The world continues to reel from the negative impact of the covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic jolted and disrupted our “normal” life and caused unprecedented distress and hardships.
In the midst of the pandemic, we celebrate the Pentecost which commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, the Blessed Virgin Mary and other followers of Jesus Christ while they were in Jerusalem celebrating the Feast of Weeks, as described in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:1–31). Pentecost also jolted and disrupted the disciples and ushered the beginning of the church. Pentecost transformed the followers of Christ from timid and fearful to bold and daring disciples.
On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down “like a strong driving wind,” and appeared as “tongues of fire”, and finally rested on each of the disciples. This emboldened the disciples and gave them the gift to speak in every language of all the people gathered at Jerusalem during that day.
The coming of the Holy Spirit marks the beginning of the church. Pentecost is our birthday as a church. This means that the church, as St. Luke has shown in the whole Acts of the Apostles, is a spirit-led church. Actually, the Acts of the Apostles could have been more appropriately called the Acts of the Holy Spirit: It was always the spirit who had the final say where the early church should go, what the church should do. In every major decision, the early church would listen to the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit the church could have fallen apart a long time ago.
Today the Spirit continues to lead us, to guide us. to shake us out of our complacencies, to disturb us out of our passiveness. But do we listen? Are we like the early church who always sought the direction of the Holy Spirit, who discerned always where the movement of the Holy Spirit in their lives and work?
In today’s chaotic world stricken by the covid-19 pandemic, the temptation for us and the church is to freeze in fear and be content solely with our own security and self-preservation. Another temptation is to go back to the old normal after the pandemic is over as if nothing happened and continue to rely on our human capacity and wisdom. These times calls for more solidarity of all people and discernment and reliance on the surprises and creativity of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit re-created the disciples. The Holy Spirit set the disciples on fire. Compare the apostles before and after Pentecost, oh what a difference the Spirit makes. From timid they became bold, from lethargic they became energetic and from fearful they became courageous – all for the sake of the good news of Jesus. As Pope Francis has said about the church of Pentecost, “She is a Church that doesn’t hesitate to go out, meet people, proclaim the message that’s been entrusted to her, even if that message disturbs or unsettles the conscience.”
For all the chaos and suffering brought by the pandemic, there is hope. But only if we become bold in transforming our lives and listen to the promptings of the spirit. As Pope Francis reminds us, this contagion of infection with the Coronavirus can lead to a contagion of fear, of isolation, of ‘self-protection’. He calls us to welcome instead the ‘contagion’ of the Holy Spirit – a contagion of prayer and service, of solidarity and welcome.” We need discernment and openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Where is the movement of the spirit in this time of pandemic? How can we listen and discern the promptings of the spirit in this time of pandemic?
Despite the suffering and death caused by the pandemic, God will re-create the world through the Holy Spirit. “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Isaiah 43:18, Isaiah 43:19, Revelation 21:5, Isaiah 65:17, Ephesians 2: 15). As in the first Pentecost, we have in need now more of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In a prayer in preparation for the Second Vatican Council in 1962, Pope John XXIII prayed, “Renew Your wonders, O God, in our day — as in a new Pentecost!”
“Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.”
 Pope Francis, “By the Power of the Spirit the Church Astounds & Confuses,” Angelus, June 8, 2014
During these times of unprecedented suffering and death due to the covid-19 pandemic, there is not a single moment that we looked up to the heavens asking for divine help and intervention.
We celebrate tody the ascension of the Lord Sunday. This marks the human Jesus’ last day on earth. Luke describes the moment of the Lord’s ascension in today’s 1st reading from the Acts of the Apostles where Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.”
The ascension is one of the most misinterpreted events in Jesus life and belief of our faith. The ascension has often been portrayed in a somewhat mythological way as a gravity-defying form of levitation or the retreat of Jesus from this world to a place up, up and away.
It is significant that Jesus rested in the cloud in the Ascension. In the bible a cloud often depicts the abiding presence of God amongst the people. In the Old Testament, the pillar of cloud was the glory-cloud which indicated God’s presence leading the ransomed people of Israel out of Egypt through the wilderness (Exodus 13:22; 33:9, 10). This pillar preceded the people as they marched, resting on the ark (Exodus 13:21; 40:36). By night it became a pillar of fire (Numbers 9:17-23). In other words, the Ascension signifies not Jesus’ departure but his constant accompaniment of his disciples and the community gathered in his name—the church—as they face the challenges and troubles of this world.
