"Church of the Poor": The Church in the Philippines' Reception of Vatican II

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By Teodoro C. Bacani, Jr.

Teodoro Bacani is bishop emeritus of the diocese of Novaliches, Quezon City, Philippines. He teaches sacramental theology and ecclesiology at the University of Sto. Tomas and Loyola School of Theology, Manila. A long-time member of the Theological Advisory Commission of the Federation of the Asian Bishops’ Conferences, he has also served as delegate of the Philippine Bishops’ Conference to the Synod of Bishops for Asia. He was chairman of the Commission on Religious Concerns in preparation for the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines and one of the three drafters of the Acts of the said Plenary Council.

The Second Vatican Council took a long time in seeping into the consciousness of Filipino Catholics, with the happy exception of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy which was speedily implemented in our country. But a quantum leap in the reception of the Council by the Church in the Philippines was accomplished by and through the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP-II) held in the San Carlos Pastoral Formation Complex in Makati, Metro Manila on 20 January up to 17 February 1991. This Plenary Council had the distinction of being the first plenary council held in the Catholic Church after the promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law.

As Vatican II was a council of renewal and aggiornamento for the universal church, so PCP-II was aimed at the renewal and aggiornamento of the Church in the Philippines. One of the reasons given "for the advisability and perhaps even necessity of such a council" was: "The many changes that have taken place in the church as a result of the Second Vatican Council together with the promulgation of the new Code."1 "And the PCP II very deliberately chose to align its activities with the pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council that was a new Pentecost for the church" (Decree of Convocation). In his opening homily, the President of PCP-II, Archbishop Leonardo Z. Legaspi, O.P., archbishop of Nueva Caceres, outlined and explained the framework of the Council: "whose focus is Christ, whose orientation is pastoral, whose spirit is evangelization, and whose context is Filipino." He continued with words redolent of Vatican II: "The impulses stemming from this framework inevitably point towards the direction of reform. Ecclesia semper reformanda est." He then went on to cite Gaudium et Spes (GS), no. 43 which acknowledges the shortcomings of the Church’s members, the discrepancy between the message it proclaims and the human weakness of those who proclaim it. The Church must combat these shortcomings (PCP-II, pp. 76-77). The plenary council was intended to help overcome those shortcomings.

It is clear, then, that Vatican II was a guiding inspiration for the endeavors of PCP-II. But I wish to propose here the thesis that PCP-II, the first plenary council held anywhere in the world after the promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law, a council celebrated in a so-called "developing" country, also developed an aspect of Vatican II which the ecumenical council itself was not able to develop sufficiently. I refer here to the theme of the Church and the Poor, a very important theme for the universal Church in this third millennium, and of paramount importance to the Church in the Philippines. In developing this theme beyond what Vatican II was able to do, PCP-II incarnated for the Church in the Philippines a vital aspect of the Gospel already given impetus by Vatican II itself: the spirit of poverty in the Church and the Church’s concern for the poor and needy. At the same time PCP-II unfolded a potential not sufficiently expressed by Vatican II itself.

This theme of the Church and the poor was very much in the mind of Pope John XXIII. In his radio message of 11 September 1962, just a month before the opening of Vatican II, Pope John XXIII said, "Confronted with the underdeveloped countries, the church presents itself as it is and wishes to be, as the church of all, and particularly as the Church of the Poor.2 These words became the inspiration of a group which came to be known as "The Group of the Church of the Poor," or "the Belgian College Group" after the place where they usually met.3 Their meetings were under the patronage of Cardinals Giacomo Lercaro (Bologna) and Gerlier (Lyons) as well as of Patriarch Maximos IV. One of their spokesmen was Archbishop Helder Camara of Brazil. They sought to conscienticize the Council fathers about the need to pay special attention to the needs of the poor and the developing countries.

In the group’s first meeting, Cardinal Gerlier expressed his concern that no room was allowed in the program of the Council, at least directly, for the suffering poor as a primary concern of the Church. He added: "...the effectiveness of our work is bound up with this problem. If we do not tackle it, we leave aside some of the most relevant aspects of evangelical and human reality. The question must be raised...." And he went on to say, "The Church must be seen for what it is: the mother of the poor, whose first concern is to give her children bread for both body and soul..." (History, III, p. 202).

