NEITHER FITFUL NOR fleeting, sleep was a thankful wonder, sufficient, in spite of a late retiring, all the stops having been pulled to ensure nothing mars the pilgrimage in the morning.
‘Twas the 28th Montfortian Pilgrimage, a first coordinating task ever for the Evangelization Team.
Fr. Fed decided, when he saw that it was already late and we had just about wrapped up the accounting of the booklets, IDs, t-shirts and other needs, that we could all call it a day so that he and the brothers might take over. Giving a whole new meaning to assist.
Ate Marivic was not convinced we were off the obligation hook. She took us to National Bookstore to pick up the lacking requirements (I delivered them later to Sis Gelly) before dropping me off at Philcoa and driving Ate Lisa home ultimately.
I beat my 2 am alarm, no surprise, since I had more than forty winks to boost my morning routine, imperative for the full day ahead. BF TTJers, however, left later than the agreed-upon time and, as soon as we got to Madrinan (we evidently held up everybody up), no more time was wasted and all three buses soon pulled out towards breakfast at Petron NLEX. (Fr. Fed has outdone his efficiency; he anticipated our delay and also supervised the distribution of what we prepared the night before, supposedly our task. I wanted to bury my head in the proverbial sand but UtoLiza comforted me. I saw Sr. Mary Grace smile at my sight; I prayed before I prayed for forgiveness for our terrible tardiness.)
Fr. Rene was the marshal of our Bus No. 1 (Frs. Benjie and Fed were for No. 2 and Fr. Richard for No. 3), at once assumed the role and commenced enjoining us in the Opening Prayer. It promised – and delivered – a very good day.
At the breakfast stop in NLEX, Utol and I did not want to squander any more time (than what we have already collectively spent) so I quickly bought ours and ate on the bus with Ate Taki, Sr. Mary Grace and some seniors in our group. My unnecessary fretting was about making it in time for the 8 am Mass at the Immaculate Conception Parish in Nampicuan. Even as I noticed I was the only one preoccupied therewith. So I stopped fussing and prayed again instead. Although as we neared the Shrine of the Holy Face of Jesus, I kept looking at the time. Albeit thankful that praying of the Little Crown started with Utol leading and Brothers Francois and Jason providing the hymnal accompaniment.
We arrived in Nampicuan at 8:10. Uniformed Shrine servers were gesturing our convoy to the parking lot, totally confirming my dread unnecessary and a precise, wasted worry. I heard sounds from the Shrine and asked one of them if the Mass had started; he answered in the negative and added that it was just the rosary being said. As we neared the Shrine, female voices praying the rosary reconfirmed there never was any need for unease. Aside from the shame I felt, the Marshal’s “They are waiting for you.” stung. O me of little faith.
As efficient as it could ever get, the Mass proceeded. Six Montfortian priests (their resplendent sight never ceases to awe) concelebrated with the Shrine pastor, Fr. Christian Magtalas. Compliant, Utol did the reading, Sis Irene led the responsorial psalm and Ate Taki the prayers of the faithful. (I could not contain my spiritual grin.) Fr. Fed read the Gospel. Which homilist Fr. Christian expounded on. He asked the congregation to look to their right and say to the person on it Salamat at narito ka. Then welcomed the congregation. To which he told the story of their chapel’s evolution from very poor to truly blessed. And pronounced that there is no underestimating the grace of God. Their journey, he said, began with Mary, whom they wanted to install as patroness but inspired them to be humble instead by exalting her Son. Lowly yet chosen was what the little town of Nampicuan became because of her. Attested to by testimonies of healing and passing of exams which ran parallel to donations that burgeoned as believers of and devotees to the Manopello grew.
As he explained the Hebrew origin and holy intricacies of the Holy Face, satisfyingly justifying the Jewish tradition of covering a bloodied, bruised, disfigured face to hide its morbidity (which speaks volumes of reverence they didn’t know they were according Christ, whom they disbelieved), Fr. Christian challenged us to his wish, nay prayer, that the Holy Face of Jesus be always manifested on our faces. Like the Gospel’s challenge, it is by an honest or dishonest cloth, that our journey is measured. The biggest possession we can ever acquire is Jesus, and only in His likeness can we be enriched.
