Monday, 28 January 2008

A Spoonful of Honey

Last January 24, feast of St. Francis de Sales, I wrote the following piece.

I am a Salesian. Whenever I say this to people who are not so familiar with our charism I am immediately asked other questions as follow up: "Why Salesian? Why not Bosconian priest? Your Congregation was founded by St. John Bosco, was it not?" And I would have to do some further explanations, of course in the long run naming St. Francis de Sales as as our titular patron chosen by Don Bosco himself.

When I was a student in Rome, I had the privilege to take part in a retreat traced the footprints of St. Francis de Sales. We had as base the retreat house Centre Jean XXIII (see the website of this beautiful retreat center at http://www.centrejean23.org/main.htm), at Annecy, France (Haute-Savoie province, Rhone-Alpes region). The region of St. Francis de Sales was picturesque. Annecy had a beautiful lake and a panorama of the Alps served as backdrop.

We went to places that were significant in the life and work of St. Francis. I saw the site of the castle of Sales where he was born; the font where he was baptized; La Roche which was the district where he studied; Thonon, where he preached and converted a lot of people; the woods where he climbed a tree on which he stayed all night in order to escape from the wolves. We went to Geneva, Switzerland, which became his See, despite the fact that it was a Protestant stronghold; Lyons, where he died; and of course, Annecy, where we prayed at his tomb.

Leading us in our pilgrimage was an amiable French confrere, Fr. Morand Wirth, who is an expert on the life and works of the saint. He said in jest that before becoming knowledgeable of St. Francis, he was a normal Salesian, that is, one who is not so familiar with this particular patron. He thus hit us with a sad truth: Salesians do not know much about the gentle Bishop of Geneva whose name they bear. At the end of the retreat, he laughed saying that we were less normal Salesians for now we knew more about St. Francis de Sales.

Personally, when I was a novice, I was deeply impressed by this saint. I was struck in particular with a book that he wrote: Introduction to the Devout Life. It spoke of the universal call to holiness. Sanctity is not only for priests or religious; it is for everyone. This brand of spirituality we bring even to the young people of our schools and oratories. Yes, the young can be saints.

Another thing which struck me were words of St. Francis that I have heard even earlier, as a high school student: "On attire plus les mouches avec une cuillerée de miel qu'avec cent barils de vinaigre." (“A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrelful of vinegar.”) Our saint is known for his gentleness. By nature, he was choleric, but he mastered himself so that he became known for his meekness. In him we found the sweetness of God, the divine goodness that we find comforting.

Today, as we celebrate the feast of this saint, we thank God for the gift of a great example for humanity. May we be more Salesian by knowing this gentle soul of Sales. God bless!

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

From Bosconian to Salesian

In the midst of the preparations for the coming feast of St. John Bosco, I go back to something that I have written in 2001. It is timely that I publish it this year as I am celebrating 25 years of entering Don Bosco as a student.

In the Salesian world, Tarlac will always be remembered as the locality of the first Don Bosco school in the Philippines. This is Don Bosco Tarlac that I hold dear in my heart. In the beginning it did not strike me as it does today. To the people of Tarlac, Don Bosco has always been known as the private school where the boys usually go. As a little kid I looked forward to studying there when I reached the fourth grade. My elder brother spent the latter part of his elementary years in this school. I first got to know Don Bosco from the school uniform that my brother wore.

My first day in Don Bosco was one I eagerly anticipated. How would it be? I had been there for the entrance examination, interview and enrolment, but I had no idea what to expect. The awaited moment arrived. It was neither a hall of cashiers’ windows nor a corridor of offices that greeted me. It was not even the sight of students lining up for class. It was the scene of basketball courts full of boys sweating it out in spontaneous games; and of the football field, with several balls flying to and fro. This was minutes before the assembly time! What a way to start the day! I smiled and felt at ease.

But it was not merely the start of a day; it was the start of another episode in life. In due time I came to know Don Bosco the person more profoundly, as also the people who bore his name—in their initials ‘SDB.’ They were all around, they, the brothers and priests who were visible among the students during breaks. They mingled with us. We talked; we played. One impressive image that recurs in my memory is that of a priest, in his cassock, in the middle of the football field, usually running and kicking the ball surrounded by the boys.

In Don Bosco Tarlac I found practices unique in Don Bosco: the weekly Mass (and the daily “free Masses”), singing practices, sodalities and youth groups, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, rosary at lunch break. There was a confessor who was available all the time. And you know what? My first year with Don Bosco was made even more special because it was the year of the visit of the Rector Major, Don Egidio Viganò. On this occasion, I was chosen to be one of the emcees under Bro. Dennis Paez.

