A Shrine of Hope

Mary is the prototype of the hope of grace
for humankind as a whole.[1]

 

Many times as I walk around the shrine after the services at night, I could see devotees deep in prayer and silence. What catches most intensely my attention is the number of people who are crying, pouring their hearts out to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. For many devotees, the shrine has become a channel for pouring out their sorrows and woes, an outlet for catharsis, if you will. They see the shrine as a very important channel where they could pour out their sufferings and agonies and turn to the Lord and Mary which in many cases is their only hope.  Rik Ali Mandi describes this in a thanksgiving letter written on September 23, 2014:

Here in this shrine, I felt peace in my heart. Here in this shrine, I learned to pour out my frustrations and pains in life. Here in this shrine, I left behind all the things that gave me sadness, burdens and woes.  Thus, I give thanks wholeheartedly to you Our Mother of Perpetual Help for the times that you listened to my petitions and afflictions in life, and for giving light to the questions of my life. You taught me the right solutions to the problems I bring to you, guided me towards the right decisions and most of all made me feel that you love me and lead me to the right path in life. Now, as I continue my journey in life, I have complete trust that you will always guide me through my loneliness towards the twilight of my life … I give thanks to you Our Mother of Perpetual Help, many, many thanks.

Through the years, our country has gone through a lot of crisis. Despite the continuous crisis, devotees flock to Baclaran. There is no abatement in attendance, the devotion has not waned one bit.  Someone in the community commented that the more our country is plunged into crisis the more people flock to Baclaran. Indeed, despite the series of crises, Filipinos in their distinctive creativity and resilience in dealing with crisis, can still afford to smile and celebrate.  Filipinos’ resilience is deeply rooted in their faith and devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. This is what Nica Realuyo expressed in her thanksgiving letter on February 4, 2015,

6 years ago after graduating in education degree in our province, I mustered enough courage to go to Manila in order to fulfil my dream to become a flight attendant … I tried several times to apply and several times I failed the pre-screening. I could no longer count from my fingers how many times I was disappointed and thought of giving up and forget all about my dream. In those moments, which I could not accept, I had feelings of resentment for God. I had so many questions. Until one day, I thought of going to Baclaran to pray for many things about my life including my dream. After many years of waiting and several disappointments and rejections, I was accepted by an airline from Middle East … What I have gone through is a witness to the truth that through our persistence and prayer our dreams will be realized … God is good! God bless us all!

Shrine as Icon of Hope

Many devotees see the shrine as a symbol of faith and hope.  As the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Third Asian Congress on Pilgrimages and Shrines declares, “In an era overwhelmed by divisions, acts of violence and natural calamities, pilgrimages and shrines are places of hope which comes from the encounter with God.”[2] In the midst of the many crises and evils that seem to prevail in our times, the shrine has always proclaimed to the devotees to not surrender to apathy and despair. The Redemptorist in their preaching tried to give an account of the hope that they lived and experienced:  “Always be ready to make a defense to anyone who asks for the reason for the hope that is in you” (I Peter 3:15). In the maiden issue of the shrine’s newsletter, The Icon, in October 2003, I wrote about the mission of the shrine,

In the midst of hopelessness, we yearn to be signs of hope; in the midst of gnawing pessimism we want to bring the good news of Jesus; in the midst of a culture that breeds indifference and individualism, we strive to promote dialogue and solidarity especially with the marginalized and most abandoned.  We believe that our devotion to our Mother of Perpetual Help should lead us to a radical renewal of ourselves so we can truly become genuine agents of transformation in church and society.

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In the midst of the suffering and crisis, people come to this church to be inspired and renewed to face their daily struggles. The devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help gives hope to thousands of devotees to not just surrender to the predicament they find themselves in their current situation. As the devotees pour out their sorrows in the shrine, Mary Our Mother of Perpetual Help gives them the hope and strength to continue their struggles and aspirations in the midst of life’s trials and difficulties. Arnel Villena writes in a thanksgiving letter on July 6, 2015,

During those times when I was extremely down, I felt that you always gave me hope and reason to be positive about life. The added strength and new kidney that you attached to my body is a most beautiful sign of your guidance upon me. I will always take care of this. The very good job I have now, is the source of our daily needs, and also a big blessing from you. In addition, you let me experience other miracles. Mother, thank you. I will not forget this.

The Poor as Bearers of Hope

Poverty and hope goes hand and hand in the shrine. Mary under the title of Ina ng Laging Saklolo (Our Mother of Perpetual Help) appeals to many devotees because many of them are helpless and pushed to the limit, in Tagalog—“kapit sa patalim!” (gripping the knife’s edge). When the system is rigged and stacked against their favor, the plea of many devotees is, help me, saklolo! When nothing works for them—the system, the government, politicians, and even the church, they look inward and seek God and Mary’s intervention. Genesis Toledo Lustre demonstrates this plea for help as she writes,

I’ve been to Baclaran church many times especially when I am losing hope in life, I prayed while crying, I couldn’t help myself from crying whenever I come to this church. However, I think I need someone to talk to who is from the Church who can give me advice or someone who will just listen to my story and my questions. I really need guidance, especially now that I am pregnant. Please ..

