Promise and Perils of the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act (RA 10931)

“Complementarity, Academic Freedom, and how to deal with the Promise of RA 10931.”  Conversation with Sen. Ralph Recto.  COCOPEA National Congress, SMX Aura, BGC, 16 March 2018.

It is an honor for me to join you, Sen. Ralph Recto, in this conversation.  As COCOPEA lodged its objection against a proposed bill that would only make tertiary education free in State Universities and College, you were the Senator we felt truly appreciated the contribution of private Higher Education to higher education in the Philippines.  You were convinced that the proposed law should benefit not only students going to SUCs but also qualified students opting to go to private HEIs for their education. You encouraged us in fighting for a law premised on the complementarity between public and private universities.  Most important of all, you used your power and influence in the Senate to gather support for the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act (UAQTEA) that made access of the poor to private HEIs possible through the Tertiary Education Subsidy (TES) and the Student Loan Program for Tertiary Education (SLPTE), and it was you who insisted that the funding for this law should anchored in the recurring General Appropriations Act whose appropriations for this may increase annually with increasing recognition of need.  For all this, Sen. Recto, thank you very much! Thanks to you, we celebrate today the promise of RA 10931:

In my view,  the UAQTEA underscores:

  1. The importance of universal access to quality higher education, where access to quality higher education in the past was the prerogative only of the wealthy.
  2. The importance of quality higher education. RA 10931 is not just access to poor education.  Not just preparation for jobs in a status quo economy, but about educated human beings able to contribute critically to the common good.
  3. The importance of the complementarity between public and private HEIs in the State’s system of providing quality education for all.
  4. The importance of evolving a national consensus on “quality” when referring to education. This is part of the COCOPEA roadmap for HE.  Four necessary components of quality:  the achievement minimum standards, the achievement of standards of excellence, the HEIs faithful implementation of its VM, in satisfaction of stakeholders.  [I mean this where “Minimum standards” are product of dialogue among the HEIs vested with academic freedom and not imposed by a regulative body.]

In this context, we may now consider not only the promise but also the perils of RA 10931.  I will mention four:

Promise 1:  Students have access to free tertiary education in state universities that provide quality education. Because they are delivering state-funded free education, the state universities [eventually] are the universities of choice noted for their quality. RA 10931 is a justification for funding for quality improvement in State schools. [No state-funded free low-quality education!]

Peril:  Free tertiary education in SUCS fetters qualified students to SUCs or LCUs whose programs do not respond to the needs of the students, or whose quality is inferior to that in private universities. They go to SUCs because it is free, no matter the quality, and because there is no real alternative.

Promise 2:  Qualified students can be admitted to private HEIs of quality appropriate to their educational needs through the TES, complemented when necessary by the SLPTE.  With every budget year, more and more students benefit from higher education despite their needy economic circumstances – or even as progress eliminates poverty. 

Peril:  qualified students cannot access quality private education because of the insufficiency of funding for the TES or SLPTE.  The focus of State funding is access, disregarding quality.  With every budget year, more and more needy students are shut out of quality higher education.

Promise 3:  the SUCs, LCUs and the private HEIs come together in local clusters to strengthen their instruction, research and outreach in the locality through such as the partnership between COCOPEA and PASUC.  Focus is not only on access, but on the improvement of quality, based on ASEAN QA Framework.  This involves [truly] external quality assessment bodies using appropriate evaluative standards and procedures, internal quality assurance (IQA) mechanisms in all HEIs, and alignment with the legislated Philippine Qualifications Framework. 

Peril:  The SUCs and LCUs on the one hand, and the private HEIs on the other, continue on their separate paths.  Government supports only access to SUCS for political advantage.  But the quality of education in SUCs degenerates because of inevitable political interference in the SUCs and LCUs. Meanwhile,  private quality HEIs are eventually killed because private HEIs subject to market forces cannot compete with aggressive government funding of such as salaries, faculty development and research.

Promise 4:  Both public and private HEIs are complemented in each others’ operations providing quality innovative education for all responsive to the needs not only of the economy but of humane society in the Philippines.  The system of higher educational delivery for all is continually enhanced. 

Peril:  one-track monolithic state education for the masses.  Imperiled private HEIs.  Private HEIs only for the very wealthy.

In this light, the COCOPEA, the unified voice of private education in the Philippines, must continue to develop itself into a political force fueled by the educational aspirations of the Filipino people to work on the promises of EAQTEA and avoid its perils.  The people must demand that legislators led by such as Sen. Recto  appropriate the funds necessary for the full purpose and promise of the EAQTEA, esp. sufficient funds for the TES and SLPT which are relevant for those students opting to go to private HEIs.  The funds however must not come at the cost of weakening basic education, for a weakened basic education weakens higher education.  COCOPEA must continue to promote genuine collaboration between public and private HEIs in the provision of quality higher education, and the development of a self-governing higher education sector.  Through the academic freedom vested in the HEI by the Constitution,  the entire  higher education institution (HEI) community must take responsibility for quality.  In this context, COCOPEA must insist on evidenced quality and quality assurance as an eventual pre-requisite for EAQTEA funding.  All HEIs must practice ASEAN-level quality assurance  or be disqualified from  EAQTEA funding.

The bottom line:  the promise of RA 10931 is universal access to quality tertiary education!  Sen. Recto, we must continue to work together to keep that promise!


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Our Abiding Commitment to Catholic Higher Education

[Address to 2018 Higher Education Summit]

I regret that I cannot be with you personally this afternoon due to a PAASCU accreditation visit of our higher education programs at Ateneo de Davao. But through this video, I would like to congratulate you for your participation in this 2018 CEAP Higher Education Summit on the Future of Philippine Higher Education: Charting Post-K-to-12 Philippine Higher Education. It has been an audacious undertaking, and I congratulate Msgr. Jose Gualberto Villasis and the other members of the National Tertiary Education Commission for organizing it.

Multi-Level University Credentials and the University of Everywhere

I am sure that the keynote message delivered by Dr. Sean Gallagher of Northeastern University in the USA on “The Future of University Credentials” was stimulating. In most of our CEAP HEIs, if not in most of our private sector HEIs, we are focused on the day-to-day challenges of maintaining operations according to the prescriptions and interventions of CHED into our operations, which are unfortunately not always helpful. We don’t look at our HEIs from the lens of their being credentialing agents, and even if we do, we normally look at them as producing what Gallagher refers to as “monolithic college degrees,” the AB, the BS, the Masters or the Doctorate degrees. On the presumption that they actually produce knowledge and wisdom helpful to our students and society, we often do not care to relate the value of these degree to what is demanded in the job market. It is something that we can do, but don’t necessarily do, assuming that fulfilling the requirements of CHED takes care of the meaningfulness of our programs. Through the keynote of Dr. Gallagher we have been invited, I presume, to consider our HEIs also as credentialing agents for outcomes coveted and so economically valuable in the market. The outcomes today are signaled not only through traditional monolithic degrees conferred in our brick and mortar colleges, but also achieved through what we would consider out-of-the-box innovative higher education models and their corresponding credentials. Among these are online education, professional certifications, certificate program, massive open online courses (MOOCS), competency-based education, intensive boot camps, nano degrees and micro credentials much of which is mediated though Information Technology and the Internet. Meanwhile we must note that establishing the real value of these out-of-the-box credentials is a work in progress.

The discussion of the keynote was complemented, I am sure, by the Closing Plenary led by Dr. Vicente Fabella that was entitled “Envisioning the University of Everywhere.” In his provocative book, The End of College, Keven Carey argues that the promise of the University of Everywhere is that anyone, anywhere, anytime will be able to use free digital resources – books, lecture videos, images, sounds and increasingly powerful digital learning environments – to learn, and in turn earn some sort of credential. Whether or not one agrees with Carey that this ushers in “The End of College” and the dawn of the online cyber University of Everywhere, one must accept that the higher education environment is changing in a more connected world. With this, the fact that the business models which bring income to our schools may radically change may fill us with dread. Imagine, free tertiary-level education everywhere! Even if both Gallagher and Carey are speaking from the context of far-away USA, because the internet is Everywhere, they are really talking of the University of Everywhere that already impacts on the Philippines. It is good that we have had opportunity during this Summit to consider what this may mean or our schools.

