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!