The recent papal visit to the Philippines shone a spotlight on issues of poverty, corruption, and social justice. Pope Francis urged the Church, as well as the government, to “listen to the voice of the poor,” and called “for the reform of social structures which perpetuate poverty.”
It’s not as if the Church has not been doing that; hundreds of its institutions are preaching a similar message. Let us examine just one to see how concretely Catholic institutions embody the Gospel to the poor.
Meet Sister Celine Saplala, OSB, a Benedictine nun who serves as director of the Institutional Social Action Center for St. Scholastica’s College in Manila. This is a college well known in the Philippines for its outreach to the poor and marginalized.
This would not be extraordinary if not for the fact that St. Scholastica’s is an exclusive women’s institution for the rich and famous. It numbers among its alumnae the country’s first female president, Corazon Aquino. It is where many of the nation’s millionaires, politicians, and top CEOs send their daughters to be educated.
Intuitive thinking would suggest that they do so in order to maintain the status quo or to stay away from the masses. But most do so for precisely the opposite reason.
As one of the high-school students put it, “The reason why my parents sent me here is because they want me to have a holistic education, to be a good person and not just to be academically successful.” Another reiterated that “this is a school with a difference. It enables us to be agents of change.”
Founded in 1906 by a group of German Missionary Benedictine Sisters of Tutzing, St. Scholastica made a radical decision in 1975 when it committed the entire institution to social justice and peace.
Considering that this was in the midst of the Marcos dictatorial regime, when martial law was invoked, its emphasis on “Education for Justice” stands out like a sore thumb waiting to be severed. Since then, St. Scho (as it is better known) has been a “socially oriented school,” says Sister Saplala, “placing issues of justice and peace and human rights at its fore.”
What did all this effectively mean for the Scholasticans? Sister Saplala confirmed that “the whole school is involved” in the social outreach.
Today, when their Kinder-kids go on trick or treat, they race to collect not sweets and candies, but books and school supplies that they give to poor kids from the barangays.
Grade school Scholasticans participate in exposure programs where they meet with underprivileged children and donate essentials such as slippers, raincoats, and umbrellas.
When natural calamities such as hurricanes or earthquakes hit the Philippines, these students help out in Sister Saplala’s office, which is converted into a packing center for receiving and sending emergency goods and food.
The high school Scholasticans take on more independent roles, including mentoring and tutoring kids from the slums, visiting orphanages and prisons, fundraising for programs that help street children, and volunteering at environmental clean-ups. They also are educated in advocacy work and participate in anti-poverty campaigns.
The college students of St. Scho are provided with short- and long-term opportunities where they are immersed in poorer communities and do service, missionary, and volunteer work, sometimes for a year and sometimes even abroad.
The faculty are not left out. The Faculty Outreach Committee organizes programs that promote sustainability, respect for human rights, and the dignity of people and the environment.
Sister Saplala told of a case in which some St. Scho teachers visited smaller and poorer provincial schools and discovered that each teacher there was allotted only one box of chalk per year. So the St. Scho teachers asked their friends to give them boxes of chalk as gifts for their birthdays, which they then sent off to their newfound, but less privileged, colleagues and friends.
All this is possible because the school’s leadership has not only committed the St. Scho community to “Academic Excellence and Social Responsibility,” but also because they are in the trenches dirtying their hands together with the students and faculty.
The immediate past president, Sister Mary Thomas Prado OSB, for example, personally leads her Sisters in numerous projects, including ecological campaigns, mass rallies, and anti-corruption protests.
Another past president and Prioress Sister Mary John Mananzan OSB is well known internationally for exposing female-abuse cases and for standing alongside victims of injustice, including those who have suffered at the hands of clerics and Church officials. The Sisters and the Scholastican community were there at the two People Power Revolutions that toppled their nation’s presidents.
Pope Francis would have been proud of St. Scho. Nobody can say the Church in the Philippines has not been listening to the voice of the poor.
Edmund Kee-Fook Chia is co-director of the Centre for Interreligious Dialogue and a senior lecturer in the School of Theology at Australian Catholic University.