Fr. Pete Robb: Missionary Among the Dumagats

Today is the 9th anniversary of the passing over to eternity of Fr. Pete Robb, CSsR, Redemptorist missionary who was assigned in Baclaran for many years. But he will be remembered most for his missionary stint among the tribal people–the Dumagats.

robb04

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of  those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52: 7)

Fr. Peter Robb, CSsR was a Redemptorist missionary who went to the mountains to preach about God but discovered instead that God was there even before he arrived.

He was ordained a Redemptorist priest on 7th September 1947 in Australia. He came to the Philippines in the second half of 1950. 

He was a man of great stature and story.  And the last to pass of his generation of Australian and New Zealander Redemptorists in the Philippines.  He played many roles in the congregation, but his mission to the mountain people was remarkable in apostolic boldness.  He himself would always say,

“The most enriching period of my life was the 15 years I spent in the mountains with tribal Filipinos.”

P1010030

How did it all started? He did not look for the tribal people.  The tribal people found him. Or shall we say, it was divine providence.

In 1973, he had a severe attack of typhoid fever and was hospitalised in San Juan de Dios Hospital, near Baclaran, Manila. A Philippine bishop and a good friend paid him a visit and asked him if he could minister to a community of 150 families who had resettled in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains. These families were formerly squatters around the Manila Cathedral for many years. And the pope was coming, Pope Paul VI and he must not see this, this mess around the cathedral. So they remove them by force, army trucks and dumped them in the foothills of Sierra Madre in Moltalban, Rizal.

So after his recovery, Peter Robb went to these families in three villages.  He spent three months there, preaching a bit and encouraging them. One bright morning, 5 men in g-string appeared.  He chatted with them in broken Tagalog on their part and also on him. “Where do you come from?” He asked. They gave a nod of the head with a movement of the eyebrows towards the mountains. Then one of them gave the Gospel invitation: “Come and see”. That’s how his mission in the mountain began.

Two days later, Peter Robb was with the 5 Dumagat trekking the mountains.  It did take him almost four hours, climbing steep tropical mountains and down to the rivers. They told him: “Halik tuhod ‘yong bundok”, which means: “You kiss your knee while you climb.” It was a good novitiate for the years to come. On arriving at a community of about 15 lean-tos for homes, the kids all fled to the surrounding forest.  “Kapre”, they shouted, referring to a giant of lore who perched atop a tree at night smoking a cigar and preying upon hapless passers-by.

He spent two days with them, ate their diet of carbohydrate roots from the mountains and the tender tips of different plants (Mga talbos). He fished with the men on the rivers, catching prawns and eels. After the simple evening meal, they gathered around the fire. They all bedded down together; men on one side, women on the other, and children all over the place. The dogs were also with them. There was no light of any kind except for the fire. The night was dark. The log caught fire. He could see it in the eyes of all intently looking at the fire. “The fire of the Holy Spirit was in our midst,” he would say. Conversation was very quiet and sporadic. This became the pattern of his life for 12 years.

robb01

He described his mission in the mountain in three stages:

From 1974 – 1978, the first four years he called this his education; living with the Dumagat, old time missionary, preaching at them.  Gradually, he realised the paternalism of this approach. He said: “It was condescending. I had everything to give and they had nothing. It was creating situations of dependence. No true personal relationships were established. I was a slow learner.”

Yet he felt something was missing.  During a five month holiday in Australia in 1979, he reflected on what it might be.  “The tribals listened to me but it was one way traffic,” he concludes. “He was the good, white Father with all kind of goodies.  It was a demeaning attitude. He had everything and they had nothing.”

On his return to the Philippines, Fr. Robb asked his superior for permission to live indefinitely with the tribals.  “No exceptions,” he says. This is the second stage of his mountain mission—from 1979-1981—which he called the stage of immersion, sharing and being ONE with them.

robb02

For 18 months he lived with the tribals, shared life and hardships, asked for no exceptions, worked with them, ate their simple diet of root-crops, slept together around the fire at night, made himself dependent on them, tried to show that they were equals, and to some extent captured their values, attitudes and rhythm of life. Any talk of ‘belief’ was useless. It didn’t register. But when any hint of “experience” of his ‘Makedypat’ (or God) came up, He could share with them his experience of his ‘Makedypat’. He supposes He was a sort of “commodity” to be shared. That was evangelisation.

The third stage from 1981-1989, he called the stage of service as equal partners.  Tribals became subjects not objects of evangelisation. He recognised some important features of the tribal outlook on life and their way of life, learnt from experience and reflection. He suspects that many of his reflections here would apply to Australian Aborigines within the framework of their “Dreaming”. He speaks as one less wise!

He learned many things from the tribal Filipino but one of the most enduring things that he assimilated from them was their sort of mystical rhythm of life.  Peter Robb describes this rhythm: “To some extent, the tribals have assimilated the deepest core of life and things. Living with this interior harmony and rhythm of nature is a kind of secret prayer… Is not this interior harmony a secret prayer, a prefabricated liturgy hidden in the visible universe? Silently, it awaits the person of reflection and prayer to capture, disengage and make it known in all its splendours.”

In his own unique way, Peter Robb lived this contemplative rhythm of life.  He was an apostle of the ministry of presence. He gives full attention to the other.  This is perhaps the reason why his memory is amazing. He gives personal attention to people.  And this is why he demands the same attention from others especially when he tells his stories.  Unfortunately, perhaps we are of lesser mortals than him in this regard.

