Saturday, December 31, 2011

thoughts and best wishes before the clock strikes twelve


With these words I greet the year 2012 as we enter into it. As I write, one by one, depending on the time zones that they are in, people and communities would be ushering in the new year.

Here where I am at present, in this lovely corner of Catalonia called Costa Brava, particularly in Palafrugell, between us and the New Year are still some hours. As some may remember and be well aware of, here in Europe and in other parts of the world, a lot of countries are suffering economically and continue to do so. The economic crisis and the hard times that lurk ahead is a constant topic on everybody’s lips, and a preoccupation that presses hard on everybody. Because of this, a lot of us view the coming times almost with dread, and anticipate the dark days that are to come.

The liturgy and the Christmas festivities of these last few days seem to paint us a picture that is different from the reality that surrounds us. How could we be capable of celebrating these feasts, when dark times lie in store for us? What message could the rosy nativity scenes that adorn our houses and churches give us; how could these inspire us in these times? Perhaps it could help that, even though we are accustomed to picture these scenes of the birth of our Lord in dainty scenes, the fact is that things were not easy for that lowly couple that came from Nazareth; much less was it rosy for the child born of Mary in the grotto of Bethlehem. In this we could see precisely the message of the Incarnation: the Eternal Word became flesh, so that, sharing our very humanity in all of its aspects, except sin, we would not feel alone, for God is with us. This is the eternal message of Christmas: the eternal Son of God chose to become the Son of Mary in order to share with man the life that knows no end, to illumine us with the light that even the darkness cannot overcome. The center of Christmas is found in one name: EMMANUEL.

As we enter 2012, amid fears and predictions and dark forecasts, the heart of Christmas—Jesus Christ, eternal Son of the Father and Son of Mary—ought to console and strengthen us. GOD IS WITH US!!! Most surely, hard times will come (have we ever known a time when we haven’t had any difficulty of some sort?), but this is never enough reason for us to lose the hope and the joy that is proper to a follower of Christ and a child of God!!!

This is what the Solemnity of the Mary, the Mother of God, teaches us. Aside from the fact that we do not have to lose hope, it gives us the reason for not doing so: we do not lose hope precisely because of who and what we are: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are!!!” (1 Jn 3:1). And what kind of parent would forget his child? In Isaiah we hear one of the most consoling truths that the Scripture could tell us: “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these would forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands”(Is 49:15-16).

Let us go forward then, not with fear, though fearful times may await, but with the hope that strengthens and makes the hearts of those who believe capable of flying even in the midst of the darkest storm. Convinced that God never leaves nor abandons those who call on him in both good times and bad, may the smiles in our hearts ever bring light in this world, already darkened by so much discouragement and lack of hope.


Monday, December 19, 2011

The Philippine President and a lost moment of valor

I’m not a fan of Pnoy, as the occupant of the country’s highest political office is fond of styling himself. I haven’t been since the beginning, when he was a nobody in the Senate, who was suddenly thrust into the limelight because his mother died. Suddenly, overnight, under the steady rain of yellow confetti, Benigno Simeon Aquino, Jr. becomes almost something akin to a Messiah come to save his people, a role that he believes is his by divine right of the people, and which gives him the power and the audacity to work for reforms, hurling thunderbolts here and there.

Don’t mistake me, I’m not a fan of the previous administration either. Ganun ba yun—quipped a friend in that modern Aeropagus we more commonly call Facebook—Basta hindi ka sang-ayon kay PNoy, Pro-CGMA ka ka? (is this how things are right now, that just because you don’t agree with Pnoy, you’re for CGMA (Congresswoman Gloria Macapagal Arroyo)?). These words were no more than an observation of the ambiance of current opinion. You could see that where the action really is: in the comment boxes of news articles in the webpages of the more prestigious Philippine dailies. These com-boxes could be as dirty as the hidden alleys of Barcelona and as busy as a hive. Here you would see people who differed from Pnoy’s view of things being attacked by his lackeys for being CGMA cronies. Is reality that merely two sided? Are we going the way of another dictatorship? I’m inclined to see it that way, a rather silent one, a dictatorship of public opinion, I might say. Pnoy won’t be so audacious as to do a Marcos; he would rather be caught dead than do a Gloria, though I won’t be surprised if, after four years, the same charges be leveled against him, irrespective of whether they be truthful or not, Philippine traditional politics being as it is. But yes he is being tyrannical in a way, vindictively tyrannical. I am digressing.

As of the moment one thing that had people buzzing much like bees in a hive is his delay in visiting typhoon stricken northern Mindanao, first explained by his staff as due to careful planning and work in assessing the situation and how to best respond to it. Later on it came out that he was in a party with the PSG, laughing and having good time with his people, as a comedienne would later tweet. I don’t have much against him spending time having good time with people who work for him, but then for a lot of people this appeared to be exactly the opposite of the image that people would like him to have at the moment. His sisters and the rest of his office have come to his rescue (what would one expect? Were I to trip at least I would expect my own to do the same for me right?) but it seemed to boomerang instead. People would always have their reasons; I’m sure Pnoy would be having his (and I won’t be surprised if it were a really lame one).

