Monday 31 October 2011

The eyes of love

Yesterday we had a visit by Bishop Janos Szekely, auxiliary bishop of Estergom, Hungary. Janos is a past pupil of Cremisan: he studied theology there, as a diocesan seminarian, from 1987-1990. Interestingly, he also ordained two young Salesians recently - one of them being Claudius Misquitta. (He said yesterday: the Indian Salesian has picked up Hungarian very well.)
Bishop Janos gave us a simple but profound goodnight. He advised the seminarians (1) to pray, (2) to study hard, and two other things. He ended with a lovely story of a boy who was not very good at baseball, but was put into coaching by his father. His father would come to see him towards the end of the practice session, and the boy's face would always light up. One day his father died. The coach was wondering what would happen. But after a few days the boy came back to the training. And one day, when there was an important match, he asked the coach to be put into the match. He performed brilliantly during the match: he ran faster, he caught more accurately, and so on. The coach was surprised. He said to the boy: I thought you would not be able to perform without your father. The boy said: I played for my father. You see, my father was blind, so he could never see me play. This is the first time he could see me. I played for him.
The bishop concluded: we have a Father who sees us. We are looked upon in love. Let us play well. And let us look upon our people with that same love. 

Sunday 30 October 2011

The importance of Face

We had Fr Joseph Nguyen, SJ, at our table at lunch after the Mass in honour of Our Lady Queen of Palestine at Deir Rafat, and he joined us in our bus back to Jerusalem. Fr Joseph is the Rector of the Jerusalem section of the Pontifical Biblical Institute (PBI) at Emile Botta Road, not far from Ratisbonne. He is from Vietnam, and was telling us that he spent 9 years in a Vietnamese prison. This man is wonderful: he carries no resentment against his jailers. Instead, he was telling me that he ended becoming friendly with all of them, including the highest officials. They studied all his life, his writings, so much so that they could make out which were his writings even when his name was not on them. They found ultimately that he was not an enemy of the state. Instead, that he could be helpful.
Fr Joseph was telling me that we should learn to understand the Chinese and the Vietnamese. Most Westerners do not understand them, he said. Their deepest driving force is nationalism, and the memory of the great humiliation they suffered for centuries under Western rule. Communism became for them a way towards freedom and nationalism. Since they associate Christianity with the West, they tend to fiercely attack it.
If we approach them as enemies, they will become enemies, and they will never change. But if we approach them with respect, if we are not aggressive, we can work with them. In the East, he said, respect is very important, FACE is very important.
Fr Joseph said that Face is important even for God: the only thing God fears to lose is Face. See, for example, the way Moses deals with God: what will the Egyptians say if you destroy your people? They will say that he liberated them only to destroy them in the desert. And God relented.
The Chinese and the Vietnamese often consider Westerners as barbarians: they are too abrupt, too blunt, they are not polite, not respectful. I remember reading this repeatedly in my novels: gwai-loh, they call the Westerners. But Fr Joseph said they had a worse word: barbari. They actually seem to have borrowed a word to describe the Westerners.
You can tell a lie in the East, but you cannot insult anyone. Respect is more important than truth. There is much to be excavated here: it is the truth of the person that is being placed before the truth of a statement. It is a holistic approach. "Speaking the truth in charity," as St Paul says.
Fr Joseph's approach has worked wonders. He was showing me a Bible in Vietnamese: translated by Catholics, financed by the Protestants, and printed by the Communists! At first they used to go through every word, and they had objected to "The fool says in his heart, There is no God." But he had explained to them that this text of 3000 years back could not have been meant as a criticism of Communism which is only 70 years old. They had been content with that, and had made no more problems.
They have learnt now that Christians do not want to destroy anything, that they are friends, that they want peace and reconciliation. Many realize, after they lay down office, that their true and real friends are Christians.
I was surprised to learn that Matteo Ricci's first book in China was L'amicizia. He realized that the only way to enter the Forbidden City was through friendship. This is wonderful. The only way to evangelize, in many parts of the world today, is through friendship and respect.
Friendship and respect: wonderful words. All of us in our community can learn. We can take a commitment to be friends together. And we can be deeply respectful towards one another, all of us. The mark of greatness is when we can be respectful to our employees, and towards those who are junior to us: our boys, our youth, the younger members of the community. 

Thursday 27 October 2011

The river Jordan, the Mount of Temptation, and two monasteries

We went to the newly discovered baptismal site of Jesus at the Jordan River, not far from Jericho, today. About 45 minutes drive from Jerusalem, so not very far. The site is on the border with Jordan, and heavily guarded. The Franciscans own a small piece of land there; once a year the Israeli authorities permit a mass on the site. Today was that day. The Custos celebrated the Mass of the Baptism of Our Lord. There was a fair crowd: priests, religious, laity.