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Most devotees are poor just barely getting by, surviving on a day to day existence, as we say in Tagalog, isang kahig, isang tuka, (one scratch, one peck) which means hand-to-mouth existence.  Many who flock to the shrine are hungry, thirsty, alienated, depressed, excluded, abandoned and deprived in multiple ways and variety of experiences. The despair that many devotees suffer, is articulated by Cha in her thanksgiving letter on April 29, 2015,

[E]very time I pray to you and to Jesus to help me understand the things that would prevent me from doing the evil thing that I always thought—taking my own life because of the many financial problems—you always let me see how lucky I am because I have a family that I need to love and care for.  My heart breaks when I see the innocent faces of my little children—what will happen to them if I am gone, if I surrender. I pray that you would once again open your heart to me. For the last time, I ask you that you would hear my plea to drive away my financial problem. I pray that you would give me another opportunity to rise up and begin anew … as a mother.

Most of the devotees who flock to Our Mother of Perpetual Help realize how destitute they are whether spiritual or material.  Ironically, it is this poverty that opens their hearts to reach out to God and to Mary and not lose hope. The devotees in their poverty find hope despite the hopelessness they experienced in life.  Indeed, one cannot truly experience God’s perpetual help through Our Mother of Perpetual Help unless one becomes poor. They embody Jesus’ first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5: 2).

Finding Hope in Fellow Devotees

The sick, unemployed, frustrated, lost, loveless, and suffering—destitute as they are, spiritually or materially, they open their hearts to reach out to God and to fellow men and women in despair. They find hope from fellow hopeless devotee.  When one hear the thousands sing and pray the novena in unison one cannot help but experience courage and hope which provide the strength to go on amidst the struggles in life.

This experience of praying the novena as giving hope to thousand of devotees is affirmed by Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical, Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope).  In the encyclical Benedict XVI asks:  “How can Christians learn, articulate and exercise this hope in Christ?” To this Benedict responds: “A first essential setting for learning hope is prayer.” When no one listens to me anymore, God still listens to me. When I can no longer talk to anyone or call upon anyone, I can always talk to God.” Prayer can never be merely individual or self-preoccupied; genuine prayer is that which turns us toward others, in solidarity with our neighbor and communion in the Church as Benedict further adds:

Hope in a Christian sense is always hope for others as well. It is an active hope, in which we struggle to prevent things moving towards the “perverse end”. It is an active hope also in the sense that we keep the world open to God. Only in this way does it continue to be a truly human hope.[3]

Defiant Hope

Many devotees have suffered from many forms captivity that have subjugated them for so long. Thus, the plea of the thousands of devotees to Inay ng Laging Saklolo is not just a cry for their needs but is also a cry for liberation. In whatever state of captivity they find themselves, their devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help give them hope and strength not to surrender and continue to struggle.

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Strengthened by hope, devotees not only pray for what they want, but aim to be set free towards the life they honestly hope to attain.  In this spirit, hope becomes an active disposition–never surrendering to apathy and indifference.  Their hope, directed by Our Mother of Perpetual Help towards the Good News of Jesus Christ, is the refusal to accept the status quo. It is challenging present systems and the wider societal structures in actively bringing about new attitudes and alternative order according to Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom.

The Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx states that the most radical form of Christian hope is born in negativity, “amid the experiences of negativity, darkness, and injustice in which human beings cry out in protest: ‘This cannot go on!’”[4]  Hope entails challenging the prevailing values, attitudes, structures and systems that for so long a time preserved captivity and dependence.  As Anthony Kelly declares, “hope refuses to see the ultimate meaning of life as simply more of the same.”[5] That is why hope is always bold, daring and defiant. Kelly adds, “Genuine hope has no use for idols.”[6]  Experiencing hope amidst their despair and hopelessness through their devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help, devotees learned to proclaim the gospel as a counter text to the idols of the world.

Thus, the experience of pouring out of one’s sorrows for many devotees is not just cathartic but also empowering. Fr. Victorino Cueto asserts that through their devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help in the shrine, devotees are afforded “the empowered experience … to put a language into his/her predicament. S/He is able to speak and give voice to his/her experience. A devotee is provided the space to articulate his/her joys and pain, hopes and suffering, desires and dreams.”[7]  In a thanksgiving letter written on August 27, 2014, Michelle Mulingbayan shares this kind of experience in the shrine:

I started coming to you last February 2014 because of a big problem that I was going through during those times with the father of my child. It has been my practise that whenever I experience that kind of feeling, I go to mass or visit a nearby church in order to pour out my sorrows, ask for help and guidance in order to lighten the pain I am experiencing … Almost every night I could not stop crying because of so the unbearable pain. For nine Wednesdays, I did not surrender, and in those times, I gradually felt peace in my heart and mind.  Every time I pray the novena, I feel the warmth of your acceptance and helping hand in order that I might overcome this trial in my life.

