An opinion column by Teresa R. Tunay, OCDS, in "The CBCP Monitor", the official publication of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines. For feedback, please email Thank you!

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Bethlehem without borders

By Teresa R. Tunay, OCDS   On my last birthday, I was struck by the cruel truth that I will this year be celebrating my 73rd Christmas.  Seventy-three, OmG, it’s like ice water thrown at my face.
I usually dedicate my birth month to examining my life and meditating on mortality—and it helps that it’s the month of all Saints and all souls.  Last November turned out to be nostalgic—which confronted me with the fact of aging, because nostalgia is a right most deserved by those coming closer and closer to the grave.  Thinking, “God, how many more Christmases will You give me before You finally call me back?”, I reviewed my Christmases as far back as memory could take me, and asked myself which of those brought me closest to the baby Jesus.  It’s a no-brainer: the Christmas that did this was that which etched itself earliest in my memory—with the help of the creche in my Uncle Jose Fermin’s house, painstakingly put together by his wife, Tita Chol.
This “belen” was the highlight of my childhood Christmases—a huge table by the Christmas tree (live pine) covered with sand to contain a miniature Bethlehem, not only Mary, Joseph and the baby in a manger, but also the Three Kings, a caravan of camels, shepherds and sheep, goats, cattle, a rooster (!), and an angel floating over the manger and holding a ribbon that said “Gloria in Excelsis Deo”.  These plaster figurines fascinated me endlessly, introduced me to Bethlehem, and fuelled my imagination as I fondled them, in the same way that maybe a little boy today would play war games in his mind with plastic soldiers or “Star Wars” figurines.
The “belen” would since then accompany me through life.  When I was a young girl, Christmas decorating was a family affair where everybody had an assignment; I was expected to help make the “parol”.   When I reached my teens, I was put in charge of the “belen”, but my creations were nowhere near Tita Chol’s elaborate tableau—just a few cardboard cut-outs of the most important characters propped up on a bed of “hay” on top of the television cabinet, or a ready-made “scayola” set placed beneath the seven-foot Christmas tree, among the gift-wrapped empty boxes.

However, there was one Christmas I was too busy to keep up with the “belen” tradition—being in the thick of preparations for a wedding.  In fact, on Christmas night, my fiancé and I were in Quiapo, ordering flowers for our wedding the next morning.  
The time came to bring Bethlehem to our own cozy home through a “belen” for our little son.  It was fun to craft my own nativity scene from cardboard cones and crepe paper, at times supplementing the catechesis with an assortment of pretty nativity-themed Christmas cards collected through the years.
It was exhausting for me in my 20s to braid together career and homemaking (I was wife, mother, tutor, nurse, yaya, diplomat, psychologist, etc.) so that there were Christmases without any manger scene at all in our house—just a white Christmas tree fashioned from tissue paper and shiny balls, or worse, a foldaway meter-tall plastic evergreen, a mere ghost of the fresh pine Christmas tree of my childhood.  (By then it was already a crime of sorts to cut down Baguio pine trees).   But what we didn’t have in the house we enjoyed outside of it; we would drive around to gawk at life-size crèches in town plazas and churches, and the motorized Christmas tableau that was then the pride of COD Department Store in Cubao, and years later, Greenhills.
One day we received a Balikbayan box from the United States; inside was—Wow!—a 19-piece ceramic nativity set my mother-in-law Flor de Liz had painted at an arts-and-crafts class for senior citizens!  How sweet of her!  With lights, décor, and props added, it was to become a conversation piece for many many years in our modest home, so gorgeous even Tita Chol would have loved it!  But now… what’s left of the set is stashed away in a storeroom; I don’t think I’ll ever want to put it up again.
I had lent the whole set to a retreat house, putting it up myself.  I was happy to share my joy to so many retreatants and guests, but when it came back to me, the Baby Jesus was missing, and a lamb, and a camel, too!  Were they broken?  Pocketed by some child who couldn’t resist their cuteness?  None of the staff could tell—as though the trio merely vanished into thin air.  It saddened me a bit, for what’s a crèche without Baby Jesus?  Never mind the sheep and the camel. 
Now that I’m recalling its glory days, and about to savor my 73rd Christmas, I find that the nativity’s magic can still transport me back to the age of innocence, imagining that the Baby Jesus (after years of being displayed in our living room) had grown tall enough to mount a camel and look for the lost lamb.  “That’s why they disappeared,” I tell myself and muse, “for all I know I was the lost lamb, with one leg caught in quick sand, slowly being sucked into a system that served many gods but had no time for the One True God.”  Irony of ironies, in reality I’d gotten lost while looking frantically for God, unaware that in my meandering He was looking for me.
Do I now have a nativity scene at home?  No, I don’t.  Tell me if it’s due to old age.  In the Holy Land where over several years I have escorted pilgrims five times, I have strolled in the Shepherds’ field in Bethlehem, venerated the place of His birth, walked down Via Dolorosa bearing a token cross, done the whole pilgrim route over and over again it’s like the classic “been there, done that”.  It matters little to me now whether or not I have a crèche in my “hermitage”, but I do seriously wonder how Jesus would feel about the state of Bethlehem today, in the light of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this endless fight over borders.  A carol rings between my ears: “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…”  I cannot say Bethlehem today lies still.  Peace is elusive in the place where the Prince of Peace was born.  Were Jesus to revisit Bethlehem today as man, would he weep over it as he did over Jerusalem before he was crucified?  And would he be welcome there?
We can outgrow Santa Claus, but we should never outgrow Bethlehem.  In spite of all that Bethlehem has been through, we continue to celebrate the fact that our Savior was born there, and pray that one day we can say to the Lord Himself, “I am Bethlehem; come, be born in me.”  The carol reverberates inside my head: “O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray.  Cast out our sin and enter in, be born to us today…”  As I write this, I pray that each of us may become a Bethlehem without borders, witnessing to the love of God for all mankind.  And that's the truth.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Precious facts about St. Therese of Lisieux

