Monday, November 03, 2008

Peacemaking through Healing the Past and Building the Future*

I. Mindanao Context

Since the Spanish colonial period, Mindanao has been a theatre of intermittent conflicts between Muslim and Christian communities. In 1996, a peace agreement was signed between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). However, another militant group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) continued the armed struggle for self-determination.

After more than three years of negotiations, a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) was about to be signed by both panels representing the MILF and the Philippine Government in Kuala Lumpur on August 5, 2008. However, the Supreme Court issued a Temporary Restraining Order one day before the signing. This was due to the widespread outcry raised against the proposed MOA-AD whose contents were made public only a few days before the signing.

In the following weeks, in Central Mindanao, two MILF commanders instigated armed incursions against the civilian population. On Aug. 18, violence broke out in the town of Kolambugan and in some outlying barangays of Kauswagan in Lanao del Norte. Military operations in the Lanao provinces and in Central Mindanao have been carried out and are still ongoing. These are said to be limited to efforts to locate and neutralize the three commanders.

However, Christian communities and Muslim communities have been forced to evacuate from the areas of conflict. Relief operations have been undertaken by government agencies and non-government organizations. The Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro and Xavier University have sent several truckloads of relief goods to evacuation centers in Iligan, Linamon, Munai, and Marawi. In particular, volunteers of the archdiocese have accompanied the shipment of relief goods on Aug. 28 to the town of Munai, which is wholly Muslim. They have also sent goods to the Catholic bishop in Marawi for allocation to Muslim evacuees who prefer to stay with their relatives rather than in an evacuation center.

On Aug. 28 at Xavier University, a Forum on the proposed MOA-AD between the MILF and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines was held. The clarifications presented by two members of the government’s negotiating panel and a member of the MILF’s technical working group enabled the audience, composed mostly of academic and civil society groups, to have a more balanced view of the MOA-AD.

On Sept. 15, three women humanitarian workers were held hostage on Basilan island, purportedly by the Abu Sayyaf, an extremist rebel group. Up to the present, negotiations for the release of these humanitarian workers are still being conducted.

On Sept. 24, Catholic bishops came together in Davao to follow up earlier consultations with government representatives and other sectors of society. They agreed to reaffirm the common sentiment that the peace process in Mindanao should continue and even be strengthened vis-à-vis the outbursts of violence reported in a few areas. Specifically, government officials requested the religious leaders in Mindanao—including bishops and ulama—to take the lead in holding consultations with local communities with regard to their aspirations and recommendations for lasting peace on the island. In the meantime the Supreme Court ruled that certain provisions of the MOA-AD went against the Philippine Constitution. Earlier, the administration of President Gloria Arroyo had already stated that they would not pursue the signing of the memo with the MILF.

II. Promoting a Culture of Peace
It is in this light that we can examine six dimensions for building a culture of peace in Mindanao—i.e., for healing the past and building the future of present and coming generations of Mindanaoans.

Since the mid–90’s, culture of peace seminars have been conducted by peace centers in various parts of Mindanao. Much attention has been given to the need for intercultural understanding and interfaith dialogue. In the course of these seminars, peace advocacy groups have identified six dimensions for building a culture of peace in Mindanao.

1. Personal and Family Integrity
“Peace of the heart,” notes Pope John Paul II, “is the heart of peace.” One cannot be a peacemaker if there is no peace in his heart. Likewise, building peace in every home is a first step in building peace for the community. “Integrity of mind and heart” is included in this year’s theme for the Mindanao Week of Peace—which starts on the last Thursday of November.

In several localities, activities during the observance of the Mindanao Week of Peace focus on promoting a Culture of Life vis-à-vis an incipient “culture of death.” Drug awareness and a campaign against corruption are two examples of how personal integrity and the fullness of life are intertwined. To attain these, values formation and the living out of one’s spirituality are seen as constituting a major operative value.

2. Promotion of Human Right and Democracy
The language of the modern world is increasingly articulated in terms of human rights. The Holy Fathers have praised the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights as “a common standard of morality.” Increasingly too, modern nations have evolved their political systems towards the principles and goals of democratic rule—e.g., in terms of electoral contests; freedom of association and participation, etc. Over-all, the operative value of justice pervades the efforts of individuals as well as of civil society organizations in countering any violations of human rights.