While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”
The two angels were trying to say to the apostles that they were not supposed to spend their time staring nostalgically at the heavens as Jesus did not abandon them but is always with them “until the end of the age” (Matthew 28: 20). There was work to do. There was a world waiting for the good news to be announced. Faith and hope have now to be busy about other matters, even as Christians, then and now, await his return at the end of time and the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1: 5, 11). The apostles left the mountain, went into the city, and launched the greatest missionary undertaking in human history.
“All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
The Ascension is not a call of fuga mundi (escape from the world) but at the same time a calling to journey towards a much larger world where heaven and earth meet. The great commission of the Ascension today is how to announce the good news and build God’s kingdom and heaven of liberation and peace in a world enveloped with terror, division, violence and suffering. Let not our hearts be troubled, for Jesus accompanies and protects us “until the end of the age.”
In today’s pandemic, one of the most ab/used word is social distancing. While “social distancing” is essential to help avoid getting sick and “flatten the curve” in the spread of COVID-19, it may be sending the wrong message and contributing to social isolation. What the pandemic has actually done is not separation and isolation but has heightened the need for support and connection with one another. For example, we siblings, 6 of us, have not physically reunited for a long time, but thanks to the pandemic, we had a long and spirited conversation via zoom just recently. We do not actually want to distance from one another but to build solidarity in this time of unprecendented suffering. Thus, the conversation is shifting from “social distancing” towards “physical distancing.”
One of the best song that expresses this irony is Joey Ayala’s “Walang Hanggang Paalam” (Never Ending Farewell). The haunting and melancholic melody truly expresses the pain and sadness of separation while at the same declares the undying unity between lovers. The lyrics are so beautiful that you would think it was a poem before it was a song. The chorus expresses the intense tension between physical separation and unbreakable emotional and spiritual bond:
Ang pag-ibig natin ay (Our love) Walang hanggang paalam (is an everlasting farewell) At habang magkalayo (And while we are far) Papalapit pa rin ang puso (Our hearts draws near) Kahit na magkahiwalay (We may be apart) Tayo ay magkasama (Yet we are together) Sa magkabilang dulo ng mundo (On the opposite ends of the world)
This song may also remind us of a sad experience about someone whom we truly love has to say goodbye to us. We really want to spend our lives with her/him but it just couldn’t be. So we try our best to become the best persons that we are, thinking that that person we love is not gone and is not separated from us but always with us. His/her abiding presence has become an inspiration, advocate, comfort, consolation and help.
In the gospel today, Jesus tells his disciple on the night of his departure, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always.” The Risen Lord continues to be present and remains alive manifesting the Father’s love and kindness in the world through us His disciples and friends. He has given us His Spirit to enlighten, empower and encourage us that we may be able to love one another as He has loved us.
The word “Advocate” comes from the Latin “advocatus” which translates the original Greek word “paraklētos”; both words literally mean “one who is called alongside” somebody. An Advocate/Paraclete can mean a spokesman, a mediator, an intercessor, a comforter, a consoler or a helper. Jesus said the Holy Spirit is “another” Advocate because he is the first Advocate (see 1 Jn 2:1b). The Holy Spirit, as the “second” Advocate, will continue Jesus’ presence among the disciples and His saving action for the of the disciples, e.g., guiding them and nourishing them with His word and defending them against those who will persecute them (see Jn 15:18-27).
Jesus assures us, “I will not leave you orphans.” In Jesus’ time, the orphans were the weakest members of the society. Having lost their parents, particularly their fathers, orphans or the comfortless ones had no means of protection and provision and so were easy targets for exploitation and harm. One of our most basic needs as human beings is the need for comfort, empathy, and presence of our loved ones. This is also what we ask most of God. More than material things, God’s advocacy, consolation and presence, is one of the most frequent petition that we ask of the Lord especially in the lowest moments of our lives. Jesus gives us assurance that God never leaves us orphans. This gives us the greatest hope—the never ending presence, protection and support of God. We are confident even in today’s hostile world because it is the Spirit who gives us the grace and strength to believe. This is the same confidence that St. Peter proclaimed in the second reading: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (I Peter 3: 15).
Jesus may be “physically distant” but he is not “socially distant” from us. Jesus is so far yet so near, absent yet present, because the Holy Spirit is sent for us. God never left us. God remains with us, forever. And we should, therefore, not be distant from one another. We are all united in solidarity in the abiding presence of Christ amongst us.
Today, May 13 marks the first celebration of the novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help in the Philippines. It was not in Baclaran, however. 74 years ago today, on May 13, 1946, just a year after World War II, the first novena was conducted at St. Clement’s Church in Ilo-ilo.