Impact on our Catholic HEIs

In a changing world we are challenged to innovate beyond our hollow-block and GI-sheet colleges and universities. So we have happily had opportunity during this Summit to explore the nature of these challenges as they may affect us and our leadership.

Facing the combined challenges of more–traditional and of excitingly-innovative systems may lead us to acknowledge that systems of learning, whether traditional or new, whether supported by chalk and chalk talk, mere overhead or fancy multi-media projectors, or sophisticated new IT-based technology, must bear fruit for us in learning outcomes in our students that they can use for their advancement as human beings, the advancement of their ability to provide for their families through their livelihood, their professions or their entrepreneurial involvement, and thereby to contribute to the common weal of society. To that, in CEAP, we add, not as an accidental and unnecessary add-on, but as a constitutive dimension of the why and the way we do higher education in the Philippines, the instruction and formation of our students whose outcome is, not just by our achievements but by God’s grace, mature practicing Catholic believers contributing to civil society through the communion of the Church.

Unto this end there is the abiding requirement to teach and to teach well, to shape values sensitive to the exigencies of human dignity and the will of divinity, to invite love for and commitment to the Catholic Church, the communion of disciples of the Lord in our world, with all its shortcomings, foibles and sin, and to model the behavior of love and of doing justice that we would like our students freely to embrace for life. Whether our institutions are credentialing agents in the traditional brick and mortar sense or in the manner of new IT-mediated systems, we must consider how our students are credentialed to find their life vocation – quite different from a job in our economy – to support Christian families bound by mature love, to commit themselves to and serve the common good as the Kingdom of God where we work with Jesus laboring to bring “life, life to the full” to our troubled world. Whether or not we agree with the premises of the University of Everywhere, everywhere we must be the Catholic University reshaping our Philippine and global multi-cultures Ex Corde Ecclesiae – from the heart of the Church. Where we are many Catholic schools and Catholic HEIs, big and small, we must hold ourselves together in solidarity and support one another in living out our sublime calling as Catholic schools.

Humbly, we must learn the importance of quality assurance, finding the systems to assure ourselves and our stakeholders – people in industry, in government but also our Catholic parents and our bishops – that we are doing what we say we are doing, not only for our humanistic and professional programs, but for our entire HEIs as committed to evangelization and Christian formation. For our secular programs, the processes of certification or accreditation may be appropriate, even if yet undersubscribed. But for the Catholicity of our HEIs, the work that is being done to articulate the Philippine Catholic School Standards for Higher Education is arguably the most important activity in CEAP today. In this CEAP higher-education Summit let us acknowledge the work that is being done by our colleagues in this undertaking and call on God to bless their labors.

Necessary Networking to Advance and Protect our Catholic Mission

Meanwhile because of our commitment to Catholic education, we must work hard and work together to advance and protect our private schools and private HEIs through appropriate networking. Through COCOPEA we continue to labor to make sure our private schools are heard, that the constitutionally-mandated complementarity between public and private schools is observed, that together with the state schools we contribute meaningfully to the system that in the Philippines delivers quality education to all on all levels, that responsible academic freedom essential to higher education and guaranteed by the Constitution and by law is preserved and advanced, and that in academic freedom we advance towards self governance. In this context, it is absolutely necessary to advance the forged partnership between the COCOPEA and the Philippine Association of State Universities and Colleges (PASUC) under its new President, Dr. Tirso Ronquillo of the University of Batangas after the tragic murder of its former President, Dr. Ric Rotoras of the University of Science and Technology of Southern Philippines. Through the COCOPEA-PASUC partnership, the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act (RA 10931) was passed and signed into law; through this partnership its equitable implementation must be guaranteed. Beyond this, we must we must meet the challenges together of making meaningful contributions, shaped by our Catholic spirit, to the critical realization of Ambisyon Natin 2040 and the preservation of our mission and the tax privileges that support that mission in the 1987 Constitution even as Federalism and a new Constitution are aggressively being pushed. Therefore I am urging your active participation in the forthcoming 7th COCOPEA Congress on March 15. Because of our commitment to Catholic education, we must better organize ourselves to take advantage of our numbers to be heard neither as beggars nor as lackeys but as a political force. We must meet the new challenges everywhere of truth vs. fake news, real vs. virtual relations, love vs. lust, of lives hollowed by the absence of loved ones, of lack of resilience and depression, of substance abuse and of bullying, of belonging and hazing, of sad instances of suicide and suicidal attempts among our students, of violent extremism and the absence of peace.

The educational landscape is changing. When we hear of innovative credentialing, mass open online courses (MOOCs), digital badges, and the expenses and intricacies of new technologies, we may be tempted to think that contemporary change in education is beyond us. But we must be active protagonists in that change. Why? Because of the Catholic education to which we commit our lives and our institutions.   Because of the Gospel that we are convinced is relevant for the lives of our students and the development of our nation. Because we are convinced: Catholic education has a crucial role to play in our shared educational system in the Philippines.


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7th National COCOPEA Congress

16 February 2018

To:    Members of the CEAP Board of Trustees, the Superintendents,
and the Heads of our CEAP schools

President, CEAP

Re:  7th National COCOPEA Congress (March 15 & 16, 2018)
Greetings of Peace! 

I would like to respectfully endorse the very active participation of our CEAP schools in the forthcoming 7TH COCOPEA CONGRESS at the SMX Aura, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City, on March 15 to 16, 2018.

In our commitment to contribute meaningfully to the goal of providing quality education to all in our country, it is important that we enhance our personal and institutional relationships with colleagues and institutions in other educational associations. First, with those of other member associations of the COCOPEA, “the unifying voice of private education,” namely: the Association of Christian Schools, Colleges and Universities (ACSCU), the Philippine Association of Colleges and Universities (PACU), the Philippine Association of Private Schools, Colleges, and Universities (PAPSCU), and the Technical- Vocational Association of the Philippines (TEVSAPHIL); and secondly, through the COCOPEA working with the Philippine Association of State Universities and Colleges (PASUC).

The current chair of the COCOPEA, Dr. Pio D. Baconga, also concurrently President of ACSCU and President of Pilgrim College in Cagayan de Oro, invites us all to active participation in the forthcoming 7th COCOPEA CONGRESS with the theme Operationalizing the Complementary Role of Private Education in the Socio-economic Development of the Philippines.

The Duterte administration has articulated its collective long-term vision and aspirations for all Filipinos in Ambisyon Natin 2040. Within the next generation, the administration undertakes to lead the country towards a state where poverty shall have been eradicated, where all citizens are living in shared prosperity, and have access to public transportation that is functional, where families can come together on Sundays, and where all citizens are educated, smart, and technically savvy. All universities and colleges are invited to contribute to this national goal. Your participation in the COCOPEA CONGRESS would allow us to better articulate how Catholic education, in particular, might contribute to the realization of this long-term national vision. 

As we operate our Catholic schools throughout the country, we ask you to help articulate how the

insights of the Gospel, the social doctrine of the Church, and of such as the Evangelii Gaudium, Laudato Si, and Amoris Laetitia provide learning outcomes that are essential to the progress of the nation.

The objectives of the congress are as follows:

  1. COCOPEA to put across to Policy Makers and Influencers that high quality education is good for all, whether it is public or
  2. Push complementarity in the pursuit of high quality education as integral to nation building and economic development; for government to embrace public and private education as partners.
  3. Define that academic freedom is absolutely necessary for quality higher education, discovery of knowledge and innovation; we cannot have a type of government regulation that kills academic freedom.
  4. Find ways to enable government to more significantly support the Private Schools financially as its partners in high QUALITY education.

