A CLOSE ENCOUNTER WITH THE SAINTS

A CLOSE ENCOUNTER WITH THE SAINTS

Estrella (Star) Cui del Mar

        I have heard many times the saying “life is what you make of it” and “everything that happens in your life is your choice”.  For the most of my life, these were true but there were also several times in my life that I allowed things to run its course without my doing anything about it.  One of those times was my Dei Verbum Course in Nemi, outside Rome in Italy.  It was a five-month stay-in course and I would be part of the first batch in 1987 July-December.  I was hesitant since it would be my first time to get out of my country.  I have difficulty in breathing inside the plane if I stay for a longer time since I am claustrophobic.  And I cannot breathe in the dark!

        The Archbishop of Freiburg at that time, offered to pay for my tuition and board & lodging thru the request of Fr. Willi.  Tante Laura Meder of Germany offered to pay for my round trip ticket.  I was accepted by the Nemi staff running the course.  Everything was in order.  In addition to that, I could visit other countries in Europe like Germany, Switzerland, Austria and France to meet our Benefactors from Institutions and private individuals too.  It was really a great opportunity to study (the professors were selected from different countries), learn from other cultures since the participants were coming from different countries,  to meet new friends, explore the world and see more wonders of God’s creation!  And I did not want to go!

        Bishop Benny Tudtud, DD (Bishop of Marawi at that time) came to CLFC to give a retreat to priests in 1986.  Our staff was scandalized by the behaviour of a previous group of priests who stayed at CLFC while I was at EAPI in Ateneo, Quezon City for a summer course.  So before they started the retreat, I requested to speak to the priests.  I told them the behaviours of the priests before them that scandalized my staff. I gave them a few areas of concern from the lay’s perspective on the responsibilities of the clerics as church leaders being looked up as guide & models by the laypeople.  After I talked to them, Bishop Tudtud told the priests: “You have heard enough for this retreat.  Now you can go home and continue your reflections in your parishes!” I was shocked to hear him say that.  I left them and he took over to facilitate the retreat that lasted for a week.  True enough, that group was the opposite of the previous group.

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Bishop Benny Tudtud, DD (1931-1987)

        Bishop Benny and I talked a lot and became friends.  He ate with us at our staff quarters.  He did not join the retreatants for meals.  He washed all the dishes after we ate. He was a very simple man.  I was astonished by his personhood: his simplicity, humility, kindness, humor & love for peace and the poor.  He was like our father taking care of his children in his house.  He was so at home with domestic work.  I could not imagine that I was facing a Bishop. He surprised me when he took the risk of allowing me to give him a haircut.  It was my first time to do a haircut for men. Ha ha! While cutting his hair, I asked him why Bishops wear a heavy head dress called a mitre.  He answered that “it is to cover an empty head!” And we both laughed!  I did not expect to hear that answer from a Bishop.  He said he did not want to wear it.  And I was quick to add “because your head is not empty!” And we both laughed!

        Bishop Tudtud can easily make you feel comfortable in his presence.  He spoke softly and plainly.  He was an expert in “Dialogue” not so much as a meeting of minds but as a meeting of hearts.  His mission in Mindanao was to unite the Muslims and Christians.  (His sharing helped me later in my interreligious dialogue with people of other faiths in my travels abroad.)

        The few days with Bishop Tudtud was like listening to a guru every day.  I felt that I was talking and listening to a living Saint.  He was not an ordinary person though he considered himself very ordinary.

        I told him about the offer to study Scriptures in Nemi just outside Rome.  I was not sure to accept the offer due to my anxieties.  I was still thinking whether to go or not to go.  Bishop Benny told me “Do not think anymore, just go!”  And before he left CLFC, he made me promise to go to Rome and participate in the biblical course. Bp. Tudtud was an inspiration and an encouragement.

        I did go to Europe.  It was a torture to take that long plane ride.  I thought I would not reach the destination and die on the plane!  But I did land in Zurich, Switzerland.  Friends met us and brought us around Switzerland.  What a beautiful country it is!  The rest of the trips were made by train – thank God! I almost landed a job in Switzerland but Fr. Willi did not allow me.  That work would have been close to my heart and my academic university training – ecology and spirituality.  I remembered what Fr. Enrique Schoenig, SVD told me when I resigned from the University:  “Estrella, not many are trained to be Scientists, but there are many people who can do what you are doing in the pastoral work.”  And I told Fr. Schoenig that I can do both:  be a Scientist and a Pastoral Worker.

        From Switzerland, we went to Germany, Austria, France and Italy on the way to Rome until Nemi where I stayed for the next 5 months.  I was so excited to hear that our Dei Verbum class would have a private mass with Pope John Paul II at his private chapel at Castel Gandolfo which is near Nemi. Castel Gandolfo is the summer residence of the Pope because it is much cooler there.

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Our Morning Praise with St. John Paul II

        I was seated at the back near the wall.  It was a prayerful and reflective mass.  It was a privilege to receive Holy Communion from the Pope himself. And I thought that was the climax of the visit until we were ushered to another room where Pope John Paul II would meet each one of us, to talk briefly and to give each one of us a rosary.  WOW! Was I dreaming?