A tragic experience happened when two of his women leaders both social workers in the mission were killed by the military and declared communist guerrillas afterwards, their bodies dumped into watermelon patch, completely naked, no IDs of any kind. They exhumed the bodies from the shallow grave–mutilated by bullet wounds and badly decomposed. It was shattering, absolutely shattering for him.

He was an angry man after that and it seemed to increase. He had become a victim of the atrocity. It would be foolish to return to the mountains, he said. The problem was solved by joining the Trappists on the island of Guimaras, near Iloilo, 500 kilometres south of Manila. For over three weeks, the monks took him into their community of prayer and work, rising at 2.15am each day. The hurt was healed, but he can’t obliterate such a memory.

But not all experience in the mountain was tragic.  One funny experience was one Maundy Thursday, he decided to have a washing of the feet, going to great pains to explain again and again the significance of the ceremony. Some kind of expectancy was aroused. Four men and four women were seated on a bench in the outdoor meeting place. An old tin basin of sorts was provided and he proceeded to wash and kiss each foot. When he finished, the basin was half full of very muddy water. He might have known that the only time they washed their feet was when they waded through streams.

It was not fire and brimstone sermons that impressed in the memory of the tribal people when he left. He saved the lives of many, including diarrhea-stricken children threatened with dehydration. (He told their parents to give them boiled water to replace lost fluids).  He obtained medicine for lepers and drove the gravely ill to Tanay or Manila. He raised 10,000 pesos to buy a village water buffalo and worked hard to organize a rattan cooperative to boost tribal incomes (it failed on government red tape and the opposition of middlemen who controlled the trade).  And of course, the meaningful masses, baptisms, marriages and other sacraments that he presided over.

robb03

Fr. Robb cared for people body and soul—sometimes at his own risk.  He vigorously championed local needs and rights, drawing the ire of powerful interests.  The national waterworks agency wanted him to convince people to drop their opposition to a massive dam project in eastern Luzon called Kaliwa-Kanan (“left-right”).  Concerned about communist rebels passing through, the military invited the missionary for questioning and kept him under surveillance.

By 1988, as much as he might have wanted to fight for his beloved tribals, the onset of painful arthritis in his knees forced him to leave the mountains.

But He brought back more.  He came to evangelize the tribals but he left being more evangelized by them.  His experience of God in the Makijapat of the tribals, strengthened and deepened his belief in our God.  He sought to bring faith to the tribals and discovered himself. This sort of spiritual transfiguration experience in the mountains did not leave him, he would talk about it over and over again.  It stayed with him until death.

Fr. Pete died in Melbourne on December 9,  2011.

Joey Echano

(This article is an excerpt from the book National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help: Tips, Trivia and Tribute by John Maguire, Joey Echano, et. al., soon to be published)

29TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: GIVE UNTO GOD ALL THAT BELONGS TO GOD

Every now and then in the shrine, we get reactions from some people when our homilies touched on social issues. Some react by saying that they went to the shrine to seek spiritual solace and peace, not to be disturbed by the ugly reality of the country or the world. Some say they came to the shrine to worship, not to become socially aware. Sometimes they invoked the legal concept of separation between church and state, misinterpreting it to mean that the church should not get involved with social issues because it is the domain of the state only (1). They say that the church’s only domain is the spiritual and religious like sacraments, prayers, Bible and doctrines. Sometimes they even quote today’s gospel text:

“Give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

Donald Senior, a prominent Biblical scholar, argues that interpreting this text as a basis for separation between church and state is taking the text too far. In short, it is a misinterpretation of the text. Furthermore, Jesus was regarded as a prophet, and prophets of Israel were always deeply involved in challenging kings, principalities and powers, and the political order, in the name of the higher authority of God. Jesus began his ministry by identifying himself with the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives…to let the oppressed go free.”

Like Christ, an essential part of our Christian faith is to be a prophet denouncing evil and corrupt ways even if this involves the government and other worldly powers.

But let us go back to the beginning of the gospel text. The pharisees and the Herodians (an unholy alliance) put forward the question to Jesus:

“Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”

By challenging Jesus on taxes, they hoped to alienate him either from the masses of oppressed Jewish people or from the Roman authorities. It was a case of “damn if you do, damn if you don’t.” If he said yes, he would look like an apologist for Rome in the eyes of the Jewish nationalists. If he said no he would make himself subject to arrest for violation of Roman law.

But Jesus saw the trap and he was not to be deceived to fall into their trap. Knowing their malice, Jesus said,

“Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?”

And Jesus gave a brilliant answer that turned the question in his favor. Jesus asked for a coin. To understand the significance of this request by Jesus, we need to retrieve Israel’s cultural context. When Jesus asked for the coin (and one is promptly produced), he exposed the hypocrisy of his questioners. For any Jew who was sensitive to the demands of the Mosaic Law would not be carrying a coin embossed with the image of an emperor, pictured as divine. For Jews, there is no power who has authority over them other than God. Therefore, any earthly power who tries to dominate, let alone tax on them, especially a foreign power, should not be followed.

Second, Jesus’ question about whose “image” the coin carries contains an allusion that most of us miss. If an image on something indicates authority and ownership, and Caesar’s image on the coin implies the dominion of the empire, then what is it that bears God’s image, indicating the ownership and dominion of God? Anyone, especially any Jew, knew that human beings are created in the image of God.

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Jesus’ statement was not just a clever dodge but a confrontation. By these words, Jesus makes it crystal clear that Caesar is not God, and that what’s really important are those things that are God’s, not some coins of foreign oppressors. The world is not divided between Caesar and God. All creation is, first of all, under God’s sovereignty, especially human beings, who as God’s image have a special role in stewarding the goods of creation. All world belongs to God. We are mere stewards or participants in God’s creation.

