by Lourdes Policarpio
After years of dreaming and yearning, last September 27 to October 15, my husband, daughter and I finally had a chance to see Eastern Europe. We left a day before the feast day of San Lorenzo Ruiz, the first Filipino saint. San Lorenzo is our family’s foremost “patron” in Heaven. Through his intercession, my daughter Ria was healed of a degenerative brain ailment way back 1983. Throughout the trip to Eastern Europe, thoughts of San Lorenzo would occasionally enter my mind...
Many Filipinos think that San Lorenzo was martyred alone. What is oftentimes overlooked is that when you refer to his martyrdom you say: Lorenzo de Manila and companion martyrs.
Indeed Lorenzo Ruiz, the married man from Binondo, way back in 1636 went unwittingly to Japan with three Dominican priests and their “guides”: a secular priest and a Japanese layman. In Japan, when it was clear that there could be no turning back, Lorenzo must have gotten inspiration and strength to face the terrible ordeals ahead of him, from Fr. Antonio Gonzalez. Fr. Antonio was known to be a holy priest who had prepared for and really desired martyrdom. But unlike Fr. Antonio, Lorenzo was just a fugitive who was fleeing from authorities. He was accused of a crime for which he was apparently innocent. Martyrdom was farthest from his mind.
Like Lorenzo, this trip to Eastern Europe also came as a surprise to us. We did not know we would make it. Our visas were routed to another country to enable us to meet the deadline. But when God beckons (whether to Japan or Eastern Europe), you somehow feel the confluence of events and the shadow of His Hand… I was informed that there would be 27 of us, including not just one but three priests. I was so comforted by this.
Berlin and Munich, beautiful cities that they are, still carry tragic shadows of a violent, relatively “recent” past. You are shown the remnants of the infamous Berlin Wall which divided Germany into East and West, and the guide pointed to the site where a student was shot trying to escape to the West. That first victim eventually bled to death near the Wall’s barbed wires.
Seeing the previous offices of Hitler and the Holocaust Memorial, Germany would have had a negative impact on me except that upon leaving, I realized it is also the land that has produced the present pope –Benedict XVI. Well, that certainly is a great gift from God, in the same way then-Communist Poland had Pope John Paul II.
In Berlin, we discovered we had no Mass kit! Imagine… A pilgrimage without a Mass kit! (Then again, I did try to recall if the travel agency had advertised the trip as a pilgrimage or as a plain tour.) Our fellow traveler, a Monsignor, told us that he thought the travel agency would supply a Mass kit. One pious lady said, “In our previous pilgrimage we had daily Mass, sometimes said even just in a hotel room.” In our Saturday anticipated Mass in Berlin, since we had no English Missal, the readings were in Italian since the parish office did not have English Mass Readings. Of course, we could not understand a word! But we were glad that they gave us communion wafers which we could use in our “hotel” Masses.
I had been told before that Prague is such a charming city, “golden, magical, the city of a hundred spires” as the Pocket Guide to Prague describes it. And indeed it is quaint and lovely.
As we were crossing the bridge and taking in the city from a distance, the Monsignor narrated how he had been to Rome during the canonization of San Lorenzo Ruiz. I told him that we were there too and that our daughter Ria was the one chosen to offer the statue of San Lorenzo to Pope John Paul II during the offertory procession. The Monsignor told us that they were so touched and shed tears at the sight of the little girl walking to the Pope. What a coincidence that the Monsignor and I who come from the same province but never had the chance to get acquainted, would discover a link to San Lorenzo so far away – there in the streets of Prague.
I was ecstatic cruising along the Danube River in Hungary to the strains of Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz. Hungary surpassed my expectations as the tourist guide also told us that it is a land under the protection of Mary. And with the magnificence of the churches we visited, my head simply swirled!
From Hungary, our next stop was Bled in Slovenia. Why go there at all, I asked? It turned out to be a most captivating stop.
Bled is simply so romantic and exquisite. Can you imagine swans gliding on a lake surrounded with trees beginning to show the colors of autumn? In the midst of a lake is a tiny chapel called the Church of Mary the Queen. There is a legend about this little chapel…
“Once upon a time,” a young widow who lived in a castle in Bled mourned her husband who had been killed by evil men. Gathering her gold and silver, she had a bell cast for the chapel on Bled Island. But when the bell was being carried to the island, a storm caused the boat to sink. The boatmen drowned and the bell sank to the bottom of the lake.
