It was no part of human plans that the Somascan while on their way to Manila to officially open the first community in the Philippines would meet with Mother Teresa of Calcutta. For sure, it was in the Divine Plan and the auspicious meaning of this event was recognized very clearly from the very beginning.
A few days’ stay in India was indeed part of our route to the Far East, but the name of Mother Teresa was out of the question. The unpredictable factor was a strike at the airport of Fiumicino, Rome which forced the two members of the expedition – Fr. Cesare De Santis and myself – to cancel the plan of spending three days in Andhra Pradesh, South India. In fact, as we landed in Bombay after a 2 –hour delay, we were informed that our flight to Hyderabad, capital of Andhra Pradesh, could not be rescheduled until after the Christmas season. But we could use our ticket for a flight to Calcutta. That is what we did. And so, on December 23, we arrived at the “City of Joy” and found hospitality at the Bishop’s House. The next day, we knocked at the door of the General House of the Missionaries of Charity, a very famous, but, absolutely inconspicuous door, much like the person we were hoping to meet behind that door. A small signboard beside the door displayed an encouraging message: “Mother Teresa is IN”. When she raised her chin to look at us, we recognized a familiar face: Mother Teresa herself! A few seconds of silence followed, then something in her mind and she added: “I have a proposal for you. Do you want to come with me today? We will pay a visit to our lepers”. We found ourselves immediately and enthusiastically unanimous. We just made sure we would be back in time for our flight that evening.
After a 30-minute ride we reached our destination: the famous leprosarium built by the Missionaries of Charity on both sides of a busy railroad. Everybody knows that this is the only available area offered by the city government of Calcutta to meet Mother Teresa’s plea on behalf of the lepers. As a consequence, these wretched human beings, sometimes with limbs reduced to miserable stumps, have to scramble or crawl across the railroad bed in order to go from one building to the other, with the real risk of being by an incoming train.
The Christmas party was indeed worthy of its name. There were songs, dances, sketches, speeches, distribution of gifts, and above all, a wonderful sense of being a brother among brothers, in an atmosphere of pure joy. Mother Teresa invited us to join her in serving the food. With my camera I succeeded in taking some memorable images, very touching and true in their striking realism.
I requested Mother Teresa to jot down “a short message to the first Somascans in Asia”. She complied willingly and this is what she wrote:
“Keep the joy of loving Jesus with undivided love in Chastity, through Freedom of Poverty, in total surrender to Obedience and you will grow in Humility like Mama Mary and Holiness like Jesus. Let us pray. God Bless you.” M. Teresa mc.
A few hours later, in the evening of that memorable Christmas Eve, we took off from Calcutta with a profound feeling of gratitude for having been privileged with a live experience absolutely unique. We landed in Hong Kong.
It was the early morning of Christmas Day. Having three hours to wait for our connecting flight, we decided to use the time for our mass celebration, somewhere. Providentially in the airport building we found an empty room with a name very appropriate to the Christmas event: Nursery. There, to the reverent surprise of throngs of transiting passengers, we commemorated the birth of Jesus, through the inspiring liturgy of the mass at Dawn of Christmas. It was really a touching and meaningful celebration. At round 10 AM we boarded a Cathay Pacific aircraft bound for the Philippines. From the windows of the jetliner with deep, secret emotion we saw the island of Luzon, the land of our first mission, come to meet us, invitingly.
We landed noontime at the only airport in Manila which now called the Manila Domestic Airport. Compared with today’s reality, things were extremely simpler and characterized by a much more human style. In fact, the real crowd of people a sight absolutely unthinkable in our days was waiting on the tarmac just at the foot of the movable staircase. I spotted some placards which read “Welcome Somascan Fathers!” and suddenly realized, almost with fright (I was still rather shy, I think!), that all those people were waiting for us, the two of us only! Among them I singled out a very particular figure. I had never seen Fr. Giovanni Tarditi before, but based on previous descriptions heard about our forerunner, I had no problem recognizing him in his unfailing while cassock and grey beard (today the beard is while, according to first-hand information from Salvador!) As we appeared at the exit door of the airplane, the waving crowd exploded in a roaring applause. We were really shocked and in such state of mind that we forgot to kiss the ground, as we should have. More probably there was no time to think of that. As we reached the last step down, we were immediately surrounded, hugged and taken away by the enthusing multitude. My two pieces of hand luggage had also been taken away. I realized it at a certain point and exclaimed with concern: “My luggage!”. “Don’t worry, father, it is in good hands!”. And we felt that we were really in good hands. The immigration formalities were dispatched in no time and after a while we found ourselves in a comfortable car bound for our first temporary mission: the parish of Chrysanthemum Village, in the municipality of San Pedro, Laguna. There we enjoyed our first Filipino meal, in the hospitable home of the Mindaña family. And there we learned our first Tagalog word: “masarap” (tasty, delicious, delightful).
In the afternoon, at 5, Fr. Cesare Presided the parish mass of the Christmas solemnity, in the provisional chapel dedicated to St. Jerome. At the same time, I celebrated my first mass I the philipines at the “Mater Orphanorum” chapel in Kalalay (a barrio on the boundary between San Pedro at Biñan). I still remember the name of one mass attendant Ms. “Sion” Brasil, who sometime later would be part of the first Filipino batch of Missionary Daughters of St. Jerome (Somascan Missionaries). Also Fr. Cesare’s audience had something in store for the development of the Somascans in the Philippines: two of his mass attendants would become members of the Congregation some years later. They are: Bro. Eugen Libut, now a missionary in Sri Lanka (he was already an aspirant) and Fr. Thomas Villanueva, who was a member of the “Somascan Choir” and presently assigned to the Somascan parish in Alabang.
At the rest belong to the past. Many of the realities mentions above, including the St. Jerome parish in Chrysanthemum Village were in time left behind to give way to other initiatives undertaken by the Congregation in twenty years of presence in the country. In time we would also learn that in many instances the adjective “masarap” is nor precisely the most suitable word to define a situation objectively. In fact, pretty soon we learned the meaning of “mahirap” (hard, difficult) and found out that in many instances it was much more appropriate term. That’s it. I mean that is the experience of all pioneers. More exactly, that is the way the Divine providence makes wonders through those who, with humble faith and hope, work, for the coming of the kingdom. We also kept in mind, constantly, the last precious advice given by our Founder to the “Compagnia”. “Follow the way of Christ crucified and serves the poor”. That is what the Somascans in the Philippines have tried to do ever since.