God, therefore, can use any power for God’s purposes even outside of God’s own people. In the first reading, Isaiah presents the voice of God referring to another head of empire, Cyrus the Great, as his “anointed one.” This pagan emperor of the Persians earns that title because he, albeit unknowingly, has become God’s instrument in the restoration of the exiled Judeans to their homeland. As in the action and words of Jesus in the Gospel, God’s role as Creator of all is very much in the picture.

Indeed, kings, emperors, presidents come and go, dynasties and ideologies rise and fall, but none of them remain till the end. The world belongs to no one, only to God.

Today, Catholic churches all over the world celebrate Mission Sunday. One of the common misunderstanding of Christian life is being one-dimensional. Being Catholic is only in the realm of spiritual and religious. Being Catholic is merely going to church, receiving the sacraments and obeying the ten commandments. If you have fulfilled these, then you have fulfilled your faith as an obligation. Thus, many of us Catholics are “Sunday Catholic,” giving to God maybe an hour per week at Mass and then getting on with life: work, food, television, cars, facebook, vices and money.

In his mission message, Pope Francis declares that mission is at the heart of the Christian faith. We are not just Catholics for one hour inside the church on Sundays but we are Catholics sent on a mission throughout the week to the whole world to share the good news of Jesus Christ. As Catholics sent on mission we are called to saturate the whole world with the gospel values of love, peace, mercy and justice.

In saturating the world with God’s values, there comes a time that what we owe to God can put us in conflict with the civil authority, for example, extra-judicial killing, policy decisions concerning poverty and environment, and conscientious objection to war. Of course we need to obey the laws of the land and respect civilian authority. But in these cases, will it be Caesar or God that we serve?


(1) The 1987 Constitution of the Philippines declares: The separation of Church and State shall be inviolable. (Article II, Section 6), and, No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed. No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights. (Article III, Section 5)

THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD: I WILL BE WITH YOU ALWAYS, UNTIL THE END OF TIMES

looking at the sky

 

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.”

MONDAY OF HOLY WEEK: MARY’S BEAUTIFUL ACT FEW DAYS BEFORE JESUS DIED

Mary-anoints-Jesus

In the gospel (John 21: 1 – 11) of today’s Monday of the Holy Week, Jesus, after his grand arrival in Jerusalem, withdrew from the crowd and spent Sunday night quietly in the house of his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus at Bethany, the village at the foot of Mount Olives. Jesus may have sensed his impending suffering and death and chose to spend the last moments of his life in companionship with his friends. Mary, Martha and Lazarus. The siblings gladly received Him in their house and offered Him and his disciples a special dinner. 

John 21: 2 says, “So they gave a dinner for him there.” We can interpret this as a celebration of the resurrection of Lazarus. Mary, Martha and Lazarus “gave” him this dinner. This is a thank you dinner to Jesus for raising Lazarus from the dead. This is not just an ordinary evening meal among friends. Its focus is on Jesus and his amazing power in raising Lazarus from the dead. And Lazarus is right there reclining at the table:  “Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table.”

Since this is a dinner to honor and thank Jesus for his gift of life, Mary will now make her presentation. Perhaps the whole family planned this moment. Perhaps they pooled their savings to buy this gift. Or perhaps it is a hugely valuable family heirloom that has been passed on for years, and now the time has come to pour it out.

Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil
made from genuine aromatic nard
and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair;
the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.

Martha’s role was to thank Jesus by seeing to the details of the dinner, and Mary’s role was to thank Jesus by pouring this expensive ointment out on Jesus. In both these ways they would express their wonder and joy and thanks for the greatness of Jesus and his grace and power to raise Lazarus from the dead.

But Judas speaks up with unbelievable disregard for what Mary has done. Verse 4:

Then Judas the Iscariot, one of his disciples,
and the one who would betray him, said,
“Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages
and given to the poor?”

If Judas wasn’t exaggerating, this eleven-ounce flask of nard was worth about $25,000 (three hundred twelve-hour days at minimum wage, a denarius was a simple, full day’s wage). Judas’s scheme of values was so deeply different from Mary and Martha and Lazarus’s that in a few days he would do the opposite of giving $25,000 for Jesus: he would sell him for a thousand dollars (thirty pieces of silver).

John tells us in verse 6 what is really in Judas’s heart:

He said this not because he cared about the poor
but because he was a thief and held the money bag
and used to steal the contributions.

Now Jesus responds to Judas to leave Mary alone.

“Leave her alone.
Let her keep this for the day of my burial.
You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Jesus appreciated the tremendous love behind Mary’s action and saw it as a symbolical anointing for his burial. Dying as a common criminal, Jesus would normally not have been anointed. (And, in fact, he was not anointed after his burial; when the women went to do the act on Sunday morning, Jesus was already risen.)

A few days later after this incident, Jesus will do the same loving service for his disciples, washing their feet before the last supper. Up to the very end of his life, Jesus, showed that we can find the greatest meaning of our lives through servanthood. The pinnacle of this servanthood is Jesus’ giving his own life on the cross.

What can we learn from this beautiful story as we enter Holy Week?

Holy week is the preparation for the resurrection of Jesus. The siblings Martha, Mary and Lazarus’ hearts were full of wonder, gratitude and joy for Jesus who raised Lazarus into new life. Their overflowing affection was demonstrated in their lavish offering of special dinner and Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet with a very expensive perfume. These days of Holy Week, indeed, is more of a celebration of the joy and wonder of Jesus’ resurrection inasmuch as it is a commeration of his passion and death.

