Religious of the Good Shepherd: weaving compassion
One of the wondrous times in my life was spent in a special place with very special people, in an atmosphere of simplicity and prayer. I remember how we came together somewhere, I remember taking in the mountain air and the soft scent of the pine that wafted into my soul.
The flowers were in full bloom, the hills were green and throbbing with life. The stars were out the night we gathered to sing hymns, and the sun rose gently from behind the hills the next morning. The quiet and the peace overwhelmed me in ways I could not explain. I was filled with awe and wonderment.
But beyond feelings, I experienced community—and communion. This is indeed a special moment, I thought then, as I pondered the simplicity, as I gazed at the persons I was journeying with, persons I have come to love and cherish until today.
But that was long ago and far away, and that experience will not be repeated in the exact same way ever again.
So. I wrote some of those lines years ago in this column space to describe an experience. Some curious readers wondered what it was all about and what place on earth I had been to.
There are experiences one can never fully explain. But okay, that was when I was in spiritual formation as a novice of the Religious of the Good Shepherd (RGS). We were on a hillside retreat cum celebration then. As I look back now, all I can say is that as sure as the transfiguration that is dazzling to behold is the agony in the garden to follow.
Today, the RGS is marking its 100th year of active and prayerful presence in the Philippines. The centennial theme is “Weaving compassion, embracing challenges, forging hope.” Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle will lead today’s Eucharistic feast at the Good Shepherd compound in Quezon City.
I will be there. There where I once belonged, where I once prayed and chanted melodies ancient and new. At the break of dawn. At eventide, at eventide…
Founded in Angers, France, in 1835 by Saint Mary Euphrasia Pelletier, the RGS or Good Shepherd Sisters (Soeurs de Notre-Dame de Charité du Bon Pasteur d’Angers) first stepped on Philippine soil on Oct. 4, 1912. The first to arrive by slow boat from Burma (Myanmar) were Irish RGS sent in response to the call of Lipa’s Bishop Giuseppe Petrelli.
The turn of the 19th century saw a stream of arrivals of Catholic groups from Europe and North America. Note that after almost 400 years of Spanish rule came US occupation, with Protestantism gaining ground in Catholic Philippines. Among the arrivals were the Missionary Benedictine Sisters (OSB) from Germany (1906). The RGS, the Holy Spirit Sisters from Germany, and the French-founded Franciscan Missionaries of Mary followed in 1912. They ran schools and ministries in many parts of the country.
Post-Vatican II aggiornamento saw them getting more immersed in grassroots ministries for justice and peace. And it was during the dark days of martial rule (1972-1986) that many of these religious women showed their mettle, some openly leading the fight against tyranny or working underground. I have written stories about their work and heroism.
Shouldn’t a book about their amazing zeal and ordeals be in the making? In my own forthcoming book “Human Face: A Journalist’s Encounters and Awakenings” (Inquirer Books), I included stories on their trailblazing journeys into unmapped terrain.
For many years the RGS sisters in the Philippines were under France and, later, the United States, where many Filipino sisters had their religious formation. The Philippine province, which for some time included Hong Kong, Korea and Guam, was formed in 1960.
The first Filipino provincial superior was Sr. Mary Christine Tan RGS. As chair of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of Women in the Philippines after the imposition of martial rule in 1972, she led women religious in denouncing the excesses of the Marcos dictatorship. Her name and those of four RGS sisters, as well as several church women and men, are among the 250 plus names of martyrs and heroes engraved on the Bantayog ng mga Bayani (Monument for Heroes) Wall of Remembrance.
The RGS congregation is one of the world’s biggest. Today, more than 4,000 sisters serve in 73 countries in five continents. Close to 200 Filipino sisters are immersed in 27 foundations and varied ministries in the Philippines; 33 are in foreign missions. The present head of the Philippine province is Sr. Cecilia Torres RGS.
Founded after the French Revolution to aid morally endangered women and girls, the RGS worked mainly in institutions in the beginning. Now the sisters’ outreach of compassion weaves tightly into the fabric of bigger society.
They follow in the spirit of Jesus the Good Shepherd in seeking out the neglected, oppressed and marginalized “in whom the image of God is most obscure”—prostituted and battered women, unwed mothers in crisis, slum dwellers, landless farmers, indigenous groups, overseas workers and their families, street children and those “excluded by the forces of globalization.”
The RGS has both apostolic and contemplative sisters, the latter complementing the former through prayer. The congregation became affiliated with the United Nations as a nongovernment organization in consultative status with the Economic and Social Council in 1996.
Added to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience is the RGS’s fourth vow of zeal—“to labor with zeal for the salvation of persons.” As the spunky founder exhorted her sisters in the aftermath of the French Revolution: “Go after the lost sheep without any rest other than the cross, no consolation other than work, no thirst other than for justice. Our zeal should embrace the whole world.”
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