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(Article published in the Apr 21,2003 issue of TODAY, Business Section)  

Those wishing to prevent, or at least delay until their next recollection, the thorns of daily life from chocking the good seed they heard from Easter Triduum talks, as well as those who wish to add a bit of sanctification to the mortification they endured when they hied off last week to the Baguios and Punta Fuegos of our blessed isles, would do well to get for themselves and their friends Bishop Luis Antonio “Chito” Tagle’s “It is the Lord!”

Bishop Chito Tagle grew up in Imus, Cavite, went to St. Andrew’s parochial school in Parañaque, and was already a major seminarian at San Jose Seminary when he entered Ateneo De Manila University where he got his AB in 1977 and his masters, with the highest honors at the Loyola School of Theology, in 1982.  After he was ordained a priest, his bishop appointed him rector of the Imus Seminary –Tahanan ng Mabuting Pastol – at Tagaytay.  Three years later, he went to the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. for his graduate studies which he finished in 1992.

In 1997 he was appointed one of the two representatives of the Churches in Asia to the 30-theologian member Holy See’s International Theological Commission.  He served as resource person to important meetings of his peers, such as the Federation of Asian Bishop’s Conferences and the Synod of Asian Bishops in Rome in 1998.  He was among those who prepared the materials from that synod that provided inputs to the Holy Father’s apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in Asia, in 1999.

He is a long-time professor of Systematic Theology at the Loyola School of Theology and has lectured practically at every major theological institute in the Philippines. He gives talks and retreats to every kind of audience, from school children to bishops, in the Philippines and in the United States.

He is presently bishop of Imus, Cavite, his first posting after his ordination to the episcopal office on December 12, 2001.

It is the Lord!” – a collection of 11, out of many, talks given by Bishop Tagle from June 26, 1992 to March 30, 2002—is the first offering of the Loyola School of Theology under its Landas Lectures series. The eleven pieces were not meant to form an integral whole; but while this results in visibly separable material, it makes the volume convenient reading.  Though grouped under three major headings, the lectures can be read and appreciated one at a time, in no particular order, when and as the spirit moves the reader.

The first part deals with some theological issues about God, Jesus Christ and the Spirit.  Chapter One is Bishop Tagle’s ite et docete to the graduating class of the Loyola School of Theology in 2002.  He develops his address from a quote of the Canadian Dominican Jacques Lison who maintained that “the essential concern of theology is to say `God’”. (It seems that after Vatican II, the Black Pope had instructed his Jesuits and their students to read all relevant material, even those from the Order of Preachers).  It is risky nowadays, Bishop Tagle observes, to say “God”, particularly in the face of what he names as “elite globalization”, an ideology that promotes growth without a heart and, in the process, results in forgetting neighbor and God, all in the name of profit and competition.  Drawing from his own experience as well as his readings, Bishop Tagle exhorts the graduates to continue saying “God” beyond the portals of the school, “with all the joys and pains and risks it involves…with all the praise and lament it invites…with all the silence that mystery creates and evokes” lest the world believe that God is superfluous.
I had the good fortune of listening to him when Bishop Tagle gave Chapter Two which was the first of his two reflections on the Holy Saturday of the Holy Week Triduum talks sponsored by the Loyola School of Theology in 2002.  For the first time (but not through the fault of my theology professors), I saw some meaning to the creedal phrase, “He descended to the dead” other than that Jesus had to do something to occupy his time between Good Friday and Easter.  Seeing last year’s talk in print this year diminished not a whit the freshness of the insight.

Explains Bishop Tagle: The place of the dead, in the mind of the Jew, is a place of complete isolation, one “where communion stops, where communion is disrupted—communion among the dead, but worst of all, communion with God”.   When the Son of God went to the place of the dead, i.e. Himself dying freely, He established communication with the dead and the dying that was not theretofore possible. Man is thus never again to be alone, even in death, for Jesus was and will be there with the dying holding their hand as they walk through its corridors. Death, its desolation and isolation, has thereby lost its sting.

Chapter Three is about the Asian face of Jesus. It was a surprise to me, and I suppose to my generation that had very little, if at all any, knowledge of the geography of Jesus’s time, to hear that, in Ecclesia in Asia, that Jesus was said to have been born in Asian soil.  That Jesus came from the same place is itself comforting, isn’t it. Do we not, when seeing a Filipino abroad, often ask, “taga saan, ka?”  But the Asian face of Jesus, Bishop Tagle, reminds us, goes beyond local affinity.  Together with the Holy Father, he takes Asia “not as a geographic space, but as a people with deep thirst and hunger and yearning for life.”  In this level of thought, Jesus is obviously “incarnated” today in this our own world, in the faces of the poor,  victimized in myriad Asian ways, from being in the wrong end of an oppressor’s gun to being at the most expendable slot in the production line.