Everybody has the right to party, especially during this season, but one thing that Pnoy might have grasped is that, if he were seeking to have that burnished image of a president that really cares for greater things that incidentally fall beyond his political agenda, he could have grabbed this opportunity that literally fell from the angry skies. A lightning visit would’ve given the image of a president who wanted to handle things firsthand, and to be one with the people. When the skies poured water in lethal abundance, and when tears of disconsolate grief rose up in return, the whole country was in Cagayan de Oro; the president was somewhere in the capital. He could have went there immediately. Just being there could have been enough. I could imagine that at certain moments words are superfluous; there are times when being there is more than enough. Disaster plans come minutes later. Just as his immediate presence could have said something, his delayed presence in those ravaged areas had aroused much comment and consternation.

It made me think of something a leader once did in a time like this. It was wartime, and the clouds of war loomed darkly above, even over a place as eternal as Rome. The morning of July 14, 1943 was promising to be just like any other, where it not for the arrival of 521 Allied planes who suddenly flew over Rome and dropped their lethal load of bombs over the district surrounding the basilica of San Lorenzo outside the walls. The walls shook, and the shock waves reached the windows of the papal study. Once it was established that everything was clear, it didn’t take an hour for Pius XII to be out in the papal automobile speeding towards the devastated area, unaccompanied by the usual escort, but with an aide, Msgr. Montini (the future Pope Paul VI) and the chauffeur. He went to the shattered basilica and stayed for two and a half hours. Peter Hebblethewaite, a distinguished expert on Vatican affairs, wrote about the scene in his biography of Paul VI:

“It was the first time the Pope had been outside the Vatican since the mobs had hooted him in 1940. He knelt among the ruins and recited the psalm De Profundis (Out of the depths O Lord). The crowd gathered to pray with him. He comforted the wounded and tried to console the bereaved. His white soutane was soon flecked with blood. The Pope failed to save Rome from the bombs but he was closer to the people of Rome than Mussolini had ever been”. (Peter Hebblethwaite, Paul VI, Paulist Press, New York 1993, p. 184)

By the time Rome was completely occupied by the Germans, the King, his ministers, and Mussolini with his, had all but abandoned Rome to her fate. Pius XII was the only figure of authority that the city had during those hard times, and the people never considered the figure of the Pope a distant one. He was immersed in trying to do the best in every situation, in trying to provide safety and shelter to everyone—either Jews or Christians—within the walls of churches and ecclesiastical domain, safe within the limits of Vatican neutrality. The daw the armistice was announced, the city filled the square of St. Peter’s to pay homage to Pius XII, Defensor civitatis (defender of the city of Rome).

What was the point of this flash back? Well, certainly Pnoy is no cleric, much less a saint, nor did Pius XII do it in order to earn pogi points among the Romans. But both offices hold within their bounds the obligation to be with their people most especially in times of adversity, in which the presence in its initial moments is enough balm to strengthen the ailing soul.

Perhaps Pnoy should’ve considered this, that in being at the scene in its first moments he wouldn’t only be fulfilling something that falls within his office, but he would also further his image which is important in any political career, and which is also helpful in allaying any further criticism from those who do not take kindly to him. But more importantly, he should’ve properly considered the fact that being with these people was of far more urgent importance, than being in a party. Well, he can have his party in the evening if he wants to, but would that keep him from going to the depressed areas the next day?

What is certain is that he hadn’t considered them, and that he had botched this opportunity, this moment of glory, unlike many other leaders whom history had enshrined in its memory because they had known to take charge of a situation that called for valor. How he would get out of this episode, and what pathetic reasons and excuses and even possibly —and dare I say it, lies—that he may have to concoct to save face is another story, one that does not capture my fancy at the moment to elaborate.

Christmas and Sendong

As of the moment, the numbers continue to rise, with 650 dead and several hundreds still missing. Thousands left homeless, and the local government and agencies trying to respond as best as they could to the drama that continues to unfold. The photos convey more vividly what the papers had communicated: entire communities of shanties and dwellings of the poor crushed by the brutal onslaught of the winds and the rising waters, people wandering about, most half clad, many for whom the clothes on their backs where the only thing they could bring with them in time. however the photo that gave the tragedy a face—and which had done its rounds in the Internet—was that of a disconsolate father clutching his dead child to his breast.

One would think that some evil genius could have crafted this kind of thing to happen, when people were most vulnerable, during the night, in their sleep. Of all the seasons in the year, one may be impelled to ask, why does this have to take place in the threshold of Christmas? I don’t think many would blame God for this, but I am certain that thousands upon thousands of voices are rising to the heavens, not in outrage against God, but expressing that question that has more than once issued from the human heart: WHY?

From my perch, thousands of miles away, despite of the great distance, the news affected us back here all the same. MAS DE 400 MUERTOS POR LAS INUNDACIONES Y LOS DESPRENDIMIENTOS DE TIERRA EN FILIPINAS, the headline in today’s paper read.