An early sign of the group’s influence can be discerned in the text of the Council’s initial "Message to Humanity" where we read:

Coming together in unity from every nation under the sun, we carry in our hearts the hardships, the bodily and mental distress, the sorrows, longings and hopes of all the peoples entrusted to us. We urgently turn our thoughts to the anxieties by which modern man is afflicted. Hence, let our concern swiftly focus first of all on those who are especially lowly, poor, and weak. Like Christ, we would have pity on the multitude weighed down with hunger, misery, and lack of knowledge. We want to fix a steady gaze on those who still lack the opportune help to achieve a way of life worthy of human beings (Abbot, 5).

The group petitioned Cardinal Cicognani, Secretary of State and President of the Secretariat for Extraordinary Affairs, for the establishment of a secretariat or special commission to deal with questions related to evangelization and the poor. They failed to get their wish, however.

Cardinal Lercaro, acting as spokesman for the urgent requests of many from the East, from Europe and from Latin America, proposed to the Council fathers "that the dominant idea of the Council’s ecclesiology should be the Church of the Poor, a phrase taken from Pope John’s teaching." This should not be just one motif among many, but rather "the sole theme of Vatican II in its entirety," "the synthesizing idea, the point that gives light and coherence to all the subjects thus far discussed, of all the work that we must undertake." Lercaro called that moment in history "the hour of the poor" which ought to lead the Council to understand the gospel teaching on poverty as "an essential and primary aspect of the mystery of Christ. The radical demands of the time would not be met but avoided if the Council tackled the problem of the evangelization of the poor as just one theme among others." He asked for the clarification of the link between the presence of Christ in the poor and the other two profound elements in the mystery of Christ in the Church: the Eucharist and the hierarchy (History, III, pp. 345-46).

The group played a significant role in the first two sessions of the Council and created in many fathers a new sensitivity to the issues of poverty (History, IV, p. 289).

There were other influential voices speaking in the Council on behalf of the poor and the poor nations. One particularly noteworthy intervention was the report of James Norris (USA), a lay auditor at the Council and president of the International Catholic Migration Commission. He pointed out the glaring gap between the rich Christian nations found around the North Atlantic Ocean, who comprise only 16% of the world’s population but owned 70% of the world’s wealth, and the large majority of people who lived in an almost subhuman state of poverty. He urged the Council to issue a call for action and the establishment of a "structure that would propose the institutions, relationships, forms of cooperation and ways of acting to obtain the full participation of all Catholics in the worldwide struggle against poverty and hunger." His intervention was followed by other eloquent appeals on behalf of the poor (History, IV, pp. 318-22).

On 13 November 1964, Pope Paul VI made a dramatic gesture on behalf of the poor. He laid his tiara on the altar at the end of the Eucharist. This gesture was explained thus by Msgr. Pericle Felici, head of the General Secretariat of the Council:

We have heard in this Council many serious things about poverty and hunger that are growing in the world today—a particular and terrible sign. Often the cry has been heard in the council hall, as it was once heard in Palestine: "I have pity on the crowd." Mother Church never ceases to show mercy to the poor and needy and to perform good works.

Following the teaching and imitating the example of her Founder—"who though he was rich became poor for us, so that by his poverty we might become rich"—Mother Church can be called Mother of the poor, the needy, and the afflicted. The Supreme Pontiff, Vicar of Christ, Head of the Church, has decided to give a new witness of this love and mercy by offering his tiara to the poor and the needy (History, IV, p. 373).

The Church of the Poor Group managed to draw up a document containing two motions addressed to the Pope: "Simplicity and Evangelical Poverty" and "Primacy in Our Ministry for the Evangelization of the Poor." They were able to get the signatures of more than 500 Council fathers. Paul VI asked Cardinal Lercaro (recently nominated a moderator of the Council) to examine the material produced by the Church of the Poor Group with a view to its use in the decrees of the Council. Cardinal Lercaro submitted his report later. It included suggestions on inviting the bishops to greater simplicity and evangelical poverty regarding their titles, dress, and style of life. It suggested also that they select priests for an apostolate among the poor and working classes or as worker priests. Another suggestion was for greater openness and lay participation in the management of the Church’s property. But nothing more came of the report. It "appears to have disappeared into the sands of time" (History, IV, p. 385).

The over-all assessment of the History of Vatican II on the efforts of this group after three sessions of the Council is not very positive:

As a result of the zeal of a watchful group of bishops and theologians, the subject of the poverty of the Church and the theme of the poor Church found a place (LG, 8), but it was limited and marginal. On 13 November 1964, Paul VI, on his own, publicly gave away his tiara for the poor, and a few days later Cardinal Lercaro presented a report with suggestions on the poverty of the Church. Although requested by the pope, this text remained a dead letter (History, IV, p. 620. See also a similar assessment in History, III, p. 203).