Former Redemptorist Provincial and author of the book, the Baclaran Story, Fr. Luis Hechanova recounts that in the year 1946, shortly after the end of the Second World War, American troops, some from the famous Battle of Guadalcanal, found themselves stationed in Iloilo. Among them were Irish-American Catholics from Boston who were delighted to find that St. Clement’s Church in La Paz, Iloilo City, was run by Irish Redemptorists. They were disappointed, however, that the Perpetual Novena then flourishing in the popular Mission Church of the Redemptorists in Boston was not part of church services. Their disappointment, however, was one of the motivations that led the Redemptorist at Ilo-ilo to start a regular novena.
On May 13, 1946, the first Perpetual Help Novena in the Philippines was held in St. Clement’s Church, Iloilo, conducted by Fr. Patrick Nulty. On October 21 that same year, there were 500 people at the Novena. In August 18, 1947, the attendance was 1000 and there was a six year old boy attending by the name of Luis Hechanova.
The Redemptorist in Lipa soon followed suit and began the novena in 1946. The Redemptorists in Cebu also started the first novena on Sept. 15, 1946. In these churches, the novena were translated from English to the local languages. They were all well attended by the local people.
News of these well-attended novena in these three churches must have reached the Redemptorists in Baclaran. Despite the popularity of the novena in the provinces, many of the members of the community were hesitant to start the novena in Baclaran. They were concerned that by starting a novena in Baclaran, their main ministry of giving missions to remote parishes in the Tagalog provinces will be severely jeopardized. Only when all the community agreed that the mission would go on despite the novena that the Redemptorists finally decided to start the novena in Baclaran.
When the Redemptorists finally started the novena in Baclaran in June 1948, they were wonderfully surprised at the amazing response and rapid influx of devotees to the novena. The phenomenon went way beyond their imagination. The rest is history!
 Luis Hechanova, Baclaran Story, (Redemptorist Manila, 1996), 2
Hechanova recalls this day in his book: “I happen to be a personal witness as a six year old. One of my childhood memories is of our mother teaching us the novena hymns on the family piano, the only thing saved when our ancestral house was burned down at the close of the war. I still remember the traffic jams due to the novena on the Jaro-Iloilo road on Wednesdays. In our family, we had to keep reminding each other to avoid that road on Wednesdays, unless of course we were going to make the novena.” Baclaran Story, 2.
This Sunday is fifth Sunday of Easter which coincides with the special celebration of Mother’s Day.
Since its Mother’s day, let me begin by talking about my mother. My mother died 15 years ago. I regret that I was not always there during her last days here on earth. But I believe and hope that she is now in one of the many dwelling places of the Father’s house that Jesus promised in the gospel today. I remember during the days before she died how she was so concerned about us taking care of her, even worrying that she is taking too much of our time and spending so much money because of her sickness. She was less concerned about what will happen to her and more about what is happening to us because of her illness.
In today’s gospel Jesus felt so much the fear and anxiety of his disciples before his imminent departure. So Jesus begins by telling his disciples “not to be troubled”. On the night before his agonizing death, Jesus was less concerned about what will happen to him and more with what will happen to his disciples during his suffering and after his death.
The gospel today is part of the long after dinner discourse of Jesus (chapters 14 – 17 of John) when Jesus had his last supper and the foot washing with the disciples. The eminent American Biblical scholar Raymond Brown says that this discourse is comparable to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, or Luke’s collection of Jesus’ words as he traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem.
Sensing their confusion and anxiety Jesus promised his abiding presence to the disciples. “I will come back again and take you to myself, so the where I am you also may be.” The Greek word “dwelling place” (14:2) is the noun of John’s verb “abide.” Jesus’ departure will not cut off the ties between him and his disciples; even as he prepares a “dwelling place” for them, he will “abide” with them.
But the disciples are confused. It is as if Jesus and disciples were speaking in two different worlds. Thomas asked: “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus’ response is one of the most beautiful quotes about Him: “I AM the Way. I AM Truth and I AM Life.” Jesus does not only tell us where to go. He is himself the Way. If Jesus abides with us and we abide in Jesus, we will know the way.
Interestingly, one of the first names people call the early church is “The Way”. In fact, this is the name which was widely used for the early church. They were known more widely as “the Way”, than as “Christians”, especially as Paul introduces himself as a follower of “the Way” to the Governor, and not as a “Christian”(Acts 24:14), even though they were known as “Christians” in Acts 11:26. This name probably originated from today’s gospel where Christ called Himself “The Way”(Joh 14:6).
