Archive for February, 2012

A week of Ashes!


Wearing her ashes with pride (in Kabul Kabul)

Apologies for the blog silence over the last week – I had a fairly exhausting tour of some of the 51 chapels / ‘destinos’ celebrating the Ash Weds liturgy. It was a fascinating experience. The island has a population of over 90,000 (but only 15 cars / jeeps).  The numbers stem from the time when it was the worlds biggest leper colony (6,000+).  The doctors, nurses and patients all brought their families with them – so the population has grown since. Now there are only 6 patients with leprosy and they are confined to a hospital ward.  We celebrate mass with them once a week and last night I took my laptop and projector and we watched Jurassic Park together.  I think it might have scared them a bit too much!  But they were very excited and lots of hugs when I arrived and left.

Some of the remoter villages are electricity free, I remember one night showing a group of about 50 villagers webpages that I had saved on my laptop – their first experience of the internet!  The majority of the population in these areas are referred to as ‘IP’s’ (indigenous peoples).  The original inhabitants of the island they fled in fear to the remoter parts when the lepers started arriving.  The Jesuits have now turned their attention to helping them – with a literacy program ably assisted by the impressive Cart Wheel Foundation. The parish priest Fr Lito told me that this is already working wonders in terms of self-esteem and confidence.  When he first would go to the areas the IP’s would hide behind the coconut trees, too shy to come and talk. Now they are discussing and planning ways in which they can strengthen their communities.

The view from the Jesuit Community – the church built by the lepers. From this parish church the other 51 chapels are served by boat, jeep and foot

As a priest it has, paradoxically,  been one of the most enjoyable beginnings of Lent I can imagine.  As always the hospitality was wonderful – lots of crabs and freshly caught fish.  I suppose fasting is less meaningful when you are living a fairly subsistence lifestyle and life is more precarious for many as there are less fish and more competition for stock from technologically advanced mainlanders.

I have had my leg in a brace since my operation four weeks ago – so this became a useful prop for homilies.  The discipline of wearing a bandage and a leg brace to allow healing has its parallels with lent.   And slowly taking it off and unravelling the bandage certainly kept the children’s attention!  Many of them staring at me anyway – as though I was from another planet. It was said that for the younger children I was the first white person to visit their village.   One phenomenon that was unusual was that after 10 masses I would explain how I was available for confession – not one person took me up on it.  The Sacrament of Reconciliation certainly seems to be practiced more over here than in the West – so this lack of interest was a surprise.  I have since learnt that many priests have commented on the lack of the sense of personal sin amongst the people – which is an inheritance of the lepers colony.  I suppose that maybe a psychology of outcasts from the ‘morality’ of the world.  At one chapel – after mass they came rushing up to me – At last ! I thought, getting ready to celebrate the sacrament, but no they wanted to know if any of my friends wanted to buy their own island……

3 Million Pesos – (£50,000) – a snip if you ask me!  Anyone interested?

(Highlights of my week on video below)

Pride and Prejudice


Although Culion has changed dramatically since its establishment as the ‘worlds biggest leper colony’ according to a history of the island that I am reading, there is still stigma attached to its name. I was told about an inhabitant of the island who recently appeared on one of the Philippines ubiquitous daytime TV shows, when he was asked where he was from he told the presenters that he was from Coron (a nearby island).  ‘Aren’t you from Culion’  the presenter replied puzzled, ‘No Coron’, he lied.   This denial of his origins caused outrage back here on Culion and lead to a stream of text messages threatening him and warning him not to think of returning!  The school here has an excellent street-dancing troupe, and they recently won the regional awards and can compete at a national level.  There success has provoked resentment and one of the proud mums reported that at a recent competition their winning time was heckled as being ‘only an island of lepers’.

Another example of the lingering prejudice is the difficulties the local fisherman experience. All the boats have their place of origin painted on the rear of the boat. San Ignacio is the only boat from Culion that is allowed to moor up in the various moorings on Coron – any other boat registered in Culion has to jostle for a place with outsiders boats.  The stigma of Culion seems also to be a barrier for one of the main strategies for the economic development of the island : ecotourism. The Jesuits have opened a hotel called Hotel Maya  – which by all means seems to be profitable. The idea behind the project is to develop eco-tourism as well as providing training for some of the local students at the Jesuit College in the tourist industry. The Hotel is even getting a listing in the next Lonely Planet, and are attracting foreigners already.  The difficulty is attracting visitors from Manila, Cebu or Davo, where the name Culion still has a stigma.

