CULTURAL (RE) DECOLONIZATION: ITALIANIZING AND

By Aurelio S. Agcaoili, PhD

(Serialized in the The Weekly Inquirer Philippines, Jul 22, Jul 29, & Aug 5, 2005)



There are a number of interlocking events that somehow helped me “to see” this phenomenon I call as “cultural (re) decolonization.” First, for a number of years I was a vowed religious in one of the Italian orders that came to the Philippines during the early years of Martial Rule of then President Ferdinand Marcos. Second, three years after leaving the religious life, I became a member of the formation team composed of Italians and their Filipino confreres. In 1992, I left my work in this religious order to pursue other interests but my interest on Italian orders and congregations had by then expanded beyond the order of which I was a member. In a sense, this paper is a critical reflection of what I have seen so far.
But what exactly is this phenomenon of cultural (re) decolonization that I am talking about? Simply put: it is a phenomenon in religion, in missionary work among Catholics in particular, where the task of evangelization (again) takes on two instantia or moments, the first instantia in the nature of recolonization and the second, an attempt by indigenous religious, trained and formed by the neocolonizers to redecolonize/ decolonize themselves.

Let me clarify some issues related to these concepts I am using in this paper.
First, this recolonization as a result of the evangelization efforts of Italians can be traced to so many interrelated factors such as: (a) the genuine attempt of Italian religious to share what they have to the Filipinos, (b) the genuine attempt of Italian religious to share their being with the Filipinos and not so much what they have, (c) the claims, both conscious and unconscious, by Italian religious of the built-in, “natural,” “fundamental” superiority of their culture and lifeways compared to those of the Filipinos, and (d) the economic and political power the Italian religious wield in the early years of their evangelization efforts.
There are crucial points raised in the distinction of evangelization attitude and disposition as either sharing what you have or sharing your being. A missionary fired by the desire to share what he has might be thinking of geographic/ territorial landmarks he must build for (but not with) the people. This is a case of prioritizing monuments over minds, buildings over bodies. In contrast, a missionary who sees the mission as a place of communion—of “the essential coming together of minds and hearts,” to borrow the metaphor of spiritual writers—does not have but simply be: simply be present among the people.
Second, decolonization—or redecolonization—as the case maybe, is an afterthought, an act of “redemption” after one has, from hindsight, understood that somewhere there had been a violent occupation in the territories of the mind and consciousness, after one has realized that a colony need not be a land or physical space but can be the way one has come to hermeneuticize reality and experience. This act to decolonize is a response to the “violence of love” from evangelizing and is thus an act, on a moral end, by the colonized, who, metaphorically, are the indigenous religious, the native members of a foreign missionary group.
Let me clarify, too, that when the indigenous religious struggle for decolonization, the “self-redeeming” act can be so subtle and sometimes unnamed, which is also a problem. But here the struggle is not dependent on the name: the reality is before the term, the experience is before the word.

The attempt to decolonize can be logically extended and include previous experiences of colonization and in this respect becomes, on the second level, beyond de-Italianization. For instance, decolonization may include de-Americanization and de-Hispanicization. I call this re-decolonization, with the emphasis on the prefix, because the phenomenon factors the subtle “violence of love” inflicted by the previous colonizers.

What I intend to do then in this paper is to account, by way of narrative analysis and data from the field, this phenomenon of re (de)colonization.

This wave of missionary work by the Italians in the Philippines is but a part of series of missionary efforts of the Catholic Church all over the world. As the churches from the First World developed in terms of economic and human resources capability, as their resources became one of surplus, missionaries were sent to other shores, other nations that were in need of listening to the good news. Even from this end, we see here an economic principle at work—clearly a demand and supply scenario that formed the basis for the narrative of tacit struggle woven by the indigenous religious. The “other nations” were what were administratively called by the French as “Third World”. So Europe has a surplus of holy men and vowed religious who were, in the name of God, to go to Asia, to Africa, to Latin America: Send them there—and fast, faster than the devil, because the devil might do the harvesting before the church can do it. Minus the transcending element of “the call”—the vocation, so to say—this is how to reduce in simple terms the relation between the churches of the First and Third Worlds. The churches of the First World are very rich because the economies of the nations in these churches are very rich. The churches from the Third World are not necessarily poor but with undeniably a large number of poor members. There is a certain qualification here. When churches are taken as institutions and organization with legal personalities, they can be seen as either prosperous or poor. The lay members are not, ordinarily, counted in this operational definition. The story is different when the churches are seen “as communities of the faithful”—a theological and mystical concept, a sense left out intentionally in this paper.

