Asia and the Philippines
The Angelus: Father Couture, you have been the superior of the Asian district for 18 years. Could you tell us about the origin of the SSPX presence in Asia?
Fr. Couture: The whole apostolate in the Philippines is a grace of the episcopal consecrations in 1988. As a result of the worldwide negative publicity around this historical event, Attorney Teodoro Dominguez wrote to Archbishop Lefebvre from Manila. He is a lawyer in this country who is famous for having never lost a case. In July 1988, he read what the newspapers had to say about the so-called schismatic act of the Archbishop. He read them with the attention of a lawyer and said: “Something is wrong here. Lefebvre is right.” And so he wrote to the Archbishop, and in August 1988 Father Laroche came for a first visit.
The Angelus: After this interesting start, what happened next?
Fr. Couture: From 1988 to 1992, the priests from Australia-New Zealand came monthly to Asia, alternating one month between Hong Kong, Manila, and Korea; and the next month, it was Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka. Hong Kong always had the lion’s share because St. Joseph was living in Hong Kong! You may say that the Asian-Australian district was the greatest district ever in the SSPX, stretching from from Perth to Tokyo.
The Angelus: But these intermittent visits could not last?
Fr. Couture: No! In fact, in 1992, the autonomous house of the Philippines was opened by Fr. Paul Morgan and Fr. Stephen Abraham. In the following years, priests, among whom were Father Rostand and Father Onoda, joined the founding fathers. The priory of Sri Lanka was opened in 1995, and I came on the scene in 1996 as the first superior of the newly-erected District of Asia, comprising the autonomous houses of India and of the Philippines. It consisted of ten priests servicing three priories: Palayamkottai in India, Manila in the Philippines and that of Sri Lanka.
The Angelus: And after 18 years, how does it compare to the beginning?
Fr. Couture: Eighteen years later, we have now five priories. We closed Sri Lanka and opened Singapore, which was too close, and we opened the pre-seminary and Brothers’ novitiate in Iloilo (central Philippines). The latest priory opened in Davao in the Southern Philippines. These five priories are manned by 15 priests. But they spread themselves very thin as we have more missions to serve in India and Jakarta, but especially in the Philippines: there, from an initial four Mass centers, we have grown up to about twenty.
The Angelus: What was the first goal of the SSPX in establishing houses in Asia? Was it to respond to the interest of people in tradition, vocations, the number of souls to save?
Fr. Couture: In Manila, it was clearly vocations. The Society purchased right from the start a piece of land and built a big house which was meant to be a pre-seminary. Indeed, by 1998, it hosted seven priests and seven pre-seminarians. That was also the year when we bought a second property in Iloilo and moved the pre-seminary there, in that rice farm. After Iloilo, the vocations were sent to Goulburn, Australia, to pursue seminary training, and we are glad that seven Filipino priests have persevered in their vocations and apostolic duties.
The Angelus: Didn’t you also start a house for feminine vocations?
Fr. Couture: The House of Bethany started in 1997. Two sisters had left their Novus Ordo convent, and we decided to open a house for them which grew into what became the House of Bethany. Seventeen years later, close to 50 ladies have tried their vocations, half of whom have reached their goal. Presently, the Oblates of the SSPX have taken over the house, which has moved to Iloilo, and a few months ago two of the five Oblates were sent to Manila to help at the priory.
The Angelus: What about the polemics on the public level?
Fr. Couture: Here is an interesting one: Back in 1998, one day on the 6 p.m. TV News, Cardinal Sin, who had condemned us publicly, issued a written statement against divorce, which was then being pushed by the government. However, the picture shown over his voice was that of our church of Our Lady of Victories, which has a very beautiful wood-carved, gilt colonial altar. God really has a sense of humor!
About the same time, we were hoping the President would come and do the consecration of the Philippines to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The first lady, Mrs. Estrada, indeed came to consecrate the office of the First Lady. We had an ongoing crusade of these consecrations, and we got about 4 governors, a few mayors of large cities, and dozens of Barangay Captains to make the consecration to the Immaculate Heart. It certainly brought many blessings: Attorney Dominguez told me that the number of crimes in Quezon City (pop. 2.6 million) really dropped in the months after its mayor came to do the consecration.
With Father Onoda as prior, our name got some public attention during the pro-life battle. He met with leaders, bishops and priests, invited leaders to give conferences at our church. One lady, formerly in a high position in the ministry of health, had a complete conversion to the faith while reading about side effects of the pill. Father Onoda established some contacts with the former mayor of Manila and other VIPs in the political and legal milieu in the course of this battle.
The Angelus: How does the apostolate differ from first world countries?
