It’s hard to believe I have already been in Santa Maria for four months! The mission community of St John Maximovitch welcomed me on my arrival and has made me feel very much at home. I am living in a rented apartment within walking distance of both the marketplace and our Chapel of St John.
Since mid-September, I have been privileged to establish weekly Divine Liturgies in the Cebuano language; visited the Orthodox community at Palo on the island of Leyte; made contact with Orthodox Christians scattered across the great southern island of Mindanao; begun teaching the Obikhod chant melodies, and made a credible start at learning the Cebuano language. Providentially, there is a Cebuano translation of the Bible, and the Divine Liturgy has been translated as well.
Santa Maria is a small town midway between the major cities of Davao and General Santos. From here I can take a bus to anywhere on the island of Mindanao, or fly elsewhere in the Philippines. Santa Maria is so small that almost everyone now recognizes the beardy man in the cassock. I am the only foreigner in town, and the only American many people have ever met. That, and the Filipinos’ friendly nature, ensures that I have conversations with everyone everywhere I go.
Before coming to the Philippines I thought it would take me about a year to become fluent in Cebuano. That estimate still sounds about right to me; there is a long road to travel between my simple communication today and using this language smoothly and idiomatically to write, speak, and preach. After several months of immersion in this language, I can hold basic conversations, and I can now understand much of the Cebuano liturgy and scripture. Translating into the language, or expressing complex ideas, is more of a challenge, though. Thirty years ago, as a student in Cebu City, I thought I spoke Cebuano. In fact, though, all I knew was some vocabulary. It turns out the grammar is quite different from the familiar Indo-European family of languages. With the sometimes-questionable aid of Google Mistranslate, I’m producing rough drafts of variable hymn texts and weekly homilies, which several Filipino friends are kind enough to upgrade into proper Cebuano.
Because both the sun and the neighbors’ stereos come up about 5:30am every day, rural Filipinos are morning people! On Sundays we celebrate the Divine Liturgy at 8am, so I typically arrive at the chapel about 6:30 for the Proskomide, and then hear confessions beginning about 7:30. After the Divine Liturgy, I bring Communion to a member who is bedridden, then at the chapel we have prayers for the sick. After divine services and a meal together, I still get home before noon. There is something to be said for early services!
These months have brought times of warm fellowship with Orthodox friends in the southernmost city of General Santos, including pastors and bishops of Philippine Independent Catholic (Aglipayan) parishes who are in catechism preparatory to becoming Orthodox. God willing, in 2015 several dozen congregations across Mindanao will be received into the Orthodox Church. The next task will be preparing a number of their pastors for ordination. I’ve been asked to help teach at a school that will open this spring in GenSan to make men ready to go to seminary in Russia.
In the mean time, while clergy and lay missionaries of the Moscow Patriarchate have been visiting the Philippines, for the moment I am the only Russian Orthodox priest resident in this country, and my first responsibility is to establish the life of the parish in Santa Maria. When these Aglipayan communities do come into the Church, by God’s providence our little parish of St John Maximovitch will be able to offer them the gift of a Divine Liturgy fully arranged for singing in the Cebuano language according to Russian melodies.
Toward the end of last year, the palm thatch roof on our chapel of St John Maximovitch began to leak. During the week following the Nativity of Christ, through the generosity of mission partners, we were able to completely replace the roof. At the same time the whole chapel was stripped bare, received a thorough cleaning, and finally was adorned with many lovely liturgical items donated from parishes and monasteries in the US and Europe. Members were very grateful and pleased at the opportunity to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” (See photos…)
Last month, shortly after Theophany, we were blessed by the visit of Fr. Konstantine Lautillo, the dean of Antiochian clergy in Manila, and his wife Khouria Marina. Members of the Moscow Patriarchate mission came up from General Santos City to join us as well. Afterward we were privileged to share with them icons, incense, and liturgical items which have been sent by mission partners in Romania and the US, while for our members we gratefully received a gift of many prayer ropes made by members of St Theophan Church in Manila. Fr. Konstantine, Kh. Marina and I spent the following day in General Santos with clergy and members of a parish of Aglipayan catechumens; there we had the honor of visiting many homes to bless them together with the members, their vehicles, shops and animals. Their enthusiasm for the Orthodox faith is such an encouragement. (Read more…)
Because I still speak only simple Cebuano, I do not yet hold formal classes or schedule speaking engagements. I interact with people at and around our chapel, at the market, and we talk individually and in groups. Aside from homilies, I listen and teach around the common meal table almost every day. Neighbors have begun joining us for meals and inviting me to bless their homes and pray for their sick children, and we have enrolled a few as catechumens. In the US we pray weekly for the catechumens in the Liturgy, and occasionally we hear the prayer to enroll a catechumen, and we become used to it — but here, as people hear these prayers for the first time, in their own language, there are often tears of joy.