Another authoritative assessment says basically the same thing: "Despite the famous intervention by Cardinal Lercaro, ‘We shall not be fulfilling our task properly, if we do not make the center and soul ... of this Council, the mystery of Christ in the poor... not just as one problem among others, but as the central problem of the Council,’ Vatican II did not deal in any depth with the issue..."4 (Dwyer, 772).

However, when reading the entire Vatican II corpus, one must pass a more positive evaluation of the influence of the Church of the Poor Group. Undoubtedly the place where the theme of poverty both of the Church and of people is dealt with most pointedly in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. In a very important paragraph of this constitution, the Council declares:

Just as Christ carried out the work of redemption in poverty and oppression, so the Church is called to follow the same path if she is to communicate the fruits of salvation to men. Christ Jesus, "though he was by nature God... emptied himself, taking the nature of a slave" (Phil 2:6-7), and "being rich, became poor" (2 Cor 8:9) for our sake. Likewise the Church, although she needs human resources to carry out her mission, is not set up to seek earthly glory, but to proclaim, and this by her own example, humility and self-denial. Christ was sent by the Father "to bring good news to the poor... to heal the contrite of heart" (Lk 4:18), "to seek and to save what was lost" (Lk 19:10). Similarly, the Church encompasses with her love all those who are afflicted by human misery and she recognizes in those who are poor and who suffer, the image of her poor and suffering founder. She does all in her power to relieve their need and in them she strives to serve Christ. Christ, "holy, innocent and undefiled" (Heb 7:2) knew nothing of sin (2 Cor 5:21), but came only to expiate the sins of the people (cf. Heb 2:17). The Church, however, clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal (Lumen Gentium, no. 8)

In this paragraph, the Church declares its vocation to follow the poor Christ, and states that she encompasses with her love those who are afflicted by human misery, seeing as she does Christ in the poor and suffering. It is Christ himself whom the Church, following the Lord’s example, serves in them.

Later on in the same dogmatic constitution, bishops are told that they have the obligation "of schooling the faithful in a love of the whole Mystical Body of Christ, and, in a special way, of the poor, the suffering, and those who are undergoing persecution for the sake of justice (cf. Mt 5:10)..." (LG, no. 23).

In the Gravissium Educatinus (Declaration on Christian Education), the Council "earnestly exhorts the pastors of the church and all the faithful to spare no sacrifice in helping Catholic schools to become increasingly effective, especially in caring for the poor, for those who are without the help and affection of family, and those who do not have the Faith" (GE, no. 9). Catholic schools are thus to be institutions that care for the poor and those who are deprived of the help and affection of family. Certainly this is not usually thought of as a function of the Catholic school. It is refreshing to find this function stated here.

In the Apostolicam Actuositatim (Decree on the Lay Apostolate), the Council calls love the church’s characteristic mark, and "claims charitable works at its own mission and right." Then it adds, "That is why mercy to the poor and the sick, and charitable works and works of mutual aid for the alleviation of all kinds of human needs, are held in special honor in the Church" (AA, no. 8).

The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) begins with a statement of the Church’s solidarity with the whole human family, but especially with the poor: "The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men of or time, especially of those who are poor and afflicted, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well" (GS, no.1). It repeats the Church’s traditional teaching that "every man has the right to possess a sufficient amount of the earth’s goods for himself and his family." According to the council, "This has been the opinion of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, who taught that men are bound to come to the aid of the poor and to do so not merely out of their superfluous goods." It then adds a clarifying example: "When a person is in extreme necessity he has the right to supply himself with what he needs out of the riches of others." It is noteworthy that the Council points out that people are bound to help the poor not only from their superfluous goods, i.e., the goods they do not need, but also from what the rich need themselves as befitting their state in life.

Moving then to the macro level, the Council makes this exhortation:

Faced with a world today where so many people are suffering from want, the Council asks individuals and governments to remember the saying of the Fathers: "Feed the man dying of hunger, because if you do not feed him you are killing him," and it urges them according to their ability to share and dispose of their goods to help others, above all by giving them aid which will enable them to help and develop themselves (GS, no. 69).

Gaudium et Spes recognizes the needs of the Third World countries and the necessity of helping them, (GS, nos. 69, 71, 86) questions the terms of trade and calls for a new economic order (GS, nos. 63, 65-86). It justifies the expropriation and redistribution of large landed estates under certain circumstances (GS, no. 71).