But let me go back to the thought that I had earlier tried to develop. I don’t think a lot of people would be seriously angry at God for this. Many would feel disillusioned, but I don’t think they would be seriously angry. The true question would be, both for the affected and the bereaved, why would He permit this to happen?

I won’t claim to know the answer. His ways are not our ways, nor are His thoughts like ours. But certainly I do believe that the proximity of the Christmas feast and this tragedy desired by none, not even by God give a new depth to the celebrations for which we are preparing ourselves. For weeks we have been gaily going about with the preparations for the season: buying gifts, planning parties, coming up with charitable initiatives, and doing ourselves spiritually in order to enter more into a meaningful celebration of Christmas. All of this is okay. Sometimes, however, the comfort and amenability of our stable situation could allow us to have a superficial appreciation of the message of the Christmas mystery. Christmas is none other than the mystery of the Incarnation, God-with-us, Emmanuel.

Seeing this entire rampage, wrought by the unfeeling brutality of nature, one may ask: were was God in all this? As one surveys the no-man’s land scenario, one could as well talk about the silence of God. Yesterday I sat down in the confessional in one of the parishes here in Pamplona. In one of the confessions, I remember saying to a particular penitent that in those times that God seems most silent, it is when he is most near. These words, whispered in the dimness of the confessional, came back to me as I pondered over this piece of news. Where was God? Though not immediately evident, one could come to this conviction: God was surely present, and so continues to be even more. He is present in the heart of the father who grieves for his lost child; He is most close to the family who is at a loss to see where they would be spending Christmas, as their shack had been destroyed; He is perceived in the good intentions of many people who sympathize with the affected and the bereaved, and is at the heart of every initiative to aid. In the miracle of the Incarnation, men tried to look for God where He was not to be found; they found Him in the most unexpected of places.

It is my guess that for many this Christmas is going to be very different. Yes, even the most ugly of all tragedies is capable of showing us the face of God, in the face of the pained, of the benevolent, of those who offer their hearts in prayer, of those who seek to be of help in anything. As they say, the darkness makes the light even brighter; this crude reality of tragedy allows us to appreciate Emmanuel even more: God-with-us, a God who is not impervious to our suffering, and has shared our human condition in order to make clear to us that we ought not to feel ourselves alone.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 18, 2011


With this fourth Sunday we have come almost to the climax of the Advent season. Guided by the liturgical readings, we have prepared ourselves to celebrate the approaching feast of the Lord’s birth, to relive once again that event which has defined the history of our redemption, while awaiting the fulfillment of the Savior’s work when He comes again in glory. At the start of this season of watchful hope we have been enjoined by the Lord himself to keep watch and be prepared (the First Sunday) for His coming; as we progressed we are reminded by the words of the Baptist to prepare the way of the Lord and make straight his paths, on which is best done through repentance and the forgiveness of sins (Second Sunday). Finally, last Sunday (the Third of Advent) we see the same John, the forerunner of the promised Messiah, point out to the Christ himself, indicating Him who is already among us, who by the hardness of their hearts men were incapable of recognizing. This progressive movement ends with our eyes finally resting on the mystery that lies at the very heart of this season: the mystery of the Incarnation; the mystery announced from the ages through the prophets, which announced the fulfillment of God’s promise to dwell definitively with His people, to be with them. The Incarnation is God-with-us, God living among us, God who has pitched his tent among us: Emmanuel.

The First reading presents the figure of David, and his plans to built the temple, which would give glory to the God of Israel. This edifice, once built, would be the symbol of God’s presence with his people, his dwelling place among them. Encouraged by the prophet Nathan, he is bent on pursuing his plan. But the Lord, who thwarts the plans of men, and who transforms these very plans in wonderful and unexpected ways with His wisdom and love, makes it known to David that He himself would build His dwelling among men, and that this would be realized through David himself. The Lord, however, would not be counting on whatever plans David might have, nor in the skill of Israel’s best artisans; this dwelling would be realized through David’s seed, through his progeny: “I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins, and I will make his kingdom firm. I will be a father to him, and he will be a son to me”. A historical interpretation of this would have us looking at Solomon, his successor on the throne, and who in fact fulfilled this project of his of building the Temple; Solomon who was blessed and renowned for his wisdom, eminent among the attributes of God himself, exhibited by the sons of God. But as time progressed, and as man drew near to the fullness of time, a much more profound meaning to this promise was understood; man began to see that this referred to the plan of God which was to be revealed in time, one which the Apostle Paul refers to in his letter to the Romans (Second Reading): “the revelation of a mystery kept secret for long ages, but now manifested through the prophetic writings, and according to the command of the eternal God, made known to all nations to bring about the obedience of faith”.

This plan—the building up of this dwelling place, tangible sign of God’s presence among us—is fulfilled in the Incarnation. More than just a concept, it is an event: and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. This building, planned by David, was realized in a way that went beyond his wildest dreams: a dwelling that was not only meant to symbolize God’s presence, but God himself IN THE REALITY OF THE FLESH, God Himself assuming our humanity. In the Incarnation, God had built a Temple that would never be destroyed, one that would never be corrupted, not even by death. In Jesus of Nazareth, we see glory as of the only Son of the Father (cfr. Jn 1:14).