However when you walk around the island you get a sense of prosperity. There are many new motorbikes sitting proudly on the roadside, the shops are very well stocked, the island co-operative which is administered by the Jesuits always has people inside.  It is certainly true that the ‘stigma’ of Culion has also been profitable.  Money has been generously donated by NGO’s from Spain, Japan, Austria, Germany.  This has had a dual effect though – as well as prosperity and the many projects started up, I have been told that there may also be a ‘dependency culture’, or even as one local suggested a sense of entitlement. Obviously, being here for a short time it is difficult to see that myself, although reading the diaries of a previous parish priest there is certainly a lot of anecdotal evidence.

Meanwhile I am just enjoying every minute in this little piece of paradise. Beauty all around – the nature – the people.  At one of my masses to day – in a remote village – everyone bar one of the 40-odd congregation were women!  The catechist – Kiboy – came up to me with a big grin on his face to tell me when we arrived that they said I reminded them of James Bond…… it makes a difference as usually I get Mr Bean!!  (Maybe they were getting me confused with Johnny English who is very popular here!)  Next week I have an intense schedule of ash weds masses (beginning on monday and ending on friday).  By Boat – Jeep and Foot.  The day and time are very flexible out here!!


This last week in Culion has been a delightful experience.  A fascinating place with an impressive Jesuit presence, an important mission and a unique history.  The former leper colony on the edge of the West Philippine Sea (or the South China Ocean) is now a buzzing town with a population of 10,000+. Breakthroughs in leprosy in the 1940’s and 80’s  means that the disease can now be controlled, if not fully curable. So for many on the island in reality it is only a memory. However there is still a ward in the hospital with a few ‘abandoned’ patients suffering from the disease. It was a memorable experience sharing the mass with them on Valentines Day.  It also struck me that last Sunday’s gospel was about Jesus curing the leper – slightly awkward timing for me.  How does a visitor and an outsider preach sensitively about such a Gospel especially when I had only a few days to get to know some of the islanders?   Luckily the dilemma was resolved by having a Jesuit novice preach as part of his ‘parish experiment.’ He did a great job.

Culion also happens to be the setting of one of the most beautiful parishes that I have visited.  The parish has its own boat (or Bangka) called ‘San Ignacio’.  I was met at the airport and taken to a jetty where the boat was awaiting me.  The parish has 51 chapels associated with it in surrounding islands – it is a wonderful experience going to celebrate mass over the shimmering water, passing over coral reefs, and then as the water changes from emerald green to deep blue we glide past the many (Japanese owned) pearl farms that float in the inlets and passages.  Schools of flying fish leap out of the water in the distance and you glimpse the occasional crocodile peering out greedily from the mangroves.  One of the two nuns on the island told me they were followed in their small boat by a huge croc the other week – a stimulus to praying the rosary!  It is wonderful to stop the boat on the way home for half an hour of snorkelling. I was very impressed with the corals and the array of curious fish that come right up to your mask, the varieties and colours of the coral seemed pristine t o me, but I was told by the parish priest that there has been a lot of damage due to cyanide fishing.

Loyola College Prom night - bringing a bit of glamour to Culion

There are two young Jesuits on the island – one who is parish priest and the other director of the Jesuit College – Loyola College of Culion.  It was a pleasant surprise to be invited to the ‘Junior and Senior Prom’ of the College on Friday night. The students looked stunning in their dresses and tuxedos, and I was glad to have avoided being invited to be one of the judges…. One of the novices ran the gauntlet of having to choose the Prom King and Queen, whereas I could enjoy telling everyone I met how beautiful / handsome they looked.  The one beauty salon on the island seems to have been very busy considering some of the impressive hairstyles on show.

I have to admit High School Proms are a very ‘American’  phenomenon for me – and quite alien to my experience.  On reflection it is a great testament to the commitment of the Jesuits and the success of their college that such a celebration is a regular occurrence.  It certainly challenges the stigma and the stereotype of Culion as being the ‘Isle of Despair’.

Below is a small clip to give you a sense of the sights and celebrations of Culion! 