Did you know that in Baclaran church, by the parking lot, stands a gazebo with a life-size statue of St. Therese of the Child Jesus?  The railing behind the statue is heavy with locks left by the faithful—a fairly new practice in our country, imitating the love-lock tradition in many cities in all the continents of the globe, where love-struck romantics swear undying love by fastening a lock with their initials to a bridge, and then tossing its key to be buried forever in the river below.  (Yes, like Pont des Arts over the River Seine, in Paris).
So far, love-locks on a bridge are unheard of in the Philippines, but on the railings protecting a Saint’s statue, yes. The love-lock tradition must have been brought to the Baclaran church by OFWs who have seen the practice abroad. The last time I saw it, the Baclaran locks were the most numerous behind St. Therese’s statue, and they seemed to represent wishes and petitions to this favorite Saint.  “Sana ma-approve na yung application ko to work in Dubai,” said one devotee I chatted with.  “Hiling ko ke Sta. Teresita magbalikan na yung mga parents ko, para mabuo na ulit ang pamilya namin,” said another.  A third one said after fastening her lock, “Nagtirik din ako ng kandila for my secret wish, but no, I’m not walking on my knees in the church.”
If Baclaran’s “wish-locks” indicate a fondness or a great faith in St. Therese of Lisieux, one wonders how well these devotees know the young French saint.  The following facts may spur their interest to know St. Therese more intimately: 
St. Therese was a spoiled brat. As a 22-year-old nun, Therese herself admitted, “I was far from being a perfect little girl.” Testimonies during the process of Therese’s beatification included a
 letter written by her mother, Zelie Martin (now also a Saint) which said: “I have to slap this poor baby who gets into frightening tantrums when she cannot have her own way. She rolls about on the ground in despair as if all is lost. Sometimes she is so overcome she almost chokes.  She is a very high-strung child.”  Zelie also wrote of Thérèse and her sister Celine: “My little Celine is drawn to the practice of virtue; it’s part of her nature; she is candid and has a horror of evil. As for the little imp, one doesn’t know how things will go, she is so small, so thoughtless! Her intelligence is superior to Celine’s, but she’s less gentle and has a stubborn streak in her that is almost invincible.”  Therese was to write in her mature years, as though in appreciation:  “The loveliest masterpiece of the heart of God is the heart of a mother.”
St. Therese’s “Little Way” began in Scriptures. St. Therese’s “petite voie” or “little way”, which was to greatly influence and inspire the faithful to this day, started as a spark she felt upon a chance reading of Proverbs 9:4, “Whosoever is a little one, let him come to me.”  She was to write later: “I will seek out a means of getting to Heaven by a little way—very short and very straight, a little way that is wholly new. We live in an age of inventions; nowadays the rich need not trouble to climb the stairs, they have lifts instead. Well, I mean to try and find a lift by which I may be raised unto God, for I am too tiny to climb the steep stairway of perfection… Thine Arms, then, O Jesus, are the lift which must raise me up even unto Heaven. To get there I need not grow; on the contrary, I must remain little, I must become still less.”   
St. Therese’s greatest desire was to become a missionary.  As a young contemplative nun, Therese desperately wanted to be a missionary in Vietnam where the Lisieux missionaries were to
found the first Carmelite Convent in the Far East.  But a painful bout against tuberculosis ended her life at age 24, leaving her dream unrealized.  On her death-bed, she is reported to have said, “I have reached the point of not being able to suffer any more, because all suffering is sweet to me.”  In all the nine years of a life of obscurity in the Carmelite Convent of Lisieux, she never went beyond its walls, and yet she came to be proclaimed Patron Saint of the Missions due to the numerous miracles in mission lands attributed to her intercession.
St. Therese inspired St. Teresa of Calcutta.  Born Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in Macedonia, “Mother Teresa” chose for her religious name “Teresa” as the Carmelite Saint’s simplicity inspired her to be “little” and to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.  Many of Mother Teresa’s dearly remembered words echo those of the French nun who died 13 years before Mother Teresa was born.  St. Therese wrote “I’m a little brush that Jesus has chosen in order to paint His own image in the souls entrusted to my care”; Mother Teresa said, “I am a little pencil in the hand of God who is sending a love letter to the world.”  St. Therese wrote, “My vocation is love”; Mother Teresa said, “Our vocation is the love of Jesus.”
St. Therese had Saints and revered souls and celebrities among her devotees.  The long roster of devotees of St. Therese of the Child Jesus includes: St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, American journalist turned Trappist monk Thomas Merton, French singer Edith Piaf, martyr of Auschwitz St.

Maximillian Kolbe, Filipino bishop Alfredo Obviar, Nobel laureate Henry Bergson, Pope John Paul I Albino Luciani, Pope Francis Jorge Mario Bergoglio, etc.  Speaking to journalists on the plane to visit the Philippines in January 2015, Pope Francis spoke of his special devotion thus: “When I don’t know how things are going to go, I have the custom of asking St. Therese of the Child Jesus to take the problem into her hands and send me a rose.”  Enjoy this video of Jorge Bergoglio speaking about his devotion to St. Therese long before he became pope:
 St. Therese’s pilgrim relics will visit the Philippines for the fourth time.  The Saints’  relics bring us into contact with the person and remind us of their great love for God. It might delight her devotees—Baclaran lock-lovers included—to know that next year, from January 13 to May 31, 2018, her pilgrim relics will be brought for veneration to various dioceses all over the country.  The theme this time will be “Salamat,
PE Benedict XVI venerates St. Therese's relics.
St. Therese!”  Her previous visits—which were attended by kilometric queues of devotees wherever she went—were marked by a shower of graces, favors, and miracles, all attesting to the love of God; thus the theme of gratitude for next year.  In fact, everyone is invited to share their story of miracles big or small obtained through St. Therese.  Do you have a story of gratitude to share?  Go and write it, as it might even become part of a special documentary about the Little Flower that is being prepared for her forthcoming visit. Email your story to  We end this piece with a wish-prayer from St. Therese: “May you be content knowing you are a child of God.”  