This is the central mystery—not merely of the Christmas season, but of our Faith, of our redemption, one that was brought about by the humble “yes” of the Virgin. This is what the Gospel episode from Luke tells us this Sunday, that of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, which ends with these words that are all too familiar to us: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word”.

Reflecting on what the liturgy has prepared for our consideration today, I could not help but be amazed at God’s kindness and generosity, in His goodness and in His wisdom; the Lord who allows man to play a part in the fulfillment of His wonderful works. Within the wonder of the Incarnation, manifestation of God’s omnipotence and love, we are also witnesses to the willingness of David to cooperate with providence; we see the humility with which Mary took a decisive part in the history of salvation. Their example and their life shows us that in realizing His saving plan He also count on the help and generosity of ordinary men and women, a collaboration that makes them shine with greatness. This, for our part, shows that miracles do happen, not necessarily when we decide to do things for God, but precisely when we allow God to great things in us and through us.  

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Christmas, as the saying goes, is right around the corner, and yet from the view outside of my window, four stories above the street in Calle Monasterio de Oliva here in Pamplona, there is nothing that belies the fact that the Christmas season is fast approaching. Aside from the Christmas lights shining merrily on the windows of the Chinese shops (yes, there are Chinese merchants even here in Spain), and a few posters showing the Christ Child in a few apartment windows—which could be another equivalent to “A practicing Catholic lives here” sign—there is nothing else that shows the fact that it’s nearly Christmas. Well, at least if you look out of my window. There are people bustling by, but no sign of the Christmas cheer whatsoever. You’ll have to go to the city center in order to see Christmas lights on the streets; Pamplona could not qualify as a serious rival to Brgy. Luntad of Palo, Leyte in terms of Christmas lights.

By no means is this my first Christmas outside of the Philippines; having done my theological formation at the Colegio Eclesiastico Internacional Bidasoa—an international seminary located in this same province of Navarra (Spain)—I’ve  spent four Christmases away from my family. This however, would be my first Christmas abroad as a priest.

I believe that I speak for everyone when I say that December and the Christmas season have a special meaning for us Filipino priests. For many of us, the start of the Advent season means preparing and conducting recollections, looking for sponsors and Mass celebrants for the Misas de Gallo to be celebrated in our parishes and chapels, bracing ourselves for this traditional pre-Christmas dawn novena, and preparing for the gifts we would have to make to relatives and friends, as well as parishioners, not to mention the invitations to parties to this or that group in our respective communities. In short, for a Filipino priest, December is a busy time, comparable only to the season of Lent, and this priestly activity merely increases as the month progresses.

I was ordained a priest the day before the traditional Aguinaldo Masses were about to start. On December 16, in parishes and chapels all over the country, millions of Filipino Catholics would make the effort to rise very early in the morning—some very, very early—in order to take part in this unique tradition, only done in the Philippines, and in every place where a Filipino community may gather. This novena of grace was designed to be an immediate preparation for Christmas. In my parish in Palo, Leyte we hold this novena to Nuestra Señora de Belen (Our Lady of Bethlehem, or of the Manger), to implore for graces. I have lived these days to the full since the first moment; in fact, the Misas de Gallo were precisely the first moments of my priesthood. I would rise very early in the morning, excited to celebrate the Mass with the faithful wherever my schedule led me that morning. The Mass would be celebrated  with white vestments, since it was already the Christmas liturgy that was being celebrated. This being so, there was much solemnity; the Gloria  was intoned and the songs were festive. There were flowers in the altar, and the muted atmosphere of Advent gave way to the joy of Christmas. Incense was employed with liberality, something which delighted the sacristans, who did their office with the graveness any cardinal of the Roman curia would envy. The congregation may struggle to be awake during the sermon, for which the priest would have to make the homily more meaningful and even entertaining. The churches would be filled to excess (which led a priest to remark that he hoped that people would take the adage “every day is Christmas” seriously, so that the churches may be filled thus every ordinary Sunday) and the congregation would spill out into the plaza. One would see people both young and old, but the majority of the youth is really noticeable. After the Mass, people would usually return to their homes; many—especially the youth—would chose to remain together with their friends, gathered in the plaza or in the parish. Sometimes the parishes—through the generosity of the donors for that day—would prepare hot food and drinks for anybody who would care to partake of them. The priest would usually remain with the faithful, chatting, greeting people, eating with them.

