I WRITE this piece on a Marian day, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Although I now consider myself a nominal practicing Catholic – if nominal means I skip Sunday masses more often than I attend them – I am aware that my entire life is perhaps a mirror of the Marian cultural influence and its legacy on the Philippine Catholic faith.
The block rosary is the most vivid of these recollections growing up. The image of the Blessed Virgin Mary is brought to every household by community volunteers who also lead in the praying of the rosary, then overnight leave the image in the family home. The volunteers return the following day and say more prayers for Mary to keep the home safe as She leaves for yet another household.
My mother, no less, leads the prayer of the rosary when the image reaches our house, she being a block rosary volunteer before she had our family. It is through her that I recall the context of this day, December 8, in that litany part “O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”
Today, my mother who could no longer go through daily life without assistance, still prays the rosary every single day, silently, in her room clutching rosary beads that she has had as far back as I can remember; thinking perhaps that if today would be her last day on earth, that this day was spent in prayerful contemplation.
This devotion to Mary is replicated all over the nation’s Catholic faithful. Every other daughter in the Philippines has had, or will have, a variation of Mary in their names – Maria Concepcion, Maria Corazon, Maria Consuelo, Maribel, Maribeth, and so on. Even without the “Mary,” girls’ names have had references to it like Lourdes or Fatima.
My father was born in a village called Pantay Fatima in Ilocos Sur province. I’m not sure whether it was so named because it is the place where the Benedictine nuns built an abbey. His ancestral family home is right across the road from this abbey, and some of his younger pictures are with the image of the Our Lady of Fatima inside the abbey’s compound. The depicted event is possibly the feast of Our Lady of Fatima held in February.
Active and contemplative nuns run the abbey. A concrete fence the height of two fully grown adults separates the chapel where the community attend masses, and the residence of the nuns. During my childhood visits, I have always wondered what was on the other side of that fence. Contemplative nuns, of course, do not mingle with the community; thus, one could surmise that they are cloistered on the other side praying for the country and for the world. One can only hear their voices during the Angelus when, along with the toiling of church bells, they pray the Ave Maria in Ilokano over a loudspeaker.
I have been told by relatives however, that the nuns are not only there for prayers. They have a farm where they cultivate fruits and vegetables, and they also raise livestock. The active nuns engage with the community through catechism, form lay catechists, train altar boys, and teach the youth to become choir members. Some of my cousins were any or all of these, but none of them ever heeded the call to join the religious as nuns or priests. Our grandparents though, hosted some seminarians (now priests), in the family home.
Not surprising then that this “sarado Katoliko” upbringing extended all the way to Baguio where in high school I joined the Columbian Squires (what my teacher called the “junior Knights of Columbus”). If I did become full-fledged K of C, I might have seen myself wearing their outfit – cape, sword, and Edwardian hat. Good grief.
As a squire though, “knighthood” was still in the cards but as “Knights of the Altar,” – as it were a fancy name for altar boys commonly called “sacristan.” So, in my younger days I served the community parish and I recall that in these days of Advent, the church mostly bustles with activities. The church is spruced up and when dawn mass starts, the altar boys were the first ones to wake up to ring the church bell.
In Baguio, there is no lack of Marian references in the way parishes are named. The Holy Family Parish where I belong, for instance, is one. And the landmark church in Baguio where I last served as altar boy, Our Lady of the Atonement Cathedral. But even if you are not a church-goer, you have likely ridden in one of those jeepneys that ply the Dominican-Mirador-Lourdes Grotto route, proof that the Marian-Catholic tradition is one of the building blocks of Baguio.
If the Immaculate Conception is the patron of the Philippine Catholic faith, this devotion is also held elsewhere such as in Mexico whose patron saint is the Virgin of Guadalupe – or why do you think every other daughter in Mexico is called Lupe? Also, since Portugal has reached the World Cup quarterfinals, I would wager that every citizen is ardently praying the rosary, imploring their patron saint the Blessed Virgin Mary, to intercede on behalf of their football club hoping that this year they might bring home the coveted trophy.