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

9 facts about Fatima’s seers for us in The Age of the Selfie

October 13, 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the last of the six apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima to the three shepherd children Jacinta and Francisco Marto who are siblings, and their cousin, Lucia.  Much of the basic facts about Fatima –like the “Miracle of the Sun” that took place on October 13, 1917 and witnessed by 70,000 people—are by now known to so many people all around the world, but few know the young seers deeply.  Here are facts that endearingly show the seers as they are, plain unschooled children responding to a phenomena as innocent hearts do—with absolute trust.
Fact 1.  Our Lady directed the 10-year-old Lucia alone to learn to read (and write).  In those days children like Lucia grew up illiterate—they wouldn’t need reading and writing to herd sheep all their life.  Our Lady’s request, made on June 13, 1017, her second appearance, was unusual but it was to be proven later to be part of the divine plan.
Our Lady told Lucia, “Yes, I shall take Jacinta and Francisco soon, but you will remain a little longer, since Jesus wishes you to make me known and loved on earth.”  Jacinta died at age 9, Francisco at age 11.  Having survived until age 98, Lucia accomplished her mission to spread the Fatima message to the world.  How could she have done that if she had remained illiterate?
Obedience to Our Lady made the shepherd girl Lucia, in a way, a shepherd, too—but of souls—becoming a cloistered Carmelite nun (and later even learning to use the word processor) who would author three books:  Calls from the Message of Fatima, Fatima in Lucia’s Own Words 1and Fatima in Lucia’s Own Words 2.
Fact 2.  Even as a 9-year-old, Jacinta welcomed suffering for the love of Jesus, as Our Lady had foretold her that she would greatly suffer for the conversion of sinners and in reparation for the sins committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary, notably sins of the flesh.  When Jacinta’s tomb was opened on Sept. 13, 1935—for her remains to be transferred from a chapel in Ourem to be beside Francisco in Fatima’s cemetery—her body was found to be incorrupt, a sign of holiness in the eyes of the Church.
Because she had died of the dreaded Spanish flu epidemic, in compliance with the law then, her body was treated with quicklime for speedy decomposition, and yet, 15 years after her death, she remained intact despite the quicklime treatment.  Because of this the local bishop instructed Lucia, already a Carmelite nun by that time, to write the memoirs of Jacinta and Francisco.
Fact 3. In her Memoirs, Sr. Lucia describes Jacinta and Francisco before and after the apparitions.  Before, Jacinta was “the personification of enthusiasm and caprice.”  But after seeing Our Lady, Jacinta was never afraid to speak up and would reprimand an adult or child who would do or say inappropriate things, telling them, “Don’t do that, for you are offending the Lord our God, and He is already so much offended!”  All Jacinta’s actions after the apparitions began “seemed to reflect the presence of God in the way proper to people of mature age and great virtue,” Sr. Lucia wrote.
Fact 4. While in an institute for exceptionally ill children in Lisbon, Jacinta the young mystic received visits and insights from our Lady which were recorded at the time she spoke them.  Some of these insights as listed in Fr. John de Marchi’s book, The True Story of Fatima.
"The sins which cause most souls to go to hell are the sins of the flesh."
"Fashions will much offend our Lord. People who serve God should not follow the fashions. The Church has no fashions. Our Lord is always the same."
"If men knew what eternity is, they would do everything to change their lives."
"People are lost because they do not think of the death of our Lord, and do not do penance."
"Wars are the punishments for sin."
"Penance is necessary. If people amend their lives, our Lord will even yet save the world, but if not, punishment will come.”
"You must pray much for sinners, and for priests and religious. Priests should concern themselves only with the things of the Church."
"Priests must be very, very pure."
"Disobedience of priests and religious to their superiors displeases our Lord very much."
"Fly from riches and luxury…Love poverty and silence."
"Have charity, even for bad people."
"Do not speak evil of people, and fly from evil speakers."
"Mortification and sacrifice please our Lord very much."
"Confession is a sacrament of mercy, and we must confess with joy and trust. There can be no salvation without confession."
"The Mother of God wants more virgin souls bound by a vow of chastity."
"To be pure in body means to be chaste, and to be pure in mind means not to commit sins; not to look at what one should not see, not to steal or lie, and always to speak the truth, even if it is hard."
Fact 5.  Francisco’s first and last communion took place on the day before he died, in 1919—a fulfilment of his great wish to receive Jesus in Holy Communion.  Like Jacinta, he knew that he was not going to stay long in this world.  Our Lady had assured him of heaven, although “he must recite many many rosaries.”  Sr. Lucia revealed in her memoirs the change in Francisco as a result of Our Lady’s apparitions—the young shepherd boy became a mystic of sorts, contemplating and praying in solitude, and offering sacrifices “to console Jesus who was so sad due to man’s sins”.  On the way to school he would tell Lucia to go ahead for “It’s not worth my while learning to read as I’ll be going to Heaven very soon.”  So he would walk off alone to the church “to be close to the Hidden Jesus”—to first of all console “Hidden Jesus” and then pray for the conversion of sinners.
Fact 6.  Four years ago, Brazilian boy, Lucas Batista Maeda de Mourao, sustained serious brain injury when he fell from the window of his grandfather’s home.  Taking the boy to the hospital, his father tearfully prayed to Our Lady of Fatima, Blessed Jacinta, and Blessed Francisco.  As Lucas lay unconscious in the hospital, his father and a local community of Carmelite nuns begged the intercession of the Blessed shepherd siblings to cure the boy.  A few days later, Lucas got up and walked home as if nothing happened.  This amazed the doctors, and last February, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints unanimously concluded that Lucas’s healing was a miracle as it could not be scientifically explained. This miracle which was recognized by Pope Francis led to the canonization of the shepherd children of Fatima. Now 10-years-old, Lucas was present at the canonization in Fatima, and brought up the offertory gifts during the Mass.  By this time, all the tombs of the three visionaries—Jacinta, Francisco and Lucia—are already in the basilica, side by side.
Fact 7.  Jacinta and Francisco Marto are the first child saints in the history of the Church who are not martyrs.  To date, four popes have made pilgrimages to Fatima, attesting to the importance of Our Lady’s messages handed down through these children.  On the 50th anniversary of the apparitions, May 13, 1967, Pope Paul VI was the first pope to visit the place where Our Lady appeared to the children.  On May 13, 2000, Pope John Paul II traveled to Fatima to beatify the seers Francisco and Jacinta who became two of the youngest “Blesseds” ever.   He said, about the children’s docility to Mother Mary: “Devoting themselves with total generosity to such a good Teacher, Jacinta and Francisco soon reached the heights of perfection.”  Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI went on a four-day “apostolic journey” to Fatima, on May 11-14, 2010, and in answering journalists’ questions on the plane said, “For us, Fatima is a sign of the presence of faith, of the fact that it is precisely from the little ones that faith gains new strength…” On May 13, 2017, the 100th anniversary of Our Lady’s first apparition, Pope Francis made an overnight pilgrimage to Fatima on May 12-13, and elevated Blessed Jacinta and Blessed Francisco to sainthood.
Fact 8:  Now let’s look at Lucia, the child seer who lived up to two years short of 100: there was a side to her that no one probably knew then, especially as the three children were being subjected to investigation by authorities and the mockery of non-believers.  Lucia, who lived to become a Discalced Carmelite nun—giving life to the words of Our Lady that Jesus would use her to make her known and loved on earth—was the incarnation of joy, according to the Carmelite nuns who lived with her at Carmel of Coimbra and who wrote A Pathway Under the Gaze of Mary.  For example, she would joke even into her 90s and was seriously ill.
Sr. Lucia was described as “…as real as a plate of cookies… an absolutely normal personality… and if I were obliged to point out her outstanding natural characteristic I would say it was her gaiety. No one has been able to detect in her the least sign of morbid temperament or exclusive self-concern,” by a priest who knew her very well, Fr. John de Marchi, in his book The True Story of Fatima.
Dr. Branca Paul, who attended to Sr. Lucia during the last 15 years of her life, would be amazed that the sick and aging nun would be “great to be around…so normal, simple and humble,” despite the untold suffering she was going through for the sake of the conversion of sinners.  The physician said that Sr. Lucia showed amazing energy when talking about Fatima, the Blessed Mother’s messages and requests, in particular praying the Rosary.
Levity aside, Sr. Lucia would be frustrated when people wanted to focus on the miracles and secrets, said her doctor.  Even her fellow Carmelite nuns disclosed that it always pained Sr. Lucia when some people would insist on revealing the third part of the Secret.  Sr. Lucia reportedly would say “The miracles and secrets aren’t important. We must concentrate on Our Lady’s message.  Live the Ten Commandments. That’s what’s important… If only they’d live what is the most important thing, which has already been said…They only concern themselves with what is left to be said, instead of complying with the request that was prayer and penance!”
Fact 9.  How is all this of any concern to us, living in an age of the selfie?  If the occurrences, miracles, messages, and controversies arising from the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima were to be condensed for the modern man, it would boil down to three simple truths: 1) that man is capable of evil actions, and that these actions, from the smallest to the biggest, have dreadful consequences (as history shows, from 1917 to the present); 2) to turn the tide, we must repent, do penance, and pray.  Our Lady even recommended praying the rosary to begin with—a prayer anyone can do, not only with our lips but more so with our heart; and 3)  Mary is our loving Mother who is our bridge to Jesus.
The message of Fatima is extremely relevant in a planet endangered by greed and megalomania.  Just think ISIS, or North Korea’s nuclear tests—don’t they feel like the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads?  I don’t mean to sound like a prophet of doom but after 100 years of Fatima, perhaps it’s about time we surrendered our madness and became like the shepherd children Jacinta, Francisco, and Lucia, who without question loved and obeyed Our Lady, thereby reminding the world that God is indeed alive and with us. And that’s the truth.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Sacred Heart in the clouds