Recently, in exercise of these advocated principles, CEAP worked very closely with the COCOPEA and PASUC to transform a one-side legislated proposal for “free tuition in state universities and colleges” into the Universal Access for Quality Tertiary Education Act (RA 10931), signed into law by President Duterte on May 3, 2017. While the latter still provides free tuition in state universities and colleges, it now also provides a framework of increased state funding for qualified students in private HEIs through the Tertiary Education Subsidy (TES) and the Student Loan Program for Higher Education (SLPHE).

For this law to really benefit our schools, the actual need of our schools for the TES and the SLPHE must be clearly manifested and advocated. Politicians and policy makers who will attend the Congress must understand that the demand for adequate funding for the TES and the SLPHE, must be met in the interest of the nation. Your participation in the COCOPEA Congress in credible numbers would help articulate this urgent need for our schools.

Among the issues that shall be urgently addressed in the COCOPEA CONGRESS is Constitutional Change to adopt a federal system of government. The dominant political party, the PDP-Laban is proposing “a semi-Presidential system” or “a hybrid parliamentary system” that would be unique to the Philippines. In this proposal the President is the Head of State who shall be elected at large “to serve as a symbol of national unity”, command the Armed Forces, and preside over the foreign affairs of the country. The Prime Minister, however, elected by members of the Federal Assembly, shall run the day- to-day affairs of government through a cabinet whose members are appointed from the members of the Federal Assembly. As we all know, President Duterte has advocated Federalism as a way of breaking the hold of central government in “Imperial Manila” on the development resources of the country. But his allies in Congress seem to be railroading their version of Federalism with inadequate explanations of their proposals and even less listening to people on the ground. The impression is that Constitutional Change is being railroaded through a Constituent Assembly that should approve a new Constitution within this calendar year. For CEAP and COCOPEA it is most urgent to note that the current PDP-Laban version of the Constitution completely deletes the constitutional exemption from taxes for non-stock non-profit schools. The forthcoming COCOPEA CONGRESS will help us to firm up our respective positions on Constitutional Change, understand how our schools may make meaningful contributions to the process of constitutional change, and importantly provide us an opportunity to jointly express our objections to the deletion of the congressional tax exemption for non-stock non- profit schools in the proposed Constitution.

Indeed, you may wish to come to the COCOPEA CONGRESS to express your thoughts on whether the Constitution should be changed at all. Former Constitutional Convention Delegate Christian Monsod believes that the 1987 Constitution, a “Social-Justice Constitution, (cf esp. Art. XIII)” has yet to be

properly implemented. He argues that the imbalances between the center and the regions can be remedied through corrective legislation. The remedy may be worse than the illness.

Finally, the forthcoming COCOPEA CONGRESS may allow us to take position on the deletion in the proposed PDP-Laban Constitution of Article XIV Sec. 4 (2):

“Educational institutions, other than those established by religious groups and mission boards, shall be owned solely by citizens of the Philippines or corporations or associations at less sixty per centum of the capital of which is owned by such citizens. The Congress may however require increased Filipino equity participation in all educational institutions.

“The control and administration of educational institutions shall be vested in citizens of the Philippines.

“No educational institution shall be established exclusively for aliens and no group of aliens shall comprise more than one-third of the enrollment in any school. The provisions of this subsection shall not apply to schools established for foreign diplomatic personnel and their dependents and, unless otherwise provided by law, for other foreign temporary residents.”

Are we ready to welcome competition to our schools coming from foreign countries? Is it good for the country that foreigners can own and operate schools in the country where there is no restriction on the foreign participation in the studentry?

For all of these reasons, your participation in the forthcoming 7th COCOPEA CONGRESS is highly encouraged. The CEAP National Secretariat will help you with your registration. Because participation shall be limited, I encourage you to register now.

Thank you and God bless.




Greetings of peace from COCOPEA!

We are very pleased to inform our member-schools from the five (5) Associations comprising the COCOPEA (CEAP, PACU, ACSCU, PAPSCU and TVSA) of our forthcoming 7th COCOPEA Congress, which will be held at the SMX Convention Center-SM Aura, Bonifacio Global City on March 15-16, 2018. This is our biennial Congress for all private schools in the entire country. The congress theme: “Operationalizing the Complementary Role of Private Education in the Socioeconomic Development of the Philippines” is collectively expressing our strong advocacy as an integral partner in nation-building through education and human resource development. Various relevant topics and resource persons of authority and competence will grace this momentous event of COCOPEA.

In this regard, we are sincerely inviting all of you to take part and participate in this significant event. We will be passing relevant and significant resolutions promoting our advocacies and sentiments to assert our stake as a private education sector during the Business Plenary sessions. Your attendance will be a great factor in pursuing our complementary role in providing education in the country. This is our opportune time to manifest our solidarity and strength as a block or sector in society, ready to be counted in the pursuit of our vision for sustainable growth and total development of our beloved country.

Please block this date. We are looking forward to see you in our 7th COCOPEA Congress. Registration which we have rationalized will be P3,900 for NCR and Region 4-A participants and P2,900 for participants from the rest of the Regions with due consideration of their travel costs. A discount of PhP200 is offered to each who will register and pay on or before 28 February 2018. Please make your check payable to COORDINATING COUNCIL OF PRIVATE EDUCATIONAL ASSOCIATIONS. You may deposit your Fee to the COCOPEA BPI Account No. 3992-0085-26. The Registration Form is attached. Kindly return it with your Deposit Slip by e-mail to MR. JEZREEL QUESADA at, or Fax 02-911- 5888. A COCOPEA Official Receipt will be issued to you promptly.

For further information, kindly contact our Secretariat/Executive Director Dr. Patricio Dionio (02) 913-2932 / 0916-232-4699 or your respective Association Executive Directors.

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DATE: 15 & 16 March 2018


Operationalizing the Complementary Role of Private Education in the Socioeconomic Development of the Philippines


  1. For COCOPEA to put across to policy makers and influencers that high quality education is a good for all, whether it is private or
  2. For COCOPEA to push for complementarity in the pursuit of high quality education as integral to nation building and economic development; for Government to embrace public and private education as
  3. To define that academic freedom is absolutely necessary for quality higher education, discovery of knowledge, and innovation; we cannot abide by unfair regulations that kill academic
  4. To find ways to enable government to be significantly supportive of the Private Schools as its partner in fostering quality



8:00am – 1:00pm

Registration and Distribution of Kits

10:00am – 10:30am

Opening of Exhibits and Ribbon Cutting



Board of Trustees and Exhibitors

11:00am – 1:00pm

Press Conference





Media Representatives Board of Trustees

1:00pm – 2:00pm




Invocation DR. BRUCE E. OLDHAM

President , Asia-Pacific Nazarene Theological Seminary

Welcome Address and Recognition of Guests

and Stakeholders


Chairperson, COCOPEA President, ACSCU

President, Pilgrim Christian College

Overview and Purposes of the Congress DHANNA KERINA B. RODAS, Ph.D.

President, PACU

President, University of Baguio

Introduction of the Keynote Speakers JOSE PAULO E. CAMPOS, Ph.D.

Vice Chairperson, COCOPEA President, PAPSCU

President, Emilio Aguinaldo College


2:00 – 2:45pm


The Philippine Development Plan and the Role of Higher Education



Cabinet Secretary Office of the President

Republic of the Philippines

2:45pm – 3:00pm


3:00 – 4:00pm

Conversations on the Philippine Economic Outlook and its Impact on Philippine

Education Reforms



Socioeconomic Planning Secretary and NEDA Director General


Trustee, PACU & COCOPEA President, Jose Rizal University



Trustee, ACSCU

President, Silliman University

4:00pm – 5:00pm Conversations on Complementarity, Academic Freedom; and How to deal with the Promise of RA 10931  


Republic of the Philippines



President, CEAP

President, Ateneo de Davao University



Trustee, PACU & COCOPEA President, Ozamis University


8:00am – 8:10am




Director, FEBIAS College of Bible School Member, ACSCU

8:10am – 8:30am

Recap of Day 1



President, TVSA Trustee, COCOPEA

President, IETI College of Science and Technology

8:30am – 9:30am

Conversations on the Drafting of the New Philippine Constitution; and Regulatory Challenges of Private Education



Dean, San Beda Graduate School of Law Member, Constitutional Review Panel


COCOPEA Legal Counsel Estrada & Aquino Law, Co.



