Heaven at the voting booth

By: Jason A. Baguia May 05,2019 - 06:57 AM

One of the heavenly protectors of Cebu is Saint John Nepomuk. Cebuanos know him by the Hispanized form of his name, San Juan Nepomuceno. A man from medieval times, Saint John Nepomuk is patron of the coastal, northeastern town of San Remigio, Cebu.

The story of Saint John’s martyrdom comes to my mind as we in the Philippines approach the elections on May 13, 2019, the midterm of the current dispensation. Like our previous voting exercises, the coming polls are fraught with moral issues, inevitably pitting the Church against the State.

The passion of Saint John that was the basis of his beatification and eventual canonization is a straightforward story. The saint, who was a priest found himself in the bad graces of Wenceslaus IV, the king of Bohemia in his time due to his zealous protection of the seal of the confessional. Such loyalty to church law protecting the secrets of the Sacrament of Confession became especially deadly because the penitent in question was no less than Johanna, the queen of Bohemia, the king’s wife.

Being a devout Catholic, the queen had regular recourse to the sacrament. The king, according to some hagiographers, suspected the queen of infidelity and demanded to know her lover’s name from her confessor. For his steadfast resistance to the monarch’s orders, John was tortured and thrown off a bridge to drown in the river Vltava. Locals recovered his body with the help of light from five stars that shone on the water, around his head. Hundreds of years after his martyrdom in 1393, his tongue was found incorrupt.

The statue of Saint John Nepomuk still stands today on the site of his last moments, Karlov Most, Charles Bridge to the Anglophone world in the city of Prague, Czechia. Close to the statue, on the bridge’s parapet is the gold-hued relief of a cross surrounded by five stars. The relief marks the spot from which Saint John’s body was cast into the river. It is a custom among the faithful to touch each of the five stars with the fingers of a hand while offering a petition to God in the belief that this secures the saint’s intercession and their prayer’s fulfillment.

In today’s Philippines, the flash point between the Church and State are not secrets of the confessional but the secrets of the ballot. While Saint John Nepomuk protected his penitent’s right to a name washed and made clean again by the tears of contrition and the mercy of God, Christians in the Philippines are praying and campaigning for the electoral victory of candidates who will prove themselves worthy of the confidence, of the trust of the voter.

Since everyone who is baptized into the Christian faith partakes of the priestly, kingly, and prophetic office of the Christ, they must approach the task of voting with great care and in an atmosphere of standing before God in the altar of their hearts.

The Cebu Citizens’ Involvement in Maturation for People’s Empowerment and Liberation (C-Cimpel), a lay organization of the Archdiocese of Cebu has been a longtime promoter of voter and candidate discernment. While the organization seems only active during elections, when most journalists report about its members as poll watchers and guarantors of accurate vote canvassing, C-Cimpel in between elections gives values formation to persons who might be interested in running for public office, and engages in the education of citizens as voters and participants in governance.

C-Cimpel does not endorse candidates for election. Such restraint is exemplary in a time of endorsements, both in traditional media platforms and in the internet. The propensity to endorse, both in traditional politicians and non-politicians ultimately contributes to childishness among voters.

If national surveys by the Social Weather Stations, Pulse Asia, and other firms are to be believed, President Rodrigo Duterte’s endorsement of candidates for the Senate is the hammer that is shaping voters’ preferences. Filipinos’ overwhelming opprobrium to the President’s violent crackdown on illegal drugs has not translated to popular revulsion for his leadership and his anointed ones. The killing of tens of thousands in the anti-narcotics campaign is deemed worrisome and anxiety-inducing. But it has not elicited in citizens a compassion deep enough to resist the President’s endorsements and throw support behind candidates poised to fiscalize him in the context of his inhumane flagship project.

Voting for a candidate on the say-so of the President is the rotten fruit of the sample ballot anti-culture. In shrewd circumvention of the spirit of the law, citizens at the barangays distribute to voters pieces of paper that carry the names of candidates endorsed by local leaders such as barangay chairpersons or mayors, in effect campaigning on election day. Candidates for higher positions expect local leaders ensure this is done, helping seal their victory. These moves, along with vote-buying drive voters into habitually waiting for lists and well-funded candidacies instead of taking pains to finalize their votes in the secret of their hearts where they are alone with God.

The People’s Choice Movement (PCM), an interdenominational organization of Christian leaders has released a list of preferred candidates for the Senate. The group has made an effort to explain to the public their discernment process, stating that they support candidates with character and honor, competence and abilities, faithfulness to public service, and faithfulness to God, the Constitution and the law.

While the PCM’s disclosure of selection criteria is admirable, providing citizens with a template for their own discernment, the reduction of their discernment process — in legacy and especially in digital media (where some memes go as far as saying that the Catholic vote is the vote for candidates in the PCM list) — to a mere list of endorsees repeats the mistakes of top-down sample ballot anti-culture.

I understand that PCM is sending representatives to parish communities across our archipelago to popularize voter discernment, but I hope it will do more to highlight the mechanics of their discernment process especially via social media. It would be helpful if the Christian leaders release for widest possible circulation the list of 20 questions that helped them select 10 senatoriables.

Another point for consideration by groups like the PCM is how to optimize self-presentation. It was unfortunate that Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo became the face of the PCM discernment process. His Grace even went as far as releasing a letter explaining the PCM’s work and urging Catholics to campaign for candidates endorsed by the organization. All these compromise the image of the PCM as a faith-inspired but non-clerical movement. The good bishop is a great spiritual director for associations with social concerns, but our brothers and sisters in the PCM should henceforth choose someone who is not a cleric to be its public face. It does not do to seem to try to outdo presidential endorsements with episcopal ones. That only bolsters for millions who are miseducated the false image of a power-hungry Church, one that attempts to baptize top-down sample ballot anti-culture.

Politics, as the late Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin once said, is too important to be left to the politicians. The Christian faithful and men and women of good will should listen to the counsel of spiritual leaders even on matters of politics. “The Church… is called to contribute to the purification of reason and to the reawakening of those moral forces without which just structures are neither established nor prove effective in the long run,” wrote Pope Benedict XVI in his 2005 encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est.” He added: “The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society, on the other hand, is proper to the lay faithful.”

San Juan Nepomuceno died protecting the part of the internal forum, the sphere of conscience where repentance happens and the Lamb of God takes away sins. May our spiritual leaders, inspired by the same Saint John whose feast is celebrated on May 16, three days after our elections, continue to awaken the part of our internal forum, our consciences, where compassion for our people happens and God is Wonderful Counselor, enlightening us to vote for shepherds after his own good heart.

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