Our Missions As I Knew Them
by Fr. Ramon Fruto, C.Ss.R.
Although it was the Redemptorist missions that attracted me to the Congregation, the first mission I ever attended was the first one I gave as a Redemptorist missioner myself.
Despite my lack of familiarity with the missions in my adolescent years, however, I was no stranger to the word “mission”, for it was how the Redemptorist missioners were known then: “Ang mga Paring Misyon” or just plain “ang mga misyon”.
The first “Paring Misyon” I saw at close quarters was Fr. John McDonnell when he came to say mass in the barrio where we had evacuated to after the Japanese landed in Cebu in 1942. While serving as chaplain in the Cebu Leprosarium, he also filled in as parish priest of Mandaue, since the parish priest, then Msgr. Manuel Yap, had fled to his hometown of Carcar in the south of Cebu. Fr. McDonnell’s coming by bicycle to our barrio gave me an idea of what the life of the Paring Misyon must be. But seventeen years later, as a Redemptorist priest and missioner, I would know from experience that the work of a Redemptorist missioner was much more than bicycling to a barrio and saying mass there.
My experience with our missions spans the decades of the traditional missions (1959 to the early 70’s) and the decades after martial law, when the whole mission system underwent an almost radical renewal and the new mission system gradually replaced the traditional.
The “Traditional” Missions
Returning to the country two years after my ordination in 1957 in India, I was introduced into the work that Redemptorist missioners had been engaged in since the early days of the Congregation’s foundation in the Philippines: the traditional Redemptorist mission. My introduction to the mission apostolate was quite simple, uncomplicated by orientation seminars or preliminary “exposures”. This was the way new missioners were ushered into the missions. Yet we, the new missionaries, fresh from the “second novitiate” (our equivalent of today’s pastoral year after ordination), were not traumatized by our sudden involvement in the work of the missions. All through the years of our initial formation, and especially during our “second novitiate” it was constantly drilled into our consciousness how we were to speak and preach, act and deal with people on mission. Much of our second novitiate year was spent in composing our mission sermons and instructions under the supervision of the master of the second novitiate. During the whole course of our studendate we were forbidden to compose/write sermons. As our old Latin Constitutions put it: “..a concionibus, quae proprie dicuntur, componendis omnino abstineant…” Sorry I don’t have the official Latin translation, but this will have to do: speaking of the Students: “they shall altogether refrain from composing sermons, strictly so called”. Preaching academies during our Studendate years concentrated on the delivery rather than on the writing of the matter of the sermons. This would come later in the second novitiate when we began writing our own sermons. To the manner of preaching the old Constitutions devoted a whole chapter “De modo concionandi”. So, after the studendate practice of the manner of delivery of sermons and the second novitiate’s tutoring in the writing of sermons, I was sent out on my first mission assignment, which was also my first apostolic assignment after ordination. It was short enough – it lasted two years. But it was rich in missionary experience. At that time, the external apostolate of the vice-province focused mainly on the missions, with some school retreats thrown in. Since all in the community were missioners, all took turns taking care of the shrine-church ministry when they were not out on missions. Though based in Cebu, I was asked, like the other Cebu-based confreres, to help our confreres in the three neighboring communities: Tacloban, Iligan, Dumaguete. In this way, I helped the Tacloban community with missions in the Cebuano-speaking parts of Leyte, Dumaguete with the missions in Negros Oriental and Zamboanga del Norte, and Iligan with missions in Lanao del Norte and Zamboanga del Sur. All told, this was an enriching mission experience despite the shortness of my two-year assignment as a full-time missioner in Cebu
As far as I can gather, the method and content of my missions in those days did not differ much from the method and content of the early missions in the vice-province.