Fr. Couture: Many in the Philippines are simple, with little education, and as a result, superficial in the knowledge of their faith. Poverty is a real issue. Some faithful cannot even afford a Jeepney ride to go to church. Regularly, for instance, for the annual pilgrimage to Bohol (800 pilgrims in 2014), we had to finance half the trip for these people, which included ferry trips besides the regular bus rides.
The joy of being there also comes from the ease we have to go and do almost anything! For instance, the cassock is worth a diplomatic passport. Thus, I said Mass once on a feast of Christ the King in the chapel of the parliament building in Malacañan.
The Angelus: What about your medical work? It is known internationally.
Fr. Couture: Since 2007, we have yearly hosted a medical mission, the ninth one having just taken place this past February. We call on volunteers, and about a dozen doctors come to give a hand. They cannot believe how free we are. They work with Filipino doctors who oversee the operations, and our criteria for helpers are quite demanding. The town authorities always welcome us with open arms because we offer so much to the people. The last couple of years, our team has grown to about 100 volunteers and saw over 3,000-4,000 patients in a week. For our own faithful, such a medical mission is truly a practical spiritual retreat with Mass and a theme, and our people are so receptive. Once the mission is over, we have a medical staff on hand all year long because we often have to follow up on cases to provide them with medications, tests, and surgery. France, the United States and Canada offer a big help in all this.
Last year, in Tacloban after the super-typhoon destroyed the town, we added a construction team of about 30, with Australians and Americans giving a hand to our Filipinos, to rebuild our chapel and five houses within the record time of ten days. Obviously, they were not palaces but it was a feat!
The Angelus: For what I can see, your activities in the Philippines have been a steady success, with pilgrimages, retreats, medical mission.
Fr. Couture: We also have one priest in the South, Fr. Timothy Pfeiffer, who has launched a campaign of training catechists. The way he presents it is very American. It is 60/40: 60 hours’ training, and 40 hours’ practice before you become a certified catechist to work at evangelizing your mission village. This zealous priest with his heavy Kentucky accent now speaks Visaya and, within one year, he has gathered about 70 catechists.
Here is how it works in his own words:
“Get on the MAC Program (adult catechism)! What makes it work is the hands-on contact with the catechists. My getting to them and going over together with them the Baltimore Catechism No. 2, adding Sacred Scripture and a little apologetics with a word or two about method, goes a long way to inspiring them with a little confidence and to giving them the necessary push to get to work. The practical element of the highest importance is that they keep a notebook, partly a summary of what they have taught and partly a record of attendance. It is my review of this that glues it all together.
“What I try to do in the mission environment is one of two things: Either (A) to spend 4 weeks there and have catechist training every evening for 1½ to 2 hours, to reach 60 hours (with Mass, they are there for 3 hours, so 3 x 5 x 4 = 60 hours). Or (B) to spend a long series of weekends, Friday night to Saturday afternoon, teaching the catechists for approx. 4-6 hours, until we get to about 60 hours.”
The Angelus: Getting back to the District house and work, did you experience particular difficulties proper to Asia?
Fr. Couture: The weather can affect the health of the priests; not everyone can take the constant damp heat which can provoke ongoing allergies, cramps, and so on. There are also visa issues in entering many Asian countries.
And then there are the long travels across all these Asian countries from the United Arab Emirates to Japan, via China, Korea, and the countries in between! Recently Father Stehlin has even reopened the mission in Vietnam.
The Angelus: What were your greatest sorrow and your greatest joy?
Fr. Couture: It is always delicate to speak of a superior’s sorrows, but since you ask, the loss of even a single priest is always the most painful, for whatever reason it happens. It is obviously worse when you see your former fellow priests going on destroying what they themselves had so generously built up earlier on.
As for the joys, on the other side, I had a really great team of missionaries, that is for sure! I do miss the people, too, who were always very enthusiastic, the three communities of Sisters, the Indian orphanage, the Legion of Mary, the pilgrimages—all these activities helping souls run on the way of Heaven!
The Angelus: We may perhaps finish this interview with that bishop who turned traditional?
Fr. Couture: Yes, we had contact for a few years with Bishop Manat of Thailand. He even restarted saying the Traditional Mass on occasion, but he got entangled in some issues and did not carry on. He passed away about three years ago. On the other hand, the great success story is that of Bishop Lazo, who had retired in 1993. A few faithful brought him a few books such as those of Michael Davies, but also AA 1025 and Open Letter to Confused Catholics. He came back two years later, saying: “Archbishop Lefebvre is right, and I was wrong for 26 years. Teach me how to say Mass!” What was stunning for us was that wonderful humility of a septuagenarian bishop. Hearing of this, the Cardinal’s secretary came to see him and explained that if he stayed connected with the SSPX, he could not be buried in his cathedral. He replied with his straight language: “They can always bury me in my backyard. As long as I make it to Heaven, that is all I care for!” Bishop Fellay came to perform the funeral and to bury him in our church of Our Lady of Victories.