Just a few days ago, I heard about the death of a brother, a Dominican priest, Fr. Joachim Li, OP who on June 27th, died at the young age of 32. While enjoying his day off at the seaside in Rome, he lost his life successfully rescuing and saving two swimmers from drowning. Fr. Joachim’s heroic death reminded me of the story of his patron saint, St. Joachim Royo, OP, a Dominican missionary martyr in China. As Fr. Joachim gave up his life to save the two swimmers, St. Joachim gave up his life to save the souls of many.
St. Joachim Royo, OP was born around 1691 in Spain. In 1708, he joined the Dominican Order in Valencia. Filled with the zeal to preach the Gospel to the end of the world, he arrived in Manila in 1713. There he finished his studies and was ordained as a priest. St. Joachim arrived in China in the spring of 1715. In the missionary territories of southeastern China, he not only baptized many, but he formed the newly baptized converts into Dominican tertiaries and lay catechists. During the persecution of the early Qing Dynasty, he went into hiding in the wilderness and caves. Only in the cover of the night, was he able to administer sacraments for the faithful. While in prison, he continued his penitential practices, even going as far as asking the prison guards to whiplash him! He finally gave the ultimate witness of faith in Fujian, China in 1748. St. Joachim’s heroic life is just one story out of those of the 108 martyrs in China (33 of which were missionaries), whom we commemorate on July 9.
Even now, there are countless missionaries making all kinds of sacrifices, even risking their lives, so that people may hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How can you help? First of all, you can pray for them. As St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote in 1896, to Fr. Adolphe Roulland, MEP, who was about to be sent to Sichuan, China,
“Distance can never separate our souls, even death will only make our union closer. If I go to Heaven soon, I shall ask Jesus’ permission to visit you in Sichuan, and we shall continue our apostolate together. Meanwhile I shall always be united to you by prayer…”
If you hear the Lord’s call to be a missionary yourself and go to Asia, please do not hesitate to contact us!
Conversion and reversion stories never fail to fascinate. Stories of how and why a person freely decides to embrace the Catholic Faith, or return to the Catholic Faith of his or her childhood after having freely rejected it, are intriguing. Such stories edify Catholics in their Faith, giving them more reasons to love it. For open-minded non-Catholic readers searching for truth, these stories open up more avenues for the search.
Rizal Through a Glass Darkly by Fr. Javier de Pedro tells a unique reversion story. Its subject matter is not a canonized saint or a famous apologist, but Dr. Jose Rizal, the Philippine national hero whose writings played a major role in the Philippine struggle for independence from Spain during the 1890s.
Every Filipino learns in school about Rizal’s life and writings. Inevitably, we learn that at one point in his life, he studied in Europe, got exposed to Enlightenment philosophies, became a Freemason, wrote about the abuses committed by the Spanish friars in the Philippines, and was shot by a firing squad on accusations of treason against the Spanish government. His novels, which we also study as part of the basic education curriculum in the Philippines, present the Catholic Church in an unflattering light: lustful, avaricious, cruel, and power-hungry friars; caricatured depictions of superstitious piety of ordinary folk. Most of the heroes of the novels are free-thinkers; in one chapter of the first novel, one of them scoffs at the Catholic doctrine on purgatory and indulgences.
We also learn that before he was executed, Rizal signed a written retraction of his anti-Catholic writings, but historians debate his sincerity in signing it. Rizal’s admirers seem to think that retracting his anti-Catholic writings would reduce his greatness, and surmise that he signed the retraction only out of convenience – an odd position to take about someone whom one is presenting as a hero worthy of emulation (and which, for me, does not make sense because the retraction did not save Rizal from the firing squad).
However, it is documented that before he was shot, Rizal went to sacramental confession four times and contracted a sacramental marriage with Josephine Bracken with whom he had previously been cohabiting. In one of his last recorded conversations before he was shot, he serenely asked the priest accompanying him if he would go to Heaven on the same day if he gained a plenary indulgence.
Rizal Through a Glass Darkly by Fr. Javier de Pedro traces Rizal’s spiritual journey from the piety of his childhood, through his estrangement from the Catholic Faith and his immersion in Enlightenment thought, to his return to the Faith of his childhood before he died.
The author, Fr. Javier de Pedro, is a Spanish priest who fell in love with the Philippines, having lived and ministered here for many years. He has doctorates in Industrial Engineering and Canon law and, according to those who know him, is a Renaissance man like Rizal himself. Thus, he brings to the book a valuable perspective: that of a Spaniard who knows and loves the Philippines and Rizal a lot, who has done extensive research about his subject matter, and who, as an experienced priest in the confessional, frequently encounters the tension between sin and grace in souls.
Indeed, the book is detailed, well-researched, and reveals the author’s thorough familiarity with Rizal’s writings, which the author refers to as “mirrors” of Rizal’s soul.
The book presents not only the life and thoughts of Rizal, but also his historical context, including the intellectual trends in fashion in the Europe where Rizal developed his ideas. Thus, the book is valuable not only as a source of spiritual edification, but also as a work of history. It avoids the common pitfalls of isolating Rizal from the historical context in which he lived, and of giving the impression that Rizal’s thoughts remained static and did not develop throughout his life.
The pastor’s perspective is another valuable element of the book. The author shares his insights and analysis on what contributed to Rizal’s estrangement from the Catholic Faith as well as what helped him find his way back to it. Thus, the book also serves as a cautionary tale on what may lead a soul away from the Faith, as well as a guide on how to help oneself and others regain the Faith when it has been lost.