In particular the rights of minority communities like those of indigenous people are to be respected. The articulation of new rights and operationalizing these through legislation has been pointed out. Some of these newly-accepted rights include: the rights of the unborn fetus in the mother’s womb; the right of minorities to their own culture; and the right of communities to a healthful environment. The prophet Isaiah points out that the work of justice is peace (Opus justitiae pax.) Pope John Paul II adds another dimension: that the fruit of solidarity is peace (Opus solidaritatis pax.)

3. Poverty Eradication
Extreme poverty can drive people to carry arms. At the outbreak of violence in Lanao del Norte two months ago, a group of indigenous people combatants surrendered their firearms to the military. Their story was that they had been enticed to join the rebel group by the offer of a monthly salary that was much higher than what they would usually be able to earn. Indeed, unemployment especially among the restless youth provides a ripe condition for rebellion or criminal acts like kidnapping for ransom. Government statistics reveal that the Muslim- dominated provinces such as Jolo, Basilan, and Lanao del Sur rank among the ten poorest provinces in terms of provision of basic services such as health, housing and education.

But there have been success stories too of rebel-returnees who have been given productive employment and turned away from the resort of bearing arms. Economic development generally needs to accompany peacemaking efforts. There will be no peace without development—but, in a cyclical manner, there can be no development either without peace.

4. Intercultural Understanding and Solidarity
In Mindanao, religious leaders have formed a Bishops-Ulama Conference. Over the past twelve years, Catholic and Protestant bishops have been meeting in dialogue with their Muslim counterparts, the ulama, to promote intercultural understanding. Both groups declare that their religions are religions of peace. During outbreaks of violence, including the recent ones, bishops and ulama have issued joint statements condemning the destruction and stressing that the peace process should continue. These messages of solidarity have helped restore the peace. They also convey the important point that Mindanao is not engaged in a religious war.

As an operative value, the resort to dialogue instead of arms has been stressed in interfaith gatherings. These dialogue efforts have also been tried in local circles that include pastors, priests, and imams.

5. Disarmament and Cessation of Hostilities
Calls for a ceasefire and a return to the negotiating table during outbreaks of violence are oftentimes spearheaded by religious leaders of both sides. Local monitoring teams which include religious leaders have also been formed in various places to keep the peace.

Local communities have been encouraged to establish “zones of peace,” keeping away armed groups to assert the people’s right to peace. The call for firearms control is also part of these peacekeeping efforts.

6. Environment Protection
Christians and Muslims as well as indigenous people communities have joined advocacy groups against logging and mining. Protection of watershed areas that affect both upland and lowland communities has been pushed. Much still needs to be done—e.g., in cleaning up polluted rivers and safeguarding the living conditions of communities near factories and processing plants.

Stewardship as an operative value is stressed to underline the need for corporate social responsibility. Waste management practices, particularly in congested urban neighborhoods, have been introduced by local government units and non-government organizations.

In many ways, environmental conservation is a common concern among all cultural communities. A case in point are the ongoing efforts to protect the watershed area of Lake Lanao. The lake itself provides a natural habitat for the livelihood of hundreds of Muslim household living along the lakeshore. Moreover, the waters from the lake provide the source of hydroelectric power that is distributed throughout the island of Mindanao.

III. Towards a Threefold Culture

Several observers of the international scene have made dire predictions that a clash of religions and civilizations may be inevitable in our modern world. In Mindanao, for instance, Muslim–dominated and Christian–dominated areas experience occasional outbreaks of violence due to religious or cultural differences.

In this light, the six dimensions for a culture of peace provide constructive areas for healing the past by building the future together. We can summarize these dimensions by means of a threefold Culture of life, of Human Rights, and of Peace. These are all based on the core value of Human Dignity of all human beings—regardless of religion, race, nationality, or social class. Respect for the integrity of human life is translated into promotion of human rights. These in turn are the prerequisites for a just and lasting peace.

The religious traditions of our various faith communities subscribe to the values of this threefold culture. These values in one sense represent what is best in each religious tradition. In another sense, they transcend the boundaries of particular religious beliefs to build a stronger and better world for all.

+ANTONIO J. LEDESMA,S.J.

(* Commission V presentation at the 7th General Assembly of the Asian Conference of Religions for Peace, 17-21 October 2008, Manila.)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Religions for Peace In Asia and the World

“The longing for peace and well-being is the
central message of all religions;
it is the essential good that all men and woman
must strive for peace across the
Asia-Pacific region and the world....”