Christus Dominus (Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church) contains the following reminder: in presenting the doctrine of Christ, bishops "should proclaim the maternal solicitude of the Church for all men, whether they be Catholics or not, and should be especially solicitous for the poor and weaker brethren whom the Lord has commissioned them to evangelize" (CD, no. 13).

Parish priests are also told to "exercise a paternal charity towards the poor and the sick. Finally, they should have a special care for the workers" (CD, no. 30). And all priests are reminded: "Although priests owe service to everybody, the poor and the weaker ones have been committed to their care in a special way. It was with these that the Lord associated himself, and the preaching of the Gospel to them is given as a sign of his messianic mission..." (Presbyterorum Ordinis, no. 6).

In words reminiscent of Cardinal Lercaro’s suggestion that the presence of Christ in the poor should be studied in relation to his presence in the Eucharist and the hierarchy, the Council says in Optatam Totius(Decree on the Training of Priests):

(Seminarians) should be taught to seek Christ in faithful meditation on the word of God and in active participation in the sacred mysteries of the Church, especially the Eucharist and the Divine Office, to seek him in the bishop by whom they are sent and in the people to whom they are sent, especially the poor, little children, the weak, sinners and unbelievers (OT, no. 8 emphasis added).

In the following paragraph (no. 9), the Council decrees:

With special care they should be trained in priestly obedience, poverty and a spirit of self-denial, that they may accustom themselves to living in conformity with the crucified Christ and to giving up willingly even those things which are lawful, but not expedient.

In Ad Gentes (Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity) no. 12, the Council states again the Church’s solidarity with all, but especially with the poor and suffering:

As Christ went about all the towns and villages healing every sickness and infirmity, as a sign that the kingdom of God has come (cf. Mt 9:35 ff.; Acts 10:38), so the Church, through its children, joins itself with men of every condition, but especially with the poor and afflicted, and willingly spends herself for them (cf. 2 Cor 12:15). It shares their joys and sorrows, it is familiar with the hopes and problems of life, it suffers with them in the anguish of death....

But it is especially in no. 13 of Perfectae Caritatis (Decree on the Appropriate Renewal of Religious Life) that Vatican II deals with voluntary poverty, which the decree describes as "a symbol of Christ which is much esteemed, especially nowadays." Religious should cultivate it diligently. "It enables them to share in the poverty of Christ... Religious should be poor in fact and in spirit." They should work to earn their living, but they should reject undue solicitude, putting their trust in the Father’s providence.

The religious institutes themselves should endeavor to bear a quasi-collective witness to poverty. "They should willingly contribute part of what they possess for the other needs of the Church and for the support of the poor, whom all religious should love with the deep yearning of Christ (cf. Mt 19:21; 25:34-46; Jas 2:15-16; 1 Jn 3:17)."

Provinces and houses of the different institutes should share their poverty with one another, those having more helping those in need. Institutes should avoid any semblance of luxury, wealth, and accumulation of property.

We must add to all these, the insistence of the Council that the office of bishop is, "in the strict sense of the term, a service, which is called very expressively in sacred scripture a diakonia or ministry" (cf. Acts 1:17 and 25; 21:19; Rom 11:13; 1 Tim 1:12) [LG, no. 24]. Bishops should remember "that he who is greater should become as the lesser, and he who is the leader as the servant" (cf. Lk 22:26-27) [LG, no.27]. What is said about bishops applies also, of course, to their helpers, the priests and deacons.

These texts (and they are by no means exhaustive), show a very rich teaching on voluntary poverty as a following and symbol of Christ who carried out his saving work in poverty. They speak of service done to the poor as done to Christ who has identified himself with the poor and is present in them. They also say that service given to the poor is a sign of Christ’s messianic work through the Church.

The Council exhorts us to live in the spirit of poverty, trusting in God and helping one another, especially the poor. It speaks of ecclesiastical office as a service to all, especially the poor. Through the Church the poor Christ continues to serve Christ in the poor. The service of the poor is thus a sign of Christ’s continuing presence in the world.

Vatican II thus has a very rich teaching on poverty, though it remains true that what finally found its way in its texts is not as rich a teaching on poverty as Cardinals Gerlier, Lercaro and their Church of the Poor group would have wanted. Certainly, poverty both as a virtue and as an economic/social/cultural condition does not have a central place in the Council’s teaching.

