The Shrine and Migration

migrants

On my way to Heaven,
Where I shall see you,
Your beloved image accompanies me
on my earthly journey
to be my Perpetual Help.
– St. Therese of Lisieux 

One of the most popular petitions that devotees bring to Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Baclaran is to go abroad or get a job abroad. Martin Vente Quidet, one of the thousands devotees who were able to work abroad, thank Our Mother of Perpetual Help in November 21, 2017: ·

Before I report to the office where I am applying as a seafarer, I always drop by at your shrine to pray that hopefully I can get onboard the ship. You heard my prayer.  Now I will finally get onboard the ship. Thank you Lord, you did not abandon me.

Through these years, millions of Filipinos have worked abroad and migrated to other countries, despite the risks and vulnerabilities they are likely to face. They accept all the risks in exchange of the prospect of a much higher income and the promise of better future for their family. Melissa Gangoso-Subito’s thanksgiving letter is one of the thousands of success stories of migrating to other countries. Melissa, in April 13, 2016, expressed gratitude to Our Mother of Perpetual Help that their petition to go abroad was answered

I am an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) from Dubai (from 2005 to 2012), my husband is also an OFW in Canada (from 2008 up to the present) and my children are in the Philippines. Though I gave up, I am so grateful because Our Mother of Perpetual Help never gave up on me. And I am really full of thanks that she has answered my MOST URGENT PRAYER, June 12, 2014, our family is whole again. We are presently residing in Canada and she has blessed me with our own home. I could say that I am contented and complete in life because of the never failing help of Our Mother. Thank you Our Mother of Perpetual Help, thank you.

After receiving their wish to work abroad, many OFW go to the shrine either before they leave or after they arrive from abroad.  The proximity of the shrine to the airport made this practice possible. On any given day, one could see people with their luggage coming in and out of the shrine. Many OFW have told me that the very last thing they do before they leave the country for abroad is to visit the shrine to give thanks and ask the prayers of Our Mother of Perpetual Help for protection and guidance in their work abroad. Like Nallimnarom Anne Yerrhc, an overseas Filipino worker, writing in September 11, 2016, on the day she was about to leave for abroad: “[A] miracle I’m here before my flight to Kuwait. Thanks, my petition to her has come true.” And when they arrived back in the Philippines, the very first thing they do is to visit the shrine to give thanks to Our Mother of Perpetual Help for the safe travel and protection in their work abroad.

When they go abroad, OFW bring along with them their devotion and practice this devotion to the country of their work or migration. Their devotion becomes a great source of strength in their life and work abroad. Even if they are now in a foreign country they continue their devotion through the novena. Despite the obstacles and risks of practicing devotion in a foreign country especially in non-Christian countries where religious expression is banned, Filipino devotees find ways to practice their devotion.

The newspaper Philippine Star, for example, reports about Ricky a Filipino waiter who has been working in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for twenty-one years. He lights candles in honor of Our Mother of Perpetual Help every Wednesday. But Ricky has to keep his devotion in private, knowing fully well that non-Muslims like him cannot openly display their religious beliefs in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. “They have the right (to impose that law). That is their culture. But we also have the right to practice privately,” he said.[1]

Many overseas Filipinos are surprised and saddened to find that Marian devotion is non-existent especially in Christian countries in North America and Europe. They feel that something is missing in the services of the parishes abroad if there is no novena. They feel a little nostalgia if there is no novena as the devotion has become part of their identity. Fr. Bernabe Sison, for example, works in a parish in the New York area with hardly any Filipino church goers. When he introduced the Perpetual Help Novena, Filipinos from other parishes started coming regularly every Wednesday! Because of this, other parishes followed suit.[2]

When there is no novena in the parishes where they live, many Filipinos take the initiative of starting a novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. At the beginning of the novena, Filipinos were mainly the ones attending the novena, but soon after, other nationalities come and join the novena. The novena reminds them and connects them with their Filipino culture and identity. Even if they are living pretty well off in Western countries, they continue to have devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. True to their identity as pueblo amante de maria, Filipinos regularly pray the novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help, write letter to Our Mother of Perpetual Help, and say the rosary.

In Rome, where the original icon is enshrined, the Perpetual Novena was not worth mentioning until several years ago when migrant Filipinos began to hold a weekly novena on Sundays and Thursday afternoons. On Sundays, the Mass is preceded with a novena for those who cannot come during the week due to their work. The other day for the novena is Thursday because that is the day when domestic helpers have a half day off. And since the novena is said in English, it attracts people of other nationalities including Indians, Sri Lankans, Irish, Americans, etc. Lately, Perpetual Novena sessions have been started also in Italian on Tuesdays and in Polish on Wednesdays.[3]

But sometimes even if there is a novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help in the parish, some Filipinos do not show much interest if the format is not the one they got used to praying in Baclaran. According to a Redemptorist who studied in Chicago, a Filipino group there did not feel at home with the format of the novena in the Redemptorist church so they looked for another church where they could have it following the Baclaran format.[4]