THIS was part of the Declaration of the Seventh Assembly of the Asian Conference of Religions for Peace (ACRP) held in Manila on October 17-21, 2008. The ACRP gathering was the largest inter-religious event in the Philippines since the start of this millennium. Over 400 delegates from 20 countries came for the opening ceremonies at the Pontifical University of Santo Tomas. They represented the principal religions of Asia—Buddhist, Baha’i, Christian, Confucian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Islam, Shinto, Sikh, Tao, Zoroastrian and others. The Seventh ACRP Assembly was co-hosted, by the ACRP-Philippines chapter and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, with the generous assistance of many Focolare friends.

Founded in 1974, ACRP now also known as Religions for Peace Asia, held its first Assembly in 1976 in Singapore. This was followed by Assemblies in New Delhi (1981), Seoul (1986), Katmandu (1991), Ayutthaya (1996), and Jogjakarta (2002). The member countries are Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, North and South Korea, Mongolia, Nepal, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Newly admitted were Iraq and Malaysia. Observers also came from Iran and Kyrgyzstan.

“Peacemaking in Asia” was the theme chosen for this assembly to highlight the role of religious communities in a world that has witnessed the rise of secularism on the one hand and religious extremism on the other hand. Terrorism with religious overtones, continuing militarization, and the threat of nuclear warfare among developing countries cast their shadows across the Asia-Pacific region. “Faith traditions betray their authentic messages,” continue the ACRP Declaration “if they do not commit themselves to making and building peace.”

Before the main conference at the Manila Hotel, a pre-Assembly Women’s Conference was held at UST attended by 70 participants from 11 countries representing seven faith traditions. They stressed the distinctive role of women in nurturing life and forming families as the bases of peaceful societies. Oftentimes too, women and children are victims of hunger, poverty, and war.
“Women are the bearers of human life,” stated Ms. Midori Sanada of Japan “Just as we give birth to boys and girls and foster them to grow,” she continued, “let us foster a peaceful world in which all human lives are respected.”

Also preceding the assembly was the Asian Religious Youth leaders Summit in Mindanao. This was held in Davao. This was attended by 90 young people from 16 countries representing nine faith traditions including that of the indigenous people. The delegates listened to local spokespersons like Archbishop Fernando Capalla and Datu Michael Mastura explain the current situation in Mindanao. They appealed in their final statement for the resumption of peace talks in Mindanao and the setting up of a multi-religious platform to unite the various youth organizations working for peace and development on the island.

After the opening speeches and reports, the ACRP main Assembly broke up into five commissions to examine peacemaking in Asia under various perspectives:
(1) Shared security and conflict transformation. Peacemaking in Asia can be realized through joint sharing of security concerns and through measures that transform the causes of conflict into developmental goals. The situation of refugees and internally displaced persons in particular calls for the sharing of security measures at the regional and global levels.
(2) Human rights and responsibilities and peace education. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Peacemaking in Asia is premised on the recognition of these human rights as well as the collective human obligations and responsibilities associated with these rights. In particular, the obligations to protect life and property, minority groups, women and children, and other vulnerable groups rest with governments and all social groups. In this regard, Archbishop Felix Anthony Machado, former undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, reiterated the Second Vatican Council’s recognition of religious freedom which he describes as “a condition for peace in a pluri-religious society.”
(3) Common values and community building. Building community can only be sustained by articulating common values that cut across religious traditions. Starting with the Golden Rule, which is found in practically all religious teachings, the Global Ethic framework developed by theologian Hans Kǜng and associates was discussed as a viable means towards forming global citizenship.
(4) Sustainable development and social justice. Care for the earth, economic activities within the framework of morality, and the fight against corruption are interrelated concerns that have an impact on sustainable development. Religious groups have a counter-cultural and prophetic role to play in pointing out the ethical imperative of social justice for political and business leaders.
(5) Healing the past and building the future. Peacemaking in Asia involves healing of the past through mutual forgiveness and reconciliation. In the context of the current Mindanao conflict, building the future means promoting a culture of peace in its six dimensions—personal and family integrity, promotion of human rights and democracy, poverty eradication, intercultural understanding and solidarity, disarmament and cessation of hostilities, and environmental protection. Six operative values are also needed: spirituality, justice, compassion, dialogue, active non-violence, and stewardship.

The ACRP Assembly ended with recommendations coming from the four commissions. Among these are: the need for centers of dialogue, formation of local interfaith bodies; the immediate banning of cluster bombs and the abolition of all nuclear weapons by 2020; and education towards a global ethic.