Just three years after Vatican II, the Latin American bishops met in Medellin, Colombia to implement the insights of Vatican II in their continent, with Pope Paul VI himself inaugurating the meeting. The document which they issued was entitled, "The Church in the Present-Day Transformation of Latin America in the Light of the Council." They called for a vigorous expression of faith made credible by Christian action for a new social order. Medellin gave a strong impetus to the theology of liberation, from whose theologians the conference already benefited. Ten years afterwards, the Latin American bishops met again in Puebla, this time in the presence of Pope John Paul II. Puebla reiterated Medellin’s commitment to a preferential option for the poor "an option aimed at their integral liberation" (Eagleson and Sharper 1979:1134).

The Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), in their Manila statement in 1970, called for the Church to be a Church of the Poor and has consistently worked towards that vision, advocating dialogue of life especially with the poor. They also advocated this in their plenary statement in 1974.

The Philippines, meanwhile, had martial law imposed on it. Filipinos suffered from the violation of their human rights. Many, attracted by the ideologies of Mao Zedong and Karl Marx, joined the underground movement for a violent overthrow of the government. The majority, however, turned to the Church for guidance and defense. The efforts of the people were inspired by the teachings of Vatican II, the teaching of Pope John Paul II, who visited the Philippines in 1981, and the documents of Medellin and Puebla, as well as the writings of Latin-American liberation theologians. It was the forces for non violent change which prevailed in the famous People Power Peaceful Revolution of February 1985. This resulted in the overthrow of the Marcos regime and the installation as President of Corazon C. Aquino.

Much of what we Filipinos assimilated of the teaching of Vatican II regarding Church teaching on the transformation of society passed, so to say, through Latin America. But there were other influences: the publication of Populorum Progressio (1967), Octogesima Adveniens (1971), Justitia in Mundo (1971),Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), Laborem Exercens (1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), and Redemptoris Missio (1990) and other official Church documents bearing on liberation theology also had a marked influence in committed Catholic individuals and movements in the Philippines.

Thus, when the 489 participants of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines convened at the San Carlos Pastoral Formation Complex on 20 January 1991, many of them came influenced in varying degrees by these international events and publications. They did not, however, come with a common intention of opting for the Church in the Philippines to become a Church of the Poor.

But they did happily come up with this option, after almost one month of praying, meeting, discussing, and living together. In ringing tones, the final message of the participants declared: "As we approach the year 2000, Christ bids this community—ourselves, the laity, religious and clergy of the Catholic Church in the Philippines—to be a Church of the Poor" (PCP-II Acts, no. 96).

Very few expected PCP-II to make this option. The make-up of the assembly did not seem to favor it, because the participants were mostly from the economically well-to-do social classes. The option emerged only in the second half of the month-long meeting. But after it had emerged and been approved with applause from the assembly, Archbishop Leonardo Z. Legazpi, O.P., President of the assembly, said in his final homily, "... the Church has become the sign of renewal in electing to be a church of the poor. The impact of a church of the poor on our vision and mission is immeasurable" (ibid., no. 85).

Pope John XXIII would have been surprised at how far his phrase, Church of the Poor had traveled. The Church of the Poor Group at Vatican II which advocated a central place for the poor in the work of Vatican II, would have been happy to learn that in Asia, the Church in what was at that time the only Christian nation in Asia (there is another one now—East Timor), the Church of the Poor became one of the three central themes of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines, together with the Church as Community of Christ’s Disciples, and Renewed, Integral Evangelization. In fact Church of the Poor will be the litmus test for the success of renewed integral evangelization and is at the same time the necessary pre-condition for the successful building of the Community of Christ’s Disciples in the Philippines. The Church of the Poor is the centerpiece of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines.

The Church of the Poor is the Church in the Philippines’ way of receiving and inculturating one of the most potent but undeveloped seeds which Vatican II sowed in the Lord’s orchard. There was enough in Vatican II to inspire Medellin and Puebla to a new way of evangelization. There was enough in Vatican II to inspire the Church in the Philippines also towards a new way of being Church.

What is the significance of being Church of the Poor? We must see this as a concrete realization and pre-condition for attaining what PCP-II wants—that the Church should be a community of Christ’s disciples. In other words, our ultimate goal, according to PCP-II is to become a true Mystery of Communion and Mission. PCP-II opted to become a Church after the model of the Trinity: "We must ....become a community after the image of the Divine Trinity itself" (PCP-II, par. 660). In this option, it was completely one and in continuity with Vatican II which presented the church as "a people made one with the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit" (LG, no. 4).

