WE WERE LATE last year and held up the three North-bound busloads of pilgrims so I made sure to pray deep (and set my alarm two hours early) that the dud does not repeat. I recently learned (first-hand) that GRAB, whether cab or angkas, costs an arm and a leg so I made a deal with a biker-friend to give me a ride. My lead time served its purpose because, even if Noy Liit chose the Quezon Avenue route, which was unfamiliar to my Timog track, we got to Madriñan earlier than most. He only asked to reimburse his gas was another initial grace.
After a hug from Fr. Fed and busses from Ates Marivic, Bubbles and Relly, I asked what I could do to help. They seemed able to manage without another (awkward) hand so I quietly got out of their way, boarded Bus No. 50 and watched it fill up to capacity. Soon, Bro Ronald and Ate Marivic were taking turns at the mic prepping the passengers until it was time to roll. At a little after 5:30 AM, the three-bus convoy took off for the south, stopping over at Boyong’s Crib for breakfast. Maybe it was the hunger-inducing excitement. Maybe the crew was a little slow. Maybe the organizers helping out to serve the meals was taken to mean they had favorites. Because there was one gripe that a group of elderly ladies was not being prioritized. But the hitch didn’t prosper and was not even discussed afterwards for its insignificance. The prayer, therefore, on the bus going to St. Jerome Church in Morong did not distract anymore and prepared everyone for the offering of the Holy Eucharist concelebrated by Frs. Fed and Arnel.
Fr. Fed’s homily recalled the elements of faith that originated from our ancestors. Like Abraham, who reminds us that: 1. It is not enough to go back to the past if it does not entail waiting and the challenge posed by it; 2. Faith in the journey that anything and everything can happen but if there is trust like Abraham had, a new beginning/generation will emerge out of it, like when God entrusted to Mary His Son, the Christ; 3. Hope in all seasons, unlike nowadays, when pag-asa turns out to be paasa, like this pilgrimage manifests hope in God; and 4. Prayer, with a feeling for others, faithfullly believing with joy in God that is not only uttered but comes from the heart.
Back up on the bus, we started the Montfortian Holy Rosary on the way to St. Joseph Parish in Baras, Rizal.Bro John gave us an interesting introduction to their parish history which amplified the booklet brief. He got our attention from his initial Bang ganda! (How beautiful!) to the rooftop denizen bats’ “blessed” droppings on anyone (un)lucky enough to happen by underneath. Understandably, this church made a deep imprint in my heart because I’m a servant at San Jose ang Tagapagtanggol Parish and, what was Fr. Fed thinking when he asked me to say the prayer to Mary’s chaste spouse? I didn’t have to ask “Seriously?” because Mary might have destroyed the plan. Which stamped an indelible “official” on my homecoming.
Onward, we prayed the second joyful mystery as we moved to the St. Ildephonsus of Toledo Parish in Tanay, Rizal. A wedding was in progress so we had to quietly enter through the right portico of the church, where BRonald led the prayer to the saint, and proceed to the left side of the altar, to give homage to his bone relic. We were probably so orderly the nuptials advanced as if we were spirit spectators oblivious of the occasion.
There was no rush towards lunch and, if Boyong’s Crib left a little to be desired, Kainan sa Tabing Lawa more than made up for that lack. Deserving of superlatives, the plain-looking restaurant served us a glorious culinary cornucopia: laing that could match my expertise; fried and saucy catfish and mudfish; grilled tilapia, chopsuey; pakbet; and sinampalukang manok that made us drool over and over again. The chicken was so good its soup was, alone, viand already. No Aji or Maggi necessary, mind.
From a hearty, rejuvenating meal, we moved on to the Parish Shrine and Parish of St. Mary Magdalene in Pililla, beads in hand, praying the third joyful mystery. Sis Ofel led the prayer to the witness of the resurrection before we all went back on the bus to look forward to the nearby Windmill Farm. There wasn’t much to explore there, the windmills being larger than life and oscillating lethargically (not that I wanted winds to give them sudden energy to at least surprise us). I was thankful for their miniature replicas, though; there was no other place to buy tokens at. En route, we prayed the fourth joyful mystery.
We took out our rosaries for the final time, on the way to Regina Rica, to pray the fifth joyful mystery. I did not have any idea of what to look forward to. Especially when, at the gate, the guard seemed reluctant to let us in. It turned out that we were past the appointed time (the souvenir shopping took its toll), the procession had started and we would be well advised to wait for its coming round to where we were for us to catch up. Seemed fair enough so I rose from my seat and disembarked.
