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Filipinos prepare for 500th anniversary of receiving Christianity, but also reflect on their role in evangelization


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John Burger - published on 01/28/19

Faith, family and fun are what help immigrants stay close to their roots.

The Church in the Philippines is in the midst of a “nine-year journey for New Evangelization.” The celebration is in preparation for the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines, which will be observed in 2021. Each year leading up to 2021 has a different theme, such as 2019’s Year of Youth. The final year will commemorate the “Missio ad gentes,” or mission to the nations. Indeed, Filipinos who have set out from home and settled in other lands have brought a very Catholic culture with them.

According to the Inquirer newspaper in the Philippines, North America accounts for the largest percentage of overseas Filipinos, with some 3.5 million Filipinos in the United States and 721,000 in Canada.

There’s “strength in numbers,” as the old saying goes, but for many Filipinos, the real strength that gets them through their immigrant experiences is in the family and in their faith.

“For the Filipino, the family is the primary source of identity. Our families determine who we are. I know my place in the world because of my family,” said Dominican Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, a professor in both biology and theology at Providence College in Rhode Island. “This is radically different from the American account, where one invents an identity or discovers an identity; the Filipino is given an identity primarily through familial bonds. And I think that’s a struggle sometimes, because Filipinos have such a strong sense of self in family that the American culture, which emphasizes a strong sense of self apart from anyone else, that’s a tension. You see that with a lot of young Filipinos. They know they have to be part of a family, but they’re told by American culture that part of being themselves is rejecting what they’ve received.”

The Church, however—and a large majority of Filipinos are Catholic—helps remind immigrants of the importance of being part of a family. “The Church always says that we are God’s family and that our primary identity should be there: I am the beloved son of the Father,” Fr. Austriaco said in an interview. “Filipinos very much resonate with that. When you pray, you say not God, but Papa God and Mama Mary and Kuya Jesus. Kuya means older brother. Everything is always looked at through the lens of the familial relationship which constitutes your identity.”

But the family is not restricted to immediate relatives, as Fr. Leo Patalinghug attests.

“What Filipinos stand for is a sense of family, a sense of faith and a sense of fun,” said Fr. Patalinghug, who runs Plating Grace, a movement to help families overcome modern distractions and recover a sense of family through shared meals. “Everyone is kind of related to each other. They call each other tito and tita—uncle and aunt—brother and sister. We called everyone, out of respect, either manoy or manay, which are terms that mean older brother and older sister, even if you’re not necessarily related to them.”

Growing up in an immigrant family in Maryland, where his father came to work as a physician, Fr. Patalinghug remembers having manners instilled in him, such as kissing his parents’ hands. The custom is known as mano po. “You take the hand and put it to your forehead, as a sign of respect,” he said. “That was the first thing you did when you walked into somebody’s home. If you did anything else, boy, you were in trouble. It was so awkward for me—doing that in front of my American friends, and they would have no idea what that was.”

Jennifer Pascual also recalls the strict adherence to certain ways. Pascual, director of music and organist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, said her parents, who were both born in Manila, “were not as lenient as other parents, and so that rigidity instilled a discipline in me that my friends didn’t necessarily have.”

“My friends would ask ‘Can you hang out?’ ‘No, my parents won’t let me.’ Or if I were to go out on a date, somebody had to be with me,” recalled Pascual, who was born in Los Angeles and grew up mostly in Florida. “The rigidity of strictness they brought me up with is something that helped me have the drive to succeed, I guess, in always striving to please them. I think my friends picked up on that.”

But she also recalled the openness her family had. “My father was always cooking, and anyone who came over, the food was right in front of your face,” she said. “The familial camaraderie, whether they were friends or relatives, people always came over for meals.”

Pascual said she actually feels more Filipino than American now, and she said she has visited the Philippines more than her own parents have been back home. Two of those trips were to participate in an international festival at her mother’s home parish, St. Joseph’s in the Las Piñas section of Manila, home to the world famous “bamboo organ.” She hopes to make a recording on the organ next summer.

As the Philippine Bishops Conference pointed out in announcing the nine-year observance of the Evangelization of the Philippines, the faith has held the Filipino culture together like nothing else, and continues to do so.

“In the face of a secularism which in some parts of our present world has itself become a kind of a ‘dominant religion,’ in the face of the reality of billions who live in our time and who have not truly encountered Jesus Christ nor heard of His Gospel, how challenged we are, how challenged we must be, to enter into the endeavor of the New Evangelization,” the bishops wrote. “We for whom Jesus has been and is truly the Way, the Truth and the Life—how can we not want and long and share Him with brothers and sisters around us who are yet to know and love Him, who are yet to receive the fullness of Life for which we have all been created, and without which their hearts will be ever restless—until they find Jesus and His heart which awaits them?”

In interviews, Filipinos have been quick to point out the role of the Church in their lives, both before and since migrating. When Fr. Leo’s parents settled in Maryland, they chose a lower-income neighborhood because they found a house just two blocks from church. When Arcie Lim left the political turmoil in the Philippines in the 1970s, “one of the first things that my wife did upon arriving in Canada was to look for a church where we can attend and register.”

“As new immigrants, this is the place where we feel comfortable and most welcomed,” said Lim, an accountant who has been active in Church and Filipino affairs in Vancouver and was recently elected to the Knights of Columbus Supreme Board of Directors. “Our Catholic faith provided the hope and the strength that is so much needed to help us in our new life in a foreign country. The various local parishes, in most cases, are the ‘go to’ for many immigrants who are looking for a sense of belonging, a community they can lean on, especially for immigrants who have no families with them. Our church is the place where we meet people who can relate to us, who are genuine in their desire to help and who can provide support when we need it. Through these people, friends and relatives, I was able to adapt and assimilate to my new environment accordingly, without sacrificing my own culture and belief.”

At the same time, Filipinos have much to offer an increasingly secular society, in Fr. Austriaco’s estimation.

“One of the defining characteristics of a secular age, according to Charles Taylor, a renowned Catholic philosopher, is that a secular age is disenchanted,” he said. “What that means is that we live in an age where the material, the physical, dominates our imagination … The Filipino soul is deeply enchanted. So Filipinos feel the spiritual realm.” And the can help the “American secular soul to re-enchant its imagination.”

Recently, for example, he led his students into an empty church. “I say ‘It’s never empty! There are billions of angels there. Say hello to them,’” he related. “That’s so weird for Americans.”

As someone who teaches both science and theology, Fr. Austriaco seeks to persuade students that they are more ways of looking at reality than by scientific observation. “In my faith and reason class, I spend an entire week on angels,” he said. “If a scientific worldview is a worldview that is in search for truth, then a scientific worldview that can only see matter is highly truncated and disemboweled, because it cannot see the fullness. So I tell my students ‘The scientific enterprise can only deal with matter and forces, but if as a scientist you believe that you need to look for truth, then you have to be open to realities of creation that may not be amenable to experimentation but to personal encounter, and then you have to be able to see the angels and the demons.”

Said Fr. Austriaco, “I think the Filipino knows that intuitively.”

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