The river is really small at this point: a mere ditch by Indian standards, but probably quite deep. On the other side are some beautiful churches, especially a lovely Orthodox church with golden domes. Several other churches are now coming up, the brothers tell me, after the recent visit of Benedict XVI and his appeal to the Jordanian government to enable and facilitate Christian worship in the holy places.

Before reaching the site, we visited an old Orthodox monastery, I think it was the Monastery of St Gerasimos. The monks were surprisingly very welcoming and hospitable. They even offered us refreshments. The monastery is associated with the beautiful story of a lion. Gerasimos found a lion limping, and pulled out a splinter from its paw. He thought the lion would go away, but it did not, and followed him to the monastery, where it became very popular with the monks. The lion was given the task of guarding the monastery's donkey when it was grazing. But it happened one day that, when the lion was dozing, a passing merchant made away with the donkey. When the lion returned to the monastery crestfallen, the monks assumed its appetite for flesh had overpowered it, and that it had eaten the donkey. As a punishment, they gave it the work of the donkey: carrying wood and water for the monastery. Much later, as the lion was going about its work, the same merchant was passing by, with the donkey and 3 camels. The lion let out a loud roar, the merchant ran away leaving the donkey and camels, and the donkey followed the lion back to the monastery, together with the 3 camels. The monks realized then that they had been wrong, that they had misjudged the lion. The lion remained on in the monastery, and when Gerasimus died, it lay down on the grave and would not rise.
A good story for Bill Russell's theological anthropology: he speaks about animals too!

After the mass at the Baptismal site, we went to the Mount of Temptation. We had to pass through Jericho, a rough Palestinian town, but much greener than Jerusalem, perhaps because it is hotter and because there must be water in the ground.

The Mount of Temptation rears up just outside Jericho. A rugged stratified sandstone mountain, dotted with caves, and this monastery perched on the height. The monks open up once a year; the Franciscans hold a small service of the Word at the door, then everyone goes in for a tour of the monastery. The place was surprisingly well-kept, and once again, the monks were hospitable, offering refreshments. The views were breathtaking. Beyond the lovely little monastery church, there is a small staircase, leading to an alcove where there is, traditionally, the stone on which Jesus sat. Was it the one he sat on when he was tempted? I don't know.

The Jordan river is, according to Fr Vernet, the lowest place on earth: some 400 m below sea level. If Jerusalem is 800 m above, we make a descent of some 1200 m in this journey.

On the way one sees the Inn of the Good Samaritan, but this is something rather new. Close by, the Israelis have set up a museum housing mosaics from the synagogues and monasteries of the region.

In Jesus' time, the road was known as the Bloody Road, because it was lonely, and attacks by dacoits were frequent. It is still rather winding and lonely, but there are the occasional Bedouin settlements, here and there, from what I could see. Rather shabby tin affairs; the old tents must have been far more lovely and wholesome.

And even the monks cannot avoid producing garbage. There was a dirty garbage heap on the path leading up to the monastery, not far from the entrance. 

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Tuloy sa Don Bosco - a unique work for street children

One of the significant visits yesterday was to TULOY SA DON BOSCO, which translates as Welcome to Don Bosco. Tuloy is a Tagalog word meaning welcome and also let’s go ahead. The play of words here is significant, because Tuloy sa DB caters to street children. Street children – defined in the Philippines not as roofless rootless, but as any child on the street for 5 or 7 hours a day – are welcomed here, and they are accompanied into the future.
The centre is the brainchild of Fr Rocky Evangelista, SDB . It is rather unique, in the sense that, as he explained, it does not belong to the Salesians. It is run by a trust, of which the provincial is a de iure member, and Rocky the executive secretary. The others are lay people, and probably some religious. The ‘community’ is irregular by current canonical standards: 2 SDBs, some sisters of various congregations, and lay people, all living together. Rocky chose not to go for his silver jubilee sabbatical, instead, asked to remain forever with the street work he had begun in 1993, just two years before his jubilee. His great help and support has been and is Cathy, a lay person, who began by sending him anonymous cheques, followed up to find out why the cheques were not being cashed, pushed the priest to begin something, and found herself involved up to the neck. She is part of the community that runs Tuloy. She recalls that the only religious object in her house was a statue of our Lady, which turned out to be Mary Help of Christians. She did not know it at the time; she was shocked when she came to know. Mary seems to have prepared the way for this unique project. Another Marian tale is how a small statue of MHoC had been tied to a tree in a piece of land Rocky was trying to buy. They lost it after a while, but one day, 10 years later, found it – the binding wire had fallen off, but the tree had grown around the base of the statue, so that the statue was still standing, attached to the tree. The trunk and the statue are now in Rocky’s office.
The philosophy of Tuloy is simple. Children need to be given the best, so that they can feel they are special, no less that richer children, and they can begin to dream of a better future. So the centre is large, extremely well kept, and spotless clean. About $ 80,000 is needed – per month – to run the centre. It comes from donations and contributions. The collaboration of some large companies is visible: there is a Macdonald house, a Caltex house, and so on. About 220 boys and girls reside in various dorms, and another 500 children in need come in as day scholars. Second is the power of choice. No one is forced to stay on if s/he does not want to. So if anyone does, it is because s/he wants to, decides to. Third, Tuloy is not for those who do not want to work. An hour of manual work to keep the surroundings clean is mandatory. Fourth, children are helped to finish school, and also receive a professional education, after which they leave in search of work. Boys who have no parents are supported for a year till they gather money to get accommodation. Girls are helped somewhat longer. A fifth point is ecology. Rocky is very sensitive to the issue, and is passing on this education to his youth. They become enthusiastic and passionate about it, he says. There is water recycling, which also serves to raise fish, water vegetables, and so on.
And he is clear that professional help is needed: social workers, psychologists, and so on.