“SAVE YOUR SOUL” was the battle cry of the traditional missions from the time of St. Alphonsus till the day I gave my first mission. Hence the content of the traditional mission was first, the eternal truths – sin, death, judgment, an eternity of heaven or hell. This part of the mission was what gave the Redemptorists, especially in Ireland, the name of “Hellfire missionaries”. Yet this label was a misnomer. After the first “scary” sermons on these truths, directed at exciting compunction and conversion, came the more consoling truths on the mercy of God, the Sacraments and Prayer, especially devotion to the Blessed Mother. The content of the morning instruction was a catechesis on the truths of the faith, especially as spelled out in the catechism.
The mission preaching and instruction might be looked upon as dwelling largely with these “spiritual” truths. There was much denunciation of sins against purity and charity, but little mention of exploitation and injustice. This however is not to be wondered at. This was the age before Vatican II’s new orientation towards integration of the secular and the sacred, faith and social concerns. This new orientation would be adopted later.
The Mission: the Priestly Proclamation of the Word: the Mission Sermon
The traditional Redemptorist mission might be summarily described as a “preached mission”, and “preaching” in the days of the traditional mission was generally, and primarily, understood as the proclamation of the word from the pulpit. In other words, what might generally be understood today as delivering a sermon from the pulpit (concionando, as the old Latin C.Ss.R. Constitutions might say). Of course, it was also admitted that there were other ways of proclaiming the word, by classroom teaching, catechizing and especially by the witness of one’s life. But at the same time, much importance was given to “explicit” proclamation: explicit by focusing on the mysteries of the faith, and “explicit” by proclaiming from the pulpit, be that pulpit the raised structure in the church or a rock on the seashore.
Since the mission was a preached mission and only priests could preach then, the group of missioners giving the mission was made up exclusively of priests. We had no brothers, seminarians or lay workers as part of the mission team. Despite the exclusively priestly membership in the team, the shortage of missioners was not felt. As many as four or five priests might make up the group giving the mission while two or three other members of the community would stay at home to take care of the services in the church. There were only two of us Filipino missioners. But Ireland sent a steady supply of young Irish confreres with nothing but the missions in mind. Without much delay, they began the study of the vernacular soon after they landed on Philippine soil. Before long, they would be sent on mission.
The “pre-mission” or the type of mission preparation that is practiced today was not even conceived of in those days. The missioners entered the mission area armed only with the schedule of the mission in the town and a list of the barrios to be given the mission when the town-center mission was done. I’d go into a barrio and tell the chapel president that I was to give a mission there, and the response would be: “mao ba?” “is that so?”
The entry of the missioners might at times be given solemnity by a procession. At the entrance to the town, the missioners, dressed in their white-collared black habits with the mission cross tucked into their cincture, would get off their vehicle and walk in procession towards the church while a band provided the musical background. Arriving at the main door of the church, the missioners might be welcomed by the parish priest. Then the opening exercises of the mission would follow, beginning with a moment of silent prayer, the missioners kneeling together before the altar. The missioners might then be introduced by the parish priest and then the rosary and the opening sermon would follow. Sometime early in the mission, the missioners might pay a visit to the mayor of the town, following the recommendation of the old CSSR Rules & Constitutions to pay their respects to the “principal man of the place”! The subsequent days of the two-week mission in the parish center would follow the program that would have seen little change down the years since the start of the CSSR missions in the country. This program might be described as follows:
The MISSION PROGRAM
1. The first week or two weeks – in the parish center
1.1. Holy Mass and morning “instruction”. The “instruction” consisted of a short catechesis on some truth of the faith, as described in the catechism.
1.2 Nearly the whole morning: house visitation, the missioner visiting as many houses as possible. Among the things he would talk about with the people in the house: an invitation to attend the mission exercises (i.e., morning mass and “instruction”, encouraging the people to receive the sacraments of penance and communion, and particularly to have their marriage blessed in the church for couples living together without the benefit of a church marriage. In the years following World War II, because of the scarcity of priests, the response to this last invitation often served as a popular gauge among the missioners to determine the success or otherwise of a mission. Convincing couples living together without church marriage to get their marriage blessed was a trial, and an art, for many a missionary. Because such unions abounded in those early years, it was not uncommon to have some 50 couples getting their marriage blessed in the same evening.