Like the disciples, we are many times confused. We have lots of doubts, uncertainties and questions in life especially now during this pandemic. Jesus said to his disciples and is saying to us now that a life dedicated to following him is a life of abiding in him who is the way. In the times of the early church, believers were referred to as “followers of the way.” Following Jesus as way implies tension. In the long after dinner discourse, Jesus speaks of himself as one between two worlds: he is here with his disciples and yet no longer a part of this world (16:5; 17:11). As followers of Jesus we experience the tensive character of our existence in this world; we are in this world but we are not of this world.
Our life here on earth is always on the way as this is not our final destination. We are not at ease on earth as our final destination is the dwelling place in the Father’s house that Jesus has prepared for us. We are viatores or pilgrims towards becoming beatorum—one with God at the end of times. As the medical doctor Robert Herrmann explains in his book, Expanding Humanity’s Vision of God,
Between the resurrection and the final “kingdom of God” the church is not ecclesia triumphans but ecclesia viatorum. As ecclesia viatorum the church has not yet reached its fulfillment, but it is already on its way. In a similar vein, since the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the whole creation (heaven and earth as well as nature and culture) has become a creatio viatorum on its way to the final completion and transformation. As a creatio viatorum creation is characterized by a temporary simultaneity of the old and the new.
While we are on the way here on earth we are called to become “living stones” as Peter proclaims in the second reading. We the disciples form the stones that make up the visible presence of the invisible God. And as Jesus said in the gospel, to continue his presence in the world we will “do the works I do.” Jesus even said that the believing community will have power to do “even greater works than these.” This is not about worldly power, but the divine power who will do greater things in the followers of Jesus so they may become signs of God’s kingdom “already here but not yet.”
The Eucharist is the celebration of this tension as well as the sacrament that gives food and drink in this tension-filled journey. The Eucharist is making present the memory of Jesus as well as the glory of his return in the end; it is a memorial of the past as well as a rehearsal of the future.
Did you know that before CoVid-19, there was another CoVid or coronavirus that hit the world and the Baclaran shrine? This happened in 2003. Perhaps, we can call this as CoVid-2002.
Covid-19 also known as SARS-CoV-2 is the second severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus pandemic to hit the world. If covid-19 is the second, then when was the first?
SARS-CoV-1 is the first severe acute respiratory syndrome which exploded on April 2003 in Asia and secondary cases elsewhere in the world. However, the outbreak began on 16 November 2002, in China’s Guangdong province, bordering Hong Kong.
Compared to Covid-19, SARS-CoV-1 was a very mild pandemic. The pandemic had a short span, which lasted from November 2002 to July 2003. A total of 8,098 people worldwide became sick with severe acute respiratory syndrome that was accompanied by either pneumonia or respiratory distress syndrome (probable cases), according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Of these, 774 died. By late July 2003, no new cases were being reported, and WHO declared the global outbreak to be over.
SARS-CoV-1 affected the services at the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help in April 2003. Unlike Covid-19, however, services at the shrine continued; the shrine was never closed. I remember this, as I was rector of the shrine during this time. The Redemptorist community taking heed of the calls by the WHO and the Department of Health especially in crowded areas including the church, has implemented some precautionary measures in the Shrine.
The first measure to be introduced was the reception of communion by hand. This was implemented in the last week of April. In the first week of May, the community received a circular from the Diocese of Parañaque which further spelled out the precautionary measures which needs to be done in the churches.
“Added to the precautionary measures from the Department of Health (DOH), the Diocese strongly recommended and advised the following for temporary implementation:
Refrain from, or better still stop the folk religious practice of wiping hankerchiefs on and/or kissing images and statues.
Besamanos or the kissing of hands, especially of priests, should be abandoned. Other forms of showing respect may be used. Joining hands at the Our Father is also to be discontinued.
Face to face confession should be avoided. The use of the confessional may even be riskier for both priest and penitents. Confession is to be done not in a confined space but in an open one, side by side with the penitent and at some comfortable distance.
We will avail of communion in the hand only. The value of this shift in practice cannot be overemphasized. We recommend that ushers station themselves by the communion line to remind communicants and to see to the proper reception of the Eucharist in this manner.”
Taking heed of this circular, the community temporarily suspended confession inside the confessional boxes on April 30, 2003 – which was difficult being a Wednesday. The community instead celebrated the third rite of common celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation spread in between several masses and novenas throughout the day. For the daily confessions, the face-to-face box at the corner of the church was opened, without turning the air condition on and a table was placed between the penitent and the confessor. Prayers for divine intervention on SARS was inserted in the novena prayers during Wednesdays and in the intercessions during Sundays.
As expected there were varied reactions to the measures. Some people did not take the measures seriously as they went their usual practice. Others continued to wipe and kiss the images of saints in the church. Even during the communion at hand there were some who insisted on receiving communion through the mouth. Some complained that their monthly devotion was interrupted because they were not able to go to individual confession. They would not accept any explanation even as they were told that these are just temporary measures owing to the extra-ordinary situation.