We can only move to becoming such a Church modeled after the Trinity, however, if we become a Church of the Poor, since the majority of our people are poor. Unless the great divide between the rich and poor in our country and in our Church is bridged, the poor will not feel that they belong fully to the Church, and full communion cannot be achieved in the Church. The situation here in the Philippines is the concretization on the national level of the lack of unity between the rich and the poor which Paul inveighed heavily against in the church of Corinth (1 Cor 11:17-22). And so, the Church in the Philippines, hoping to build the church as a community of Christ’s disciples, took the bold and necessary option of becoming a Church of the poor. In the words of PCP-II:

When the Church in the Philippines becomes truly the Church of the Poor, the poor will feel at home in her, and will participate actively, as equal to others, in her life and mission, a sign and instrument for the unity of the whole Filipino nation (PCP-II Acts, par. 136).

PCP-II spelled out amply the meaning of Church of the Poor in par. 122-136 of its Acts, though there are many other places as well where some of its elements are also spelled out. This is especially true of the second section (B) of Part III—A Renewed Integral Evangelization. Section B, entitled "Announcing a Message of Liberation," focuses on human liberation in the temporal order precisely because of the urgent need for social transformation in the Philippines (PCP-II Acts, par. 245).

PCP-II begins its section on the Church of the Poor (PCP-II, Acts, par. 122-36) by expressing its sense of God’s urgent call to the Church to serve the poor and the needy. The poverty of at least half of the population was a clear sign that sin had penetrated the country’s social structures. For poverty in the sense of destitution is not God’s will, as Pope John Paul II insisted to the shanty dwellers of Favela dos Alegados in Brazil. It must be noted here that the call from God to be the Church of the Poor did not come from the heavens but from the widespread poverty and suffering of the masses of our people described earlier in the situationer (ibid., par. 23-27).

The poor are blessed, not because poverty is a blessing, but because God comes to the aid of the poor. In the light of this, "in order to bear credible witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ, we need to become the Church of the Poor." This expression does not mean that the Church belongs only to the poor, for it, like her Savior, must embrace all. Here PCP-II speaks in terms reminiscent of John XXIII’s "The Church presents itself... as the Church of all, and particularly as the Church of the Poor" (Message of 11 September 1963).

PCP-II then describes the Church of the Poor God wants. Church of the Poor means "a church that embraces and practices the evangelical spirit of poverty, which combines detachment from possessions with a profound trust in the Lord as the sole source of salvation." The Lord wants all his followers, rich or poor, to be "poor in spirit" (Mt 5:3).

The members of the Church of the Poor have a special love for the poor. This special love, a love of preference for the poor, is not an exclusive and excluding love, for Christians must love everyone, rich and poor (LG, no. 23 is quoted).

This love of preference for the poor is dealt with again lengthily in the section on "Announcing a Message of Liberation," in paragraphs 312-314. Par. 312 deserves quoting in full:

It is also a demand of Christ for his disciples to follow his own love of preference for the poor. This option takes on the greatest urgency in our country where a very great number of our people wallow in abject poverty and misery while tremendous social privileges and deference are accorded the rich and the powerful. The common good dictates that more attention must be given to the less fortunate members of society. We, as a Church, indeed, opt for all men, women and children of the world but above all, preferentially we opt like Jesus for the "little ones," the poor and marginalized of our societies. This is an essential option of Christian faith, an obligatory choice. Eternal salvation depends on the living out of a love of preference for the poor because the poor and needy bear the privileged presence of Christ.

Here, the preferential option for the poor is described as "a demand of Christ for his disciples," "an essential option of Christian faith, an obligatory choice" upon which our eternal salvation depends. The reasons for this preferential option are given: the common good, the example of Christ, and the privileged presence of Christ in the poor and the needy. This option for the poor is a preferential, but not an exclusive and excluding option.

The Church of the Poor (to return to par. 125-36) is one where "at the very least the poor are not discriminated against because of their poverty, and they will not be deprived of their right to receive in abundance the help of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially that of the word of God and the sacraments from the pastors." In practice, no one is to be deprived of the sacraments or the services of the Church simply because they cannot pay the usual stole fees. The practice of having "classes" for the celebration of the sacraments is also called into question.

The Church of the Poor means that "the pastors and other Church leaders will give preferential attention and time to those who are poor, and will generously share of their own resources in order to alleviate their poverty and make them recognize the love of the Lord for them despite their poverty." Immersion by pastors and Church leaders among the poor is suggested as a way of knowing the poor.

