Church and World
“Half the World in 19 Days” - Report of an Asian Tour
In the last year, the world’s attention has been focused upon the earthquake in the Philippines. Typhoon Haiyan followed, claiming thousands of human lives and causing immense destruction. Millions of people are bewildered, people with whom I became acquainted last year when I visited this beautiful, impoverished land.
This was the origin of my travel journal, which is summarized below. It permits you, dear reader, to become acquainted through my experiences with the Philippines and with our Society’s faithful there.
Between November 9th and 27th, 2012, I humbly accompanied Fr. Niklaus Pfluger, First Assistant of the Society of St. Pius X, on his visitation tour of Asia. After spending 36 hours in airplanes and at airports (Zurich, Amsterdam, China, and Manila), we arrived safely in the Philippines on November 10.
Permit me first to write a general description of this archipelago in Southeast Asia. The Philippines are a group of 7,107 islands in the Pacific Ocean, near China. The two largest islands are called Luzon (North) and Mindanao (South). The archipelago is about 1,150 miles from north to south and almost 700 miles from east to west. The tallest mountain is Mt. Apo on the island of Mindanao at nearly 10,000 feet. The Philippines also possess 37 volcanoes, of which 18 are classified as active.
Ninety-six million people reside in the Philippines, dispersed over 2,000 islands.
The climate of the Philippines is tropical, that is, hot and extremely humid, which we found stifling. A priest assigned there, Fr. Coenraad Daniels, spoke as follows: “In the Philippines, it rains not only from above, but also from below.” In other words, if you are soaked through, it is not only the rain, but your own sweat as well. The average annual temperature runs at 79 degrees Fahrenheit.
The renowned seafarer Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese in Spanish service, landed on one of the small islands to the west of the Philippines on March 16, 1521. Twenty-two years later, in 1543, the Spaniards conquered the island kingdom, which they christened, “The Philippines,” in honor of King Philip II of Spain.
Catholic missionaries arrived in this land with the Spanish. Their achievements have been both beneficial and enduring. Today, 82 percent of the population is Catholic. The churches are well-attended and the Faith is not only alive, but was everywhere around us. An island in the southwest continues to have a Muslim majority.
The SSPX’s Asian District
The Society has been active in the Philippines since 1990. We presently possess two priories: one in the capital city of Manila (400 faithful) and a southern one in Davao (150 faithful). We also possess seven chapels and four Mass centers where the Holy Sacrifice is offered and the catechism is taught. On Iloilo, there is also a brothers’ novitiate and a convent of sisters.
In this land, there are 12 resident priests, the brothers, the sisters, and many active laity. The District Superior, Father Daniel Couture, is Canadian. His District embraces the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Indonesia, and Singapore.
This is a very large territory and Father Couture is thus often traveling by air. His longest period without flying was four weeks. When asked for the reason, Father Couture answered, “Because my passport was expired and a new one had not arrived.” This comes from a priest who spends more time in the air than on land.
Our visitation began in the southern city of General Santos. After being warmly greeted by a banner of welcome, we visited a group of catechists in the poor quarter. There were roughly 80 children assembled and they greeted us with the Latin hymn, “Ave Maria.”
All pressed forward to greet “the Father” by seizing his right hand, placing it on their foreheads, and bowing slightly. Every time they did so, I silently thought, “God bless you.” There was even a young Muslim mother who came to this event with her children.
Every Sunday, enthusiastic women from the Legion of Mary beat drums to assemble together these boys and girls aged four to twelve. Then, they instruct them in the Catholic Faith and in moral philosophy. They are taught the Sign of the Cross, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Morning and Night Offerings.
These male and female catechists are the right hand of Fr. Timothy Pfeiffer, who also travels every weekend to Davao. As I saw and noted, this is a genuinely lay apostolate. They go throughout the neighborhood, speak to both children and to their elders, and invite them all to the classes and to Holy Mass. After the classes, they invariably visit the sick and pray with them.
