Friday, January 25, 2008

Family Reunions

Christmas morning mass and the baptism of eleven children (!) would be my last sacramental duties of my Christmas ministries in the Mountain Province. I knew it would be hard to say good-bye to the good people of Bauko. In my ten-day stay, I had grown very fond of the parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, as well as the students of Bauko Catholic School. Many of the parishioners and students were there to see me off, waiting 45 minutes with me on that sunny Christmas morning for my ride to arrive and drive me the four-hour trip from Bauko to Baguio, where I would catch a bus back to Manila. With a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye, I waved good-bye from the window of the pickup truck, then hunkered down for a long, long journey back to the big city where I would be reunited with my family.

Traffic was light on the rocky, dusty road from Bauko to Baguio. What normally would have taken five to six hours took only four. But in that drive down from the highlands, I took in, one last time, the breath-taking vistas and terraced landscapes of this far-away region of the Philippines. Once in Baguio, I bought a ticket for the 3 o’clock coach to Manila. Six hours on the bus was draining indeed, but I kept my mind on the fact that at journey’s end would be the beginning of a joyous family reunion.

The bus pulled into the station in Manila around 9:30pm. My cousin Tina and her husband Roque were there to meet me and to take me to the hotel where Mom, Dad, Maria, Ron, Michelle, and my little nephew Mateo had been staying since their arrival one week before. It felt almost a bit surreal to see them all! After hugs and kisses, we sat down to a midnight snack in the hotel suite, and I regaled them with stories of my adventures in the Mountain Province.

The next day we traveled to Pampanga, a large province just north of Manila, where Dad grew up. I celebrated Mass in a chapel built by one of my paternal great uncles, Monseignor Florentino Guiao, who passed away almost ten years ago. Mom and Dad even brought a special chalice for me to use. The chalice once belonged to my great uncle and was presented to me at my own ordination in 1999. Gathered there were a number of Dad’s relatives and hometown friends who cared for Dad’s parents in their golden years. We all enjoyed a lovely luncheon buffet after Mass. It felt wonderful to celebrate with Dad’s family, in his very hometown.

The next day was Mom’s family’s turn: The Bigornia Family Reunion. My family and I traveled about three hours south to the city of San Pablo in the province of Laguna. There we met up with all of Mom’s five siblings and their families in a lovely resort called Bato Springs. It was great fun to see everyone (some 60 of us), even my Auntie Tessie and her family from New Jersey, all together, for the very first time! We all donned specially made T-shirts, each emblazoned with “Bigornia Family Reunion” on the front and our respective names on the back. Mom and my cousin Tina arranged to have the T-shirts made in six different colors for each of the six families represented: red for our family, purple for my Uncle Ed’s family, black for my Uncle Bob’s family, blue for my Uncle Dan’s family, yellow for my Uncle Junie’s family, and orange for my Auntie Tessie’s family. The “color coding” really helped us keep track of who belongs to whom! We feasted on a buffet lunch of Filipino favorites, then swam in the resort’s cool, clean lagoon which was fed by a fresh water spring – a piece of tropical paradise.
There were games, merienda (i.e., Filipino snacks), story-telling, and lots of chatting and picture-taking with dozens of cousins.
The time went quickly by, but we savored every moment, down to our fond farewells at day's end. While none of us knows if we’ll ever have a family gathering quite like that again, I prayed a special prayer of thanksgiving that night for the beautiful and irreplaceable gift of family. No matter how far we may be spread across the globe, no matter how many joys and sorrows our families have faced over the years, we remain so very dear to each other. And perhaps that’s what December 27th was for us all -- a day to celebrate together the simple truth that we are and will always be so very dear to one another. Deo gratia!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Christmas in the Mountain Province

As I mentioned in my last blog post before the holidays, Christmas during my tertianship year would be very special experience. I really didn’t know what to expect, except that I would be in a very remote place in the Mountain Province, and that my ministry would be assisting in a parish church during the nine days before Christmas.

ARRIVAL IN BAUKO -- After a five-day stay in the town of Bontoc (the capital of the Mountain Province), I headed to a town called Bauko, about 20 km southwest of Bontoc. A diocesan priest from a neighboring town drove me the 60-minute journey to Bauko along the rough, unpaved roads common in these Filipino highlands. It was about 10pm by the time I arrived at the rectory of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Bauko, so I had to wait until morning to see the stunning beauty of this town’s countryside. A starry sky glittered above as I was welcomed by four smiling but shy teenagers. Sarah (16), Arleen (14), Labrador (16), and Elmer (15) grabbed my bags from the back of the truck and ushered me into the rectory. They showed me to my room and wished me a good night. “We’ll wake you at 4am, Father. Mass will begin at 5am in the church.” They giggled when they saw my wide-eyed reaction. Actually, I knew that Mass would be early, as this would be the first of the nine Simbang Gabi Masses, a pre-dawn Eucharistic novena unique to the Philippines, celebrated during the nine days before Christmas. And indeed, right at 4am, the church bell began to peal, and I was up and running for my Christmas ministry in the Mountain Province!