Trustee, PACU & COCOPEA President, University of the East

9:30am – 9:45am


9:45am – 10:45am

Conversations on the Voice of the Business




Chairperson, Professional Regulation Commission


President, Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry




  Trustee, TVSA

President, Manpower Educative Innovations & Network, Inc.

10:45am – 11:45am

Conversations on Focusing on Skills in the K-12




Deputy Director General, TESDA


Trustee, COCOPEA VP External, TVSA

Superintendent, Don Bosco Schools



Trustee, TVSA & COCOPEA Executive Director, Monark Inc.

11:45am – 1:30pm






Vice President, Asia Pacific Computing Technology Industry Association

Presentation on International IT Certification
1:30pm – 2:30pm

Updates from PEAC



Executive Director, PEAC



Trustee, COCOPEA

President, St. Michael’s College of Laguna VP, PAPSCU

2:30pm – 3:00pm  
The Future of Private Schools in the CHEC Commissioner
Philippines OIC, CHED


3:00 – 3:30pm


3:30 – 4:00pm

COCOPEA Business Meeting


Executive Director, COCOPEA


COCOPEA Legal Counsel Estrada & Aquino Law, Co.

4:00pm – 4:10pm

Thanksgiving Prayer




Superintendent, Diocese of Lingayen-Dagupan


Program as of February 2, 2018
*Some of the speakers are still for confirmation.

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Dispute Between the Bishop of Bacolod and St. John’s Institute (Huaming) and Its Implications for CEAP and ECCCE

Fr. Joel Tabora, S.J.
President, CEAP

IMG_2652The yet unresolved public dispute between His Excellency, Most Rev. Patricio Buzon, Bishop of Bacolod, and St. John’s Institute (SJI), also known as Huaming (Lux, Light), necessitates a clarificatory discussion of the juridical personality in the Christian Communion of SJI, a Catholic School operated by Catholic laypersons for the education and evangelization of the youth, its obligations and rights.  The clarification would benefit the relationship between the local bishops and Catholic schools in general.  SJI serves youth in Bacolod, especially those belonging to the Filipino-Chinese Community. In civil society it subsists as a juridical person registered as a non stock, non profit corporation with the SEC under Philippine Law and it is recognized as a sectarian school by the Department of Education.  It is a member in good standing of the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines.

The Ecclesiastical Mission of Catholic Schools

IMG_2665.jpgSince its founding 59 years ago, SJI has operated as such a school, participating in the ecclesiastical mission of Catholic schools to respond (a) to “the right of all human beings for an education” and (b) “to the right of all Catholics to Catholic education” (cf. Gravissimum educationis 1, 2).  This education aims not only for the maturing of the human person, “but has as its principal purpose this goal:  that the baptized, while they are gradually introduced to the knowledge of the mystery of salvation, become ever more aware of the gift of the Father they have received, and that they learn in addition how to worship God the Father in spirit and truth (cf. John 4:23) especially in liturgical action, and be conformed in their personal lives according to the new man created in justice and holiness of truth (Eph. 4:22-24); also that they develop into perfect manhood, to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ (cf. Eph. 4:13) and strive for the growth of the Mystical Body; moreover, that aware of their calling, they learn not only how to bear witness to the hope that is in them (cf. Peter 3:15) but also how to help in the Christian formation of the world that takes place when natural powers viewed in the full consideration of man redeemed by Christ contribute to the good of the whole society” (ibid).

DSC_0670This mission of Catholic education is echoed in Canon 795, “Since true education must strive for complete formation of the human person that looks to his or her final end as well as to the common good of societies, children and youth are to be nurtured in such a way that they are able to develop their physical, moral, and intellectual talents harmoniously, acquire a more perfect sense of responsibility and right use of freedom, and are formed to participate actively in social life.”   The education that looks to the children’s transcendent and “final end” is sensitive to the mystery of salvation in grace, even as it is clearly to benefit “the good of the whole society” in history.

The importance of the mission of Catholic education for the human community as well as for the ecclesial community is clearly integral to the Church’s substantial understanding of the Catholic school, even as the canonical definition of the school (Can. 803), discussed below, focuses on external formalities.  This canon recognizes the substantial reality of the Catholic school, even should, for whatever reason, it not be formally recognized by the bishop.

The Expected Support of Bishops for Catholic Schools

IMG_2658.jpgIn Gravissimum educationis the Church states, “This Sacred Council of the Church earnestly entreats pastors and all the faithful to spare no sacrifice in helping Catholic schools fulfill their function in a continually more perfect way, and especially in caring for the needs of those who are poor in the goods of this world or who are deprived of the assistance and affection of a family or who are strangers to the gift of Faith.”  In the case of SJI the resources for the continued operation of the Catholic school are gathered, dedicated, and cared for by the lay stewards of this Catholic school, many of them donations of the lay Filipino-Chinese community, evidencing the sacrifice of the faithful in the running of the Catholic school.  Considering that there are opportunity costs for the individual donors in continuing to support this school, the gratitude of the pastors, and not the opprobrium, for the laypersons’ generosity in pooling treasure and managerial expertise towards helping SJI thrive as a Catholic school is appropriate.

Because of the importance of Catholic education, the Church declares it a serious obligation for pastors of the Church to make Catholic education accessible to the faithful.  “Wherefore this sacred synod recalls to pastors of souls their most serious obligation to see to it that all the faithful, but especially the youth who are the hope of the Church, enjoy this Christian education” (ibid).

IMG_2670.jpgIt might be inferred from this “most serious obligation” of pastors that where and Catholic schools are functioning in accordance with the Catholic educational mission pastors support and guide their substantial operation.  This applies to SJI.  Indeed, where SJI in fact focuses its educational efforts on the education and evangelization of the Filipino-Christian community, it resonates not only with the general goals of Catholic education but with a special focus in the educational mission of the Church, namely, on those “who are strangers to the gift of faith” (Gravissimum educationis, 2.)  Over the years, this focus has in fact provided the Diocese of Bacolod with a healthy evangelized Catholic communion of Filipino Chinese, themselves in communion with the Catholic Diocese of Bacolod and with the universal Church.

The Canonical Understanding of the Catholic School

IMG_2657.jpgIt is in this context that the following must be understood:

Can. 803 §1. A Catholic school is understood as one which a competent ecclesiastical authority or a public ecclesiastical juridic person directs or which ecclesiastical authority recognizes as such through a written document.

§2. The instruction and education in a Catholic school must be grounded in the principles of Catholic doctrine; teachers are to be outstanding in correct doctrine and integrity of life.

§3. Even if it is in fact Catholic, no school is to bear the name Catholic school without the consent of competent ecclesiastical authority.

Can 803 §3 concedes that a school “in fact” can be Catholic, even if the competent ecclesiastical authority, for whatever reason, does not consent that it bear the name of “Catholic.”  It is not the recognition of the bishop that makes the school Catholic in fact, but the actual implementation by the school of the mission of providing Catholic education.  The Catholic facticity of a school is not grounded in the permission of the ecclesiastical authority to call itself Catholic but in what is stated in §2, namely, that its instruction and education are “grounded in the principles of Catholic doctrine” and where “teachers are outstanding in correct doctrine and integrity of life.”  To this may be added the context of Gravissimum educationis.

From the viewpoint of understanding what a Catholic school is, Can. 803 states that the school must be directed either by a competent ecclesiastical authority or a public ecclesiastical juridic person or which the ecclesiastical authority recognizes as such through a written document.  There are therefore three ways by which a school is understood to be Catholic.  In the case of SJI, it is not directed “by a competent ecclesiastical authority” like the bishop nor does the ecclesiastical authority today recognize it to be Catholic “through a written document.” In the interview I had with Bishop Buzon on Jan. 5, however, he declared he had quarrel neither with the teachers nor the students of SJI.  He even said that CEAP should continue to exercise its programs in SJI.  He was recognizing the school as Catholic in fact, even though he was withholding its public recognition because of his public disagreement with its Board of Trustees.

