KASAMA Vol. 12 No. 4 / October-November-December 1998 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Bishop Julio Labayen

Bishop Labayen travelled around Australia in September this year as a guest of the international Christian peace organisation Pax Christie in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Bishop Labayen, a Carmelite, is widely known for his courageous and prophetic advocacy of a renewed spirituality based on social transformation. The following extracts from the talk he gave at Justice Place in Brisbane on September 11th illustrate some of his views on renewing spirituality through social transformation.

Social action was a Johnny-come-lately in the apostolate of the Philippine church. We were overtaken by martial law and it was a completely new experience for us. That is when we moved very seriously into justice work because of the violations of human rights.

I also got involved with the Socio-Pastoral Institute which was founded by the religious for the purpose of updating them and discovering the role of the religious in that situation of martial law. Also, some of our people were, what we call in the Philippines, salvaged. "Salvaged" is a term which is characteristically Filipino meaning "summary killing without due process of law". In Latin America they are called "the disappeared" or desaparecidos which is the same phenomenal experience. I found out later that I was on the hit list of the military.

In November 1970, an historic meeting of the Asian bishops took place in Manila. It was presided over by Pope Paul VI, the first Pope ever to set foot in the Philippines. The theme was development and we also gave special emphasis to the youth because Asia is a continent of young people.

When we had that meeting, I was then still the executive officer of the Social Action Office of the church. I had the task to lobby and one thing that we focussed on, in cooperation with the religious and the other bishops from Southeast Asia, was to ensure that the meeting would not end with the last period of the document because in these meetings, after that last period of the last document, then it's only good for the library.

So, we ensured there would be a structure that would follow up the meeting. And out of that was born the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences. Incidentally, that has done a lot of good for the Asian bishops, particularly in the preparation for the synod for Asian bishops. I served in the capacity of executive chairperson of the Office for Human Development and that is what took me around Asia, including Australia. So, I've been here a few times upon invitation of Australian Catholic Relief, which is now Caritas, and that is how I got acquainted with the Australian churches and with a few bishops here.

In the meanwhile, because of martial law, I became suspect, not only by the military but also by some conservative bishops for not toeing the line of the Catholic Church. That was one of my darkest nights, most painful, because since I was a first year student of theology I have always gone by the thinking and feeling of the church. So, to be accused and maybe even pushed out of office on the grounds that I was not any more in line with the Catholic church was a painful experience. At any rate, there were bishops who sympathised with me, and the ones who wanted to get rid of me got stuck with me because I was given five years more. After that I thought it was time to step down.

Since I stepped out of the post of national secretary of the Social Action Office of the Catholic Bishops, I am still working, but outside the structures of the Conference. So, I am free of the politics of the institution, and that is a blessed position to be in.

Our social justice work has always been to update ourselves to the issues of the times, particularly in Asia and the Philippines. And, I've discovered that the issues in Australia are very similar. The land rights, the native title - we have the same burning issue. As a matter of fact, a priority of our program in the diocese is the program regarding the indigenous peoples and we were able, finally, to engage them in our ongoing formation program to become the church of the poor.

Usually in our extended formation program which lasts for 26 days, the last three days are for a summing up of the whole program. I discovered that some of the participants had an immersion program among the indigenous peoples which had a tremendous impact upon all of them.

What we are trying to get to are the cultures that have not yet been corrupted by this system that has been globalised. Among the indigenous communities, we sense real humanity and a knowledge of the sacredness of the earth. We did not pick this up in our theology courses. That is why I have no hesitation to say that I have been evangelised by the indigenous peoples. So, I thank you for your welcoming address about the position and the world view of the Aborigines.

Somebody once asked me: "Is Christ in the hearts of the Aborigines?" Well, let me tell you a story about Aboriginal people. Nowadays, formation is not just an academic exercise but about immersion - to experience life, reflect on the struggles of the poor, and find out what is the message of God to us. Well, there was a group of Christians who wanted to immerse themselves among the Agtas, one of the indigenous peoples of the Philippines. So, naturally, their guides up there were Agtas.

After climbing the mountain slopes in the heat of the tropical sun, they were rather tired and hungry. They chanced to pass a grove of guava trees filled with fruits ready to eat. So, they all picked, including the Agtas. When the Agtas had their fill, they stopped picking, but the Christians continued to pick, filled their pockets, and filled the bags they'd brought with them. They told the Agtas: "Pick some more, there's plenty of fruits." Their Agta guide answered, "You know, sir, there are other people who will pass this way. If we clean the trees of the fruits, there will be nothing left for them."

Then when they arrived there in the dwelling place of the Agtas, the Christians noticed that some of the houses of the Agtas did not have doors and where there were doors, there were no locks. So, the Christians made the observation to the Agtas: "Are you not afraid that you may lose some of your household belongings?" They answered: "You know, sir, when we were by ourselves, among ourselves, we never lost anything. But when Christians started coming up here, then we started to lose." So, is Christ in their hearts? Do you get what I mean?

All of us are for justice, but justice depends on the heart and, in the final analysis, the question that we have to reckon with is: where is your heart? Revolutions, in my book, have failed because they did not have a heart. It was all intellectual, rational, without considering that the heart has contradictions. All revolutions have noble intentions, but in their historical unfolding they have not yet delivered the goods.

In China during the Cultural Revolution there was threat, pressure, brainwashing - you don't transform culture by that means. So, it is not surprising what happened at Tiananmen Square in 1989. The guns that liberated the voices from below under Mao, were the same guns that snuffed to silence these voices and contradictions. So, the heart of revolution is the revolution of the heart.

I am happy to be here upon the invitation of Pax Christi for the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I really appreciate your setup here at Justice Place that interweaves, in the human spirit and in the human heart, all your different areas of involvement and commitments that culminate in spirituality. Thank you.

Left: Bishop Julio Labayen and Annette Arnold, r.s.j. (Catholic Justice & Peace Commission) Photo: CPCA

Right: Bishop Labayen and Bernadette Jeffrey (Murri Ministry) Photo: CPCA

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (English)

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Tagalog)