Orthodoxy, Religious Beliefs, and God’s Saving Power during Typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana)

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Do ordinary Catholics who are disaster victims in the Philippines hold orthodox beliefs on the Church teaching on salvation?

It has been said that many Filipino Catholics are “unchurched’ or who do not go to Mass, hold official religious beliefs, and receive religious instructions regularly from their parish churches. I tried to test the orthodoxy of the religious beliefs of some Catholic victims of Typhoon Ondoy concerning God’s salvation; thus, I conducted a qualitative research two years ago. I interviewed around 17 poor Catholic mothers who became victims of Typhoon Ondoy (International name: Tropical Storm Ketsana) and relocated in a government low-cost housing project in Rodriguez, Rizal. I asked them how they understood the Church’s doctrine on God’s salvation as experienced during the typhoon. I recorded their narratives in my research notes and analyzed their religious beliefs, whether their understanding of God’s salvation is orthodox or in accordance with the official Church teachings or unorthodox, i.e., folk or a combination of the official and nonofficial or cultural beliefs.

I tried to summarize and analyze their narratives and compared them with the official teachings of the Church. My objective was to know whether their religious beliefs on God’s salvation as experienced during the typhoon are in accordance with the Church’s official teaching.

Ondoy

Photo:  Satellite image of Typhoon Ondoy, one of the strongest super typhoons to hit the Philippines in 2009 that left thousands of people homeless (Source: http://weather.com.ph/typhoon/climatology).

On the Nature of God’s Salvific Act (Kaligtasan)

The official doctrine of the Catholic Church on salvation (kaligtasan) sees God’s saving action through Christ in the post-Vatican documents as holistic and as a “means to an end.” This means that God saves people both in the material and spiritual sense, even in the miraculous sense, as the Church believes in the existence of miracles. For the Church, salvation is not only saving the “soul” but also saving the body of the person. Salvation is saving the entire person, both his/her body and soul. The Post-Vatican II theology of the Catholic Church therefore sees salvation as both material and spiritual.

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With Vatican II’s friendly stance towards the modern world, the material aspect of saving or promoting human development is even more emphasized in the doctrine. People need to be saved by God from death, poverty, hunger, and all forms of material insecurity and injustices in society as part of His saving plan. However, the official doctrine also emphasizes that whatever material, tangible or miraculous act felt by the believer from God’s saving power, is only a sign or a preliminary step  in the person’s spiritual journey to God.

In other words, God’s saving act is not an end in itself, i.e., just for a display of divine power or magic to impress believers of God’s power, but as a means to an end, the beginning of the long journey towards holiness with Christ.

God’s Saving Power as Material and Miraculous

My informants’ view of the material aspect of salvation is within the Church’s official teaching. This is confirmed by my informants’ religious narratives. For them, the concept of saving, although an act of God, is not abstract but something tangible and material in nature.  Given the great risk to life and property posed by disasters, God’s saving power rescued them from physical harm and total loss of property caused by Typhoon Ondoy, For instance, Aling Sonia, 28 years old, a mother of six also claimed that God saved them physically from harm:

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Sabi ko sa dasal ko noon nang tumaas na ang tubig: Diyos ko! Ilayo mo ako sa kapamahakan, dahil maliiit pa po ang mga anak ko at buntis pa ako at kabuwanan pa. Iligtas mo po sana kami sa kapahamakan. Bahala na kung wala kaming gamit bastat kami po ay ligtas… At dininig naman po ang aking dasal. Kami ay nailikas sa mataas na lugar at dinala sa evacuation center ng Barangay San Isidro bago nabigyan ng pabahay sa relokasyon.

Translation

I said in my prayer at that time when the water was rising: My God, spare me from danger because my children are still very young. I am also pregnant and am about to give birth. Please save us from danger. Come what may, if we are left without belonging as long as we are all saved. And my prayer was answered. We were rescued/brought to a higher place and were brought to the evacuation center of Barangay San Isidro before we were given a house unit in the relocation.

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God’s saving act, for my informants, was not only physical and material, but also miraculous. God heard their prayers and performed a miracle (himala) to save them from death and danger posed by Typhoon Ondoy.

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Aling Anita, 45 years old, an ambulant vendor with 6 children, for instance, claimed that God personally saved her children from the typhoon by performing a miracle. She believed that God sent her friend to save her children from the flood.

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Napakalakas ng ulan ng umagang iyon. Ako’y naglalako ng pang-almusal tuwing umaga. Habang naglalakad, may nakapagsabi sa akin na napakataas na raw po ang baha lugal namin. Natangay na raw po ng baha ang mga barung-barong doon. Nagmamadali akong umuwi subalit ako’y na “stranded” dahil napakataas ang baha sa daan. Balisang-balisa ako noon subalit tuloy-tuloy at taimtim na nagdadasal na sana iligtas ng Diyos ang aking anim na maliliit na anak. Noong oras ding yaon dininig ng Diyos ang aking panalangin. May nakapagsabi sa akin na iniligtas raw sila ng aking kaibigan na malayong nakatira sa lugar namin. Biglang naisip raw ng kaibigan ko na ako’y naglalako tuwing umaga at walang makapagsagip sa mga anak ko kaya pinuntahan n’ya ang bahay naming kahit malayo. Tamang-tama po ang dating n’ya. Inilikas niya ang aking mga anak sa mataas ng lugar bago natangay ang aming bahay ng rumaragasang tubig. Nagpapasalamat talaga ako sa Panginoong Diyos na iniligtas Nya ang aking pamilya sa  bagyong Ondoy!