Newly elected chair of the ACRP Women’s Committee was Dr. Lilian Sison, UST Graduate School Dean. Dr. Sunggon Kim of Korea was re-elected as ACRP Secretary General, while the post of ACRP Moderator went to Dr. Din Syamsuddin of Indonesia.

Archbishop Antonio J. Ledesma, S.J.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Climbing the Lord’s Mountain

LAST week I was in Cambodia as part of the Philippine delegation to the “Phnom Penh Dialogue 2008 on Interfaith Cooperation for Peace and Harmony.” Along with some government officials, we were religious leaders representing several faith traditions—two Protestant bishops, a Muslim scholar from the Ulama League of the Philippines, a Muslim woman officer of the provincial government of Sulu, and myself as a Catholic archbishop. We were all there to share our experiences on interreligious dialogue for peace and development in Mindanao and other parts of the country.
This was part of a larger effort started four years ago to engage the 15 countries in the Southeast Asia–Pacific region in interfaith dialogue and cooperation. The convening countries of Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand have by now each hosted a conference–the first in Jogjakarta in 2004, followed by Cebu in 2006, Waitangi in 2007, and the most recent one, with the support of Australia, in Phnom Penh.
The cultural and historical setting of Cambodia for this fourth dialogue-conference was to me a highly significant choice. For perhaps nowhere else in this part of the world can we find such stark contrast between the lowest depths and the sublimest heights that the human spirit can reach.

Genocide Museum
While in Phnom Penh, a number of us, delegates, had a chance to visit the Genocide Museum, named Tuol Sleng, which was the most secretive prison of the Khmer Rouge regime during its reign of terror in 1975-78. This was located ironically in the downtown area of the city. The prison compound was the original site of a high school. Its four three-story buildings with their classrooms were converted into a high-security detention and interrogation center, complete with barbed wire fencing and torture chambers. The classrooms were partitioned into individual cells or dormitories where detainees were chained and isolated for two to four months before being executed.
From accounts of a few survivors, everything was taken away from the prisoners. They were stripped to their underwear and slept directly on the cement floors without any mat, blanket or mosquito net. There was little food, less water, and no medicine. Among the ten regulations posted on each cell were instructions like:
“Do not try to hide the facts by making pretexts of this or that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me.” “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.” “Do nothing. Sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet.”
A distinctive feature of Tuol Sleng prison was its documentation office which photographed all prisoners and kept detailed biographies of each one from childhood to the date of arrest. It is these ID photos that have now been enlarged and displayed on the walls – blank faces of men and women, including some children, who for the most part were innocent of any crime except for their protests against the excesses of an abusive regime. Interviews and confessions of some of the prison staff, with pictures of their family background, only reinforce the horror of how the spiral of evil can reach down to the humblest of rural households.
At any time, the prison held from 1,200 to 1,500 prisoners. During the three years of its existence, records indicate that there were about 10,500 prisoners, not including another 2,000 children, who were killed in the same place. The numbers themselves are but a microcosm of the estimated one to two million Cambodians—a fourth of the population—who lost their lives under the harsh conditions of the Pol Pot regime. The Khmer Rouge cadres targeted the educated and bourgeois class and “anyone with eyeglasses.” They forced all city residents, young and elderly, to go out and work in the countryside. This was the case of an ideologically-blinded regime that wanted to turn the clock back to an idyllic past where everyone was treated equally—but without human rights nor the freedom of the human spirit.

Symbols of religious faith
In contrast, this idyllic past and the achievements of the human spirit were perhaps best enshrined in the northwestern region of Cambodia. Instead of a third day of conference proceedings, all the delegates traveled to Siem Reap, 300 kilometers away from Phnom Penh. Upon arrival, we visited and walked through the largest outdoor religious monument in the world—Angkor Wat and its surrounding complex of temples constructed from the 9th to the 13th centuries. Built by a successive line of Hindu and Buddhist kings over five centuries, Angkor Wat and the nearby temples of Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom represented sacred space and the symbolisms of religious faith.
With its awe-inspiring landscape, Angkor Wat itself is a microcosm of the Hindu universe. Its surrounding moat and outer walls lead inwards onto three levels of concentric galleries and towers. The towers represent the mountain ranges that surround Mount Meru, the mythical home of the gods. The pilgrim’s upward climb over the massive laterite and sandstone blocks and brick walls is virtually an ascent to the sacred mountain.
In all, Angkor Wat with its intricately-carved figures of gods, warrior-kings, apsaras, and Buddha statues evokes an atmosphere of contemplative prayer, detachment from worldly pursuits, and longing of the human spirit for the divine. These are perhaps best portrayed in the four faces of the Buddha pointed towards the cardinal directions of the compass, and carved repeatedly on the towers of the nearby Bayon temple. These represent the human-divine qualities of Charity, Compassion, Sympathy, and Equanimity.

