Dear Friends and Benefactors,
Merry Christmas! Warmest greetings to you from Butuan!
Truly, by our sinfulness, stupidities and faults, we can accomplish nothing; but God, in His infinite Wisdom, gathers us around Him and gives us work to do anyway to make us understand the power of His Grace. So here we are, like beasts around the manger, wondering in amazement how come the All-Holy God desires to be surrounded by vile creatures like us, and gives us this unique Christmas experience.
Unlike Him who found no place among His People, we have a place among the traditional Catholics in the poor village of Sta. Lucia. None of them would refuse to let us in if we knocked on their doors. We are welcome to squeeze into their humble homes but we don’t have to; because, despite their poverty, these poor people managed to build, next to the chapel, a little hut for the visiting priest. The priest rarely sleeps over so we were given permission to set up our mission office here. There are crawling caterpillars and beetles, whining mosquitoes, and buzzing bugs that come in and out as they please, but the hut is very peaceful in its simplicity. There is electricity and, outside, a toilet with running water. Though some parts of the street have been packed with gravel and sand, the road is generally muddy and slippery. Walking around at night is always an adventure. The village gets flooded time and time again so the houses are built on stilts. The chapel is on the edge of the village, by the bank of a narrow river that rises during high tide and overflows during heavy rain. The river is muddy and the bank is swampy. Two nearby runoff canals drain into the river. Thick vegetation hides the river. And the snakes. Once in a while, a frog leaps out of the foliage to peep through the chapel door. Unseen, the crickets fill the night with their songs. A mother hen with her brood of chicks come to inspect the garden at daytime. The ground outside the chapel have plenty of crab holes. Sometimes, people bait the crabs to lure them into the cooking pots for a sumptuous meal.
The people are struggling. Most of them used to have better houses and better living conditions elsewhere but after losing their properties, livelihood and savings to disasters and calamities, they were forced to come to this relocation area. In the early days of the relocation, before bridges, dikes and viaducts were built, all families had to have lifesaving buoys and all children had to learn to board and stay afloat on dug-out canoes because the river regularly flooded the village, up to 8 feet high, thrice in a year on average. This swampy area was not an ideal relocation place for victims of calamities but the homeless poor could not be choosy. The extreme poverty overwhelmed them with feelings of powerlessness and they succumbed to a pervading sense of fatalism – that no matter what they would do, they could not overcome nature and they abandoned any effort to resist nature and learned to just sway with the wind, float with the tide, and accept whatever the sky would give to them day by day, whether blistering sunshine or gloomy clouds or a torrential downpour. They despaired of ever rising from poverty. The spiritual defeat was terrible. Without Faith to support hope or to fuel charity, they turned to vices and grave sins. Morality was very low.
But out of the mud, God caused the rose of Faith to spring through a poor instrument, one of the village residents, a lady named Bernadette. Her hard-working parents forsook farming after a series floods, followed by a long drought, and then a rat infestation, wiped out their crops and granary in the agricultural village of Mandamo. They built a second home in the urban district and put up a food-service shop which immediately flourished but a devastating fire consumed the shop and their home. The total loss forced them to relocate to Sta. Lucia. Bernadette decided to drop out of college to support her ailing parents. Without a college degree, her options for earning a good salary were slim so she applied as a baby-sitter in Manila, where, after praying to God to lead her to a Catholic group that she could join on her free time from work, she received a written invitation to become a scavenger of lost souls. The written invitation from a stranger explained the crisis in the church and instructed that if she wanted to help save souls, she was to come to a particular address. She pondered on the crisis in the Church and decided to find the address. There she became part of the group that labored to bring back the traditional Mass. They rallied around the Dominican Priest, Fr. Manuel Pinon, who bravely offered the traditional Mass in the Church of Sto. Domingo until he was stopped by Cardinal Sin. She was one of the original faithful who attended the first Mass of the SSPX in the Philippines. Later, when she found a better-paying domestic employment in Hong Kong, she did not stop her apostolate. She regularly prayed at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception where she organized a Rosary group that attracted some Filipino domestic helpers. When she learned that the SSPX was saying Mass in a small private home in Hong Kong, she went and later invited the members of her Rosary group which necessitated the move to a public Mass center in Hong Kong. On the visit of Fr. Marc Vernoy, she asked if he could come to her poor village in Butuan to say Mass for her family and neighbors. He agreed to come on December 26, 1996. Two acolytes from General Santos City accompanied him. The journey was missionary standard: difficult. After a 16-hour bus trip over very rough roads, they had to board a little boat to cross a brackish river that had crocodiles (relax, the reptiles were not in the mood to show up at that time)! When they neared the riverbank, they had to wade through the muddy river because there was no boat landing facility. From the swampy bank through the muddy foot trail, the team trudged on stoutheartedly. There was no chapel in the village but a little house was converted into a chapel and happily decorated for the Holy Mass; however, when the people came up for Mass, the house shook from the weight and the floor planks creaked alarmingly, so they had to evacuate quickly. They ended up having the Mass in the open grassland. It so happened that the flies were having a field day at the same time, and, inadvertently, just after consecration, one of the flying creatures took a fatal dive into the chalice. The priest reverently drank anyway.
