The Place of the Local Church in the Liberation/Inculturation Debate: The Infanta Prelature Experience

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2000 »Volume 37 2000 Number 1 »The Place Of The Local Church In The Liberationinculturation Debate The Infanta Prelature Experience

Sophia Marriage

SOPHIA MARRIAGE is affliated to the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World, University of Edinburgh, where she completed her PhD entitled The Local Church and Incarnation Theology: the Convergence of Inculturation and Liberation Theology in Two Roman Catholic Dioceses - Zomba (Malawi) and Infanta (the Philippines) in 1998. She is doing part-time tutoring, lecturing and research in the Faculty of Divinity, University of Edinburgh.

Since Vatican II, Roman Catholic theologians from the Third World have been arguing for the creation of their own indigenous or local theology. Traditionally this has taken one of two forms, liberation or inculturation theology. Both forms of theology emphasize the importance of the grassroots Christians owning and determining the local manifestation of the Church. This research investigates to what extent inculturation and liberation have occurred in a specific situation, suggesting that the old division between inculturation and liberation is no longer valid in real-life circumstances. In place of this dualism, which could be seen as a further legacy of Western colonialism, the case study suggests that inculturation and liberation are part of the same process, and can be expressed by Vatican II’s understanding of “Incarnation Theology.” This refers not only to a past event but interprets incarnation as an ongoing process which gives a new understanding and value to history.

This paper begins with three hypotheses: firstly that the two branches of local theology, liberation and inculturation, are complementary, not only in theory but especially in practice when Christianity is lived by people in daily life. The second hypothesis is that the relationship between these two theologies can be expressed by the term “incarnation” and that such an understanding of the process of faith being lived in reality may increase the success of liberation and inculturation in the church. Based on the premise that the words and actions of the local community are expressions of theology, the third hypothesis is that social studies of local christian communities is a legitimate way of doing theology, providing useful tools for the articulation and understanding of local theology.

Here I will discuss the results and findings from one such study of a local community and draw out how such a study can help in the articulation of theology. Through the study we will explore how churches are taking the opportunities presented by Vatican II and by increased theological activity in the Third World. The particular church researched here is probably not alone in these advances, and recent writings on the Asian Synod have pointed out how it allowed time to hear each other’s experiences (John M. Prior A.).

The Local Church

Vatican II legitimated and blessed the creation and exploration of local theology and the development of the local church. Lumen Gentium (1964) emphasized the Church as the People of God, making all the catholic faithful responsible for the mission and activities of the Church. The local Church was seen as the full embodiment of the universal Church. The decree also opened the subject of the involvement of the Church in the world, with the acknowledgement that the alleviation of poverty was the duty of the Church. This legitimised the engagement of the Church with human history.

Ad Gentes (1965) elaborated the understanding of local churches for mission. Its vision of mission was to establish churches which “under a hierarchy of their own, together with the faithful people, and adequately fitted out with the requisites for living a full christian life, [...] should make their contribution to the good of the whole church” (no. 6). The Church’s prophetic mission is to be “especially with the poor and the afflicted” (no. 12). The discussion of “particular churches” in Ad Gentes advocated local personnel under their own indigenous bishop and encouraged the expression of faith to be “according to their own national traditions ... so that the faith of Christ and the life of the Church are no longer foreign to the society in which they live, but begin to permeate and transform it” (no. 21). This is expressed in the terms of the “economy of the Incarnation” (no. 22) and borrows “from the customs and traditions of the people, from their wisdom and their learning, from their arts and disciplines” (no. 22). To do this, theological speculation was needed in “each major socio-cultural area” (no. 22).

Through the Vatican II documents there are differing understandings of what constitutes a local church; “at times it means the diocese, with a hint even of the real local community, the parish, at others it means the patriarchate or national group of dioceses. But at the root of it is the sense of the Church growing up from its local eucharistic roots instead of coming down from its central administrative headquarters” (Hastings 1968: 227). In general catholic understanding, the local church is considered the whole diocese under one pastor, the bishop (Bosch 1991: 531). However, “the character of the local church is not primarily determined by geography but rather by anthropology and morphology and thus by its make-up and its theology. The decisive element is not the place but the people with their legitimate national pride and their culture, who are brought together to celebrate the Eucharist and to shape their own lives strengthened by the word and the bread of Christ” (Buhlmann 1976: 284). It is the result of inculturation.