Multifaith dialogue and cooperation
In many ways, these are the same qualities that our interfaith dialogue hoped to evoke for the Asia-Pacific region. For our troubled world today, the final statement of the Phnom Penh Dialogue stressed the urgency of multifaith dialogue and cooperation, peace as a sacred priority, increased participation of women and youth, and interfaith cooperation addressing community concerns in our region—such as poverty, human rights, and environmental issues.
For the political prisoners of the Khmer Rouge, Tuol Sleng literally meant a “poisonous mound.” But for the builders of Angkor Wat, the temple-mountain represented man’s ascent to God. And for all of us today, pilgrims in interfaith dialogue for peace and harmony, the same invitation to climb the Lord’s mountain is perhaps best echoed in the prophet Isaiah’s summons:
“In days to come,
The mountain of the Lord’s house
Shall be established as the highest mountain
And raised above the hills.

“Many peoples shall come and say:
‘Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain,
That he may instruct us in his ways,
And we may walk in his paths.’

“He shall judge between the nations,
And impose terms on many peoples.
They shall beat their swords into plowshares
And their spears into pruning hooks;
One nation shall not raise the sword against another,
Nor shall they train for war again.”
(Isaiah 2:2-4)

Archbishop Antonio J. Ledesma, SJ

Thursday, January 17, 2008

FRAMEWORK FOR THE SECOND NATIONAL RURAL CONGRESS

“The over-riding social concern of the Church in the Philippines has been all these years centered on the inequitable distribution of the nation’s wealth and the endemic social injustices that underpin that evil.”

In its pastoral statement on “The Dignity of the Rural Poor – A Gospel Concern,” (28 January 2007), the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines summed up our social situation. It then issued a call to hold a second National Rural Congress to commemorate the first one convened forty years ago in 1967. It noted that “the greater number of our poor are in the rural areas” and that urban poverty is a consequence of rural poverty.

The pastoral statement also provides a framework on how the process of the rural congress should be carried out.

1) Social Teaching of the Church

First, it expresses “the hope that we would be able to educate ourselves more intensively in what the social teaching of the Church is all about.” The recently-published Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church enables us to examine more closely the moral principles that should guide us in our quest for a just and prosperous society. In this light, the CBCP statement urges that we “focus our attention on the greatest victim of our unjust economic order, the rural poor, and the diminishment of their dignity as people and as citizens.”

2) Constitutionality

This phrase, “as people and as citizens,” connotes the second guideline in the NRC framework – to review the social justice provisions of the Philippine Constitution. Article XIII, in particular, enunciates the spirit of social legislation that should give “the highest priority” to measures that: protect and enhance the right of all people to human dignity; reduce social, economic, and political inequality; remove cultural inequalities; and diffuse wealth and political power for the common good.

The CBCP pastoral statement notes that “the one big effort of the government at alleviating rural poverty has been its ongoing comprehensive agrarian reform program.” Despite deficiencies in the drafting of the law by a landlord-dominated Congress, government must see to it that social justice programs like CARP should be reviewed and improved through consultations, and properly implemented towards its completion. This is for the common good of small farmers and landless workers.

This review also extends to other social justice measures affecting small fishermen, indigenous people communities, rural women, etc. Environmental issues as consequences of irresponsible mining and logging, as well as of climate change, have also become major concerns today.

3) Non-violent and democratic means

A third guideline for the NRC process mentioned in the CBCP statement is engagement with government and the various sectors of society through non-violent and genuinely democratic means – by first listening to the rural poor themselves; by decrying “the shameful ‘extra-judicial’ killings of unarmed crusaders for justice and equality”; and by calling on government to act. “The responsibility to act,” further notes the CBCP statement, “is just as much ours as those who have the official responsibility.” Demands for good governance, transparency and accountability are thus essential factors in this call for social transformation.

“Today we see only too clearly,” the CBCP statement concludes, “the need for the reform not only of our national institutions but of our very moral fiber as a people.” Thus, through the social teaching of the Church, through the social justice provisions of the Philippine Constitution, and through our active, non-violent engagement with government, we are confident and hopeful that this second National Rural Congress can indeed provide the renewed steps towards the social transformation of Philippine rural society today.


