15 May 2017, Monday
“Uh oh, the rain’s going to spoil their fiesta”, I told myself as dark clouds ushered in daylight of May 15, feast of Saint Isidore the Farmer, patron of the parish of Barangay Casian, Taytay, Palawan. In fact, it had rained that night. It’s going to be a wet fluvial procession, I thought.
“But we want the rains to come!”, was Fr. Charlie’s, parish priest, response to my concern. The water wells are drying, salty water is seeping into our water supply, he explained.
My week in Casian and neighboring islands would be an enriching occasion to see things from another perspective and to deepen in my appreciation of the work done by missionaries, past and present.
For the fluvial procession that would kick off the fiesta activities, pump boats of various sizes were gathering around the quay; on the bigger ones, bedecked with bunting and plastic flowers, were installed the religious images: of St. Ezekiel Moreno’s, our Blessed Mother’s, and the patron saint’s. Though a couple of hours delayed - in the islands you have to seriously adjust your sense of time - the procession of about 30 vessels started moving towards Dadalitan island, where Fr. Charlie was going to bless them and their riders.
He was riding the faster, flat-bottomed junco (pronounced djung-ko, which was donated by San Sebastian College on its 75th anniversary) and had brought a farm spray filled with holy water. Manually blessing the boats was tiring, he recalled last year’s experience. He was ready for a liturgical tweak.
Well, the junco’s engine sputtered several times and the spray choked, so, after the engine finally came to life, Fr. Charlie had to bless the clustered boats with the ol’ reliable tabo (dipper). The ritual done, he executed some nifty hiphop moves, his white Recollect habit highlighting the actions, to the delight of his parishioners. The boats then circled the island and some motored back to Casian, while others went back to their home islands.
Main celebrant at the 10 a.m. mass was Fr. Raul Buhay, general councilor of the Order in charge of the Apostolate; he had come from Rome a few days before, accompanied by another general councilor, Fr. Antonio Carron, who heads the Order’s educational apostolate and its communications arm. The usually enthusiastic Fr. Raul has lost none of his fluency in Tagalog as he preached the homily. After the mass, he informed about the Association of Saint Monica Christian Mothers, enjoining the women to become members. (I had started the movement in the country several years ago in Manukan, Zamboanga del Norte, and had spread it also to the secular fraternity members in Antipolo, Quezon City and Manila; but Fr. Raul’s general dissemination is a welcome move).
The evening brought loud music from the covered court across the street. It was going to be our second sleepless night as the revellers thought nothing about reducing the boom boom of the speakers that accompanied their all-night dancing. On the first night, we sat at a table reserved for the parish pastors. Fr. Antonio observed that the whole thing was almost identical to the manner of celebrating in the mission parishes in Marajo, at the delta of the Amazon, in faraway Brazil.
It was 530 in the morning of the next day that the generator was put off, and, mercifully, with it died the music. Silence was a bliss! In fairness, it’s not every day that these people celebrate, we consoled ourselves.
My Casian sojourn 2017 was designed to be a delightful sandwich. The May 15 parish fiesta and May 20 silver anniversary of Fr. Joel “Notnot” Naranja’s ordination are both ends of the bun, and the maritime pilgrimage to Recollect evangelization areas from May 16 to 19 the filling.
First stop is Cuyo, some 8 hours away to the east.
The name of Cuyo stuck in my mind as an eleven-year old first year seminarian at San Carlos City, Negros Occidental in 1968. Apostolic Vicar of Palawan Bishop Gregorio Espiga had shown slides of the Vicariate, hoping to instill in our young minds the love for the missions.
Sixteen years later, as a young priest, I chose as topic for my licentiate thesis at the faculty of Church History at the Greg (Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome) the creation of the apostolic prefecture of Palawan in 1910. It was mostly from research work, at the Recollect archives of Spain and Rome and at the Archivo General de Indias, in Seville, Spain, which prompted my major superior in 1987 to gift me with my first trip to Palawan, until then known only through pictures and documents. Now, in 2017, I was going to personally visit Cuyo, the cradle of Recollect evangelization in Palawan and the core of the Prefecture at its creation. It was a realization of a dream long overdue. And I would love every minute of it.
We finally lifted anchor at 10 o’clock, about four hours after the original schedule.
Our pump boat, named after Saint Ezekiel Moreno, is a five-year-old, 72-footer vessel, 6 feet wide, with cask of tipolo wood acquired from Dipolog. Its engine is a 6-cylinder Mitsubishi model 6 D16 which had moved buses in its previous earth-bound reincarnation, testament to the Pinoy’s knack for creative reuse, a proper marine engine being more expensive. Fr. Notnot had acquired the boat for the chaplaincy in Apo Island, in Negros Oriental, when he was assigned there. Seeing that, after his transfer to Casian, it was not being used but was instead slowly becoming fiesta fare for the wood-burrowing tamilok (wormwood), he negotiated for it to be reunited with him in his new assignment.