One thing I liked about Don Bosco was the familiar air that was all around. Everybody knew one another, from Grade 4 to the Fourth Year. The physical structure of the school was ideal: except for the gym, one could see practically the whole compound. The chapel was accessible, as were the classrooms and the playground. When the principal stood in the middle of the football field, everyone else saw him and vice versa.

Days, weeks, months; a year, and another. From the world of the home, I ventured into another. The school became the tambayan. On weekends, I found myself at Don Bosco—not for curricular activities, but for extras: serving mass, Boy Scout activities, hanging around the rector’s office, and so on. Before I knew it, Don Bosco had become a second home.

That was why when the call to be a Salesian came, it did not come as a surprise. It had been there all along. God had been paving the path so that when the proper time came, I was ready. For my assent, I needed only the amplification of His voice through the Salesians themselves, and in my youthful vigor, I entered the high school seminary of Don Bosco Juniorate, Pampanga. However, though each life story is a continuum, that is another episode and this space does not allow me to dwell on it. Suffice it then to say that one episode led to another, and yes, eventually took me to where I am now as a Salesian.

Whenever doubts plague me, I look back at my experiences as a student at Don Bosco Tarlac and I end up saying, “I was a boy of Don Bosco,” in the same way as Rua, Cagliero and the other Salesians of times past and present have been boys of Don Bosco. Yes, I have basked in such a Salesian atmosphere and I realize this has been God’s way of encouraging me and sustaining me all these years.

Once, as a young Salesian, I had the chance to visit Don Bosco Tarlac. I was given the opportunity to give the good morning talk to the student body. A surge of exuberance filled my heart; a knot made its way to my throat. Some of my teachers were present. I told the Bosconians that it was a joy for me to come home and to see reflected in them what I had been years ago. It was with nostalgic incredulity that I looked at the part of the gymnasium where I had first stood as a grade four student. “Have I really been there?” I asked myself. And I told everyone that I was now in front, something I never imagined when as a boy I looked at the Salesians who normally stood before the assembly.

In my 25th year as a Bosconian, I write as how a grateful son eulogizes a parent in a celebration meant for tribute, because this is how I look at Don Bosco Tarlac: a parent who has both sired and nursed in me the incipient call to follow Christ. I cannot but make references to my own humble beginnings. I am here, a Salesian, because Don Bosco was there in Tarlac. And to keep the paean ringing: in this school called Don Bosco lived the spirit of the man named Don Bosco. In this school lived year after year, Salesians who have carried on the task of preserving the spirit, keeping it alive, sharing it with Tarlaqueños.

In my good morning talk to the Tarlac Bosconians, I asked them, “Are you proud to be Bosconians? I’m sure you are.” There was an ardent wish within me: “I hope many more among them will take that step from their place to where I am.” From Bosconian to Salesian. From Tarlac to wherever Don Bosco is. After all, like them I am also a Tarlaqueño.

(picture shows me as a young Salesian in theology, the time I wrote this article)

Thursday, 10 January 2008

God Walks on Brown Legs

And found Him found Him found Him

Found the Hand to hold me up!

He held me like a burning poem

And waved me all over the world.

José Garcia Villa

It was late in the afternoon of January 9 in the Year of the Great Jubilee. It was a Sunday, but I was caught in a traffic jam. I was in the heart of the district of Quiapo. It had not occurred to me that it was the feast of the Black Nazarene. Rather than lose my cool and curse myself for having been at the wrong place at the wrong time, I was in a good mood and was a bit more reflective than usual. I was just there wondering at the sight of the great crowd, a mass of bodies that packed the lane. And they were men, not women. They who gathered were not there expecting edible giveaways; nor were they paid to go there. They were there on their own accord, moving with everybody else, savoring the delight of treading barefoot in procession accompanying the figure of the famous Black Nazarene of Quiapo.

It was the figure of Christ, dressed in maroon robes, that was obviously the star of the show. Some men who had gathered for the event wore the same shade—however faded—for their apparel. Others were half naked and their bodies glistened with sweat. Some were more fortunate as they were able to cling to the statue…

The Black Nazarene of Quiapo is one of the figures of Christ that has earned a place in the hearts of Filipinos, many of whom are of the poorer class. This one and the other figures also of Christ that have attracted numerous devotees throughout the decades, that have steadily asserted through the practices of popular piety that he is deeply embedded into the culture of the Filipino people.

