Doing the Parish Rounds will never quite seem the same again...
One of my abiding memories of my time in Culion was staying overnight with a family in the remote village of TabukTabuk. On the west of the island many of the villages are populated by subsistence fishermen, taking their sustenance from the West Philippine Sea – or is the South China Sea…….. and therein lies a tale. As I was enjoying fresh coconut milk, and squinting at the waves breaking on a distant reef, it was difficult to imagine that this stretch of water is tipped by some to be the possible starting point of the next global war. How could this tropical bliss become a hellish theater of war? The nagging thought only got stronger later in the day when on the way back to the Jesuit Community the boatman kindly detoured at my request. I spent an amazing 30 minutes snorkeling and feeding a beautiful array of fish on a reef that was rich was life. The nagging thought came because this was an artificial reef created by a Japanese War Ship.
There are many wrecks in the seas around Culion from the Second World War — and ‘wreck diving’ has become a popular tourist attraction. I suppose the nagging thought was also partly due to my working my way through HBO’s ‘Pacific’ the last couple of weeks which brilliantly portrays the intensity & brutality of the Pacific War. It seemed the best place to watch it with the added impetus that my grandfather was awarded the Burma Star for fighting in the campaign – something he would never talk about, obviously too painful an experience to tell his wide-eyed grandsons but it was clear that he had bitter memories of the Japanese. and would get angry when he saw Japanese cars on the streets of Liverpool.
Image via Wikipedia
But surely that is all in the past – and these islands have returned to a tropical bliss…. right? Well it would be foolish to be too complacent. This sea appears to be one of the more disputed ‘territories’ on the planet and it is the rise of China that is getting everyone jittery. In January the Philippines announced that it wants to “maximise” its mutual defence treaty with the United States, with more joint exercises, and more American soldiers rotating through. Reinforcing Obama’s ‘pivot’ to the Pacific – the reaction in the Chinese press was shrill calling for sanctions against the Philippines. In December Beijing had ignored Manila’s protest about the incursion of three Chinese vessels in what it calls the “West Philippine Sea”. An old Jesuit told me that these spats were quite common.
But complacency is not in order here – according to the Economist the stakes are high, because of the enormous economic significance of this disputed sea. It accounts for as much as one-tenth of the fishing catch landed globally; around half the tonnage of intercontinental trade in commercial goods passes through; and a potential treasure chest of hydrocarbons (oil and gas) that China, anxious about the vulnerability of its own supplies, sees as its own (Banyan Feb 4th). With both the Philippines and Vietnam intending to start extracting oil things might more from diplomacy to harassment. So the chances are that America, with its mighty navy and abiding interest in the freedom of navigation and commerce, and China which its rapidly developing its Navy - recently floating a refurbished Russian aircraft carrier and soon to finish building its first.
Will the waters of the South China (West Philippine Sea) lead to a maritime cold war? Or more aptly a clammy war? Or – God forbid – something worse. Who knows? …. but it is certainly a sobering thought for Lent. The potential for man to destroy his paradise. I suppose that the wisdom of Lent is to remember our fragility and our mortality – if only more people took Lenten renewal more seriously.
Maybe I’ll be less gloomy by the time we get to Easter :)
P.S. This news came on line 12hrs after I finished the blog entry :
China hits out at ‘troublemaker’ Manila in maritime row : BBC News Click Here
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)
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!
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.