Here, the bishop is relating with the Catholic school as a “public ecclesiastical juridical person” with recognition at least of its implicit Catholic facticity.

SJI Publicly Recognized as Catholic by Four Bishops

Prior to Bishop Buzon, SJI was publicly recognized as Catholic by Bishops Yap, Fortich, Gregorio and Navarra.  Competent ecclesiastical authority therefore had recognized SJI, a public non-stock non-profit corporation constituted by Catholic lay persons as a Catholic school dedicated to the human education and Catholic formation of youth in Bacolod, especial those coming from the Filipino-Chinese community, as the “public ecclesiastical juridic person” of Can. 803 §1. It is constituted by the continued public association of baptized persons of the Catholic communion (and therefore “ecclesiastical”) in a corporation bound by civil law for the manifest purpose of running a Catholic school.  The prerogative to run a Catholic school belongs to the freedom of the children of God.  “The Christian faithful are at liberty freely to found and direct associations for purposes of charity or piety or for the promotion of the Christian vocation in the world and to hold meetings for the common pursuit of these purposes” (Canon 215).  “Since they participate in the mission of the Church, all the Christian faithful have the right to promote or sustain apostolic action even by their own undertakings, according to their own state and condition.  Nevertheless, no undertaking is to claim the name Catholic without the consent of the competent ecclesiastical authority” (Canon 216).  Confer also Canon 312.

The “public ecclesiastical juridic person”, the school, once recognized by the competent ecclesiastical authority as a Catholic school, acquires the right to be publicly known as a Catholic school.  This right is recognized and fortified in its acceptance into the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines which is overseen by its Episcopal Commission on Catholic Education under the chairmanship today of Bishop Roberto Mallari.  The school serves the Catholic communion and civil society in the pursuit of its Catholic vision and mission through the implementation of its corporate statutes and ByLaws.  If this right to serve is protected in civil law it ought a fortiori also be preserved in canon law, since the heart of the Catholic school qua Catholic is its evangelization and religious instruction and formation.   Its Board of Trustees serves the Catholic communion in its stewardship of the Catholic school.  Should SJI now be denied public recognition as Catholic by the bishop as a form of punishment, the bishop should in justice after due process kindly clarify why the punishment is imposed in accordance with canon law, considering the harmful impact the unwarranted punishment has not only on SJI, but on the reputation of Catholic schools as reliable educational institutions and on the esteem of episcopal authority and power. “The Christian faithful have the right not to be punished with canonical penalties except according to the norm of law” (Can. 221 §3).  Short of this, the Bishop owes the Catholic-school-in-fact his public recognition, lest his refusal to recognize it be deemed arbitrary and ecclesiastical authority in general be compromised.  In fact, SJI is a school understood to be Catholic as directed by “the public ecclesiastical juridic person” that SJI in fact is (cf. Can. 803 §1).

In my conversation with Bishop Buzon we offered the assistance of CEAP to do an external quality check on the operation of the school to assess its Catholicity according to the newly-articulated Philippine Catholic School Standards.  But for Bishop Buzon the operation of the school as Catholic was not the problem.

Heart of Dispute Between Bishop Buzon and SJI

msgr liu 2.jpgThe public dispute that has led to Bishop Buzon’s withdrawal of his recognition of SJI as Catholic has to do with the use by the Diocese of Bacolod of the SJI chapel under the titular patronage of the Queen of Peace as a diocesan territorial parish.  Twenty years ago, Bishop Camilo Gregorio “elevated” the school chapel into a territorial parish.  The private school chapel thereby took on the functions of a diocesan territorial parish.  Msgr. Gregorio erected the parish in SJI with the consent of one of its founders, Msgr. John Liu, but without the consent of the governing Board of Trustees, against the convictions of another founder, Fr. John Su, and against the advice of his canon lawyer, Msgr. Victorino Rivas. The latter argued that the ownership of the land and structure of the church by the diocese is a normal condition for the erection of a territorial parish.  Canonist Fr Adolfo Dacanay, SJ states:  “The comments of Msgr. Rivas that ‘it is normal practice that we do not create a parish if we do not own the property” is accurate.  A parish is a public juridical person [C. 515.3].  Consequently, it may acquire, administer, and alienate property in its own name.  A parish that does not own land and msgr. su copy.jpgthe structure which constitute it is an anomaly.  The wisdom of the law is proven by the complications that beset the relationship between the school (SJI) and the parish.”   Documents of ownership today are clearly in the name of SJI, based on the donations made by the Montelibano Family to the school.  Competent representatives of the Montelibano family confirm the donations in favor of SJI, contrary to claims that the property was donated to the Diocese.  Because the titles are now in the name of the SJI, should the Diocese assail the SJI ownership it must in justice file its claim in the civil courts which are alone competent to settle the ownership dispute;  to deny resolution of the case in the civil courts and confine it to a spiritual or ecclesiastical plane where it cannot be resolved is unjust to SJI.

The predicament of the territorial parish and the Catholic school in SJI can be likened to a Catholic dog and a Catholic cat being placed by the Diocesan Bishop in a box where the Bishop mandates both to be their natural selves but not to fight because they are Catholic.  After decades of trying to make the relationship work, the relationship between the parish and the school only deteriorated. Recently, parish tarpaulins were taken down, the school administrator was struck by a cleric, the pulpit was used to attack the persons of members of the Board of Trustees, the gates were closed to avert a planned occupation of the SJI grounds by parish GKK.  In this context, the Board of Trustees of the Catholic school decided it was in the best interests of the Catholic school that its Mary the Queen Church no longer host the territorial parish but be reverted to the chapel of the Catholic school.

That is was Boards of Trustees do.  It belongs to their mandate representing the public ecclesiastical juridic person of the school to make decisions according to its best lights in the interests of the school.

The SJI decision was not received well by Bishop Buzon who had been convinced that with more openness, collaboration and respect for the needs of the parish and for episcopal authority on the part of the Board, the parish could continue to function in SJI.  His interpretation, therefore, was that the Board of Trustees had “booted out” the Diocese from SJI, while all it had in fact decided was that its facilities, original meant for the Catholic school, be used for the legitimate prayer and worship of the Catholic community of the school, and not for a parish.  Convinced however that the school had booted out the Diocese, Bishop Buzon “pulled out the Diocese” from the school, even though the nature and consequences of this dire episcopal action are undefined[1].  He operationalized his “pull out” in two decrees, the Decree on the Transfer of the Queen of Peace Parish Church (Reg. No. 2017-002, Book of Decrees) and the Decree on the Relegation of Queen of Peace Parish Church (Reg, No. 2017-001, ibid).  Both decrees were signed by Bishop Buzon as Bishop of Bacolod and by Fr. Roy Christian Gesulgon as chancellor.

SJI’s Alleged Loss of its Catholicity as a Result of Bishop’s Decrees

It his letter to me as CEAP President, Bp. Buzon wrote, “…by virtue of my Decrees on the Transfer of the Queen of Peace Parish Church and the Relegation of the Queen of Peace Parish [sic.], both dated 31 May 2017, the presence and engagements of the Diocese in Hua Ming also ceased.  Consequently, St. John’s Institute also ceased to be a Catholic school.  The Board of Trustees of St. John’s Institute has decided to boot us out of Hua Ming and as such they have to be responsible and accept the consequences of their decision.”[2]

There is no problem with the first decree.  The transfer of the parish to another site was the longtime request of the Board.