No one objected to my suggestion that we call our group, the first to make this historical maritime pilgrimage to former Recollect areas of evangelization, the viatoares. It is a combination of viator, oar and OAR. Viator, Latin for traveler, is a beloved word for Saint Augustine. Man is a traveler towards God, the homeland. Oar is of course the most essential and simplest means of moving a boat around. And OAR stands for the Order of Augustinian Recollects.
Here are the first viatoares.
Fr. Joel “Notnot” Naranja, who is celebrating his 25th year of ordination, is the local prior of Recoletos de Casian. Constant energy and perpetual smile is perhaps the shortest way to describe him. His decade of assignment in island ministries (Apo Island and Casian Island) has made him a skilful navigator (if a bit imprudent, in the mind of some land-bound religious, who view with concern his seafaring even at night), a tireless worker in the vineyard of the Lord, bringing the sacraments to the island parishioners and building more durable places of worship and, in the amazed description of fellow Casian pastor Fr. Francisco “Oniot” Antonio, a person incapable of getting angry.
Fr. Charlie Orobia may not have seen much of the sea as a child in Las Pinas, but as a priest he has more than made up for that lack. A co-founder of the Sea Knights, a small group of religious men and priests, in 2007, his advocacy is cleaner seas and more sustainable water resources. Current parish priest of Casian, he leads his fellow pastors in the evangelization program, at the core of which is bringing the Eucharist to the more than ten island chapels every Sunday. Weddings, baptisms, catechism and other standard activities in parish life are part of his menu. Moreover, concerned about the dwindling stocks in even the once-fabulous fishing grounds of northern Palawan, Fr. Charlie thinks of ecological tourism as possible sources of income for his parishioners. Surely, the unspoilt white sand beaches in many islands, the pawikan habitat at Debangan Island, the five-star diving site at Nabat island hold enticing possibilities.
Tough as nails, I remember describing Fr. Louie Gabinete, as he brushed aside one of the many malaria attacks he had in Kamabai, Sierra Leone, where we were assigned together in 2005-2006. He learned toughness as a young boy; undeterred by meager resources, he sold pandesal, fed pigs, served in the house of an aunt on his way to finishing secondary school in Narra, Palawan. Entering the seminary in college, he had to study harder as his classmates, some of whom came from the high school seminary, had had a big academic and formative headstart. Fr. Louie is currently Vice President for Student Welfare of our university in Negros. Last October, while attending the 75th anniversary celebration of Santo Tomas minor seminary, he had an almost fatal heart attack. Learning that it was caused by varied strenuous sports activities coupled with insufficient sleep, we had to warn him: “Louie, you are not that young anymore”.
Frs. Jojo Jadulco and Ken Lao are only three and two years in the priesthood, respectively. I had known them, though, as seminarians, especially in the Novitiate, where I taught history of the Order. In this trip I realized that Jojo, a pleasant conversationalist, is always eager to learn. One lesson he learned fast from Louie was to float and swim. (Foreign visitors are shocked to learn that so many Filipinos, living in an archipelago of more than seven thousand islands, do not know how to swim, while they, who could only have the summer months in the year to take to the water, are mostly good swimmers). I also obliged Fr. Jojo in his many inquiries, linguistic, historical, cultural.
Fr. Ken Lao, recently reassigned from Casian to Tagburos parish in Puerto Princesa, is a silent, gentle soul. During the trips, he would silently perform tasks and services for the rest. For instance, with a bolo he slashed open the young coconuts so we could drink its electrolyte-replenishing milk and chew on its tender meat.
As for me, let me just present myself as chronicler of the voyage.
We have a three-man crew: Bonifacio “Boning” Abrina, 59, is the captain, assisted by Ferdie Valdez, 57, and Jake Mendoza, 46.
I did not know that Boning is a Muslim, so that when during a conversation after a long trip, he mentioned that he had two wives in Malaysia aside from his wife in Casian (who is the mother of our sacristan in San Sebastian parish, Amry Abrina) I said to myself: “Aba, nagyayabang pa!”. I realized later that he was just stating what for them is a common and perfectly legal arrangement. Before this conversation, I had received a text from a colleague at the Bastecon (San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation, Inc.) inquiring whether we are open to training Muslims as tour guides of the basilica, as part of our community development program. Well, here we have Boning bringing us to see the forts that Augustinian Recollects from the 17th to the 19th centuries constructed or maintained to ward off Muslim invaders. So, I have no objection to the training of those Islamic believers who are properly disposed to be tour guides of the basilica; after all, Quiapo is being increasingly populated by Muslims and one must look for ties that bind rather than breaches that divide.
Traveling these seas in the 17th to the 19th centuries was no mean feat for the missionaries. Without motorized boats, clear maps, accurate marine information and easy provisions, as well as without sufficient knowledge of the local languages and customs, difficulties abounded for them. Which made what they accomplished all the more admirable.
