Sunday, March 2, 2008

Ministry on Two College Campuses

The last phase of the Jesuit tertianship program here in Manila has been a three-week period of “elective ministry.” I elected to pursue campus ministry work on two college campuses here in Metro Manila: Ateneo de Manila University and The University of the Philippines (my parents' college alma mater). While three weeks is, frankly, a very short time to gain any depth of involvement in a ministry, this last phase of tertianship did give me a good taste of pastoral work among students in two of the top university campuses in the Philippines. I was privileged to work with Fr. Jessel (Jboy) Gonzales, SJ, Chaplain at the University of the Philippines. He is quite literally a one-man campus ministry team at this very large (and demanding) university. By contrast, Ateneo de Manila has a team of nine young campus ministers, headed by Fr. Bob Buenconsejo, SJ.

Most of my work on both campuses was sacramental – presiding and preaching at daily and Sunday eucharist, and celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation. You may or may not know that the Philippines is a largely Catholic country, due mainly to its 300+ year status as a colony of Spain. Filipino Catholics tend to be very devotional and sacramental in their faith. It is no surprise, then, that the demand for daily and Sunday eucharist is very high. Each weekday at the College Chapel of the Ateneo de Manila, there are three or four masses celebrated – more than some parishes offer back in the US. On Sundays at The Chapel of the Holy Sacrifice at the University of the Philippines, no fewer than twelve masses are celebrated – on the hour from 5am to 11am and on the hour from 4pm to 8pm. Needless to say, I celebrated A LOT of masses on those campuses! I also heard A LOT of confessions in my three weeks of ministry there. I was both surprised and consoled to see so many college students availing themselves of the sacrament of reconciliation, a sacrament that, for many reasons, has been suffering a lag in devotion in the Church. Be that as it may, my fellow priest confessors and I found ourselves sitting for hours at a time hearing college students' confessions. In addition to sacramental work, I also indulged in spiritual ministry, mainly through offering days of recollection to various student groups on both campuses. One recollection that I particularly enjoyed preparing and offering was a recollection I gave to a group of liturgical instrumentalists at the University of the Philippines. While some of these musicians are music majors at UP’s conservatory of music, others pursue music as a serious avocation during their college years. I had them praying and reflecting for the first time on the powerful role of music in the liturgy and their identity as ministers in the liturgy. That particular recollection brought me back to my own passion for music ministry in the Church!

The value that any university community places on faith is evident in the kind of chapels it builds for the faithful. The Church of the Gesu, one of the newest buildings to grace the Ateneo de Manila campus, is a gem of a college chapel. Its contemporary design sweeps the eye upward to a gleaming silver cross that crowns the white triangular pyramid chapel structure. The dramatic roofline contains many glass panels, allowing plenty of natural light to flood the chapel interior. Two handsomely appointed smaller sub-chapels are tucked away in the rear corners of the Gesu. The sanctuary of the Gesu is spare but elegant, featuring a large altar whose immense boulder base was quarried not far from the chapel premises. While the Gesu is not a parish church, alumni and friends of the Ateneo de Manila have been gathering on the first and third Sundays (and first Fridays) of every month to worship since its dedication in 2006. The Gesu also hosts numerous liturgical celebrations for the Ateneo de Manila Elementary School, as well as the Ateneo de Manila High School, both of which are located on this same university campus. Also modern and “ahead of its time” is the Chapel of the Holy Sacrifice at the University of the Philippines. Dedicated in 1956, this chapel was the vision of Fr. John P. Delaney, SJ, who served as university chaplain during the late 1940s through the mid 1950s. My own dad became a disciple of this charismatic Jesuit and even served as one of the pall bearers at Fr. Delaney’s funeral back in 1956. The chapel was revolutionary in its pre-Vatican II. The chapel is circular is design, with the altar smack dab in the middle of the congregation – the first “church in the round” to be built in the Philippines. The chapel has no walls per se, but giant struts rise to support a huge concrete dome, covering the sanctuary and congregation. A large circular skylight at the top of the dome allows natural light to stream in and illuminate the giant double-sided bronze crucifix, which hangs above the altar. Fr. Delaney, who designed the chapel, celebrated only one mass – Christmas Eve 1956 – before he died an untimely death at the age of 50. The chapel stands as a memorial to a Jesuit who brought thousands of young Filipino faithful closer to the Lord. Each time I presided at the eucharist there, I felt deeply honored to stand where Fr. Delaney once stood, at the altar he dreamed would feed so many on the sacrament of the eucharist. That it still feeds so many is a testimony to Fr. Delaney’s legacy of ministry to the Catholic community of UP.

All in all, I found my three weeks on the two campuses to be very fulfilling. Campus ministry, like so many other ministries in the Church, is based largely on fostering relationships. Three weeks was hardly enough time to foster deep and lasting relationships with the students of Ateneo and UP, but the ministry on these campuses did give me a good sense of the hunger for things spiritual among the students of these top universities. It clarified for me how we as Jesuits are well-suited to engage young people in experiencing and reflecting on the living God. It also reaffirmed in me my role as priest and minister: not to save souls, but more to put souls in touch with the One who DOES save souls -- Jesus Christ. Soli Deo Gloria!