“Gods walk on brown legs” is how the renowned Filipino poet Rafael Zulueta da Costa ends his poem “Like the Molave.” I would like to make an adaptation of this: God walks on brown legs. In the quest for an inculturated Christ, the Filipino himself looks for someone who is like him--not only in color (although he can easily relate to a Christ who shares with him even the color of his skin), but more than that. The Filipino looks for a person who is like him: lowly, suffering, an underdog, burdened with a cross. To earn exaltation, he had to look for the Hand that would lift him up. And in the figures of Christ that they hold dear, the Filipinos “found Him found Him found Him.” And in the figures of Christ that they hold dear like the Black Nazarene, the Filipinos have found God to be this hand. Through popular piety, men and women have sought for God and found Him.

I remember one afternoon when in a seminar-workshop on popular religiosity I sat a-pondering in the multi-media hall of the Maryhill School of Theology, when I thought of the millions of Filipinos who wanted to touch Christ. Touch him—they did, literally, or others must have thought they did, but did not in actuality. I sat in a trance, for I was convinced that they did touch him after all. Their hands on the image, their knees on the floor—aye, they touched him. Theirs was the experience that theological speculation might never give them. I blurted out to myself: “Personally, I’d rather have a people steeped in religiosity, in a seemingly exaggerated expression, than a godless people.”

Now I am convinced: this piety that they have is a treasure for it is a given, a raw material. With this in one’s hands, that person can do much. It is a long, tedious process, but yes, it is a power possible. And bring it before God’s hands—it is power invincible.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

January 13, 2008 Distribution of Cards

January 9, 2008
Dear Parents,
Peace and joy, and a grace-filled new year!
Before your sons went for their Christmas break, the period of evaluation for the third quarter was held. Hence, another quarter of scholastic activity has been evaluated. For this we would like to invite you for the DISTRIBUTION OF REPORT CARDS on January 13, 2008 which is this coming Sunday.
The programme for the card-giving will be much simpler this time, since we have postponed the scheduled Parents’ Day. The detailed schedule is as follows:
AM
8:30 Holy Mass in the Gymnasium (Presider: Fr. Rolo Alcasid, SDB, Rector)
9:30 Dispersal into sections for the distribution of Report Cards. C/o Ms. Wilma Mendoza (Asst. Principal for Academic Affairs), Ms. Christine Solares (Asst. Principal for Student Affairs) and Class Advisers.
10:30 Home Sweet Home
We would like to remind the parents that the distribution of report cards would not go beyond 11:30 in the morning. Thank you and God bless.
Sincerely yours,

Fr. Joel N. Camaya, SDB
High School Principal

A.D.

Happy New Year! I am very sure you have welcomed the New Year in your very own way, carrying on with the annual family traditions that you have been practicing—most probably with the midnight mass (which others have put earlier so as not to endanger themselves with the firecrackers that climax at the coming of the New Year at 12:00 midnight) and then the Media Noche, the beautiful midnight meal celebrated after making noise or listening to noise, the herald of the coming of 2008.

I was sorry to have welcomed this year from my bed as I was down with fever, cough and colds. I did wake up at the strike of midnight and rose to greet my parents and my brother who were in the house with me. I went back to bed shortly after and rose up the next day to celebrate mass with my family.

The days before and even after the First of January, the television shows were featuring what was special for this coming year. Psychics came to their annual appearance and gave predictions. Much was about 2008 being the “Year of the Rat”. Among many other things, they were saying who was lucky and who was not. One show even featured rodents—big and small—taken from a zoo, with a zoologist giving a scholarly exposition of what rats are all about: from the different species to their habitat to their nutrition and smell.

I was born on the year of the rat and so I was interested a bit. Year in and year out they present all these animals that take turns in being the highlight, as is presented in the Chinese calendar.

My apprehension in all this is that Christians might be too taken up by all this talk about the Year of the Rat (or Pig, Dog, Rooster, etc.) that they forget that every year is actually a celebration of the Year of the Lord—for this is what A.D. means: Anno Domini ("in the year of the Lord"). We give little importance to that short phrase that is even present in our diplomas. The coming of Christ has split history into two: what came before him and what came together with his coming. As we are still enjoying the novelty of writing 2008, let us not forget to dedicate our year to Christ himself. After all, it is the Year of the Lord.