Sunday, January 31, 2010

Editorial Cartoon of the Phil. Daily Inquirer, 31 Jan. 2010

The pic is somewhat blurry, but it depicts a priest throwing a lasso at a rock, called 'Faith'. The sea is very stormy and murky, and represents the evils that beset modern societies today. The priest is at the head of a small banca, which is carrying several people, a symbol of the Filipino people. Behind the rock is a sunny, tropical island, perhaps to symbolize paradise.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Case of the Hidden Monstrance

I heard this story from a Jesuit professor some months ago. This is a true story.

In the 1980s, a newly ordained Jesuit was sent to minister to the people of Barangka, a tiny barangay in the city of Marikina. Now, Barangka wasn't really the wealthiest of places; in fact, it is quite small, cramped, and a bit dirty. The people there were mostly blue collar types who enjoyed the simple things in life. The Jesuit was warmly received by his new parishioners, despite the fact that he was, for all intents and purposes, practically a high-born aristocrat who did not really speak Tagalog very well.

Months after the new priest had settled into his parish, one particularly stormy afternoon revealed to him the dilapidated state of the parish he served. And since the parish was located in Marikina-- one of the most flood-prone areas in all of Metro Manila-- he was impelled to do something, lest the church crumble eventually. And so the Jesuit headed to his convento, a small and rather old structure that simultaneously served as the parish hall, the rectory, and the sacristy. There was a porch and a small garage at the first level of the convento (the priest's living quarters and office were located on the second floor, apparently), and in that sorry area was a small, tattered, wooden desk. Its varnish had all but faded and its edges betrayed none of the skill of the craftsmen that made it. Once, when the secretary was away on an errand, the newly ordained priest checked to see his secretary's log book to check if there were any appointments for the day.

Seeing none, he thought of replacing the log book in the drawer; but a sudden glint of brightness, like sunshine struggling to escape a dark and foetid cave, struck his eye. And so he pulled the drawer forward; what he saw next shocked him. It was a pyx, a rather big one at that. Though it seemed to have lost some of its luster, there was no denying the quality of its craftsmanship. The Jesuit weighed the golden pyx, finding it heavy. More remarkable, though was that its edges were studded in diamonds-- real diamonds, the kind that could very easily make it a target for thieves.

Eventually the secretary came back, and the curious Jesuit asked her if she had known that the pyx had been there all along. She replied in the positive, saying that his (the Jesuit) predecessors thought of hiding it in plain sight. She explained that the pyx had been with the parish for twenty years, and that it had been loaned to them by the Jesuits of the Ateneo de Manila, as a token of that Order's friendship with their community.

'Would you like to see the monstrance now, Father?'

As if the discovery of that pyx had not been enough, there was apparently a bigger surprise awaiting the Jesuit. The elderly secretary led him to an old, dusty part of the convento that was little used; the Jesuit himself, who was a professor of philosophy at the Ateneo, would often hie off to the university and spent little time in the convento. She pointed to an old, ratty looking closet that smelt like naphthalene and whose wood had practically rotted; opened it, and showed their new parish priest its contents. And what a beautiful sight it was!

Inside the closet, partially obscured by some old chasubles, was a thing fit for a king. It was a monstrance, some three or four feet tall, made of the purest gold. Though it too seemed to have warranted more than a few swabs to restore some of its sheen, it was unmistakably, undeniably golden, a baroque fantasy with a sunburst nearly a foot high. The rays of the sunburst were studded with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. It was a mind-boggling sight, and the irony of its being contained in such a space was exceedingly great; the Jesuit estimated it to have weighed ten pounds at the very least. There was no doubt in his mind that the monstrance, at the current market value then, would have sufficed to buy a house in one of Manila's wealthier subdivisions.

'Do you want it back, Father? The Jesuits said we could use it as long as we want; but there's hardly benediction anymore, and I'm not sure how long we can keep this up. It is rightfully yours, anyway, so if you want to take it back, we are okay with it.'

The Jesuit took her up on her offer, and carted the monstrance back to the Ateneo the next day.

* * *

Today, years after that incident, the Jesuit recalls how the monstrance mysteriously vanished. When he had brought it back from his humble Barangka parish, he entrusted it to the Loyola House of Studies; the seminarians apparently stored it in some vault, to be used only at important occasions. One time, the Jesuit, who still teaches philosophy today, suddenly remembered the incident of the monstrance. In Santa Ana, a suburb of Manila, a house run by the Jesuits for its elderly members was in danger of collapsing, partly from age, and partly from neglect. A suggestion came out that pushed for selling the house. The Jesuit thought that the monstrance, which was already worth millions in the eighties, would be able to solve their conundrum if sold.

Curiously, no one among the seminarians and even his fellow Jesuits seem to have remembered where they put it. One of them suggested opening a particular vault; but there was nothing inside. Sadly, it seems as if this monstrance, which had been very little used, even in the 1960s, has been consigned to the dustbins of memory.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

January Feasts

An article from the Philippine Daily Inquirer. January is proving to be a very busy month for me, so please say a prayer for my intentions. Also, remember to pray for the victims of the terrible earthquake in Haiti, and, closer to home, the Christians in Malaysia, especially our fellow Catholics, who have been victimized by the majority Muslim population.