But the Decree of Relegation is problematic.  It was not expected.  It is punitive in nature, but does not provide a warrant for the punitive action.  The circumstance of its issuance is “the conclusion of the dialogue between the Diocese of Bacolod and the Board of Trustees of St. John Institute regarding the Huaming controversy” and “in consideration of the position papers, documents and formal meetings conducted with the faithful of the said parish and concerned groups.”  But the particular crime warranting this drastic punishment in these circumstances is not formally articulated.  From my dialogue with Bp. Buzon the punitive action was against the Board of Trustees who had willed its church no longer to be used for the operation of a territorial parish but reverted to a school chapel in accordance with the will of its donors.  In his letter to me, Bp. Buzon charges that the Board of Trustees “booted the Diocese out” of Huaming.  But this was in fact not the intention of the Board of Trustees.  The Decree of Relegation was the Bishop’s action based on his misinterpretation or misrepresentation of the intention of the Board.  While the Board clearly wanted to use its church as the Catholic center of the school where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved and as the venue for Catholic prayer and worship, where the religious instruction on the centrality of the Eucharist and the salvific importance of the Sacraments might be actually experienced by the school community, a privilege in grace enjoyed by most Catholic schools, the Bishop decreed:

  1. That the existing structure, Queen of Peace Parish Church ceases to be a Parish Church and a Diocesan Shrine
  2. That as a consequence to this,
    • there is a suspension of all church services (cessatio a divinis Canons 1212 and 1222)
    • no reservation of the Blessed Sacrament be permitted within the Queen of Peace Parish Church and its Adoration Chapel (Canon 1934 par. 2)
  3. That all clergy, diocesan or religious, are under obligation to abstain from celebrating the sacraments and others rites in the Queen of Peace Parish Church.

But appreciating that the Queen of Peace Church ceases to be a Parish Church in (1), the asserted consequence in (2) is a pastoral if not a canonical non-sequitur.  The Bishop could simply have allowed the sacred structure to be used as a school chapel.  Instead, in an action that was punitive and vindictive, he used his episcopal authority to suspend church services in the Queen of Peace Church, proscribe therein the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament, and obligated all clergy to abstain from celebrating the sacraments and other rites in the Queen of Peace church.

When I shared with the bishop that those who were now suffering from this relegation were primarily the learners and the teachers of SJI who must now take great pains to participate in the Eucharist in a church not their own, he said it is up to the Board of Trustees to explain this to them.  But the Board of Trustees did not boot the Diocese out of Huaming.  The bishop “pulled the diocese out” based on his misrepresentation of the Board’s position.  In his letter to me he wrote, “The Board of Trustees of St. John’s Institute has decided to boot us out of Hua Ming and as such they have to be responsible and accept the consequences of their decision.”  I do not interpret the Board not wanting its church to be used for the operation of a territorial parish as booting the Diocese and the Church out of the Catholic school.

The first non sequitur of Bishop Buzon is that as a consequence of the Queen of Peace Parish Church ceasing to be a Parish Church or a Diocesan Shrine, the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in the church and the celebration Catholic liturgy and rites follow.

The second non-sequitur is what he writes in his letter to me as CEAP President:

“And so, by virtue of my Decrees on the Transfer of the Queen of Peace Parish Church and the Relegation of the Queen of Peace Parish, both dated 31 May 2017, the presence and engagements of the diocese in Hua Ming also ceased. Consequently, St John’s Institute also ceased to be a Catholic school.”

It is a non-sequitur because the Catholic school is still in fact running – faithful to its mission not only to provide human beings an education but to provide Catholics a Catholic education.

The bishop clearly links his non-recognition of SJI as Catholic to the two decrees, but there is nothing in the nature of a Catholic school that necessitates that it host the operation of a territorial parish.  In his withdrawal of recognition, he implies that there is such a necessity.  Otherwise he could not say, “Consequently, St.. John’s Institute also ceased to be a Catholic school.” Here the Bishop errs.  He punishes the school and its young learners for his error.

There is a third non sequitur:  that considering the circumstances described at the head of the Decree of Relegation, the Decree of Relegation is valid.

Here I quote the comment of canonist Fr. Adolfo Dacanay, S.J., on Bishop Buzon’s Decree of Relegation, which I submitted to Bishop Buzon:

“The decree refers to two canons [cc 1212 and 1222] and therefore something should be said about these canons.

“1)  C. 1212.  Sacred places lose their dedication of blessing if they have been in great measure destroyed, or if they have been permanently made over to secular usage, whether by decree of the competent ordinary or simply in fact.

“(a) The sacred place has not been destroyed in great measure; in fact it is exactly as it was before it became a parish church, when it was a parish church, and after the seat of the parish was moved.

“(b) Neither has the sacred place been permanently made over to secular usage.  The Commentary of the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland says:  the place may be made over (to secular usage) by a decision of the appropriate Ordinary whose decree to this effect itself brings about the loss of the dedication or blessing.

“2)  The first paragraph of C. 1222 does not apply to the situation of the Hua Ming (If a church cannot in any way be used for divine worship and there is no possibility of it being restored…).  The second paragraph contains two clauses:

“(a) The first clause:  where other grave reasons suggest that a particular church should no longer be used for divine worship, the diocesan bishop may allow it to be used for a secular by not unbecoming purpose.  The question her is not the structural defect of the edifice but the changed circumstances. Many US churches have been reduced to secular use because populations have moved from inner cities and the church does not serve its original purpose anymore.  In this case, the bishop may reduce it to secular us.  But this is not the case with the Mary, Queen of Peace Church either

“(b) But the second clause of the second paragraph is relevant to the question at hand. ‘But before doing so (reducing the church to secular use) he must first consult the council of priests; he must also have the consent of those who could lawfully claim rights over the church…’

“The New Commentary of the Canon Law Society of America has these explanations:

“[i] he must determine that there is a grave reason for doing so, e.g. inadequate finances to maintain the church properly, or a small number of parishioners together with a shortage of priests.

“[ii] he must consult the presbyteral council.

“[iii] he must have the consent of those who could legitimately claim rights for themselves in the church, which consent is necessary for the validity of the act (c. 127.2.1)

“[iv] he must determine that the good of souls should not be harmed.

“[v] he must determine that the proposed use will not be sordid, which judgment should be made in keeping with cultural variables and local circumstances.

“Those who could lawfully claim rights for themselves in the church would be the juridical person or persons who own the church property.  A physical person might also be able to claim rights, e.g. a major donor to the church whose donation was accepted on condition that the church would continue in use as a sacred place.

“The decree of the bishop is therefore canonically flawed for these reasons.”[3]

We must conclude that the Bishop issued the Decree of Relegation invalidly.

Mary the Queen Church was blessed and consecrated for sacred use by Bishop Manuel Yap in 1966.  It is still a structure that can be used worthily for worship.  Despite his Decree of Relegation, it is still in daily use by the Faithful for prayer and devotion, especially to Mary, Queen of Peace.  But the Decree of Relegation has caused scandal and division in the Christian community, where the Bishop appears to have weaponized the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament and the celebration of the Eucharist and the Sacraments in Mary the Queen Church to punish the Huaming Board for no stated crime in canon law.  In issuing his Decree of Relegation on May 31 2017 he did not have the consent of the owners, SJI.  He did not have the consent of the major donors, the Montelibano family.  On the contrary, both the owners and the donors stand to the sacred purposes for which the property and Church were donated, constructed and consecrated, and so object to the unwarranted Decree of Relegation.

SJI and the CEAP take exception to the Bishop’s non recognition of the Catholicity of the SJI as a consequence of the Decree of Transfer of Parish and the manifestly invalid Decree of Relegation and pray that it be immediately rescinded or be declared publicly as invalid. [4]

Some Important Concerns

Where the support of the local Bishop for a Catholic school is normally the case, the public and scandalous nature of the dispute between the Bishop of Bacolod and the SJI necessitates that the Episcopal Commission on Catechesis and Catholic Education (ECCCE) of the CBCP in dialogue with the CEAP address the following concerns for the good of the Church:

The nature of the Catholic School as a public ecclesiastical juridic person, whether it be run by priests, religious or lay persons[5], subject to the recognition of the Bishop, be clarified.  There is nothing in the nature of the priest nor of the religious that guarantees that either would run a Catholic school better than qualified lay persons.  There is nothing in the nature of the Catholic school that necessitates that its chapel be used by the Diocese as a territorial parish.  What are its obligations?  What are its rights?  Does it have the right to due process.  When it is the object of unjust punitive action, how may it find relief?