It could be argued that the churches in Asia have been, since their inception, local churches. However, Vatican II and the increases in communication, encouraged a more conscious and overt formulation of a theology of local churches. This has been seen in the Asian Synod. John Mansfield Prior has argued that the Asian Synod (April-May 1998) consisted of two synods. One had an agenda and methodology set by the Vatican which concentrated mostly on doctrine. The other emerged in interventions and discussions from the Asian bishops and concentrated on a tripartite dialogue with other religions, indigenous cultures and the marginalized poor. It was clear that the churches in Asia are working for extensive autonomy for the local church and greater justice in society (Prior A.: 3). In this article we will study an expanding church which is living with this autonomy.

Since Vatican II stressed the importance of the laity in the development of the local church and local theology, the place to study the growth of the theology is the local church. Many Third World theologians have stressed the importance of orthopraxis over orthodoxy, or right practice over right belief (Gutierrez 1988: 5-8). Theology is thus derived from reflection on life, the outcome of the inter-action of culture and Gospel, rather than the imposition of seemingly universal propositions of faith to the culture. Both inculturation and liberation theology from the Third World has focused on the people, whether they are the bearers of culture or as the poor.

The primary source here was therefore the local community through interviews and observation of the local church. The aim is to investigate what the local theology is and how it is lived out rather than to try to formulate that theology.

Sociological data can be analysed in many different ways. Here I have used the definition of local theology by Robert Schreiter to provide a framework for the discussion. He describes local theology as “the dynamic interaction among gospel, church and culture” (Schreiter 1985: 222). The context of the theology is provided by the culture and church and the present reality and historical circumstances of the “gospel” is the way in which that theology is lived out. Or as Schreiter describes it, the gospel is the “quality of the community’s praxis, its worship, its other forms of action” and the division of labor within the church.

This research was conducted within the Prelature of Infanta, Quezon province on the eastern coast of Luzon, the Philippines. The diocese is isolated from the rest of the country by appalling roads over the mountains and borders the Pacific Ocean on the east. The area is poor, consisting mostly of subsistence farmers and fishermen, with tribal groups in the mountains. During the martial law days of the late President Marcos, the mountains were also used for the underground resistance, which led in parts of the diocese to both a relatively high degree of social awareness, and also to a heavy military presence still present at the time of research (1996).

Cultural Context

The islands of the Philippines were colonized by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century. They were replaced by the Americans in 1898, who retained control, except for a few years during the Second World War, until 1946. Although strictly speaking the Philippines was a republic from that time, the continued presence of American military bases and trade have made them a quasi-colonial state. During the Marcos years (1964-1986), militarization was high throughout the Philippines as the President waged a low intensity war on his people. Martial law allowed for many human rights abuses, including murders and kidnappings. These were often directed against the more progressive sections of the church. The Marcos regime collapsed in February 1986 in a combined effort from parts of the military and the church. The country moved onto a more democratic system of elections, and a new government led by Corazon Aquino promised an end to the abuses of the previous dictatorship. Since 1986, however, oppression and militarization have actually increased in many parts of the country. This is especially so in the diocese studied here.

The economy of the Philippines is heavily dominated by multi-national companies and there are extensive plans to create a huge development area throughout Luzon island to lead the Pacific Rim into the next century. Unfortunately, many of the plans appear to forget the people living in the situations and are unlikely to ever bring them increased wealth.

There are also tribal groups in the Philippines, which are beginning to integrate into society and to campaign for their rights and ancestral lands. In the context of inculturation, it was interesting to note that some were looking to tribal people for hints as to their own culture. One of the problems of 400 years of colonialism and the efficient Spanish inquisitional church is that the native culture is often very well hidden.

Church Context

The second influence found by Schreiter is that of the church. The Philippines is dominated by the Catholic Church, some estimates putting the percentage of the population near 90%. Much of life from political rallies to jeepneys, decorations on subways to bus tickets, has an inherent Catholicism, leading some academics to claim it is a nominal christianity.

As readers of the East Asian Pastoral Review will be aware, there is much theology emanating from the Philippines. It is a church split between a progressive and conservative church, with bishops isolated from the main conference and priests during the early 1980s joining the underground war effort against Marcos. The theologies of struggle which emanate from Mindanao provide a backdrop to the local church in Infanta.