“The Last Frontier”

I will be spending the next three weeks in the remote Palawan Islands in Southern Phillipines (painted blue).   In what is called our ‘elective’ experience, I will be available to help at the Jesuit Mission in Culion (one of the 1700 islands that make up the archipelago).  There are 51 chapels that are served from the parish at Culion – scattered around the islands as well as a High school and College.  Having had knee surgery a couple of weeks ago – the consultant in the hospital was somewhat relieved I am not heading back into the Mountain Province.  Having just discarded my crutches – the mangroves, beaches and coral reefs of Palawan will be much more conducive to recovery than the rice terraces and mud slides of Kalinga!  (I hope!!)  The islands of Palawan are called “The Last Frontier” because it is the last unsettled area in the Philippines. Home to many tribal groups such as the Tau Batu, the Batak, the Tagbanua, and one such Palawano tribe was just discovered as late as 1997.

I must confess that I also noticed that Palawan is rated by National Geographic Traveler magazine as the best island destination in East and Southeast Asia region in 2007, and the 13th best island in the world having “incredibly beautiful natural seascapes and landscapes.  I have been told that I will have a small boat and that maybe inbetween masses – baptisms – catechesis – there will be a chance for a spot of snorkelling or even scuba diving! Considering the famous French underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau  once described the province as having one of the most beautiful seascapes in the world – it would be rude not to take up the opportunity! However before I get too excited – I have also been told – that the islands have a large population of reptiles such as Cobras, Pythons, and Monitor Lizards which range in size from 3 ft. to 8 ft in length.  It is also home to a sub-species of the Asian Scorpion which is found nowhere else in the Philippines. This Scorpion grows to be an average length of 7 inches…….

Someone had to volunteer to make the Parish rounds....

Finally just an interesting note specifically about the history of Culion and the Jesuit Mission there.  The treaty of Paris was signed on December 10, 1898, wherein Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States for 20 million dollars. The Americans wished to establish some form of public health policy in the Philippines as part of their long-termplan. The traditional belief was that the maintenance of public health required the isolation of cases of leprosy from the rest of the public. After an investigation of a number of sites, the island of Culion was selected as a segregation colony .  The government enacted a policy of  the compulsory segregation of the lepers, and confinement and treatment in Culion. Between 1906 and 1910 they rounded up 5,303 leprosy afflicted individuals and brought them to the colony. The Jesuits accompanied them – and established the parish with its network of chapels on other islands, as well as a high school and Loyola College. You can read more about its fascinating history here.   The beautiful Jesuit church in Culion (below), was built by the lepers.   Although leprosy in Culion has been totally eradicated, it is said the stigma still remains.   I don’t know how much I will be able to update the blog the next three weeks –  so don’t be too alarmed if there is a period of ‘radio silence!’.  Once again thanks for all the interest shown and all the comments – either by email or left on the blog itself.


Storytelling is a hugely important activity.  Stories shape the way we think about the world.  When we are growing up it is often the coded messages in stories that imprint on us ideas of good and evil, heroism, what is harmful.  So the greatest storytellers are very influential.  In the past we would sit round fires – as the darkness fell all around – and listen to our grans / uncles or whoever bewitch us by weaving words together and creating images in our mind.  At least then we could interrupt our storytellers – asking them questions – reacting with gasps, groans or laughter to their tales. Nowadays we are much more passive in front of the greatest storyteller of them all – TV and the Cinema .  I sometimes think that this passivity is not necessarily a healthy thing. Being critically engaged with the stories we consume is very important as they can have a tremendous power as we form our opinions, or how we see and understand the world. Storyteller can try and inspire, to build people up,  to give us hope – or they can make us cynical, world-weary, apathetic.  These are tremendous powers.

George Martin – Tolkien for the Jaded Generation?

This is why novelist George R R Martin was voted in Time Magazine as one of the most influential people of the year.  I am currently on the third book of his ‘Song of Fire and Ice‘ series.  It is very enjoyable reading – complex, imaginative,  at times breathtaking, with fantastic character development and constant unseen twists and turns.  Now that HBO is televising it I am sure the books will go stratospheric. However it always worth observing how a book affects you. More precisely – what are the lingering moods  a book leaves you with (a la St Ignatius). And from my – subjective point of view – SoFiA is pretty desolating stuff. Martin’s world is basically cynical, bleak and depressing.  He has been described as Tolkien for the jaded generation.

More and more he is being marketed as the American ‘Tolkien’….  unfairly in my opinion.  Tolkien a committed Catholic would be shocked at the vulgarity of Martins writing and in my opinion the disturbing portrayals of  sex and violence.  Sure it;s different age – but there is a deeper point here.  There is a fascinating, little known, correspondence between Tolkien and English Jesuit Fr Robert Murray.  Fr Murray, a close friend,  was asked to proofread the manuscript of  Lord of the Rings.  His letter reacting to the unpublished manuscript has an intriguing phrase in it – Murray claimed the book left him with a strong sense of a positive compatibility with the order of Grace.

