By Fr. David Louch, C.Ss.R.
While I was driving from Vancouver to Tucson in the last week of August to take up my new ministry as Associate Director at the Desert House of Prayer, I received an e-mail from Fr. Mike Brehl, Superior General, asking me if I would be able and willing to accompany Bro. Jeffrey Rolle, Consultor General, on the Roman Visitation of the two units in the Philippines. After discussion with Fr. Tom Picton, Director of the Desert House of Prayer, it was agreed that I would be Bro. Jeffrey’s socius for the visit to the Vice-Province of Manila (October 1-15). This visit took place before Typhoon Haiyan devastated parts of the Philippines.
At 2:00 AM on Friday, September 27 I was picked up at the Desert House and taken to the Arizona Shuttle drop-off for the ride to the Phoenix airport. From Phoenix I flew via Seattle and Tokyo to Manila, where I arrived at 8:00 PM on Saturday. The Vice-Provincial, Fr. Ariel Lubi, met me at the airport and brought me to Baclaran. The visitation would begin there on Tuesday, October 1; so I had two days to acclimatize. (I had diarrhea for those two days – and the opposite problem for the rest of the time!)
I presided and preached at the 5:45 PM Perpetual Help novena Mass on Wednesday. I don’t know how many people were there, but it was the biggest crowd I’ve ever been in front of. In the course of the day every Wednesday about 100,000 people come to the shrine – a constant stream of people coming and going from 5:00 AM to 9:00 PM.
But what I really want to tell you about is the visitation. The Manila Vice-Province has 39 members, 11 of them still in initial formation and 6 others not active in the Vice-Provincial mission. There are five communities: Baclaran (Shrine and Vice-Provincial administration), Lipa, Ligazpi, Laoag and the formation community in Manila.
The visitation began with Bro. Jeffrey and me meeting the Ordinary Council. After that meeting I said to Jeffrey, “Wow, are they ever well organized! They have taken seriously all the recommendations of the last Roman Visitation (2007), and they have taken to heart the spirit and direction of the last General Chapter – especially the sexennial theme.” The Manila Vice-Province is making what they call a “missiological shift” as they seek a new missionary spirituality and “restructure for mission”. We soon found out that the whole Vice-Province is on board.
Baclaran, of course, revolves around the Perpetual Help novena on Wednesdays; however, it is not just devotions and sacramental ministry. There is a whole “social mission” as well that includes among other things emergency assistance and counseling, a family life centre, ministry to migrants, a medical-dental clinic, and the Sarnelli Center for boys up to 16 years old who have been living on the streets, abandoned by parents (if they even know who their parents are). The Sarnelli Center was recently moved to a new house away from the city to improve the chances of the boys leaving the street culture permanently behind.
The shrine ministry generates the resources that maintain not only the social mission in Baclaran but also most of the Mission in the rest of the Vice-Province. The Mission is truly with, for and among the most abandoned and the poor (both urban and rural). Our confreres go to poor places for at least six months where they live with and share life with those whom they serve and evangelize. Given the state of the Philippine society, economy and politics, the Redemptorist missionary work is oriented around Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation, and it includes a lot of advocacy and community organization.
In every community Bro. Jeffrey and I were taken to visit the places where the Redemptorist Apostolic Life is lived out – squatters informal settlements in urban centres as well as towns and villages (many without electricity and/or running water) where you wonder how people eke out a living and manage to survive. We met wonderful people; but I don’t know if I would have the stomach/stamina to share their lives. Just visiting them overwhelmed me.
I was inspired by the energy, conviction and joy of our confreres in the Manila Vice-Province. Even the College-level seminarians, who have not yet made their novitiate, spoke passionately about being attracted to the Redemptorists because the Redemptorists don’t only talk about serving the most abandoned and the poor – they actually do it.
The confreres could not possibly carry out the Mission of the Vice-Province on their own. There are many lay people, and also some women religious, who share the Redemptorist charism and mission. The Vice-Province has 14 (?) Lay Missionaries of the Most Holy Redeemer; they are employed by the Redemptorists and are included in the quadrennial appointments to each community (including the formation community). Besides the lay missionaries, there are volunteers and paid staff sharing the mission in all five communities. The Shrine and Social Missions at Baclaran rely on more than 400 staff and lay volunteers, many of whom are professionals or technicians.
All of the lay Partners in Mission are well formed in the Redemptorist charism and trained for the particular part of the Mission in which they are involved. Everywhere I was struck by the pride the lay partners take in their membership in the Redemptorist family and by the joy with which they participate in the Mission.
The Manila Vice-Province also collaborates with other Redemptorist units in the Asia-Oceania Conference. Besides the Australians who are still in the Philippines, there is a confrere from Cebu and one from Indonesia who are appointed to Baclaran; and a confrere from Manila is the director of the common theologate (St Alphonsus Theological Missionary Institute) in Davao in the Cebu Province.
Eight units of the Asia-Oceania Conference participate in the common novitiate which is hosted by the Manila Vice-Province in Lipa.
The hot, humid climate of the Philippines, combined with the tight and fairly heavy schedule of the visitation, left me quite tired. However, the joy and energy of the confreres and their partners in mission revived me! Their witness to the gospel and their living out of the Redemptorist charism have led me to some self-examination, and they have inspired me for my own Redemptorist Apostolic Life.
I’m glad that Fr. Mike Brehl invited me to help with the visitation of the Manila Vice-Province, and I’m glad I accepted. I have been to the Philippines, and I have the Barong Filipino to prove it.