21 August 2010

Compulsory tree planting as a form of clerical oppression of parishioners?

I felt angry when I read yesterday on CathNews Philippines a report under the heading 'Priest requires tree planting before baptism, wedding'. The source of the report, by Walter I. Balane, is MindaNews under the headline No baptism, no walk down the aisle without first planting trees.

Here is the full report:

VALENCIA CITY (MindaNews/18 August) — Parents who wish their children to be baptized and couples applying for a church wedding are required to plant trees before they may receive these sacraments, Fr. Noel Suarez, parish priest of the San Agustin parish here said.

Suarez told MindaNews Wednesday the move aims to align the church’s mission of spreading the faith with current realities affecting the environment.

He said church rites must be able to also serve the earth where the “faithful” live amidst the growing threat of climate change.

He said parents are required to plant at least three trees before chapel officials endorse the application for baptism to the parish office for scheduling.

Both the bride and the groom are also required to plant three trees for each other as a sign of love.

Suarez explained the three trees stand for “I love you” to symbolize the parents’ love for their child and the couple’s affection for each other.

He said the parish preferred fruit trees because “it is harder for the residents to cut down a fruit-bearing tree than a tree meant for lumber,” he said.

Besides, he said, most parents and couples who are faithful to their vocation would want to see the trees grow as a remembrance of their love.

Suarez said they are using the basic ecclesial communities (BECs) to verify if the trees are indeed planted and taken care of.

The practice is generally observed only in Valencia City not in the entire Diocese of Malaybalay.

But Suarez clarified that the priests in other parishes are implementing their own ways of showing concern for the environment.

He traced his inspiration for the practice to the anti-logging protests in Bukidnon in the late 1980s initiated by the people of San Fernando town.

Suarez was ordained by then Bukidnon bishop Gaudencio Rosales in 1988, at the height of the anti-logging protests.

After the Department of Environment and Natural Resources imposed a logging moratorium in the province, Suarez was among 45 priests of the diocese who were deputized as forest guards.

Threats to the environment are still haunting us, Suarez said.

He said he also imposed the planting of trees in his previous parish assignments – Salawagan in Quezon town, Cabanglasan town, and Pangantucan town.

But he cited that the faithfulness of the church’s community leaders and the priests who replaced him in continuing the practice is a challenge. He said he can only trust them to be sincere in their duty to God and his creation.

“The idea that we plant is already something, we have something to look up to for the future of the children. But if we plant nothing today, that’s another thing,” he said.

Aside from its environmental thrust, the church is also implementing “FAITH” or “Food always in the home” gardening project through the BECs, he added. (Walter I. Balane/MindaNews).

Father Suarez' zeal for respecting God's creation is to be commended. But his methods are not. His approach reminds me of that of the Dictator Ferdinand Marcos who, around 1974, as I recall, imposed compulsory tree-planting as a requirement for police clearances, or something like that, for those wishing to apply for a passport. I forget the details but I remember the attempt to oppress the people clearly.

This parish priest is even using the Basic Ecclesial Communities as his own 'police' force, turning parishioners into spies. What has this to do with the Gospel?

Is it part of a parish priest's service to his people as a shepherd to impose tree-planting on them? I wonder what basic catechesis he and his BEC leaders give to couples bringing their children to be baptised or to couples preparing for marriage?

The Philippines is riddled with bureaucracy which oppresses especially the poor. I posted yesterday about the difference in renewing your driver's license in Ireland and in the Philippines. In one parish in Mindanao where I was assigned before I discovered that couples from the mountain applying for their marriage license were asked to pay for all sorts of things such as a rodent tax and for the marriage ceremony itself, even if it wasn't done by the mayor. I know from lining up so many times to renew my driver's license how much time and money is wasted because of unnecessary procedures.

I think it is shameful for a parish priest to engage in officious oppression of his people under the guise of something that in itself is good. I am all in favor of planting trees, especially fruit trees but I'm not in favor of clerical dictators who train parishioners to be 'little clerics' spying on their fellow parishioners.

In fairness to Father Suarez, a predecessor of his in Valencia, Fr Nery Lito Satur, was murdered in November 1991 almost certainly because of his opposition to illegal logging, which is rife in the Philippines. Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales, Archbishop of Manila, was then Bishop of Malaybalay and wrote a book about Father Satur and the illegal logging he was confronting by peaceful means.

Nobody can quarrel with the planting of trees. the only one I ever planted myself was in Malaybalay, Bukidnon, in 2000, while at a camp there for young Deaf people. It was an overdue response to the request of a priest in another diocese in Mindanao, on the occasion of his Silver Jubilee, to plant a tree.

However, I think that the zeal of Father Suarez, whose intention is undoubtedly good, outweighs his wisdom and his sense of justice.


Jackie Parkes MJ said...

This is an April Fool Fr Sean??

Fr Seán Coyle said...

Unfortunately, no. Illegal logging has caused much suffering in the Philippines and people such as Father Satur, mentioned in my post, have been murdered because they opposed it. So that is the background. But I think this priest's response is rather over the top.

It is very easy for any group of people anywhere in the world to slip into a form of Phariseism because they want something good to come about.

Anonymous said...

Isn't this a form of simony?

Fr Seán Coyle said...

Shane, UCANews, http://www.ucanews.com/2010/08/20/row-breaks-out-over-tree-of-love-ritual/, and CathNews Phil, http://www.cathnewsphil.com/?p=8140 , carry a report in which the executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines points out 'Definitely that cannot be imposed. It’s wrong from the point of view of Canon Law. For whatever reason, priests should not impose preconditions to the sacraments.'

The headline with the story is misleading as it speaks of a 'row' when clearly there is none.

I'm not sure that the parish priest's action is simony since he's not getting any financial benefit from it. But it's clearly excessive zeal for a cause that in itself is good.

My Dad used to tell me when I was growing up in Dublin that if you cut down a tree the law required you to plant two. I don't know if that's true. But in Ireland and Britain we're blessed with lots of woodland and greenery. In the Philippines the rain-forest has been nearly wiped out in the last 100 years and the consequences in some cases have been destructive and fatal. About 20 years ago flash floods in Ormoc City resulted in about 3,000 deaths. Had the rain-forest not been destroyed by people interested only in money it would have absorbed most of the rain.

While I see the action of the parish priest as being wrong and oppressive, the general situation in the Philippines with regard to illegal and destructive logging is an important part of the background.

Fr Seán Coyle said...

Shane, I thought I had approved your comment but it seems to have disappeared. anyway, I have complied with your request. God bless you.