The church is remarkable, built of 400 year Spanish era bricks, cut to size, and used with great artistic effect. Old bricks can be used to create a work of art; street children can be transformed into works of beauty.
And behind the church, using the nature and lay of the land, is the residence for the community, and also well-appointed rooms for guests who can spend the day in prayer, or celebrate an anniversary in the church. Most stay on to become benefactors.
Not all the Salesians are happy with this work that does not toe the line. But a significant Salesian, Pascual Chavez, is: he seems to have said: this is the most Salesian work I have seen. The international president of Rotary International, an Indian by the name of Bannerjee, is enthusiastic about the work, and has invited Rocky to speak next year at Bangkok. Colin Powell mentions the project in his memoirs, and says that volunteerism is the future hope of the world.
Rocky is a communicator. He can talk, and he writes. He presented me with an autographed copy of his latest book, I have come home. I think he is on a good track. The irregular status of his community, the presence of lay people and other religious, the innovations, the belief in the child, the ability to communicate, these are all solidly Don Bosco qualities.  

Makati and Fort Bonifacio

After the Sunday mass in the mall, we wandered around Greenbelt Mall, which is huge. Manila has, it is said, the largest mall in the world, and also the fourth- and the seventh-largest. It is perhaps because of the large landholding families which developed their lands pretty much as they pleased. Makati and Fort Bonifacio are really clean, well-kept and beautiful, they could match any great city in the world. Of course, on the fringes there are the houses of the poor and lower middle class, but none of that is seen in the central areas.
Manila is gearing up for Christmas, though everyone kept telling me that Christmas preparations began already in the ‘ber’ months – the months ending in –ber, which is September onwards. The Philippinos have another tradition, picked up from the Spanish, that of celebrating the Christmas novena with mass every day at 0400 in the morning! I believe they carry this tradition wherever they go, so I should expect to find it also in Jerusalem.
From the Americans they have borrowed the way of celebrating All Souls Day – Hallowe’en. I saw the pumpkins or mock-pumpkins, and one mall even had a whole troupe of actors in fanciful and beautiful Spanish era costumes, with masks. I was too shy to take photos of them! But they were striking. The new generation of Philippinos is far taller than their parents. Better food perhaps, and also steroids in the fast food they love?

Mass in the Mall

Yesterday (23 October) was Mission Sunday, and I had an experience of a new frontier: Sunday Mass in a mall. Fr Gregorio Bicomong, SDB, companion of mine at Testaccio, Rome, took me along with him. He said the mass was originally held in the lobby, and it was much better there because more passersby would stop and join in, and the crowd was much bigger, some of them even occupying the upper galaries. The mall belongs, I think, to the Ayala family which owns a large part of Makati, and also donated land to the Salesians – where the provincial house, Amici, publishing house, parish and school now stand. They invited the Salesians to celebrate mass in the mall, and priests take turns to do so. I believe they have mass every day, but certainly on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings. Our mass was in a large open space on one of the top floors, the hall was quite full with people, young and old, there two senior Eucharistic ministers, a young man who did the altar serving, a prayer leader, etc. Quite well organized. Gregorio has turned out in a bold and pleasant and energetic speaker. He surprised me by asking me to say a few words after his longish homily, which I did, after apologizing to the people for a second homily. The atmosphere was good. Greg says that people are appreciative of the Salesians.
So Mass in a Mall: a first for me. I suppose this is something that can happen only in a country like the Philippines. Not possible in highly secularized Europe, not even in Italy.
The surprising thing was that there is a beautiful little church right inside another mall, the Greenbelt, also belonging to the Ayala family. Actually it is in one of the many large open spaces that characterize this A-A upper class mall – the green spaces give it the name, Greenbelt. Pretty little church, a low dome open all round, with the altar in the centre, pews rising upwards all around it, an office for the priest, etc. 

