Fr Leonard E. Dollentas
In his exhortation Ecclesia in Asia, John Paul II reminded us about our ecumenical commitments when he said that “the division among Christians is seen as a counter-witness to Jesus Christ by many in Asia who are searching for harmony and unity through their own religions and cultures. Therefore, the Catholic Church in Asia feels especially impelled to work for unity with other Christians, realizing that the search for full communion demands from everyone charity, discernment, courage and hope” (no 30).
While there is a significant development of ecumenical awareness within the Catholic Church, we are encouraged at the local level to initiate ecumenical actions that would promote friendship with other Christians and with those who profess other faith. In the Church’s engagement with the Preferential Option for the Poor, our practical contribution to the unity of Christians can be realized in praying together with them for unity, and in friendship through charity. In the light of this, a total of 506 boats were distributed to other Christians and non-Catholic recipients and they have been grateful.
Charity hastens unity with other Christians
In the Church’s works on ecumenism, Pope John XXIII’s words were very encouraging: “Let us look for what unites us and put aside what divides us.” As a priest it is my mission to hasten this challenge of unity with other Christians by means of charity, for one of the common grounds of unity is charity: “An important role of the priest is to bring together the entire community both in worship and in building the Church in the world. Being ‘a man of communion’ means that a priest must be ‘a man of mission and dialogue,’ working for unity, justice, and peace with other faiths, people of good will, and with those who are poor and vulnerable” (Pastores dabo vobis, nos 17, 18). The Boat for the Poor Program was an opportunity to promote mutual understanding, cooperation and even spiritual unity with those who profess other Christian faith.
Friendship and Dialogue with Muslims from the Grassroots
In the Philippines, in addition to the other Christians and the Catholic majority, around 5.6% are Muslims. They are mainly based in the southwest area of the country and concentrated on the islands of Mindanao, Sulu, and Palawan. They are also scattered in the other regions of the country, even in Metro Manila. Filipino Muslims are very nice people, except for some who are promoting terroristic ideologies. Church efforts to reach out to them in a dialogue is being facilitated through Sisilah Dialogue Movement, a movement initiated by the PIME Fathers.
Although our relationship with Muslims does not fall under “ecumenism” but within “Inter-religious Dialogue,” the Muslim recipients of the boat program were equally grateful for the help and the training they received. A total of 367 boats were distributed to them.
I recalled a visit to a small Muslim community who were recipients of the boat program. At that time, they were already marketing their products as they have completed the training for tinapa (smoked fish) making. I was talking with a group of elders in the community when an old Muslim lady, in her tattered abaya, approached us and handed me a small plastic bag containing some pieces of dried pusit (squid – a delicacy in the Philippines). With a sweet smile from her old face she greeted me and thanked me for the boats given to the community. I asked her: “Why still bother to give it to me when you can sell them and have some money.”
She replied: “Father even though we are poor we know how to remember to be thankful and we know also how to give. My grandson is one of the recipients of the boats and I am grateful to you.” The Muslim group also supported the wedding ceremonies of the Catholic recipients of the boat. They joined the celebration and donated chickens and goats for the communal reception. This friendship with other Christians and Muslims and which have emerged from the grassroots, hastens and contributes to the efforts of the Catholic Church on the progress of ecumenism and inter-interreligious dialogue. The gesture of charity has promoted significant mutual respect, tolerance and cooperation and above all better relationships among Catholic communities, other Christians and Muslims.
The “Love Boat Program” that started in December of 2013 came to its completion on May 2015. It has produced and distributed a total of 1,900 boats. It was an exhausting experience but spiritually meaningful for me as a priest.
Reflecting back on my own experience of spending almost more than a year with the boat program, I realize how deeply I have been enriched and gifted by the poor I have met and my friends who journeyed with me in the program. They have “gifted” and blessed me in an extraordinary way. I continued with my rural missions establishing sustainable projects of alleviations and empowerment programs in other areas of the Philippines, among them in Catanduanes with the abaca planters (abaca-species of banana native to the Philippines harvested for its fiber). I have sustained my program among the pupils of the remote and rural areas of Bikol in the southern part of Luzon, supporting them with school materials, slippers, bags and school shirts every school year.
May we never forget what Pope Francis told us about the poor: …“the poor are the privileged recipients of the Gospel,” and the fact that it is freely preached to them is a sign of the kingdom that Jesus came to establish. We have to state, without mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor. May we never abandon them. (Evangelium Vitae “The Gospel of Life,” no 48.)