For three years I had lived these days intensely and with relish. I do so because of the mark it has left in my ministry and in my priesthood. I have never taken lightly the fact that the first Mass I technically celebrated after my ordination was an Aguinaldo Mass, having been ordained on the 15th of December, 2007. I was ordained on the days that the Filipino religiosity had marked in preparation for Christmas. Perhaps that accounts for the “Incarnational” aspect that I have always thought essential to priestly spirituality: the ordained priesthood is but a continuation of the Incarnation of the Word of God. This is not something that I have invented myself, nor is it the fruit of my personal reflection, but one that I have learned from the treasury of the Catholic Faith. True, the priest is not a man for himself; in the words of Blessed John Paul II, he is to be a man for others. He is not to occupied with himself, but that he must tend toward the Christ-event, the Word of God made flesh, and lead others to enter into communion with this same Word. He is called to reflect the very same face of Christ, living and lovable, so that seeing him, the faithful may not look at the priest, but rather rest their gaze upon Jesus Christ. If Christ is the Word of God made flesh, who dwelt among us, with his life the priest must make his own an incarnation of this very same life, reflecting the splendor of this light which shines in the darkness and which the darkness had not overcome (cfr. Jn 1:5). Of this darkness the priest is conscious; he could see it in himself. That is why all throughout his priestly life he must always wage war against it ever defeating him, knowing that one could only battle the darkness with the light. This struggle against his own darkness he must live not only for his sake, but also thinking about his flock, who look to him for guidance and example as they struggle with their own darkness. The priest is far from perfect, we know, but who cares? Nobody could fault anyone for looking up at priests seeking guidance and looking for a model to imitate in the struggle for holiness: for the Church he is a city set on a hill, and a light placed upon a lampstand, whether he likes it or not. Nobody could blame the faithful for their disappointment and sadness when a priest falls low because of his sins. The priest is the one who must show the faithful the splendor of the coming dawn. I find it significant that the Simbang Gabi, over which the priest presides in persona Christi capitis, in the person of Christ the Head, as Christ himself, starts in darkness and ends with the first rays of dawn. He leads the faithful entrusted to his care towards the light, light that he does not manufacture on his own. When this light comes, he who had served as the light not hidden under the bushel basket but rather placed upon a stand, must give way to the Day that knows no end, Jesus Christ himself.

These considerations I make, as I celebrate four years of the gift that I had not merited, nor would ever be worthy to hold—the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ, and as we prepare ourselves to celebrate once more the traditional Filipino Christmas that is one of its kind, celebrated at home, in the Philippines, where the heart is, and abroad. Wherever there is a Filipino, no matter where he may be found, this Paskong Pinoy  is always celebrated. I for my part, continue to celebrate this Filipino Christmas. My present situation would never deter me from celebrating a tradition so dear to my priesthood as the Simbang Gabi, though I may be celebrating it in broad daylight, in the privacy and silence of the sacristy, because of how much it has taught me about this priesthood for which gratefully and humbly I would sing to God eternally in profound gratitude: misericordias tuas Domine in aeternam cantabo!

With Archbishop Palma, December 15, 2007

Monday, December 12, 2011

SUNDAY PLAN: San Sebastian (Donostia)

I’ll be having another exam tomorrow, the third in the succession of final exams the end of which I’m looking forward to, which would be on the 22nd of December. Not that the exams are particularly hard; compared to those that I had when I was studying theology way back four years ago in this same place, the battery of exams always put me on my toes (I’m not sure if that English expression exists. If not, I’ve just invented one). The exams that I’m having are calmer in comparison. Tomorrow I’ll be having one on the History of the Church in Latin America, which is interesting enough. The professor told us that she had decided to allow us to choose on what topic we wished to be examined in (the first time I ever heard of this type of arrangement, but hey, I’m all for it!). I chose to read about the history of the Philippines. That was great because I was the only Filipino in class and at least I would be giving the professor some variety when she begins to check the papers during Christmas break. The whole material consisted of four chapters, deliciously packed with new things that they didn’t teach us in grade school, nor in high school, nor in college. I guess old biases die hard, and I’m quite inclined to believe that we haven’t moved on from the Spanish-American war in some aspects. Or that, or we haven’t come to the acceptance of certain things.

I’ve come up with a pretty comprehensive outline about the chapters (I’ve learned from my readings on St. Charles Borromeo that he always had this maxim concerning studies: read well from a few well-chosen sources and always with a pen in hand), and as they say it in Spanish, no da pa’ más, there’s all there is to it.

Good thing that Alfonso López Menendez, another resident of this prestigious House of Albaizar and a good friend, had organized a weekend excursion and invited me and a few others. I readily said yes and this morning, taking our packed lunches, Alfonso, Ricardo Fernadez from Peru, Eugene Fadul (a kababayan from San Pablo) and I went off to the seaside city of San Sebastian (Donostia in Euskera). We left Pamplona in the morning; the city was cold and gloomy due to the fog that had settled upon it. As we were leaving Navarra, entering the Basque country it seemed we had stepped into another country (Basque separatists would surely agree with us), since the sun came out and the sky was almost perfectly clear. After parking under the city center, we came out and toured the sights. San Sebastian I think is the last major city aside from Bilbao before one crosses the Spanish frontier and enters into France. Paris—as far as I’ve learned from the road signs—is about 300 miles from were we were, and Biarritz and St. Jean de Luz, where the rich and the famous have their resorts, was not far from there. In fact, San Sebastian is also a favorite summer getaway for a lot of these people.

We first went to one of its beaches, where we watched a lot of surfers doing their thing. I would imagine that the water would’ve been freezing, which was the reason why people were looking at a man who waded into the water half-naked.