Saturday 22 October 2011

The SDBs at Makati, Manila

The Provincial House of the Northern province of the Salesians in the Philippines is in the Makati area of the Manila City, smack next to the Skyway. A large complex. Next to it is a very large academic and professional school, with a total of 6000 students; the St John Bosco Parish; a printing press and a publishing house; space given out to a stationery shop; and the famous Salesian Italian restaurant, Amici or Cara mia, now leased out to a private party, but formerly run by an Italian Salesian, and then, for a year, by Fr Francis Gustilo, former provincial of the Philippines. Fr Francis told me he used to visit every table, chat with people about their lives, their families, religion, the Sunday gospel, vocations, religious life, priesthood. He said he enjoyed the experience very much, and that he not only got to know many people, but also that many kept coming back to the restaurant because they liked the priestly attention they were receiving. 
The Salesians here have been involving their staff in the ministry, by investing in their formation. This has paid off very well, from what I hear. Most of their vocations come from their own schools - a good index. 

Don Bosco Center of Studies, Paranaque

I am at the Don Bosco Center of Studies, Paranaque, a short distance outside Manila. This the theology study centre for the Salesians in the Philippines, and also for the whole East Asia region of the Salesians. A large compound, with the study centre, a spanking new library, a residence for professors, and a large residence for the Salesian students, who number about 54. But the centre itself has some 600 students, including 200 plus sisters, mostly novices, who come for weekend courses. I believe there are also other departments on the campus.

The new library building is especially impressive. It is named after Pope Benedict XVI, is built in pleasing shades of white and off white, has ground plus two and a half floors. The ground floor houses the offices of the librarian, but also of the dean, registrar, etc. The cool white decor is offset very well by remarkable prints of paintings by a British Christian artist, who paints biblical themes, as well as by one large painting commissioned specially for the building, by a young former Salesian or Salesian aspirant, now deceased. It attempts to portray Don Bosco and his mission in the context of the Trinity. A remarkable feature is that the Father and the Son reflect each other: the Son is the Face of the Father. The Holy Spirit is represented in the traditional image of the dove.
I was pleased to see the state of the art desks, with fittings for laptops, and wi-fi environment, in the main reference section. There is also an adjoining section with about 20 computers. The library is open access. The special feature is the Salesiana section, still in phase of development, but already promising. This is supposed to serve the entire East Asia region.
The Salesian residence has a remarkable chapel done up in traditional Philippino Luzon island style, with actual furniture and fittings recovered from old traditional houses. The tabernacle is actually a wooden rice bin, tastefully done up of course. Another chapel is done up in traditional Japanese style, where you enter barefoot.

Guinataan and halo halo

I want to report two more delicacies: guinataan (if I remember right) and halo halo.
The guinataan is a sort of sweet dish composed of cubes of sweet potato, ube (probably a deeply purple coloured yam), sticky rice balls, cassava balls, and banana, all soaked and probably cooked a little in coconut milk, so that the cubes are soaked in a thickish sweet liquid, gently violet tinted.
The halo halo instead causes much excitement: you take a tall glass and begin putting together the ingredients: small black lentils soaked in sugar; transparent creamish beans soaked in sugar; the fruit of some special palm, the size of dates, but whitish and translucent, once again soaked in sugar; the pulp of a special tender coconut which is all flesh and no water, very sweet; and sweet corn in a thick syrup. Over this goes a generous dollop of crushed ice, and then milk to soak it all, and to top it, a piece of custard, made of milk and egg some delicate other flavor. The whole is stirred, from which the name halo halo: halo means to shake, in Tagalog, I think. Very much like our own haloy! Wonderful, the combination.
For more descriptions of wonderful Philippino desserts, with photos, see the following site:

Friday 21 October 2011

Other Philippino delicacies

I have already mentioned one Philippino delicacy, the Buko pie, based on fresh tender coconut (buko). In its pure form, only fresh tender coconut is used in this pie. The variations are: buko with pineapple, or buko pandan pie (pandan is a type of local herb, with a light, delicate flavor), or simply pineapple pie, and so on.
There are many sweets made of rice. The rice used is ‘sticky rice’ (also found in Myanmar, where they distinguish between ordinary rice noodles and noodles made of sticky rice); I think it is this rice that is responsible for the utter lightness of the rice-based sweets here. Yesterday, at lunch I think, there were pancakes with a lightly sweet banana filling, gathered up together and pinned with toothpicks; the lightness of the pancakes was amazing. At tea, the other day, there were little balls made of sticky rice, with a sweet-potato based filling, rolled in sesame (til) and fried; but once again, so amazingly light. Then again there were little larger elongated bands of rice, fried and then dipped in a sweet syrup; rubbery and light and delightful.
Many other types of sweet made of cassava, our tapioca. Rolls of lightly sticky tapioca, cut into bits and artistically laid on little pieces of banana leaf: heavenly taste. I inquired about the ingredients: just cassava and sugar, but with butter. Perhaps that was what gave the exquisite taste. Then again, little balls of tapioca swimming in a large bowl of warm tapioca sauce: delightful.
Four fruit juices mixed together in a large bowl, and iced, with the delightful name of Four Seasons.
Buko water (tender coconut): offered in the traditional way, whole with straws. Then, later, poured into the large bowl, with floating strips of the tender flesh, and iced.
But I forgot the most important: BIBINGKA - sounds familiar to Goans? Bebinca! But something quite different from ours, however. A little light fluffy cake like thing, with butter and sugar topping. Quite delicious, really. 

