25TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: OPPORTUNISTS FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD

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Last Friday, we saw the biggest planetary gathering for climate change. Millions of mostly young people flooded the streets around the world Friday to take part in the Global Climate Strike and pressure world leaders to confront the ecological crisis. According to 350.org, over 4 million people took part in the collective demonstrations worldwide. In Australia alone, an estimated 400,000 gathered last Friday.

Children carried placards that read “There Is No Planet B” and “Make The Earth Great Again,” a twist on President Donald Trump’s rallying cry of “Make America Great Again.” Many of the young demonstrators expressed extreme urgency for taking drastic action to mitigate the effects of climate change.  Taking no action now will endanger if not destroy the future of the next generation.  But not just immediate action, they demanded wise solutions in finding a way out of this mess that we humans had created. Indeed, this alarming situation can be transformed into a productive one.

In today’s gospel of the 25th Sunday in ordinary time, Jesus through a parable, called his disciples to be cunning in order to find way out of any mess they find themselves in and to prepare for their ultimate future–a future in eternity with God.

The parable is known as “The Unjust Steward” which has puzzled many readers of the parables of Jesus. A way out of the puzzle, however, is to understand the economic system which forms the background behind the parable.

The background of the parable is an economic practice in Jesus’ times where a manager enjoying considerable autonomy lets out items of his master’s property for a commission or interest which includes some proportion for himself. As far as the master is concerned there is nothing particularly dishonest in this; he gets his interest. If the manager gets a cut as well, so be it. In the story as told by Jesus, it would seem that what the manager does after receiving notice about his dismissal is to strip away the portion of the interest accruing to himself. He cancels his own cut because he reckons that it will be more advantageous when he is out of work – and too weak to dig and too ashamed to beg – to have the goodwill of people who may be able to help him, welcoming him into their homes. He “buys” their goodwill in this way and the master wryly praises him for what he has done. By incurring some immediate loss to secure long-term interest, he has acted “sensibly”. He has not clung to his wealth but used it to win goodwill that will serve him in the hour of need that is coming his way.

The master is not condoning his dishonesty but praising his ability to figure his way out of a mess that he had created. The steward showed an ability to accurately assess his situation and turn it to his advantage.

Being astute about wealth is a particular theme in the gospel of Luke. We need to be clever opportunists, by using wealth in the ways that Jesus elsewhere advocates the use of resources—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, lending but asking nothing in return. Luke sums this up with Jesus’ saying that the only really useful thing about accumulating wealth is to give it away so that it will store up “treasure in heaven” (12:33).  With so much more at stake (eternal life), the wealthy would be well advised to strip themselves of their wealth now in order to win friends among the poor. When the poor have their privileged places in the kingdom, these same poor will welcome these benefactors into “eternal dwellings”.

The opposite of the example of the dishonest but cunning steward is articulated by Amos in the First Reading (Amos 8:4-7). The prophet Amos attacks the hypocrisy of rich land-owners who observed the law against trade on the new moon but secretly longed for the feast to be over so that they could resume their defrauding of the poor. In any case, the law (Lev 19:9-10) enjoined them to leave the “sweepings of the wheat” for the poor to harvest.

What about us? How able are we to figure out the spiritual life and to work towards its goals? How can we make use of our failures, mistakes and sins to our advantage.

The readings today challenges us to put transitory affairs in proper perspective. Christians should handle the affairs of temporal life with an eye toward eternal life. In the everyday humdrum of life, we rarely think about the ultimate future. Life itself pressures us into shortsighted choices for living. Discipleship, on the other hand, calls us to live in such a way that our daily choices form patterns of behavior that move us toward God’s promise of life eternal.

Our challenging times today demands that we become cunning and resourceful. We need to think of the fate of our future generation. Our present lifestyle is no longer sustainable. Drastic actions needs to be done. We can find innovative solutions that can turn this critical situation to our advantage.

But more than temporal wisdom, we need Christian astuteness. We need to do something more lasting: to use of the wealth to build something more lasting – friendships. This is the blessing that the dishonest steward showed us. He uses the present wealth to invest on future relationships.

