Faith and Spirituality

[The Wide Shot] How can prayer defend the Philippines from China?

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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[The Wide Shot] How can prayer defend the Philippines from China?
‘Religion is a powerful force that can inflame nationalism – and awaken Filipinos to a sense of pride, loyalty, and courage in protecting the West Philippine Sea’

Clutching my rosary, I joined many Filipino Catholics on Thursday, June 27, in heeding the call of one of the most popular leaders of the Catholic Church.

To defend the Philippines from China, Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas called on Filipino Catholics to join a rosary campaign from June 27 until August 15. The former private secretary of Jaime Cardinal Sin said prayers can help calm tensions in the West Philippine Sea. “If God is with us,” said the 63-year-old Villegas, “no power can ever prevail against us!”

It’s easy to dismiss such a religious initiative as delusional, useless, and ineffective. After all, what we need the most is government action – chiefly by diplomats and our armed forces – bolstered by friends like the United States. 

We also need citizens stepping up for the Philippines – what Edicio dela Torre, a former radical priest, calls active citizenship. In a Thought Leaders article, Rappler senior editor Isagani de Castro Jr. said that “a larger civilian movement pushing for peace and sustainable development in the South China Sea and in the West Philippines is an idea whose time has come.”

It’s in this largely secular context, however, that the Catholic Church plays an important role. The Philippines, after all, “should respond as one team, one nation,” according to former Navy vice commander Rommel Jude Ong in his own Thought Leaders article. Policymakers and advocates cannot ignore the role of religion in this “one team, one nation” approach.

Religion is a powerful force that can inflame nationalism – and awaken Filipinos to a sense of pride, loyalty, and courage in defending the West Philippine Sea. 

Entry point

A prayer campaign can be a soft entry point for the unacquainted.

Reality is that defense of our territory is one of the issues that Filipinos care about the least, according to a Pulse Asia survey released on April 5. The most important issue for respondents is “controlling inflation,” with 70% of them selecting this as “most urgent.” Of 17 issues on Pulse Asia’s list, “defending the integrity of Philippine territory” against foreigners ranked only 13th.

It is understandable, in this lower middle-income country, that the rise in prices of goods is the most pressing issue for Filipinos. After all, families have stomachs to feed, bills to pay, and bright futures to seek. But more Filipinos need to understand that the West Philippine Sea also involves livelihoods, energy supplies, trade routes, and more. 

At stake, too, is our dignity as a people, the kind of self-respect that makes us strive to become better citizens. 

In a country where 96% of people say “belief in God is necessary to have good values” according to a Pew Research survey, religion is one of the buttons we can push to bolster nationalism among Filipinos. 

Religious nationalism

In the Philippines, according to political scientists Anna Grzymala-Busse and Dan Slater, “national and religious identities can be nearly coterminous.” Such a “merging of religious and national identities” can also be seen in Poland, which, like the Philippines, is a predominantly Catholic country. 

Busse and Slater, in their 2018 paper “Making Godly Nations: Church-State Pathways in Poland and the Philippines,” called the two countries “two of the world’s godliest nations.”

The political scientists explained that in the Philippines, religious nationalism arises as church authority replaces a succession of weak states in providing “symbolic and material sustanence.” This is contrast to Poland, where religious nationalism was brought about by “the church’s popular struggles against a domestic state founded on avowed secularism.”

This is different from the two common kinds of religious nationalism, according to Busse and Slater: one that focuses on an external threat, and another that sees the church and state working in harmony. The first kind of religious nationalism is the one that we see in India, for example, where Hindu nationalism leaves Muslims in fear.

Religious nationalism in the Philippines is different because it is rooted in how religion – particularly the Roman Catholic Church – acts as a substitute for a weak state in many aspects of life. 

“Where the state was persistently weak in its governing infrastructure or ‘standoffish’ in its intentions toward society, it conceded everyday tasks such as education, health care, and adjudication of disputes to the Church. It also failed on a national scale to develop any secular symbolic alternative to religious attachments,” Busse and Slater said.

They added that the Philippine state “has consistently floundered at the ‘primitive accumulation of symbolic power,’ to borrow a description by sociologist Mara Loveman. 

Citing sociologist Pierre Bordieu, Loveman said symbolic power “derives from the recognition of authority as legitimate.” The “primitive accumulation of symbolic power” is when “conflicts occur over the boundaries and nature of state involvement in particular areas of social life.” 

When Busse and Slater said that the Philippines struggles with the “primitive accumulation of symbolic power,” it means that many Filipinos still often question the authority of the state. This leaves the Catholic Church “in a more elevated and pivotal position of moral authority.”

“An ineffective and uninspiring state thus allowed the Church to insert itself into social life as a more constant source of solace, service, and protection than the state itself,” wrote Busse and Slater. 

Power of prayer

I know: the ideal situation is that the state would be effective and inspiring, and that no “substitute” like the Catholic Church is needed. In the context of the West Philippine Sea, the best scenario is that the state can galvanize Filipinos to action. Unfortunately, the state is limited by weak institutions, selfish personalities, and poor leadership. 

In this imperfect situation, the state needs all the help it can get.

The rosary campaign proposed by Villegas, of course, is not enough. No prayer on its own can ever suffice. 

But prayer is one of the least intimidating activities in a world where one needs college-level English skills to understand the news. Especially on Sundays, it is also often done in community – and is learned by osmosis. It can make people ask questions (“Why are people so concerned that they are now praying for the West Philippine Sea?) – and hopefully they will care a bit more. 

Throughout this article, I tried my best to tackle the topic in a way that even the nonreligious can appreciate. But as I end this, allow me to speak from the point-of-view of a practicing Catholic.

While many people regard it as a mindless repetition of prayers, the rosary is actually a form of meditation. 

Every time a Catholic recites the rosary, he or she reflects on “mysteries” or phases of the life of Christ  and his mother, Mary, in relation to his or her particular intentions. If, for example, the Catholic is praying the fifth sorrowful mystery, which is the crucifixion of Jesus, he or she recites 10 “Hail Mary” prayers while reflecting on the different “crucifixions” of daily life.

One point of meditation, for example, is “How can Catholics draw inspiration from the crucifixion story as China bullies the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea?”

The hope is that while praying the rosary, the Catholic reflects on the life of Christ and live in imitation of the Savior. In his pastoral letter on his rosary campaign, Villegas said that as Catholics meditate on the mysteries of the rosary, “we are configured into the mind and heart of God.” Change happens within us. 

It reminds me of a quote from the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” After all, according to many spiritual writers, God is eternal unchangeable. Who can change the mind of God? But, with prayer, we condition our heart and soul, and find a deeper strength.

If prayer can defend the Philippines from China, it is because prayer transforms us into better citizens with the help of God. It is an engaged citizenry, not prayer per se, that will do the defending. –

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior multimedia reporter covering religion for Rappler. He also teaches journalism at the University of Santo Tomas. For story ideas or feedback, email