In Infanta, the theology of the last twenty five years has been dominated by the bishop, Julio Labayen, who has taken seriously the concept of Church of the Poor, both from Vatican II conclusions and from the conferences of the Asian bishops and attempted to put these into practice in the local church. This option goes further than the preferential option FOR the poor, advocated by Latin American theologians. The Church of the Poor is composed OF the poor, being poor alongside the marginalized of society. Labayen’s book ÔRevolution and the Church of the Poor’ published in 1995 puts forward his ideas in the clearest fashion, advocating that a change of heart is needed within society to ensure that it can work for the poor and needy. It aims to make them the authors of their own history.

The Church of the Poor aims at “integral evangelization,” an evangelization which affects the whole of life, restoring the integrity of humanity and creation, and conscientizing people to transform the unjust structures of society. This will by necessity bring about a new way of being church, a transformation from the old style Christendom model, to one that takes all creation and humanity into consideration. It is a theology which necessitates an engagement with world issues, with macro-structures and trade imbalances and seeks for the whole Church to respond to the situation affecting the world today.

In 1992, the Catholic Church of the Philippines held their Second Plenary Council. This was to the Philippine Church what Vatican II was to the worldwide church. Here, the church officially opted to become the Church of the Poor. Some saw it as coopting the more radical fringes of the church into the main fold in the attempt to prevent them becoming too radical, others believed it to be a genuine attempt to respond to the situation of poverty in their country. It does have the potential to bring together the two strands of church, the traditional and the progressive, or as one writer has put it, the Redemption (i.e. already achieved) and the Passion (struggling to achieve) churches (Verlet 1992: 24).

Like many Asian theologians, Labayen has encountered much opposition to his ideas and at times in the last twenty years has been isolated from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines. He has been labelled communist by the military and been on numerous suspected persons lists. However, he has attempted to put his ideas into practice in the Prelature of Infanta.


This is the context in which the local church of Infanta formulates its theology and lives its sacramental life. The major part of the present research tried to see how the Church lived in this context and how it expressed itself; how it lived this theology in practice.

The Prelature was consecrated in 1965 as a diocese and Labayen was the first bishop. During the 1960s, he established development schemes and co-operatives throughout the prelature, which later led to the growth of social action. In the church, Pastoral Conferences, bringing together representatives from all parts of the Prelature, were introduced in the 1970s to ensure that everyone’s needs and ideas were consulted in Prelature plans. Because of the isolation of many parts of the Prelature these conferences often met in Manila, but tried to incorporate people from all sectors. In 1973, the Prelature opted for the preferential option of the poor, and in 1979, took one step further to become the church of the poor.

One of the big problems from an early stage was the lack of clergy. There was therefore a need to train local lay leaders to participate in the church and organize their areas. Seminars were established to train them. These were called Yapak ng Panginoon, or footsteps of the Lord, often shortened to Yapak. The meaning of the phrase is multi-layered; it strictly refers to God’s intervention in human history in the history of salvation, denoting action with God to co-create history. However, it is also used as the name of the formation program. Hence, it is both the orientation of the Prelature and one of the chief ways of implementing that orientation.

Yapak starts with where people are, building on their experiences of life, history and who they are. It looks at the Church and its history, and aims to enhance a life based on prayer. One of the main modules is exposure in the community, which stems from the bishop’s conviction that unless you have experienced the poverty of the poor you cannot stand alongside them. Thus, people live for a few days with another sector or poorer family to experience life there; their experiences are then “processed” afterwards.

The aim was to build up leaders who would establish Basic Christian Communities in their own areas. However, the early 1980s were a turbulent time in the Philippines, with militarization on the increase. The parish of General Nakar near to the bishop’s town of Infanta became famous during this time for the presence of the New People’s Army, the communist underground movement. Rumors and black propaganda led to much suspicion in the area. In 1983, this came to a head at a Yapak seminar, where priests who were concerned about the decrease of their influence in the new church which was emerging, encouraged the lay participants to walk-out of the seminar. Labayen sees this as the dark night of the Prelature, when his own personal faith was bitterly tested.

Research was carried out by the diocese and the Asian Social Institute, to discover the roots of the problem and the following year, the mission statement or Pahayag was formed. It was discovered that although some people were undertaking the Yapak formation, there was no clear understanding of the orientation of the church in the Prelature. The Pahayag sought to remedy that. It unified the diocese, emphasizing the key points of the Church of the Poor. This was revised in 1995 to include the changes in the situation of the previous 12 years. The Pahayagconcentrates on the God of History with whom all of humanity walks and in the words of Labayen, “it mirrors the prelature’s historical pilgrimage as a community of believers whose faith in Jesus of Nazareth brought the prelature to recognize and accept its responsibility for and in the world” (HS 1992: 2).