Though the hour was early and dawn’s early light was still an hour away from showing, hundreds of Bauko faithful streamed into the stately mountain church, filling it to near capacity. A choir of teenage boys and girls sat in the rickety front pews and belted out the hymns and acclamations, singing in both Tagalog (the Philippine national language) and in their native Igorot dialect called Kankanae. The readings were read proclaimed by the lectors in Kangkanae, while I presided and preached in English, which the citizens of Bauko speak and understand rather fluently. After the Mass, I was warmly greeted by the parishioners who seemed sincerely happy to welcome me to their parish church for my short Christmas stay.

As I walked out of the Church after Mass, my jaw dropped as I looked out upon one of the most beautiful vistas I have ever seen – a glorious sun rising above the soft, pine covered mountains. A light fog was lifting, revealing a valley decked in the gorgeous shades of green of the banana and papaya plants and terraces of young rice and vegetables. The air was cool, clean, and fresh – a far cry from the smog-laden air of Manila. Every single morning of my stay in Bauko was just that beautiful!

PARISH MINISTRY -- My main ministry in Bauko was to preside and preach at the nine Simbang Gabi Masses, both at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in the center of town, as well as a second Mass each day in a small chapel in a barrio (village) at the edge of town. I was moved by the devotion of the people who came for every one of the nine Simbang Gabi Masses. Through their quiet devotion, their gracious hospitality, and their cheerfulness they showed me what it is to “wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Like most of the Mountain Province towns, only one priest serves the needs of thousands of the faithful, who are spread out in far-flung villages all over the mountain municipalities. Fr. Armand was happy to have me assist him, if only for ten days, so that he could be free to visit some of the outlying barrios in Bauko and attend to their sacramental needs. As it was, that left me with plenty of sacramental work to do in the center of town. In the short time I was there, I presided at a funeral Mass, concelebrated a wedding Mass, and presided at the baptism of twelve children! And that’s considered a “light week” in a Mountain Province church! I have new-found respect for the hard-working clergy of the Mountain Province vicariate and other similar regions the world over. I was also heartened to have met no fewer than eight seminarians from Bauko who all came back (during their Christmas vacation) to their home parish to be of assistance through the Christmas season. Vocations are alive and flourishing in Bauko – God knows, the Lord’s vineyard needs more good workers! Great to know that help is on the way!

BAUKO CATHOLIC HIGH SCHOOL – When I wasn’t “hatching, matching, and dispatching” (clerical slang for baptizing, marrying, and burying), I spent a lot of time at Bauko Catholic High School. The high school and its dormitory (housing over one hundred students who live too far away to easily commute to school) is just adjacent to our Lady of Lourdes Church. As many of you know, I am a high school teacher back in the States, so naturally, I was drawn to the high school students of this 400-student Catholic co-ed school, the only Catholic high school in the Bauko municipality. Each school day began at 7:30am with a student-led flag raising ceremony, including a prayer, the singing of the Philippine National Anthem, recitation of the Philippine pledge of allegiance, and announcements. I was duly impressed with the deep respect for God and country which the students showed as their peer leaders lined them up to conduct uniform inspection, take attendance, and call them to reverent attention. First class began at 7:45am, with the last class of the day ending at 4pm.

The teachers welcomed me into their overcrowded classrooms (some class sections numbered nearly fifty students), and in the course of three days, I managed to visit each class section, giving the students a two-fold presentation on taking pride in their Igorot heritage and living out their God-given vocation in life. Students sat at old wooden tables and benches (two to a table and bench). None of the classrooms sported any of the hi-tech accoutrements of modern American classrooms. No overhead projectors, no smart boards, no computers – just a slate chalkboard, a small bulletin board, and a crucifix. And while the classroom walls were rather stark and bare, the classroom windows looked out onto the beautiful mountain and valley vista.

In many ways, Bauko Catholic School is an “old-world” Catholic school. Students still politely stand and greet visitors as they walk into a classroom. They wait until the teacher or visitor has exited before they themselves leave the classroom, and only after standing and graciously expressing their thanks to the teacher or visitor. I found the Bauko Catholic High School students to be much more shy than their American counterparts, but just as energetic, curious, and spontaneous as any teenager the world over. They asked a lot questions about American food, American sports, American pop stars. They were curious about my own family, my Jesuit priesthood, and why an American-born priest priest would ever come all the way to the Philippines, to far-away Bauko, to spend Christmas in their town. I think I won them over when I answered, “After a week in Bauko, I can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to spend Christmas in your beautiful town.”

