Vim and vigor in the New Year

New Year is associated with a new beginning. More than any other time of the year, New Year is the dawning of a new beginning where we leave the past behind without necessarily casting aside what we learned from past experiences and face the future with renewed vim and vigor. When we greet somebody Happy New Year, these are not merely empty words. Through this short phrase, we convey a most meaningful message—that we move past heartaches, mistakes and transgressions at the same time make the correct adjustments in the way we live and relate with other people to lead a more meaningful life and a healthier environment for us and the people around us.

This is the post-Christmas message of Pope Francis to the Roman Curia this year. While the Holy Father is well-loved in and outside the church for his humility and modesty, some question his controversial reforms believing they will spell divisiveness within, if not the destruction of, the Catholic Church.

In this context, Pope Francis urged the Curia to not be afraid of change but to embrace it. In an unambiguous tone, he stated that change and reform is in the very nature of a church that is called “to be missionary,” in a world that is experiencing “a change of epoch.”  He quoted Saint Cardinal John Newman’s famous saying: “Here on earth to live is to change, and to change often is to become more perfect.” Obviously, for the Pope, Newman “is not speaking about seeking change for change’s sake, or to follow the fashion, but rather to have the conviction that development and growth are the characteristic of earthly and human life, while, in the perspective of the believer, at the center there is the stability of God.” 

However even when Pope Francis is urging the Curia to embrace change, he cautiously clarifies that these reforms are aimed to valorize all that is good that has been done in the complex history of the church,” further saying, “to appeal to memory does not mean to anchor oneself in self-conservation…. Memory is not static, it is dynamic. By nature, it implies movement. Tradition is not static, it is dynamic. It is the guarantee of the future, not the custodian of ashes.”

Indeed the Holy Father’s message to the Curia may not be aimed only to the members of the Curia, to bishops and Cardinals but also to all Catholics, and in fact to all of humanity.

Changes may not be necessarily incompatible or averse to the Catholic faith.  In the face of the massive falling away of many from the faith, particularly in the West and many other parts of the world, the Church is being called for a more innovative and dynamic approach to evangelization. Yet these changes may be introduced while remaining faithful to the teachings of Christ, the magisterium and Holy Tradition.

The challenge then for the Roman Curia is to be able to find the perfect balance between change and doctrinal fidelity.  I am fully confident that Cardinal Chito Tagle, the Archbishop of Manila that is heading to Rome to work in Vatican City as Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, famously known as Propaganda Fide, will do a good job in achieving this balance. Our loss is the universal Church’s gain and I wish Cardinal Chito, whom I have known for 40 years since he was a seminarian and a professor in the Ateneo de Manila philosophy department, well in his new job. He will embrace this change with a strong sense of mission.

This is also the challenge to all institutions, communities, families, and individuals.

We are all asked in the New Year to step out of our comfort zones and dare ourselves to cast aside rigidity and fearlessly come to grips with changes in our lives that will make us better persons.

On a personal note, the latest scientific information on the global climate emergency, the failure of the Madrid climate conference, the experience of nonstop floods in Cagayan province, the destruction of the Amazon, and the devastation that Typhoons “Tisoy” and “Ursula” caused in our islands have reinforced my decision to spend more time in the next five years on climate change. While I love my teaching work and how that has scaled up to more than a dozen universities, I will start reducing this work in January and cut by half my teaching in the second half of the year and aim at a full sabbatical at some point so I can focus on the Glasgow climate conference in December.

I suspect that, depending on the result of the US elections that will be conducted on the eve of that critical conference, there will be a lot of work on climate change as well in 2021 which will merit full attention. I do plan to keep teaching my undergraduate philosophy, negotiation, and environmental science classes and my environmental law classes. And for those speculating, I can tell you for sure that this decision to limit my law teaching has nothing to do with any exams and to think otherwise would be to your own peril.

In addition, I expect the defensive and offensive work on human rights to accelerate in the next year. With a looming decision by the International Criminal Court on the Duterte case, with the Global Magnitsky Act operative, and the results of the upcoming United Nations review on the human rights of the Philippines, there will be a lot of work in this area and I have to step up to that. I will prioritize my work for the freedom of Senator Leila de Lima and my defense of youth and student activists, environmental defenders, and indigenous peoples.

Happy New Year, everyone!

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