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Buko pie and other things

One of the specialties of the Philippines is Buko pie. ‘Buko’ means tender coconut, so that is tender coconut pie. The real thing is made by very few bakeries, and consists of pieces of tender coconut baked into a light-crusted flaky pie. (See the stuff on the extreme right, middle shelf, in the photo above.) 
The sister in attendance said to me something that used to be said also in India: the coconut is a miracle tree, every part of it can be used. She mentioned also the roots, and I asked for what. She said they were medicinal. Another extremely useful and powerful medicine, she said, is virgin coconut oil. Regular coconut oil, the type used for cooking, is made from copra – even the word is similar. But virgin coconut oil is made differently. I was surprised at the process. A mature coconut is grated. The milk is extracted and stirred a hundred times in the same direction. It is then kept aside overnight. In the morning, one finds three layers: a top creamy layer, which can be used for cooking; this must be scraped off. It is the middle layer that is the virgin coconut oil. The bottom layer is the water; it is useless and can be thrown away. The virgin coconut oil can be drunk; it can be poured over food. It is said to have cancer-preventing or cancer-curing properties.
But it appears that the Philippinos have not yet learned the secret of coconut feni. Or if they have, it is not a very popular thing. Perhaps they have. Sister said that some people extract the sap of the coconut tree, and make wine or liquor out of it, and she said it was very strong. She also said that the trees will not bear fruit once they are tapped, so people are careful which trees they tap.
Tender coconut milk is very expensive, she said. Most of it is bland, but there is one variety that tastes very good, tangy, like Sprite, she said.
The sisters from the different provinces have each carried some specialty from their countries. The Indians have carried soan papdi, chikki, potato chivda, cashewnut barfi, cashewnuts, halwa. The Japanese contributed delicately wrapped little biscuits flavoured equally delicately with seaweed or perhaps fish, I could not make out. The sister from Hong Kong brought along the wonderful little cupcakes of Hong Kong, especially the ones filled with fruit.
Another Philippino delicacy is groundnuts or peanuts soaked in garlic. I have seen of course the famous Bharuch groundnuts soaked in coconut water, but this is the first time I see them soaked in garlic. And they taste good!
Cashew is well known in the Philippines, but I think no one has discovered cashew feni.
As for fruits, I have mentioned already the extraordinary looking rambutan. But I was surprised to find the chickoo here, and even called almost the same way: chicko! Then there are, of course, bananas, papayas, mangoes, oranges. The pomelos, delicately pink fleshed, were extraordinary. I tried asking for seeds, but they were the seedless variety. They grow all over, but very well in the south, in Mindanao, I was told. Guavas are in plenty, some of the very large, like coconuts, it would seem; but I have not seen any, being perhaps the wrong season. I wonder if they have custard apples, ramphal, and soursops. They do have jambuls, I think, from the description they gave me. Runeala plums? I wonder.
A wonderful land, magical, with lagoons and mountains going into the distance, and nearby mountains packed densely with vegetation. And open to the Pacific, the Great Ocean, with typhoons at least six times a year, and rain for six months of the year. Only two seasons, the rainy and the dry. The rainy, from May up to October, but possibly up to December. Yesterday evening it rained: and what rain. I haven’t seen rain like that for years: straight, thick, heavy, and LOUD. The amazing thing was that it was pouring so heavily, but none of it was entering the room or the windows, it was so perpendicular. 

The Rambutan

The exotic fruit - red with curly spikes - is the RAMBUTAN. I havent seen it in India. It seems to be a cousin of the Lychee - same type of white sweet juicy flesh, peelable red skin, and a large seed inside. The difference: instead of small spikes on the skin, this has curly spikes. Exotic!