Afterwards, we assisted the children and their mothers. They insisted that we “stay for the next Catechism group!”
Soon after, we left this neighborhood in a land-rover. We drove adventurously over the “streets” and then for an hour on tarred roads. We then arrived in a small bush settlement, located off the road. We were received with the same joy and with song. Again we were greeted with the same hand-to-forehead gesture.
This community, numbering around 40 people, more than half of whom are children, have erected a small chapel. It is 13 by 10 feet, built of palm wood beams, and covered with plywood. They have also built an altar.
After the First Assistant for the Society spoke a word of thanks and praise for their loyalty, we had to depart on a journey to the chapel in Marbel. There, the Holy Mass is available every weekend in what appears to be a garage. In the Philippines, the priest always carries a microphone so that the neighbors and passersby can also follow the events of Holy Mass via an electric loudspeaker.
After two afternoon Masses accompanied by confessions, they served us a supper of roast chicken and rice. This revealed something to us, and not for the last time. Asians love their rice every bit as much as the Swabians adore their Spätzle or the Swiss their chocolate.
The following morning, the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost was commemorated by a sung High Mass and a sermon in English. Around 70 faithful attended. Our driver then brought us to the second chapel, 45 minutes by car, and located on a heavily-frequented street in the center of General Santos.
During the High Mass, it was stiflingly hot. The face of the celebrant, Father Pfluger, was streaming with sweat. So was mine in the confessional. This was because the ceiling fans didn’t want to work properly. We first joined the faithful for another hearty meal and, following it, we journeyed for three hours to the priory in Davao.
Along the way, we again experienced the usual Philippine traffic. We spent nearly the entire route traveling along the shoulder of the road near more huts. One wonders how the building permits were ever obtained.
Meanwhile, it was raining heavily and fog arose—pacing up and down, as we often see in the Swiss Alps.
Upon our arrival in Davao, Fr. Niklaus Pfluger successfully offered his third Sunday Mass. The chapel and priory there are constructed of bamboo poles and wickerwork. The interior of the chapel shines bright blue—the color of the plastic tarp that serves as a roof. They are presently building a new chapel—with stones.
Most Filipinos live in flimsy bamboo huts. The means of building one is thus: four fat bamboo poles are set up as corner posts, a set of crossbars are erected for the walls and roof, and one meter of earth is used to elevate the floor. The walls are then covered with bamboo wickerwork, the roof is covered with sheet metal, and the house is finished. Few can afford window frames or panes, as many empty window holes attest. Sanitary arrangements are always found to the rear of the house.
Electricity is carried everywhere. We often saw electric poles with a dozen slender cables attached to a fat conductor. This is so that people, sadly, are not deprived of television.
It must be said, however, that in such a climate both central heating and insulation are both unnecessary. There are also “normal” stone houses, but many people cannot afford them.
When I saw these bamboo huts for the first time, they were so small and primitive that I thought them to be garden sheds. But, no: entire families live within them. In the Philippines, families are not just one or two kids, but often five, six, or seven. Tragically, this will change due to the destructive new abortion law. I was surprised and astonished, however, by how many millions of people came out in protest against it.
Now, a word about the traffic—about which the proverb “other lands, other ways” is especially valid.
All drivers in the Philippines must prevail against heavy traffic. En route, one sees a colorful array of vehicles: cars, Jeepneys, tricycles, bicycles, and, in the countryside, oxcarts.
First of all, I shall describe the Jeepney. Richly varnished with chrome, Jeepneys can transport up to 30 people. They stop wherever anyone wishes to get on or off—which makes them superior to the local army of tricycles.
Homemade from a motorbike and a sidecar, a Jeepney would never pass a security inspection. They are very efficient, however. Once, we counted ten people riding upon a single one. These vehicles are major polluters. Why any pedestrian continues to walk publicly without a face mask remains to be seen.
There are many people in Switzerland who are also reckless drivers. But in the Philippines, all driving practices are legal. When there is not an opening, as is often the case in the cities, people switch lanes and drive against oncoming traffic. The lanes widen, which creates serious dangers.