January feasts

By Ambeth Ocampo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 21:59:00 01/05/2010

Filed Under: Festive Events (including Carnivals), Christmas

IN CHURCH last Sunday, people were told that the Christmas Season was officially over with the Feast of the Epiphany. This explains why Christmas décor promptly returned to storage on Monday.

But our décor is still up because we are too fatigued to handle the clean-up. My excuse is that the Feast of the Epiphany, better known in the Philippines as “Three Kings” traditionally ends on January 6. If that fails, the next excuse will be that the “official” end of Christmas should be this Sunday, the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism. When all else fails, we just shrug our shoulders and say we want the festive spirit to last till Chinese New Year, which falls on Valentine’s Day this year.

Many readers remember me around this time of year for a column I wrote years ago about a friend of my grandparents who was named Circumcision Garcia because she was born when the liturgical calendar still set January 1 as the Feast of the Circumcision. These days, January 1 is celebrated as the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God. The former abbot of the Benedictine monastery in Manila and rector of San Beda College, the late Wilfrido Rojo, once told me with a twinkle in his eyes that he used to get a New Year’s Day card from cloistered sisters who greeted him, “Happy Circumcision Day!” Now all that fun is lost. With the change in calendars, we also lose some historical context.

Parents were not very creative in the past. They only picked the names of their children off calendars! For example, Andres Bonifacio, born on November 30, was named after Andrew the Apostle who was ironically one of the heavenly protectors of Spanish Manila. January 6, the traditional Feast of the Three Kings, meant that boys would be named either Melchor, Gaspar, or Baltazar.

On Jan. 6, 1812, a little girl was christened Melchora Aquino. In her old age she provided food and shelter to Katipuneros. Known in the neighborhood as “Melchora,” she is known to all Filipinos and Quezon City commuters as “Tandang Sora.”

The Feast of the Three Kings is a Spanish celebration that did not quite catch on in the Philippines. A relic of this Spanish tradition is still kept by members of Casino Español in Manila where three men in medieval costume ride around in donkeys (I wonder where they get these) throwing candies to children. Last Sunday, Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim got into a funny costume and distributed grocery bags to adults. But at least, the Three Kings tradition has a bit more biblical basis than Santa Claus.

This new year in St. Scholastica’s College, and other Benedictine communities for women with German roots, the good sisters wrote, with chalk, on the top of every door sill this seemingly magic formula: 20+C+M+B+10. The numbers represent the new year, 2010, and I was told the letters corresponded to the names traditionally given to the Three Kings (or Magi or Wise Men, depending on the source you are reading): Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar. In the Philippines they are known as Gaspar, Melchor, and Baltazar, but we cannot use the initials G.M.P. atop doorways because C.M.B. stands for “Christus mansionem benedicat” (that’s Latin for “Christ bless this house.”)

I bought home a piece of chalk from school yesterday to write this on our doorway. I advised my sister to do the same, but she rolled her eyes and declared that she has since given up on all these New Year superstitions. She didn’t chide me for my adherence to tradition, so I kept my peace knowing this same beloved sister always rues that fact that I am always luckier than the whole family combined. Well, nothing is lost and there’s everything to gain in writing a simple formula on the doorway with chalk, right?

January is also the time when we see two images of Christ venerated by the multitude. This Saturday, January 9, there will be frenzy in downtown Manila as barefoot male devotees from far and wide converge on Quiapo (this year also the Quirino Grandstand) for the Feast of the Black Nazarene. An ancient image of Christ carrying the cross taken to the Philippines from Mexico will be brought out of the church for his annual rounds through the small streets of the city.

January is also the month for another image of Christ, the Santo Niño, whose origins go all the way back to 1521 when the Queen of Cebu (name unknown) was baptized and christened Juana (for the Spanish Queen known in history as “Juana la loca” or “Joanna the mad”). She asked Magellan for a present and he showed her two images: that of the Virgin Mary and that of the Santo Niño. She chose the latter, and that image is venerated in Cebu to this day and has spawned others from Tondo to Ternate, Cavite.

In the Benedictine Abbey of Our Lady of Montserrat lies yet another image of the Christ Child better known as the Santo Niño de Praga, which is venerated on the last Sunday of January.

There is so much in our culture and tradition that remains despite all the changes in the liturgical calendar. It is always good to take stock of the past as we confront the future, and one way to do that is to revisit the various feasts in old-style calendars, the ones printed on newsprint in blue and red complete with the phases of the moon. Revisit these to get a sense of why we are the way we are.

Comments are welcome at


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Scenes from the Black Nazarene Procession, 2010

January 9th is the Feast of the Black Nazarene in Manila. It is occasion that draws millions to converge on the hallowed grounds of St. John the Baptist church-- more popularly known as the Basilica Minore of the Black Nazarene-- in the Quiapo district of the city. The grand procession commemorates the traslacion of the image from Bagumbayan to its present home in Quiapo, and has been observed for three centuries already. Here are a few scenes from that day. I will post something about the procession, which I have done for the past two years, within the next few days.

(NB: This footage is from 2009)The Nazarene returns to Quiapo church. Shown in the clip above is the exchange of peace during the Mass. This is outside the church, and the crush of people has already extended to Plaza Miranda.

Various shots of the procession making its torturous way back to the church. The crowd that accompanied the image at all times, I am told, numbered at least two million.