Fr. Danny Pilario tells the story of Creative Fideility of the CM’s and DC’s in the Philippines.

He tells the early  story  in moving fashion. But… “as we look back in fidelity to our past, we are also challenged to be faithful and creative to our present and the future that lies ahead. Creativity, because St. Vincent says: “love is inventive unto infinity”!”.

He concludes, “I thought to myself, today, our partners – lay persons, clergy and religious – those whom we trained, those who have been working with us, are the ones actually leading us to the poor. The truth is – they have become voices of the Spirit that challenge us towards real creative fidelity.  ”

  1.  “Tapat-Loob, Tapat-Kaloob”: Creative Fidelity
  2. The Creative Lives of our Forebears
  3. The Spirit’s Challenge Ahead
    1.  Presence among the Poor
    2. Creative and Sustainable Engagement
    3. Collaboration
  4. Lay Empowerment
  5. Concluding Thoughts

150 Years of Creative Fidelity DC-CM Presence in the Philippines

 Homily on the Opening Eucharistic Celebration

San Vicente de Paul Parish

San Marcelino, Manila

Good morning, my fellow Vincentians!

Today, we would like to congratulate the Daughters of Charity and the Congregation of the Mission for their 150 years of presence in the Philippine Church.

At exactly 8:00 in the morning of July 22, 1862, 19 members of the Vincentian family – fifteen Daughters of Charity, two Priests of the Mission and two Vincentian brothers – came down from the boat “Concepcion” after more than three months of difficult travel at sea. One can only imagine how hard travel was in those days. The CMs and DCs were accommodated in the lower chamber of the ship. In present inter-island boat travels, this is equivalent to the economy class. That is manageable if we travel only for several days but not for journeys spanning several months. For those of us who are used to travel by boat, we know that the lower chamber is the most difficult place to stay – there is poor ventilation; the rocking of the boat can be strongly felt here; it is also dark and very warm. Their diaries would tell us that two Vincentians suffered from stomach trouble or headache during almost the whole trip. But one Recollect gave in; he died and had to be buried at sea just days before they reached the Manila waters. One day, a Daughter of Charity, was thrown down, rolled over the ship floor, when the ship rocked through big waves. She was not hurt, thanks be to God. Some other things happened – a sudden fire broke out, thanks to the blankets, it was extinguished; in another day, the main sail was also blown away by some big waves. On the other hand, some also celebrated their birthdays there or enjoyed beautiful liturgical celebrations from Holy Week, to May Marian devotions to the feast of the Sacred Heart – which also corresponded to their months of travel – March to July of 1862.

I started with these concrete experiences in order to get in touch with the everyday life of those first missionary confreres and sisters. Historical commemorations like this pose some danger of freezing them into some form of lifeless monuments or faded icons, all materials for our museums or archives. No, they were real persons – of real flesh and blood – who had to struggle to be faithful in this new mission to which they were sent. For many of them, if not for all, this is the first time that they have traveled this far. Some of them were quite young – some in their 30s and others in their 20s. Fr. Ildefonso Moral, one of the two priests, was only 27 – just one year after his ordination. I can just imagine the deep pain of leaving one’s family and childhood friends without the hope of seeing them again as one leaves port for unknown lands. I was thinking, we also had our own share of tears and separation anxieties when we first entered the seminary – but our little experiences pale in comparison. That is why we can understand when, upon disembarking and seeing how the people welcome them, people whom they have met for the first time, Fr. Moran wrote: “We could hardly realize what was happening before our eyes; we were overwhelmed by emotions that are not easy to explain; some of our Sisters could hardly restrain their tears before signs of love and enthusiasm.” It must have been mixed emotions – longing for the Spain that they love with its familiar memories and the joy and enthusiasm among these new faces in this new land that they were treading on for the first time.

1.      “Tapat-Loob, Tapat-Kaloob”: Creative Fidelity

It is in this context that we can better understand the theme chosen for this year-long celebration: “Tapat-Loob, Tapat-Kaloob”: 150 Years of Creative Fidelity. Two things: “katapatan ng loob” and “katapatan sa pagkakaloob”. Fidelity and Creativity! Fidelity to the charism and creativity in mission! As we look back in those one hundred and fifty years, we are challenged to be faithful to the dream Vincent and Louise handed down to us, faithful to the building of God’s kingdom, faithful to our calling to preach the Good News to the poor, the lame, the weak and the downtrodden – which is also the dream of Jesus himself. But as we look back in fidelity to our past, we are also challenged to be faithful and creative to our present and the future that lies ahead. Creativity, because St. Vincent says: “love is inventive unto infinity”!