But in order to fully participate in Jesus’ resurrection we need to pass through suffering and death with him. Jesus showed us what it means to suffer and die with him through a life of servanthood. He showed this not just on the cross but during the anointing and washing of disciples’ feet at the last supper. This was also demonstrated by Mary in today’s gospel when she anointed Jesus’ feet. Anointing has always been a symbol of being chosen and sent on a mission–a life of discipleship and service.

In commemoration of this beautiful experience in Jesus’ life, Catholic dioceses all over the world, gather together with all the priest and the bishop at a Mass called the Chrism Mass.  Obviously this cannot be done today in all the dioceses given the unfortunate circumstances of the lockdown.

During the Chrism Mass, the bishop consecrates the sacred oils to be used in the sacraments of Baptism, Anointing, and Holy Orders. Each parish receives its annual supply of these oils at the Chrism Mass, which in some dioceses is celebrated on the Monday of Holy Week. The chrism in these sacraments is a symbol of our participation in the paschal mystey of Jesus–his life, death and resurrection.

As we begin Holy Week, we are called to prepare and participate  in the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus.  We are not here this week just to be mere spectators. We are to be part of the work, which the Paschal Mystery of Jesus inaugurated.  Like Mary, we can be part of Jesus’ passing over from death to new life by becoming God’s servant. We, too, are to be servants, ready, if necessary, to suffer as Jesus did for the sake of our brothers and sisters.

6th Simbang Gabi: Mary as God-Bearer, the first Missionary

The Visitation, James B. Janknegt, 2008
The Visitation, James B. Janknegt, 2008

We are now on our 6th Simbang Gabi or, as I call it, Christmas academy.

I hope our reflections in this Christmas academy continue to deepen your understanding of the original meaning of the Christmas story–the incarnation of Jesus.

We continue the gospel reading from Luke from yesterday’s text. As soon as the Archangel departed from Nazareth, Mary was no longer the same woman as before. She was radically transformed. The first thing that the newly transformed Mary did was to embark on a journey, to go on a mission.  The annunciation experience was too great to bear alone. She couldnt pass on this event not to share the good news. This life-changing event also inspired Mary to serve and be available for her elderly cousin, Elizabeth who despite her old age, was pregnant, likewise, through the grace of God.

The Angel didn’t command Mary to go to help her cousin Elizabeth. He didn’t even suggest that it would be a good thing for her to go. He just stated the fact that Elizabeth was pregnant and that was enough for Mary to spring into action.

Most of us take for granted that the journey Mary took to reach Elizabeth was a long and arduous journey. Many of us only focus on the spiritual side of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth but fail to appreciate the equally significant physical dimension of the visit. Mary’s journey to visit Elizabeth covered a distance of between 128 and 160 kilometers. She took off from Nazareth, a Galilean city west of the Sea of Galilee and travelled to Ein Karem, the Judean village where Elizabeth and Zechariah lived. In Mary’s day, a person traveling by foot could cover about 32 kilometers per day. If Mary walked to Elizabeth’s home, it would have taken her four to five days straight. If she accompanied a caravan, she would have arrived in about three days. Luke does not mention whether Mary may have gone on foot or as part of a caravan. We don’t know if she traveled alone or whether St. Joseph accompanied her, or SS. Anne or Joachim.

map-journey-visitation

In any case, such a journey would have been dangerous, especially for a young girl alone. By embarking on this journey, Mary demonstrated her courage as well as her desire for confirmation of God’s plan. She overcome any fear she may have had about surrendering to God’s call on her life or facing the possible danger involved in confirming his will. Such complete surrender freed her to act in confidence.

At the sight of Elizabeth, Mary’s tiredness were turned to joy and greeted Elizabeth, very likely “shalom,” which means peace in Hebrew. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greetings, three joyful things happened: John the Baptist leaped in her womb, Elizabeth herself was filled with the Holy Spirit, and burst out saying:

“Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?
And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment
of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Mary was able to bring incredible joy to Elizabeth and to the fetal John the Baptist, because she was bringing Christ.  The Holy Spirit inspired Elizabeth to bless Mary among all women because of the blessed fruit of her womb and because of her faith that the Lord’s words to her would be fulfilled. In other words, she was blessed because of Jesus and because of her faith in her embryonic saviour and son.

In going to Ein Karim, Mary became the first missionary, the first bearer of the Good News–the official term, theotokos–which is the first title accorded to her by mother church. Despite being pregnant with Jesus, the word incarnate (logos), in her womb, she journeys through the hill country to the town of Juda. English theologian John Saward refers to this image of Mary on her journey to Elizabeth as the “Logos carrying Virgin.”[1] In this journey, Mary became the first disciple and missionary of the Logos (Word). Indeed she is the Theotokos—bearer of God in our world.

What is this story telling us about Christmas?

Christmas is not just a celebration but also a call to mission. The incarnation of Jesus overflows with life, joy and goodness that it cannot be kept just to ourselves. Furthermore, the Chrismas spirit should not be lived only at this time of the year. As the song goes, araw-araw ay magiging pasko lagi (everyday will always be Christmas). And another Christmas song goes, at magbuhat ngayon, kahit hindi pasko ay magbigayan (from now on, even though it’s not Chrismas, we should give to one to another).

