Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Although temperatures are falling, it may already be spring for the Catholic Church and the Philippine government.
Signaling a thawing of relations between Church and State, President Benigno Aquino III turned up yesterday at San Fernando de Dilao Parish Church in Paco, Manila, to hear Thanksgiving Mass for the elevation of Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle to the College of Cardinals.
Cardinal Tagle, 55, acknowledged Aquino's presence as he took the lectern to deliver his homily.
"I thank you all for [coming] ... and our gathering has become more meaningful with the presence of the president of our nation, President Benigno Aquino III," Tagle said.
The congregation applauded at the cardinal's mention of Aquino name.
Tagle then went on to acknowledge other high-ranking government officials, diplomats and representatives of religious orders who came for the Mass.
Aquino also went to the Thanksgiving Mass for the canonisation of the Philippines' second saint, Pedro Calungsod, in Cebu City on Friday. Aquino and Cebu Archbishop Ricardo Cardinal Vidal were seen embracing briefly after the Mass.
Relations between the Church and the government have iced up since Aquino began pressing for the passage of a reproductive health bill that would slow down the growth of the country's population.
Consultations between the Church and the government on the proposal broke down last year when it became clear that Palace would not allow the evisceration of the bill by dropping the provision on contraceptives.
The Church has led opposition to the bill and it has threatened to use its influence on Catholic voters to break the political careers of legislators who will vote for the passage of the measure.
As a result, the bill is stuck in the Senate and in the House of Representatives. In the House, lawmakers stay away from sessions to prevent a quorum and discussions on the bill.
The elevation of Tagle to top prelate in the Philippines may have helped to thaw relations between the Church and the palace.
Aquino and Tagle are "very good personal friends," according to Fr. Catalino Arevalo, SJ, who was spiritual adviser to Aquino's mother, the late president Corazon Aquino.
"Last Christmas, I told the sisters [of the president], 'If Noy agrees, let's try to invite Chito (Tagle's nickname) to say Mass with the family. It would be private. No pictures," Arevalo said in a recent interview with the Inquirer. He was referring to the President's sisters Maria Elena "Ballsy" Aquino-Cruz and Victoria Elisa "Viel" Aquino-Dee.
"They said, 'He's already Archbishop of Manila, will he agree?' This was the day before the 23rd of December," Arevalo said.
He said he volunteered to ask Tagle.
"I said, 'Archbishop, the family would just like to know if you could come and say Mass for the family.' Immediately he said, 'Yes.' And that's an additional Mass for him [on Christmas Eve]," Arevalo said.
"[Tagle] said Mass and sat down for a quick dinner [then] rushed back for the Mass at the cathedral. That was the 24th, 8pm, and this was 6pm [in the President's house]," he said.
When the Church invited Aquino to the Thanksgiving Mass for Tagle's elevation to cardinal, the president readily accepted. His sisters Ballsy and Viel also accepted and attended the Mass concelebrated by Tagle with Manila Archbishop Emeritus Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales.
Vice President Jejomar Binay, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas also attended the Mass.
Asked if the public show of friendliness meant relations between the Church and the government were thawing, Roxas said, "Relations have always been good if not warm. Differences of sincerely held opinion don't mean relations are bad."
In his homily, Tagle shunned divisive temporal issues and instead quoted verses from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel dealing with eternal unity between God and His creation.
He said God Himself descended on earth to dwell with mankind through Jesus Christ.
"This is pure grace-God in our midst," Tagle said, explaining that Christ represented the "life-giving water ... that comes from the throne of God" in the City of God "where light abound and there is no darkness."
"God is the light. Who is the water? The Holy Spirit," he said.
"There is no longer a temple because God dwells in the presence of His nation," Tagle said, describing the "new heaven" in Revelations.
Tagle said he saw his raising to the cardinalate as a "grace" or "blessing," which showed "God is good to the Philippines."
"We are thanking God who is so good to our country, the Philippines. I am [to this day] somewhat awestruck because we [had yet to internalise] the canonisation of St. Pedro Calungsod, but three days later another blessing was given to the Church in the Philippines," Tagle said.
"But this is not a rank or privilege. It is the blessing of [God] coming to our lives. He came to us to give us a face, a heart and a name," Tagle said.
Around 30 archbishops and bishops attended the Mass. Among them was Infanta Bishop Julio Xavier Labayen, one of the leading lights of the generation of prelates that led the Church during the martial rule of dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
After the Mass, Cardinals Tagle and Rosales went down from the altar and approached Aquino, who was seated on the left front pew with Binay and his spouse, former Makati Mayor Elenita Binay, and Enrile and his wife, Cristina, a former ambassador to the Vatican.
They were all smiles as they exchanged pleasantries.
Tagle and the president engaged in small talk during a photo opportunity on the steps to the altar.
Contacted by phone, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad hinted at the significance of Aquino's presence at the Mass.
Asked if the warm reception accorded by Tagle to Aquino was an improvement in relations between the Aquino administration and the Church, Abad said: "Cardinal Tagle and "resident Aquino go along quite well. Partly, it's generational; partly, because they share the same moderate views on social issues."
Asked how far back the friendship between Tagle and the president went, Abad said: "I am not sure if their acquaintance goes all the way back, but somehow, they seem to connect well."
To expedite full-house action by the House of Representatives on the bill, the president summoned congressional officials to a meeting over lunch in the palace yesterday.
But in an ambush interview in Mandaue City, Cebu, on Friday, Aquino appeared to have discarded his confrontational stance, preferring to let the lawmakers decide on the fate of the bill.
"I think, I have stated publicly [that] I have a position-I'm pro for responsible parenthood-that this is a matter of conscience. We all have a value system, a belief system, and we must listen to what our conscience says. So the party will not impose, and our allies [will listen to] each other's conscience. They should be the ones to decide. But the suggestion is to decide," Aquino said.
Asked about the talking points for the meeting tomorrow, Aquino said that first, he would make sure that the House would get the needed quorum, and, second, "We will make sure that there will be a decision".
"If we leave this hanging, it [will become more divisive]. But, you know, we hope to get past this division. There should be a decision either way. Whatever they pass, that's what the executive will enforce," he said.
Aquino also appeared to have had second thoughts about certifying the bill as urgent.
"[We] have to talk to see whether we should [certify it as] urgent. As a general rule, you all know that I am parsimonious when it comes to certifying bills as urgent," he said.