2.     The Creative Lives of our Forebears

As they landed in our shores, the first CMs and DCs were confronted with new faces, new needs and new situations. It is in these new contexts that they were called towards creative fidelity. While reading the early accounts of their missions, one can only admire how courageous and daring they were. Several days after they arrived in Manila, maybe even before recovering from seasickness, the Vincentians took over the Manila seminary. After a few years, they took over Naga, then Cebu, Jaro, Vigan, Calbayog and the other dioceses. When they were doing this, they were only a group of 11 priests and 4 brothers. One can also imagine how far these places were during that time. Some of these were new dioceses then. I was surprised to have read that as early as 1907, we were already handling a high school seminary in Jagna, Bohol! I myself am from Cebu but I have never been to Jagna until now. True, it has always been a Vincentian trademark to go where the church calls us. In hindsight, however, I was thinking that even in seminary formation, the Vincentian preference was for the margins. The big congregations were handling the established central seminaries in Manila; the Vincentians explored and started with meager resources the training of local clergy in these new struggling dioceses still inaccessible to convenient travel and communication.

But they were also quite creative. There were no universities in those places during those times. The universities were all in Manila. So the Vincentians opened their seminaries to lay people. That is why they were called “colegio-seminarios” – some form of hybrid institution which gives lay people access to classical education together with the seminarians but which also helps support seminary formation since these lay students were also asked to pay well. The lay graduates of these institutions later became leaning political and economic leaders of the country! I was thinking, from its beginnings, the Vincentian education was inclusive in character. We were forming indigenous servant-leaders for the Church in the Philippines – both lay people and clergy.

The sisters were not to be outdone in creativity. They did not only take over the hospitals – to which they were originally sent – but also administered schools, orphanages and asylums wherever the needs of the poor led them. As early as the 1860s, when they took over Hospicio de San Jose, they were already engaged in bayong-making, embroidery, shoemaking, wood work, cloth weaving and embroidery. I was wondering where did the Spanish sisters learn how to make “bayong”? All these creativity comes together with an open, dynamic and flexible spirit. These Spanish sisters and missionaries were quick to adapt to the Philippine conditions. One small but maybe significant sign of this openness: at a time when fasting was quite strictly enforced among religious, there was one superior who fought to dispense his members from the rule of fasting required of religious during that time since their strength is needed in the apostolate. Maybe, that is why we are CMs –come mucho – because we are exempted from fasting! I don’t know how strict was the smoking issue among religious then but one can read this injunction from one superior: if it is a custom in the Philippines to offer tobacco to our guests, it is not only permitted but we are obliged to do so “just like in Mexico when we can offer coffee the whole day.” I really admire the creativity and flexibility of our forebears – a life of total openness to the Spirit who leads us to the service of the poor.

3.     The Spirit’s Challenge Ahead

 But while I was also reading the history of these first CMs and DCs, I was also thinking that to celebrate these 150 years, we should not only read the documents. We also need to be faithful to the whispers of the Spirit in our times. So, I actually asked some of our close partners and collaborators to challenge us. I asked them this question: “Where do you want to see the Vincentian family 20-30 years from now? What are your dreams for us?” These people – diocesan priests, other religious, or ordinary lay people – have known us, worked with us in our parishes, hospitals, seminaries, schools or local communities for years. With the little time given me, I asked them in emails, facebook or texts. I was really surprised when they replied right away even in the middle of the night. I feel we need to listen to them because when they tell us these things, it is out of love for us. Let me single out some few points on what kind of “creative fidelity” they expect from us Vincentians today.

3.1      Presence among the Poor

They expect to see us really immersed among the poorest of the poor. Some of those I asked find some of us a bit far from them. In their simple language, they want to see us “eat and drink with them, listen to their stories and inspire them with our lives and be inspired by them as well.” They want to see in us again with hearts in fire for the poor, clearly present in those places and fields neglected by church and society. Some respondents even venture to some concrete suggestions: they want to see more of us in Mindanao where differences in religion and culture often breed conflict, where indigenous peoples are systematically disempowered, where peace is much wanting and where our personal security can be at risk.  Recently, there was a “Rural Congress” – a CBCP-sponsored convention on issues and problems of rural development. Many congregations were represented there. But there was no CM! One religious texted me: “Danny, where are you? Where are the CMs?” It made me ask myself the question: “Yes, she is right. So, where are we?” Then I remembered St. Vincent who felt that the walls of Paris were crumbling every time he enters the city and leaving the poor in the countryside. For, from the times of St. Vincent until today, the most painful sting of poverty is mostly felt in the rural areas and the countryside. That is why the question of that sister strikes at the heart of our calling: “But where are we?”