1.3 Lunch – in the convento, or in whatever residence the missioner is visiting and who might invite him.
1.4 Siesta, about an hour, or skip this if the missioner opts to continue his house visitation.
1.5 Time of availability for confession, or interviews with the couples inquiring about marriage.
1.6 Evening devotions/Mission Sermon (No evening masses in those days. The evening devotions included:
- the public recitation of the rosary, led by one of the missioners;
- the notices (announcements on the activities of the mission. The making of the announcements was itself an art. During Pastoral Year, along with learning how to deliver our mission sermons we spent time practicing the giving out of notices.
- how to announce the details of the mission activities in a clear, concise and, most of all, interesting manner. This gave the missioner the opportunity to lighten the atmosphere with humor in preparation for the serious reflection on the eternal truths that would follow in the mission sermon proper.
The mission sermon:
The mission sermon was the keystone of the whole mission. In the Redemptorist tradition, it was the mission sermon that made the Redemptorist missioner. The sermon might last for half-an-hour.
As the traditional Redemptorist mission was a “preached mission”, much value was placed on preaching the Word from the pulpit. Seminar-type discussions and reflections were unknown. The missionary-preacher was the vehicle of God’s truth. His preaching was to enlighten and inspire, denounce and announce, challenge and move. People often went home from the mission exercises weeping and deeply touched. In a number of cases, extraordinary conversions from a life of sin and alienation from religion happened.
The way a missioner preached his mission sermon was reputed to be what “made” the Redemptorist missioner. The standing joke (fortunately it was only a joke) was that if a Redemptorist did not have the charisma – not to mention the voice – of a mission preacher, he was sent to Rome for higher studies and prepare himself to become a “lector” (teacher, professor)! In my experience of “lectors”, however, this remark was only meant as a joke, for all my studendate lectors were excellent mission preachers as well.
Into his preaching of the mission sermon went the fruit of all the years of the daily elocution exercises and the weekly mission academies (preaching practice) in the studendate. Through these practices, the missioner developed the ability to preach audibly right through the duration of the mission unaided by loudspeakers in big churches without hurting his throat. His concern was to be heard, understood and to move to action. Preaching was both a science and an art. Some traditional preachers were criticized for engaging in theatrics they way they delivered their sermons with a flourish. But that was the age before the modern means of mass media. Today’s mass media practitioners on the podium have their own brand of theatrics. The concern of both the traditional and the modern is the same: to provide visual besides audio means of communicating the message.
The administration of the sacraments, especially the sacrament of reconciliation and mass marriages. Dealing with these ministries here would make this writing unduly long. Therefore, I’ll be forgiven if I leave this part of the traditional mission and other activities to another issue of the NEWSPLORER. Included in that later issue will be the transition from the traditional to the post-Vatican II type of mission and the context and the reasons behind the changes. With this latter type, I would be given a longer (two-triennia) assignment as a fulltime missioner in more challenging times. Whether with the traditional or with the post-Vatican II renewed mission, I would feel that engaging in both was an experience I have found abundantly enriching. It has been my privilege over my sixty-six years of active CSSR priestly ministry to have been involved in nearly all the major apostolates of the Province. Without belittling the value of these other apostolates in the Province, I have to confess that it is through the missions I have found the closest identification with the opening paragraph of our Constitutions which states that the purpose of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer is to “follow the example of Jesus Christ the Redeemer, preaching the word of God to the poor (italics mine), as he declared of himself: ‘He sent me to preach the Good News to the poor.’” (Const. 1). You can interpret “preaching” any way you like, especially in this age of seminar-type talks, but while we have churches to “preach” in, it is still from the quality of our preaching that people identify us as Redemptorist missionaries. If you don’t believe it, ask the people.