Friday, January 25, 2008
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!