That the nature of recognition by the Bishop of a school as Catholic be clarified.  When may it be given?  What is the “written document” of recognition required for recognition.  Many of the functioning Catholic schools would not be able to produce a document of recognition by the local bishop.  When may this recognition be withdrawn?  What is the effect of the withdrawal of the recognition?  This clarification is especially necessary in the light of Canon 803 §3 “Even if it is in fact Catholic, no school is to bear the name Catholic school without the consent of competent ecclesiastical authority.”   But it is also necessary to protect and promote the Catholic school in fact, i.e., in its evangelization and in its Catholic instruction and formation.

How is the supervisory role of the Bishops over schools in fact exercised.  Today, where the diocesan superintendent oversees diocesan schools, the congregational superintendents or the religious superiors themselves oversee congregational schools, who oversees the Catholic schools run by laypersons according to Can 216?  Could this be a function added to the diocesan superintendent?  Or might the CEAP play a role here in the service of both the Bishop and the school?   How is the supervision of the Bishops exercised over universities whose academic freedom is recognized both in civil law and in Ex Corde Ecclesiae?

How can the Christian community and the public, including the Pastors of the Church who are normally not directly involved in the running of Catholic schools, be assured that Catholic schools are good Catholic schools, i.e., competent in the delivery of human education and Christian formation?  How is quality assurance practiced among the Catholic schools, especially when the schools’ function of evangelization and Christian formation for the common good are concerned?  Here, it may not be enough to use the Philippine Catholic School Standards (PCSS) as an instrument of Internal Quality Assurance.  For greater objectivity, external bodies composed of competent peers in Catholic education using process standards of assessment such as those of the PCSS may be necessary.



[1] Some have interpreted this as a “local interdict.”  But canon law today no longer provides for a local interdict.

[2] Bishop Patricio Buzon to Fr. Joel Tabora as CEAP President, Nov. 27, 2017.

[3] I submitted the text of Fr. Adolfo Dacanay’s Opinion signed and dated Jan. 3, 2018 to Bishop Buzon together with my letter to him dated Jan 5, 2018.

[4] I have written a formal letter to Bishop Roberto Mallari, Chair of ECCE, in this regard dated 7 January 2018.  I met him personally and discussed the letter with him on 12 January 2018.   I discussed my letter to Bishop Mallari with Abp. Romulo Valles, President of the CBCP, on 13 January 2018.

[5] cf. Canons 208, 215, 216

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Reaching for God in the Sto. Niño

[Reflection for the Celebration of the Sto. Niño at St. John’s Institute (Huaming) in Bacolod, Jan 19, 2018.]

Santo Niño de Cebu

It is not easy to talk to Majesties of Fire and Fury.
They shock and terrify.  They hurt and harm.  They thrive on obedience coerced in fear.
Perhaps one of the most harmful of divine images is that of a God of Power and Punishment, an angry God taking vengeance on the vexatious, sending sinners to hell.
In our shame and brokenness, it is not easy to warm up to such a God.
One is always cowed, one’s head always bowed.
This is not the God of my faith.

My prayer is that of the humble publican beating his breast at the back of the temple:
“Have mercy on me, Lord, a sinner.”  And of God lifting me up.

Much easier to warm up to the black Nazarene,
victim of the chief priests, victim of established power and misjudgment,
carrying the heavy Cross to take away the burden of our sins.
Much easier in touching this divine Man of suffering
to be touched by God’s mystery even in our own sufferings.

Much easier yet in yearning for the God of life,
the source of our consolation and joy,
to talk to Emmanuel, the God who is with us, as a Child.
Much easier in coping with the challenges of my life
And the complicated problems of my day
to converse intimately with the Holy Child, the Sto. Niño.
He always listens.  He is but a child.  He never sends me away.
He caresses my face.

In the Philippines the celebration of the Sto. Niño
recalls the Gift of our Faith that came from the conqueror.
The Sto. Niño was the gift of Magellan to us baptized in the Faith.

But in baptism, the Sto. Niño is really the Gift of the Father,
the Sto. Niño is his Word of Love to us
who grew among us in wisdom, age and grace.

The Sto. Niño is the smiling Child to whom Mary leads us
in our loneliness and sadness, confusion and sin.

The Sto. Niño is the Child from deep within us
that expresses our most profound need in crying, “Abba, Father!”

As Jesus said, “Let the children come to me,”
on this happy day in Huaming, we all pray,
“Let the Holy Child, the Sto. Niño, come to me!”
It is in your Word-made-flesh-in-a-Child, Father,
that all is sanctified, all is consecrated, all is holy.
Thank you for our Filipino-Chinese heritage
that you in your incarnation cherish as yours.
The world rejected that Word, Father, but we do not.
On this celebration of the Sto. Niño, thank you, Father, for our baptism.
Thank you for our school.  Thank you for our church.
Thank you for our Catholic Christian community.
Keep us all together, Father, in your love.

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The Child in the Manger

midnight mass 2017

[Homily:  Christmas Midnight Mass, ADDU Chapel of the Assumption, 2017]

Screen Shot 2017-12-24 at 6.45.55 PMFinally this long-awaited day has come.  The Church begins its official wait for this day from the first day of Advent, four weeks ago.  But the Philippines bypasses Advent and begins the Christmas season four months ago, with the first day of the “–ber months”.  It begins inevitably with radios airing Christmas carols and televisions transforming their sets with the shapes and colors of Christmas.  Broadcasters, store attendants and waiters wear the red caps of Santa’s elves or the branched antlers of Santa’s reindeer.  Inevitably these days, the voices of Joe Mari Chan and his daughter, Lisa, herald the spirit of the Season:  “Whenever I see girls and boys selling lanterns on the street, I remember the Child in the manger as he sleeps…”  It’s an important thing to remember.  For “The Child in the manger as He sleeps” is what many people forget as Christmas decorations are put up, gifts for loved ones and friends are lovingly prepared, and preparations are made for the Noche Buena after this Midnight Mass and the special meal tomorrow that brings the family and friends together on Christmas Day.   Sadly, the commercial activities that surround the quintessentially Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, have more and more removed the Child in the Manger from their Christmas decorations – and Christmas. Screen Shot 2017-12-24 at 6.46.29 PMTraditionally the birth of Christ is recalled by the Belen, with its figurines of the Baby Jesus in the manger cared for by Mary and Joseph, admired by the shepherds from the field, and worshipped by the Three Kings, along with the ox, the donkey, the sheep and the Magi’s three camels.  The Belen was set under a Christmas tree – in Germany, a Tannenbaum, a fir tree –  lit by live candles with a star atop it.  The Christmas tree with its crowning star – which became our Parol – and the trees’ lights were to recall how the star led the magi and all of us to the newborn Messiah.  The first Christmas gift is the Father’s gift to us of the Christ Child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lain in a manger.  The first Christmas carol is the song of the angels, “Gloria in excelsis Deo – Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will.”

In some of the malls, the Christ Child, the Father’s Gift to us all at Christmas, is replaced by a giant multi-colored empty box wrapped in swaddling ribbons, the lone Christmas tree replaced by a forest of sparkling trees decorated by colorful balls, tinsel, teddy bears and candy cane, and the unique star replaced by whole constellations of flickering stars intended to bedazzle shoppers and keep them mesmerized in the right spirit of Christmas as their wallets and bank accounts are emptied and bountiful yuletide profits are achieved.

Screen Shot 2017-12-24 at 6.48.46 PMRecently, I participated in a Kris Kringle exchange.  When I asked, no one knew the meaning nor the origin of “Kris Kringle.”  The Internet said different things.  Most said Kris Kringle is Santa Claus.  One video said, insightfully, Kris Kringle is “the son of Mr. Kringle.”  No one was able to connect to the Christ Child, in German, Christus Kind, or the little Christ Child, Christus Kindlein (“Kindlein,” the diminutive of Kind, Child) or Christus Kindl (“Kindl,” another diminutive of Kind, Child) or Kris Kindl.  Kris Kringle is the Christ Child!