When you find an opening, whether to the right or left lanes, the only determining factor is feasibility. At times, very little seems unfeasible.
Shockingly, deviators have the right of way. When they drive against the lane, oncoming traffic merely honk their horns before pulling away and stopping. Lights are never used, except in Manila. In all fairness, I must say that those who use the road drive with their eyes open and surprisingly few accidents take place.
Back to Davao
We shall now return to the priory in Davao. Father Prior Timothy Pfeiffer, an American, and Father Hora, a Filipino, live there.
After supper with our assembled colleagues, we spent another stifling night there. We lay sweating in our beds, slept very little, and endured the night’s accelerating heat. We arose to a very sleepy morning. I hope that our colleagues in Asia endure it better than we. I suppose that, with time, their bodies grow more accustomed to the climate.
The next day had to be one of recuperation from our program. In Switzerland, we would have spent such a day in the mountains. In the Philippines, we spent in on the seashore.
We journeyed to a nearby island on a small boat and searched for a deserted section of the beach. With so many beaches, this was not at all difficult. We enjoyed the sun, the turquoise sea, and the coral. I thought to myself, “Let us continue to live like this.”
But such days are a rare exception. Most days for our priests in Asia are very hard and filled with heavy, heavy work in a sweat-inducing climate. On the next day, my fortieth birthday, we again bid farewell to the priory.
At 12:40 a.m. we traveled by airplane to Iloilo. A brother dressed in a white cassock and a black cincture picked us up from the airstrip. In Asia, all of the clergy wear white cassocks due to the tropical climate.
We traveled over an uneven road to the St. Bernard’s Brothers’ Novitiate, located in a relatively idyllic setting between rice paddies. I say, “relatively idyllic,” because the Novitiate was attacked a year ago and one of the brothers was wounded by a shotgun.
In this pastoral setting live Fr. Coenraad Daniels, a South African of Dutch descent, Father Cacho, a Filipino, and Father Devasahayam, an East Indian. There are also two brothers and six postulants. They make a very beautiful community.
As we arrived, the Master of Novices was sitting on a tractor and leading the excavation of their new church’s foundations. Thus the Master gave us all a very good example. He tells us, “Giving orders? Bruises are a better example!” Currently, the Novitiate’s chapel is located in a garage. Now is the time to build a proper church for the Brothers’ Novitiate.
Morning classes for the aspiring brothers are far more extensive than what is taught elsewhere. They are not only taught how to cook and how to look after the chapel and sacristy. In the Philippines, the aspiring brothers are taught rice-cultivation, as well as tending to cattle, pigs, and chickens. Coconut palms and banana trees are also growing there. In all, this forms a place well suited to this apostolate.
Ten minutes’ drive from the city of Iloilo is a large, Spanish-style cathedral. Inside, like almost everywhere else in the Philippines, there were many people at prayer.
Beside the cathedral, a breathtaking poster had been erected to advertise religious vocations. It read, “Nobody is Born a Priest or a Nun. Pray. Encourage. Support… Vocations to the Priesthood and the Religious Life.”
This is very plausible in the Philippines. The Society has only one church in this city, and it is indeed a beautiful one. Adjacent to it, we found the home of the Sisters of the Society.
That night, the whole community sat together to receive us. The high point of the evening was when Father Daniels brought out and played his accordion. What sights have we not seen in the Philippines?
The following morning, they showed us the building site. We saw how the excavators had opened a foundation pit. A troop of workers were bending iron supports for the church and binding them together with cables. In the evening, Father Pfluger spoke to the priests.
The next day shortly before noon, the brother returned us to the airstrip. There, we again went through baggage and passport control, before waiting for the pilot. Then, we traveled to the capital city of Manila.
Manila is immensely large with more than 11 million people living there. Fathers Morgan and Couture first established the Society here in 1990. Our Manila Priory has around 300 faithful, its own school since 2008, a Legion of Mary chapter, and a large and very beautiful church, which our Superior General, Bishop Fellay, consecrated in 1995.