For heuristic purposes, and to underscore the place of the Italian orders and congregations in the local church of the Philippines, the “waves” of evangelization can be divided as: (a) the Spanish wave—circa 1565 to 1896; (b) the American regime wave—circa 1900s and onwards and (c) the Italian wave, circa the seventies. During the American rule, there was a liberal opening of the local church to other churches, Catholic and Protestant, American, as well as European such as Belgian, Irish, and German.

The Spanish wave brought about a Hispanicization of Filipino religious sensibility. This means that the Filipino way of looking at the transcendent, the world, and life for that matter, was eventually modeled after the pre-shaping and pre-forming power of the Spanish language and culture brought by the Spanish officials and by the members of the mendicant and friar orders and by the clerics. Here we see a Hispanic cosmology, a Hispanic epistemology of God, and an ontology defined by the west.
The American regime wave began with the metaphor of benevolence, the white man and the McKinley declaration of bringing civilization to the Philippines. This metaphor of benevolence was further reinforced by another McKinley metaphor of “manifest destiny”—the manifest destiny of the American nation to colonize (or occupy) the Philippines a divine mandate, one that assumes the structure and power of a vocation, a calling. While, the consequence of the Spanish wave was the formation of a colonial structure of religious sensibility, the American regime wave brought into this Hispanicized sensibility an open-market/ free market dimension, what with the entry of other religious sensibilities other than the one formed according the ethic of Protestantism.

During the American wave, “turfing” became part of the sensibility, a carryover of the Spanish period, a missionary activity demanded by the tacit ideology of religion as a market/ marketplace of evangelical services. This turfing took on two related forms: (a) geographic and (b) charismatic. In (a), the religious orders/ congregations were assigned mission areas, the Belgian fathers and sisters, for instance, missioning in the Cordilleras in Northwest Philippines. In (b), these orders/congregations missioned based on the specific requirements of their apostolate, for instance, health care work, education, care for unwed mothers, and the like. By the 70’s, a geographic missioning had become clearly saturated; so many orders/ congregations were already entrenched and rooted in the localities that new missions could not be had without coordinating with the “original” missioners. Being first or original in the mission areas virtually became the moral basis for the social power the missioners wielded over the localities and over the people in these localities.

With the Philippines a saturated market, the missionary form left was the charismatic: most of the foreign orders/congregations were engaged in specific apostolates that expressed the charism of their founders.

In all of these waves, there had been attempts at decolonizing, with the Spanish wave producing the sentiment of separating from the Catholic Church and forming an independent, nationalist church after the Katipunan declared independence and declared war against Spain and after the three priests Gomez, Burgos, and Zamora were martyred.

The American regime wave brought to the surface the need to Filipinize the churches and makes them “local” expressions of their “mother” churches. The ranks of the Protestants churches is a clear example, with the label “Filipino” almost always attached to the proper name of the local churches. The colonial relationship, however, remained—and it remained uncriticized. It was assumed to be not a problem; it was not a problematique worthy of study, research, reflection, and action.
But the winds of change brought about by the turbulent 60’s and the 70’s in the Philippines became the context for a new critique and reflection. The Universal Church had just concluded the Second Vatican Council and the radicalized church people in so many parts of the world, particularly the Philippines, Africa, and Latin America, were looking at religion as an instrument for “national liberation,” sometimes understood to mean decolonization, or as in the case of the Philippines, a series of decolonization (termed in this study as redecolonization).

This is the historical context in which we can locate the Italian orders and congregations and see them as unconscious and perhaps, unwilling agents of a new wave of occupying people’s minds. The ethical principle says it all: “Bonum ex integra causa malum ex cucumque defectu.” Applied in this study, we do not necessarily have to impute a bad motive or intention for every defect that we see or for every result that comes as a consequence of missionary activities. The absence of a conscious defective intention does not, however, render every consequence good.

From the series of interviews and informal takes I had with Filipino seminarians and religious of Italian orders and congregations, I culled seven narratives that underscore the colonizing and decolonizing efforts of both the Filipino and the Italian religious.

The first story of “seduction” plays up the role played by the idealism of the young, their Messianic desire to be redeemers of the world even if they are only escaping their poverty.

I came from a poor town in Bohol. I knew only fishing, the song of Yoyoy Villame celebrating our poverty, and the tuba (coconut wine) to spice our otherwise dreary days. One day, a group of Filipino seminarians, in their late teens and early twenties, with an Italian priest, came to our school to talk about the nature of religious vocation. They rattled me with their Latin etymology of vocation and they surprised me with the zest and vigor by which they talked about how they were touched by God, how they were called to this special life of service to the poor, the deprive, the marginalized, the oppressed, the sick, the imprisoned—how, in this service to other men, in becoming man-for-others, we become more human, more fully human. The way they talked, they seemed like the educados of the town, the professionals in the municipio, and the politicos during campaigns. They were so brilliant—that’s how they appeared to me. I wanted to be brilliant. I wanted to end the dreariness of the rural life. I wanted to be a seminarista who could tell the Latin etymology of religious vocation.