Jesus calls us to take advantage of the mess, faults and failures we have made out of our selves and the world toward a future that is beyond this world. This is particularly true about money, as Jesus concludes,

“And so I tell you this:
use money,
tainted as it is,
to win you friends,
and thus make sure that when it fails you,
they will welcome you into eternal dwellings”

Jesus calls us today to be opportunists for the Kingdom of God.

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The Shrine Economy

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Holy Mother of the Redeemer,
magnificent sign of hope,
we entreat you,
come to the aid of your people,
who long to rise again
St. John Paul II.[1]

The explosion of novena in 1948 not just attracted thousands of devotees; it also attracted business and trades people to Baclaran. The arrival of thousands of devotees and pilgrims in Baclaran in 1948 transformed this small village into a center of trade. The devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help powered the economy of Baclaran in the 20th century. Today, the whole economy of Baclaran revolves around the shrine. Manuel Victor Sapitula calls this economy a pilgrimage-based economy.[2] Devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help is the main driving force of this economy.

Up to the beginning of the war, Baclaran was a fishing village. In April 1940, the Chronicles mention of a conflict of the community with some fisher folk who parked their fishing boats on the missionaries’ property near the shores of Manila Bay:

We have had some trouble with the local fishing people who put their boats on our property, claiming that the strip of 33 meters depth inside the fence does not belong to us but to the government. The particular piece in question was given to the government some years ago, but at present efforts are being made to get back the title for such in exchange for a strip on the right side of our property for the new road.

This is the last reference regarding fishing activities along the bay, and subsequent years saw the disappearance of fisher folks and the eventual rise of vendors and business people in Baclaran. The novena explosion in 1948 transformed Baclaran from a fishing village to center of trade. As soon as the thousands of devotees flock to the shrine for the novena, street vendors followed suit. The first reference about vendors in the Chronicles is an entry dated 28 September 1949:

During the week past – a subdivision of Quiapo market has been growing up along Redemptorist [Road] in front of the gate. Someone has counted more than 30 stalls. Many people have expressed disgust at the nuisance – but nothing much can be done about it.

This was just one year and three months after the beginning of the Novena and there were only 30 vendors. The vendors were selling their wares on the main road leading to the shrine aptly called Redemptorist Road.

Before the war, a big part of Redemptorist road was given by the Redemptorist to the government in exchange for the property fronting the sea, which today is the property fronting Roxas Blvd. During that time, Roxas Blvd is where the seashore was. The Baclaran chronicles narrated this event in December 1940,

During December, the President, Manuel Quezon visited one day at the request of Mrs. Cuyugan to inspect the new road (Redemptorist Rd.). The result was that it was decided to make the road 20 meters wide instead of the previous plan which provided for a 50 meter wide Road. The latter would have brought the road almost to the Monastery wall. The property was supposed to be a swap for the land between the Monastery and the New Road being built along the sea wall, now known as Roxas Boulevard, but the agreement had not yet been drawn up.[3]

After the Redemptorist donated a big part of the shrine’s property for the widening of the Redemptorist Road, it became a National Road. It had four lanes for traffic and big sidewalks. With the explosion of the novena after the war, the vendors increasingly occupied Redemptorist road which limited the passage of vehicles. To make the situation worst, scrupulous people tried to make big money out of the situation and of the vendors. This is shown in an incident in 1955 when a group of vendors asked the Redemptorist community of the shrine to charge them for rent. The Chronicles in an entry dated 18 July 1955 explained the situation:

This morning a delegation of vendors came to see the Superior bringing with them a petition signed by 150 vendors. The petition: that we will accept rent from them! It appears that households on either side of the road have been charging vendors up to seventy pesos a Wednesday – payable in advance – for the right to put their stands on the road. As the households have no claim whatever on the road it was quite a profitable revenue – for them. The vendors finally rebelled. They acknowledge us as the true road-owners and ask us to from each vendor a rent of 1 ½ pesos a square metre. Offer accepted.