Tolkien in reply said ‘the  Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.’   George R R Martin, a lapsed Catholic, says he is an agnostic or an atheist (make up your mind!) but remains fascinated by spirituality and religion.  He is certainly not anti-Catholic (like Phillip Pulman), neither I think secular like (J.K.Rowling).   There is a quite a bit of religion in the books – but it is not edifying stuff.

Tolkien in 1916, wearing his British Army unif...

Tolkien – Somme Veteran

Lets take the violence for instance – frequently cruel and sadistic in ASOFaI – the violence is less graphic in Tolkien. Yet curiously Tolkien fought in the battle of the Somme.  The closest George Martin (like myself) would have come to battle is through a video game. Tolkien has seen terrible – dehumanising suffering first hand, and like my own grandfather (who fought in Burma) he won’t talk about it. But his work – somehow is redemptive, is noble, it has hope. It is true that Martins female characters are much more realistic than anything in Tolkien…. and as a whole Martin’s characters are more morally complex. But maybe that is less about realism but more about the cynicism of our age.  The sex scenes (missing from Tolkien) are almost all brutal and degrading in ASofaI.  There is something of  ‘the teenage geek in a dark room on a diet of porn’ about the sex scenes. And HBO are rubbing their hands with glee. This isn’t a healthy portrayal of sexuality. The world isn’t like this…..

Is Martin a genius? Yes.

Are his books fantastic ? with reservations Yes.

Is he the American Tolkien – No. In many ways he gets close.  It is clear that he admires him greatly, but there is nothing about the ‘order of grace’ in his books.   Maybe he holds a mirror up to our generation – and parts of what is reflected back should cause us concern.  He doesn’t quite slip into the nihilism of Tarantino – but at times gets very close.

Am I biased?  Obviously!!



Solitude (Photo credit: Lady-bug)

I put my mobile phone (cheap model)  in the washing machine yesterday!  My first reaction when I realized – was curiously one of slight relief. Hopefully it will dry out – but for a while I have an good excuse for not replying to texts!  It is something I am not great at the best of times – but whilst here it is not unusual to get more than 20 a day – which for me is a lot! Pinoys send 1.7bn texts a day – according to comscore – In Europe and the US email is still the primary mode of communication, wheras in the Pacific Rim it is Direct Messaging. Up till fairly recently – click here – more texts were sent in the Philippines than in the whole of Europe.

The Philippines claims to be the most socially connected country in the world with a staggering 94% facebook usage.  I think that figure must reflect multiple accounts rather than population penetration. When I remember my time in the Mountains or the ‘squatter areas’ of Manila all the youngsters wanted to ‘friend’ you on facebook – even in the places where the nearest internet facility was more than a days walk away (in the mountains).  For me there is something unsettling about this intensity.

People often ask me – being celibate – are you not lonely?  And I answer – sometimes – of course!  But the gift of faith is such that you never really feel alone.  As Jesuits we are often immersed in the world with others – sometimes I really look forward to and treasure time alone!  Why this cultural fear?  Maybe we mix up being alone with feeling lonely.  Loneliness (the worlds greatest disease according to Mother Teresa) is a sickness of the soul that we can often experience when we are not alone. Everyone has experienced feeling lonely in a crowd, sometimes sadly being lonely in a community or a marriage.  But I think we only really can listen to our deepest desires – and maybe encounter God if we are alone, still and silent, at least once in a while!

So thanks to the chaplain here at the Ateneo High School I discovered this beautiful video.  It is like a poem / meditation by the Canadian storyteller / singer / poet Tanya Davis. I think (most of it!) is very beautiful. The lyrics are below.

HOW TO BE ALONE by Tanya Davis

If you are at first lonely, be patient. If you’ve not been alone much, or if when you were, you weren’t okay with it, then just wait. You’ll find it’s fine to be alone once you’re embracing it.

We could start with the acceptable places, the bathroom, the coffee shop, the library. Where you can stall and read the paper, where you can get your caffeine fix and sit and stay there. Where you can browse the stacks and smell the books. You’re not supposed to talk much anyway so it’s safe there.

There’s also the gym. If you’re shy you could hang out with yourself in mirrors, you could put headphones in (guitar stroke).

And there’s public transportation, because we all gotta go places.

And there’s prayer and meditation. No one will think less if you’re hanging with your breath seeking peace and salvation.