This is the historical context and present situation of the church in Infanta. However, context and culture evolve and therefore, the living of that faith is never static. Vatican II moved from a static understanding of revelation as propositional to a dynamic understanding based on the progressive self-communication of God in history, climaxed in Jesus Christ (Gibbs 1996: 30).

Yapak suffered a significant blow from the walk-out and did not resurface until a complete overhaul in 1989. Since then, the leaders have been proceeding cautiously, anxious not to rush things. They are slowly working towards the introduction of a permanent lay diaconate, which they hope will be implemented by the year 2000.

In the meantime, Yapak is gaining strength. Those who have done the 28 day full program initiate shorter 3 day programs to spread the orientation of the prelature. Although many in leadership are committed to the church of the poor, in outlying areas villagers rarely see a priest and often have very little notion of any church other than a traditional Spanish one. Popular religiosity is common, but the Prelature’s aim is to incorporate them into the main church, to slowly alter the expressions and to restore a more progressive view of the church. Some priests are also hesitant about the changes to lay leadership and church of the poor, which means that Yapak is not consistently available throughout the area.

During interviews with Yapak graduates, experience of the program was often seen as the beginning of their activity in the church. Through it they could discover who they are and address their own shortcomings. One claimed “it was the best thing that has happened to me.” People spoke of how they understood that the prelature’s vision is in step with that of the history of the universal Church and that treating other people as God’s children is an important part of being a Christian. However, only a small percentage have undergone the program, and there is little follow up which means that people get swallowed up in the system when they return to their parish. At Yapak seminars, as in many of the other teaching seminars held in the prelature, creative liturgy is encouraged, however, when people return, this is used only at fiesta time.

As in many third world dioceses, there is a strong reliance on the catechist. In the Prelature, there is an attempt at the moment to standardize their duties and conditions. In the main their work is divided between school work and community teaching. The former is beginning to be taken over by the younger catechists and the mothers tend to concentrate on the community. This will involve bringing people together to discuss their problems, organizing seminars on community health, helping people to form liturgies for the parish services, and teaching. While I was in the area, there was a concerted drive to build Munting Sambayanan Kristianyo, or basic christian communities in as many barangays as possible. These were still in the early stages, but there was clearly potential. Another sign of the church of the poor, is that a new system of tithing to the church is being introduced. In the past, people paid for the sacraments as and when they needed them. Now, however, there is an attempt to make people contribute a little sum of money on a regular basis. This was an idea encouraged by the Plenary Council of the Philippines II, and is still very much in the planning stage, but does aim to increase democracy within the church.

Unfortunately, the belief that the laity must play a part in the church because there are so few priests did not appear to be an inspiring theology of the laity. For those involved in lay leadership, or those connected with some of the Prelature’s schools, the understanding of the orientation of the Prelature was very perceptive. Answers to the question of what the Church of the Poor involved ranged from an awareness of how it is a returning to how Jesus was in Christian history, or standing alongside the poor in their struggles. People seem to have noticed a difference in the Church; as one man said, before, the homily was based solely on the Gospel, while now they tend to be situational, and another commented that here in the Prelature decisions are taken on human needs and rights rather than simply dependent on religious doctrines. Pastoral Conferences both at a diocesan and a parish level continue to bring people from all walks of life together.

Thus the Catholicism in the Prelature of Infanta is not concerned with the rubrics of the traditional church. It recognizes, teaches and encourages the experience of God in each person and in each situation.

The clergy’s views of the changes were mixed. Some clergy in the Prelature were still not convinced by the Church of the Poor, and wanted to retain their traditional privileges. In those parishes where the priest was open to the new way of being church, attitudes to the priest had changed.