Saturday 15 October 2011

Tabor House of the SDBs

Just back from a visit to the nearby Tabor House of the SDBs. Used to be their house for elderly Salesians, but is now an Ongoing Formation Centre. Large campus, somewhat lower down the hill compared to the Sisters, but also very beautiful and very well kept. I saw a fair number of poorer children from the locality: a festive oratory. The children were very friendly: the Philippinos have a custom of taking your hand and touching it to their foreheads if you are a priest or religious. Others were playing basketball: a national obsession, probably picked up from the Americans who ruled here from 1898 for about 50 years.
The back garden of Tabor House is reserved for Salesians and Salesian guests who spend time on a retreat or just for some quiet time for themselves. There is an open-air chapel where mass is celebrated on Sundays for the neighbours – done in indigenous style with local materials – palm leaves, bamboo, rattan, etc. There is also a ‘kiosk’ done in the same style.
It was surprising to discover many connections with the North-East. Fr Danny, the Rector and Vice Provincial, said an Italian missionary who had worked with the Nagas in India, had discovered a tribe up in the mountains that was amazingly similar: same dress, same colours, similar words in their language, etc. Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, seems to have come from Bahasa, the national language of Indonesia, which itself has a Malay origin. This seems to account for some Indian words in Tagalog: compound with ‘maha-’ meaning big or large, ‘Hari’ meaning king, etc. Ric Fernando had said much the same thing to me in Israel. The food also is part of the same family as the North-East: rice, noodles, dried fish (there rice and dried fish even at breakfast), lightly cooked vegetables and meat… 

The Philippines - first impressions

I arrived in the Philippines, for the first time, this morning. The KLM plane touched down perfectly on schedule. My first impression, looking at the land through the windows, was of familiarity: the houses and buildings weathered by the annual monsoons, the bright green luxuriance of the vegetation. Immigration went through smoothly enough, and I could see a sister waiting near the baggage clearance area. It turned out to be a Salesian sister waiting for me: she had take a special pass to be inside. The checked in bag arrived without incident, we met another sister waiting outside, who happened to be missionary in Cambodia, and then drove up to Pansol. The SDB provincial house, they told me, is in downtown Makati, in the business district; there is even a Don Bosco road leading off the main motorway. Further along, we passed, on the right, the exit to Paranaque, where the SDB have their theology house. The motorway is good, flanked by new housing where there were rice fields only a few years earlier. Manila and surroundings are situated on a very large bay or lagoon and face west – somehow I had always imagined Manila situated on the eastern sea front. Water is ubiquitous in an island country: fascinating. The retreat house – the Mornese Spirituality Center – is situated on the lower slopes of Mount Makili, which quite dominates the landscape, somewhat like Vesuvius dominates that of Naples. The sisters said there were many religious houses on the slopes, and also ‘private pools’ because of the easy availability of hot springs in the area. Makili is probably a dormant volcano. Covered just now with lush green tropical vegetation.

The retreat house is very well built, designed by an FMA sister who eventually left. The top floor opens out onto a view deck, which affords a stupendous view of the Laguna bay. My impression is that it is, for the most part, a shallow bay; there are what look like fishing arrangements – the weir system probably – covering a large part of it. In the further reaches is probably what is Manila bay.
The Philippines: my first impression is of the interior décor and the food. The chapel we are using, for example, gives me the impression of people in love with nature: the back wall is open to the lush vegetation outside; the two inner corners are dedicated to the blessed Sacrament and to Our Lady Help of Christians, with flowing water on one side, and orchids on the other. Tasteful, probably less minimalist than the Japanese or the Chinese.
The food has been extraordinary. The sister in charge is a dietician, and takes pains over the food. In the afternoon: a wonderful light soup; white rice; lightly seasoned pork bits wrapped in cabbage leaf with a red sauce poured over the whole; fish, fried whole with the head, though after having been cleaned of the innards; and fruit. New for me was the rambutan: reddish, with long curling spikes which give it the name – rambu means hair, tan means forest. A variety of lichi, perhaps: the skin with the spikes is peeled off, the flesh inside is white and delicate like the lichi, and the seed is like an almond, which some people even eat, I am told.
Supper – which is at 1900 hrs – was once again soup, this time with a leafy vegetable and fine noodles; white rice again; what looked like red pumpkin delicately prepared without being overcooked; an extraordinary salad which allowed the taste of each ingredient – lettuce, cucumber, and some other vegetables; fried fish, probably mackerel, pierced through and made to stand on what was probably a small watermelon; and delicately sautéed pork chops. Fruit of course. I really like the way the taste of the ingredients comes through: delicate, and wholesome. Thoroughly enjoyable.
The sisters have been very welcoming and extremely kind and hospitable. They all look young, and to me they also look one like the other, so it is somewhat confusing: the provincial, Sr Sarah Garcia; the superior of the house, Sr Christine; the provincial secretary, Sr Rachel. The other provincials have begun arriving: Sr Paola of Timor Est; Sr Wilma and the provincial of Chennai; the provincials of Hong Kong, Thailand and Japan, who speak Italian but not English. 