On the evening of our arrival, a night of reparation was being held because of the proposed bill which would legalize abortion and impose the evil and destructive Enlightenment. That night, I prayed my first rosary in English. I hoped that both Our Lady and my fellow supplicants understood the words I was saying.
The following day began at 6:30 with the morning Divine Office for priests. It was immediately followed by a Low Mass before the Spanish Baroque-style altar. After breakfast, the prior, Father Onoda from Japan, showed us the school-building—or more accurately, the school-buildings. The school is situated inside numerous interlocking structures, as is common in the Philippines.
The headmaster of the school is Father Fortin from the United States. The pupils all come from the surrounding area and a majority of them return home at night. On the weekends, so do the others. There has been a grade-school there since 2008 and a high school since 2010.
On Sundays, the schedule is entirely the same as in the rest of the Catholic world: morning prayers followed by Low Mass and then a sung High Mass. Afterwards, Father Pfluger delivered a lecture inside the church on the subject of “The Society of Saint Pius X and Rome.”
During the afternoon, I was permitted to attend a meeting with the Legion of Mary. Again I witnessed the great zeal of the apostolic laity. The following morning, we rose at 4:00. We then departed the megacity of Manila and, after a three and a half hour flight, we arrived in Singapore.
The country of Singapore is also an island nation. It consists of a little over 440 square miles and has 5.3 million inhabitants. In a very short time, Singapore has changed from an underdeveloped country into an industrial powerhouse. They are now the third richest nation in the world.
One of the reasons is that the Port of Singapore is along the seaway which connects China and Japan with Europe. It is therefore one of the world’s most important places for loading and unloading cargo containers.
Singapore also possesses a priory, which also serves as Headquarters for the Society’s District of Asia. The priory is located in a housing row, squeezed between several other residences. Although the office is relatively large, the priory’s chapel and rooms are both small, but very beautiful.
Inside the chapel, both the altar and communion rail are carved from genuine marble, not from Italy, but rather from China. The pews are constructed of a reddish colored tropical wood and look very majestic. Although daylight punctually illumines the office and sacristy, it never reaches the chapel interior.
The District Headquarters made a very strong impression upon me. There is no dreaming there, only hard labor, journey preparations, stop-overs and, above all, sweating. Considering that Singapore averages 80% humidity every month, in both summer and winter, I found the climate there so horrible that it was painful to breathe.
There priests live in the priory when they are not traveling. They include the District Superior, Fr. Daniel Couture, the District Manager, Fr. François Laisney, and Fr. Emerson Salvador, who has authority over the chapel in Sri Lanka.
In the evenings, these priests also look after the chapel in Kuala Lumpur. Rather than drive, they must fly. Kuala Lumpur is, after all, about 220 miles away from Singapore. Around 50 faithful attend the priory in Singapore. About 15 of them were present for the evening Mass and subsequent lecture.
In Singapore, I realized how very well the traditional laity have spread their faith throughout the Asian continent. The results could be seen everywhere: in their frank sincerity, modest attire, and deep piety.
Our evening meal in Singapore was not one which I shall soon forget. It naturally included a dessert called durian—a large and prickly fruit which somewhat resembles a pineapple. I found the durian’s yellow pulp to be barely edible, although many will argue this point. Of all the other foods set before us, the durian’s taste stood out before everything else.
The durian’s odor is so intense that it is illegal to carry it while riding public transportation. This fruit is so well loved, however, that this law is never enforced. We would not be staying in Singapore much longer, but would never desire to bring the durian fruit on our journey!
The next day, we traveled once again to the airport with Father Couture. Our destination was Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was formerly called—the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.
When we arrived, we were picked up at the airport by Fr. Emerson Salvador in an old Nissan Transporter. After a 20-minute drive, he brought us to the Society “chapel” in Negombe. I typed quotation marks around chapel because the chapel is furnished only with walls, and the sanctuary is barely covered by the roof. As it is always so hot, there are no screens, doors, or windows.