Once upon a time, a 5-year-old girl was looking out the window watching cloud
formations. Cloud-watching was a game her mother had taught her earlier on.  Their house, situated on the highest point of the street, afforded them a good view of the town and the city beyond, and, of course, of the huge expanse of the skies above. Mother and daughter would—on late afternoons before sunset—scan the skies for cloud formations that resembled creatures on earth. Her mother would say, “Look for an elephant!” and the little girl who had never been to a zoo would look for the animal as she had seen it in a coloring book.  Happy that the girl would quickly find the elephant, the mother would snap, “Very good! Now, look for the bear!” and the little girl would find it fast, too, for she had seen a bear in the flash cards of her teacher-aunt.
Now, that particular afternoon she was cloud-watching alone, the clouds were sparse and the sky was a beautiful blue. There were no “animals” but still, the little girl saw in it a sea, as the clouds looked like foamy waves coming up the shore. She hoped, though, that clouds would thicken and swell so that even a few rabbits would appear, but they did not. Her eyes were getting tired and her eyelids heavy from the long wait, but the little girl did not give up. Then, she noticed images slowly forming from nothing and then moving in the blue sky, as though a movie was playing before her. One of two images was herself, the five-year old girl, wearing a long white tunic, sitting on the lap of Jesus, playing with His beard!
The little girl could identify Jesus from the many “stampitas” her grandmother kept as markers in her bible, and from the calendars from the lumber store tacked ubiquitously on the walls of their house. This Jesus moving in the sky was the one whose heart was exposed, but his heart was as big as a dinner plate, and the little girl was playfully poking it with her finger.  She noticed that it felt and looked like a giant pin cushion, being soft and made of red satin.
“Why is your heart very big?” she asked Jesus. Came His reply, “Because it has to have room for everyone.” The little girl, still touching and exploring Jesus’ heart, remarked, “It is very soft…like a pillow”.  Then, Jesus hugged her tight and she hugged Him, too, while complaining that he was too big for her arms to hug tight.
When Jesus let go, the little girl noticed that her own heart was outside of her chest, too, just like His pin-cushion heart, though not as big. She was surprised, however, that hers was bleeding although she felt no pain. Jesus read her mind and said, “When you hugged me, your heart was pressed against mine and got wounded by the thorns around my heart.”
The little girl looked at Jesus’ heart which was no longer a big pin cushion but already a real heart outside of his chest, ringed with thorns and bleeding, like the one  in “stampitas” and calendars. She glanced at her heart, too, and noticed that the blood was coming from two little wounds, but still she felt no pain. A smiling Jesus continued, “Now you see why you are wounded but you do not feel the pain because I am the one bearing all the pain— because I love you.”
The images slowly faded away and the little girl’s attention returned to her cloud-watching. Did she fall asleep, she wondered, for what transpired was similar to dreaming. No, she was merely watching, and in fact she noticed that everything seemed to happen in a wink, because the clouds that looked like foamy waves had not shifted at all! But the little girl had no doubt that the movie-like story she saw was real, not a dream. However, she did not feel an urge to tell anyone about it.
Many many many years later, when the little girl had grown into a woman who was to go through trials and tribulations in life, this particular cloud-watching episode would worm its way into her consciousness.  She would come to realize that it was the Sacred Heart of Jesus she met in the clouds.  Just as the heart has its own memory, it also has its own reason beyond reason, and now, the woman whose heart as a little girl received two wounds from the thorns around His Heart knows and believes: Jesus is wounded by the errors of both those who claim or even vow to love Him, and those who mock and spurn Him.
Knowing His heart is wounded causes her heart to bleed, too, but now she would feel His pain as well, but instead of crippling her in her efforts to love others, she would remember the huge heart of Jesus she saw in her cloud-watching—the tender heart the size of a dinner plate.  Jesus asks that her heart have room for everyone, too, to love sinners and saints alike.  Because in her heart that cloud-watching child is still very much alive, she does as He says, grateful for the lesson she was taught in the clouds.  And that's the truth.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Together forever and forever, (Conclusion)