I guess, part of the fun of Christmas today has to be to smile and try to decipher the decorations and relate them to the traditional faith-based symbols celebrating the Birth of our Lord.  When we hang a sparkling parol outside of our house, or give our loved one a gift at Christmas, we are not just repeating an empty Christmas tradition, correct?   Recently, as I wanted to see the movie Coco that people around me were talking about, I watched an unusually long 21-minute bonus cartoon by Disney’s Pixar entitled “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” which, I guess, in a secular world tries to recover the spirit of Christmas.  The Queen and princess of the northern European realm have prepared a wonderful Christmas banquet for their village, but no one comes.  Each must go home, they explain, to fulfill “their Christmas tradition.” Every family has a different Christmas tradition, for some a festive meal, for others a special game, for others a happy dance.  When the Queen and princess in their lonely castle notice sadly that they have no “tradition” with which to celebrate Christmas, Olaf the Snowman goes off generously into the village, then into the forests and mountains, to findScreen Shot 2017-12-24 at 6.49.39 PM a Christmas tradition for them.   His arduous adventure brings him much suffering, but it ends in the discovery that he, Olaf, is the royal family’s Christmas tradition.  The discovery ends the cartoon on a happy note.  But the ultimate message of the cartoon is:  Be happy at Christmas with your family tradition, whatever it is, and may you never be without a family tradition at Christmas, whatever it is, even if it is Olaf the Snowman, whoever he is, or Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, whatever he is, or Santa Claus on Olaf’s reindeer, whoever Santa is, or a striped red-and-white peppermint stick, whatever that means, or a striped Apple with a chunk of it bitten off by Steve Jobs on a gift, the Giant of Technology whose remarkable life – complicated – argues for our need of a Messiah.

The Good News of today is that the Messiah is born. The world sets it aside as
fake news, and conjures a commercial culture without the Belen, or “a Christmas tradition” without the Christ Child.  If we intentionally push Christ out of the malls because not all believe in Christ and Christmas commercialism is for all, if we push the memory of the Christ Child born in embarrassing poverty out of Christmas because it offends against the show-off materialism of the Season, if we push Jesus Christ out of our enjoyment of our Christmas merriment, and put together a grand birthday party but creatively conspire to keep the birthday Celebrant out of it, it’s only because we’ve found our ways of being Christians without Christ, or of being well-bred, educated, technocratic humans without the Messiah.

Screen Shot 2017-12-24 at 6.50.58 PMBut the bad news is no matter how much the media heralds “Change is coming, change is here!” and no matter how much we need to believe that and pray, “I believe, help my unbelief!” we come to learn that our power to change what we need to change and improve the quality of life for our people is severely limited: our typhoons remain deadly, our rivers Screen Shot 2017-12-24 at 6.51.02 PMoverflow, our houses get flooded, our malls burn down.  Our police force is flawed, our military is imperfect, our officials corrupt, our collaborators inept, yet what we want to change in our humanity is stubborn and pernicious.  We love our old ways, we love our old dilapidated jeepneys, we love our old dependencies, we love our old quarrels.  We love humanity, but that Screen Shot 2017-12-24 at 6.51.05 PMperson who wronged me – imagine, in my own family! – I refuse to forgive, and for him or her my cold passive aggression totally appropriate and justified!  We also learn that despite our breeding, education and positions of influence, much of what is flawed and imperfect and corrupt and inept and unforgiving is in us.  Things don’t change, because we refuse change.  We are happy with our addictions, and profit from our corruption, and content always to push the blame on others. We can celebrate Christmas without the Christ Child because that baby born of a Virgin is embarrassing, and because we have come to the conviction that life is possible without a Messiah, and that what is wrong, unjust and life-sapping in our society can be righted with a build!-build!-build! economy, a multi-trillion budget, Federalism and martial law.

Of course, we know, that’s not true.  That’s fake news.  And that’s what we must consider as we remember “the Child in the manger as he sleeps.”  There is no Christmas that is possible without the Christ Child, and no Christmas that can be meaningful without personal insight into our need for a Messiah.

So, Christmas is here.  Jesus is born:  Emmanuel, God with us.  With Joe Mari and Lisa, “Let’s sing Merry Christmas and a happy holiday!  This Season may we never forget the love we have for Jesus.  Let him be the one to guide us as another new year starts.  And may the Spirit of Christmas be always in our hearts!”

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The Dawn from on High

[Homily:  9th day, Simbanggabi, 24th, Martinez Sports Center, ADDU, December 2017]

With what more beautiful words can we end our nine-day Simbanggabi experience than these from the Canticle of Zechhariah?

In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

For nine-days we have come here in the dark of the night.  One can take that literally.  We’ve gotten up in the dark of night to come here; we come here despite the darkness in our homes, in our neighborhood, in our alleyways and streets.  One can however also take “the dark of night” figuratively – to refer to the darkness which hinders sight, the darkness which hides untold dangers, the darkness which is the result of our refusing the light, of choices that bring perilous darkness into our own lives and into the lives of others.  Once conjured, this is darkness that is not only beyond my control.  It is darkness that controls me, and makes me do things I would normally never do, say things I would normally never say, and hurt people whom I in fact would never wish to harm.  This is so, until in my life, what becomes my new normal is the way of darkness:  the cheating has become habitual, the corruption has become necessary, the injustice has become rational.  In this darkness, despite the superficial trappings of success, I know there is no joy.

In this context, these nine novena days of Simbanggabi have been our intensified Advent, as we came in darkness, yet waited for the dawn to come.  We waited, recognizing the darkness around us, yet knowing we have no ability on our own to break the darkness.  We waited consoled in God’s revelation of himself as a compassionate God.  “Com-passionate” – “suffering with”;  a God suffering with his people dwelling in darkness and the shadow of death, feeling compassion for them, instead of abandoning them to cold eternal darkness, suffering with them to help breathe into them new hope and new life.  New hope: in the conviction the darkness can be overcome.  New life: in the conviction the darkness does not lead to death.

Therefore the Good News of this Mass:

In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death…

We have not just come here in darkness.  We have come here in the hope of dawn.  We have come here knowing that the darkness which oppresses us and conditions us to choose to harm others can be broken.  The dawn from on high breaks upon us, shining on us who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.  It was the special experience of our Simbanggabi here in Matina.  Everytime we came in darkness, in this Simbanggabi, we wore liturgical white;  we sang the Gloria;  we celebrated the Dawn.  While all others remained in their dwellings of darkness and the shadow of death, our Simbanggabi became Simbangbukangliwayway – the Misa de Gallo that everyday welcomed the Dawn.  Today we do so with among the most beautiful passages of Scripture celebrating God’s good News:

In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death…

In the tender compassion of God…  God does not approach us scolding us, mocking us, taunting us;  he does not call fire and brimstone down upon us for having rejected his message of the primacy of the Kingdom and for having rejected him.  He comes gently, the tender light of dawn that slowly breaks the darkness, that with the drama of dawn allows the hues and colors of our lives to reappear, that gently replaces the darkness and depression with light and hope.  He comes today having first entered our lives on the wood of a manger, but having won our life back on the wood of a Cross.  He comes today in a manger in soft but brilliant Resurrection light reconciling the darkness with the light, the earth with the heavens, the sinful with the holy, the human with the divine, so that in peace together as the prophet Isaiah once wrote:  “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:16).

In the light and power of this Dawn let us allow this Child to lead us to Peace.  Too long, the adult has led us to war.  Let his Child bring us to reconciliation.   Let man be reconciled with his God, let creation be reconciled with humanity, and let man be reconciled with with his fellow man: the North Korean with the American, the South Korean with the Chinese, the Saudi with the Iranian, the Israeli with the Palestinian, the Bangsamoro with the Filipino, the Communist rebels with the Republic of the Philippines.

This is the Dawn that we celebrate at this Simbanggabi.

In the tender compassion of our God, the Dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet into the way of Peace.







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