Part Two deals with the Church. Chapter Four, Bishop Tagle’s address delivered at the General Convocation of the Loyola School of Theology on June 26, 1992, is an exposition of how, in Vatican II, the doctrine and practice of Episcopal collegiality are still a work-in-process.  He obviously knows whereof he speaks.  At the Catholic University of America, where he was under the tutelage of Father Joseph A. Komonchak, who according to Fr. Catalino Arevalo, S.J. is the most highly-regarded ecclesiologist in the North American theological community, the then bishop-to-be’s doctoral dissertation on the teaching of Pope Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council on Episcopal collegiality received high commendation.

Two gatherings of bishops were the subject of Chapter Five, which is about the Synod held from April 19 to May 14, 1998 of bishops from 22 episcopal conferences and Oriental Churches in Asia, and of Chapter Six, in turn, addressed to the Seventh Plenary Assembly  of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences held on January 4, 2002 in Thailand.  In both, Bishop Tagle shows how the Church is grappling with the issues of proclaiming the Word in Asia.

By far the most compelling discussion of Church issues, at least from my point of view at the last Church pew, is Chapter Seven, which asks “What have we become, ten years after the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines?”  (Does anybody remember what that was? Please tell me.)

Bishop Tagle himself gives the answer, not in an j’accuse but by way of a confiteor.: “We are still in the process of receiving and we must pray that we may have the courage to receive PCP II fully.  It would require a lot of dying to self.  Is the Church in the Philippines willing to die in order to receive the new life that is being offered?...We may be interpreting texts and we may be producing wonderful letters and decrees but, in terms of movement, we will still be inert if we are unwilling to die to self.”

Part III focuses on mission.  Certain elements of the theology of mission are examined in Chapter Eight which entitled “Transformed into an Apostle”, and Chapter Nine zeroes in on the Church’s mission toward minorities.  “Minority”  Bishop Tagle takes not in its numerical sense but qualitatively, i.e. as referring to those like the “Third World people” who live (whether in the North or in the South) in poverty imposed on the weak by those in power, the migrants who have been displaced from their homes due to ethnic conflicts, economic difficulties, international politics, and women.  With them, Bishop Tagle insists, the Church must identify itself, and seek to transform the “alienating otherness” of their being “minority” into a form of “blessed otherness” modeled after the Triune God.

The tenth chapter is Bishop Tagle’s exhortation to his fellow alumni at the Loyola School of Theology during their 2nd Homecoming held on November 21, 2001.  Using as starting point Loyola School of Theology’s own wandering from place to place for a period just two years short of Moses’ own at the desert, he asks the alumni, both as a body and individually, to themselves continually wander, acting as agents of hope and “beacons of fidelity to God in this ambiguous and uncertain world”, looking for change to bring closer the reign of God to everywhere and everyone.

The highest point of “It is the Lord!” is its last Chapter which deals with what, I might call, the First Chapter. Here Bishop Tagle reflects about Easter and examines how the resurrection of Jesus has created new histories in the lives of many people, radically transforming their lives, thereby confirming our faith that the Resurrection, though with not a single eye witness, did occur. We are all familiar with the Bible’s Easter appearances; to these Bishop Tagle adds the moving Easter experiences of ordinary people, like that of a mama san (a prostitute who turned to recruiting prostitutes when her own marketability declined on account of age) and of a young man whose sister had been raped during one of those exposure trips required by the training she was undergoing.  He then ends with the story of his own, of how he was told of his appointment as bishop.  No summary can do that story justice, it must be read first hand.

Each one of the chapters of “It is the Lord!” is, to borrow Bishop Tagle’s own description, a “great conversation”, with, without doubt, a disciple panting in excitement, telling us the news from Emmaus. The best way to receive the book’s message is to read it aloud. But since the exuberance imbedded in the text is infectious, the reader runs the risk of calling attention to himself. My advice to the timid is then to read it silently, but, forget what  teacher said about silent reading.  Go ahead, move your lips; the pages will move your heart.  And as the ear takes in one line after another, a scale or two will fall from the eye.