The Christmas spirit must be lived, shared and proclaimed to others, to the whole world, throughout the year. Like Mary, we are all called to be Theotokos—God-bearers. We need to share the good news of Emmanuel, God is with us, not just with our lips but also with our feet, with all our heart and soul. We need to share the good news that our lives is “impregnated” with God despite all the despair, gloom and hardships, our sinfulness and the messines of our lives.

In response to Elizabeth greetings, Mary, filled with the Spirit, will break out into that wonderful hymn of praise that we call the Magnificat, a hymn that will proclaim the message of liberation Jesus will later deliver by word and action. We will see this tomorrow.

The Christmas story continues … Abangan ang susunod na kabanata, bukas! (watch out for the next chapter tomorrow).

 


 

[1] John Saward, Redeemer in the Womb: Jesus Living in Mary (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1993), 120.

14TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: CALLED AND SENT FOR GOD’S MISSION

public-domain-images-free-stock-photos-shoes-walking-feet-grey-gravel-

In more recent years, the Baclaran shrine has emphasized the integration and coherence of devotion and mission. This is encapsulated in what we call debo(mi)syon—a concatenation of two words: debosyon (devotion) and misyon (mission) which conveys the oneness of devotion and mission. A statement of commitment by the Redemptorists, lay missionaries, staff and volunteers of the shrine articulates this:

We the Redemptorists, lay missionaries, staff and volunteers of the National Shrine of OMPH promise to make our Mother Mary known by being a help to our fellowmen/women especially to the needy as a an expression of the living of devotion and mission for Jesus Christ.

In the spirit of debo(mi)syon, the shrine tried to enlighten the devotees that devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help is not an end in itself; devotion does not stop within the walls of the shrine. Devotion is essentially connected to their daily life’s struggles and aspirations. Devotion constantly flows into the mundane and banal reality of their daily life. Devotion can be a force for transformation within themselves and society, in this case, devotion becomes mission.

In last Sunday’s gospel, Jesus was recruiting people along the way on his journey with his disciples to Jerusalem. He used tough language (“Let the dead bury their dead,” etc.) in calling would-be followers. In today’s gospel of the 14th Sunday in ordinary time, he is giving army-like instructions to  seventy-two disciples on how they should act when they journey to the towns

Where did this seventy two come from? (Only Luke gives the account of the sending of  of seventy or seventy-two. The other synoptic evangelists Mark and Matthew only mention the sending of the twelve.) Perhaps, Jesus’ relentless recruitment blitz along the road has apparently bore fruit. Despite his tough language, many were attracted to his message and followed him. And now he has an army of followers.

A significant lesson here is the fact that these people were just called by Jesus but now are being sent by Jesus. They are supposed to be training, learning and studying still under their master, but Jesus sent them already. Jesus knew that they still has got plenty to learn. But isn’t experience and action the best way to learn?

Being a disciple is also being an apostle. For Jesus he sees no dichotomy among those he called between their being called and being sent. They are called and sent both and at the same time. This is true also for all of us Christians, we are a disciple and apostle at the same time. While learning to be a disciple is a lifetime process, being an apostle is a daily challenge.

This is very important because many of us think and behave like they are just being called but not sent. They see their faith and spirituality as being called to have a personal relationship with Jesus, to be close to Jesus. So prayer, devotions and receiving the sacraments is enough for them. They overlook the fact that having a personal relationship with Jesus also entails living out his mission, going out into the world and participating in the building of the Kingdom of God. By understanding faith merely as called to have a personal relationship with Jesus, they neglect one of the most essential dimension of the life of Jesus and our faith–mission.

The importance of mission is reiterated by Jesus in his intro to his calling of the seventy-two:

“The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few;
so ask the master of the harvest
to send out laborers for his harvest.”

Imagining the mission as a harvest reminds us that mission is initiated by God, not simply a human project. It is not the disciples (and therefore not the Church) that initiate the mission. In spreading the Good News, we participate in something God is doing.

One of the most significant realization in theology during the last century was the notion of Missio Dei (Mission of God). Mission is, first and foremost, the work of God. God is the source, means and end of missions. As George Vicedom argued, “Missio Dei means first of all … is God’s work. He is the Lord, the commissioner, the owner, the one who accomplishes the task.  He is the acting subject of mission.  If we attribute mission to God in this way, it is withdrawn from every human whim.”

Jesus sent them to travel from one city to another, by foot, without money or other provisions. It’s a little bit funny that am reminded of all the heavy stuff we take when we go on a mission to a remote barrio.

Go on your way;
behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves.
Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals;
and greet no one along the way, etc.

No one in their right mind would travel the Palestinian roads staffless, bagless, and unshod. Without a staff you are defenseless. Without a bag of some kind, you have no way of carrying a change of clothes or some bread for the road. And no matter how tough your feet are, you can’t run from danger on that rocky terrain without something on your feet. The point Jesus is trying to drive at is that we should be people who trust in God for our defense and who depend on the hospitality of others for our sustenance, and most importantaly, nothing whatsoever should divert our focus on God’s mission.

This is also a challenge Jesus gives to us today. It is perhaps even harder as a challenge for us today than for the disciples in the time of Jesus. Because society today presents too many attractions and unwanteed needs, Jesus admonition to “travel light” is extra tough. But there is great wisdom in Jesus’ instruction that we need to hearken: We should live a little more trustingly in God’s divine providence than the culture around us. We should exhibit a higher sense of purpose that clearly goes beyond producing and consuming goods and getting entertained.