3.2       Creative and Sustainable Engagement

They want to see us transform this presence among the poor from the traditional approaches we are familiar with to a more creative, systematic and sustainable manner – taking on issues of development, social justice, ecology, indigenous peoples and migration. Let me quote one: We do not want to see you create “more conventos but new communities of servants, advocates, defenders, and vindicators of the anawim even those who are not receptive of the Gospel.” They want us to rethink the way we do things – in seminary formation, social work, parishes, health services, schools, popular missions beyond the traditional approaches. In short, they are telling us, be creative! There is more to the mission than just dispensing the sacraments or pig dispersal. They want to see us engage in large scale, long term and sustainable projects for the empowerment of the poor without losing that heart for each individual poor whom we also personally know by nicknames.

Or, in another context, there was one who challenges us to work creatively in seminary formation. He sent me a ‘text’ late last night (or was it already dawn?) and he says this is his dream for us: “I would love to see the CMs strengthen the gains of Vatican II in view of the systematic conspiracy to dismantle it.” One sister also commented: “Maybe from your original call of seminary formation in the Philippines, there can be room to venture into influencing theological formation of some seminaries now.  How?  No concrete idea.  One reality, there is a notable backward movement in the formation programs of some seminaries, hence leading to young pastors who are non-responsive to contemporary needs and issues of the grassroots.” Without them knowing our detailed history, I think their intuitions are right. The first CMs came in order to creatively implement or strengthen the running of the Conciliar seminaries. Then, Council of Trent; today, Vatican II – especially in times when its vision becomes blurred by the conservative and restorationist tendencies of some sectors of the church!

3.3             Collaboration

They want us to see the word collaboration have flesh and come alive. Isn’t it alive now? One lay person replied: “To some extent yes, but if I have to be honest with what I feel, I’d say many a time collaboration is mainly a lip service… It hurts me at times when lay persons are caught in what I jokingly term sibling rivalry [between the CM and DC] leaving us to make a difficult choice of one over the other.” Despite what we say in public, the lay people can feel otherwise.

3.4            Lay Empowerment

They want us to take the lay people seriously as real partners in the mission. One lay person said: “I dream of a Vincentian family made up of lay people whose pastoral engagement and social involvement are inspired by Vincent and Louise” even outside the traditional Vincentian lay organizations. And when he suggested this, he was also willing to be a part of this movement of lay people within the Vincentian community. One person says: “what I admire in the CM is that they consider the brothers and priests as equal regardless of their work or position.” But reading between the lines, what he was actually saying is this: “Can you extend this to the lay people working with you?”

4. Concluding Thoughts

As I was writing this last night, I was thinking of two people: John Maung, a lay person in Myanmar and Fr. Leo Chiquillo, a diocesan priest of San Carlos in Negros. Both graduated from St. Vincent School of Theology (SVST) in recent years and both are proud of their theological and Vincentian formation.

John has started an NGO in Myanmar which helps rehabilitate both Christians and Buddhists, especially those affected by the typhoon Nagris. On the sides, he is also reflecting contextually on what this Christian engagement means in this multi-religious context. John is some sort of organic intellectual, a theologian from the grassroots, who is not afraid to shake the frozen ideas of his local church in order to make them respond to his Burmese context. And John paid highly for this option he made in his life.

Fr. Leo, on the other hand, is presently assigned by his bishop in the mountains of Negros – a place so poor, so cold and so far that it is not even accessible to public transport. When I visited him last summer, he lives in a very small dilapidated house which he rented as his office and convent. Like the rest of the houses in his neighborhood, there is no running water. Even his roofs leak when it rains. His new chapel was a makeshift shed made up of some galvanized roofing and sawali walls to protect them from the cold. He is only a 2-year old priest so I asked him how he is in the ministry. He gave me a wide smile and said: “To be honest, Father, I am very happy here. This is the ministry I have been dreaming of.”

I thought to myself, today, our partners – lay persons, clergy and religious – those whom we trained, those who have been working with us, are the ones actually leading us to the poor. The truth is – they have become voices of the Spirit that challenge us towards real creative fidelity.

Vincent and Louise, pray for us!    

Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M.

St. Vincent School of Theology

221 Tandang Sora Ave., Quezon City

23 July 2011

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