As the laity take a greater role in the day-to-day running of the parish, as they become the ones to teach their neighbors and children in the faith, coordinating seminars and leading worship, the priest’s role will increasingly be one of facilitator, someone who conducts the sacraments and disseminates his knowledge. It seems that the priests today are concentrating more on this pastoral side and leaving the social action of the parish to the laity. The traditional place of the priest above the people is slowly being changed in the Prelature. People are no longer in awe of priests, mingling with them, as I saw on a number of occasions during the fiesta season. Unlike in others parts of the Catholic Church, there is an acceptance that priests are human too and may feel the need for human contact. Thus in the Prelature there was a growing realization that so long as the priests remained with the people and struggled with them, it made little if any difference if he had a woman. This attitude enabled an honest and loving relationship to develop between the priest and the people. The most striking example was that of the bishop who is always open to his people, even though he is an incredibly busy man, with an international standing and a diverse diocese to visit. Many of the laity remarked how unusual it was for a bishop’s house to be built in the same way as a normal house and to be open day and night to visitors without appointment. After services, rather than the wealthy and influential rushing to the bishop, it was the fishermen and farmers, for whom the church had been closed until this recent change.

Such changes in attitude naturally take a long time, and in many parishes are still the ideal being aimed at. In General Nakar where I was staying it had by and large been achieved, but when I visited Maria Aurora the priest was clearly very much still in charge. Here the traditional Church was still in evidence, regardless of the lay communities which were being established. For example, at Sunday mass, there were several altar boys dressed in the western style of color-coordinating cassocks, and the homily, was far from the reality faced by people. Although vestments are a external form of inculturation, it is clear that such dressing puts an instant barrier between those conducting the service and those in the congregation.

Religious congregations are an aspect often associated with the more traditional side of the church. In Infanta there are conventional congregations, but there are also congregations firmly grounded in the orientation of the prelature. One of these is the enclosed Carmelites. Bishop Labayen invited them to the Prelature in the early 1980s and required that they do exposure in the area. Traditionally in the Philippines, the Carmelites, as with many religious congregations, are drawn from the middle and upper classes. Thus although they take a vow of poverty, they often have little experience of real poverty in the village. I spoke with one of the founding sisters who still remembers the shock of seeing such extreme poverty: She said: “When I went and saw our Filipino people that poor, you know many times I was crying at night without their knowledge. I did not expect that they did not even have fish for meals, they just have vegetables and the quantity was really not enough and the quality was really very low. And the house, I had never stepped in a house before which had no floor, ... I would see one bowl of vegetables for four of us, but I was accustomed to eat that alone, all on my own.” Exposure led the Carmelites to build a convent in the style of the local houses, to learn to eat Filipino food again, and to ensure that although they were enclosed they did not lose contact with the situation around them. They still have very few electrical goods, even though wealthy benefactors continue to offer them, and they receive weekly visits from the different parishes around for them to hear what’s going on. They are also encouraged to attend pastoral conferences and seminars in Manila. Labayen calls them the “heart of the Prelature” as they pray for its programs and activities. Their success in being part of the community can be seen from some of the rumors that were propagated by the military during Martial Law. These involved a tunnel supposedly running from the convent to the bishop’s house (a distance of about 5 km) down which children who had been kidnapped and trained for service in the communist underground movement were sent for deployment! These rumors were believed to the extent that during that time the Carmelites could no longer join the exposure program and today they have to stay within the immediate barangay.

The other major religious congregation is the Apostles in Contemporary Times, with whom I was staying. This is an indigenous group which embodies the spirit of the Prelature. It was set up in 1972 by a group of women from different traditional religious communities, who wanted to be led by the Holy Spirit rather than by traditional church rules, hence Pentecost is their feastday. The ACT is firmly committed to the spirit of Vatican II wanting to truly respond to the needs of the church to work with and for the poor towards human dignity, justice, peace and solidarity. They chose not to be recognized by the church until 1984 as they did not want to be under a bishop before they had fully established themselves. They, then, chose to live and work in the Prelature with Labayen. The community moved to General Nakar, one of the poorest parishes of the Prelature in 1987, and after exposure in Maria Aurora in 1991, moved there a year later. Today they have eight fully professed members and two affiliate members. Their education, like that of the lay leaders, is in the poor barangays rather than at theological college. Their main work is education, running a school in General Nakar, and they are responsible for the lay formation there and in Maria Aurora. They travel to the various barangays to lead bible services, fiestas, MSKs and seminars on a range of topics including herbal medicine and general self-help. Labayen clearly sees them as a leading embodiment of the theology of the church of the poor.


Artwork is often seen as a superficial side to inculturation. It is interesting to note that in Infanta there are very few non-western images in the churches. One is the symbol of Yapak which shows the footsteps of the Lord leading to a bahay kubo, a traditional Filipino house. A traditional horn calling people towards a common goal and struggle is in the foreground and the rainbow, a symbol of Filipino hope as well as an Old Testament image, arches over the pictures. Thus, it depicts the calling of the people of the Prelature to walk with the Lord among the people with God’s hope around them.