We visited some churches, all of which were really precious: the basilica of San Sebastian el Mártir el Antiguo, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, and another church which name I couldn’t remember.
A view from the wharf

One could see the Basque flag waving proudly from the
top of the fort on Urgello Hill. A marker indicates that the
French army surrendered here during the Napoleonic wars.


With the Fort and the Flag in the background. We were
joking that the flag served to remind us that we were in
another country

Basilica de San Sebastian Mártir el Antiguo

Sunday Mass in the basilica of St. Sebastian. Notice how few the faithful are.
There was a greater number of Mass-goers 500 meters away, at the Cathedral.

A side nave, leading to the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament.

A side altar that caught my attention. In the central panel
one may appreciate the Holy Family. This is quite unique,
since it is a group that includes the parents of
the Blessed Virgin, St. Anne and St. Joachim.
On the sides one may see the figures of two Jesuit saints,
St. Ignatius of Loyola on the left and St. Francis Xavier in
the right facing the altar. I suspect that this was under
the Jesuits at one time.
A close-up of the group

A frieze of St. Pius V adoring the Cross, above
the Tabernacle, situated to the left side facing
the altar. Seeing it confirmed my suspicion that
the church may have been built after the Council
of Trent.  

The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd,
Diocese of San Sebastian-Donostia

Centerpiece of the Cathedral: the Good Shepherd
The renowned pinchos of San Sebastian!
Pinchos are what we may call hors d'oeuvre, I think.

Excursionistas: Me, Eugene, Ricardo, and Aflonso

Saturday, December 10, 2011

3rd Sunday of Advent: IN PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS

A few years ago I remember watching a movie entitled In Pursuit of Happyness. I’m sure some of you who are reading this could have watched this movie, starring Will Smith and his son Jayden. I never got to understand why happiness was spelled with the letter y in the title. But anyhow, generally the film is the story (based on the experience of a real person) of a man struggling to find a living in order to sustain himself and his son. Virtually he nothing else in the world—not even a place to call his own wherein to spend the night. The only thing that he had was his son, a suitcase, the clothes on his back, and a lot of determination. If one were to view the film one couldn’t help but ask how the man could’ve been able to go through everything. In the end he was actually able to land a good job and make it well. Reflecting upon the movie, I think that the one thing that made him sustained him was the fact that he had his son with him always. It was his son that allowed him to meet the challenges that went his way in the pursuit of happiness. In fact, going further I wonder why the film is entitled as such, when the protagonists already sensed all along that the only reason for his being happy was already there by his side.

This third Sunday of Advent has traditionally called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is a Latin imperative verb that means “Rejoice! Be glad!”. The name is taken from the Entrance Antiphon of the Mass, taken from the letter of Paul to the Philippians: Gaudete in Domino semper; iterum dico, gaudete! Rejoice in the Lord always; I say it again, rejoice! (Phil 4: 4). Gladness and joy is the predominant theme of the liturgy this Sunday. It could be perceived in the subtle change of color, wherein violet gives way to deeper shade of pink (or rose, as it is properly called), as if to ease the penitential rigor of Advent; the rubrics allow for flowers to be placed upon the altar to make it more festive; the readings themselves talk about this gladness, which we all know is most proper to the Christmas season.

This theme turns our consideration to the nature of happiness? What do we mean by happiness? What really makes for gladness? These questions make sense, most especially as we approach Christmas. Everybody wants to be happy; nobody likes to take the role of the Grinch during these days. This is all the more relevant because the search for happiness—which could be translated into the search for meaning—is one which occupies modern man, and which, more often than not, one whose eludes him. This is one of the things that one cannot search on Google (which is a most useful instrument). People tend to equate happiness with having things, only to find out later that happiness cannot be possessed, much less bought. A lot of people, influenced by some psychological currents of thought and by some self-appointed gurus on personal well-being and happiness, think that happiness is a psychological state of mind, or could be translated in terms of mere comfort and personal well-being.

The readings for this Sunday could help us determine what this happiness is actually all about. In the First Reading we could hear the prophet Isaiah expressing his joy, which is IN God:  I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul. This joy also comes form the announcement made through the lips of Isaiah of that coming day of vindication, the day of the Lord’s visitation. It is an announcement that is echoed in the lips of John the Baptist in the Gospel; John who, having come to bear witness to the light, announces the fulfillment of the messianic promises. When asked by the priests and levites whether he was the Messiah who was to come, he reveals himself to be a mere messenger, a precursor of the Promised One who was already in their midst: There is one AMONG YOU whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” Joy is the response to the announcement that the day of the Lord’s visit has come upon man; it is the fruit of the realization that man is not alone, that the only lasting source of his joy—and joy itself—has come to be with him.

Happiness is not just mere well-being, the feeling of the healthy animal with life in its limbs; it is not a mere psychological state of mind , as Pope Paul VI pointed out in the only papal document dedicated to the topic of Christian joy, Gaudete in Domino (1975); it’s not even about possession of something. The readings and the liturgy tell us something about joy that we may oftentimes overlook: Happiness is a Presence; it is God-with-us, Emmanuel. Being such, it is personal, a person, who is not distant from us, bit rather someone whom we share our very existence with. It is being-with-God. This leads us to the reality of grace, the reality of sharing and living God’s intimate and Trinitarian life within us. This is the only real source of happiness. Anything may happen to us in this life, but as the Apostle Paul vividly expresses it, if God is with us, who can be against us? The protagonist in the movie In Pursuit of Happyness had to undergo a lot of things, but everything was bearable because he was inseparable from his son.

