TWO BUSLOADS OF 134 pilgrims did not regret (the bus that I was on was rife with moving testimonies thereof as you will later discover) the daylong pilgrimage to four churches and a national shrine in Bataan that beautiful, rainless Saturday of November 11. There was no way I’d have heard or known of a single sigh of fatigue or exhaustion because, on the way home, the oldest member of our group was only thankful. That must have given the younger ones time to think again if they should mumble or groan, not that they had reason.
We were tailed by a convoy of two SUVs driven by Bro. Arnel and Sis Gelly with members of their families.
Aside from the given ardor of those already familiar to and fond of the journey and the eager expectations of first-timers, our bus not only had an amiable driver in the person of Kuya Jonathan but also an able conductor, guide, entertainer, clown, prayer leader, all rolled into one sweet stick of dynamite. Such was the energy of Fr. Rene he did not succeed using up his gift of gleeful gab until we disembarked. His infectious wit warmed the cold of the bus all throughout the journey.
From the moment our bus motored off, Fr. Rene was up to his task. He began his guided tour by announcing the bus rules to ensure that no soul will get lost or be left behind at the many stops that the bus will make. Faithfully, he would take an accounting of this seatmate or that one in front or the other in the back. He would also squeeze in, intermittently, that if anyone forgot to bring meds for gout, diabetes, dizziness, blood pressure or other maintenance needs (not discounting pampers!), he has them cheap. It was hard not to respond to his funny, if sometimes corny, banter. There was an audible rustling of paper when he called everyone’s attention to the yellow booklets, that were distributed earlier along with the pilgrim t-shirts, where the opening prayer was on page 10. On the way to the Petron Station in Marilao, where breakfast awaited those who did not have it, he filled the air (I’d soon realize dead will never describe it) with a brief, oral biography of their and our patron, St. Louis-Marie de Montfort.
It was back to the bus after breakfast with a prayer to the Little Crown of the Blessed Virgin, a realization that reassured my praying it every Saturday. We were blessed with half of the seminarian contingency for they were the necessary melody that enhanced every prayer and mystery of the holy rosary. To his credit, Fr. Rene’s mischief was pious in all praying moments.
First stop was Barangay San Vicente, Orion, where Church of Orion or Saint Michael the Archangel Church is ensconced. Fr. Richard Magararu, Philippine Delegation Superior, concelebrated the Mass with Fathers Fed, Rene, Benjie, Norwyn and Arnel. The seminarians on our bus merged with those on the second bus and, along with some young ladies, blended their voices in one majestic symphony fitting to the memorial of the Blessed Lady. Fr. Richard’s homily was heavenly: we may never be able to visit the Holy Land or European spiritual sites; this pilgrimage sufficiently stresses the presence of God. And our being anak ng liwanag. I saw many heads nod like my agreement. Especially when it occurred to me that he facilitated the fifth session of TTJ in BF Homes the night before and he looked none the worse for wear.
The church lady at the rostrum took us to trivial history by telling the origin of the town’s name which involved an aborigine, a Spanish soldier and translation loss.
Fr. Rene started leading the rosary on our way to Pilar, where Mount Samat National Shrine enshrined the huge cross that memoralizes the Filipino and American soldiers who fought and died in World War II in defense of the Philippines against the Japanese Imperial Army. Here, it was understandably difficult for our tour guide not to quip a famous reminder about not “surrendering” Bataan. The ageless joke was appreciated by all ages.
Fr. Rene gave the microphone to Fr. Benjie, who shared his experience in France when he visited Pontchâteau, where Montfort erected a cross, which but was met by resistance from the king and ultimately destroyed. Sis Ana Marie, who had been to the same place, added that that cross may have been put away but it has found a more permanent place in the hearts of Montfort’s advocates and associates.
Fr. Benjie would not be taken for granted. Taking a cue from the brief introduction of the brothers, he teased them to show us how to fasten seatbelts and where the emergency exits were located. He would also at intervals announce the time check, spoken like he were a paid commercial broadcast agent.
Fr. Rene made sure that we saw the logic of the itinerary by saying that we would go to the farthest leg down to the nearest, which made a lot of sense.
We felt Kuya Jonathan back a bit and shift gear as the bus neared the steep, circuitous ascent to the summit. It helped that we prayed the Triumph of the Cross for we reached the top slowly but surely. On the way down, Fr. Rene offered that the white markers on both sides of the road serve as reminders of the infamous Death March from Samat to Capas, Tarlac, an ordeal Fil-am soldiers agonizingly went through and only a few survived.
We prayed the second Joyful mystery on our way to the third station which was Ima Flora Pamangan in Balanga. It was a festive restaurant popular for its eat-all-you-can courses. Evidently, the place packs up every noontime for the queue to the buffet was long and the courses needed repleneshing often. I pigged out on dinuguan, laing and Bicol Express as I’m sure the others did, too, on their chosen menu.
Fed and freshened up by the culinary respite, our way to the Cathedral Parish Shrine of St. Joseph was animated and anticipatory. We looked forward to the provincial capital’s famed structure made so by the restoration efforts of Archbishop Socrates Villegas during his term as CBCP President. Ravaged by World War II, the church is now a marvel to behold, with its brick interior walls and bright ceiling lights that illumined the fresco on the ceiling. The great ceiling fan, which ventilated the nooks and crannies of the church, reminded me of a similar one in Mary the Queen Parish, Fairview, Quezon City.