I could not wait for the pilgrims’ insights on Fr. Christian’s homily. I’ve waited long enough to put on paper our encounter with him during the ocular.
As we prayed the first decade of the Joyful Mysteries en route to San Roque Parish in Cuyapo, I felt overwhelming relief and thanked Mary for making us make her Son first. We kept the rosary routine before leaving for each church (and arriving at the next) according to the booklet. Ate Marivic’s reliable help I could not not appreciate.
Separating from the others, I headed towards the parish office and asked for Fr. Peter Albino, my textmate and emailpal to announce our coming and extend personal thanksgiving. His aide (whom I later caught welcoming the group in church) called him and the priest came down to accommodate me. As I thanked him, I reiterated my gratitude for our first meeting when, reading our hungry minds, he offered us lunch. His amiable mien was as smiling as when we met then.
Cuyapo has a soft space in my heart. My most significant Catholic, Kuya Noel, is from there. The significance obviously self-spread.
It was my first sight of Grace, Secretary of Fr. Ezequiel of the Shrine of St. Therese of the Child Jesus in Ramos, Tarlac. We only traded text messages and, when there was need to email her, I’d send messages through her son Nathaniel. Earlier on the bus, Fr. Rene asked me to read the literature on the church and, inside, Fr. Fed told me to lead the miraculous invocation to the patroness of Ramos.
Everybody was expectant on the way to the Shrine of St. Faustina of Divine Mercy in Paniqui. Fr. Ricky Barayoga, the parish priest, offered their open area for us to lunch at. And so, after everyone had touched her relic (brought from the chapel to the main altar by Fr. Ricky himself), the crowd dispersed to break bread with their respective groups.
Sis Gelly, when I borrowed cutlery from her (they were in a shaded stall; we stayed on the bus), was with her “barangay” and lunching with many, having offered their banquet to be shared. Earlier in church, she prayed for the Saint’s intercession.
Our next stop was the Shrine of St. Josemaria Escriva, Opus Dei founder, whose pastor, Fr. Osias, was a Bicolano with an Ala e accent and, surprise! not an Opus Dei but a Diocesan priest. Even more surprising, as he acknowledged that Fr. Alex Bautista designed in detail the structure that transported one to Europe, the programs of the parish are focused on the poor. As a matter of fact, there is a plan to build a center for barangays in the open area of the church. Fr. Osias himself celebrates Mass in the nearby barangays of Lubigan. His erudite elan matched his earnest expression of gratitude for our token of thanksgiving. Fittingly, the prayer to the Opus Dei luminary was said by Sis Ana Marie.
During a lull, I asked Sis Jackie Lou how much is she poorer by. She knew whereof I spoke and responded, “A hundred.” We were talking about the store where she and her fellow STP youth milled about while waiting for the buses to fill up and pull out. Then Fr. Rene boarded our bus with a popsicle in his hand. Utol and I saw the youth with the same icedrop and she said she wanted one, too, gave me money and, getting Sr. Mary Grace’s nod, I dashed down onto the store. Alas! They ran out. Fortunately, along came a man on his tricycle peddling scrambled ice. Not a bad substitute that.
Uphill to our fifth and last station, Monasterio de Tarlac, Fr. Rene asked me again to read out loud the landmark’s backgrounder. It was a reunion of sorts for Frs. Fed and Arnel with a lean and lanky priest who took us to Fr. Archie’s office, both of whom they knew from way back. Later, I took Sr. Mary Grace back to Fr. Archie, then I left them to reminisce the old spiritual times and joined the others queued up to venerate the relic of the Holy Cross. It was a solemn procession aptly backgrounded by live Gregorian chanting from the Servants of the Risen Christ whose majestic sound seemed to come from an audible cavern.
