Bohol Pilgrimage, Philippines

Source: District of Asia

This year's pilgrimage in the humid tropical heat, amid the leafy hills of Bohol Island, to The Our Lady of Fatima's Shrine was the largest ever and brought down untold graces upon the Society's mission in the Philippines.

The Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima (Bohol Island, Philippines)

The 14th Pilgrimage of Catholic Tradition took place on Bohol Island between 16th and 19th April. It started from the capital of the region, Tagbilaran, and ended at Carmen. It was a three day march of around 60km. The first stage was about 15km along the coast, but later the route headed for the hills (with the renowned “chocolate hills” among others). The pilgrims had to ascend many steep hills and then descend again, up and down many times.

This year over 850 people signed–up to walk the pilgrimage and on the final day there were more than 1000 pilgrims.

Pilgrim’s Progress

Having arrived on a late flight, I joined the pilgrimage before the first stop, close to a church which had been almost completely destroyed by the earthquake of 2013 (like the majority of the churches on the island).

The pilgrimage was divided into 25 groups, each one consisting of around 30-50 faithful from different chapels of the Society of Saint Pius X in Philippines. Each of the groups prayed separately - mostly in Latin, but sometimes singing or prayers were intoned in English or in one of the main local languages. The pilgrims prayed and sang almost the entire day, including two full Rosaries.

As walking and marching in a tropical climate is a huge effort, there were special cars for the pilgrims along the whole route – so called jeepneys, bigger than a car but smaller than a bus. If an exhausted pilgrim wanted to enter the jeepney, it was possible, for example, to ride to the top of the hill and then walk on foot again.

After the pilgrimage started in the morning, there were usually three stops, mostly in or close to a church. During two of these stops, priests gave a sermon. I was lucky enough to preach two such sermons inside two different churches.

Overnight lodging on all of the nights was provided by big schools close to the pilgrimage route. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was celebrated in the gymnasium. After the pilgrims entered, adoration of the Holy Sacrament began, while the pilgrims prayed the Rosary. The first day of the pilgrimage is always crowned by Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

After refreshing themselves and after supper, the pilgrims met again in the gymnasium for the evening programme – the competitions. Eight delegations were chosen among all the groups and the priests served as referees. The first evening contest was dedicated to songs about the Blessed Virgin Mary – the pilgrims sang polyphonic songs. The choir of Our Lady of Victories Church in Manila was voted to be the best. Poetry was the contest of the second evening. It was divided into two categories: women recited pieces in honour of the Immaculate Heart of Mary while men declaimed about the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Both made extraordinary and profound performances; all of the participants wore formal dress. On the third evening there was a catechism contest and folk dancing. The teachers of choreography from the local high schools were chosen to be the referees. Each contest began with a prayer and with a national anthem, sang standing and with the right hand placed on the heart.

The Aim of the Pilgrimage

On the third day, Saturday at around 4pm, we reached the pilgrimage’s end: Our Lady of Fatima’s Sanctuary, BOHOL FATIMA HILL. It is a hill rising among the others in the very heart of the island. There is a 150m stairway leading from the street at the foot of the hill to the top, where there is a statue of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. There is also a chapel situated just below the hilltop. Not all the pilgrims could fit on the hilltop at the same time. After praying the Rosary at the foot of the statue there was a short sermon and a final blessing.

The traditional enormous group photograph was taken amid general rejoicing of the weary pilgrims, but things didn’t end there: around 6pm, buses took the pilgrims back to the school in Tagbilaran for the final ceremonies – a supper and the last of the contests.

New Knights of the Immaculata

On Sunday morning at 6:30am, those priests who remained on Bohol Island offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass or heard confessions just as they had done throughout the pilgrimage (all the priests from Philippines took part in the pilgrimage, but on Sunday half of them had to leave). At 7:30am, a Solemn High Mass was celebrated followed by a great ceremony for the of admission of new members to the Militia Immaculatae (MI).

We had prepared the faithful to join the MI from the first day of the pilgrimage. Everybody received a brochure, containing a little catechism (a candidate has to know it in order to become a Knight of the Immaculata). The catechists examined the candidates who, if they passed, received a registration number allowing them to become a Knight. It was quite a complex and time-consuming procedure. Unfortunately, not everyone willing managed to be examined, but nevertheless, on Sunday, 453 people joined the ranks of the Knights of the Immaculata of the Traditional Observance.

Four priests imposed the miraculous medals and the whole ceremony lasted for more than an hour. Then, each new MI member had to stand in front of me to receive a signed and stamped certificate. It also took more than an hour, but at least I could see each new Knight of the Immaculata face to face.

After the ceremony, further contests were held; this time sports and games: volleyball, basketball, ping pong and chess. The games finished with an awards ceremony in which everyone was given a beautiful gift. The best team was given a large statue of Our Lady of Fatima.

Legion of Mary Regia Meeting

Also on Sunday, a meeting of the highest authorities of the Legion of Mary of Catholic Tradition (REGIA) took place in the presence of all the presidents of the CURIA. The Legion of Mary is divided into the PRAESIDIA (about 15-20 legionaries) at the lowest level. The PRAESIDIA are organized in the CURIA (about 4-10 PRAESIDIA). There is also the REGIA upon all others, gathering all the CURIA. There are 10 CURIA in Philippines which makes about 60 PRAESIDIA.

This time the REGIA discussed the best ways of promoting the Militia Immaculatae in Philippines. Another issue of discussion was the forthcoming congress of the Legion of Mary in Manila in October in which delegates of all the PRAESIDIA will participate.

Happy Memories and Thanksgiving

I cannot forget the beautiful flags and banners which accompanied the pilgrimage - held by each of the groups. At the head and in the middle of the procession, the pilgrims carried a big statue of Our Lady almost entirely covered in flowers. Each evening, the places where the contests took place were charmingly decorated too.

The pilgrimage’s logistics were modest and discrete. The kitchen to feed 1000 people worked very well and the pilgrimage traffic wardens didn’t even use whistles - it was enough to raise a hand to stop a car to make a passage for the pilgrims.

If any Polish pilgrims had taken part, they would have most certainly fainted in the heat! There was a medical service present,  but they had almost nothing to do as not one pilgrim succumbed to the heat even at its most intense (between 11am and 4pm) with the temperatures around 40oC (104oF) and very high humidity.

In general, people living close to the pilgrimage route (especially in the places renowned for a great hostility towards the clergy which is unfortunately quite common in Philippines) pretended they didn’t see the pilgrims walking by. However, in several villages we were welcomed with open arms. In recent years some of the churches hadbeen closed so that pilgrims couldn’t enter them. This time, however, all bar one were all open for us. In two of them we were made especially welcome.

There were 200 more pilgrims compared to last year, including about 150 new faithful. It is not an exaggeration to say that this pilgrimage is one of the most important events of the whole year in the Philippines. It brings many blessings upon us from the Mother of God, especially for the youth. A great thing about this pilgrimage is the common life: the Holy Mass, the prayers, the lectures and the meetings, the music and the healthy entertainment. Everyone was happy to be a part of it and had prepared for it for some time – for example the choirs had began practicing for up to 5 months before the pilgrimage.

As the summer holidays in Philippines take place in April and May, several camps were organized after the pilgrimage. Around 120 young people aged 16-18 years stayed in Bohol to participate in catechism camps: the camp for 55 girls was in a retreat house and another one for 65 boys was in a school 4 km away where the pilgrimage had its end.

Deo et Immaculatae gratias for the fact that I could be present at such a manifestation of Her mercy!

Fr. Karl Stehlin