The Church of the Poor will practice solidarity with the poor. "It will collaborate with the poor themselves and with others to lift up the poor from their poverty" (LG no. 8 is cited).

The Church of the Poor will remind the rich of their duties and will condemn injustices committed against the poor. "Pastors and members of the church will courageously defend and vindicate the rights of the poor and the oppressed, even when doing so will mean alienation or persecution from the rich and powerful" (PCP-II Acts, par. 131).

Church of the Poor will also mean that the Church will not only evangelize the poor but that the poor will themselves become evangelizers. In its work of evangelization, there will be a preferential reliance on the poor (PCP-II Acts, par. 132).

"Pastors and leaders of such a Church of the Poor will not compete for the most prosperous parishes or offices, and will not ambition for titles and honors... Rather, they will live simply in order to share what they have with the needy" after the example of Christ (PCP-II Acts, par. 133).

In the Church of the Poor "the entire community of disciples, especially the rich and better off sectors of the community and its leaders and pastors, will have such a love of preference for the poor as to orient and tilt the center of gravity of the entire community in favor of the needy" (PCP-II Acts, par. 134). Finally,

The Church of the Poor is one that is willing to follow Jesus Christ through poverty and oppression in order to carry out the work of salvation. Although she needs human resources to carry out her mission she will be aware that she "is not set up to seek earthly glory, but to proclaim, and this by her own example, humility and self-denial (LG, no. 8)."

As said above, there are other places in PCP-II that deal with the Church of the Poor. The section on the clergy where the priest is called the servant-leader of the Christian community is instilled with this same option. The poor are called "very special" among the priest’s concerns (PCP-II Acts, par. 529). And priests are reminded:

Recognizing the plight of the poor and deprived who are so often neglected by the rich and the mighty, the servant leader encourages the Christian community (especially the better-off among them) to reach out with compassion to the weak. He makes real to the Christian community Christ’s love of preference for the poor (PCP-II Acts, par. 527).

From this all-too-quick survey of "places" in both Vatican II and PCP-II on the subject of poverty and the poor in the eyes of the Church, we can make this summary observation:

First of all, while the poor do not figure as prominently in Vatican II documents as much as those of us in a Third World country and those in the Church of the Poor Group would have wanted, there are many seminal ideas regarding this matter in the Council’s documents. Nowhere does the Council use Pope John XXIII’s words Church of the Poor or "preferential option for the poor," but what we mean today by these terms is already seminally present in the conciliar documents.

The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines, influenced by Puebla, Pope John Paul II, (cf. PCP-II, par. 124, which cites Laborem Exercens, no. 8), and liberation theologians, has made liberal use of Church of the Poor and the phrase, "preferential option for the poor."

The Church of the Poor became in PCP-II one of the three key themes: Community of Christ’s Disciples, Church of the Poor, and Renewed Integral Evangelization. This is very clear from the Vision-Mission Statement for the Philippine Church formulated by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, and from the National Pastoral Plan to implement PCP-II. According to PCP-II, we come to true communion, to being a community of Christ’s disciples, by becoming a Church of the Poor. Unless we become a Church of the Poor, communion, the innermost reality of the Church according to Vatican II will not be achieved by us Filipinos in the way the Lord desires. That is why Renewed Integral Evangelization must be geared towards human, temporal liberation, and seek social transformation. Evangelization in the Philippines must be a service of and for the Church of the Poor. The Church of the Poor is the centerpiece of the PCP-II vision for the Church in the Philippines.

PCP-II did not come to hear the Church in the Philippines’ vocation to be the Church of the Poor by hearing a voice from the heavens but by seeing the widespread poverty of the suffering masses. This was a case of reading the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel according to Vatican II’s teaching (GS, no. 4).

The Church of the Poor is the Church in the Philippines’ mode of reception of the Church as a Mystery of Communion and Mission. Taking up the Council’s ideas, PCP-II, in an act of reception of Vatican II, enriched and spelled out clearly and systematically the way for the Church in the Philippines to be a local Church in the spirit of Vatican II.

What Vatican II is for the whole world, PCP-II must be for the Church in the Philippines. It is the same Spirit of God which blew in Vatican II and in PCP-II. Without Vatican II, there would not have been a PCP-II, but without PCP-II, the reception of Vatican II by the Church in the Philippines would have been much slower, weaker, and less focused.