On the other hand, there were also those who understood the necessity of precautionary measures. Some were appreciative of the response the church has made to this situation. Others went beyond SARS by emphasizing the need for cleanliness, personal hygiene, healthy living and caring for the environment with or without SARS.
Perhaps, we don’t have to wait for another CoVid in the future. After Covid-19 is all over we should learn all the hard lessons. We cannot go back to the old normal. Radical changes is needed for both our individual lifestyles and the bigger socio-politico-economic system in the world.
On my first year in Australia during my study leave in 2008, I adventurously drove alone from Melbourne to my cousin’s place in Ipswich, QLD, a distance of about 1,628 km. I drove it for three days taking stops, of course, at Redemptorist houses in Galong, NSW and Newcastle, NSW for a rest and sleep for the night. I was quite confident that I won’t get lost equipped with a GPS on my car. On my way to Galong, however, the GPS directed me to dirt roads passing through many ranches and farms. I have to get on and off the car in order to open the gates of the many farms I passed through. Someone in Galong told me that I could get shot opening those gates for trespassing.
In the gospel of today’s 4th Sunday of Easter, Jesus talks about gates,
“I am the gate.
Whoever enters through me will be saved,
and will come in and go out and find pasture.
A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy;
I came so that they might have life
and have it more abundantly.””
When I think of gate, the first thing that comes to my mind is that of exclusion. Talk of exclusive subdivision in Makati or gated mansions in Ayala-Alabang or high walls in New Manila. Gates are meant to prevent outsiders and those who don’t belong from coming inside the house or building or a village. Anyone who doesn’t pass through the gate can be suspected of robbers, outlaws or persons with evil intention. But gate can also be an image of captivity and repression so that those inside cannot get out and can easily be controlled by those who have power. Think about the gates of prisons, refugee detention centers and rehabilitation centers.
Do these images apply to Jesus when he said, “I am the gate”?
First of all, the context of in which Jesus spoke those words is in the context of sheep and shepherding. The image of sheep and shepherd is not an image we are familiar in the Philippines. But in Israel where Jesus lived and grew, sheep is an important part of life, providing the people with wool, milk, and meat. In the Bible, the main symbol of God’s relationship with the people of Israel is compared to a shepherd and his sheep.
When Jesus spoke about himself as Gate, he was referring to the Gate of the sheepfold, meaning—a sheep pen, while the shepherds who come in and out are pastors who are faithful to Jesus. Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, is “a thief and a brigand” who comes to steal and do harm to the sheep.
Of all domesticated animals, sheep are the most vulnerable. Sheep will spend their entire day grazing, wandering from place to place, and never looking up. As a result, they often become lost. Unfortunately, sheep have no “homing instinct” as other animals do. They are totally incapable of finding their way to their sheepfold even when it is in plain sight. By nature, sheep are followers. If the lead sheep steps off a cliff, the others will follow. Sheep are also utterly dependent upon their shepherd to lead them to pastures, provide them with water, and protect them from danger.
Jesus as gate of the sheepfold, therefore, is where those who are vulnerable, weak, and helpless can get in. Jesus as gate is not about exclusion but welcoming all especially the least and the lost, the poor, deprived and oppressed. Jesus as gate is to give protection and comfort to the sheep who wish to belong and follow him.
Jesus as gate is not a gate for control and enslavement. We need not fear entering into this gate; we won’t get shot. Jesus is the gate where the sheep—we, the church—come in and go out and find pasture. The gospel passage ends with one of Jesus’ most beautiful statements: “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” Entering into the gate of Jesus is to live life to the full.
In order to enter into the gate who is Jesus, we need to embrace a relationship and bond where we are all sheep and Jesus is our shepherd. We need to live out this relationship as one of the hallmarks of our being an Easter people.
As a sheep, we are weak, helpless, and vulnerable and dependent on God and one another. Many times we wander off and get lost. Like sheep, we get easily frightened and become easily confused and we plunge blindly off a cliff following one after another. Like sheep, we, too, need a shepherd, we need someone to follow who will guide us to the true path towards fullness of life not someone who will lead us astray. Jesus is the true shepherd who has come that we may have life and have it to the full. He is the good shepherd who lay down His life for His sheep.
Being in the sheepfold of Jesus, however, does not mean that we become a passive sheep. It also calls us to participate in the ‘shepherdness’ of Jesus. We are called to shepherd one another, to search for the lost and the lonely, to care for the most abandoned, to protect the vulnerable and to defend the poor and the oppressed.
Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium, calls out the religious and clergy to go out of the comforts of their convents and stay close to the marginalized and become “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.” The call to be a shepherd, however, is not just a call for the ordained and religious. It is a call for all the flock—we, the church, lay and ordained—are called to shepherd one another and have the smell of each other’s ‘sheepness’.
Come, let us enter into the gate to fullness of life!
The shrine joins the whole world in celebrating Labor day today. As we celebrate International Workers’ Day or Labor Day, the church honors St. Joseph the worker. St. Joseph adopted Jesus, the son of God as his own beloved son, and taught him how to be a man–a human being and a Jew–how to walk the earth with us.
To the people of Nazareth, Jesus was known as the son of a laborer, the son of the carpenter. Yes, God’s Son was born in a workman’s family. He learned the trade from Saint Joseph and spent his early adult years working side-by-side in Joseph’s carpentry shop before leaving to pursue his ministry as preacher and healer.
The first reading for the liturgy of today’s feast recounts the old Jewish myth of creation–in which God himself is seen as a worker, crafting the Universe in six days. God gave us–-the human race–-the power to be stewards of God’s creation. This means that we too are to work to fulfil the potential of God creation.
As the Apostle Paul, a tentmaker says, we are all called to be God’s co-workers. We are all called to be co-creators, using our God given dominion to do God’s work making this world more like heaven, and (now that Christ is ascended back to the Father) being Christ’s Body, doing his work on earth.
Thus, on this Feast of St Joseph the Worker, we acknowledge the importance of work in our lives. Our church has always asserted the right to hold a productive and rewarding job as a fundamental human right. Each breadwinner should be able to supply the needs of his family from the earnings of a meaningful job. As St. John Paul II asserted in Laborem Exercens,
The workers’ rights cannot be doomed to be the mere result of economic systems aimed at maximum profits. The thing which must shape the whole economy is respect for the workers’ rights within each country and all through the world’s economy. (Pope John Paul II, On Human Work, 1981, n. 17).
The shrine joins the whole world in giving honor to all the workers. The shrine has continuously upheld the dignity of labor and supported the cause of the workers from just wages to job security. Every Wednesday in the novena, devotees pray for workers and the dignity of work:
That we may proclaim the dignity of work by doing our own work conscientiously, LOVING MOTHER PRAY FOR US. That we may work for the just distribution of this world’s goods, LOVING MOTHER PRAY FOR US.
St. Joseph, pray for all our workers, that they may fulfill their dignity as co-workers in God’s creation. Pray also for us in this time of pandemic especially those who are sick and suffering gravely because of covid-19.
Today’s gospel is my favorite resurrection story in the New Testament. It is a beautiful story full of symbolism and overflowing with meaning.
The gospel story is the story of the risen Jesus’ appearance to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. One of the disciples is named Cleopas while his companion remains unnamed. Emmaus is roughly 10 to 12 km from Jerusalem.
The name Emmaus is derived from the Hebrew form hamma or hammat (חמת) which means “warm spring.” Emmaus may have been a spa or a resort place; it would be fair to say, the Las Vegas or Pansol in those days. Why are these two disciples going to Emmaus on the afternoon of the day when they were supposed to celebrate because Jesus resurrected? As we can glean from the gospel, they were walking away from the hurt and humiliation in Jerusalem and going to a place which could take the pain away or at least distract them from it.
In other words, the journey to Emmaus was a walking away from Jerusalem which was supposed to be the fulfilment of their dream but has been shattered by the shame and humiliation of the cross. When they entered Jerusalem together with Jesus, they were hoping that Jesus will sit in glory like the kings and emperors. As it turns out, Jesus was an epic failure, dying in the most shameful way. This is too hard to take; feeling dejected, they walked away. Unknown to them, Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, as he promised.
Despite the two disciples walking away from the resurrection, the Risen Jesus walks with them as a fellow-traveller. Despite that the disciples betrayed, abandoned, and denied him during the time that he needed them most—in his hour of passion, suffering and death; despite not believing in his words that he will rise up again, Jesus walks and accompanied them in their doubts and frustrations as they walk out of the resurrection.
But why on earth did they not recognize Jesus in spite that Jesus walks side-by-side with them? It is utterly ridiculous not to recognize Jesus whom they have ardently followed and recognized as their Master for the past three years.
We can only conjecture two reasons. First, the humiliation and pain of unfulfilled expectation were so heavy that in spite of Jesus walking with them side by side, their eyes was closed even to the people around them. Second, perhaps they did not recognize Jesus because the appearance of the resurrected body of Jesus might have been different from the earthly body of Jesus they have followed and interacted with before.
