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COLM MEANEY : Mountainy Faith

I look at the 25 or 30 people gathered in the chapel in the hills to have their children baptized: all mountainy folk, working the soil, producing children and rearing families, trying to make ends meet with no regular income; enjoying some relief, from the everyday realities of rocky ground and being on the lower rungs of the social ladder, through smoking native tobacco and drinking rum and tuba (fermented coconut juice).

They know how to make babies, they know all about farming and livestock, but about the Apostle’s creed they know zero. Most have barely graduated from elementary school and are functionally illiterate. Most have no interest in the worship of the local community, even though they are definitely “Catholic”. (Actually, I don’t blame them for their lack of interest in the weekly gathering in the chapel: for all the goodwill and generous service of the lay ministers, the Sunday worship is usually a messy melange of repetitive songs, stuttered, muttered readings and, worst of all, that debilitating and hope-sapping moralism which is so typical of Filipino Catholicism, and such a betrayal of the hope-instilling, fear-dispelling Good News).

Anyway, I look at those mountainy, soil-marked faces and I baptize their children (and grand-children & spouses) with wild abandon. And the reason for this is mainly because of the policies of the parishes in many parts of the Philippines, and the type of chapel-leader that such policies encourage. Briefly, those policies encourage a narrow, moralistic, Pharisee-type belief. Chapel and zone leaders are armed with various documents & criteria, the successful fulfilment of which guarantees one’s ticket to baptism: does the candidate attend weekly worship? Were his/her parents married in church? Did he/she get the “green light” from the local chapel leader? Could he/she recite from memory the creed?

All ingredients for disaster! The life-giving, hope-inspiring gifts of our gracious God were now being policed by legalistic hawks with no sense of flexibility, a limited sense of how difficult and complicated life can be, and no sense of humour. Such control and power I consider insufferable. It makes the following of Christ, which even in the gospels very few were able to achieve, into an obstacle course. And the obstacles are not, in fact, gospel based, but the agendas of various clerics.

Regarding baptism, my hunch is that most of those applying to have their child baptized, whether in the hills of Negros or the plains of Newbridge, haven’t really a clue about the sacrament, its origins or meaning. Nor are they at all familiar with church teaching or creeds; and the seven sacraments or the seven deadly sins are as familiar to them as the seven astral deities of the ancient Babylonian pantheon.  What they do have is an inchoate, vague but real, sense that it is important that the child be baptized, become a Christian or “be saved”. You can almost sense their relief when they see the water trickling down the baby’s neck or see the oil smeared on the head – and this relief is felt all the more in places where they had been previously made to fulfil so many requirements (and not being able to pass the test, no baptisms ensued). 

What exactly is the connection or relation between the “requirements” and the sacrament? What earthly good does it do for a farmer in the hills of the rural Philippines (or wherever) to tax his memory so as to memorize the creed as a prerequisite for baptism or marriage? Illiterate, he struggles to commit to memory words he cannot read, let alone understand. And all for what purpose? To satisfy the canonical scruples of a cleric who expends more time and energy concocting lists of obstacles than in getting to know and understand the lived reality of his parishioners. 

I think at the back of such priests’ minds is the expectation that the candidate for baptism or marriage should be the possessor of something called “faith”, and that this should be visible or concretized in practices like church attendance, awareness and cognizance of church teaching, and the like: all entirely unrealistic! I mean, what is meant by “faith”? In the gospels, Jesus tells the petitioner to “have faith” – implicitly in him: the centurion who wanted his servant healed, or the disciples in the boat who wanted the storm to be calmed. What they needed, according to the Lord, was a conviction that Jesus could indeed accomplish the deed: it was a felt belief, and its result was the performing of the miracle (healing, stilling of the storm, and so on). But this is all very different from asking a functionally illiterate Filipino farmer to memorize a series of phrases (the Apostles’ Creed) that he certainly does not understand – far too cerebral, far too propositional. And even if he did memorize the Creed, in order to fulfill the requirements for baptism, what would that prove? Simply that he had a functioning memory  – but it would tell us absolutely nothing about his “faith”.

As far as I can tell, most of those who present themselves to me for baptism (themselves or their children) haven’t the slightest interest in returning to the chapel again, and know as much about the gospels, creeds or church teaching as I know about nuclear physics.

What they do have is a kind of gut-sense that their children be baptized and that, at the other end of the scale, they themselves should be accorded a Christian burial. And in between these two occasions, the dealings they will have with holy mother church will be very few indeed, if at all. And, as I read things, they are entirely satisfied with this arrangement. It’s scrupulous, canonically-overdosed clerics who provide the problems. Do you really think Farmer Frank is worried if one of the sponsors at his child’s baptism is non-Catholic? Well of course he’s not. He’d be hard-pressed to specify the difference between a Catholic, a Methodist or a Born-again neighbour – mainly because all such neighbours lead basically the same kind of life as himself.

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