Tel Aviv to Manila

I was fortunate to have had a rather good journey. The checks at Tel Aviv went surprisingly well. The questioner was nice and quite quick; my check in bag was screened but not sent for opening; the check in also went well. Further down, I think, checking of cabin luggage, and immigration, of which I hardly remember anything. The first KLM flight to Amsterdam went well. We were served breakfast, and before landing a light snack. I think I saw part of a crazy comedy called Arthur – a dirty rich young man who will not grow up, but finally does when he meets a girl, and has to fight to marry her against his mother’s wishes.
A five hour wait at Amsterdam: 0930 to 1430. I had a Dutch cappuccino, which is somehow never the same as an Italian one; accessed the internet at the café; continued editing Joaquim’s article for DJPE 22C; wandered around till I found the meditation room, quite nicely kept, which even has arrangements for celebrating the Eucharist; noticed the lounge chairs which are good to keep in mind for long waits in the future; had a shave; and then it was time to begin the long process of boarding. This seemed even more complicated than the Israeli procedures, but perhaps it was the number of people – it was a very large plane, and it was full.
The second flight I found interminably long. Perhaps I should have exercised a little at Schiphol. Perhaps I should have drunk more water. Perhaps it was the foulness of the air in the cabin. I found myself restless, unable to sleep properly, though in the end I did, in snatches. I watched the rest of Arthur, and then The Green Lantern, based on the old DC comics, but very interestingly situated in the context of the guardians of the whole universe who run and protect the universe through the green force of will, whereas there is now a threat coming from the yellow force of fear. 

Sunday 9 October 2011

Vernet's 'You, Joseph'

Just finished reading Fr Joan Maria Vernet's You, Joseph. A romanticised life of Joseph, but penetrated by the author's expertise in the Bible and archaeology (he is a professor of scripture and archaeology at Ratisbonne). I found myself moved several times by the delicacy of his imagination. This is the first time I have come across a life of Mary that is obviously penetrated by the mystery of the Immaculate Conception. As the White Father, Dominique Arnauld said, he expected a sentimental novel, but was quite taken up by what he read.

Highly recommended, both for the figure of the young Joseph and the figure of Mary. Vernet's descriptions arise from an imagination that is steeped in years of prayer and meditation on the scriptures.

The original is Catalan; the book has been translated into Spanish, Italian, and now English, published in Nairobi. The English translation would benefit from a look-over though, to remove at least the obvious mistakes.

Saturday 8 October 2011

"We have been obstinate" - a Yom Kippur reflection by Prof. Weksler-Waszkinel

The Ha'aretz supplement for Yom Kippur (Friday, 7 October 2011, p. B9) contains some interesting articles, commentaries on the Vidui or Prayer of Confession. I was particularly struck by the tone of the comment on "We have been obstinate" by Prof. Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel, who turns out to have a very interesting personal history. Born in 1943 to a Jewish family, while still an infant he was placed by his mother in the care of a Polish Christian family, who raised him lovingly. His Polish mother did not tell him about his Jewish origins till he was 35 - "by which time I had been a Catholic priest for 12 years." He came to Israel in 1992, and very soon met his Jewish aunt and uncle, his father's brother.
One of the first things my uncle, a religiously observant Jew, asked me, was: 'How can you carry within you, as a priest, the Christians' 2000-year hatred of the Jews?'
I had a hard time answering. His question struck a place that hurt me, and hurts me still. Nevertheless, I replied that I could not speak in the name of 2,000 years, but rahter only 49 (my age at the time), and that I love Jews. But my uncle continued to interrogate me: 'How many Catholic priests would say they love Jews, like you?' I could not provide a precise number, but was able to say that the priest who loves Jews more than all of them was the head of the Catholic Church: Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla).
The summary of the article reads:
The term 'a stiff-necked people,' used to describe the Jews' betrayal of God on Mt. Sinai, has been erroneously applied through history. But in one case, at least, it is sadly apt.
The professor concludes:
A view from the outside of the relations between man and God reveals a colorful, attractive picture: The people of Israel are still learning by a variety of routes to be free and at the same time to cope with God's demands. But in relations between man and his fellow man - one can find in Israel much enmity, repulsion and sometimes even contempt with regard to relations between the different conceptions of God and of those who remain indifferent to him. I am saddened by such attitudes. 
But what saddens and worries me most is the attitude toward the stranger and the 'other.' From this point of view, the people of Israel have the stiffest necks of all. After all, God's commandment to the people is very clear: 'The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.' (Leviticus 19:34). Even in Israel's complex local situation, we must remember that the stranger and the 'other' must be one of us. Is that possible, or is it an unfulfillable dream?
Prof. Weksler-Waszkinel taught philosophy at the Catholic University of Lublin, and now lives in Jerusalem and works at Yad Vashem, we are told by a note. Is he still a Catholic priest, or has he returned to the religion of his fathers? We are not told. But the spirit of the Rabbi from Nazareth does pervade his writing - which surely should not be taken as applying only to the Jewish people, but to anyone who listens to the word of God - Christians included.