Today the street vendors are beyond count. They occupy most of Redemptorist Road on Wednesdays and Sundays. The influx of pilgrims in Baclaran not only invited street vendors but a whole system of  economic infrastructure, such as hotels, restaurants, banks, shopping centers, flea market, barber shops, beauty parlors, hospitals and many others. The shrine has stimulated economic transactions in a wide system of exchange. Vendors, traders, business owners and even Muslim merchants has turned Baclaran into a major trading center.

sampaguita_vendor3

While the novena generated this economy, this economy, in turn, contributed to the growth of the novena. Sapitula attributes one of the factors for the Perpetual Help devotions’ success is its recognition of material needs especially in post-World War II Philippines.[4] The emergence of the pilgrimage-based economy had significant impact on the character of the Perpetual Help Devotion itself. Sapitula explains that “[this] demonstrates in spatial terms the melding of the sacred and the material in devotional practice. This indicates a strong link between devotional activity and materiality which can allude to processes called religious commodification.[5] The various manifestations of ‘religious commodification’ are not unique to Baclaran but are found in various shrines and cuts across various religious traditions.[6]

The transformation of Baclaran into trading center also gave rise to spiritual trade where religious stalls sell all sorts of religious articles: statuettes, devotional pictures, candles, shrine water, various designs, sizes and colors of the rosary; various sizes of the baby or young Jesus, statue of some saints, and many others. Today, even Muslim vendors sell many religious articles and pious goods like novena booklets, rosaries and statutes.

Baclaran’s dry goods markets are known throughout the country as a bargain hunters’ haven. Their line of ready-to-wear (RTW) clothing are most sought and haggled for items. It is also has a number of flea markets (tiangges), selling everything from clothes and electronics to home decorations and traditional medicine, which occupied the westbound lane of Taft Avenue. Many of the devotees after praying the novena go shopping to these cheap shops and flea markets around the shrine. This is another reason why devotees go to Baclaran—to buy cheap goods.

vendors

Our Mother of Perpetual Help brought jobs and trade to the small and sleepy town and with it livelihood opportunities especially for the poor mainly through selling of all sorts of things like food, clothes, and electronics. The economic benefits of the devotion/shrine is enormous especially for the vendors and business people. Indeed, Our Mother of Perpetual Help is a gift to the economy of Baclaran and the Philippines.

The shrine herself is a big job creator.  The shrine employs many people. On any given day, almost 100 people work for the shrine from lay missionaries, social workers, secretary, accountant, janitors, security guards, candle suppliers, parking aide, cleaners, janitors, and many others. The shrine directly employs approximately 50 regular and extra staff and working students, and 4 Lay missionaries. Additionally, the shrine indirectly employs people through agencies. They include 9 workers in the public toilets, 30 security guards and 22 regular parking aides. The shrine also provides employment and business for candle makers and suppliers and religious goods suppliers.

The shrine has its own store which sells primarily devotional goods like icons, novena booklets, rosaries, medals, cross and many others. All the profit of the store goes to the box for the poor which fund many social services and programs of the shrine. The shrine also host the Sinirangan coffee shop in it’s Carillon bell tower. All the profit of the coffee shop goes to the farmers in Eastern Samar who were victims of supertyphoon Yolanda in 2013.

Baclaran shrine funded many social services and programs such as Sarnelli Center for Street Children, St. Gerard Family life Center, Redemptorist Skills and Livelihood Center, Medical-Dental Services, Crisis Intervention Center, St. John Neumann Migrant Center and Redemptorist Educational Assistance Program (REAP), feeding programs and other programs. The shrine funded not just the social services and program of the shrine but all the communities of the Redemptorist Vice-Province of Manila—Legaspi, Lipa, Laoag, and the formation of seminarians in its Cubao seminary.

The shrine has also responded to emergency and immediate relief of people who were victims of calamities whether natural or man-made. The devotees were very generous when the shrine tried to raise funds for people who suffered disasters like typhoon, flood, landslide, fire, and others. Through the generous donation of the devotees the shrine has funded immediate delivery of relief goods and longer-term rehabilitation projects for victims of calamities.