We sang the last series of Marian songs before Fr. Fed rendered the final pilgrimage rite. In ardent Montfortian manner, he thanked all the pilgrims gathered below the steps of the chapel/reliquary, missing no one, including those who were not able to make it, and blessing God in His glory, that our journey was about to culminate. After which praise and thanksgiving, the brothers commenced exalting melodiously their patron and ours, Mary’s slave for life and love, St. Louis-Marie de Montfort.
Comes now my awaited portion of the pilgrimage. No sooner had we pulled out of the monastery grounds (the pilgrims have all used up their pocket money buying bamboo savings banks and other souvenir items) than Fr. Rene announced he is opening the floor to those (especially first-timers) who would like to share their perception of what they have just gone through. Moments of consideration passed before he called out the first sharer.
Maribel Vergel de Dios said that it was indeed her first time to join a pilgrimage, owed to a persuasive fellow Manulifer Sis Veron. She hardly slept the night before but feels blessed because moved when she touched the relic of the Holy Face. To which Fr. Rene responded that everyone should take care of their body and not easily agree to cremation, should they become saints, and it becomes necessary to make a relic out of their body part.
Belen Agunzado of San Roque thanked the Montfort family for the joy that she derived out of the journey, which she describes the preparation of as compares to nothing, very detailed and made ample use of precious time (she made firm my resolve). She was particularly impressed that at every station, a priest or personnel is on hand, polite and attentive of the needs of the pilgrims which she likened to the Montfortian priests and brothers who were desirous to be of assistance to the senior citizens.
Vividly, Fr. Rene flashed back as very quickly offering his hand to an elderly lady slowly mounting the bus steps. The scene repeated at every station.
Fr. Rene appreciated Belen’s sentiments and acknowledged the support of the coordinators and some of the pilgrims themselves who blended well with the random acts of charity.
Sr. Mary Grace requested to put in a tad of concern by wishing that, in future outings, trash bags be provided to prevent the huge accumulation of garbage. Even as I observed that every time we would board the bus back again, the litter are no more. Which supported what Fr. Rene put in that he saw (I did, too) litter in the places that we visited being picked up by the conscientious pilgrim that happened by it). Then he pitched the promotion of next year’s Bicol 5-day pilgrimage and urged those who bought bamboo savings banks to start dropping coins in them, in preparation therefor.
Ate Daylin Ramos offered that she cannot compare the pilgrimage to those she has joined where she was more asleep than active because, at the Manopello alone, the priest’s homily was enough wake-upper. And at the Monastery, she had goose bumps, as though the Holy Spirit actually descended upon her, when she knelt before the Holy Cross relic.
Daisy shared that it was also her first time, but because Christ always features in her prayers, as in petitioning that their Sto. Cristo Chapel be a quasi- parish, the Nampicuan rise from raggedy to reverent was truly inspiring. However, she admitted that it is hard to pray for the others as in a concrete current example of taking a picture of the others and ending up with no picture of herself. Yet she dismissed the thought as easily as she envisioned their chapel becoming a quasi-parish.
She could not have pictured more perfectly the caring companionability of Manang Cynthia to her husband Kuya George, who had difficulty wending his way through, were it not for her attentiveness astride him. Rightful reason why a formerly stiff limb he could not manage muscled its way back to service.
Again, Fr. Rene supported the sharing of Daylin and Daisy by disclosing that their difficulty can be compared to the past pilgrimages where there used to be only two buses to fill but, because more people wanted to join the tour, the only choice was to accept the demand as a challenge, like responding to a call that cannot be unanswered.
Amelia Roberts of Mandaluyong (with a San Diego accent) said that she only took the place of Gina who backed out, and thanked Sis Veron that she did for she found no reason to regret the decision, albeit by compulsion.
Amelia’s cheery companion was Bro Noel, a stranger I knew from viber. In the flesh, he quipped “famous” and “legendary” to draw my attention. I don’t believe in accidents. We are now kindred poets.