This is clearly seen in the life of the Virgin Mary. The greeting of the Angel precisely expresses the reason why she is blessed (most happy) among women, and why “all generations would call her blessed”: “Hail, favored one! The Lord is WITH you!” (Lk 1:28) . Her happiness is never separate from the fact that her Son is always with her: “blessed are you among women, AND blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus”.

This season of preparation is a time for us to be more conscious of the fact that we have to cultivate this presence of God within us. The source of true happiness cannot be found from without: it radiates from within a soul who has encountered God and is possessed by Him, one who does everything in its power—aided by the grace of God—to keep this presence shining always.

May Mary Immaculate, Mother of God and our Mother, help us to keep this life beating and alive within us, the intimate life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the only source of authentic joy that no sorrow on earth could ever take away. Amen, come Lord Jesus!

Sunday, December 4, 2011


Perhaps those of us who could look back at our student days (or those who are still at it) would remember the expectation with which prepare for the coming of the final exams. All throughout the course we would be busy absorbing material, reading, researching, seeking more information in order to buttress that which has already been learned. Everything is processed with much activity. But as the exams draw nearer, there is a shift in activity; from this point one doesn’t seek to inculcate new knowledge about the subject, but rather seeks to put into orderly outlines everything that has been mentally digested, pruning here and there, not concerning oneself so much with details, but going straight to the heart of every subject matter. A great deal of purification and simplification may be present in the final preparation before the exam. To prepare oneself means to purify oneself.

I’m saying this not because I myself would soon be entering into a period of exams this December, starting with this week, but because this thought of purification is something that we have to keep especially in mind as we continue our preparation for Christmas. This Sunday the call to be prepared is made especially through the mouth of the Baptist, the herald of the Lord, the Voice that announces the coming of the Word made flesh, that willingly fades away, allowing the Word to remain and speak for itself. This voice, who is none other than John the Baptist, does not speak in favor of himself, but rather points toward the figure of Christ. With the finger pointed towards the coming of the Messiah in the flesh, he announces the need for preparation, echoing the words of the oracle of the prophet Isaiah, which we hear in the First Reading of the Mass: “Every valley should be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low. The rugged land shall be made plain, the rough country, a broad valley.” What are these valleys? These mountains? In order to see them we need not look farther than ourselves: the valleys of our selfishness and egoism, our wallowing in self-pity, which is nothing else but the bitter fruit of our pride and illusions of self sufficiency, which like mountains and hills prevent or at least make difficult the Christ into our lives.

It would not be a bad idea if, during this period of waiting and preparation, we take the time to look within ourselves to see what these valleys and mountains are within our life, which make the coming of Christ difficult, which make us more closed to his visitation. The practice of the daily examination of conscience could help us in the struggle to be prepared and to purify ourselves, not merely with our own efforts, no matter how well-intentioned. Without the grace of the Lord we cannot accomplish anything good in our lives; only our willing correspondence to the free grace of God in our life, which purifies and strengthens us, would allow us to live according to the admonition that is made out to us by the Apostle Peter, which is that we be without spot and blemish as we await for the definitive coming of our Lord. Amen. COME LORD JESUS!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

In the church of San Nicolas, at seven in the evening.

The church was largely empty save for a handful of people situated here and there in the darkened nave. The day had been freezing; it was clear that the autumn chill was gradually metarmophosing into the biting cold of winter. The coming winter promised to be brief but hard, according to the weather forecast. But the outside chill failed to leave their damp mark on the stones of the old church; the velvet darkness of the nave made it even more cozy. 

The young priest standing at the far back was grateful for this. He was grateful for the semidarkness, which seemed welcoming to him, and which increased the silky silence which seemed to ooze form the stones of the church, built in the eleventh century. He was silently grateful for the warmth that embraced him; he wasn't particularly fond of the cold, like some of his companions. Coming form the tropics--he considered himself a "tropical creature", una criatura tropical,--he preferred the humid heat of his country of origin than the dry climate of the place in which he was in. He stood there for a while, his gaze resting on the simple reredo on the other end of the nave, where the sanctuary was. It was a simple crucifix, a large one, resting on a field of scarlet framed in gold. Somewhere within the shadows of the church someone was taking pictures; he could here the crisp click of the shutter. The silence hung in the air, nevertheless. An elderly priest--young priests seemed to be so few here that they were easily noticeable--came in and peered at him questioningly. The younger one returned his gaze calmly for a few moments, a gaze that was neither timid nor challenging. He had not chosen to wear the distinctive   white plastic band around his neck when he went out of the house; it grated on his neck. It was the only thing missing in his vesture nonetheless; he was dressed in clerical black. He returned his gaze to the distant sanctuary, where the sacristan had just collocated a rather huge monstrance upon the altar. The cleric welcomed the thought of spending sometime in the church. He walked through the side nave, passing through the stone pillars and the images softly illuminated by votive candles. He slowed a bit when he came before the chapel of the Our Lady of the Pillar, a very popular Spanish invocation of the Virgin Mary: nothing could be more Spanish than the Nuestra Señora del Pilar. He had precisely come on foot, almost in pilgrimage, in order to pray before this replica of the Virgin's image, venerated in Zaragoza. Many times before he had come as a seminarian, when, beleaguered by homesickness, by temptation, by the horrifying prospect of approaching exams, he would pray before the image, while enveloped by the familiar darkness of the church. He had come again, this time as a priest, pushed by the silence and the need that had been troubling his heart, secure in the thought that he would be heard.