As a Catholic I agree, absolutely, with the Church’s teaching that the ashes of our dear departed must be interred in an appropriate place like a cemetery or a church, but I’m pretty much tolerant of other people’s beliefs when it came to such, whether or not they’re Catholics.  Having lived in other lands and met or known people of divergent cultures and beliefs I’ve come to empathize with those who don’t share my thinking.  It's a live and let live world, after all.  
I’ve been to a non-Catholic home in Metromanila that has a collection of urns containing ancestors’ ashes in the living room, which the homeowners display with as much pride as Filipino parents have who fill their walls with diplomas of their children.  I’ve been to a truly special garden restaurant in Quezon Province where a unique four-poster shed stands, with some flowers and a lighted candle in the middle.  Not seeing the candle’s reason for being in such a place, I asked our guide.  He said the shed was actually a shrine, and he pointed at an earthen jar on top of a post, next to the ceiling, saying it contained the ashes of the owner’s mother, a Catholic.  Apparently the restaurant owner was so close to his mother in life that he wants to maintain that closeness even in death. 
Abroad, I met a middle aged lady who didn’t know what to do with her mother’s ashes in her house.  Long before “eco-cemeteries” existed, they scattered her father’s ashes in a public park, around a flowering hedge.  The park was the family’s favorite summer picnic destination when they were kids—and her mother’s wish was for her ashes to be joined with her father’s when her turn came.  When her turn came, the family went back to the park to honor her wish.  But she returned home still carrying her mother’s ashes.  As they were to learn then, a fire years ago had razed to the ground a considerable area of the park, making it now impossible to locate the exact spot of her father’s “burial”.
Some of the weirdest things people do to be together forever with their loved ones reflect a somewhast self-centered sentimentality that makes detachment difficult.  The parents of an apparently well-loved high school student in the US who died in a car accident reportedly gave little scoops of the boy’s ashes to his closest friends.  Some put theirs in lockets to wear around the neck; some glued the ashes to the picture of the deceased and hung it up their study wall; and a few had the ashes ground superfine, mixed it with tattoo ink, and had themselves tattooed with it.  Still, a few snorted the pulverized remains mixed with illegal drugs for a different kind of high--the ultimate high for some, plain morbid for others.    
An immigrant family I know have for years kept the ashes of their parents in cardboard boxes in their basement, waiting for the time they’ll retire in the Philippines after decades of toil for dollars in the Land of the Free: “We wouldn’t want to leave our parents here alone; we want to be all together in the place of our birth.”  They are Catholics, and want to remain a closely knit family until they hear the blare of the resurrection trumpets. 
A lady friend in her late 30s—she’s Catholic by birth, New Age-ish by inclination—keeps her mother’s inurned ashes on her night table, in open defiance of her siblings who wanted to bury them in their father’s grave which was their mother’s wish.  Whatever people do with the cremains of their dearly departed often seems to be a matter of purely personal considerations, and show an utter lack (especially among Catholics) of knowledge or concern for the Church’s stand on the matter.  I have observed that among many Protestants, it’s just a matter of choice since they say the bible has no specific teaching on cremation.  But we Catholics do, so why do we behave as though we owned our loved ones’ ashes?
I myself would tolerate others’ practices, even among Catholics I know, but recently I realized I would put my foot firmly down (that the Church’s rule on this be followed) if it came to my own family.  I never thought I’d be “tested” on this until it was time to bury our daughter-in-law.  Since her demise at age 50 was inevitable due to terminal lung cancer, the families from both sides had agreed to follow her wishes: wear white, three nights wake, burial in their family plot in her birth place Bataan, etc.
As preparations were under way, everything was smooth sailing, until our family was informed that the ashes, after the three-night wake in Bataan, would be transported to Manila to wait until the 40th day to be buried.  This was not among her wishes, nor our family’s desire, so where did the idea come from?  (And where would the urn be kept in Manila?  Certainly not in our home). We never did find out who really introduced the changes since it was her siblings in Bataan who were overseeing everything, and I was careful not to offend her sibling who had left the Church to become a fervent member of a Christian sect.  But I did my homework.  I burned the midnight oil reading up Vatican documents not only on the Church’s stand on cremation but more specifically on the treatment of the cremated remains. Our daughter in law was a devoted Catholic, and so should be buried accordingly.  I wanted to be sure that my feet were planted on solid ground.
During the last night of the wake, there was still nothing final on the proposed 40-day wait in Manila, as no one had raised the issue.  Fortunately, a young priest came to bless the body—I took the opportunity to ask him about his opinion on the contentious plan, and sought his affirmation of my readings.  Not only was he grateful “for reminding me of the Church teaching”—he also gave an animated talk to the congregation which included what we Catholics should and should not do with our beloved’s ashes. “The remains of the dead do not belong to the family.  They belong to God.  After the Mass and cremation, straight to the cemetery, the final resting place, no distributing of ashes, no scattering in the sea or in the mountains, no wearing the ashes around your neck, no 9-day or 40-day wait.”  I believe that kind of talk should be given at each and every Catholic burial, and I hope that one day our Lady Vice President would be around to listen.  And that’s the truth.