Badette admitted that she had no baon pero busog na busog, thanks to Sis Veron, the great Samaritan “converter”.
Eteng de Castro’s take was that, at Nampicuan, she already felt her soul being cared for. She was silenced by the homilist’s tale of humility and service, with the Holy Face flashing back her past life in the convent, where Padre Pio healed her brain tumor. The monastery cross struck her as hammering home her Sta. Cruz, Batangas roots.
Belen Sevilla of Sto. Cristo was similarly touched by the Mass, particularly the phrase makita si Kristo sa taong may sama ka ng loob, making her believe that forgiveness should be present in all circumstances. She recalled their time in the cemetery and her three daughters who are so engrossed in gadgets, likening them to the kids at the tombs who were breaking candle glasses (with images of Jesus and Mary) just so they could squeeze the wax out of them.
Fr. Rene took that opportunity to remind that the pilgrimage may not happen again, so share and save a soul.
Beck (who was spelled Bee in her ID, a joke she later confessed to appease my unnecessary apology) admitted that the Holy Face turned on her waterworks and, when she touched St. Faustina’s relic, she shed again. This is her first time and she worries that it might become her high-standard pattern. Aside from the journey’s having no idle time, Fr. Christian’s exhortation to pray for the others deepened her faith, made her listen, especially to the question “Do you see Jesus in me?” to which her answer was she did not have a right to answer. She later disclaimed her room-for-spelling improvement to dispel the sobriety of my sorriness. She and Fr. Rene banter all the time, she added.
Tactfully, Fr. Rene picked up on the improvement suggestion and claimed that the booklet can also stand some corrections. To myself, I said “So be it”.
Nenet Gonzales, another Veron “groupie,” contributed that it was her second pilgrimage, and seeks a prayer not for her but for a friend’s son who will be taking a board exam and for her brother’s chronic kidney ailment, for which petitions she touched the relic not twice but thrice.
Ma’am Sanchez denied being Fr. Rene’s former teacher (the priest insisted she was in Math class, at Karuhatan, Valenzuela) and disclosed that she didn’t feel anything but blessing. Fr. Rene shifted his attention to Sr. Mary Grace’s seat mate, Rudivie, whom, he remembered as the boy whom he sat and wiped poopoo for.
It was Bro Frans’ turn to share his silence and prayer that, because of school work, it took him time to serve. He lifted up his sister who is taking the board exam again and his sick Dad who is on dialysis and improving that both kins may be sustained.
Bro Jason, from Taguig, grew up in Makati and is actively serving STP. He has lots to share, dreams of having children, a family that waits, but because of this assembly, feels he has a big family already and is sticking it out happily.
Sr. Mary Grace submitted that it is also her first time so there is no basis for comparing and said that blessing poured at every stop and she felt the presence of all the saints. The monastery was personal because she wondered if Fr. Archie still remembers her and, because he did, she is where God wants her; He planted her where she can bloom.
I thought, because the qualification was for first timers, I would be spared. But Fr. Rene thought contrarily and persuaded me to pitch my portion. On behalf of the BF Homes contingent, I apologized for causing considerable delay and expressed my gratitude for the blessing that everyone’s presence – and perceptions – graced me with.
Uto Liza, Marian to the core, deemed the journey accompanied by Mary and, therefore, special. She shared that, up front, after she did the first reading, she asked to feel the Lord’s presence. During the offertory, she wanted to get her bag to make an offering but tripped and bruised. No matter, she really felt not only His presence but also His wound. She was struck by the history of the Immaculate Conception Parish which, on the verge of collapse and closure, Mary saved because she wanted her Son enthroned. She agreed that the journey was well organized but suggested a common place for eating and fellow-shipping, instead of on the bus.
Back in Madrinan, when the stardust settled and we were making our way out, I sidled up to Fr. Fed and squeezed in, to which he smiled understandingly, “Now I can sleep.”