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COLM MEANEY: “Grace is all”.

The army hasn’t a great reputation in this country. After backing the Marcos dictatorship in the 70s and early 80s, during which rivers of innocent blood were spilled, they then did a convenient U-turn with the election of the laywoman Corazon Aquino in 1986, which was the year I arrived in the country. Then, however, they were sometimes instrumental in de-stabilising her presidency – often with more unnecessary bloodshed. No, I wouldn’t place much trust in the military.

So, I was even more surprised when my guide told me that the soldiers billeted in the village would like me to visit them. Not sure what to expect, I brought my guitar and a few mission books, and a niggling doubt that this was all for the birds, and suspected that the soldiers were trying to score an easy point with the villagers by the visit of the padre. Echoing in my mind were the words of the magi in T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”, that “this was all folly”. The reality was to be far more surprising than my dismal predictions!

All eight of the soldiers were in full uniform, their rifles safely leaning against the trunk of a mango tree, under whose leafy branches we sat. Formal handshakes all round, very respectful towards myself, a few even taking my hand and placing it on their foreheads – the quintessential Filipino sign of respect. I suggested we sing a few songs and they joined in heartily.

I read the parable of the Sower and we shared a little. I asked, “If the goal of the Sower is a bountiful harvest, what is the goal of the soldiers in this village?” And, just as the farmer tends the seedlings and puts fertilizer on them, what steps might the army take to achieve its goal? Afterwards we had rice cakes and coffee and the obligatory “photo-taking”, and they even gave me an envelope, the fruit of a whip-round collection. They struck me as down-to-earth men, trying to do the best they could. As sometimes before, grace had greatly surprised me. (I often ponder the closing line of that great novel, The Diary of a Country Priest: “What does it matter? All is grace”).

More’s the pity that I was so unaware of grace’s presence a few weeks later. I had spent the morning going from house to house in a hilly area, the format being the usual: introduce myself, chat about their family, sing a couple of mission songs, short prayer and offer an invitation to attend the mission activities. That day happened to be the date of the ‘monthly Mass’ in their chapel, so I was filling in for the pastor.

After the Mass, with only an average attendance, my guide said that there was one more house to visit – I had thought that we had finished and was looking forward to putting my feet up for the rest of the day. The ‘house’ was nothing more substantial than a glorified shed, dirt floor, zero luxuries or even trinkets. The mother was cradling her daughter. I asked if she had been at the Mass. She said she hadn’t, and then I made an utterly foolish and insulting comment about a lack of faith on her part. Her daughter is severely handicapped; how could she have attended?

But even if her daughter were perfectly healthy, I had no right to pronounce on her faith or lack thereof. My comment was worse than stupid, it was a gratuitous trespassing on the woman’s dignity. I was hoping the ground would open beneath my feet, but regret is always at least a split-second too late. Any grace that may have attended my visit to that long-suffering mother in her little-better-than-a-hovel home must surely have been snuffed out by my unworthy comment; but maybe not.

I had already mistaken the military and now, hopefully, I was mistaken about the power of grace; perhaps it could miraculously bring some good out of the seeming ruin of my woefully wrong words. Surely divine grace could disarm my ill-chosen, censorious comment and maybe what will remain with the mother will be how I anointed her daughter and invoked God’s blessing on both of them. I certainly hope so.

On a lighter note, recently we had the pastoral visit of the bishop to the parish where the mission was being held. Well it was like a journey back in time, at least as far as costumes were concerned. To meet the bishop, the parish priest was decked out in a cope, as though he was about to officiate at Benediction. Maybe he did indeed have a ‘good word’ (the literal meaning of ‘benediction’) for the bishop, in that he’s a very popular priest, compared with his predecessor.

At any rate, the parish priest was sweating in his cope in the tropical heat, and the lay ministers were also perspiring profusely in their official gear. But when the bishop arrived, I thought we really had gone back in time, to about the era of the Borgias. His grace was actually wearing a biretta, the three-pronged hat that went out of fashion soon after Vatican II. Still, I enjoyed the entire event. I’m a big fan of pageantry, even if the costumes this time were a tad passé. And the bishop is a very friendly fellow. That day happened to be the 29th anniversary of my ordination, and he made many references to the event during lunch. Later, I took a lift in his van to the marketplace where I was going to get a motorbike ride back to the village where I was staying.

As I walked away from his van, he called me back and pressed two 1,000-peso notes into my hand (about €40, a very generous gift in this country, more than two weeks’ pay for a farm labourer). I promise never again to make fun of his biretta.

 

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