Let us not forget the voluntary job in the shrine. The Shrine is home to about 500 volunteers helping in various programs and services of the shrine.  Most of the volunteers offer freely their time and effort, first and foremost, out of their devotion to our Mother and their strong sense of service to others.  In spite of the big number of volunteers, the shrine still needs volunteers. The many programs and services of the shrine are run through the generous efforts of many volunteers. If you would try to monetize all these voluntary work all these years it would amount to a lot of money.

Indeed, the shrine is a major contributor to the economic life in Paranaque and for many people a job creator, not to mention that the shrine is one of the highest taxpayer in the city of Paranaque.

The burgeoning of trade in Baclaran, however, generated some negative social impact. In recent years, Baclaran has been at the forefront of the news because of the proliferations of crime, terrible traffic caused by the clogging of the roads by vendors, uncollected trash which kept piling by the day, the lingering distrust regarding transparency in the collection of fees by Barangay and City officials, the proliferation of pornographic and abortion-inducing merchandise, loud speakers and audio components which create so much noise pollution especially at night and the anarchy in the streets manifested in the never-ending vicious cycle of violence between MMDA and vendors resulting to several deaths and injuries. Unfortunately, the most affected by this social impact are the devotees of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.

We can only discuss two of the major side effects here—the problem of vendors and the underground economy.

The Problem of Vendors

The increasing number of vendors and its delinquent consequences has posed considerable problems for the shrine.  A major complaint about the vendors is that they obstruct the smooth entry of the devotees into the shrine.  There is no order among the vendors who just stand right in the path where people are walking. The vendors have also blocked the flow of traffic at the roads around the shrine. Robert Arista Martinez, a devotee, complains in January 9, 2018, “Too much vendor surrounding the area, can’t move my vehicle due to illegal vendor.”[7] The order and cleanliness has also worsened as uncollected trash kept piling by the day. The vendors continuously throw plastic and other trash on the ground which eventually clogs the drainage system.

vendors

The Redemptorist community has always worked in solidarity with other sectors of Baclaran for a permanent solution to the problem of small vendors. The shrine never opposed nor obstructed the deliverance of opportunities for livelihood for the vendors. The shrine has promoted the welfare of the vendors especially the poorest among them who have no other means of livelihood but selling. The shrine has always insisted in the past that it both serves the concerns of the devotees and the vendors. The Redemptorist Community believes that both the concerns of the devotees and the vendors can be responded to without trampling upon the rights and dignity of one over the other.  The shrine, however, has always emphasized that this should never jeopardize the interest of the thousands of devotees and the preservation of the spiritual heritage of Baclaran.

In solidarity with other sectors, the shrine has always sought peaceful resolution to the issue of vendors, albeit a solution that will not desecrate the past honor and dignity of Baclaran. Thus, the shrine has stood strongly against the continuous commercialization, anarchy and desecration of Baclaran.  It has strongly opposed, for example, the planned roofing and turning of Redemptorist Road into a street mall. Repeatedly, we came into clash with the city government regarding this issue. Turning the national road, which is beyond the commerce of man, into a street mall will only compromise the security, safety and access of the devotees to the shrine.

Underground Economy

Another negative repercussion of the pilgrimage based economy is the emergence of underground economy. Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Edgar L. Feige identifies four major underground economies as:[8]

  1. the illegal economy
  2. the unreported economy
  3. the unrecorded economy
  4. the informal economy

The “illegal economy” in the shrine consists of the criminal activities that takes advantage of the thousands of devotees especially the most vulnerable ones. Crime began as soon as novena began in 1948. In Oct 19th, 1949, the Baclaran chronicles reported the first record of arrest of pickpockets in the Church during the Novena. Sadly, this is more rampant today.