Back on the bus, we resumed praying the rosary’s third mystery. I could not control myself to sing along as is my wont even at Mass in Madriñan. The all-male choir sings Marian hymns like they were actually serenading the Virgin Mother herself.
Abucay was our fifth stop and the St. Dominic Church could easily fool the first-time visitor. One of the oldest churchs in Bataan, the two-level Rennaisance facade of the structure seemed in a state of disrepair. Yet, when I looked for the lavatories, modernity emerged: the obviously newly-constructed rest rooms were sparklingly clean and white! It seemed curious to imagine how they will proceed with the restoration of a relic.
The fourth mystery was prayed with more fervor because preambled with Awit sa Ina ng Santo Rosaryo, a hymn I’m partial to for its Ave Maria strain. The fifth and last mystery was significant in that the Totus Tuus theme, “Jesus Living in Mary,” was sung. While we prayed, lush fields of green greeted our piety up until we reached our final destination, the Parish of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary in Orani. It also prefaced our entry to the parish, detoured because the first Mass of Sunday was about to start. Which did not dampen our collective enthusiasm, for we were welcomed at the awe-inspiring Museum of the Blessed Virgin, which houses the Miraculous Virgin of Orani. A charming lady, ostensibly of the greeters’ committee, apologized unnecessarily and gave us a brief history of the church. We prayed Salve Regina, the prayer to Our Lady Queen of All Hearts and the litany of the Blessed Virgin. That done, Fr. Rene, still very much the master, with or without ceremony, called on Fr. Fed to formally bring the journey to an end. Fr. Fed had never been as eloquent as when he thanked God first and all his fellow Montfortian priests, seminarians and associates who made the pilgrimage worth its spiritual while. Baring his soul in fluent heartspeak, he made the pilgrims feel it was for them the endeavor was effected. And, on behalf of my fellow travelers, I most certainly felt it.
The bus’ ultimate stop was the pasalubong and john station.
On the way home, just as when most were nestling snugly to nap, Fr. Rene called on anybody bold enough to share what he or she thought of the experience. It elicited a collective stirring in the seats, disclaiming the notion that sleep was being sought. The responses were an odd mix of candidness, gratitude, mirth and poignancy.
Queenie from Merville: “Mary is a lady of beautiful love is why I was persuaded by Veron to join. I slept early, woke up still early so sleep again but woke up late, ngarag time! But because Mary arranges everything, na-late kami but you waited, yun lang.”
Nene from Guadalupe: “I never miss praying the holy hour and I was sick so promised to join this pilgrimage. Because of that, gumaling ako.”
Mabel from Bulacan: “Veron invited me. I wasn’t in the original list but she said may dalawang bakante. This is my first time. I had only two hours of sleep pero takot ako ma-late, so I tried not to sleep and to be not tired, kayahin.”
Sol: “I’m Veron’s workmate, last minute confirmation. If other senior citizens can do it, why can’t I, while there’s time.”
Veron herself: “Let us allow better things to happen in our favor.”
Raquel: I appreciate that Fr. Rene made it fun, tiring and exciting. I enjoyed the praying part, although sa pag-akyat, dahan dahan lang.”
(Returning the compliment, the priest self-deprecatingly said, “Kung wala kayo, walang bibili ng jokes.”)
Verna of Madriñan: Thanks to the help in getting off and on the bus, I have a very bad knee, but I like pilgrimages, this is my third.”
Becky, TTJer: “Tinapik ako ni Mary. As a priest coordinator, I deal with new recruits to the order. Kanina stuck ang pare sa traffic, magpa-panic na sana ako but prayed instead, the parish priest agreed to sub.”
Matt, seminarian from Cebu: “I am not only “pilgrimaging” but living it.”
Becky, my seatmate: “I lost my cp in the pasalubong station but it was found by the owner of the pasalubong station.”
EJ of Carcar, Cebu: “Yung second stop natin sa Samat, sa libro lang nakikita, I like that it’s peaceful in spite of the ravages of war.”
Christopher, seminarian: “This is my first Montfort pilgrimage dahil binigyan ako ng Diyos ng panahon. Pag sama-sama sa Mt. Samat kahit ngatog tuhod nakaakyat.”
Vincent, seminarian: Gawain ko flag-raiser. I reflect on it as guiding, to upgrade to more people to guide. I need your prayers, please.”
Ace, seminarian: “This is my second time since five years ago, iba kaysa Samat noon. This experience is the true meaning of pilgrimage, not excursion or pictures, but deepening of journeying in the world. St. Michael was a sign of guidance, Samat cross relived for us Pontchâteau.”
Mrs. Punzalan, 80 years old: “Gusto kong magsimba kay Montfort, sa Samat hirap ako umakyat pero nakita ko ang mga sundalo, tatay ko kasi USAFFE.”
Brian from Cebu: “First time ko sa Manila, napakaganda kasi ang ganda, (laughter) ang laki ng cross kasi ang laki (more laughter), amazing kasi nakaka-amaze (roaring laughter). Sa museum ang lalaki ng damit tunay na nandyan lagi si Maria (silent deference) binigyan tayo ng magandang panahon, ang ganda.” This brought the bus down.
James, Argao: I had an accident and so went to churches to ask Mary if I am meant for the seminary or if she has other plans. This is my renewal. Kung magiging pari ako I need your prayers.”
The oldest in our company is Nanay Wilda of Project 8; she is 83. If that’s not true grit, you tell me what is.
Abraham de la Torre