(Cartoon courtesy of Mad Magazine)

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Together forever, Part 1

This morning, I was talking with a lady friend about a certain burial I will attend tomorrow—the interment, finally, of what’s left of the ashes of a man (let’s call him “Johnny”) who had died 20 years ago.  My friend was so amused hearing about “what’s left of the ashes”, because, really, what we will be burying tomorrow must be only half of the ashes, as some (on Johnny’s request) had already been scattered in the sea.  In fact, some of it was blown by the wind into the nostrils of his brother in law, an incident that has spawned jokes and laughter whenever it’s retold.  “Now we’re together forever as his ashes are stuck in my lungs,” the brother in law would say, almost with pride that he has remained alive and healthy in spite of it.
So—what’s left of Johnny’s ashes was placed in an urn that sat for the longest time in the family’s living room.  In fact, only recently did I learn—as I was helping the wife (“Brenda”) to redesign her house interiors—that that vase which I’d thought was purely decorative, sitting on a high shelf, actually contained her husband’s ashes.  “Whaaaat?” I exclaimed, incredulous, “You mean, all the hundreds of times these past 20 years I’d visited you here, half of Johnny was there watching us?”  Yes, Brenda said, sheepishly.  Indeed, but why—I asked in sympathy.
Well, at first, she felt keeping Johnny’s ashes in the house helped her and her kids remain close.  At first.  Because later on, with the children growing up and finally having families of their own abroad, who remembers, let alone cares, about their father’s ashes on that shelf?  Nobody.  Not even Brenda who admitted it hadn’t even occurred to her to move the ashes to a more “sacred” spot in her house, like the makeshift altar where she keeps religious images, rosaries, prayer cards, etc.  “What if the urn fell on the floor?  You’ll sweep the ashes back into the urn and mop up the rest?” I asked, and, emboldened by the Vatican’s stand on these matters I added, “Beloved though Johnny may be, the house of the living is no place for his ashes.  You already bought space in a columbary, put him to rest there.”   They are Catholic and so Brenda didn’t resist; soon she arranged for the proper interment with Mass tomorrow, exactly the 20th anniversary of Johnny’s death.
As my lady friend laughed about burying half of Johnny’s ashes, she said, “Eh yung vice president nga natin eh, nakasabit pa sa leeg niya yung abo ng asawa niya!  Pati mga anak niya, ano’ng say mo!”  (So what about our vice president who wears her husband’s ashes around her neck?  Even her children do, what say you!) Whaaaat?—again, I was aghast, especially since she added, “Hindi ba bawal iyon?  Close pa naman siya sa Church, di ba?  Bad example!”  (Isn’t it a no-no?  To think that she’s known to be close to the Church.  Bad example!)  
Our chat over, I wanted to validate what I’d just heard—at least from Google.  After so many websites checked and double-checked, reading but dismissing the Leni-bashers, I found mainstream media reports—so it’s true, after all. 
In a Philippine Daily Inquirer feature on November 6, 2016, Leni Robredo was reported to have visited on the eve of All Saints’ Day her husband’s grave, along with their daughters.  What caught my attention was this rather sympathetic line: “All four Robredo women wore their identical gold pendants, with Jesse’s ashes resting delicately on their hearts.”  A feature article in the Philippine Star on October 11, 2015 said in the same vein: “Every day she carries with her a part of her husband—the ashes in the locket of her necklace.  As long as the locket tugs to her heart she feels Jesse.  She’s guided by his example.  The luminary that Jesse was is the luminosity that shines upon Leni.  They are never apart.”  Wow.
Love must be the motivating factor behind our attachment to our beloved’s remains.  I know of a religious man who so loves and reveres his deceased mother that he keeps part of her skull in the glove compartment of his car.  (In his car!  Not even the living room! Bah, what’s this?)  Then again, a friend of a friend also told me she keeps a piece of bone from her beloved deceased father not only because she wants him near but also because, she said, “The bone is bluish.  I’m told it’s rare, and that it’s a sign of nobility.”  (Did I hear the alarm buzz!  Talk about love for the dead!)
I also know of a man, a senior citizen who—in his younger wild-oats-sowing days had sired several children with three women now settled abroad—said in earnest to his broadminded wife, “Pag nauna ako sa iyo, i-cremate mo ko, tapos hatiin mo yung abo sa apat, isa sa iyo, yung tatlo sa kanila.”  (If I go ahead of you, cremate me, and then divide my ashes into four, one part for you, the other three to them.)  Without batting an eyelash the wife quipped, “Anhin ko yung abo mo?  Sa kanila na lang!”  (What on earth will I do with your ashes?  They can have it!)  True story, I swear.
I understand why people hold on to some remains of the beloved departed, and I also see that they do so because they are not reached by Church teaching to wean them away from romantic and prevailing notions relating to these matters.  I myself wrote once—and it came out in print, mind you—that “I preferred to be cremated, and my ashes buried in the backyard, on which spot you (my family) will plant a coconut tree, so that I would still feed you long after I’m dead.”  But that was written during my agnostic years.  And I chose a coconut tree because my family loves buko salad.  And that’s the truth.