Just found from the web some useful information about Fr Weksler-Waskinel - who is still very much a Catholic priest: see

Friday 7 October 2011

Latroun and Tel Aviv

Community outing to the Trappist Monastery at Latroun and then to the beach at Tel Aviv.

The monastery is not very old, perhaps about a hundred years, with vast holdings with vineyards, olive groves and other crops. The wine (Domaine de Latroun) is well known, and very good (we tasted the Pinot Gris, very remarkable). We were able to see the olive oil production, and we learnt that the monks make also a vinegar from garlic.

Fr Vernet explained that the Crusaders had some construction on the site (the ruins can still be seen from the highway); the name was corrupted to Latroun by locals, and from there sprang the idea that this was the birthplace of one of the thieves who were crucified with Jesus. (Latro in Latin means thief.) Which thief, someone asked the new Abbot, Rene Gascoet. I don't know, he said.

We celebrated mass in the crypt of the church. This was followed by refreshments - because we were making our first visit, said the young monk. Then the Abbot himself took us around, first into the Cloister - chapitre, bibliotheque - and then to the winery, cellar and olive press.

At 1130 we left for Tel Aviv. Never imagined somehow that there would be beautiful beaches in Israel, but there they were. Lovely white sand, crystal clear water, Mediterranean skies and water that varies from deep indigo to light blue and green. The facilities were amazing too: free toilets and places to change, shade huts, and best of all, showers and places to wash your feet. The name of the beach was not very inspiring, however - Banana Beach. The ancient city of Jaffa can be seen just off the beach - place where Jonah embarked on his ship, trying to run away from the Lord; place which Peter visited and embarked for Caesarea, etc. Famous port of the Holy Land. In fact, Jaffa Gate leads via Jaffa Road to Jaffa.  

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Franciscan days

The 3rd, 4th and 5th have been Franciscan days here in the Holy Land, or at least the 3rd and the 4th.

On the 3rd we had solemn vespers and the Transitus in the Church of St Saviour, which is part of the complex that is the Franciscan Custody. The Transitus is the commemoration of the death of St Francis of Assisi. This was followed by an Inter-Seminary gathering: Franciscans, seminarians of the Latin Patriarchate from Bet Jala, and Salesians from Ratisbonne. A very impressive gathering, especially the presentation of the life of St Francis in dance and song and mime.

Yesterday, 4th October, I participated in the Eucharist at 1030 in the same church. Again a very impressive gathering of church personnel as well as diplomatic personnel and lay people. This was followed by an orchestra consisting of Muslim, Jewish and Christian children, and lunch for invited people. Besides the Salesian provincial, Fr Maurizio, I had the Abbot of the Benedictine monastery of Abu Ghosh on one side, and the Superior of the Community of the Beatitudes at Emmaus Nicopolis on the other. Abu Ghosh is not far from Kiriat Yearim, where the Ark of the Covenant rested on its way to Jerusalem. It is also considered by some to to be the Emmaus of the gospels. Emmaus Nicopolis is another Emmaus, probably the most authentic one: ruins of an old Byzantine church have been found there, and the documentary evidence goes back to the 5th century, whereas that for the other two Emmaus (there is in fact a third claimant) go back only to Crusader times, according to Fr Joan Maria Vernet.

This morning we go once again to the Church of St Saviour, which is the sole Latin parish church in the old City. We will have, at 0900, the inaugural mass of the academic year for the seminaries of Jerusalem. 

Monday 3 October 2011

Dormition Abbey

Yesterday I participated in the solemn blessing of the new Abbot of the Dormition Abbey here in Jerusalem. The new Abbot is Gregory Collins, an Irishman, elected by the German-speaking community of the Dormition. The ceremony was in Latin and German, with some English thrown in. Abbot Gregory's mother and relatives and friends from Ireland were there, as were also the German Ambassador, the British Ambassador, and the Irish Ambassador, besides other dignitaries from the various churches in Jerusalem.

The Dormition Abbey was built at the beginning of the last century, thanks to a donation made by the German Emperor who had visited the Holy Land. It is situated on Mount Zion, which falls outside the walls of the Old City. It was in no man's land during the Arab-Israeli conflict, and seems to have suffered much during the two wars.

Right now it houses an ecumenical centre for the study of theology.

Next door is the 'Tomb of David', and also the Cenacle where according to tradition Jesus celebrated the Last Supper, and where the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples gathered together with Mary. The Cenacle is, however, under the control of the Israeli government; religious celebrations are permitted only very rarely. The Franciscans, however, have a little Cenacolino quite nearby. 

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