17th ISA Forum on Spirituality of Communion

The Institute of Spirituality in Asia (ISA) has been invited by Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro City to organize an ecumenical initiative  to examine common grounds for faith traditions in the Philippines.

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He was responding to an invitation by ISA Executive Director Fr. Rico Ponce, O.Carm. Ph.D. to attend the 17th Spirituality Forum of ISA.

Held August 2-4, 2017 at the Mother Anne de Tilly Hall, St. Paul University, Quezon City, the forum marked 500 years of the Protestant Reformation with the theme “Spirituality of Communion.”  Five speakers from various churches discussed this theme.

On Day 1 the morning speaker was Most Rev. Ephraim S. Fajutagana, D.D., Obispo Maximo (Supreme Bishop) XII of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI, founded by Fr. Gregorio Aglipay  as a reaction to the abuses by Spanish colonizers and clergy).

Born of the struggle of the 1896 Revolution for political independence, the IFI was founded on August 3, 1902 by workers, peasants, teachers and intellectuals who were convinced of the need of  solidarity for God and country (Pro Deo et Patria, the motto of the IFI). Some 115 years later, IFI members have become rooted in a spirituality that serves God and his people in the struggle for total development, for which some members, priests and bishops  have been filled or jailed. 

In the afternoon, Bishop Fajutagana was followed by Bishop Henry Paul Roa, President of the South Luzon District of the Lutheran Church in the Philippines and pastor in Marikina.

Bishop Roa recalled how Fr. Martin Luther had asked, “How can I be saved?” and found the answer in the Bible, “By grace alone and not as a reward for being a good  Christian.”

Luther espoused the doctrine of justification of the sinner before God because of the merits of the death of Jesus Christ – a view that led to the animosity of the Reformation.

The Lutheran Church believes in justification and in God’s full acceptance of the sinner in the name of Jesus Christ, but practices communion with other faiths in the search for the common good despite doctrinal differences.  

On the second day of the forum, the speakers were Most Rev. Pablo Virgilio S. David, Bishop of Kalookan and newly-elected vice-president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), and Bishop Ciriaco Q. Francisco of the United Methodist Church UMC) Manila Episcopal Area.

According to Bishop David, the spirituality of communion of the Catholic Church focuses  on the unity of humanity. he quoted St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians about unity of spirit (One Body, One Spirit), and of Christ in man and man in Christ. Christ used parables, similes and humor to convey the message of unity, which become possible by the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Catholic spirituality is focused on the unity of the Church but the Second Vatican Council has already abandoned the use of excommunication against dissenters.

As for the Wesleyan faith tradition, Bishop Ciriaco Francisco traced the journey of John Wesley who was driven out of his district and then decided to make  the entire world his church. His followers became known as Methodists because they were indeed perceived as methodical. 

Methodists practice a communion for solidarity for justice and peace. They believe in union with the Triune God and in communion in Christ.  Like the Catholics, they say the Lord’s Prayer and the Nicene Creed.

In the morning of the third and last day of the forum, Rev. Irma M. Balaba spoke on the experiences and perspectives of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP), a member of the National Council of Churches (NCCP), where she is Program Assistant on Ecumenical Relations.

Often breaking out in songs, Church hymns and her own compositions, Rev. Balaba recounted UCCP’s advocacy for indigenous peoples’ rights, shelter and housing and a number of other political causes. In this way UCCP practices what can be called vigilant spirituality. 

Reflections on the forum theme as well as on the talks came from the members of the International Academic Advisory Board (IAAB) of ISA.

Prof. Alfredo Co, Ph.D. , the foremost Sinologist of the Philippines, reviewed the points raised by the talks and the open forum, and said that 2017 is a special time to think of the meaning of the Protestant Reformation and of how human frailty drives man to conflicts over religion.

“Reconstruction and unity is the true message of the spirituality of communion only if human beings understand sin and frailty. The Church is said to be a hospital of sinners needing to be cured in that it provides the cure, which is the spirituality of communion.”

Fr. Daniel Franklin Pilario, CM, Ph.D., professor and dean of the St. Vincent School of Theology, spoke on “Communion and Power” where power blocks communion. He cited  the  examples of Catholics converting other religions, non-Christians or pagans, and of Spain coming to the Philippines in 1521 and converting the people, and of having the power to determine the agenda for outsiders and insiders.

Citing reflexivity (in the social sciences, turning to one’s self), Fr. Pilario pointed out, “The  challenge to us Christians is to account for the social consequences of our actions. The word `scruple’ means a pebble in one’s shoe which makes it impossible  to stand. Reflexivity is the pebble in our shoe which makes us question every step. Let us be scrupulous  with power.”

Sr. Maria Anicia B. Co, RVM, Ph.D., president of the Catholic Biblical Association of the Philippines and a scholar on Scripture and the New Testament, spoke on “Language, Meaning and Expressions of Communion.”

She discussed the many meanings of koimonia (communion) such as Holy Communion to us Catholics; communion in mission for Anglicans; believers sharing words, worship and gifts of God for the Lutherans, the holy love of God and the Triune God for the Methodists; God and country for the IFI; and for the UCCP, a united front for proclaiming God.

Since the speakers had acknowledged  splits and counter-splits in their Churches, Sr. Co sees communion as a goal and challenge for purification of the senses, healing of wounds, social transformation, social justice and social holiness. When sustained by strength, Churches can reach communion with all in humble acceptance of limitations and with trust in God, she added.

