Formation Community - Photo: Fr Felisiano Fatu SSC
Every Thursday, the students in the formation program get together at the Columban International Formation House in Manila for pastoral reflection. I had just arrived in Manila from Fiji when I was invited by Ray Husband, the rector at the time, to sit in on a meeting led by Finbar Maxwell. That first meeting I attended piqued my interest and curiosity.
Finbar invited two or three students to write personal reflections on their experiences at their pastoral site and share them with the rest of the group. The assigned students read out their pastoral reflections and then gave the rest of the group the opportunity to ask for clarifications and engage with him in discussion, affirmation, and encouragement, raising key pastoral insights from their own experiences. It was an enriching encounter for both the students and the formation staff.
The makeshift houses at the public cemetery in Manila - Photo:Fr Felisiano Fatu SSC
The students in the formation program were involved in pastoral works involving prisoners, street children, orphans, and a group of women and children living in a public cemetery. I wondered why these students were doing pastoral work in a cemetery. I had never heard of such a thing before. As I listened each week to the students who ministered at the cemetery, my curiosity and interest grew, and I felt an urge to go and see for myself. As the saying goes, ‘seeing is believing’. I was intrigued by such a ministry and hatched a plan to travel with the students to the cemetery on a Saturday, which was usually the day for pastoral work.
And so came the Saturday I got to go with the students to the cemetery. The first stop, close to the cemetery, was to meet the two Korean Columban sisters who also ministered to the women and children in a centre they ran for them. Usually, two students did catechetical work with young teenagers who used the centre on Saturdays for further classes to help them in their studies. From the centre, we walked for ten to fifteen minutes to the cemetery on a road choked with traffic of all kinds and the many people out on Saturday to sell and shop in the local market. It was a chaotic sight to behold and to marvel at as part of the life of ordinary people on a Saturday in Manila. I also appreciated the opportunity to step out of the formation house and experience what life had to offer in the city.
Two Columban seminarians sharing the Bible with women at the cemetery. - Photo:Fr Felisiano Fatu SSC
As we approached the gate to the public cemetery, I was still unsure what to expect. On entering, I saw people gathering and children playing. The children were using some of the graves in their play, and there was much laughter, chatting and singing. I simply could not believe what I was seeing: people had makeshift houses attached to the graves as their places of abode! I entered one such ‘grave house’ and found a man living inside. I had mixed feelings about how people could live normally in a cemetery. I could not imagine myself ever being in their situation. However, I accepted the reality of those who lived among the dead and could see why our students were involved in accompanying women and children with Bible sharing and catechetical works.
I was glad that the formation staff in Manila saw the need for our students to do pastoral work in such a place and for the students to learn and minister to the people there. I valued such a pastoral ministry as a learning curve for our students to grow in their pastoral commitments to those at the margins of society and in their awareness of people’s struggles in life and their capacity to minister to them with compassion and empathy. Yes, the real experience I encountered with women and children at the cemetery finally satisfied my curiosity. It is still one of the experiences in Manila that most impressed me and left me with a lasting memory to treasure and recall.
Felisiano Fatu, SSC
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