A Whole New World: Hope Beyond this World

The hope that the devotees deeply experienced in the shrine is not just optimism or a mirage. As St. Paul said, “hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5: 5).

Looking through the icon, the devotees are led to see an “it-could-be-otherwise” world. Our Mother of Perpetual Help invites the devotees to see behind and beyond their world—with all its sufferings, hardships, hopelessness, injustice, violence, enslavements – in anticipation of a possible world full of possibilities. The icons are an agency of hope, a hope which defies even the most destructive force in our world today that in the midst of the violence, chaos, madness, misery of our lives here on earth, there is a “beyond-this-world” that is totally opposite our world today (magnificat) already growing but will reached its fullest potential through the most creative and dynamic power and grace of God in the end.

As the document, The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God proclaims, “The shrine …  is a sign of that greater hope that points to the final and definitive destination, where each individual will be fully human, respected and fulfilled according to the righteousness of God.”[8]  Amid life’s difficulties, the shrine, an edifice of stone, points to the homeland glimpsed from afar but not yet attained, anticipation of which, in faith and hope, sustains Christ’s disciples on their pilgrim way.[9] The shrine is set as a prophecy of God’s tomorrow in the today of the present world.[10] Every time the community of the faithful gathers together in the shrine, it does so to remind itself of that other shrine, the future city, the dwelling of God, which we wish to begin building already in this world and which we cannot help but desire, filled with hope, conscious of our limitations, striving to prepare as best we can the coming of the Kingdom. [11]

In this spirit, the prayer that the people pray—novena and personal prayers—becomes not just supplication but aspiration. Their prayer serves as a narrative and metaphor, expressions of aspirations of the longed for reality, the desire for new world.  Through their devotion, devotees are invited in hope to see beyond the present age. Our Mother of Perpetual Help invites the devotee to be a “hoper,” who is impatient with evil and death in this present age.

God will make all things new. He is known now in his promises. Hope is what gives us confidence in the possibility that those things which are now so destructive of human well-being will be overcome. Hope speaks to a world vividly aware of the “not yet” dimensions of human and social existence, and of the fact that hope at its human level is of the stuff of meaningful existence. It is hope that changes us, hope that changes the world.

Our Mother of Perpetual Help – Mother of Hope

In the shrine, the poor found Mary when they needed to find a voice, an outlet, an ally.  When they experience Our Mother of Perpetual Help as kakampi (ally), they no longer feel alone. Our Mother of Perpetual Help becomes a symbol of hope and solace to thousands of desperate devotees who come day and night to the shrine. Our Mother of Perpetual Help becomes a mother of hope.

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The life of Mary is hope personified. Mary lived hope because she represented the poor of Yahweh and proclaimed the victory of the Lord against worldly power and domination. Lumen Gentium concludes by calling Mary a sign of hope and comfort for God’s pilgrim people. Mary is the prototype of the hope of grace for humankind as a whole.[12]  Mary embodies the ‘elect Israel’ of whom Paul speaks – glorified, justified, called, predestined. Maria Rina Geronimo describes how Our Mother of Perpetual Help is mother of hope,

The last time that I wrote you, my mind was entirely confused, losing hope and crying. Thank you very much Mama Mary for leading me here in your home during those times when I was truly down … During those moments when my self-esteem was so low, you did not abandon me. Thank you very much Mama Mary because you opened your home to a sinner like me. I am not a prayerful person but because of the things that happened to me, I learned to go to mass and pray. I know Mama Mary that this is one of the ways that you can open my mind and heart and once again become close to you … Take care of me Mama Mary and grant me strength and peace of mind so I can serve the sick. Thank you very much for everything Mama Mary for your help and mercy.

Mary as mother of hope, however, draws devotees ultimately not to herself but to her son Jesus Christ. Pope Benedict calls Mary as star of hope who leads us to the true light–Jesus Christ.

Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route. The true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope. Certainly, Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history. But to reach him we also need lights close by—people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way. Who more than Mary could be a star of hope for us? With her “yes” she opened the door of our world to God himself; she became the living Ark of the Covenant, in whom God took flesh, became one of us, and pitched his tent among us (cf. Jn 1:14).[13]

The life of Jesus is the hope of the poor, desperate, helpless and abandoned. We can only experience true hope through the fullness of life that Jesus gave us, as St. Paul wrote, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13).

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy, hail, our life, our sweetness and our hope.

 


 

[1] Lumen Gentium, #59.

[2] Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Third Asian Congress on Pilgrimages and Shrines (Nagasaki, Japan, October 15-17, 2007)

[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, #34.

[4] Hilkert, “Edward Schillebeeckx,”.

[5] Anthony Kelly, Eschatology and Hope (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), 5.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Victorino Cueto, DEBO(MI)SYON: Celebrating the Spirit in / of Baclaran. Accessed at http://www.baclaranchurch.org/assets/debo(mi)syon-celebrating-the-spirit-of-baclaran.pdf

[8] The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God

[9] The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God,

[10] The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God,

[11] The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God,

[12] Lumen Gentium, #59.

[13] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, #49.

(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)

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