Most of our members were baptized in Orthodox services conducted by missionaries in English. It has been joyful and eye-opening to them to hear the services of baptism and marriage, as well as the Divine Liturgy, in their own language. They already knew they had found the Church, but now they begin to recognize the depth and beauty of the faith taught in the prayers.
Though English and Tagalog (Filipino) are national languages, in practice most people in this province speak limited Tagalog at best and very little English at all. In the southern Philippines, the regional Cebuano language is widely spoken, while many of our members speak Tagakaulo among themselves. (Read more about languages in the Philippines…)
In learning to communicate in these languages, I am encouraged by the life of Saint Innocent, Enlightener of Alaska, who without dictionaries or the Internet taught himself to speak Aleut, Tlingit, Yupik, and Yakut languages in order to translate the scriptures and services for the faithful in his vast Alaskan diocese. I am thankful for this saint’s intercession as I immerse myself in the Cebuano language, while gaining a smattering of Kaulo and Tagalog. In just the past few weeks, I’ve begun finding Cebuano more of a bridge to communication than a barrier — for that I give abundant thanks to God!
In the past there was an Antiochian Orthodox mission in the city of Davao, a few hours from here by bus. Some time ago that mission closed and the members scattered. I am now in contact with a few Orthodox individuals and inquirers in Davao, so I hope to begin meeting some of them regularly to teach, to have prayers — and, God willing, to work toward a new Orthodox mission in the city. There is also an Aglipayan parish in Davao City that is interested in Orthodoxy, and I have been invited to come teach there as well. So the coming months may see me on the road a good deal more, though always returning to Santa Maria for the Divine Liturgy on Sundays.
This weekend, we had the privilege of baptizing a woman from Cebu, the major city at the center of the Philippines, and marrying her to her fiancé. Cebu City is the second most populous city in this country; yet, while I know of a handful of Orthodox believers and inquirers in Cebu, there is not a single canonical Orthodox parish on that whole island. May God permit us to start a work in that city!
Before I left the US, based on input from friends in Davao City and from expatriates abroad, I published an estimated monthly budget for the mission. By God’s mercy and your generous giving, that budget is now almost fully funded! After several months in the field, I have updated the budget to reflect the realities of living in the rural Philippines. It turns out that the cost of living here is a great deal less than I anticipated. However the cost of travel to the mission community at Palo is significantly higher than it was before. When Typhoon Yolanda devastated that area, it did great damage to the airport at Tacloban, and flights there are now few and quite expensive. The end result is that the new budget totals about the same as the earlier, estimated budget but the details are quite different! (Read more…)
I’ll close with humble thanks for the support and prayers of mission partners who are making this possible! And to those who have sent gifts of incense, icons, books, altarware and liturgical items, I extend the thanks of Orthodox Christians and catechumens all over this country, whose parishes and homes your gifts have touched. In the preparation prayers at every Divine Liturgy we pray for all our benefactors and mission partners, and a particle with your name is on the diskos. As you are always in our prayers, please remember the Orthodox faithful in the Philippines, together with all whom the Lord would add to His Church.
Please pray specifically:
May God reward you for your partnership in this mission! And may you have a blessed, peaceful, and spiritually beneficial Great Lent, leading you to the Bright Pascha of the Lord!
Priest Silouan Thompson
Santa Maria, Philippines