It was on the road that Jesus had to explain to them once again why he had to go through his suffering in order to fulfill the promises that God had told the prophets. The messiah has to go through suffering and death but attains glory and emerge victorious from death in the end. This is a powerful symbol of discipleship–Jesus and the two disciples walking, following and listening to Jesus who is the way.
The story of Emmaus represents the deepest truth of our lives. We have experienced many times in our lives walking away from failures and disillusionments – not recognized for the true worth of our efforts, not getting the job we wanted, not being loved by the one whom we love, not achieving our goals, etc. On the other hand, these experiences have taught us great lessons about life and have made us a stronger and better person.
But the gospel story today points us to the biggest fundamental walking away that we need to hurdle in life – the walking away from following Jesus’ passion, death up to the resurrection in Jerusalem. We can never understand the core meaning of our lives unless we learned not to walk away from our own death and resurrection. The core meaning of life as Jesus showed us is giving up life. Not giving up on life but dying to one’s life. In other words, the core meaning of life, the reason why Jesus gave his life for us on the cross, is love.
The redemption of the story is that the two disciples returned to Jerusalem to announce the good news and never to walk away again from the life-giving vocation that Jesus did in Jerusalem.
But this realization happened to the two disciples not without the Eucharist. The story of Emmaus is also the story of the Eucharist. Eucharist is the celebration of Easter. It is the celebration of the Risen Lord walking with us through life’s journey even if we walk away from resurrection.
In the Eucharist we who are followers on the road gather together and encounter Jesus. First, in the Liturgy of the Word as the Scriptures are broken open and explained, and, second, in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, where what Jesus did for us through his suffering, death and resurrection is remembered with thanksgiving and the bread that is now his Body and the wine that is now his Blood, is shared among those who are the Members of that Body to strengthen their union and their commitment to continuing the work of Jesus.
Today, April 22nd we celebrate earth day. Earth Day is an annual event celebrated worldwide to honor our common planet we call earth and to highlight our role as stewards of mother nature.
After more than a month of lockdown due to the pandemic, earth and mother nature is thriving once again. The absence of human incursion and industrial activity have provided a wondrous time for mother nature to heal and to rest. Air is clean more than ever. Dolphins have swam back into the canals of Venice. Wildlife is venturing out into the streets again. Animals and birds must surely be asking themselves what’s changed, where have we gone?
The lockdown also gave the opportunity for us humans to take a stock of our relationship with mother nature in the context of the pandemic. Would have our continuous incursion into the environment contributed to the genesis of the virus? A number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19 to arise. Disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie, an associate professor in Emory University’s department of environmental sciences says,
“Major landscape changes are causing animals to lose habitats, which means species become crowded together and also come into greater contact with humans. Species that survive change are now moving and mixing with different animals and with humans.”
The covid-19 pandemic have, more than ever, highlighted the increasingly visible connections between the wellbeing of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems. One of the biggest challenges of the pandemic is how to re-think our attitudes to and reshape our relations with Nature–God’s Creation. The pandemic calls for radical, not just cosmetic, changes to our values and lifestyle with regards to the earth and mother nature.
The Baclaran shrine joins the whole world every year in celebrating earth day. The shrine takes part in several activities worldwide like turning off non-essential electric lights, for one hour, usually from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. On some years, the shrine organizes a tree planting or clean-up drive.
Caring for creation is an important part of the programs and values of the shrine. This is first of all reflected in the immediate environment around the shrine.
When the Redemptorist settled at Baclaran in 1932, the place was a big grassland near the sea shore. Throughout the years, Redemptorists who were assigned to Baclaran planted their favorite trees. Amongst the many species of trees planted in the surroundings were Mahogany, Nymph Tree, Golden Shower, Narra, molave, fire tree, butterfly and mefacasia.
Today, the shrine compound is a lush area full of trees. The desolation and the emptiness of Baclaran’s early days have been replaced by verdant trees giving shade to the devotees. Both Church and convent are no longer located on grassland near the seashore but on a mini-forest. The shrine and its surroundings serve as an oasis in the city. In fact, it is the only green place in the whole of the densely populated highly urbanized Baclaran.
Many devotees appreciate the natural surroundings of the shrine like Kris Vente Tagayon, who wrote in August 29, 2017,
Nice place to visit where you can light candles and reflect and take pictures in the walkway, and even if it’s crowded, it’s so refreshing outside the church because of the trees surrounding it. It’s my first time to come here.