Translation:

“The rain was so heavy on that morning. I peddled breakfast from house-to-house every morning. While walking, somebody told me that the flood was already very high in our place. The makeshift houses there were already washed away. I hurriedly went home but was stranded because of the high flood on the roads. I was very worried but I kept on praying fervently that God would save my 6 little kids. At that very moment God heard my prayer. Somebody told me that a friend of mine who resided far from our place saved my children. I later learned that my friend remembered that I was vending every morning and that no one might save my children. So she went to my house even if it is remote. Her arrival was on time. She was able to bring all my children to higher ground before our house was swept away by rampaging water. I was really thankful to our Lord God for saving my family from Typhoon Ondoy.”

God’s Salvation as Miracle

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Believing God’s salvation (pagliligtas) as miraculous is an orthodox belief rooted in the Bible and Church teachings. In the Book of Exodus, for instance, God miraculously saved the Israelites from the plagues (Ex. 20). The Gospels are also full of stories of Jesus’ miracles, saving people from all sorts of problems and difficulties (e.g. The healing of the centurion’s slave, Lk. 7: 1-7; The healing of the Gerasene demoniac, Mk.5: 1-20; The cleansing of the 10 lepers, Lk. 17:11-19). The Church’s Magisterium also believes in the existence of divine miracles. In its official document, Dei Fillius (# 3), the Magisterium condemns those who deny the authenticity of miracles.

Although not all of the victims’ narratives implied dramatic and miraculous divine intervention, all my 17 informants, however, believed that somehow God saved them miraculously from the typhoon. All of them lived in danger zones at that time near rivers and creeks when the flood water caused by monsoon rains unexpectedly reached the rooftops of their shanties swiftly. The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) reported that Ondoy poured a month’s rain in 6 hours causing massive flooding in most parts of the country. Believing in miracles (himala) is an orthodox belief and in accordance with the Biblical and Catholic Church’s official teachings.

The Church’s Teaching on Miracles

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A miracle is traditionally understood as a supernatural sign or wonder, brought about by God, signifying His glory and the salvation of humankind (Catholiceducation.org). Although the Church believes in miracle, it does not however see it as an end in itself but as a means to an end. In the official Church teaching and theological explanation, God’s miraculous intervention of God’s saving acts are a call to faith or a sign that invites faith in Christ. They are not meant to satisfy people’s curiosity and desire for magic. They are signs that point to a higher reality, to God’s Kingdom (CCC #540-50). Thus God’s salvific acts invite belief and invite greater intimacy with Him. It is not a private possession to impress people or make people felt that they are favored by God. God saves people to invite them to a lifelong process of conversion:

The process towards salvation and sanctification is not a one-and-for-all reality, but an ongoing interpersonal process of conversion that lasts a lifetime – precisely because it is a relationship with Christ, not an object or private possession.

The doctrinal orthodoxy of my informants regarding the purpose of God’s miraculous interventions during the typhoon appeared to be more non-official and folk rather than official. My own impression of my informants’ interpretation of their survival from the flood of Typhoon Ondoy was a kind of private gift or possession given by God rather than a call, a beginning of a lifelong process of conversion to God. There were no efforts on their part to sanctify their own selves through public religiosity offered by their parish church as part of the doctrine’s requirement. Aling Nita, for instance, recalled that God saved her and her family for the second time from Ondoy:

“Napakabait po ng Diyos. Niligtas po kami ng Diyos noong Bagyong Reming, ngayon niligtas na naman kami sa ikalawang pagkakataon sa sakuna ni Ondoy.”

Translation:

“God is so good. He saved me and my family from Typhoon Reming before, and now he saved us again from the tragedy of Ondoy.”

Conclusion

In sum, my informants beliefs about the miraculous characteristic of God’s saving act seemed to be more influenced by the Filipino cultural belief of swerte (luck), albeit couched in spiritual language as one informant would say: Maswerte po ang pamilya namin at niligtas kami ng Diyos sa sakuna ng bagyong Ondoy (“Our family was lucky since God saved us from the tragedy of Typhoon Ondoy”). This implies that most of my Typhoon Ondoy informants held religious beliefs which did not conform fully to the Church’s official teaching on salvation. Their beliefs are, therefore, more folk or a combination of official teachings and cultural beliefs.

Catholics in the Philippines constitute around 85 percent of the country’s 100 million population. But due to lack of resources, priests and catechists to teach the Catholic faith in the grassroots, the great majority of Filipino Catholics are ignorant of the official teachings of the Church. How to address the folk religious beliefs of many Catholics is a great challenge not only to the local Church in the Philippines, but also to the universal Church, remembering Christ’s command to all Christians:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28: 19).

Photo credit (except on satellite image on TS Ondoy): Pexels.com free photos

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