By Valentin Shukuru B., SX
It recently came to my mind the experience I went through when I arrived here in the Philippines. I had just discovered how to go to my English school and how to come back home alone through public transportation. Every time I took the train or a Jeepney (a popular public utility vehicle), I noticed, after a kin observation, that some other commuters, Filipinos, in a quite instinctive and spontaneous manner signed themselves with the cross every time the train or the Jeepney reached the same place. As a religious and since I could not understand any Filipino yet, I first thought that perhaps the driver had asked passengers to pray the rosary. But that was out of question. I therefore looked for explanations elsewhere. I told myself, perhaps it’s here like in Congo. There Catholics usually make the sign of the cross on the streets if there’s a dead being carried to the Cemetery. I started to wonder for I never saw any dead being carried on the streets. Why, then, do people cross themselves every time and at the same place? How could it be that every day a person is killed at the same place?
Unable to find satisfactory answers to my own questions, my curiosity couldn’t allow me to refrain from asking. And this is what I was told: “We Filipinos cross ourselves on the streets not because there’s a dead somewhere there but because a church or a religious house is nearby and Jesus is there!” Now, every time when this happens I understand what it means; I now know places I can stop and say a word to Jesus.
Thus, over time I began to appreciate the central place the sign of the cross occupies in the day to day life of many Filipinos close to us. It’s a simple gesture Filipino Catholics make thousands of times in their lives. A dozen of Filipinos close to the Xaverians, those who could afford it, of course, will be among the many other pilgrims from the Xaverian world who will be heading to Rome for the canonization of Guido Maria Conforti. I presume that when they get back here, they will talk about Rome and the Vatican and many other things they will see in Italy. And about Conforti… perhaps! But can Saint Guido Maria Conforti really be able to speak to Filipinos? It is difficult to say, but one is inclined to doubt it.
We are told that Conforti had an experience with the Crucifix. In fact, one of the often quoted sentence of Conforti in the Xaverian world is his “I looked at him and He looked at me and He seemed to tell me so many things” (Cf.Augusto Luca, Bishop without frontiers. Guido Maria Conforti, Bologna, 1980, p. 18). Later on in his life, Conforti will even say that that Crucifix gave him his vocation. “The Crucifix, he says again, is the great book that formed the Saints and it must be the same for us too. All the teachings contained in the Holy Gospel are summed up in the Crucifix. It speaks to us with unequalled eloquence; with the eloquence of blood […]. It is the most sublime book upon which we must constantly meditate… No other book can speak to our mind and heart with greater efficacy; no other book can make us conceive more generous resolutions and re-awaken in us all the energies necessary to carry them out, even at the cost of the greatest renunciations and most demanding sacrifices” (Cf. Alfiero Ceresoli and Ermanno Ferro, Guido Maria Conforti- Anthology, available at http//:www.saveriani.com/conforti_usa/conforti_antology.html).
Therefore, if Xaverian Missionaries are to present Conforti to Filipinos we have to tell them that the holiness of this man started by this simple gesture we make thousands of times. This sign has a deep meaning even though most of us don’t realize it. In order to bring Conforti to Filipinos, then, there is no need for us to be original but to build on what is already there. We have to begin with the sign of the cross and end with the sign of the cross.
In his biography of Conforti, Fr. Augusto Luca informs us that after his birth, Conforti’s parents did not want to wait a single day before having him baptized (Cf. Augusto Luca, Bishop without frontiers, p. 14). As he grew up his mother thought him how to cross himself and join his hands for prayer. This sign of the cross he learned to make early in life never left him until the end of his life.
A life he started in a large family of ten children and of which Conforti was the eighth. This is the average number of children per family that we find here in the Philippines. Therefore, I think that if we have to talk again about Conforti to Filipinos, we should highlight this fact. What I mean is not to teach families how to make more babies (that is not our mission here); but what I’m saying is that we have to tell Filipinos that a big family is not an impediment to holiness! Parents should be helped to teach to their children, at least one, how to become a saint and why not Saiberian(it’s difficult for some here to pronounce Xaverians)?
More children are to be made Xaverian on this land and parents have a major role to play in making that possible. The sign of the cross that parents teach their children to make every time they approach holy places is not a good-luck charm (it never was for Conforti and his family) but a public declaration and mark of discipleship. In this, Conforti can really help understand that the cross we usually make is a serious commitment and we cannot stop making it publicly. I’ve learned much about it thanks to Filipinos!