One year before, the Society had a school and a priory here. The school no longer exists and, instead of a priory, there is only a chapel without any resident priests. Father Salvador visits every second weekend. I treasure the zeal of the 30 faithful there. When Father Salvador is absent, one faithful soul looks after both the house and the chapel.
The next morning, we heard a surprise announcement—we were to travel inland and tour a tea plantation. After Holy Mass followed by breakfast and black tea, we traveled on a small bus past many villages and tall mountains. Tea-plants thrive at high elevations, and we found that the plantation is located on Mount Bogowantalwa, almost 4,000 feet up. A welcome change awaited us there from the stifling climate—a comforting coolness for which Brother Donkey gave thanks.
Before our tour of the Mackwoods Tea Plantation, we were served fresh black tea with milk and sugar. It was delightful! We then joined a tour of the production room. We were shown the process of tea production—step by step. It takes six stages and only one day—from the picking of the tea leaves to the packaging of the finished tea for shipping. Altogether, 1,000 employees work on this tea plantation.
The following day, we visited the seminary of the White Fathers in Kandy. Alas, the seminarians were not at home. Only a single robust and venerable missionary was present. After their ordination to the priesthood, these missionaries must ask themselves, “Heat or cold?” They can express their wishes, either for the Tropics or for the Far North, i.e. Canada or Alaska. The Fathers in Sri Lanka have chosen heat.
We returned to Negombe for evening Mass. As he had done elsewhere, Father Pfluger delivered another lecture to the faithful. The Catholic Faith is not as widespread in Sri Lanka as in the Philippines. I was deeply grieved by the many statues of the Buddha that stand along the roads. I was reminded of the many wayside crosses and shrines in Germany. In Sri Lanka, however, they are depictions of a false god. I often recalled the words of Our Savior: “The harvest indeed is great, but the laborers are few” (St. Luke 10:2).
Sri Lanka needs many, many missionaries! Let us wholeheartedly pray the post-Rosary prayers for this intention: “O Lord, grant us priests! O Lord, grant us many holy priests! O Lord, grant us many holy religious vocations!”
On a previous morning, Father Couture had flown back to Singapore by himself. We flew on to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. There, we were picked up by Mr. and Mrs. Ho. Again we encountered active laity. They had already placed an apartment at our disposal. We certainly have a very small chapel in this city, but no priory. Father Laisney looks after this community of 45 faithful from Singapore.
Near Kuala Lumpur lies Malaga. In a local church, which is now in ruins, the Blessed Sacrament is brought once a month. This location is a very popular site for tourists to visit. Therefore, this kind married couple brought us there as well.
In the harbor, we were able to tour an old and historic Spanish ship which has been converted into a museum. It is very large, but is a mere nutshell compared with the ships traversing the ocean today. In those days, it was an adventure to visit Malaysia and far from a safe one.
The following day was a Sunday. Just as in Switzerland, there was a morning High Mass and a sermon. Only the hymns were in English. That evening, we were shown the “Twin Towers,” two colossal skyscrapers made of glass and steel.
For the last year, a young woman from the chapel in Kuala Lumpur has been attending the high school in Schönenberg, Germany. So small is the world of Catholic Tradition!
Kuala Lumpur was the last stop on our long journey. On November 12, 2012, we returned to Zürich via Amsterdam. After 19 days, I returned to my duties in the Canton of St. Gallen.
For me, this had been a deeply fascinating journey. I had become acquainted with many of my colleagues and scores of heroic traditional faithful.
At this stage, I must not neglect to extend my deepest thanks to Fr. Niklaus Pfluger for this special experience. Over the course of 28,000 miles, I became truly aware of how the Society is spread throughout the earth.
The tree of Tradition, which was planted by our esteemed and just as often reviled founder Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, continues to spread its branches over the entire globe. To witness this gave me new strength. It also revealed the honor due to those who labor on in this noble task.