Thursday, January 31, 2008

Healing phenomenon

Is the Philippines now gearing up to be a Christian spiritual pilgrimage site in Asia? Are the Filipinos spiritually ready for this? Or could we still be described as practicing split-level Christianity?

The media coverage of Fr. Fernando Suarez’s healing activities in many places in Metro Manila and the provinces has been quite sustained since he arrived last December. The number of people that flock to the healing Masses has grown exponentially because of the media coverage and one could see from the news reports that working the crowd has become increasingly difficult for the healing priest. The sick poor are crying out for the priest’s attention. They flock to the healing venues, arriving there way ahead of time to wait, hoping they would have their turn to be face to face with the priest and be embraced, prayed over and miraculously healed.

I interviewed Fr. Suarez last Dec. 23 and came out with a Dec. 31 front page feature story on his life and work (“Filipino healing priest does so ‘many miracles like in Bible’”). When I checked the Inquirer website early in the afternoon of that day, I found my article with an icon on it which said “Most Read” article. I wish I knew how many hits it got. You can access the article at

Two weeks later, thousands flocked to the 40-hour vigil at Montemaria in the outskirts of Batangas City where a Marian shrine is to be built. The heavy downpour did not deter the crowd from waiting for the 40-ish Fr. Suarez who also had to brave the mud and rain to get to the site overlooking the sea. Manila archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales and Lipa archbishop Ramon Arguelles graced the occasion and celebrated Mass there.

I visited Montemaria on Jan. 9, three days before the vigil, and I can say that the place is indeed special. It has a breathtaking view of the sea and the islands between Batangas and Mindoro. That portion of the sea you behold when you stand on the peak is known to be one of world’s richest in marine biodiversity. I was there at the time of the afternoon when the sea and the horizon exhibited a silvery sheen and a stillness that suggested that all’s well with the world. The knoll I was standing on could be holy ground.

Fr. Suarez is the first to stress that he is not the one who heals. It is God. He is only a channel.

The crowd continues to surge around Fr. Suarez but with this phenomenon are some issues that need to be addressed. I can mention at least two: turfing and the creeping in of something that might be misconstrued or misunderstood as commercialism.

Already, Bishop Jose Oliveros of the diocese of Malolos has complained that Fr. Suarez’s healing activities, at least in his diocese, were conducted without his permission. The Church’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith requires that the local bishop’s permission be sought for church-related activities. Fr. Suarez does not belong to the Malolos diocese. He is a member of the Canada-based religious congregation called Companions of the Cross. (The congregation will soon set up a foundation here.)

Fr. Suarez had told me that he never went to a place unless he was invited. The parish priests that invite him over are therefore expected to clear things with their bishops. Do bishops have to know everything that goes on in a parish? But I understand that a visit from Fr. Suarez is no ordinary one and entails logistics and crowd control. Better be safe than sorry.

The other issue is on the material. Marian pilgrimage sites Lourdes, Fatima, Medjugorje are not spared being touched by commercialism. There are always entrepreneurs that would try to draw big bucks even from places of worship where crowds gather.

In the case of the Mary Mother of the Poor Foundation which Fr. Suarez heads and which is behind the building of the Montemaria shrine (supposed to be finished in September this year) there is indeed a need to raise funds. Montemaria (Matuko Point) in Batangas City will become the center of Fr. Suarez’s healing ministry and other spiritual activities. Set on a hill on 20 hectares of land, the center of the Oratory of the Blessed Virgin will have chapels, prayer gardens, Stations of the Cross, retreat houses, campsites, lodging houses, a center for the poor and even a replica of Mary’s house in Ephesus. The place is meant to draw pilgrims from here and abroad who want to renew their faith. The centerpiece is the 33-story-high statue of Mary Mother of the Poor.

How the money is being raised or collected is something that the foundation has to be careful about. Do healing Mass collections in parishes go to the Montemaria project? Should there be sale of items (such as rosaries) to raise funds and how much? Who are overseeing these activities? The well-meaning and hard-working organizers around Fr. Suarez should be extra, extra careful when dealing with the financial aspect in order to avoid misperceptions.

There are those who worry that the purity and simplicity of this healing ministry could get compromised when the material aspect start creeping in.

Fr. Suarez reaches out to both the poor and the rich and it is quite clear the teeming poor are the first in his agenda. There should be no cause for anyone to doubt this. I repeat—there should be no cause for anyone to doubt this.

Fr. Suarez leaves for his Canada base in the second week of February and will proceed to many places in this world to minister to the sick and infirm. It’s time for a break from the Philippine scene. He will be back.

In Agdangan, Quezon, the 12-story Luminous Cross of Grace Sanctuary has risen but still needs doming. The Stations of Cross are being finished in time for Holy Week.