Through their devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help, Filipino overseas countrymen and women were able to contribute to the building up of the church in foreign countries.  OFW’s are helping to add some signs of life to an otherwise dying parishes. In many instances, they are filling up churches, contributing to the church collections, actively serving in the different ministries of the church.  In some parishes in Canada and the U.S., the Filipinos have become the mainstay of their local parish or have helped to start a parish. The Filipino’s contribution to the sustenance of Christian faith confirms Philip Jenkins’ observation that world religions continue to thrive in Western societies today because of the immigrants who flock to these countries.  Jenkins even points to a resurgence of Christianity, thanks to the migrants from Africa, Asia and Latin America.[5]

The efforts of OFW’s are a witness value that in the midst of a secular and industrialized society, faith matters.  This also shows the special missionary contribution of Filipino devotees in secular countries. If Filipinos are sent on mission, their special gift in mission will be their love for Mary, particularly Our Mother of Perpetual Help.

mass-for-migrants

The Risks of Migration

Migration is an issue that devotees have grappled with ever since the beginning of the novena. Because of the massive unemployment, abject poverty and cheap labor in the Philippines, many Filipinos sought greener pasture outside of the country.  Many devotees have migrated to other countries mainly for economic reasons. Consequently, a “culture of migration” has emerged. This culture of migration regards those whose families were able to work abroad as economically advantaged in life. This culture has also strengthened the colonial mentality of Filipinos–seeing anything foreign especially first world countries as inherently superior to their own.

Sometimes, they have been misunderstood for leaving our country and draining our country of talents and skills. Many, however, have to give up their professions back home just to find work to the extent that doctors have become nurses, teachers have become domestic helpers, and engineers have become laborers.  While we have Filipinos working in prominent positions as doctors, engineers, computer programmers, consultants, artists, nurses, etc., the majority take on odd jobs where no American or European would take like, nannies, caregivers, house cleaners, domestic helpers, etc.

They made a lot of sacrifices in working abroad just for the sake of alleviating their families back home from poverty.  The money they sent back home not only help their families but greatly contribute to the economy of our country.  Indeed, they are the biggest contributor to the gross domestic product of our country. Even in the economy of first world countries, around the world where they work, their contribution cannot be underestimated.

In 2013, the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO) estimated that approximately 10.2 million people of Filipino descent lived or worked abroad.[6] This is roughly 10% of the total Philippines population. Thus, in any country of the world, chances are, one can find a Filipino diaspora.[7]

Not all OFW’s have happy endings.  There are many OFW’s who have tales of woes and tragedy to tell.  Migrant workers pay a steep price for working abroad. The biggest collateral damage of migration are the one inflicted on the moral fibers and the integrity of marriages and families. The biggest price is the spouse and children migrant workers had to leave behind. Mass migration of Filipinos abroad have left many families broken, given rise to cases of infidelity, adultery, absentee parents, and drug addiction among youngsters. Family structures have changed with many of the children end up having to live with a single parent. Others are left under the care of their immediate relatives. There are also others who have to be in charge of their siblings at a very young age. Indeed, it is heartbreaking to see families gain financially but are torn apart in the end.

Thus, despite all the benefits and comforts they have enjoyed in foreign countries most OFW’s say that they are still happier to live in our own country despite all the hardships.  They all dream that someday they will no longer have to go abroad in order to work because the work and descent life that they sought in other countries can now be found  in our country.

Many devotees have brought these issues and concerns while praying the novena at the shrine. They also brought their pains and struggles due to the migration of their families in the confessional. In response to this grave need, the Shrine community established the St. John Neumann Center for Migrants. St. John Neumann was a Redemptorist saint who was a migrant to the United States from Bohemia, Germany during the nineteenth century.

migrant_center

St. John Neumann Center for Migrants

The growing number of petitions and thanksgiving letters received from migrants, OFWs and their families, and the pastoral concerns brought about by the social costs of overseas work to family life became the strong impetus for the Shrine to address not only the spiritual but also the various needs of the migrant families. In 2010, a group composed of professed Redemptorists, staff and volunteers of St. Gerard Family Life Center discerned and conceptualized an initial program that resulted in the institutionalization of the Mass for Migrants and OFWs every last Friday of the month. The mass was usually followed by venues where OFWs and their families gathered like fellowships and awareness building activities. In the following months, not only the attendance during the various activities grew but also the number of volunteers who would like to serve the migrants. An MPS Sister was recruited to train volunteers and coordinate the activities.

To further strengthen the services of the program based on the needs gathered from the fellowships, the staff and volunteers began attending seminars and forums on migration and development, and building networks with Church and government agencies. This paved the way for the formation of a Core Group that planned and implemented the initial programs and services.

In November 2011, the St. John Neumann Migrants Center was formally opened. As a Center of refuge for migrants, it seeks to build a culture of hospitality and volunteerism that will lead to solidarity and community building across borders.

The vision of the SJNMC is that  “Migrant families that emulate the virtues of the Holy Family (Madasalin, Pag-asa sa Kagandahang-Loob ng Diyos, Paglilingkod).”  The mission of the SJNMC is to facilitate the growth of the “laging saklolo” spirituality among its staff, volunteers, clients, and partners

To realize this, the SJNMC aims to:

  1. Strengthen family values and relationships.
  2. Build communities among families of migrants.
  3. Address the social costs of migration.
  4. Develop volunteerism.