The reception of Vatican II that happened in PCP-II is what may be called "Reception as Interpretation." PCP-II interpreted and applied to the Philippines, and developed as well a very important truth proclaimed but not centrally by Vatican II. It gave the names Church of the Poor and "preferential option for the poor" to what Vatican II spelled out in disparate places of its documents.

But there is that even more important part of reception, which is Reception as Movement. This means "the elaboration—in ordinary life, in attitudes, in values, in relationships, in priorities, in lifestyle—of the renewed self-understanding and mission" (Tagle 2003:98. I borrow the useful distinction between Reception as Interpretation and Reception as Movement from him.)

On 22-27 January 2001, delegates from all over the Philippines convened again in the San Carlos Formation Complex, site of PCP-II, for a National Pastoral Consultation on Church Renewal in order to assess the impact of the plenary council in the life of the Church and of the faithful. Assessments varied, but it is safe to say that the delegates found that much has been done but that much has also been wanting in the Church’s efforts in the past ten years to implement PCP-II. Many felt that while much was done for the poor, the poor have not experienced the Church and its leaders as friends. Solidarity with the poor has not gone far enough. The participants, in their message, make this admission:

The Church in the Philippines has, to our shame, also remained unchanged in some respects. Due to weakness in formation and education, the lack of defined diocesan pastoral directions and programs, and deficiencies in structures, many prescriptions of PCP-II have not been implemented. But beyond these factors, we see that failures in renewal have come from a deeper source: our hardness of heart and resistance to conversion. We confess that among those who make up the Church, even among some in positions of leadership and responsibility, the new attitudes, options, and lifestyles demanded by a Church that is a Community of Disciples and Church of the Poor have all too often been honored in words but rejected in life. Moreover, largely due to uncritical acceptance of the values of the dominant society…, we, as Church have to confess some responsibility for many of the continuing ills of Philippine society ("Behold I Make All things New" (Rev 21:5), In Church Renewal, Challenge to the Church in the New Millennium, Manila: Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, no. 5).

And so, one of the pastoral priorities reiterated once more was active presence and participation of the poor in the Church. In their final message the participants state:

In order to make authentic our commitment to becoming a Church of the Poor, we must be evangelically poor. Therefore, we shall seek to liberate ourselves from mentalities, values, behaviors and lifestyles that discriminate against the materially poor. We shall listen to them and with them create conditions in which they are heard and can enjoy the blessings of God’s creation. As poor, among the poor, with the poor, we shall understand, live, celebrate and share our common faith in Jesus Christ crucified and risen (Ibid., no. 7).

Almost three years have passed since the writing of that message coming from contrite hearts resolved anew to make Church of the Poor a reality in the Philippines. Since then many things have changed, but poverty in the Philippines has not lessened, and its causes have not been eradicated. Corruption remains unchecked. Philippine politics has not improved. It remains the chief obstacle to our progress as a nation. The Church has not been identified by the poor as their friend.

There is still hope, so we must ask: Will PCP-II’s vision of a Church of the Poor remain a dream? Will our leaders and people fail the vision of Vatican II that inspired it and served as its guiding light? Will our reception of Vatican II remain on the level of words? For the good of the Church and of our country, with the help of the Holy Spirit, let us continue the vision of the Church of the Poor.


1. Acts and Decrees of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines, p. 26. Henceforth to be referred to as PCP-II Acts.

2. Discorsi, Messaggi, Colloqui del S. Padre Giovanni XXIII, Vatican City, vol. IV, p. 524.

3. The activities of this important group, which bore much promise, are amply reported in vols. II to IV of History of Vatican II, edited by Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph A. Komonchak, (Orbis/Peeters). Henceforth referred to simply as History. The reports on the group are especially found in vol. II, pp. 200-203; vol. III, pp. 164-66; vol. IV, pp. 382-86. What I present here is a summary of those accounts.

4. Dwyer, 772. This Dictionary is a very valuable mine of information on the social teaching of the Church. It has very rich sections on poverty and the preferential option for the poor.


Abbot, Walter S.J. (ed.)

The Documents of Vatican II (Herder and Herder and Association Press).

Dwyer, Judith A. (ed.)

The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press).

Eagleson, J. and P. Sharper (eds.)

1979 Puebla and Beyond: Documentation and Commentary, translated by J. Drury (Maryknoll: Orbis).

Tagle, Luis Antonio G.

2003 It Is the Lord! (Manila: Loyola School of Theology).

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