The seduction of language, the tacit power of symbols in a country where division and poverty are taken as “natural” phenomena or “facts” of life—these are at play in the mere mention of Catholic vocation to the religious life—those are at play in the more mention of Catholic vocation to the religious life as a special service to the poor, the deprived, the marginalized, the oppressed, the sick, the imprisoned that these words have, by themselves, become the constants in the recruitment activities of religious orders and congregation. This is communication with an added agendum: to win recruits to the cause. To be able to do so, the order or congregation ahs to speak the language of commerce: put in an investment (service) and you reap a profit (joy of serving one’s fellowmen).

(2)
When I got into the seminary, I was an upstart from the provinces. The first thing I realized was that of the 20 or so seminarians in our first years, all were from the provinces. So when you get into a place where variety is the norm; you tend to flock to the same group speaking your language. I am a Bikolano—so I would seek the company of my fellow Bikolanos. The Ilonggos, they’d do the same thing.

The second narrative dramatizes the gradual loss of the sense of identity as the seminarian gets into the “new” world of religious life. Even in the face of the requirement of “community life” that, in an absurd way, imitates the ideal community of man’s evolutionary past, a community speaking in one tongue, the provinciano recruits holds on to his constructions of self and reaches out to those recruits who share this self-constructions. The Italian formators call this as “regionalism,” a mimicry of the colonial social analyst’s way of looking at the Philippines as “islands,” as “regions” and therefore, not as a nation. As far as the discourse on “internationalism” goes, the regionalism does not have a place, is antithetical to “communion,” is counterproductive to evangelization which calls for the global, for the tearing down of boundaries, for the glorification of the abstract.
Narratives 3, 4, 5 and 6 elaborate the colonizing strategies of the religious orders and establish the context in which efforts at decolonization/ redecolonization have been called for. From a literal pedagogical colonizing technique of “teaching the language to the masters” so that eventually the students would “speak the same language of the masters,” we see here some assumptions on power and relations, some colonizing mentality on spirituality and evangelization, techniques that were implicit in Hispanicization and “protestanicization” of the Filipino religious sensibility.

(3)
I remember the time when after studies at the central seminary, we would be herded to the lecture room of the formation house to study Italian language. At the time, the dominant thinking of a number of Italian congregations was to send the Filipinos to study theology in Italy. It was more economically practical rather than maintaining a theology school here. And for the Italian fathers, the Filipinos would be able to understand better the spirituality of the order if they knew Italian.

“Internationalness” of the religious community as a colonizing theme is obvious enough to see how this can be fatal to self-understanding, an essential element; I believe, to self-giving, the sine qua non to an authentic discipleship in Christ, to an inculturated mission work. The use of English as the language of the international community seems to be out of place in a country that is trying to firm up its definition about its own ontology. To penalize a seminarian by making him pray the rosary in English is an act rich in symbols of power and dominance.

(4)
The priest would always remind us of the international character of our order. They would always argue that our order was not Italian but German, American, Austrian, and Taiwanese as well. That was why we had to master English. That was why they had to bombard us with English subjects. English teachers would be hired to teach us grammar and pronunciation. And there would be English week and English campaign, as if we were in a convent school for elite ladies. They called that refinement, polish. Later on, I could not anymore distinguish whether our mission was really to speak correct English or to serve the sick. If we spoke our languages, we would be penalized: we had to pray the rosary in English.

What is missing in the ideology of the “international community” are the root words in the phrase: (a) national and (b) communis—common. If the sense of the national and the common in the international is not inculcated in the indigenous religious, if the experience of the nacion is not valued, could an indigenous religious ever go to other nations and announce the message in the culture and the language of these other nations?

(5)
I don’t remember any occasion where there was a serious study of the Filipino culture and society. My feeling was as a religious order with an “international character,” we had no right to be Filipinos anymore, that God was not Filipino, was never ever a Filipino. At times, I thought that God was Italian.

The loss of the concept of God in one’s own language is perhaps one of the destructive consequences of religious colonization. Inculturated evangelization recognizes God as not only the God of the Jews or the Christian but also the God of the Filipinos, and to be more politically correct, God is/as a Filipino.

