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RH Bill

When to shout in church

January 30, 2013 3:52pm

In 2000, ten years before Carlos Celdran would don a bowler cap and burst into an ecumenical service in Manila, I sat in the pew of Saint Julie Billiart’s Church in Southern California. I was where I was every Sunday during my adolescence: next to my mother, listening to the homily.

My mother is Filipina. She grew up in a poor family the size of a basketball team. Between her and my Sicilian father, Catholicism informed my existence in a natural, everyday kind of way. I grew up knowing to say the Ateneo, steeped in her gratitude to the Jesuit university that made her a scholar, lifted her from poverty, and offered her the education and the wisdom that allowed her to thrive as a computer programmer in California. She and my father chose Saint Julie’s as their home parish in Newbury Park, California. I received my First Communion there, I watched my younger brothers squirm under the water of their baptisms, and in a year, I’d wear a red robe and be confirmed in the Church.

It was a quiet, holy, inviolable space, where I could keep up a quiet, earnest dialogue with Christ and the saints, aided by the Irish priests who spent their lives speaking to us behind the pulpit. I felt safe there.

Until that day in 2000, when the Father said the words Proposition Twenty-Two.

I had seen the signs everywhere in town: Yes on Prop 22. Protect Families. Protect Children. It was the first anti-gay measure in California, before Prop 8 eight years later.

The priest sounded angry. “The bishops say we should speak of homosexuals with compassion even as we vote for Proposition Twenty-Two, a law that protects natural families and preserves natural marriage.” He paused. “No. We should not apologize to these people. We should not support sin.”

I had the urge, for the first time in my life, to stand and shout in church. I didn’t know what I would shout. But the space I’d known all my life as somewhere safe, somewhere peaceful, somewhere prayerful, had suddenly been transformed. It was sharp with an agenda now.

And—oh, Christ, how terrifying to realize it then, alone at age 16: this Church’s sharp agenda was aimed at me. I did not know what to do with the new dimensions of my fear.

So as the priest went on, I told my mother I needed to go to the bathroom, and I walked outside.

What could I have done? I thought. How could I have objected? I sensed that I had some responsibility here, some obligation to interrupt the new political narrative the priest had presented.

I remember I spat. It was not out of disrespect, and it was not a performance of my anger. I spat because I was so upset, so suddenly vulnerable, under this unexpected attack in the church, that I thought I was going to vomit.

But, I thought: this is a place of prayer. This is a quiet place, for religious people. I should not interrupt. I knew I should not interrupt. I breathed and tried to calm myself.

That’s when I noticed the other Catholics leaving the church after me.

There were two women with a baby, with one baby bag between them. There was a teenaged boy. There was a solitary middle-aged man. There was one of my former classmates, graduated from my Catholic High School.

None of us looked at each other. We looked everywhere, except at each other. None of us acknowledged that we were all on the receiving end of this wounding new reality, in the space we once considered safe. All of us chose to keep our silence.

The priest continued, uninterrupted, benefitting from our silence, mindless of our absence, and Proposition 22 passed.
This week, Carlos Celdran was convicted under article 133 of the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines. Its exact wording: “The penalty of arresto mayor in its maximum period to prision correccional in its minimum period shall be imposed upon anyone who, in a place devoted to religious worship or during the celebration of any religious ceremony shall perform acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful.”

In 2010, Celdran offended the feelings of some Filipino Catholic faithful. He donned Jose Rizal’s famous outfit: bowler cap, old-fashioned suit, and moustache. He entered an ecumenical service in Manila, shouted, and held up a sign: DAMASO. Every Filipino assigned to read Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere grows up knowing what Damaso means: someone who used the sacrosanct, public power of his holy, deified station to push forward his own wounding agendas. “Stop getting involved in politics!” Celdran shouted.