The Virgin Mary

The Virgin Mary is a traditional icon in Roman Catholic theology. In the Prelature, however, it is one of only two local paintings and this again emphasizes the orientation of the Prelature. Labayen is a Carmelite and is firmly devoted to Mary; the Prelature was dedicated to her in 1995. She is referred to as the Mother of the Church of the Poor.

There is a firm emphasis on Mary, the peasant woman, mother of us all, who knows our needs and fights with us. This new understanding of Mary is explained in the Yapak seminars. As Zone Narito discovered in her report onYapak in 1995, before the seminar the commonly held image of Mary is that with an aquiline nose who is touched with one’s handkerchief. Some see her as a queen on a throne. She is also a mother who gives help, is affectionate, good, and someone to whom they can run in times of need. After the seminars, Mary is seen as a woman who struggles for the rights of people and has an important role in salvation. Some people say she is a simple and humble woman who mediates between humans and God, and who takes care of her children.

This radical understanding of Mary is portrayed in the only inculturated picture of a traditional christian figure. It depicts a woman dressed as a peasant, who has clearly been working in the fields. She cradles a selection of people in her arms, people identifiable as a farmer, a tribal person, a woman and children. She crushes a crocodile, the Filipino symbol of greed, avarice and selfishness with her feet, which instead of peacefully dying, fights back. The scenery is a Filipino landscape, which has been blighted by logging and is parched. She stands at the intersection of two rivers, one depicting divine history and one human history. Thus she is at the point of agreeing to become the Mother of Christ. As she consents the traditional symbols of church authority and power, thrones, gold, crown etc around the edge of the picture are cracked and destroyed.

The image was put on the 1996 prelatural calendar so that this image of the Virgin Mary would be shown throughout the Prelature. All interviewees were beginning to consciously see Mary as a Filipina.

The Marian prayer written to accompany this picture talks of our weakness and unjust society. It asks for Mary’s help to purify society and the Church to integrate with all people especially the poor, building a world that is for all humanity for the country and for God. This prayer is said at most services and has a unifying effect on the Prelature.

The other inculturated picture in the Prelature is a mural in Infanta called ÔHope in Struggle.’ It was painted for Labayen’s Silver Jubilee as bishop. In many ways it represents the history and theology of both Labayen and the Prelature. The backdrop is the dark night of St. John, showing Labayen’s Carmelite roots. But the sun continues to shine behind the dark clouds. On the horizon the light breaks through, symbolizing darkness yielding to light. A cock, the symbol of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace announces the dawn of the hoped-for day. In the center barely visible are two doves, flying towards the light, symbolizing the lasting peace that is born of the reign of justice in the hearts of people and in the way they organize their life in community and society. They fly towards the rainbow, the symbol of the covenant, and a symbol close to the hearts of the people of Infanta. Disappearing into the rainbow is a track of footprints in the sand, God walking with humanity in history. At the center top a man blows a horn, calling the community to join hands in a common task. The people in the foreground represent a cross-section of the prelature and include fishermen, tribal people, youth, teachers, religious, workers, mothers, women and farmers. Those who were killed as martyrs during the struggle are represented as well as part of the identity of the Prelature. In the center is Labayen, dressed in shirt and trousers as a worker, pointing towards the light. He stands with his people, struggling with them and helping them towards the light. Thus Labayen’s mural depicts the way in which the church in Infanta operates and organizes itself.

Labayen’s ideas have become popular. Today, people from outside the area ask for exposure and teaching from Labayen and other leaders, and the Prelature could be seen as leading the Philippine Church forward. It is a church which is involved with the people, it aims to educate them about government plans which threaten their livelihood and stands with the people in their struggles. It is not concerned with doctrinal standpoints, it sees itself as working to ensure everyone can be fully human in their chosen life. It does not seek to convert to Christianity, but to a desire for justice and humanity.