(6)
The stress in community life is dialogue. But dialogue is always a dialogue of the heart and mind. How could I have a heart and mind in English?
In community relations, transaction is done in English. Those who had been to Italy, it is Italian. In both counts, I felt I was not relating well. I could not open up in Italian. My pain is not English—can not be Englicized. How would a community be possible when the ground is you are all strangers? The Filipinos trained in Italy would come back looking for pasta and cheese. We hated them, these Filipinos.

When as indigenous religious sees the poverty and misery around him and realizes that he does not know and has not experienced what these realities are, he begins to understand that his social positions is wrong.

(7)
The first time that I came to the seminary, I was amazed by the massive walls and imposing buildings and big lawns and shady trees. We were in a neighborhood that has never known poverty but quiet, contentment, inaction. You did not have to earn to eat. Those of us whose parents were financially capable paid a small contribution for board and tuition. Those who were poor had their expenses paid for by the contributions of benefactors from abroad and from the country. I remember, we had German shepherds for night security and paid guards to man our gates. And we had helps in the seminary paid below the minimum wage.

a. Italianizing the religious sensibility through language
The first impulse of Italian orders and congregations that were fired by evangelization without proper cultural preparation was always to impose. The entry point for missionary work was the study of the English language—and so many of them stopped there. In the order where I was a member, of the eight or so Italian religious, only one was using Filipino in his day-to-day ministry. All the rest were comfortable using English.

There are two problems symptomatized by the dilemma of a seminarian from the regions: (i) should I speak English as a condition for my being a good religious and ergo to eventually become a minister of the English-speaking Filipino population? Or (ii) should I speak the language of my people so that I will be able to minister them?

How the Filipinos resolved this is revealing: when among themselves, they speak Filipino; when with the Italians they either speak English or Italian.

b. The Politics of the Good News as Italianizing
When there is a privileging of the “international” language over the language of the people, the result is predictable: estrangement. What is passed off as good news is a strange message, couched in incomprehensible terms, expressed in a mode beyond the experience of the people. The gospel maybe international, even universal, but its receipt, to be relevant, is always historical, culture-bound, wrapped in the very language of the recipient. The use of English is already charged with power and dominance. This has been bad for the health of the spirit that believes in its own self-constructions and self-representations.

There had been token recognition of the “richness of the culture of the Filipinos” and the liturgical songs from the various languages of the seminarians were used in the mass and other important celebrations. The key here, however, is that this recognition is “token” and this fact of richness of the culture of the Filipinos had never been played on as a basis for an indigenized/inculturated expression of the charism/ spirituality/ apostolate—in effect the religious discourse of the order or congregation. To illustrate: the radical segment of the Philippine health care community of workers have long been into health policy advocacy and health care cooperatives and yet one Italian order involved in the health care ministry has yet to shed its hospital orientation and dependency on the pharmaceutical industry and on a biomedical technology that looks at medicine and health from a Cartesianist philosophical framework. In education, while the need is quality education for the masses, many Italian congregations are busy putting up Montessori-type of schools that cater to the moneyed and the powerful—all in the name of Catholic education. These are anomalies that are symptomatic of a basic failure at translating the vocation and the charism into practical terms, one that does not bank on the seductions of the promised social privilege and power and the economic reward of becoming a religious (Narrative 1).

There is a confused understanding of the demands of the apostolate, as if all one has to do is to give and keep on giving because this amounts to being men-for-others. The sense of plurality of motives (symbolized by escape: “I wanted to end the dreariness of the rural life”) and by the social prestige that goes with priesthood in a society beset by anonymity and dehumanization) has to be factored in the effort to put some flesh-and-bone, some blood-and-tear, and some humanity, to the religious vocation. Coming from a complex tradition of the baglan, the catalonan, and the baylan—with the communal grounding these forms of indigenous “priesthood,” the Filipino Catholic whose priesthood is based on the abstract promise of the kingdom to come certainly faces rough sailing. An Italian priest has said it aptly: “I cannot fathom why many Filipino priests could hardly commit themselves to celibacy. The Filipino religious in our order have the same problems.”

c. The Love for the Nation as a Problem
Unknown perhaps to the Italian religious, they are Italian first before they are clerics, missionaries, or superiors despite their claims to “internationalness” of the order. There was disregard of the first languages of the Filipinos-on-formation and the instilling of foreign mindset via the competent use of alienating exercise (Narrative 2). This problem is aggravated by the use of colonizing technology: the use of Italian to understand and discover the roots of the spirituality of the order/ founder precisely because the writings of the founder are in Italian. Here the spirituality is seen as archival, an artifact waiting to be dug up. Here is an assumption that says that the spirituality is fixed, frozen, ahistorical (read: no Filipinization, please) and thus have to be transplanted, (with pot and soil and water, from Italy to the Philippines [Narrative 3, 4, 5 and 6]). The counter-reaction of Filipinos against “Italianized Filipinos” (read: Filipinos who had gone to study and had come back to the country acting more Italian than Italians) remind us of psychological and cultural injuries that require communal healing.