Sr. Anne Marie Bos, O.Carm, Ph.D., who is based at the Titus Brandsma Institute in the Netherlands and who has specialized in research on sacred images, offered three reflections, including what to her is an example of how communion just happens in times of suffering:  Blessed Titus Brandsma being jailed because of his resistance to the Nazis in the Netherlands.

Writing his Prior and his community about praying the  breviary and meditating while by walking the three meters of his cell back and forth, Blessed Titus said prophetically, “I commemorate the people who will commemorate me.” 

While saying the Communion Sanctus, Blessed Titus felt supported by this invisible community. He showed such faith in those times of terror that he impressed a number of Protestant ministers he had met so much that they testified for his beatification.

Communion, Sr. Bos stated, can take place even in tents and elsewhere as long as there are openings for living our minds with God.

For his part Fr. Eliseo Mercado, Jr., OMI, Ph.D. showed photographs on the theme “Celebrating the Gift of Luther and the Reformation”, including one of Pope Francis embracing the Archbishop of Sweden who, it turns out, is a woman.

 “Today we need a new Pentecost,” said Fr. Mercado who has studied Theology and Missiology at the Gregorian University in Rome as well as Islamic Studies at the University of Cairo.

Fr. Mercado was also asked to speak on “Islamic Extremism” in view of the May 23, 2017 attack on Marawi City in Mindanao (southern Philippines) by the Maute Group which was inspired by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to establish a caliphate in the Philippines.

He said, “The Maute brothers belong to a prominent family in Lanao del Norte and went to Dansalan College and then to Jordan for Islamic studies. They are the leaders of Dawla (state) Islamiyah They are like Osama Bin Laden of 9/11who was an engineer and who studied at El Mohandist and like his successor – a medical doctor who went to a secular school. They make a political ideology as well (dinn – religion, siasi – state).”

Fr. Mercado also defined jihad, which is commonly known as a holy war: “Jihad with a big letter means society; jihad with a small letter means `defend your religion’ but now the small has become big. We also have to know the politics of oil, for which the superpowers are in the power play of the Middle East.”      

Fr. Mercado’s talk moved one of the 150 participants of the spirituality forum to ask at the open forum after the IAAB, “I miss the Muslims and the Indigenous Peoples in this conference.”

The open forum after each speaker featured an innovation suggested by Dr. Co on asking the participants to share their ideas on the topic before and after the actual talk.

Fr. Pilario noted that this new format showed how little, in general, some knew about the Protestants that they asked the speakers, “Do you  also venerate the Blessed Mother? Is it true you confess directly to God? Why do you have married priests? And women priests? Oh, you also pray  the Creed, and you have saints and Communion.” 

 “We can go further on Archbishop Ledesma’s proposal if we are not afraid to work together,” said the participant who had missed the Muslims and the Indigenous Peoples at the forum.

For his part Fr. Albertus  Herwanta, O. Carm., a member of the Board of Trustees of ISA and the president of Widya Karya Catholic University in Malang, Indonesia,  urged separating spirituality from religion “if we really want to talk of spirituality.”

“This is because spirituality is universal.  In my university, we have Muslim faculty members and we do not think where we come from when we sit together and talk.”

Fr. Johannes Masneno, SVD, Ph.D. a graduate of ISA who returned to the Philippines just for   the forum, said: “Thank you for the enlightenment which will inspire and lead us to work together.”

Other foreigners came from Sri Lanka, East Timor, Papua New Guinea and the Netherlands.

Fr. Perfecto Adeva, Jr., O. Carm, the director for Adminstration and Finance of ISA,  spoke about the commitment shown by a mother taking her child to an overnight rally in Mendiola and sitting-in to hold the grounds which she and other rallyists had gained.

“Solidarity is important. If she was that determined, how about me who has no child to protect?”

The 17th Spirituality Forum also featured live performances of activist songs by Danny Fabella on Day 1 and by the REDS on Day 2 (a group of four priests named Redemptorist Sining at Simbahan para sa Katarungan Panglipunan or Arts and the Church for Social Justice).  

The forum also launched three books from ISA’s Research and Publications Unit headed by Fr. Sheldon Tabile, O.Carm. These are From Elders to Children: Stories of Wisdom from the Cordillera, Philippines, a second co-publication with the Maryknoll Ecological Sanctuary in Baguio City after Indigenous Earth Wisdom: a documentation of the cosmologies of the indigenous peoples of Cordillera; Panagkutay: Anthropology & Theology Interfacing in Mindanao Uplands (The Lumad Homeland) by Bro. Karl M. Gaspar, CSsR, Ph.D. (his fifth book published by ISA); and Spirituality and Health,  the proceedings of the 16th Spirituality Forum on “Celebrating the Jubilee Year of Mercy in Spirituality and Health” (2016).      

For the third book, one of the authors was present: Sr. Ma. Corazon Manalo, DC, AFSC, the superintendent of the Education Ministry of the Daughters of Charity Schools in the Philippines, and the speaker for “Spirituality of Aging and Dying.”

There was also space for a book/audio and video fair-exhibit for ISA’s publications as well for  Claretian Publications, Jesuit Communications, Logos Books of the Society of  the Divine Word and new partner Rex Bookstore.

Frs. Marlon Lacal, Baltazar Ronato and Esmeraldo Reforeal served as Officers of the Day.

Fr. Artemio Jusayan, newly-elected Prior Provincial, closed the 17th Spirituality Forum with words of thanks to the staff, secretariat, donors and supporters of ISA.#  


Pinky Choudhury