(To be continued)

(Thanks to Pinterest for Funeral Funnies  cartoon)

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Mary’s quiet presence in the brown scapular

“What’s that thing plastered on your back—Salonpas?” a male colleague in the newsroom asked.  “Oh that?  It’s a scapular.”  I didn’t realize it was semi-visible through my white shirt, and so, assuring him that I wasn’t in need yet of Salonpas—a pain-relieveng patch for arthritis or other muscle aches—I felt obliged to tell him a bit about the brown scapular.  For us Secular Carmelites, it is formally imposed during a ceremony marking a stage in our formation; it’s made up of two pieces of plain brown wool cloth the size indeed of a Salonpas patch.
Maybe he was just kidding about the Salonpas bit, but it led to his virtual initiation into Carmel and the brown scapular devotion.  Serves him right.  “Don’t believe what you hear about the brown scapular protecting you from bullets or knife attacks,” I warned him, “Hindi iyon anting-anting (amulet) or a lucky charm to make you rich and famous or find you the right spouse.  It’s our Carmelite habit, a sign that we belong to Mary.”
I like what author John Zmirak said about the scapular being a “sleek and minimalist version of the Carmelite habit”.   The one we Secular Carmelites wear may be sleek and minimalist but being made of wool, it’s itchy—to better fortify us against the pursuit of vainglory?  Yes.  Remember the sackcloth worn by Elijah and John the Baptist. We’re also not supposed to display it, although some of us, probably believing it expresses our “zeal for the Living God”, wear all sorts of ornate scapulars during “gala” occasions—huge like the ID cards during the papal visit, embroidered with the Carmelite logo, hung with a crucifix, and bearing the text of the so-called Sabbatine privilege.  All sorts—all unnecessary, but all tolerated for the love of God.
Come to think of it, judging from the volume of devotees (in the Philippines) who unabashedly wear the brown scapular—from prison inmates to celebrities—one would think that Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (OLMC) must be the best known of Mary’s manifestations in the Church.  But no, despite the thousands of brown scapulars sold in religious bookstores and distributed for free during her feast on July 16, countless others have yet to be introduced to the truth about it, and how it relates to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel whose popular image wears brown with a cream colored mantle, holds the Child Jesus in her left arm and in her right hand—you guessed it—a brown scapular.
The  Church teaches that “The scapular is a Marian habit or garment. It is both a sign and pledge. A sign of belonging to Mary; a pledge of her motherly protection, not only in this life but after death. As a sign, it is a conventional sign signifying three elements strictly joined: first, belonging to a religious family particularly devoted to Mary, especially dear to Mary, the Carmelite Order; second, consecration to Mary, devotion to and trust in her Immaculate Heart; third, an urge to become like Mary by imitating her virtues, above all her humility, chastity, and spirit of prayer.
More specifically, a  Discalced Carmelite priest and a revered authority on Carmelite spirituality Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalene de' Pazzi, OCD, wrote that devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel means “a special call to the interior life, which is pre-eminently a Marian life.  Our Lady wants us to resemble her not only in our outward vesture but, far more, in heart and spirit.  If we gaze into Mary's soul, we shall see that grace in her has flowered into a spiritual life of incalculable wealth: a life of recollection, prayer, uninterrupted oblation to God, continual contact, and intimate union with him.  Mary's soul is a sanctuary reserved for God alone, where no human creature has ever left its trace, where love and zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of mankind reign supreme… Those who want to live their devotion to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel to the full must follow Mary into the depths of her interior life. Carmel is the symbol of the contemplative life, the life wholly dedicated to the quest for God, wholly orientated towards intimacy with God; and the one who has best realized this highest of ideals is Our Lady herself, ‘Queen and Splendor of Carmel’."
“If we gaze into Mary’s soul…”  Whew, tall order in this day and age of verbal diarrhea!   Gazing implies a numbing silence—shutting out all words and thoughts as noise impeding the ascent to the Divine through Mary’s portal.   How dare we gaze into Mary’s soul!  But we must at least try, humbly, as the brown scapular—devoid of popular superstitions and self-serving notions—reminds us of Mary’s quiet presence in our lives and assures us beyond words of her untiring maternal guidance.  In “following Mary into the depths of her interior life” we heed her advice in Cana, “Do as He tells you to do,” knowing beyond doubt that our faith will lead us to “a spiritual life of incalculable wealth” and an intimate friendship with our Lord Jesus.  And that’s the truth.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Our political circus

With the Comelec premises reportedly looking like a plaza on a fiesta during the week of politicians filing their Certificate of Candidacy (COC), the air waves are sizzling with more news and interviews related to the forthcoming 2016 elections.
            With candidates of rather colorful public images, character or background, the scene is getting to look like a veritable circus—with barkers, freak shows, and animals big and small. Some candidates roar (like lions), some come on heavy (like elephants), some inspire fear (like snakes), some look cute (like talking parrots), some are funny and amusing (like monkeys)—and all of them contribute to the season’s entertainment.
            A discerning voter without vested interests would realize that much about the candidates’ image is determined by how media portray them, and since media seem unable to be a hundred percent accurate, objective, and fair about doing their job in spite of their best intentions, voters must not depend solely on “what others say” in choosing candidates to vote for.  Much of what is currently surfacing in the political field can serve not only as directional arrows to guide our choice, but also as indicators of our level of sophistication and intelligence as an electorate, and maybe even of who we are as a people.  And so we try to look beneath the surface and in the process come to probe our psyche.
            For instance, most candidates do not speak meaningfully on issues.  Even when hard-pressed for comment on, say, the conflict with China in the west Philippine Sea, or the Bangsamoro Basic Law, answers are “generic” and noncommittal.  Doing your own research aided by Google won’t yield anything along this line.  Does this silence mean candidates are simply playing safe, or lack knowledge of the given situation?
            Most candidates tell stories instead of discussing policies.  Full of self-confidence, they say they’re the man for the job but offer nothing solid about how they’re going to do the job.  Coached no doubt by their publicists on the kind of image to project in order to appeal to as many people as possible, candidates score high at “porma” but almost zero on “plataporma”.  If their avowed desire to “serve the people” is true, shouldn’t they at least “do their homework” and let the people know what to expect should they win?
            Surveys left and right are exploited and depicted by media as reliable indicators of candidates’ future performance at the polls.  They are not presented for what they truly are—the voice of 1,000 or so voters out of 53,000,000.  Ultimately the victims of such media’s magnification of survey’s significance are the poor and the majority of us who are not aware that like any human endeavor, surveys can be manipulated—if the price is right.
            It’s alarming to find out how many “political dynasties” we have, and that some of these dynasties include even extramarital family members.  Following tradition and the ways of the world, all of such dynasties belong to the moneyed minority in our society.  The “poor” candidates’ names are usually not found in the roster of dynasties.  What does this imply, besides the already known fact that more often than not you need loads of money to run for public office?  That only the multimillionaires are capable of serving the public?  If cash is synonymous with clout in the political arena, does it follow that competent potential candidates may never have a crack at offices higher than that of barangay captain’s?  If the existence of political dynasties proves anything at all, it is that power is addictive.