On their last day of school before Christmas vacation, the students invited me to their class sections’ Christmas parties. The students brought lots of home-cooked fiesta food to share after a morning of games, dancing, and singing. They were a playful bunch, and I was just as delighted as they were to join in their celebrations.

CHRISTMAS EVE – Our Lady of Lourdes Church was jam packed for the 10pm Christmas Eve Mass. High school boys and girls, dressed in Igorot costumes, led the procession up the aisle, playing native instruments and dancing their native dances. Members of the parish community re-enacted Luke’s account of the birth of Christ, and I preached about how we are all called, like shepherds in Bethlehem, to let our lives proclaim the joy and hope of Christmas. At the end of Mass, one of the catechetical leaders stood up (on behalf of the parish community) to thank me for my visit to and my ministry in Bauko, and proceeded to present me with hand-woven Igorot garments and head band. I proudly donned these after mass and joined the townspeople as they danced and sang in the church plaza until two in the morning!

It was the end of the most memorable ten days of parish ministry I have ever experienced. Christmas 2007 was for me a simple Christmas, unhurried and unhassled by the hustle and bustle of holiday madness of Christmas in the city. And maybe for the first time, as we sang “Silent Night” after communion that Christmas Eve, I felt that all really was calm, all really was bright. Certainly, I missed being with friends, family, and loved ones – that would come in only a day’s time when I would return to Manila and be reunited with my dear family (see my next blog post) – but for one Christmas, in a little mountain town called Bauko, I reveled in what felt like heavenly peace.

Next blog post: Christmas Family Reunion!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

A Mountaintop Experience

You know, the more I travel in the Philippines, the more astounding natural beauty I see.

We tertians traveled very far this time, through some very rough, even dangerous roadways to reach what is known as the Mountain Province in north central Luzon. But, the long bus and truck rides (about 12 hours total) were well worth it, for it brought us to the heart of the Cordillera Mountain Range, similar in beauty and grandeur to the American Allegheny Mountains -- without the snow, of course!

Our first stop was Baguio City. Known as the “Summer Capital of the Philippines,” Filipinos by the thousands flock to this town to enjoy family vacations in the cool temperatures and dry air of the mountains. The Filipino Jesuits have a beautiful house called Mirador. It sits at the top of a hill in Baguio, which was once the site of a Jesuit observatory early in the last century. The observatory has since been relocated to Manila, but Mirador remained as a rest house for Jesuits who needed to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. We stayed for a few days, relaxing in the before moving on to begin our Christmas ministries. We enjoyed beautiful public gardens in Baguio and visited Camp John Hay, which was built by the American armed forces in the 1940s as a vacation getaway for military officers and their families.

After a few days in Baguio City, we pushed on into the heart of the Cordillera Mountains. The roadways (many of them yet unpaved) snaked up the steep hillsides, offering dramatic views of vegetable and rice terraces, some of them centuries old, cut like giant green staircases into the mountainsides and river valleys. Landslides are not uncommon in these mountain passes, and while we saw evidence of recent landslides here and there, we were fortunate to be making our visit in the early part of the dry season, when the chance of landslides is significantly less. Our five-hour journey ended in Bontoc, a town in the Chico River valley where native Igorot tribes were evangelized a century ago by Anglicans and later Belgian Catholic missionaries. Elevation in Bontoc is between 6,000 and 7,000 feet above sea level. Consequently, temperatures in Bontoc are what Filipinos call “cold,” but a hearty Clevelander like me calls these temperatures “mild.” Occasional morning fog burned off by noon, giving us sunny, blue skies by day and starlit skies by night.

We arrived just in time for the start of a three-day fiesta, celebrating the centennial of the CICM (Congregation of the Sacred Heart) Missionaries’ arrival in the Mountain Province. Highlights of the fiesta include an elaborate parade and cultural presentations by young people, dressed in native Igorot and Ifugao costumes; a visit by the Papal Nuncio to the Philippines; presentations by the former and current bishops of the Mountain Province vicariate; native games; playing and singing of tribal music; festive native foods (some 30 pigs were slaughtered to feed the huge fiesta crowds); and a grand centennial Eucharistic liturgy in Bontoc’s Santa Rita Cathedral. In the course of those three days, my fellow tertians and I were overwhelmed not only by the pageantry and spectacle, but also by the deep sense of joy and pride of the Igorot and Ifugao peoples who have come to embrace the Christian faith whole-heartedly without losing their native identity.

In my next few blog posts, I'll share some of my ministerial experiences among the native Igorot people of the town of Bauko in the Mountain Province. Thanks, as always, for reading. May this be a prosperous New Year for you and your loved ones!