No church is perfect and there are obviously some weaknesses in the Prelature. The chief one is the gap between the articulated vision and the praxis. The Yapak program suffered a huge set-back after the walk-out and the level of analysis and education going on now is only just reaching the levels it was before then. Traditional and conservative Catholicism is still very much in evidence and outside the main central barangays and parishes, little about the church of the poor is really known and a passive, folk religiosity still prevalent. The parishes, despite the rhetoric are still dependent on their priests. Where a priest is open to the ideas, lay leadership is strong and growing, where there are still conservative priests, the laity find any change exceedingly difficult to initiate. At times there was a false view of exactly what was working in the Prelature. For example, leaders would often talk about the effectiveness of the MSKs, and the introduction of a new tithing system, but on investigation, it was found that it was still very much in the conceptual stage now. Such gaps are only perceived through the methodology employed here.

Although the Prelature is trying to encourage the leadership from the laity, it is clear that the evolution of the Church of the Poor is inspired and spear-headed from the top. The bishop will retire in the year 2000 and many are frightened that the structures are not yet in place to ensure that the direction of the church continues. The ACT sisters are attempting to systematize records, to draw together a history of each parish and to standardize resources and programs across the diocese to help continuity. It is questionable whether this in itself invalidates its attempts to be inculturated, or whether it is simply a reflection of a church which has traditionally been hierarchically organized and must therefore depend on the hierarchy for a space in which to grow and evolve?

The Road to Inculturation and Liberation in the Prelature

The research from the Prelature of Infanta led me to re-examine my ideas of liberation and inculturation theology. Many saw the involvement of the Catholic Church in the EDSA revolution (1986) as a form of liberation theology. However, in Infanta, EDSA made little, if any difference. That revolution was inspired by the leadership of the traditional church, rather than by the people in the villages. In a country whose culture has been trampled to such an extent, the search for inculturation is difficult. External adaptation, symbols, paintings, liturgies etc. are rare in the Prelature, with many churches still adorned with a white Mary with long fair hair. However, as we have seen, there are signs of exploration with the Mary picture and the Hope in Struggle Mural.

In Infanta, I believe we see many aspects associated with both inculturation and liberation, both terms which may not be consciously at the forefront of this theology, which seeks to be with the people. The Church of the Poor is born out of the situation of poverty (inculturation or liberation?), it responds to people where they are (inculturation?), challenging them to campaign for their rights (e.g. against illegal logging, dynamite fishing, or the government’s development plans- liberation?). It teaches people to analyze society, to work out what is going wrong (liberation?), it advocates the integration of humanity and nature (a theme from the tribal religions as well - so inculturation?), and it is finding points of reference with Buddhism, a traditionally Asian religion, in the Prelature’s links with Buddhist monks in Thailand, with breathing techniques and Shibashi (a simplified Tai Chi) - (inculturation?).

Thus I see the prelature hesitantly moving towards the idea of inculturation and liberation combined. There are no points of unity between the two theologies, because they are intertwined as the church responds to the situation. Would it be possible to have one without the other anyway? The emphasis on the laity is the way forward for this type of church. I would argue that in the prelature there is an attempt to inculturate the structures of the church rather than the external superficialities of vestments, art and liturgy. However, I think that once the structures have changed, a new creativity will be inspired in other parts of church life. In its journey to be a true local church in its situation, the church in Infanta is naturally and unselfconsciously inculturating and liberating the Gospel message.


This article has given a brief synopsis of the main findings of a larger project which looked at the way in which the local church was operating in the Prelature of Infanta. It shows how the ideas of a bishop theologian have been translated into reality in a specific situation. It shows how diversity enters into the local church when it is struggling with the context in which it lives and the way in which there is always a discrepancy between the articulated vision and the reality. These are inherent aspects of what it means to be a local church.

There are differences between the different parishes, with some taking the ideas from the Church of the Poor to a greater extent than others, but again this is one of the issues with which the local church must struggle. Bishop Labayen has been influential in the changes which have occurred, although some could accuse it of being a “top-down” approach. However, the nature of the Roman Catholic Church requires that space be created in which reform and innovation can arise, and Labayen has given space for the empowerment of the people, has been challenged by them and has been reminded of their hopes and fears.

This research has shown that it is often difficult to differentiate between inculturation and liberation when they are the result of a church theology trying to become relevant and live among the people. Some may argue that it has achieved inculturation without the acculturation (modification of images, liturgies etc) which is often seen as the precursor of inculturation. It has brought about liberation without having an established basic christian community network first. It works through a holistic church program, which encourages the community to take an interest in politics, economics, social and religious issues.

