On the second day of the WordConPH, Fr. Jose Jonathan A. Bitoy, CMF delivered his talk on “The Word in Time of Pandemic”, wherein he invited participants to turn to the Word of God in this time of apocalypse, of pandemic.
Fr. Bitoy said that “the Philippines, as a country of predominantly religious people, has a faith response that is an inevitable response of people in times of trials and tribulations.”
Part of this response is reading God’s Word in order to find comfort, meaning and assurances that the difficulties people are experiencing today are temporary, and a better future awaits them. As the Word takes prominent stage in the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, this inspired Fr. Bitoy to explore and draw some insights into this faith response that has always accompanied the Christian Group since its conception.
From the beginning of Christianity, the Good News as proclaimed by Jesus was a source of strength for his disciples and followers. This was the same Good News that sustained the faith of early Christians amidst persecution, whose number continues to increase rather than diminish.
Moreover, the Apocalyptic Literature arose to give these persecuted Christians hope that the future in store for them is a glorious future. This is something different from their present predicament. God will triumph in the end and usher a new age, a new heaven and a new earth will come.
At present, as the world experiences the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Word provides the same comfort and assurances to us.
As a final word to participants, Fr. Bitoy invited them to look at the “Apocalyptic Literature, these pandemic and calamities, as messages of comfort.” They also show that God is in control. Amidst all these difficulties and challenges, the last word is always Hope.
For his reactions, Mr. Leo-Martin Angelo Ocampo, OP shared that the word that stuck to him from the talk of Fr. Bitoy was the word apocalypse. If we talk about the experiences of people today, it would be difficult to talk to someone who has lost a livelihood or even a loved one because of the coronavirus (Covid-19).
In spite of this pandemic, he sharedthat “the word of God is not a clause but compassion, not many sentences but sincerity, not a long paragraph but presence, not a sermon but sympathy.”
Mr. Ocampo also invited us to fix our gaze upon Jesus and allowed ourselves to be pulled by Jesus. He thanked Fr. Jonathan for encouraging the participants “to turn to the Word of God; to turn to the Word Himself as the early Christian communities did in difficult times.”
The second talk was given by Fr. Alejandro Gobrin, CMF on the topic, “Hebrews: An Invitation to a Sacrifice of Praise.” Fr. Gobrin urged the participants to reframe our worldviews, our existential life, our faith, our ethics, and our relationships with the self, with God, with others and the entire creation.
He shared that the question his talk would like to address is if faith can grow and still be nourished even if we do not have complete access to our sacred space (church); even if we only have limited access to our sacred agents (priests); even if we only have limited access to our sacred time (Eucharist, fiesta celebrations and other public rites).
To better understand this question, he said that the Letter to the “Hebrews can teach us to confront our crises and can help us find steps in reframing our faith and worship.” The text of Hebrews is commonly used during the Good Friday celebration, which may be an indication that its message is always active especially in times of trouble (Heb 4:14-16; 5:7-9).
Fr. Gobrin explained that the Letter to the Hebrews can encourage us to keep our faith stronger than ever in this time of pandemic when our expressions of faith, liturgical celebrations and worship is limited.
Furthermore, the speaker stressed the importance of a more complete Christology. Inadequate Christology lies at the very center of the crisis. Fr. Gobrin pointed out that this could mean that “their Christology was too high that they cannot seem to acknowledge Jesus as in solidarity with the human suffering and fragility; or it could be that their Christology is too low that they cannot seem to perceive how Jesus can mediate with the Divine God on our behalf.”
The answer to Fr. Gobrin’s question at the beginning of his talk is a Yes. In this trying time of pandemic, we may need to reframe our understanding and faith in Jesus and so, reframe too our offering of sacrifice to God.
For his reaction, Fr. Anthony Carreon, CMF put emphasis on the importance of the word FOCUS, most important to focus on Jesus Christ. To Fr. Carreon, “We as true followers of Christ need to keep our eyes on the Lord, and not to lose sight of Him in our daily experiences (whether good or bad), in our daily encounter with people, and most especially in our encounter with the Word.”
He affirmed what Fr. Gobrin shared that we can “REFRAME our faith in the light of the Letter to the Hebrews. In this time of pandemic, our experience as Catholics, the Church, the Holy Eucharist, and priests serve as agents in strengthening our faith is limited. Hence, the need to reframe all of these to protect and preserve our Christian faith just like what Hebrews did. “
As pilgrims on the road of life, the Letter to the Hebrews gives a message of hope and encouragement. It also challenges us to practically and concretely reframe our conceptions of faith, church, and God. In doing so, no matter what temptations we face, we always have the image of the very human Jesus to fall back on.
He used as an example the celebration of the Holy Eucharist as vital in our life and faith as Catholics. As the faithful are dispensed from attending physically the mass, some commented a feeling of incompleteness when attending virtual online masses.
Fr. Carreon invited the participant to recall the experiences of the early Christians during the time of persecution. This did not prevent them from praising God and remembering Jesus Christ. They continued to keep the spirit of community by sharing and keeping the Word alive and by being true witnesses though in secrecy.
He said that in this pandemic, “it is significant to stress on the real meaning of being a ‘Church’. Church is not simply a structure that we go to. The Church is the presence of a community who are journeying together towards Christ.” Thus, he speaks of ROOTEDNESS in CHRIST but FRUITFULNESS for the COMMUNITY.
Lastly, he challenged his fellow priests to go back to the Letter to the Hebrews as it reminds them of Jesus as a priest. “As priests they are not contained to the house of worship, but his whole life is about the offering of oneself for God and humanity. Their offering lies on the denying of oneself and offering what the community needs in this time of pandemic.”
Ms. Ma. Rosario K. Garcia moderated the Salas on the second day of the conference, keeping the discussion interesting and alive.