(To be continued)            

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Living Flesh from Buenos Aires

Despite our collective rejoicing and gratitude over Pope Francis’ voluntary visit to the Philippines last January (evidenced by the 7-million strong crowd that attended his concluding Mass at the Luneta), not a few people will admit to being “slightly disappointed” that his visit then meant the Pontiff could not be expected to return in order to be present at the International Eucharistic Congress (IEC) to be held in January 2016 in Cebu.
Take heart!  There could be another way through which the erstwhile Bishop of Buenos Aires, now Bishop of Rome and “the people’s pope”, could somehow be with us on this monumental event—by opening the IEC’s doors to what a growing number of people believe to be the “Eucharistic miracle of Buenos Aires”—with the prerequisite blessing of the Holy See, of course.
Documents, photos and videos point to the existence of a “Eucharistic phenomenon” that reportedly took place on August 18, 1996 at St. Mary Catholic Church in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  As Padre Alejandro Pezet was finishing distribution of the Holy Communion, a woman came up to say she’d found a host someone had dropped and refused to pick up to consume it as it had been soiled.  Fr. Pezet took the host and as is customary in such instances placed it in a container with water and kept it locked in the tabernacle.
On August 26, Fr. Pezet assumed the host had been dissolved and that he could then respectfully water a plant with it, but to his amazement he found that instead of being dissolved the host had turned into a seemingly bloody substance.  He reported it to Mons. Jorge Bergoglio, then Auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires.  Antonio Cardinal Quarracino, then Archbishop of Buenos Aires, instructed that the host be professionally photographed and the event studied and documented.  On September 6, 1996, photographs taken showed a significant increase in the host’s size.  On the instruction of Cardinal Quarracino, the whole affair was kept a secret.  The host was kept in a container of distilled water in the tabernacle; meanwhile, photographs and documents were reportedly submitted to Rome. 
Three years later, the host still showed no signs of visible decomposition, thus in 1999, the now Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Bergoglio followed the case through.  He deemed it best that the host be subjected to scientific examination.  On Oct. 5, 1999, Dr. Ricardo Castanon, a neuro-psycho-physiologist who happens to be an atheist, was allowed to take a sample of the bloody substance which he was to take to the United States for analysis following typical FBI procedures.  To ensure a prejudice-free study, Dr. Castanon purposely concealed the origin of the bloody fragment from the team of scientists who would do the study.
The team determined that what had been analyzed was real flesh and blood, containing human DNA. One of these scientists, Dr. Frederick Zugibe, a well-known cardiologist and forensic pathologist, stated: “The analyzed material is a fragment of the heart muscle found in the wall of the left ventricle close to the valves. This muscle is responsible for the contraction of the heart. It should be borne in mind that the left cardiac ventricle pumps blood to all parts of the body. The heart muscle is in an inflammatory condition and contains a large number of white blood cells. This indicates that the heart was alive at the time the sample was taken. It is my contention that the heart was alive, since white blood cells die outside a living organism. They require a living organism to sustain them. Thus, their presence indicates that the heart was alive when the sample was taken. What is more, these white blood cells had penetrated the tissue, which further indicates that the heart had been under severe stress, as if the owner had been beaten severely about the chest.”
Witnessing these tests were two Australians, journalist Mike Willesee and lawyer Ron Tesoriero; both men knew the background of the sample, and were naturally stunned to hear Dr. Zugibe’s testimony.  Willessee asked Dr. Zugibe, “How long would white blood cells have remained alive if they have come from a human tissue which had been kept in water?”  Dr. Zugibe replied, “They would have ceased to exist in a matter of minutes.”  Willessee, gradually unveiling the truth, informed Dr. Zugibe that before it reached the doctor’s hands, the sample was “from a tissue that had first been kept in ordinary water for a month and then in a bowl with distilled water for three years.”  As Dr. Zugibe had no scientific explanation for it, Willessee finally told him the truth, that “the analyzed sample came from a consecrated host.”  Astonished, Dr. Zugibe replied that “how and why a host would change its character to become living flesh and blood would remain an inexplicable mystery to science, a mystery totally beyond my competence.”
Dr. Castanon then arranged to have the lab reports be compared to those made of a relic of the similar miracle which took place in Lanciano (Italy) in the eighth century.  The experts making the comparison were not told of the origin of the samples; nonetheless they concluded that “the two lab reports must have originated from samples obtained from the same person.” They further added that both samples revealed an AB positive blood type, all characteristic of a man who was born and who lived in the Middle East region.
Dr. Castanon, reportedly an avowed atheist, set out to disprove the Eucharistic miracle in Buenos Aires and ended up converting to Catholicism.  Author of the book Cuando La Palabra Hiere (“When the Word Hurts”) he is now committed to his mission of traveling the world, investigating Catholic mystical phenomena and running scientific tests to prove or disprove them.
We know and understand how long it takes for a “miracle” to be officially approved by the Church.  It should be so, otherwise, any religious phenomenon could be used to lead the innocent and the ignorant to perdition.  On the other hand we have also seen how many a cold heart has been inflamed by the sight or the feel of a saint’s relic.  A countless number of church-goers take Holy Communion barely knowing its grave significance.  Even priests sometimes admit to taking the Host for granted—having celebrated Holy Mass for years, sometimes up to seven times on a Sunday, “the celebration part is gone, only the obligation part remains.”  So why not try and bring the Living Flesh from Buenos Aires to the Philippines for the Eucharistic Congress?  Then we’ll have not just the Pope from Buenos Aires but the Lord Himself in our land.  Our nation is in dire need of it.  We are aware that this suggestion is a shot at the moon.  But remembering what Pope Francis said to the young people of Cuba—“Dream on!”—we dream on and leave our dreams at the feet of the Crucified Christ, fully trusting in God’s plan for us.  And that’s the truth.