Jesus, however, doesn’t leave the disciples completely helpless. He gives them power. Sometimes it was not effective (Lk 9:40), but in today’s story it seems to have been very effective. They can cure sicknesses and cast out devils. The seventy-two come back rejoicing in their power: “Lord, in your name, even the demons submit to us!” (Lk 10:17).

Jesus saw in this, the temptation for the disciples to seek power rather than the grace of God. Jesus rebukes them for it. Don’t rejoice in your power, he tells them; rejoice rather in the fact that you will be united to God in heaven.

Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you,
but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”

There is an even more significant joy for the missionary: prior to their mission, they had been admitted to the privilege of partaking in the fullness of salvation in the end. When they forget that, they are tempted to think that the mission is their own cause and that the success is their own achievement.

 

 

13TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: A HIGHER CALLING

adventure-clouds-dawn-906531
Photo by Mathew Thomas from Pexels

Life is a calling. We are not just born in this world to exist but to live with a purpose, a mission, a calling. There is a word–vocation–which is usually associated with religious vocation but can be applied to all. Vocation comes from the Latin word, vocare, to call. Everybody has a vocation.

Vocation is not only an ambition or a career that we want to pursue in the future. Vocation is a higher calling than ambition or a career. We have seen this in the lives of great people, saints and heroes. They learned to get out of their ordinary lives in response to a higher and more noble cause, a greater good other than their own personal agenda. The source of the call is either God, or country, or justice or a morally right cause which led them to sacrifice their lives for the greater good.

The readings for today’s 13th Sunday in ordinary time are stories of God’s calling certain individuals to go beyond their ordinary existence.

In the First Reading, Elisha is called by the Lord to be the helper and successor of the prophet Elijah. Elisha, however, wanted to kiss his mother and father goodbye first. The prophet Elijah challenged Elisha’s playing for time. In response, Elisha kills all his family’s oxen; then he uses their yokes for firewood to roast the oxen, and he gives the flesh to his servants to eat. Elisha made sure that he can’t go home now. How could he, after what he did to the family oxen and their yokes?

In the Gospel, Jesus called many people along the way to follow him but challenged them to transcend their ordinary plans and ambitions:

To another he said, “Follow me.”
But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.”
But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead.
But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
And another said, “I will follow you, Lord,
but first let me say farewell to my family at home.”
To him Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow
and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Answering God’s call is in no way contrary to developing our talents and pursuing our creative path. But the highest fulfillment of our gifts and talents is not for ourselves but  for the love of God, our neighbor and ourselves. In other words, if we wish to fulfill our vocation as Christians we must all become selfless servants and lovers. Whenever we are inclined to seek for ourselves wealth, prestige, popularity, and position, it is no longer about vocation but ambition and power.

It is a sad reality that for many of our young people in our country today, the main aspiration is getting out of the vicious cycle of poverty. Many young people, especially in a third world country like the Philippines, dream of freeing their family from the shackles of poverty even if this would mean taking a path that is not what they truly want and aspire. Thus, many in their present work or profession are not happy or something inside of them is saying that this is not the way they would wish to become someday but they have no choice because they need to survive. The economic plight has stifled their creativity and worst of all the very nature of what they want to become.

Another big factor that may inhibit us from pursuing a higher calling is the postmodern culture. Postmodernism has created a “me” society where the interests of the individual takes precedence over the interests of the country or social group or religion. The autonomous individual becomes the measure of all things. The focus is on oneself, one’s own personal development, apart from one’s community and society.

In a world which apparently has no one to follow, it has become tougher to offer a way of life anchored on following Christ. In this age where traditional sources of meaning are being questioned by today’s generation, the very purpose of vocation has become harder to live out and has stirred some inner confusion and emptiness.

These threat and challenges should not, however, deter us from discovering our deepest calling, pursuing our noblest aspirations and achieving our fullest human maturity. The material, commercial and individualist milieu does not invalidate nor diminish the integrity of vocation as living life to the fullest in a life of service and sacrifice.

In a globalized world, the biggest challenge is to continue to proclaim the liberating Gospel which gives us a meaningful way to set people free from the slavery to money, power and fame. In a highly individualized world, the biggest challenge is to continue to proclaim that only in Jesus Christ can we be true individuals, fully human and fully alive. Living out the true meaning of vocation is not to fulfill our calling in isolation but in communion with others and with God.

PENTECOST SUNDAY: THE BIRTHDAY OF THE CHURCH

pentecost
from https://www.stpeterslutheran.org/2017/06/day-pentecost-sunday-preview/

Birthdays are a wonderful occasion to celebrate and go back to who we truly are, our beginnings and our own unique mission. However messy and crazy our lives have been, despite all the mistakes and failures we have made, birthdays reminds us that life is precious, we are good and God love us so much. A birthday, therefore, is an important and momentous occasion to celebrate, reflect and give thanks.

Today, on Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate the birthday of the Church. Pentecost Sunday reminds us of the foundation the church–the life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We commemorate on Pentecost the formal inauguration of the church through the coming down of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles likes balls of fire. Immediately the spirit-empowered apostles went out of their room into the city square and were on fire in proclaiming the good news. The birthday of the church were spent not inside the church but in the streets, going out to the people, speaking their language that they too may discover the spirit of God actively moving them towards fullness of life in Jesus. Indeed, the birthday of the church depicts a church-in-mission.

The Holy Spirit re-created the disciples. The disciples became bold and daring. 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.

Pentecost reminds us of that our true identity as church is that we are Spirit led. The church is not ultimately led by the Pope, the bishops and the hierarchy of the church. It is the Holy Spirit–sent by the Father and the Son–who leads the church in every generation in its ministry of proclaiming and living the good news of the Kingdom of God.