He sat down on the pews, in front of the Pillar chapel, where the gorgeous and diminutive image held court amidst a baroque explosion of silver and marble, not facing it as he had when he entered, but this time facing the altar, awaiting the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. He had expected a priest to come out to expose the Sacrament, but was mildly taken aback when the same sacristan, now vested in an alb, took it out of the Tabernacle and deposited the white Host in the monstrance. The minister genuflected, and went for the censer, and having incensed it, went into the sacristy through the side door. All of this took place to the roar of the pipe organ for which the church was also known for. The lack of priests made everything quite possible in these Spanish lands, and though he was not always personally in favor of what he witnessed and heard about the liturgy here, he could not but just apply the balm of understanding. 

With the final blast of the pipe organ dissipating in the air, silence began to descend once again upon the gloomy interior. He had spent the whole day seemingly prostrate and helpless: he found it very difficult to concentrate, whether in his books and notes (the final exams scarcely a couple of weeks away)or in his prayers. He had feared that once again he had nothing to offer the Lord at the end of the day. Speaking without words, he directed himself to the Presence on the altar.

He had come once again with nothing to offer. Well, at least, he could offer what seemed to be the dried branches of what could have been a day filled with fruits of study and prayer. But everything seemed dry as the metaphorical branches that he had to offer. The cold day seemed to have sucked everything dry. He had come within a year of turning thirty; from his friends he had heard them talking about the crisis that comes at about this time. Others would have approached it with dread; he had decided a long time ago to confront whatever crisis would come with common sense, and with humor. But grappling in an inner darkness, at this point he seemed to be suspended and uncertain. His mind seemed to grow blank, his heart a gaping hole. 

And yet, little by little, as he began to pour out his soul and his heart, first in trickles, then in torrents, light seemed to pierce the darkness which seemed impenetrable that day; he could feel the old vigor returning, supplanting the dangerous languor he could feel in his limbs, paralyzing his mind. Everything came from the realization that the answer to all seemed to throw himself once again before that luminous darkness before him. When the soul tends to dwell only upon the sins of its youth, it tends to succumb to sadness like hapless deer sinking into quicksand, swallowing him up with every desperate movement to extricate itself. He looked back and immediately saw with clarity all of his failings, the thousand infidelities to his vows, both great and minute, his usual vanity and the smug confidence that he had of himself. He felt himself tearing apart as he gazed at it, and realized how much he was attached to his past, how he had clung to the minutest detail of his sins of pride and passion, unwilling to let go. Prostrate before the Presence he was shouting from within that he be cleansed of them, as they were causing him pain, and were the real reason for his melancholy.

He opened his eyes and rested his gaze on the monstrance. Its reflection played on the brown curve of his pupils and dazzled him. An elderly man was leading the Rosary from the podium. The silence was broken by the murmured responses of the faithful who had gathered for the Mass after the Benediction. 

Grateful for this moment of grace, he stood up.Looking at his watch he noticed that he had spent half an hour absorbed in prayer, and he was thankful for that. He was grateful for being in that church, where he had first said yes in front of so many people, that day when he was ordained a deacon. The memory had aided him well. He turned towards the heavy doors, and as he stepped outside into the crisp, cold air, he was well aware that from that silent "yes",  new life continued to grow, and with that the grace to make others grow as well.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


This Friday we decided to have some fun in order to celebrate those who had their birthdays and their ordination anniversaries this blessed month of November. A singing contest was organized, reminiscent of American Idol or Pinoy Idol or whatever (this type of contest has had so many editions one doesn't know what to call it to be exact...)

REVERENDOS is actually the name of the disco just down the corner from
our house...

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Ricardo (Peru) and Allan (Philippines)

Francis George (India) and Guido (Ecuador)

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Arnold (El Salvador)  the Sanctuary guardian (Philippines)
and Jaime (Mexico)

The drinks...there was nothing left of the food..

Master showman Eugene (Philippines)

Jim the photographer (Philippines)

The judges: Roberto (Ecuador) José Manuel (Spain) and Marcelo (Chile)

Jaime explaining the rules of the show...

The first contestant: Dimitri (Ivory Coast) 

The judges having a hard time (?)

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Another contestant: Enrique (Spain)

Ricardo from Peru

Everybody had a good time: Jaime, Marcelo, Eugene, Ricardo, me, and