ONE of the most shameful, and most hypocritical, things about the Catholic Church in the Philippines, is this: That even as it keeps preaching to its flock to help the poor, the actual work it has done for this duty has really been marginal, if one considers its wealth estimated at least at P100 billion*, and the hundreds of millions of pesos it collects every Sunday in its churches, from its expensive schools catering for the elite, and from donations from the rich, especially from those at the twilight of their lives who think that with this they are buying their visas for Heaven.
Why doesn’t the Church use even a small part of its vast wealth to feed the poor, with real food, and not just silly pious words?
A program to feed the poor isn’t complicated, and the Church has the infrastructure to do it: its parish churches, ubiquitous even in the poorest urban slum communities as well as its schools, both spread all over the archipelago. With its money and with the free labor it always manages to get (who cleans the priests’ toilets anyway?), it can set up what’s called soup kitchens, maybe in our case lugaw centers, free for anybody who cares for it, at least every of its Sabbath day but ideally – and “doable” with its wealth – every single day of the year.
Here’s my computation for this endeavor, which doesn’t even have to consume its assets, but only interest from these. A low 5 percent annual income on its P100 billion assets, will generate P5 billion every year. Divide that by the 365 days in a year and it will mean P14 million it can spend every day for soup kitchens. How many poor Filipinos (allowed to eat there only once a day) will that P14 million feed? At just P15 per lugaw, that would mean 1 million Filipinos fed every single day.
Taste of heaven
These are of course illustrative computations. The point is if the Church puts its money where its preaching mouth is, it can play a huge role in making life for miserable Filipinos in the here and now better, and they won’t have to wait for the afterlife to have a taste of heaven.
The problem with our clerics is that nearly all of them haven’t experienced in their entire lives the pangs of real hunger. Believe me, it’s terrible beyond imagination. A bowl of lugaw given to a poor Filipino who hasn’t eaten in three days is heaven on earth.
I presume, dear Catholic Reader, that you have been going to Mass very Sunday ever since you had to accompany your parents. Even with beggars usually lining up the path to your church (which cleverly estimates that a devotee would feel charitable on the way to God’s house), have you ever seen your parish church opening a soup kitchen for the poor?
The Ateneo de Manila where I studied is probably one of the richest universities in Asia, with a vast campus on now prime land. In all the years I spent there, and after, I never heard of this Jesuit-run institution operating soup kitchens, even during the worst floods that hit the metropolis, even when in 2013 typhoon Ondoy flooded its neighboring villages in Marikina. Yet it has built in the past 10 years new buildings, even a new athletic center, worth P1 billion. Yet the Jesuits continue to mouth its slogan, that the Atenean “is a man for others.” Oh well, it really means a man for others who are rich.
You’d be surprised that there are religions for which it is an integral part of the worship of the Deity to feed whoever needs to be fed. The Sikh religion (with 20 million believers, familiarly, Indians wearing turbans) famously has its doctrine and practice of langar in their places of worship (called Gurdwara) where free meals are served to anyone who wishes for one when the Gurdwara is open. The religion’s founder, its Guru Nanak (169-1539), made it an integral part of the practice of Sikhism.
Nanak’s successor, Guru Angad, even institutionalized the practice, setting the rules and training method for volunteers who operated the kitchen, placing emphasis on treating it as a place of rest and refuge, being always polite and hospitable to all visitors.
Several sects of Buddhism also provide free meals once a week. I discovered this only when I chanced to visit a Korean Buddhist temple in Silang, Cavite, on my way to Tagaytay for a vacation. I was surprised that the bald-headed nun there invited us to come back to taste their vegetarian cuisine on Sundays at their well-appointed canteen which she said was open to anybody who wishes to eat there on that day. Eat all you can, though everything’s vegetarian food.
Setting up soup kitchens on Sundays has also been a practice of many Catholic and Protestant churches in the US. The biggest are those of the Catholic Charities USA, which routinely operates such soup kitchens in the poorest urban areas in that country that feed 4,000 people.
It is a matter of justice, not charity, for the parishes of the Catholic Church in the Philippines to have lugaw centers to feed the poor. It’s sitting on a P100 billion fortune, accumulated from the Spanish colonial period, of which it was a pillar.
Considering that much of the Church’s assets came from the land grants during the Spanish conquest and later from the donations of the Philippine oligarchy (or stocks in oligarchs’ enterprises), its wealth in the final analysis was extracted from the blood and sweat of millions of Filipino peasants and workers for 12 generations. Why, did you think these were the result of wealth-generating companies the churchmen set up and run, or gifts directly given by God?
Jesus fed 5,000
According to the Church’s New Testament, Jesus went out of his way and defied the laws of physics and biology (which His Father decreed) to magically multiply seven loaves of bread and two fishes in order to feed a crowd of 5,000 people who had come to hear him speak. The Catholic Church doesn’t need such magical powers, but only a clever financial officer to outdo the Messiah himself and feed not just 5,000 people but a million hungry Filipinos.
Even as it unceasingly rants against governments, and pleads for the poor, I haven’t heard of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, the very wealthy Opus Dei, the noisy Lingayen Archbishop Socrates Villegas, or the De La Salle University serve free lugaw to the poor, have you? Or do they think God will take care of the poor, anyway?
*P100 billion is an estimate based on about P40 billion in stocks held by its dioceses in blue-chip companies, the biggest of which is the Bank of the Philippine Islands; the value of the now prime lands and facilities of their top-rung universities (Ateneo, La Salle, UST, Letran, etc); and the estates all over the archipelago that the Church has accumulated over four centuries. A broker estimated to me for instance that its vast estates in Tagaytay City alone, on which had been built retreat and summer mansions, are worth at least P10 billion. This puts the Catholic Church among the richest enterprises in the country.
The Catholic Church in the Philippines, both diocesan and religious congregational, must be transparent and make public its finances. This is not unprecedented. In 2015 the Archdiocese of Cologne for the first time published its financial accounts, which showed that its assets as of end-2013 amounted to €3.35 billion (P206 billion). That’s a bit bigger than the assets of the Vatican, which Cardinal George Pell, the Holy See’s secretary for the economy, revealed in February 2015 as totaling €3 billion.
That label for it as the “Church of the Poor” ranks among the biggest lies of our era.