It is, therefore, fitting and opportune, on this day of Pentecost to reflect on our identity as a Spirit-led Church. American Professor of Theology, Roger Olson, shares some thoughts of what a Spirit-led Church is:

A Spirit-filled and Spirit-led church will be alive, “crackling” with energy and passion, without fanatical extremism that focuses attention on ecstatic experiences rather than on the grace and glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Its people will come to worship and other meetings with excited expectation and not out of a sense of duty or with unhealthy fear. In a truly Spirit-filled and Spirit-led church visitors will come to see what God is doing among them. They will testify that “God is busy” (Hauerwas) there. Lives will be transformed in noticeable ways.

Such a church will be open to the “sovereign unpredictability of the Spirit” (Du Plessis) even as it celebrates tradition. This requires risk on the part leadership; leadership will leave space for the Spirit to move and work in ways that transcend traditional forms.

Such a church will lay all decisions before God for guidance and direction and move only through consensus of the spiritually mature people of God within the church. It will not be led by a dictatorial individual or small group that serves his, her or their interests.

Finally, such a church will be outwardly-focused with a strong sense of participation in the mission of God in the world. It will expend much of its energy and resources on meeting the spiritual and material needs of the communities outside the church. [1]

Today the Spirit continues to lead us, the church, to guide us, to shake us out of our complacencies, to disturb us out of our passiveness, to empower us to speak the language of today in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus.  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, hostile and terror stricken world, the temptation for the church is to freeze in fear and be content solely with its own security and self-preservation. Worst is to rely more on our human capacity and wisdom rather than on the surprises and creativity of the Holy Spirit.  This is not the church of Pentecost. 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.”[1]

Despite all its craziness and messiness, 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). We have in need more now of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We need a new Pentecost, as St. John XXIII prayed in preparation for the Second Vatican Council in 1962, “Renew Your wonders, O God, in our day — as in a new Pentecost!”

Let us celebrate the birthday of the church today by being fully open to the promptings of the Spirit. Let us ask the Holy Spirit, to recreate us once again so that we may become creative and brave in proclaiming the gospel in every language, in every avenue of communication, in every culture and in every situation we find ourselves today.

“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.”

 


 

[1] Roger Olson, What Is a “Spirit-filled” and “Spirit-led” Church? Pantheos.com. October 23, 2014. Accessed at https://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2014/10/what-is-a-spirit-filled-and-spirit-led-church/

ASCENSION SUNDAY: THE LIMITLESS HORIZON OF CHRISTIAN LIFE

looking at the sky

We celebrate today the Ascension of the Lord Sunday. 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 and underrated 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). By resting on the cloud as Jesus ascended, 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. As Australian Redemptorist Fr. Anthony Kelly, CSsR states,

The ascended Jesus has not disappeared or been dissolved in a celestial ether, but is ever present to the faith of the church in the here-and-now of the community’s life. The ending of his particular kind of terrestrial presence has yielded to a new kind of universal presence, reaching to all places, times, and peoples. (1)

Belief in Christ’s ascension opens for us the experience of faith and the life of the Church as limitless. Kelly adds that the ascension reminds us that the mission of evangelization is unconfined, always moving beyond, upward, outward, in the vitality of the risen Christ who already occupies every dimension of time and space. Properly understood, the ascension is a fundamental aspect of the catholicity of faith and enables us to breathe more deeply in the experience of “the boundless riches of Christ.” As Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr said, we are already in the presence of God, what is absent is awareness.

Jesus’ ascension is not a departure from his disciples and for all the disciples which forms the church in every generation. Jesus’ ascension was an expression of a new relationship with him, the risen One, that transcends physical barriers. Now, instead of accompanying us here on earth in his ministry, we are “clothed with power from on high” to be his presence and continue his mission.  Jesus empowered us to be “witnesses of these things,” the wonderful things that Jesus did and said about the boundless blessings of God’s kingdom.

 


 

(1) Anthony Kelly, Upward: Faith, Church, and the Ascension of Christ (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014), 2.

2ND SUNDAY OF EASTER: THE COMMUNITY OF RESURRECTION

community_procession

The second Sunday of Easter is called by many names. First, it is called the Octave Day of Easter since it is the eight day after Easter. It is also called Thomas Sunday because of the story of Thomas in the gospel today. It also called Quasimodo Sunday and Quasimodogeniti.[1] On 30 April 2000, it was also designated as Divine Mercy Sunday by Pope John Paul II.

Eight days have passed since Easter and we have 40 more days to go to celebrate and ponder on the meaning of Jesus’ and our resurrection. Are we living as a community of the resurrection?

The readings for today’s second Sunday of Easter reflect on the qualities of a living community of the resurrection. Our readings today give a lot of clues.

First clue: The Community as Signs and Wonders of God

In the first reading we hear about how the early Christian communities witnessed the resurrection. Let’s hear it directly from Luke in his book the Acts of the Apostles

Many signs and wonders were done among the people
at the hands of the apostles.
They were all together in Solomon’s portico.
None of the others dared to join them, but the people esteemed them.
Yet more than ever, believers in the Lord,
great numbers of men and women, were added to them.

The early church after the resurrection of Jesus performed many signs and wonders through the leadership of the apostles. The apostles continued the divinely empowered ministry of Jesus (soon to be illustrated by the healing of the lame man through Peter and John [Acts 3ff]).

Because of this, new converts were “added.” It was God who added them; it was not the Church that added new members. The new converts did not become members on their own, but God brought them into the redeemed community.