I appreciate the author’s affection for Rizal even as the author points out Rizal’s missteps. In the Prologue, the author refers to Rizal as someone “for whose soul I am now raising a prayer, even if I am convinced that he received long ago the welcome of the Father to the house of Heaven.” The author understands Rizal and acknowledges Rizal’s legitimate grievances against certain clergymen that arose from Rizal’s real experiences. The author is careful to base his insights on Rizal’s spiritual journey on verifiable facts and texts, and emphasizes that in the end, Rizal’s spiritual journey is an mysterious interplay between his freedom and God’s grace.
The book is a compelling read. I especially like the narration of the last days of Rizal, where the author describes recounts details such as the parallel Christmas celebrations of Rizal’s family and the Spanish guards of the prison where Rizal was incarcerated (Rizal was executed on December 30, 1896). That chapter is full of drama and humanity.
Unfortunately, the book is not widely available. As of now, the only place I know where it could be bought is the bookstore of the University of Asia and the Pacific here in the Philippines (inquiries may be made here). In fact, one reason I reviewed Rizal Through a Glass Darkly was to change this by promoting interest in the book.
Indeed, the story in Rizal through a Glass Darkly deserves to be more widely known. It is of particular interest to Filipinos, but it is of interest, too, to everyone else. It is a touching story of a talented man with great ideals and who is credited for a lot of important things, who was at the same time a flawed human being who committed grave errors but eventually found redemption. Like every other conversion and reversion story, it is fascinating.
By now you probably have heard that a massive typhoon hit the Philippines last Friday. Named Haiyan (or Yolanda), the typhoon is reportedly the strongest ever recorded in history, with winds of 195 miles per hour and gusts up to 235 mph. Early reports coming out of the country say that as many as 10,000 people lost their lives. Countless more are reeling from the devastation in the storm’s deadly aftermath.
Although the rescue and recovery efforts are starting in earnest, the storm only compounds problems already existent in the Philippines. Just less than a month ago, the country suffered from a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Bohol. Additionally, the Filipino government recently has been trying to quell an Islamic-separatist uprising led by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in the southern part of the country, particularly affecting Zamboanga City in Mindanao.
Although we must stand in solidarity with any peoples affected by disaster and devastation, I think Catholics in particular should acutely respond to the needs of our Filipino brethren. As a predominantly Catholic country, the gift of that nation to the treasured heritage of the Church has been immeasurable.
Discovered in the 16th century by the explorer Ferdinand Magellan, the Spanish quickly claimed the region as their own. They named it Las Islas Filipinas (“The Philippine Islands”) in honor of King Philip II. Many of the native inhabitants adopted Catholicism and the islands soon became a hub of the evangelization in Asia — and it still remains so to this day. One of the first saints from that country, St. Lorenzo Ruiz, whose feast we celebrated on September 28th, captures the forbearing, yet passionate heart of that people for the Gospel of Christ:
For example, when persecutors asked him, “If we grant you life, will you renounce your faith?,” Lorenzo responded: “That I will never do, because I am a Christian, and I shall die for God, and for him I will give many thousands of lives if I had them. And so, do with me as you please.” Although the Filipino people suffered much tumult in the past few centuries, with the nation changing hands multiple times and occupied by various conquerors, they have continued to bless the Church with rich examples of family life, many priests and missionaries, sisters and brothers, and even a few canonized saints.
Therefore, as they are in their need again now, let the Church universal respond in kind. As St. Paul tells us, “If part [of the body of Christ] suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy” (1 Corinthians 12: 26). Furthermore, he writes in the Epistle to the Galatians, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ” (6:2).
Of course, sometimes when disaster strikes, and especially when it is on such a great magnitude, helping to make a difference seems impossible. We feel so powerless, do we not? But, through our faith, we know that this is not so. Blessed Mother Teresa tells us, while working amidst the unbearable poverty and seemingly limitless human needs in the slums of Calcutta, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, feed just one.” Everyone in the Church, in our own way, can do something. What, then, can these be? I offer two practical “beginning” steps.
First, in his Sunday Angelus, Pope Francis assured the Filipino people of his closeness to them. In a particular way, he asked everyone in the crowd of St. Peter’s to take a moment to pray for our brothers and sisters. Prayer: this is the first response. For the Christian, when faced with evil, suffering, death, and calamity, the beginning response must be prayer. It is that cry to the Cross, where we look to our God who is not a distant god, but at One who desires to “suffer with us and to be with us in our sufferings.”
Prayer is the unshakeable foundation of a peace, a consolation, and a hope that the world cannot give. Indeed, the bishops of the Philippines, when faced with the impending storm, called upon all the people and priests to pray. Archbishop Jose Palma, President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, reiterated this with a call today for a novena prayer and charity. For them, it was natural because “Filipinos seek God and take it as a part of life. They do not curse God; rather they ask help from God, and spiritual help from the Church.” What faith this is! How much this world can learn from a suffering people following a suffering God who still choose to pray.
Secondly, although we begin with prayer, we cannot end with prayer if it is within our power to do more. Our faith naturally must incarnate itself into concrete acts of charity. As St. James tells us, “I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works” (James 2:18). That is, our faith should be translated into real-world solidarity. It should express itself in love. Thus, Pope Francis also encouraged us to reach out to those affected with practical help. Although not everyone can be a relief-worker or join a humanitarian mission, what we can do is support organizations that do that type of work.
We know that money cannot ever replace the lives lost. It cannot make whole the anguish and suffering borne by the Filipino people. But it can help them in small ways to get their lives back together, to have a filling meal, a dry change of clothes, or to simply find warm shelter for the night. Although the saints never forgot, nor can we, that love and closeness are what people most yearn for, these can be some of the many ways that we show our love. In whatever way you are called to give of yourself, let us imitate St. Lorenzo and his companions. And although we, like him, may wish it so, we do not have thousands of lives to give to Christ; but we do have one and that is enough.
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