For the future, the Church of Infanta challenges the church to adopt a new model of universality which dictates inter-action rather than uniformity, allowing for a mutuality of local theologies which will each to speak with relevance to the people. The church in different places will adopt new and varied patterns, each individual, but the common vision behind the changes will be one of relevance and of the importance of the local church.

The Church of Infanta also raises issues which can start to play a greater role in theologians’ understandings of inculturation and liberation. It stresses that the people must be rooted in their history: their past, their present situation and their hopes of a changed future, in which they play an active role, walking with the God of History. The Yapak formation program contained many modules on history - the individual’s and the community’s, how we understand it and how it influences our behavior in the present and in relation to the future. At a superficial level, inculturation can over-stress past history over and above how that history has changed with modern society; liberation history can stress the present reality, while ignoring the cultural past of the people, and the Catholic Church has often simply stressed the future history of the individual after life. In Infanta, the Yapak formation taught people to come to terms with their own personal history, the history of the church and the history of the country. Such an outlook humanizes history, making people agents of history rather than passive objects and allowing them to look into their present reality for the traditional expressions of faith and work for a changed future on earth. It may be that in an attempt to make sense of history, the twin poles of inculturation and liberation merge.

The findings of this research calls for the Roman Catholic Church to adopt a new model of church, away from a universal Christendom model to a Church of the Poor, or of the People model. A Sri Lankan theologian, Aloysius Pieris, has written much on liberation theology in Asia. He draws a sharp distinction between the liturgy of the Church (mass, devotions etc) and the liturgy of life (community sharing, daily life etc). This, I believe, also offers a clue as to where to go with the inculturation/liberation debate. In Infanta it is clear that the Prelature has tried to inculturate the liturgy of life before they inculturate the liturgy of the church, often the first thing to be done and in the process allow the incarnation of the gospel to take place within its own society.

I have described some of the activities and programs of the church which aim to build a new way of being church. It is a church which is involved in the people, aiming to educate them about government plans which threaten their livelihood, standing with them in their struggles. It is not concerned with doctrinal standpoints, seeing itself as working to ensure everyone can be fully human in their chosen life. It does not seek to convert to Christianity, but to a desire for justice and humanity. It inspires the people to see life and faith intertwined and has created programs and activities to change the direction of the church. This Catholic Church is discovering a new way of being church, one which gives the laity the leading role, the clergy becoming facilitators and sacrament givers, which struggles with the people in their trials, educating them when government plans threaten their lifestyle and security.

Throughout the Catholic Church at the moment, a paradigm shift is taking place, as people take the promises of Vatican II seriously, questioning the old ways of church, and the old understanding of universality. Here in Infanta, we can see that inculturation and liberation are not clearly defined separate processes, but that in becoming a local church, there is a need to incorporate all of life, holistically, allowing each people to redefine their own ways of doing things. Through the study of a particular local church we have explored one way in which this process happens.

Through the local study which listens to the people we have come to a greater understanding of the complex process of becoming a local church. It allows the theologian to see how an articulated vision is lived in reality and allows the pitfalls and successes of such a living to influence the direction of the church - a never ending cycle. Thus, it is a useful tool for the study of theology, since it can lead to new insights as to how theologies interplay in the reality of the church setting, which may diminish the tension between elite and grassroots theology.


Bosch, D.

1991 Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Maryknoll, New York.

Buhlmann, W.

1976 The Coming of the Third Church: An Analysis of the Present and Future of the Church. Slough, UK.

Gibbs, P.

1996 The Word in the Third World: Divine Revelation in the Theology of Jean-Marc Ela, Aloysius Pieris and Gustavo Gutierrez. Tesis Gregoriana - Serie Teologia 8, Editrice Pontificia Universita Gregoriana, Rome.

Gutierrez, G.

1988 A Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, New York.

Hastings, A.

1968 A Concise Guide to the Documents of the Second Vatican Council. London.


1992 Hope in Struggle - its Historical Expression - The Pahayag of the Prelature of Infanta, The 1983 Mission Statement of the Prelature of Infanta, published by the Yapak formation program, Infanta.

Prior A., J.M.

“A Tale of Two Synods: Observations on the Special Assembly for Asia” accessed on the Sedos Webpage -

Schreiter, R.J.

1985 Constructing Local Theologies. Maryknoll, New York.

Verlet, M.

1992 “Passion and Redemption: Political Stakes of Religion in the Roman Catholic Sphere of the Philippines 1986-1990.” International Intercommunications, Part 62: 19-24.

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