Second Clue: Living the Resurrection not as Individuals but as a Community 

It is always heartwarming to hear that Jesus died and resurrected for me. But Jesus died and resurrected not for you and me alone or exclusively for you and me. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection we are redeemed not as private individuals but as an individuals interconnected with one another, in other words, as a community.

The apostles after the resurrection, did not go on their own but gathered and lived together as a community. After the resurrection, they were able to regain their strength because they came out of isolation and regroup. Although each of them had their own mission territory to go to, they never saw their mission as individual mission but the mission of the whole body of Christ.

Our faith, the Judeo-Christian faith has always been a community affair. At the Exodus from Egypt it was not an individual, nor a group of individuals, but a community, a people, which was delivered from slavery and led to the promised land. The Old Testament is not primarily concerned with the relationships between YHWH and individual Israelites, but with the relationship between YHWH and Israel. The very work ekklesia which the New Testament uses for ‘church’ comes from the Greek Old Testament where it is used to describe the whole ‘assembly’ of Israel.

Third Clue: A community forgiven and redeemed by Jesus also forgives and redeem others in Jesus’ name.

After the resurrection of Jesus, the disciples were still living in fear and despair. In the evening of Easter, the disciples were huddled in the cenacle afraid to go out because they are terrified of the Jews (John 20:19). The disciples were perhaps thinking that, if they had done this to our beloved master, how much more to us, his ordinary disciples.

“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews…

Then suddenly,

Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them,
‘Peace be with you’ ” (Jn 20:19).

The first words of the risen Jesus was “Shalom”–peace! The disciples betrayed, abandoned, and denied Jesus during the time that he needed them most—in his hour of passion, suffering and death.  Despite their cowardice and disloyalty, Jesus unconditionally forgave them. He does not complain or demand an apology. He simply offers peace, no vengeance and holding of grudges. What an act of unconditional forgiveness and unwavering friendship!

The risen Jesus passed through the walls and doors of the locked cenacle. This shows that Jesus’ love and forgiveness will traverse any walls of apathy, betrayal and fear. The resurrection will triumph over any hatred and animosity.

This is the reason why St. John Paul II declared this Sunday, Divine Mercy Sunday.  God’s mercy is infinitely rich and no amount of human transgressions and obstinacy can stop it from being given to all humanity and God’s creation. The responsorial psalm of today’s liturgy proclaims this theme of mercy. In Psalm 118 we sing, “His mercy endures forever.”

As Jesus has forgiven the disciples, he empowered his disciples to pass on the gift of peace to others. The community of resurrection must be a community of healing and forgiveness. He said to them,

Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”

Fourth Clue: Faith amidst Doubt

This Sunday is unfortunately remembered as the the story of doubting Thomas. This is in reference to the Apostle Thomas, who refused to believe that the resurrected Jesus had appeared to the ten other apostles, until he could see and feel the wounds received by Jesus on the cross.

While Thomas expressed doubt, when confronted with the resurrected Jesus, he was one of the apostles who proclaimed the strongest expression of faith with his statement “My Lord and my God” (John 20: 28). He was also one of the apostles who travelled the most in proclaiming the gospel. Tradition maintains that he founded churches in Mesopotamia, Ethiopia and even in India. Tradition also maintained that he died a martyred death there. Perhaps, the doubt of Thomas has made him a stronger and more passionate apostle.

Jesus’ response to Thomas’ declaration of faith was a recognition of the faith of the thousands of generation after the apostles who have come to believe despite not seeing Jesus.

Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.’ (Jn 20:29)

We have not seen with our eyes the resurrection of Jesus but we are blessed because we all have believe!  Walking by faith and not by sight is an important mark of the community of the Risen One. This does not mean, however, that we have not experienced doubt in our faith. It rather means that despite our doubts and lack of faith, we continue to follow the Risen Lord and live the new life that he has bestowed upon us.

The heightening of doubt pretty much reflects today’s ethos. There is proliferation of fake news which make us skeptical about the truth across all topics – culture, politics, science and religion. We live in a time of skepticism and doubt that like the apostles of the the early church, believing entails sacrifice of time, talent and even of our very life.  The community of the Risen Lord continue to uphold God’s love, life and goodness despite all the doubt and despair in the world today.

Fifth Clue: A Community Transformed and Sent

The risen Lord having forgiven his disciples, empowered them to spread God’s mercy to others and immediately sent them.

As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

The resurrection of Jesus transformed the disciples from a bunch of cowards to a band of brave men who preached the Gospel all over the Mediterranean and confidently faced death, some by crucifixion also. Peter, Paul and most of the Apostles suffered the same fate as Jesus. They were persecuted and martyred because they were continuing what Jesus had started – going against a heartless culture and caring for those in need.

As we continue our journey in Easter, let us continue to receive strength from the Risen Lord so that we may continue to be an Easter people.

Let me end with the opening prayer in the mass today:

God of everlasting mercy, who in the very recurrence of the paschal feast kindle the faith of the people you have made your own, increase, we pray, the grace you have bestowed, that all may grasp and rightly understand in what font they have been washed, by whose Spirit they have been reborn, by whose Blood they have been redeemed. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Amen. Alleluiah, Alleluiah, Alleluiah.

 


 

[1] The name Quasimodo came from the Latin text of the traditional Introit for this day, which begins “Quasi modo geniti infantes…” from 1 Peter 2:2, roughly translated as “As newborn babes desire the rational milk without guile…”. from Catholic Encyclopedia listing for Low Sunday.