Our seafaring brothers Charlie and Notnot have gadgets that our forebears did not have. GPS on cellphones that function independently of telecom signals, accurate compasses, solar chargers, and the like, brought us directly to our destination. Cuyo is 100 degrees southeast of Casian; we were running at an average of 17 kilometers per hour; we should be there in 6 to 8 hours. In the meantime, we tried to identify the islands as we went. Maducang and Calandagan at starboard, Cabunglawan and Nangalaw at port side. Hours later, Quiminatin and Chicos islands, then Lubid, and then Canipo. Still further, we could sight the famous exclusive resort for the rich and famous, Amanpulo.
Concerned about sunburn and skin cancer? We, the city-bred, applied generous measures of carefully-chosen sunblock brands with reassuring PH levels. I offered Fr. Notnot some; he smilingly declined. The gradual buildup of his melanin gives his skin natural protection. I think about fisherfolk, exposed to the sun most of their lives, I don’t think skin cancer is a leading cause of their death. Drowning, maybe. Hunger, maybe. But not skin cancer.
I am a bit embarrassed that this maritime pilgrimage has none of the hardships that faced the missionaries we are trying to honor and remember. When tired and board by the vast expanse of the seas, we could comfortably recline. While Jake was preparing lunch, we could munch on peanuts and chichirrias and guzzle ice-cold beer. And the sea in the month of May is sometimes like a lake of oil so that a maritime voyage feels more like a walk in the park. It was a pleasurable pilgrimage!
The lunch of brown rice, fried talakitok and goat papaitan (a fiesta leftover) and dessert of sweet backyard-grown papaya was for us haute cuisine in the high seas!
Cuyo, here we come
The approach to Cuyo opened the vista to more than twenty islands around. I now understood better that Cuyo was a good place to start evangelization with.
We docked at past 6 pm; Fr. Notnot had to report our arrival to the Philippine Ports Authority as well as to the Philippine Coast Guard. This latter agency posed a bit of a problem, because our vessel’s papers are still being processed with Manila and we were, strictly speaking, undocumented.
The beauty, peace, and cleanliness of Cuyo banished the boredom and tiredness of the 8-hour ride. Current parish priest Fr. Rey Palanca gave us a warm welcome and soon showed us the fort. As described in the documents and portrayed in pictures and scale models, the massive construction had the church-fortress’s outside wall serving as rampart of one side of the square fort. At the opposite side is the bell tower, recently augmented with another floor.
Four bulwarks secured the four angles of the fort. Fr. Juan de San Severo, who built the fort in the 1680s, certainly knew his trade; in his student days he must have been as interested in military tactics as in theology. The fort, and especially the bell-cum-watch tower had a commanding view of the bay. In yesteryears, when the bells rang to warn of an enemy incursion, the inhabitants would rush from their fields into the refuge of the fortification. A group of trained menfolk would sally forth in a sortie and engage the enemy to prevent them from pillaging the settlement.
The church is one long nave; its rampart side has windows high up. The floor is machuca tiles, so it must have been installed in the 1950s or 1960s. We came across some tombstones of Recollects and lay people; among the former, Frs. Nicanor Arciniega (+1885), Manuel Bonilla (year of death unrecognisable), and Geronimo Sancho (died in Taytay in 1890 and transferred to Cuyo in 1922). The retable, also a modern replacement, has the image of the Crucified Jesus at the topmost tier, that of Saint Augustine in the tier below, and that of the Sacred Heart and of Our Lady of Consolation at the left and right flanks, respectively. What seemed to remain from the older altarpiece is a magnificent silver-plated conical base, about two feet high, on which rests the tabernacle and its surroundings, also silver plated. In the center of the base, the seal of the OAR is in embossed silver. As we would observe in the course of our pilgrimage, the missionaries spared no expense in what pertained to liturgical concerns. As the Forma de Vivir, the first constitutions of the Recollect movement, put it: While in everything we must be poor, in what pertains to divine worship, let us be rich (FV ch. 1, 2).
I must say that whilst well-meaning, the later pastors added fixtures or images that diminished the simple elegance of the original. The disproportionally-sized new stations of the cross inside the church, the asymmetrically-positioned-and-totally-unnecessary (for me, at least; it serves the once-a-year Salubong ceremony of Easter dawn, so why do you construct a permanent structure for use one sole day in the whole year?) cement arch several meters in front of the church entrance and the garishly-colored, almost-life-size statues of apostles and saints placed on top of the ramparts are accretions over time I could do without. Pero, mira, as the Spaniards would say, hay gente para todo. If in many people a sense of wonder or mystery is evoked, who am I to object?
It was not long before I asked Fr. Rey Palanca the exact spot from where Fr. Juan Garde, the last Recollect parish priest of Cuyo (died 2014), backstepped into empty space while watching — was it a parade? — and fell on his feet, what we calculated would be some 8 meters, on the ground below. Was he distracted by the winsome majorettes, we his fellow religious in Madrid (1997-1998) used to rib him. Fortunately, the physical harm was not that great; perhaps, the teasing through the years annoyed him more.
A former parish priest, Monsignor Moring, built the present three-story convent, with plenty of rooms for visitors. We were able to sleep with plenty of help from electric fans.