NRC II Central Committee and Secretariats
17 January 2008

Friday, January 04, 2008

To Friends of the Archdiocese

DURING the holiday season in Cagayan de Oro, I celebrated the Midnight Masses for Christmas and New Year at the St. Augustine Cathedral which was filled to standing room capacity. These have indeed been moments of thanksgiving, recalling blessings of the past year and a half. In early December, I officiated at three ordination Masses for six new priests in their home areas—two in Mambajao, Camiguin; three at the Cathedral; and the last one in Alubijid. Last year, we also had five ordinandi—two in Claveria, and three at the Cathedral Thus the archdiocese has been blessed with eleven new priests since I was installed as archbishop on 30 May 2006.

After a year of monthly meetings and consultations with the clergy, we have now operationalized a standardization scheme for the living allowances and social security of all diocesan priests. This took effect in June 2007 at the same time that we had a general re-shuffling of pastoral assignments for our 57 parishes and chaplaincies and two seminaries. Of our 114 diocesan priests, 9 are in seminary formation, 4 are in graduate studies, 14 are in overseas parish assignments, while another 5 are working in other Philippine dioceses. One of these is “on loan” assisting my previous Prelature of Ipil.

Judging from initial feedbacks from both young and older clergy, the provision of social security for everyone has been much appreciated since this covers their hospitalization and retirement benefits. Indeed, over the past 18 months, two priests are undergoing treatment for cancer symptoms, four have had fairly serious road accidents, while several others have sought treatment for various ailments of the heart or the lungs. We are also taking care of three priests in their retirement years in our House of Ars.

As part of our health maintenance efforts, we have set up in the Bishop’s House a physical fitness gym (near the kitchen) with some instruments for stationary walking or cycling, as well as for weight-lifting. At the rear of the house, we have also cemented an area as a badminton court, which is being patronized too by sisters and lay co-workers.

Along with standardization, we have started to organize our various ministries under two general headings. The ad intra ministries, intended for Catholics, are coordinated by a Commission on Faith and Evangelization. These include the ministries of BEC Formation, Catechetics, Family and Life, Youth, Liturgy, Bible, Vocations Promotion, Mission Awareness, Hospital Care, Inter-Religious Dialogue, and Bio-Ethics.

The ad extra ministries, directed to any one in need regardless of religious affiliation, are coordinated by a Commission on Social Action. These include the ministries on Good Governance, Sustainable Agriculture, Ecology, Indigenous People, Enterprise Development, Disaster Management, and Social Communications. Moreover, the commission includes services for particular sectors, such as women victims of abuse, neglected children, the elderly, the mentally sick, prisoners, migrants, and the deaf. Two other commissions have been set up to attend to Temporalities and Clergy Formation. We have also started to organize an association of our parish-based secondary and kindergarten schools.

With the dissemination of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the archdiocese has set up an ACCESS office (i.e., Archdiocesan Center of Concern, Empowerment, and Social Services). The office has started regular “conversations” with NGOs, academe, and other civil society groups to work together on common issues such as poll-watching, good governance, and environmental concerns over small-scale mining activities in the upstream areas of Cagayan de Oro and Iponan rivers.

Since August 2006, we have introduced in nine pilot parishes a Responsible Parenthood and All-Natural Family Planning program. We include all scientifically-based NFP methods today for couples to have added options for an informed and responsible choice. The responses from trained providers and couple-users of NFP have been heartening and the program has now been opened to all parishes. Despite skepticism from some quarters, we have always maintained that the program is for responsible parenthood (not population control) and for NFP all the way (without any mixing of contraceptives). The results can speak for themselves, and we invite interested observers to visit our pilot sites.

As a member of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, I joined the World Congress for Ecclesial Organizations Working for Justice and Peace, held in Rome in November 2007. The congress commemorated the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s social encyclical, Populorum Progressio (The Development of Peoples). For us in the Philippines, the year also marked the 40th anniversary of the National Rural Congress called by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.

In this light, CBCP has called for a Second National Rural Congress, starting with diocesan and sub-regional consultations until the first quarter of this year. NRC II will culminate with a national assembly by mid-2008. I have been asked to chair the central committee in charge of these preparations. On a localized note, this year 2008 also marks the 75th anniversary of the creation of Cagayan de Oro as a diocese.

It is with all these in mind that, on behalf of the clergy, religious and lay faithful, I extend to you the greetings and gratitude of the archdiocese for your prayers and continuing support. May the spirit of Christmas—of Light, Love, and Life—remain with you throughout the coming years.