Holding Hands with St. John Paul II

Holding Hands with St. John Paul II

        We held each other’s hands tightly.  I told Pope John Paul II that I love the biblical apostolate and had been doing it (since I started teaching) among the students and co-teachers.  He told me “Continue spreading the Good News to all.  Have courage.  Give my greetings to the people of Cebu and Cardinal Vidal!”

        And that was not all.  Pope John Paul II gave us more gifts – large books with nice paper and pictures and all in Italian!  We were all carrying heavy bags when we left Castel Gandolfo.  We posed for a group photo with the Pope. But our classmate, Bishop Darius Nggawa of Flores, Indonesia, distracted Pope JP II during the group photo.

Our Group Photo with St. John Paul II

Our Group Photo with St. John Paul II

        I felt like in cloud 9!  I was fully charged, fully inspired and ready to go out and spread the Good News to the world, not only in Cebu or the Philippines but to wherever the Spirit leads me!

        That was 1987.  But since then, I was involved with the Biblical Apostolate until now.  In 1988, I travelled around the Visayas to help organize the BA in the Region.  I went to Vigan to give a talk to a National Consultation of Biblical leaders from all over the Phil. I visited the first Regional Biblical Center in the Phil. (John Paul I Biblical Center of the Northern Province) and learned from them.  I participated in Asian and International gatherings of people engaged in the Biblical Ministry in different countries since 1988.  I went to different places from north to south of the Philippines to facilitate Bible Seminars.  I went to Kuala Lumpur to give the BBS and BFS to the Malaysians.  I had been to Rome 6 times since 1987.  I was privileged to take up a summer Biblical Spirituality course of 3 months at the Holy Land of which my 30-day-retreat there was the most memorable!  I have been to the world and back to Cebu.  Pope John Paul II’s words became true.

        I still continue at this time to get actively involved in the Biblical Pastoral Ministry through the Catholic Biblical Federation.  My greatest surprise in the CBF was being elected by the Plenary Assembly in Hong Kong in 1996 as an Execom (EC) Member representing the Associate Members.  The nominees at that time were prominent Bible Scholars from different countries with outstanding works and positions.  But the small, obscure and plain lay woman from CLFC, Cebu City, Philippines was elected by the Assembly.  Added to that, the EC elected me as Vice-Moderator.  That position I held for 6 years until the next Plenary Assembly in 2002 in Beirut, Lebanon.  I kept asking the Lord “why am I here?”  I realized in the course of the meetings what my role was:  as a simple lay woman representing not only the Associate Members of CBF but representing the majority of the Catholic Church population – the simple laity!  And that made a big difference in the discussions.
        Doing the Biblical Apostolate was and is not easy especially when I get little or no support from local Church leaders.  But it has become my passion and commitment.  To be a prophet is to be killed (to die for the faith and there are many ways of dying.  To be a Christian is to carry one’s cross till death!  To do this require so much faith, so much hope, so much love and constant inspiration to get going.

       THANK YOU BISHOP BENNY TUDTUD.  THANK YOU ST. POPE JOHN PAUL II.

        Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta visited our CLFC when she came to Cebu.  Fr. Willi and I met her at the airport and brought her and her companions to CLFC.  She was a small, humble and kind person.  When Fr. Willi introduced to her the Institute for Lay Spirituality, she did not like the term “lay spirituality” because she said “there is only one Spirituality and that is the Spirituality of Jesus Christ.  It does not matter what congregation or group you belong.  We, Christians, have the same Spirituality!”

        I walked around the CLFC buildings with her.  She wanted us to get the neighboring open space that does not belong to us.  She whispered to me how to get it for retreat use.  I did it and true enough, the owner was so kind to allow us to use the vacant lot for retreatants to walk around or meditate or even use the space for additional parking. Thanks to Ben Dapat, the owner’s friend.

Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta visited our CLFC when she came to Cebu

Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta visited our CLFC when she came to Cebu

        I knew that I had a close encounter with SAINTS at that time when I met them.  Meeting them changed me for the rest of my life!  They strengthened my faith.  At times when I felt I could not do it anymore, frustrated, desperate and disillusioned, I remember what they told me.  And I gain courage and renewed enthusiasm.   I can carry my cross for Jesus Christ.  They did carry their crosses not only their own but the crosses of people too.  They are my inspirations and my models.  They evangelized me not only with their words and deeds but more so of their being – of who they are and how they lived!

        THANK YOU LORD FOR GIFTING US WITH GREAT PEOPLE – WITH SAINTS IN OUR MIDST!

        I believe that there are many Saints around us.  They are still living among us.  They may not be known or recognized as such!  They may not even be baptized Christians.  They are silent witnesses of Jesus Christ for God’s people.   I met a few of them in my travels.  I often feel challenged as a Christian by what these non-Christians are doing and how they live.  AND OUR LORD RECOGNIZES THEM ALL!

        SAINTS OF GOD IN OUR WORLD, PRAY FOR US!

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