As mentioned earlier, Conforti was baptized only a few hours after his birth. As it was in Conforti’s time, so it is also here in the Philippines. Infant baptisms are a phenomenon here. On some Sundays, the average number of babies baptized in the two parishes entrusted to the Xaverians can easily exceed twenty each! I do not know how our confreres prepare families for baptism but can’t we talk to parents about this detail in Conforti’s life?
Now that the canonization of Conforti draws near, I think that we could take advantage of moments of infant baptism to say something or give to families a photograph of Conforti in remembrance of their children’s baptism. I know how Filipinos like Stampitas and everything you hand to them on occasion like theses is proudly displayed in the family’s shelf! Hence before, after and even far beyond Conforti’s canonization, there’s much we can do to make him and ourselves known on this land where we are just a little flock (Cf. Luke 12:32).
Conforti said that the Crucifix gave him his vocation. How many vocations are we getting among Filipino youth? Against the background of Conforti, perhaps in our Mission-Vocation Awareness we have to remind that to the youth we reach out to. Who knows, maybe one day Saint Conforti will talk to many of them! Saints, indeed, are cousins to Filipinos in the sense that they know how to understand them. In their churches and small chapels even in their houses, Filipinos love to ‘display’ their saints. They touch them and say a quiet prayer…
Thus without shame and false humility we should begin to speak again about holiness to families (Cf. Letter of the General Direction. The Grace of Holiness, iSaveriani 63, p. 35). Yes, we should say, not with shame and with excuses, but with all decisiveness and joy that Conforti is a model of holiness and an example of virtues for all (Cf. Prayer for the canonization of Saint Guido Maria Conforti). While praying indiscriminately to all saints is praiseworthy, isn’t time to propose to families to adopt a saint, a protector, a kind of best friend?
One more thing about Filipino families: most Filipinos have a relative abroad. These have left for distant shores in order to provide better for their families. Not only are these OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers), the primary benefactors to their families but to us too. In spite of their meager resources they support generously our missionary works here (Cf. Xaverian prayer for Benefactors). Also, not a few of OWFs are genuine missionaries and we should teach those close to us to pray to Saint Conforti that they too ‘be given the grace of fortitude in their hardships and be defended from dangers’ (Cf. Xaverian prayer for Missionaries). These OFWs though they have left for distant shores, their family ties with those left behind remain unbreakable. What idea was so dear to Conforti than that of ‘fare del mondo una sola famiglia?’
As we carry out our mission among Filipinos in more and more intercultural communities, there are Filipinos watching us from afar; others would love to come and see what kind of human beings Xaverians look like. In their midst, we can only make two choices: either to become a stumbling block for them or be genuine springboards!
My conclusion, then, is that it is possible to present Conforti to Filipinos from different angles. Mention could also be made of Conforti’s closeness to Mama Mary who is also dear to Filipinos. Even bishops here can learn much from the example of Conforti, a bishop who became a saint! That does not happen every century and we Xaverians in the Philippines can be proud of being the sons of a holy bishop. But we should show it first through fidelity to our charism…
Are we going to put ourselves into hot waters and start to speak again about holiness in this ‘Pearl of the East’ (this is how the Lupang Hinirang or the Chosen Land, the Filipino national anthem refers to this country)?
When I left my country as a missionary for these distant shores, I was not wearing any cross. Yet I’ve found one here in my body and it is speaking to me… And every time I look at Conforti’s photographs and his straightforward stare, it seems that he is telling me not to worry because he is watching after me not with a cold, scary and serious face but with, perhaps, the anxious gaze of a good shepherd patiently waiting until the last (and lost Xaverian?) sheep comes back to share the same heavenly homeland where he now is (Cf. Testament Letter#11).
Similarly, I believe that when Filipinos will look at Conforti’s photographs we are giving away, they will certainly realize that he is looking at them and telling them through his gaze, I’m watching [after] you too. But suppose that Saint Guido Maria Conforti will not begin yet to directly talk to Filipinos in a manner they can understand, what are we going to do? Saiberians working among Filipinos can’t but talk about him; our mission is to voice out the many things Saint Conforti will seem to tell Filipinos. After all, we know very well and more than they do whom we are talking about. I suppose..!
Valentin Shukuru B., SX