It is best to not expect. Especially if one is to set foot (and inch uphill) on a hallowed place like Regina Rica, whose 308 steps of paved stairs lead to a towering sculpture of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus (Regina Rosarii). The 71-foot figure is a smiling, stunning Madonna-and-Child behemoth more colossal than the Monasterio de Tarlac’s 30-foot statue of Christ overlooking Barangay Lubigan. I thought I’ve raised enough hackles until I made it to the hilltop and confronted His Mother. It was a good thing Sis Veron was walking beside me; the shock tolerable because shared. But our gab abbreviated when our mutual mouth was prevailed upon by a nun, Sr. Ethel, who was serene but firm as she enjoined the multitude (there was a considerable line that snaked from the ground up; the flicker of collective candles breathtaking from there) to follow her incantation. Up till her thrice repeated Viva! I couldn’t tune out the murmurs of awe and wonder and gratefulness even when we were already back on the downward trail.
Heady is an understated description of that experience. To say nothing of overwhelming.
Back on the bus, BRonald was tasked to pluck out from the pilgrims their insights on the just-concluded journey. Bro Ed was first to share that he had a doubt if we could enter the sanctuary. But, if it were a trial (and he’s had enough of them), he prayed for it to pass and it was answered. He was thankful for many answered prayers lately and ended his sharing with “God bless us all”.
A legionary like him, Sis Florence confessed to an enlightened feeling and hoped that, “Sana may susunod pa”. Ate Carrot was another legionary who admitted that she had no reflection but a realization that she is very blessed “na nakasama kayo kahit di ka-age” (snickers), kahit may aberya, sana blessed lahat. Dang thought that she might not be able to join the pilgrimage but here she was. Fe and Wilda had the same misgiving of Kuya Ed and were thankful their knees didn’t give. Kuya Arnel said that everything is grace and it’s okay if we were not allowed entry but sayang yung di pa nakakapasok, nakasama sa prusisyon. Ate Relly recalled Fr. Fed’s homily as the yearly pilgrimage having the context of challenge. Lou, Ate Marivic’s friend, told that the first two places excited her but she has seen enough windmills. It would’ve been okay if we didn’t make it to Regina Rica but the nun’s hilltop invocation was the highlight of the pilgrimage.
I mentioned earlier Hermitess Sr. Lina, from Bulacan, who almost gave up when the driver couldn’t find Madriñan. It’s her first time to join a Montfortian activity and thanked patience as her lifeline. Another nun from a Laguna hermitage, Sr. Helen Grace, thanked the organizers, thought the booklet was nice and needs a little deepening. Sr. Mary Grace gave kudos to the organizers for the great improvement of this year’s pilgrimage and hopes to see more.
Malou thanked Becky for inviting her. Bro Mark appreciates his first time and is grateful for having seen all five churches and suggested minor proofreading for the booklet and assigning of able readers at Mass. Michael said he was helped spiritually and educationally by Fr. Fed’s homily. He recommended better sanitation for females and punctuality as a matter of discipline. It was also Louie’s first time and the pilgrimage deepened his devotion and, in spite of the imperfections, was awesome. Genny was grief-stricken because of her patient who died which prompted BRonald to enjoin us in silent prayer. Sis Becky, her seatmate, happily announced that they are close to and cordial with each other, because prompted by the Holy Spirit. Althea said that, because she wasn’t feeling well, she worried that she might not make it yet she did. Myrna claimed it’s also her second time and she is happy. Sis Ofel offered that she must’ve joined 20 pilgrimages already. She’s near Regina Rica yet this is her first time. Ate Marivic is delighted by the new joiners and expects there’ll be more in the future.
Fr. Arnel disclosed that he wasn’t feeling well earlier but, like the imperfect pilgrimage, he had to continue by asking the Lord to give him a positive view of things, Mary being with us. Bro Armel believed that our last stop was apt as a procession, a community prayer that is powerful when done together, as when Sr. Ethel asked all to pray three Hail Marys.
Fr. Norwyn thanked God and said that if we are okay, he too, is. Then he gave us two things that comprise a spiritual journey: the end, which is the Lord; and Mary, as the guide. For we may come from different parishes but we are joined by Mary and Montfort. Before he called me to share, BRonald said that the only one way against anger is prayer, for family, for friends, for everyone. The only one way is Jesus. Posthaste, Fr. Norwyn requested everybody to pray for the pilgrimage in Bantayan, Cebu, which was taking place alongside ours.
My take: Of course Fr. Arnel is right about imperfections, because no one promised a perfect pilgrimage, even if the organizers evidently did their best. By this I mean I know Sr. Lina’s story because Sr. Mary and I discussed it. I came riding angkas and got disoriented by the driver who decided to take the Quezon Avenue route instead of the familiar-to-me Timog, so I told Sr. Mary Grace that, and reassured her that Mary will lead Sr. Lina to us. Why? Because they were communicating. And why is that? Because Sr. Mary, in her recollection, “I pray before I pray,” taught me that Mary destroys our plan, but she did not destroy Sr. Lina’s because she got here like I did. She did not destroy the windmill farm portion of the pilgrimage even if it wasn’t originally part of it. And finally, she did not allow our tardiness to spoil the beautiful, beautiful procession that we joined going uphill to her colossal hilltop crowning glory. Long story short, I couldn’t ask for a better homecoming and birthday gift. Amen.