By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Archbishop of Philadelphia
A recent celebration, which I took part in with our Filipino Catholic community, provides our topic this week.
The Church is missionary by nature
I have mentioned many times in this column, and you know by your own Catholic education, that the Church is missionary by nature. Jesus commanded His apostles and their successors to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. All Christians, according to their vocations within the Church, share in that missionary spirit in different degrees. All are called to share in that very basic understanding of the mission mandate by which Jesus, “the light of the world,” commands each Christian also to be a light by showing others what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
However, over the course of the 2,000 year history of Christ’s Church, there have been many men and women who have taken the missionary mandate of Jesus and lived it out in a radical, and often heroic, manner. These are the missionaries, who left the familiar comfort of their own homes, families and countries, to bring the message of salvation to other parts of the world. In a sense, every Catholic has received the gift of faith through a “missionary,” because we have all received the faith of the apostles, but some have received the faith through the missionary activity of the past few hundred years. This was occasioned by the discovery of new lands, with missionaries often traveling along with the explorers.
It has become somewhat fashionable to criticize some of this missionary activity at times. It is said that they imposed the culture of their own lands on other peoples, or that they were too closely associated with the traders, explorers and governments of their native lands. No one is perfect, and people must be understood in the context of their times, but it remains a fact that missionaries made great sacrifices to go to foreign lands, where they often not only brought the truths of our salvation to other peoples, but also grew to love and even give their lives for the people they went to serve. I mention all of this because as we look around us in our Archdiocese, which contains such a variety of people of different backgrounds, we often see the results of the work of the missionaries.
One can debate the role of the French and Spanish in Southeast Asia or Latin America, but when we see the strong faith of our brothers and sisters from Vietnam, Mexico, Haiti, the Phillippines and many other regions, we cannot forget to pay tribute to the work of the missionaries. It is one of these communities, our Filipino Catholic community, which I would like to highlight this week, as we pay tribute to their great faith.
The means of handing on the Faith
One of the great truths that the missionaries sought to transmit to those they sought to evangelize is the personal love of God for each one of us. This truth is especially manifested in the Incarnation of God the Son, the Redemption accomplished by Jesus on the Cross and the inspanidual love shown to us by God in allowing us to come into this world as unique persons, loved and redeemed by Him. It is especially touching to read the account of St. Peter Claver, a great missionary priest who gave his life for the relief and evangelization of the Africans sold into slavery. Even in the midst of their degradation, while dressing their wounds and showing them love, he taught them of God’s personal love and care for them and showed them images of Jesus dying on the Cross for love of them, thereby attempting as best as he could in the circumstances, to show them they had a great worth in God’s sight.
Among many peoples, the truth of God’s personal love for them is expressed in their devotion to a particular title of our Lord, our Blessed Mother and God’s special friends, the saints. Very often, this became an appealing way of summarizing the truths of the faith in a manner that is understandable and attractive. These devotions have become associated with certain places and people and, in the case of our own country of immigrants, many of these groups have brought their particular devotions with them. This is true within our Filipino community, who show a particular devotion to the Holy Child Jesus: the Santo Niño.
The Santo Nino: Patron of the Philippines and Filipinos everywhere
Augustinian missionaries arriving in the Philippine Islands brought with them in 1535 devotion to the Holy Child Jesus, known as the Santo Niño. Our Lord under this title came to be seen as the special protector and friend of the Filipino people. The Basilica in Cebu in the Philippine Islands is the international center for this devotion. As with many of the devotions handed down from generation to generation, this devotion to the Holy Child Jesus can also be one of the means of maintaining the integrity of the Catholic faith in the midst of changing customs and migration to other lands.
Our own St. Augustine Church in Philadelphia, popularly known as “Old St. Augustine’s,” has become a great spiritual center for many Filipino people in the Delaware Valley. It is staffed by the Augustinians, successors to the Spanish Augustinian missionaries who were sent from Spain to the Philippines so many centuries ago. As a response to the increasing presence of Filipino Catholics at St. Augustine’s, a statue of the Santo Niño was installed there in 1992.
In July 1994, an official replica of the original statue of Santo Niño venerated in Cebu, was commissioned by the Augustinians in the Philippines to be permanently enshrined in Old St. Augustine’s. Its purpose and the motivation behind the gift was to symbolize the unity of faith of the people and the Augustinians in the Philippine Islands with the people and Augustinians in the United States.
In the Philippines and in Old St. Augustine’s Church, an annual feast honoring the Santo Niño, called the “Sinulag,” is celebrated on the third Sunday of January. However, due to the cold weather in January in our part of the United States, the Filipino Catholic community of the Delaware Valley decided to celebrate another feast of the Santo Niño at a time of year that was more convenient. Since the feast of St. Augustine is celebrated on Aug. 28, it was decided that a summer feast of the Santo Niño would be celebrated as a “Summer Sinulag” near the last Saturday of August, close to St. Augustine’s feast.
It is a remarkable testimony to the stability of our faith, to the zeal of the missionaries, and to the fidelity of the Filipino people that these celebrations take place. I mention the stability of our faith because the Augustinians, as we know, follow the monastic rule of St. Augustine (354-430), who lived in the early centuries of the Church and who still enlightens us by his teaching. Followers of the rule of St. Augustine flourished in Spain and, in a missionary spirit, went forth to bring the gospel to other nations. One of the places they went to was the Philippine Islands. They not only brought the message of Jesus, but they also instilled various devotions among the people, in order to make the faith understandable and attractive, as I explained above. In their fidelity, the Filipino Catholics brought their devotion to the much-loved image of the Santo Niño to our own city of Philadelphia and to a Church entrusted to the Augustinian Friars. What a beautiful example of the continuity and consolation of the faith we find in this story!
As we thank the Filipino community for their presence in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and for their fidelity to the Church, we remember the missionaries who brought the message of Jesus to them, as well as the Augustinians who still serve them today at St. Augustine’s. May Jesus, under His much-loved title of the Santo Niño, ever watch over them and keep them faithful forever.
2 September 2010