated in our own time and space.

 

As has been shown in the life of Bro. Mauthe crisis of identity becomes the least of a Brother's concernwhen living a joyful and meaningful life in the company of the poor who are able to glimpse the coming of God's reign in their lives.

 

As I end my talk I return to Kulaman. Fr. Raffy Tianero OMIafter doing his anthropological studies at Ateneo de Manilawrote a thesis on the Dulangan Manobos' central core value of the egfikadaet fedu. It literally means losing one's heart when confronted with a very tragic or sad eventas in the death of a dearly beloved. As one loses his hearthe cannot breath and it is only through milantek fedu or the return of the heart that one can breath again.

 

Appropriating this rich cultural value of our indigenous peoplewe Brothers can easily experience the egfikadaet feduwhen confronted with the painpoverty human suffering and oppression of the least of our brothers and sisters. However every time we are grounded in the Gospel and our identity as brothers it is inevitable that we experience the milantek fedu as we radically respond to be in communion with the poorthe sickthe weak and the lowly.

 

That wayonce againwe can find our hearts that God lost and discover God's breath in us.

 

Notes

 

1 Joel Giallanza CSC. Come Closer.. I am Your Brother: Being and Doing Brotherhood. Review for Religious585 (September-October 1999)p. 485.

 

2 Ibid.p. 485-6.

 

3 David Verthman  CSsR. Brothers in Clerical Institutes: A Hidden Gift. in Michael F. Meister FSC. ed. Blessed Ambiguity: Brothers in the Church. LandoverMarylandChristian Brothers Publications1993p. 86.

 

4 Armin LustroFSC. "The Religious Brothers Vocation as a Parable of Renewal for the Philippine Church" Religious Life for Asia13 (July-September 1999). p. 27-28

 

5 Giallanzaop. cit.p. 487.

 

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