Our cardinal, the ‘running priest,’ and Santa
Just a few days before our celebration of the “Panunuluyan” with the poor children of Metro Manila, we still didn’t have a chapel for our Mass. We had Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle and Fr. Robert Reyes to say the Mass. We had Santa Claus coming as a special guest. We had food and gifts from Secretary Dinky Soliman of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, and we had hundreds of exquisitely beautiful little girls and roguish young boys.
In the Panunuluyan tradition, the people search for a home where Jesus might be born. Here we looked for a chapel for our Mass.
At last we found the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila. It has the beauty of a small rural college, though it is in the heart of Intramuros and has over 400 years of Church history behind it. It was the first mission station of the Jesuits. From here, acting executive vice president Renato T. Oliveros told us, young priests sailed up the Pasig River to the towns around Laguna Lake, and boarded the warships that took them to Basey in Samar and Muslim lands in Mindanao.
The focus of the Panunuluyan this year was poor children. It has been a bad year for children all over the world. We remember the three-year-old Turkish boy lying dead face down in the gritty sand of a beach where migrants left for Europe. We remember the little boys hurrying after their fathers across the fields of Europe.
We don’t have to go so far, however, to find unfortunate children. Dr. Charlene Tan, who is in charge of a private clinic in Baseco, Tondo, told me that the malnutrition rate of the children in the area she services is 70 percent. Nearly all the children who live there! There is not enough food, but the use of drugs is growing in nearly all the slums of the region. The body of an ice cream vendor shot by drug people because he was suspected of giving information to the police was found at the very spot where the doctor and I talked. The gunmen warned the bystanders not to move the body. “Let everyone see what happens to our enemies,” they said. Young children in nearby areas are trained to be snatchers, pushers and sex workers.
Cardinal Tagle and Father Robert were classmates and close friends at San Jose Seminary. Now one is a cardinal and archbishop of Manila, just about as high as a priest can go in the hierarchy, and the other is a Franciscan priest dedicated to solving the social problems of the country. A commentary on the Philippine Catholic Church that centers on these two priests and their different vocations could be a bestseller.
Santa Claus (your writer) waited until Mass was over before making his appearance. As I walked from the toilet where I had changed into my costume, everyone waved at me—the repairmen, cleaners, police, tiny children, old women. Everyone loves Santa Claus. I went straight to Cardinal Tagle, who had no idea that Santa was coming. He broke out in laughter and kissed Santa’s hands. (A photograph of the occasion was run on Page 1 of this paper on Dec 19.) Santa, too, was delighted. The excited roar of the children almost lifted us from the ground.
The cardinal and Father Robert helped the children write their wishes on balloons that they sent off to heaven, where there are angels who take care of this sort of message. The children looked so happy, they’d bring tears to the eyes of Vladimir Putin.
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When I was a small boy, my mother told me an Irish Christmas story. A man was out walking on a dark and windy night near Christmastime. There are all kinds of banshees and horrors out on Irish nights, so you must be careful. The man was going along when he saw coming toward him down the country road a young woman carrying a baby.
“Good evening, Ma’am,” the man said to her.
“Good evening to you, Sir,” she answered.
“Are you not afraid to be out alone on a night like this with all the bad things there are around us?” the man said.
“I have no fear,” the woman said.
“Well, then, God bless you. Safe home. By the way, I’m Ted Manley. I live near here,” he said.
“I am happy to meet you. I’m the mother of God, and this is Himself,” she said.
In Ireland, Christmas is always miraculous. In the Philippines, it’s a good children’s party.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (email@example.com).