d. Semiotics of Space
The location of religious houses is itself an index of the solidarity the order or congregation has with the masses of the poor. A seminary located in an upper class neighborhood is suspect in much the same way a parish located in a plush village is suspect. For a poor country where the injustice of the social system and of the rich is the rule, social space is a symbol, walls are symbols, and the fa├žade of the seminary is a symbol. Where there is much social inequality and oppression, and where evangelization requires the denunciation of inequality and oppression, it is an anachronism for convents and seminaries and religious institutions to be located in rich neighborhoods that are symbolic of the machinations of the privileged and the powerful. The childlike expressions of the religious—“You did not have to earn too eat”—is tantamount to the bourgeousization of the social and economic sensibility of the Filipino religious and this bourgeousization, when unexamined, becomes irreversible. The religious becomes too middle class for comfort and then in the end, he will not be able to comfort the afflicted because he will not afflict the comforted.

5.0 Summary and Conclusion
The coming of Italian congregations and orders to the Philippines beginning the seventies contributed to the Filipinos’ resort to religion as a means to comprehend the widespread chaos and confusion that resulted from the declaration of Martial Law and the suppression of dissent and opposition in the national discourse. From the seventies onwards, the founding of Italian congregations and orders in the Philippines has continued and these congregations have made their mark in attracting indigenous religious vocations.
A pattern emerged from these congregations’ or orders’ religious formation programs, the pattern traceable to the pedagogic strategy that was markedly colonial and colonizing: Filipinos in advanced candidacy to the vowed life were sent to Italy, (a) to learn the spirituality of their founder and (b) to get familiarized with the international character and content of missionary life.

Two things resulted from this pedagogic strategy: (a) the Filipino initiates felt out of place in these communities where they were sent for obvious cultural reasons and (b) the Filipino initiates felt discriminated upon and treated as “second-class” members of their congregation or order.

Many Filipinos reacted to this situation in these ways:
(a) by leaving their congregation or order in order to transfer to another,
(b) by leaving their congregation or order for good and then seeking employment in Italy or in other countries,
(c) by leaving their congregation or order and going back to the Philippines as lay, or
(d) by going back to the Philippines as “Italianized” Filipino religious who eventually perpetuated, consciously and unconsciously, the Italianizing and hence, colonizing ways of their foreign confreres.

This phenomenon of (re) decolonization eventually gave rise to:
(a) an unprecedented number of recruits from the rural areas, thereby uprooting these young Filipino recruits in two ways: (1) from the traditions and practices of their own local communities and (2) from the traditions and practices of their own country and people as these recruits came into an encounter with the traditions and practices of their Italian confreres;
(b) the slow but certain changes in the cultural elaborations of the religious sensibilities of the Filipinos as these sensibilities were challenged by the sensibilities brought to the country by the Italians;
(c) certain conflicts in the way of the faith was articulated given the dynamics of the receiving Filipino culture and people and as this same faith was challenged by political exigencies and national concerns.

The stress on “internationalness” in the expression of religious commitment without having laid the foundation for understanding faithfully, truthfully and comprehensively one’s own culture became an approach that was unproductive, anti-human, and anti-Filipino. Most Italian formators unconsciously transported a hermeneutics of enculturation that favors “universalism” without a basis in the particulars of the Filipino culture, religious sensibility, and tradition. The underscoring of Italian language were symbolic double whammy that spelled the final alienation of the Filipino recruits and religious from themselves, from their people, and from their nation’s dreams and aspirations—all in the name of “universal values” rooted in the discourses of the faith outside Filipino culture and history.
Today, after more than two decades, the Italian congregations and orders have learned their lessons. Many of them have transferred the reign of power to their Filipino confreres. Likewise, this missionary policies and strategies are now more and more drawn from the perspective of an inculturated religious sensibility that puts a premium on the unique sensibilities of the Filipino people, their culture, and their history. The redemption of the Filipino religious sensibility has come about with the recovery and reinvention of the identity of Filipino religious and their continuing hermeneutics of the charism and ministry of their Italian congregations and orders based on the needs of the Filipino people. This redemptive program emphasizes the right of the local churches to evolve and the right of the indigenous religious to interpret the spirituality and charism of their congregation or order according to the needs and aspirations of these local churches where these religious are found.

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