When Father Victor Sandoval went knocking on doors in one of Manila’s toughest slums to tell people he was moving into their midst, he was met with disbelief.
“At first, many didn’t trust us. They didn’t believe we were really Catholic priests, because Catholic priests don’t come to live in a place like this. They thought we were maybe evangelicals or fake priests,” he said.
Father Sandoval, a Mexican member of the Missionary Servants of the Word, came to the northern outskirts of the Philippines capital four years ago, invited by Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, who wanted to reach out to the poor in his sprawling Diocese of Kalookan. Frustrated by the limitations of traditional parish structures, Bishop David had invited religious congregations from around the world to help him start 17 mission stations.
“Many of our parishes are old and tired institutions. They tend to be very parochial, in a negative sense. They are in maintenance mode. They tend to cater to church-going Catholics, but those are less than 20% of baptized Catholics. The great majority of Catholics have nothing to do with the formal church institution. If you ask them about their religion, they say they’re Roman Catholics, but that’s about all. Our parishes have tended to cater only to those already close to the church,” Bishop David said.
The bishop pointed out: “The mission stations are an effort to make the church more present among those at the margins of society. We’ve been talking about the church of the poor for decades, but in all humility, we haven’t grown into a church of the poor. This is an effort to make the church more present with the poor.”
Father Sandoval’s neighbourhood is a 15-minute walk from the parish church of St. Anthony of Padua, but the distance is social as well as geographic.
“Before I came here, people in the parish told me to be careful. ‘Don’t go there at night, it’s a dangerous area,’ they said. They considered some areas too risky for pastoral work. The priest didn’t want to put his catechists and others at risk. It was easier to invite people from here to go to the parish instead. The problem is that few did that. Only about 40 people, out of some 40,000 residents, were active in the parish,” said Father Sandoval.
So, he and another priest moved into a tiny apartment in the middle of Paradise Village, a crowded warren of small streets and tiny dwellings.
“We began by going to the edges of the neighbourhood, knocking on doors, sharing a brief reflection on the word of God. Through those conversations we came to know the realities of the people. We then organized activities, including the rosary and Bible studies, and through the word of God helped conscientize people about the dignity to which God calls them,” Father Sandoval added.
Pastoral challenges abound in a neighbourhood formed when the government filled in fish ponds with garbage, allowing work-seeking migrants from the countryside to stake out tiny lots where they constructed makeshift dwellings.
“The bishop says our priority is to form communities, but when people come from the provinces they start to focus on survival, which fosters individualism. Because they came from different places, it wasn’t easy to build trust. Where there’s poverty and individualism, it’s difficult to build solidarity and overcome injustice,” Father Sandoval said.
His flock has faced extrajudicial killings, part of a government-sanctioned ‘war on drugs,’ as well as the emergence of gangs, which the priest said began as a way of providing a sense of protection for some residents, yet often devolved into criminal activity. Getting young people from different neighbourhoods involved in church choirs and other activities has helped erode the violent divisions. And a feeding program started by Father Sandoval’s mission station has brought together 180 children whose families’ arbitrary differences are ignored by hunger.
“Participation in Christian life can break down walls and form community,” the priest said. Father Sandoval said the church’s closeness to the poor will help transform it in the long run.
“We’ve tried to address both spiritual and material needs, because they’re closely linked. Poverty isn’t the fruit of laziness. It’s an evil that can’t be solved with just one approach. It’s a long process. The best way to work with the poor is to be with them, and learn from their capabilities, energies, and experiences. You can only do that by getting close to them,” he said. (Paul Jeffrey/ CNS)