When police took him outside, he said he was speaking for the ninety percent of Filipinos who want the passage of the Reproductive Health Bill. The RH Bill passed, finally, in December 2012, despite over a decade of opposition funded by the priests of the Catholic Church.

Celdran’s public disruption garnered its inevitable detractors. Some Filipinos accused him of creating drama and playing for attention. He is, by profession, a performance artist and a tour guide, someone who builds his livelihood on attention. His work has been featured in the BBC and the Wall Street Journal and Forbes. He has been a brand ambassador for Durex, and passed out free condoms to poor community members during his tours.

Beyond his protests for the Reproductive Health Bill, Celdran is not a Filipino who keeps silent. He is not a Filipino who adheres to the spoken and unspoken requirements of pakikisama, a value that says courteous bonds should be quietly maintained at all costs. He has objected to the building of more malls. He protests against new high-rise developments in Manila’s dwindling public spaces. He declined a tourist sponsorship from a mall corporation. He sits on the board of a nonprofit helping poor women who can’t afford contraception. He names names: SM, DMCI, Robinson’s.

When he made his conviction public earlier this week, tweeting one word—Guilty.—he garnered support, a hashtag (#FreeCarlosCeldran), more eyerolls, and more scorn. Some argued that religious spaces, of all spaces in the Philippines, should be defended, by law, from offensive public disruptions by jerks. They concede that political protest and civic disobedience is fine, sometimes necessary. But keep it out of the church. The church is not the place.

Carlos, like all Filipinos, should have kept silent. He should have let churchgoers pray in peace, in the space they chose. The law might be outdated, but the law is there, and Filipino officials should follow it—jail him accordingly, perhaps. Because when Celdran shouted, he violated a sacrosanct space. A church service should be silent except for the priest leading, and the people speaking back to him in rehearsed unison. Dissent has its place elsewhere.

I feel myself in several places at once when I read this argument. I ricochet from age 16 to age 29, from my confirmation to my continued, automatic prayers to the saints and to angels. I move from my quiet California suburb to Celdran’s Metro Manila. I say: No.

Yes, the primary purpose of a house of God is to facilitate peaceful prayer. But when priests choose to push agendas that wound women, gay teenagers, families—a whole nation attempting to meet its Millennial Goals—they transform the intended space of the church. They sap it of its worshipful neutrality. They make the church a place of aggression, with an agenda aimed sharply at many of the very congregants gathered there for guidance and safe harbor.

When that transformation takes place, the intended targets of that agenda may choose to stand and break their silence.

For many of us born abroad—for those of us whose parents spent their lives warning us about the Philippines’ poverty, corruption, overcrowding, and the apparent immobility of the medieval authority structures that facilitate it all—for those of us whose parents looked at us in horror when we asked for dual citizenship—for those of us whose parents told us, Don’t you know things will never change back home?—Carlos Celdran’s act was a bowler-capped, book-referencing rebellion against the deference a nation is still expected to pay to an abnormally powerful institution. It was a rude, loud interruption of leaders who rely on their congregants’ courteous silence to maintain their five-hundred-year-old political clout. Finally.

When Celdran was charged and convicted of “offending religious feelings,” the priests were not simply following the mandate of an old, outdated law. They were not engaging a dry procedure. They were sending a clear reply: How dare you defy us. In our house.

So. I ask. Where are we allowed to object, if not in the house where the imagination for our wounding begins? In what forum are we allowed to interrupt? With what words? With what method? In what clothing? Where is our mute obedience required? And for how long?
Who benefits from our silence?

Carlos Celdran burst into a Filipino Catholic church, held up a sign, and shouted. For a moment, he interrupted its agenda. He did what I could not bring myself to do in my own birth country, where no old law would have imprisoned me. He observed the Church’s wounding agenda, and he talked back. It was an angry, defiant gesture. It was calculated, perhaps, in its recklessness. It was loud. It was literary. It was drama. I’m glad for it, and I’m glad for the noise that followed. – HS, GMA News
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