Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle should just shut up about the Yolanda victims

Recall the monstrous earthquake and resulting tsunami that struck Japan back in 2011 causing untold death and suffering there. The stoicism and quiet grace with which the Japanese greeted the unimaginable destruction and loss of life, mobilised its forces to assess and respond, and reached out to the global community to receive assistance speaks volumes of the magnificence of Japanese society. Japan’s prayers are different from our prayers. Being a predominantly Shinto and Buddhist society, Japanese prayers generally express a profound respect for nature and an acute mindfulness for one’s surroundings. Emphasis is on a life led in harmony with nature and recognition that one is but a part in a vast ecosystem.

In contrast, Catholics see nature as subject to man, and man subject to the “mysterious” whims of their wrathful and all-controlling God. As such, a Catholic’s prayers put emphasis on their subjection to the will of God (to explain adversity) and their being showered with his graces (to explain good times). For Catholic Filipinos, prayer is surrender, while for the Japanese, prayer is expressed as reverence for a system of which one is but a mere part. A Catholic’s prayer is about deliverance from the physical world, while that of the average Japanese is about embrace of the physical world.

After-the-fact reflection is clearly evident in how the Roman Catholic Church is pitching its case for relevance in the aftermath of the disaster wrought by Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). Former Church media spokesman Monsignor Ramon Aguilos reportedly quoted Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle in a mass he officiated last week, thus:

“The eyes of the world and the universal Church are on you, people of Tacloban and Leyte. Instead of me consoling you, it’s you who are consoling me. Your resilience, your steadfast, deep-seated vow inspire the world community and the universal Church,” Tagle said in his homily, as quoted by Aguilos.

Tagle also urged the faithful to not be afraid to ask God why they were suffering due to Yolanda. He said that like a child, they had the right to ask this question from their parent.

“This is an opportunity for God to listen to His people,” Tagle said.

We should “not be afraid to ask God why [we] suffer[…]”;

An “opportinity for God to listen to His people”…

All sounds nice and peachy, doesn’t it? That is, if you manage to suspend your higher thinking faculties indefinitely. But try latching on to such words when the proverbial brown stuff remains scattered all over the place since it hit the proverbial fan a couple of weeks ago and doing so will feel more like trying to hang on to a greasy pole. It’s all so nebulous. You can’t grasp it or harvest any real meaning out of words like these. All you really get is a temporary emotional fix. Try and apply these words to the real work that needs to be done in the coming months? Well, good luck with that. God listens, perhaps. But chances are, you will have to rely on a really colourful imagination to work out what his answer is.


You wonder how not just a handful of people but an entire global organisation can get away with routinely issuing virtually meaningless words like these. On what basis, exactly, does Tagle say with this sort of perception of certainty that the plight of the people of Tacloban “inspire the world community”? What is the precise nature of this “inspiration”? Which specific sectors in this “world community” are being inspired? What exactly is the logical and tangible earthly relief being offered here? Ask the right questions and you will get shut down, unfortunately.

The Church does not really promise much to the living. As far as religious “faith” is concerned, the real party happens after you die. So no problemo, man. All you get in the world of the living is a God who “listens”. Oh yeah, and watches too.

Perhaps what we need more of in the future is a different form of “prayer”. And here, when I say “prayer”, I don’t mean the sorts of prayer we are encouraged to chant to ourselves to give ourselves some sort of nebulous assurance that our future is taken cared of by an omnipotent and omnipresent being. What we can do better is pay attention to the abundance of real knowledge that modern technology allows us unprecedented access to that we can learn from. A start would be applying a more serious effort to studying the way that other disaster-prone country anticipates adversity and copes with its aftermath when it does visit — Japan.

Unlike our prayers, which are generally uttered after the fact of a tragedy, the Japanese people, in a manner of speaking, “pray” before the fact. The vast and carefully thought-out measures they had put in place to anticipate and mitigate the risk of a disaster such as the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, is Japan’s “prayer” for its dead and suffering in the aftermath. Such a sort of prayer, in my opinion, is far superior to the Catholic’s prayer. Being done before the fact, it frees minds to focus on acting with clarity of purpose when adversity strikes, rather than imprisoning minds with questions about and surrender to a god’s “purpose” as the case would be for after the fact prayers.

And that is what true resilience is and where real inspiration comes from — when there are convincing results rather than unsubstantiable hope, and where there is clear evidence of self-reliance rather than protracted neediness.

While the loss of life in Japan in the aftermath of the 2011 monster earthquake is staggering, it cannot be said to be one that resulted from any form of reckless neglect. Because the Japanese had done all it can in life to respect the living it has little need for prayers — only a focus on action and learning and the tangible support coming from nations that are, themselves, possessing of characters consistent with an ethic underpinned by respect for human dignity in life.

[Photo courtesy The Guadian UK.]