A hundred people showed up for the Mass and listened to the catechism. It became imperative to continue the apostolate. Initially, Bernadette sent voice recordings of herself explaining the catechism and the crisis in the church, and sent books and pamphlets for the village people to read. She stretched her meager income to provide every material support for the apostolate. Later, with the sympathy of her fellow domestic helpers, she was able to raise funds to build a structure for a regular catechism class among the children and adults in the village. After some years, a young man appeared and volunteered to teach catechism. He had discovered the traditional Mass through the apostolate of the Apostles of Mary in Cebu where he was
studying for a degree in physical therapy. Despite his family’s disagreement, he put his career on hold and dedicated his time to the apostolate. Many children gathered regularly for catechism classes. Around 60 villagers attended the Holy Mass that was offered again, 6 years after the 1st Mass, 3 times a year. By the grace of God, the heroic efforts paid off: five couples were married before the church and their children baptized. Gradually, travel conditions improved with the construction of paved highways, bridges and footpaths. The zeal of missionary priests and catechists brought people from neighboring towns and cities to the traditional Mass in the little village chapel. In 2019, twenty six years since the first Mass, Mass attendance is approximately 100 but the vast majority of the faithful come from outside the village. Among the 60-strong village faithful of the early years, only 9 adults remained loyal to the chapel, the rest could not muster the energy to come to Mass or any chapel activity. Their spiritual eclipse was total. Such was the condition that met our mission team when we arrived in the village before Christmas to prepare for the logistics of the medical mission.
Staying in the village near the chapel gave me the opportunity to meet and greet people on my way to and from the city business district. I could have time to sit and speak with some villagers while waiting for the tricycle at terminals or waiting sheds. During the feast of St. Lucy, taking advantage of the fiesta mood, I knocked on doors and said hello and happy fiesta to the persons who used to attend the catechism as little children but, as young adults, have stopped coming to the chapel. I did not initiate any discussion on the importance of the sacraments because I waited for them to show first some interest in any religious discussion. I got nowhere. They were invariably respectful and friendly but made no mention of religion. As Christmas was approaching, I asked the chapel community if they had plans for a Nativity Play and Christmas carols before the midnight Mass. They all said that they never had either activity on their previous Christmases so I thought it would be our important mission to bring to life the Christmas Story in the chapel. We recruited children to be actors and approached young adults who haven’t been to Mass for years to be stage directors, costume engineers and printing volunteers. We borrowed curtains, pins, crayons and scissors. Little children drew and cut out sheep from cardboards. We distributed copies of the script to parents so that they could guide the children to memorize their lines. On days when there was no priest to offer Misa de Gallo, the people gathered for a Rosario de Gallo plus a novena to the Virgin of Belen. At first, only a few joined the Mass and the following day’s dawn rosary and novena. But by the grace of God, the young adults who were asked to help in the Nativity Play came to the chapel one by one so with each passing day, the number of attendees increased. At every gathering, we practiced Christmas songs with the adults and translated the lyrics so that they could better understand Christmas. They listened to the explanation as to why St Joseph and the Blessed Virgin were coming to Bethlehem and how they were related to the tribe inhabiting Bethlehem. They listened with unblinking eyes as the words of the Gospel were repeated: "He came unto His own and His own received Him not". They pondered on the fact that St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary were blood descendants of King David and how Christ was rightfully called the Son of David and why Herod was afraid of His birth. After they heard the meaning of the words "Bethlehem" [House of Bread], "manger" [French: to eat] and the full translation of the lyrics of the song that they have been singing for years: "Panis Angelicus", they could not contain their excitement. They broke their silence and said, "[only now do we understand the Belen!]" One teacher said, "[I did not know the meaning of Christmas until now. I will go to Confession!]" The catechist then chimed, "[Listen to her, that’s the best Christmas gift! She has not been to Mass for years!] Another adult said, "[Indeed, we will prepare to receive Christ in Communion!]".
Christmas retold brought back five long-absent young adults and four children to the Holy Mass. The teacher who returned to Mass and Confession did not come alone. She came with her new friend. One of the young actors, who had not been to Confession for a long time, borrowed a confession guide and braved the language barrier to make her Confession and receive Holy Communion. The song sung by the shepherds as they knelt before the Infant King became an instant hit among young and old, sung in local dialect and in Latin: "Pobre man jud ko, wa koy mahatag, gugma ihalad!" "Ego sum pauper nihil habeo, cor meum dabo!" May our hearts remain blessedly humble to attract the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph so that the Messiah may be born in us! A holy Christmas to us all!
Yours in Rosa Mystica,