Start simple. Things you may have previously (electric guitar plucking) based on your avoid being alone principals.

The lunch counter. Where you will be surrounded by chow-downers. Employees who only have an hour and their spouses work across town and so they — like you — will be alone.

Resist the urge to hang out with your cell phone.

When you are comfortable with eat lunch and run, take yourself out for dinner. A restaurant with linen and silverware. You’re no less intriguing a person when you’re eating solo dessert to cleaning the whipped cream from the dish with your finger. In fact some people at full tables will wish they were where you were.

Go to the movies. Where it is dark and soothing. Alone in your seat amidst a fleeting community.
And then, take yourself out dancing to a club where no one knows you. Stand on the outside of the floor till the lights convince you more and more and the music shows you. Dance like no one’s watching…because, they’re probably not. And, if they are, assume it is with best of human intentions. The way bodies move genuinely to beats is, after all, gorgeous and affecting. Dance until you’re sweating, and beads of perspiration remind you of life’s best things, down your back like a brook of blessings.

Go to the woods alone, and the trees and squirrels will watch for you.
Go to an unfamiliar city, roam the streets, there’re always statues to talk to and benches made for sitting give strangers a shared existence if only for a minute and these moments can be so uplifting and the conversations you get in by sitting alone on benches might’ve never happened had you not been there by yourself

Society is afraid of alonedom, like lonely hearts are wasting away in basements, like people must have problems if, after a while, nobody is dating them. but lonely is a freedom that breaths easy and weightless and lonely is healing if you make it.

You could stand, swathed by groups and mobs or hold hands with your partner, look both further and farther for the endless quest for company. But no one’s in your head and by the time you translate your thoughts, some essence of them may be lost or perhaps it is just kept.

Perhaps in the interest of loving oneself, perhaps all those sappy slogans from preschool over to high school’s groaning were tokens for holding the lonely at bay. Cuz if you’re happy in your head than solitude is blessed and alone is okay.

It’s okay if no one believes like you. All experience is unique, no one has the same synapses, can’t think like you, for this be releived, keeps things interesting lifes magic things in reach.

And it doesn’t mean you’re not connected, that communitie’s not present, just take the perspective you get from being one person in one head and feel the effects of it. take silence and respect it. if you have an art that needs a practice, stop neglecting it. if your family doesn’t get you, or religious sect is not meant for you, don’t obsess about it.

you could be in an instant surrounded if you needed it
If your heart is bleeding make the best of it
There is heat in freezing, be a testament.

Gratitude & Candles


Candlemas Day

Image via Wikipedia

I was woken up by the sound of plainchant this morning at 6am!  I have to confess I was still in bed…. so I missed the striking sight of the theologians processing into chapel, in their white soutanes, carrying Candles to celebrate the feast of  the Presentation.  Today’s feast is popularly known as ‘Our Lady of the Candles’ here in the Philippines or otherwise known as  Candlemas.   As quite a few of my ex-students are reading this blog  – maybe  a small reminder of today’s feast would be helpful.  The presentation of Our Lord in the Temple (40 days after Christmas Day) – is when we recall Mary presenting the Child Jesus to God in the temple.  40 days was what the Mosaic law prescribed as a period of purification for women after childbirth.

It is a feast that is underplayed in the Church – at least in my experience. I would like to see  a mini-revival. Why? Because it is about gratitude .  For me this is a key to being happy in life.  The happiest people I meet are the most grateful, the most thankful.  2000 years ago in Judea, women showed their gratitude to God by presenting their new-born children at the Temple.  Often when I celebrate baptisms I think that part of the celebration is in offering the life (child or adult) back to God.  When we see things as gifts we are grateful.  Conversely the most miserable people you meet, and often the most angry are those who feel life ‘owes’ them something, or they have been cheated some way.  This sense of entitlement may have been behind the recent credit crash.

So today at mass – I prayed in gratitude for my Mum, who gave birth to two of us!  and also my nieces and nephews. Maybe I’ll never be a dad – but there is still some  joy and privilege in baptising, in celebrating new life.  I hope next week to be celebrating more baptisms in the remote Palawan islands…. but more of that later.  So what are you grateful for? and how are you going to show that gratitude today?

The following video from Igniter – gives fantastic food for thought on that.  The background of volunteers and a soup kitchen remind us that gratitude often leads to generosity.  This time of year we need more grateful people! Good luck to all those working in the night-shelters back where Winter is hitting hard.


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