Cast out into the deep: missionary reflections (2003 – 2010)

Fr. Sergio Fossati, PIME

Organizing such a meeting was not difficult: the catechists were not demanding at all. Straw mats and mosquito nets, two sacks of rice and a few pounds of fish were just what they needed. About eighty volunteer catechists worked in my mission. Once a year, for three days, I gathered them at the mission “formation center” for a simple refreshing course and commitment renewal.

In the Philippines, only women can be catechists. Women do not leave their babies and toddlers alone. That was why the number of those present at the meeting swelled up to almost two hundred. They had to walk for hours, with their children in tow, to reach the mission formation center. For two nights, the symphony of several dozen crying babies kept the spirits of the forest fully awake. And myself too.

What always impressed me were the enthusiasm and the availability of these women to serve as catechists. Certainly not their knowledge – which in most cases was very far from qualifying them even as catechists. I knew very well how hard and physically demanding was their life in the mountains. I knew very well that their families’ poor economic situation was based solely on-sustenance. That is why all of them looked much older than their actual age. The skin of their soles was as hard as the calluses on their hands.

But their desire to serve and to care, no matter what the cost, was so naturally maternal. It reminded me of Mary, the Mother of the Lord. All right, she was full of grace ….but most likely she was an illiterate girl, as all the other women in Palestine were at that time. Yet, she taught little Jesus to love the Most High and not to be afraid of him. Almost certainly she could not read, yet she proclaimed with her all life the greatness of God Almighty. I am so grateful for all those caring women who – like Mary – taught me to love God and to know the gifts that God gave me.

He was a customary presence at the rectory, every Sunday at five in the morning. It was still dark outside, but in minutes the first rays of dawn would have gloriously lighted up the clear sky of Sibuco, my mission. Dodong was a young man with Down syndrome in his mid-twenties, and one of the most fervent Catholics in my mission. I have rarely seen such an enthusiasm for the Holy Mass! He could not speak intelligibly, but he always made his voice clearly heard above others’ voices. And he always came for Communion, which he received with great reverence. His persistent grumbling – which nobody could understand – accompanied us in our early morning chores. He was simply trying to wake us up and get us ready for the six o’clock Mass. Meding, never idle, had already been preparing rice for the little community living with me at the rectory, since four o’clock. Abandoned by her partner, a non-Christian, along with her two little girls found at the rectory a home and a job. Inday was a sweet girl from the mountains. Affected by polio since she was little, her legs could not sustain her frail body and she was thus destined to crouch and to crawl all her life. Now, after a painful but effective surgery, she could al least stand and walk with the help of wooden crutches. Though already in her late teens, she attended Elementary School. Louie, a shy and reliable young man with a passion for motors, was my “right hand” at the rectory and at times my only companion in my missionary “expeditions”. His folks were farmers up in the mountains and understood the importance of an education for their children. They thought that the rectory was the safest place for their son to stay. Louie was attending High School.

That was “my” family down there. And, by the way, the six o’clock Mass started always on time, thanks to Dodong!