Devastated, the young widow then decided to enter a convent. After her death, the pope donated another bell for the church. The legend has it that those who ring the bell to honor the Blessed Virgin and make a wish will see their wish come true. There are 99 steps to the church on Bled Island. For somebody with weak knees like me, reaching the top would be quite a feat! I made it up the 99 steps but when I reached the church, I found that I was simply too tired to go around. Tourists were in line trying to ring the bell. I could not manage anymore to stand up but instead said three Hail Mary’s at the back of the church. My wish has not yet been granted – but I am optimistic!
Nowadays, we are able to witness the greater role of laymen in the Church. In the Philippines, it is especially a testament to Lorenzo Ruiz.
An amusing thing (to me, that is) happened on our way to Hungary. Before our morning prayers in the bus, our tour coordinator (a pious lady in her seventies) said we would be going to a place where we could shop but we needed to contribute money for the extra fare. So she told us the Monsignor would go around collecting the money. After the very humble Monsignor had collected the money, our tour coordinator then started the Morning Prayers (it was usually done by the Monsignor). A reversal of roles, I mused? The Monsignor collects money and the layman starts the Prayers? But all the participants I am sure had observed the spiritual energy also emanating from our lady tour coordinator – not just from the three priests. See what the lay can do?
This was much more evident in Vienna. We were told we would have Mass in Schönbrunn Palace – I was so excited! But first, little “bumps on the road”… That morning, our lady coordinator forgot her passport in Prague and had to go all the way back. So, the jolly good Monsignor had to take over. “Be like good children,” he told us (meaning no complaints). On the way to Schönbrunn Palace, he entertained us with songs in his local dialect which warmed the heart. Upon reaching the palace, another snag – the Monsignor forgot our entrance passes at the hotel. When he left to get them, we felt like orphans. Our pious lady companion unofficially took over (“What is happening? We have to do something.”) She was determined to find the chapel where we were scheduled to have a special Mass at 9 a.m. Any delay and we might miss that.
With the initiative of our tour companions, we found the chapel! The Mass started to begin with our two priests. I heaved a sigh of relief. But when we reached the Liturgy of the Word, the priest said something like, since we have no Missal, can we just sit down and meditate or give personal sharings on yesterday’s (Sunday) readings. A Mass without readings! There was a brief silence. Then came a moment for the “Lorenzo Ruizes” of this world... One of our male companions, Pol, stood up to say he had read the Readings for the day. With precision and fluency, he explained the First Reading, Responsorial Psalm and Gospel! Wow! Again, see what the layman can do?
Seeing Pol in a shining moment, I remembered Lorenzo Ruiz telling his Japanese torturers: “…I am a Christian, and I shall die for God, and for Him I will give many thousands of lives if I had them. And so, do with me as you please.”
But from the Consecration to the Communion, as I meditated on what happened, looking at the two good and amiable priests at the altar, I thought that despite all our spiritual efforts as lay people, it is only the priest who can “summon” Jesus from Heaven to be our Eucharistic food. It is only the priest – the alter Christus, who had sacrificed his life and made his priestly vows of chastity and obedience – who can perform this most sacred act of Consecration.
Oh, how I enjoyed Vienna! The music of Strauss and Mozart linger on with me.
But on our last night there, we were not able to have dinner with the group anymore because my daughter was so exhausted she just wanted to sleep early. With rosary in hand and recollecting events, I found myself going back to San Lorenzo and his companions. They must have inspired and strengthened one another as they faced their tormentors.
Likewise in our tour, I gained so much from the example provided by my companions. For example, I could not stop and rest from all the walking when my companions, in their seventies and eighties, continued to trod on. In our pilgrimage in life, we benefit more if we have good and holy companions who can inspire us to walk on…walk on… to Jesus. Just like our journey in Eastern Europe, we – the priests and the laity – hand in hand help one another in that difficult struggle for sanctity.
The tour to Eastern Europe has inspired me to pray more for the places I visited and the people I met. At the end of the tour, the coordinator organized an exchange of gifts, Kris Kringle style. My daughter Ria got the name of Fr. Bong, and Fr. Bong likewise got her name. A coincidence? I think not; I think it is an affinity suggested by the good Lord.
Affinity. Fraternity. Charity… Now, those are blessed thoughts this Christmas.
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