The primary clients of the program are the OFWs and their families; victims of illegal recruitment and human trafficking; and itinerant people or “people on the move” because of calamities and militarization.

The efforts of the shrine towards migrants reflects the call of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People document, The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God, to open shrines to the other,

In the shrine, we learn to open our heart to everyone, in particular to those who are different from us: the guest, the stranger, the immigrant, the refugee, those of other religions, non-believers. In this way the shrine does not only exist as the setting for an experience of Church, but also becomes a gathering-place open to all humanity.[8]

Contemplatio: Looking through the Icon:

The story of the icon is also a story of migration. From its original writing in Crete, a number of lay agents brought it to Rome. And from Rome it spread to many countries all over the world.  In this journey, we saw how the Icon was enriched by the diverse cultures and traditions of each local country. On the other hand, we saw how the Icon challenged and enriched the local culture and religiosity of each country that it encountered. The journey of the icon from east to west to east is the story of an eastern icon who made her home in the Philippines, in the hearts and loving embrace of the Filipinos. As Fiore beautifully explains,

[The Icon] was created at an intersection of cultures, artistic traditions and spiritualities. It was created by collecting a theological heritage that preceded it, and treasuring it. This is not only a wonderful gift that has been made: it is also a sign of a new world, today’s global world where one in seven people lives outside his/her place of origin; a world where cultures meet, spiritualities compete, and we are left wondering what to do with the faith we have received as an inheritance. It is a world where Christ asks only that we emanate the abundance of his redemption.[9]

In this light, the Icon is an icon of the promised land that we so long to experience in this world. It foreshadows the time when all human beings will reach their true homeland. All will be gathered as one despite all the perceived differences today. It symbolizes a common future when all nations will celebrate and experience peace and harmony under God’s sovereignty. Mary Our Mother of Perpetual Help will be a special star guiding peoples into this journey towards our true homeland.

The icon expresses our journey towards our ultimate new belonging. Mobility as feature of the present society shows that we are always on a journey in this world. The icon reminds us that life is a pilgrimage, we are temporary residents in this world. We are pilgrims or migrants in this world as our true permanent residency, is in the promised home where the saints now resides with God. The star on Mary’s in the icon symbolized Mary as guide and model in this pilgrimage of life.

For years, through the icon, Mary saw and felt the struggles and suffering of the devotees as a consequence of migration. Contemplating the icon throughout these years, the devotees learned the value of  compassion for those gravely affected by migration.

Missio: Following Jesus with Mary

The holy family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus were also refugees once. We read in St. Matthew’s gospel:

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’ (Matthew 2.13-15)

As refugees, they knew the pains and anxieties as well as the hopes and aspirations of a refugee. The struggles and aspirations of being a refugee helped form and strengthened the characters of the holy family. This also exposed the holy family to the perils and difficulties of a system which utilizes power and domination against the weak and the poor manifested by Herod’s clinging to power in partnership with imperialist Rome’s colonization of the Jewish people. This experience will also influence profoundly the mission of Jesus inasmuch as during his public ministry he took the side of the poor and condemn heavily the rich and powerful.

Mary’s life on earth was a pilgrimage and migration towards her true self and ultimate destiny. From her conception, her services as a temple girl, her annunciation, her motherhood of Jesus, her discipleship of Jesus up to her assumption, Mary was blessed by God’s grace to experience the fullness of life. Mary understood her life as a journey from here on earth towards our true home with God–a new heaven and a new earth.

Call to Action:

Devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help can be enriched by sharing our devotion not just locally but also internationally. At the same time, our devotion can be enriched by the culture and diversity of a pluralistic and multicultural world today. This calls for retrieving hospitality as a wonderful Filipino trait. Living out hospitality demands that we welcome the stranger and refugees in our communities.

We can volunteer at our center for migrant workers the St. John Neumann Center where we can share our time and talents in reaching out to families in distress and at risk because of migration.

Joey Echano

(This article is an excerpt from the book Mary of Baclaran: Our Mother of Perpetual Help and Mission Today by Joey Echano, soon to be published)


 

[1] Alexis Romero, For Filipino Catholics in Saudi Arabia, church is in the heart, philstar.com, April 12, 2017, http://www.philstar.com/news-feature/2017/04/12/1690192/filipino-catholics-saudi-arabia-church-heart

[2] http://www.baclaranchurch.org/ofw.html

[3]Hechanova, Baclaran Story.

[4] Hechanova, Baclaran Story.

[5] Philip Jenkins, Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2011).

[6] “Stock Estimate of Filipinos Overseas As of December 2013” (PDF). Philippine Overseas Employment Administration. Retrieved 2015-09-19.

[7] A diaspora (from Greek διασπορά, “scattering, dispersion”) is a scattered population whose origin lies within a smaller geographic locale. Diaspora can also refer to the movement of the population from its original homeland. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diaspora#cite_note-webster-2

[8] The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God, Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

[9] Fiore, The spiritual, pastoral and missionary message of the Icon, 22.