The influx of devotees into the shrine has also given rise to increasing incidents of prostitution, pickpockets, snatchers, syndicates like budol-budol, and even professional beggars. Many devotees have fallen victims to these bad elements.  One of the victims, Elvis Salazar Urbina, narrated in September 27, 2015 his bad experience:

[A] peaceful house of our lord but the people around you ..you can’t trust and the security is not meticulous in their safeguarding. A while ago, seafarers day, after mass at 6pm, I went with the crowd  in trying to get close to santo ñino. After I touched santo ñino, when I turned back I realized I was pickpocket together with the ATM card and five thousand pesos cash with receipt. Be aware guys, for the security please be alert especially on Sunday…[9]

Underneath the open and legal economy of Baclaran is an “unreported economy” which consists of income that should have been reported to the tax authority but was not reported. Everybody talks openly, for example, about millions of pesos changing hands in everyday transactions in Baclaran. This refers to unaccounted fees collected from the vendors, drivers and other business people by some persons in authority in exchange for protection. This creates the lingering mistrust regarding transparency in the collection of fees. Nobody knows how much money pass under-the-table and how much the extent of corruption is.

The “informal economy” includes street vendors selling highly discounted copies of films, music CDs, and computer software such as video games, sometimes even before the official release of the title. Many of these vendors are Muslims.

The shrine and its environs were also covertly taken advantage by unscrupulous individuals for immoral activities.  Outside the shrine, there are abortifacients being sold openly on the streets. Some notorious individuals have taken advantage of the large gathering of devotees in the compound of the shrine to do their flesh trade.

To address the underground economy, the community has constantly denounced all acts of corruption in Baclaran whether this is committed on the streets or in big government offices. The shrine has also kept reminding the devotees about the presence and activity of bad elements taking advantage especially of vulnerable devotees. The shrine has often told devotees in between novenas and masses to always keep an eye on their belongings and their loved ones. It has also formulated certain security policies which were announced to the devotees. Obviously, these policies will not prosper without the cooperation and vigilance of all.

The community has also hired more security personnel. The security personnel has increased their visibility inside and outside of the shrine. It has also installed more CCTV cameras in major areas of the shrine. The community has also asked the help of the police in preventing these crimes to occur.

Beyond the Economic Benefits

Despite the enormous benefit that the devotion has brought to the economy of Baclaran, the economic benefits are only byproducts and contingent upon the religious phenomenon. Take away the novena in Baclaran and it is highly unlikely that people will go to Baclaran just to buy goods.

The Baclaran phenomenon is more than just the material and economic benefits that vendors, business people, devotees and Redemptorists have received. The devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help is not just about jobs, travel abroad, passing the examination, healed from sickness. The devotion goes beyond the economic needs. The devotion satisfies a deeper hunger and thirst. Our Mother promises us not to take us from our trials but to assure us of the glory at the end through her son. Valera Michelle expressed it well,

[S]ometimes we need not … ask anything to our [M]other of [P]erpetual [H]elp for she already knew what our heart desires, all we need is just thank her on every visit we made to her shrine…thank you to all the priests and devotees who continue to spread God’s overflowing love and amazing grace!!! 🙂[10]

Joey Echano

(This article is an excerpt from the book Mary of Baclaran: Our Mother of Perpetual Help and Mission Today by Joey Echano, soon to be published)


 

[1] St. John Paul II, Prayer to Our Mother of Perpetual Help

[2] Manuel Victor Sapitula, Marian Piety and Modernity, 139.

[3] Maguire, To Give Missions Wherever They are Needed, 20.

[4] Sapitula, Marian Piety and Modernity, 145.

[5] Sapitula, Marian Piety and Modernity, 145.

[6] Sapitula, Marian Piety and Modernity, 145.

[7] https://www.facebook.com/pg/Our Mother of Perpetual Helpbaclaran/reviews/

[8] Edgar L. Feige, “Defining And Estimating Underground And Informal Economies: The New Institional Economics Approach,” Development and Comp Systems 0312003, EconWPA. <https://ideas.repec.org/p/wpa/wuwpdc/0312003.html&gt;

[9] https://www.facebook.com/Our Mother of Perpetual Helpbaclaran/inbox/?selected_item_id=646908125511183

[10] Valera Michelle, http://www.baclaranchurch.org/testimonials.html