“I have been very zealous for the Lord” (1 Kings, 19:10)

Being zealous for the Lord might sound like a good thing, but the line between being zealous and being a zealot is a thin one. Just a few verses before his pious profession of loyalty to the Lord, the prophet Elijah had been instrumental in the killing of some four hundred and fifty prophets of another god (1 Kings, 18:40. But zeal in moderation is surely an attractive attribute, and I have witnessed it many times over the years.

She was enough to bring a twinkle to the eye of a middle-aged celibate, even to suggest that the long-dormant testosterone might consider trickling through the ageing veins ones again. Because for the four-hour bus journey to Cebu, the only vacant seat was beside a pretty young Filipina. Well I fairly bounded down the aisle of the bus, anticipating her gushing compliments about my macho figure or the irresistible scent of my discount-store cologne. Alas, once again my fantasies were to remain merely dashed hopes: she continued chatting with her companions, and so, ruefully accepting harsh reality, I took out my reading material and began a not so exciting verse-by-verse commentary on the book of Exodus.

Half way through the journey, however, the Fates intervened in the person of a vendor selling rice cakes. I was feeling peckish so I asked the price and bought the goods, hardly a dozen words being spoken. My erstwhile somewhat shy seat-mate perked up: (in Cebuano) “So, you speak the language well”. I demurred, saying that I just tried my best. From there, she became more effusive and chatty. I mentioned earlier that she was a pretty Filipina, and that much I had ascertained solely from her face, because of her figure I was given no clue.  Together with her female companions, they were all wearing loose-fitting blouses and skirts that reached well below the knee. And now I noticed that they all, men and women, had the give-away badge: Bro/Sis _________, Latter Day Saints. I was sitting beside a pretty Filipina Mormon, in the midst of a Mormon enclave.

Well for the next two hours, they tried every trick in the book to convert me to their creed: as usual, I didn’t reveal my credentials, apart from my being a dyed-in-the-wool bachelor. I was then admonished to get married ASAP and to produce numerous offspring – all this from a rather esoteric interpretation of a single gospel verse. The 8 or 9 Mormons in the group were all in their mid-20s. Every remark of theirs ended with “the heavenly Father”, and their quoting of bible verses was somewhat wooden: no sense of various possible meanings, just the black-and-white of fundamentalists. My impression was that they were kind-of half brainwashed, they had all the answers by rote, chapter and verse – whether it was to the bible or the book of Mormon. But even if they seemed rather robotic, those long-skirted femme fatales were still able to send me on my way with a Mormon booklet. I learned that they volunteer for 18 months in the Mormon mission, and all expenses are their own (or donors’). There was a real sense of “being sent” and an atmosphere of camaraderie among them. I admired their palpable sense of people being on a mission.

Over the years, during my missions, I have also experienced such zeal. Here are a few examples. With my guides, we visit one home after another, in the upland villages where the houses are scattered around the hills; in the lowland villages where they are in rows and clusters. Well, there were times when, for days on end, the rain fell as in the time of Noah. I was sorely tempted to stay indoors and read my book or do a crossword, or even say my prayers. But always, without fail, my guides would turn up at the appointed time (8 a.m.), complete with umbrella, oilskin, plastic cape or, if the rain was light, banana leaf! And we’d set off, wading through the ankle-deep water if we were going along the road, or squelching through the mud if crossing the narrow pathways along the edges of the rice fields.

Well, I’m full of admiration for these people: their dedication, their no-nonsense down-to-business approach, bunching up their skirts or rolling up their trousers knee-high to cross the streams; their sense of being on a mission as we go from house to house, talking with parents or families. We chat for a while, pray a little, practice the new mission songs and invite all to a gathering later in the evening in a neighbour’s house.

“Padre, I anointed a dying neighbour”. The speaker was a pious housewife from a former mission area in Cebu. I was intrigued and asked for more details, because I had learned in the seminary that only a priest could administer the seven sacraments (although in an emergency, anybody can perform a baptism). Had she indeed administered one of the sacraments, and was thus deserving of a whack of the crozier? She had gone to her own parish as well as a neighbouring one to request for a priest to anoint the dying neighbour, but nobody was available. So taking with her the mission book, Bahandi (“treasure”), she went to minister to the sick. She read all the prayers and intercessions under “Blessing of the Sick”, and then she did the anointing. It’s a simple but moving part of the ceremony wherein all present make the sign of the cross on the forehead of the patient (after which, if a priest is present, he will then make the sign of the cross using the holy oil). I always find it somewhat emotional, whether in private hospitals where the wealthy go in time of illness, or in the simpler homes of the poor, whether in the city or the province. The accompanying prayer says that, just as, while still an infant, the sick person was marked with the sign of the cross at baptism, now we make the same sign invoking God’s help. I find it a lovely display of communal empathy and support.

In Mambaling (Cebu city), my first urban mission in 2007, the Bahandi was something of a best-seller. A few months after the mission, the members of a very active family said that when their elderly father had a stroke, in order to comfort both him and themselves, they had sung every single song in the book, and when they had reached the last page they had returned to page 1! Incidentally, during the evaluation of that mission, I had asked a group of leaders what were the memorable events, hoping that what would be highlighted were my brilliant sermons (!) or how life-changing someone had experienced the mission. In fact, to my chagrin and great amusement, one of the married daughters of the stroke victim, whose husband was the guitarist, said that the thing she’d never forget was how I’d inform her husband what key a song was played in: “C, as in carabao” [water buffalo], or “D, as in dalugdug” [thunder]. So much for my lofty ambitions.

I even experienced zeal in unusual circumstances, thanks to the teachers and catechists in a remote place. On the eastern island of Samar, we conducted a mission: this was the area where there were mighty clashes between the Japanese and the Americans during World War 2, famously during the Battle of Leyte Gulf (the islands of Samar and Leyte are adjacent). During the mission the following ensued: I could see a group of people gathered at the jetty of the mission village, clearly a welcome committee. We had arrived by boat, about 45 minutes from the parish house. I was the first out of the boat, carrying a bottle of Mass wine, with a knapsack on my back, and wearing short pants – clearly not VIP attire. But there was more than the group of well-wishers. As we climbed the steps we saw all the school children, lined up in two rows, forming a guard of honour, complete with flaglets in their hands: a beautiful sight! I had to think fast, what to do now, how to respond to their kindness and acknowledge their effort. I thought, “Amerikano coming ashore in the eastern Philippines.What name comes to mind?

Of course: Gen. Douglas MacArthur”, (the American general of World War 2 fame in the Philippines, who having been initially routed by the Japanese, uttered the historic words “I shall return”). I immediately executed a crisp military salute and then, as one, in perfect synchronicity, the two rows of students saluted back, grinning like Cheshire cats. We were off to a good start.

Share mdi-share-variant mdi-twitter mdi-facebook mdi-whatsapp mdi-telegram mdi-linkedin mdi-email mdi-printer mdi-chevron-left Prev Next mdi-chevron-right Related
Comments are open

The biggest problem Ireland faces right now is:

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...