Likewise Liezel Besuña, writes in January 7, 2018, “I love so much Baclaran church … It’s so beautiful here, the air is cool … adorable…”
Many sit and gather under the trees relaxing and chatting with each other after the novena and mass. The green surroundings provide respite and peace especially for the worried and burdened devotees like Raine Zetolemrac, who wrote in May 22, 2017: “Its ambiance melts my weariness. For me … this is the best place to rest.”
The various hardwood and fruit trees around the shrine provide sanctuary not just for humans but also for many birds, insects and other animals. Just recently new appearances of wildlife were sighted in the trees—squirrels, a migratory bird and a Philippine hawk (Lawin). Nobody knows how the squirrels (sometimes seen as two, other times alone) got inside the shrine grounds. We assumed that someone let loose these exotic animals in the shrine compound thinking that squirrels will be better off running free in the shrine compound rather than confined in cages. The squirrels are very shy though; they spend most of the time hiding in the trees. Occasionally, however, one can see them hopping on tree branches.
In November 2016, a migratory bird called Narcissus Flycatcher from China was spotted on the trees of the shrine compound. The word spread fast and in no time, many bird photographers and researchers flocked to Baclaran and spent almost a week photographing the special visitor. The narcissus flycatcher (Ficedula narcissina) is a passerine bird in the Old World flycatcher family. It is native to East Asia, from Sakhalin to the north, through Japan across through Korea, mainland China, and Taiwan, wintering in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines and Borneo. It is highly migratory. The bird watchers surmised that the birds chose to stay at the shrine because they found lots of food in the many trees of the compound.
The shrine has implemented several ecological programs through the years. The shrine, for example, has long been converting its biodegradable waste like food waste, paper waste, dry leaves and twigs into compost. The compost is used to fertilize the flowers and other plants in the shrine compound.
The shrine has been practicing waste segregation since the 90s. Three separate bins are scattered all around the shrine where devotees can throw their trash. Announcements in every novena and masses enjoin the devotees to throw their trash in the proper bins. The first bin is for organics like food scraps: fruit, vegetable, meat, bread, pasta, rice, garden waste: grass clippings, leaves, flowers, weeds, twigs, small branches, soiled paper and cardboard and small timber off-cuts. Everything that goes into this bin gets must be able to decompose and thus, goes to the compost. The second bin is for recyclable materials like milk and juice containers, paper and cardboard, glass and crockery, plastic containers, plastic bags and soft plastics, aluminum cans, clean foil, steel cans, aerosol spray cans and dry paint tins, hard plastics such as children’s toys and plastic tableware, small plastics such as bread tags and straws bagged. The third bin is for mixed rubbish items that cannot be composted or recycled like small plate glass, disposable nappies, scrap metal, pet droppings in a plastic bag and others.
Care for the environment is also integrated in the liturgy of the shrine. On October 4th, 2005, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, a blessing of animals was held for the first time in the shrine. This began a yearly tradition in the shrine. Every year on 4th of October, except when it falls on a Sunday, devotees bring their pets—dogs, cats, hamsters, birds, turtles and other animal pets—for the blessing of animals.
Since 2014, the shrine has been observing the Season of creation. The season of Creation is celebrated during the four Sundays of September that precede the feast of St Francis of Assisi on the 4th of October. The season of Creation incorporates into the liturgy, prayers and visual elements celebrating God’s creation.
Promotion of the integrity of creation is also incorporated in the novena. In the latest version of the novena—the 2016 Jubilee edition of the novena—one petition to Our Mother of Perpetual was added for the care of creation:
That we may care and protect God’s creation, Loving Mother pray for us.
In 2015, the Redemptorist community began a project called greening of the shrine. The first step undertaken along this project is the banning of smoking within the shrine compound. The project also involved using recycled materials for the beautification of the garden and wall art.
The community also initiated vertical gardening on some of the fences of the shrine. This was aimed at showing that growing vegetables even in the city is feasible, and consequently, encourage the devotees to grow their own vegetables right in their own backyard. The shrine also conducted seminars on Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on caring for creation, and some concrete ways to care for the environment like waste management and urban gardening.
Another project in line with the greening of the shrine was the installation of solar panels in the shrine and convent in 2016. The shrine and the convent now use free electricity from the sun during the day and revert to MERALCO at night. The shrine has the highest number of solar panels among all the churches in the Philippines. There is also a plan for a water harvesting system which will harness rain water.
Caring for the environment is not just practiced within the shrine. Every year the shrine volunteers and devotees participate in the beach cleanup activity in the nearby Manila bay. The event is part of the International Coastal Cleanup Day, the world’s largest annual preservation and protection event and volunteer effort for beaches and waterways. It is celebrated annually on the third Saturday in September since its inception in 1986.