Fr Colin Apap gives seven thousand one hundred and seven (7,107) reasons why his eight-year stay in the Philippines makes a tapestry of life.

“What, are you still here? Don’t you know that you were supposed to leave for Manila an hour ago?” That was the beginning of a divine adventure by the God of Surprises!  A first YES to God who is Love – a YES that implies a long chain of other Yeses.

I never ever thought of going to the Philippines. Once I said YES to God to follow Him as a priest I was convinced that missionary work was part and parcel of my choice. Brazil was my dream. Like so many other seminarians of my time. Yet God of Surprises had other plans for me…

I was eating dinner with a group of friends at Scuola Internazionale di Formazione of the Opera di Maria in an old dilapidated Capuchins’ convent in Frascati, Italy. Frascati, for me, was not only famous for its wine. For us these were the first adventures as foreign students visiting Italy as part of our ‘cultural love’ for the Italian language (of course, everything paid by the University authorities).  I remember the first time we visited Frascati, a group of adventurous seminarians, our main concern was how to enjoy the delicacies of Frascati. I never thought that Frascati was to be the jumping plank to Manila!

I went to Frascati School for six months –  after I was ordained a priest. I had my own dreams for my future. Hoping they coincided with what I thought was God’s loving Plan for me (I did think that God, in my case, would need a little prodding).  My plans were to go to Oxford, read an MSc degree in Applied Social Sciences and then return to continue my assignment with Mgr Charles Vella of Cana Movement. All that had to change. I don’t know why, really. But I did believe that was God’s plan for me.

I postponed my dream to attend a six-month course in Frascati – which then became twelve months and then two years. There I learned, not so easily, to put God first in my life, even before my priesthood. I became aware that as a priest I could choose to do the things of God and not the God of things. Toni Weber, the Swiss director of the School, fascinated me. He talked to my heart and answered the deepest needs in my mind and heart. Therefore it was not a big deal to leave for a far-away-place, practically without notice, while you are eating spaghetti and Frascati wine! He presented me the tickets for Manila, the capital of the Philippines. I only asked one question: but where is Manila in Brazil?

It was January – the coldest season in the Philippines.  When I went out of the Cathay Pacific airlines, around eight o’clock in the evening, I thought I was going to chill. I felt the air outside reaching my feet then liquefy on my head – and I stopped breathing. It was the first impact with the ‘rainy season’ in Manila International Airport. I did not want to imagine what would it be like during the long hot summer months.

I did not sleep that night. The Italian friends that housed us had to come to my rescue during that first night. They encouraged me a lot: ‘if you continue like this better that you return to Europe’ as they administered, not the last sacraments, but a quarter of a pill they called “valium”.  The following day they took me to Tagaytay, where the weather was mild and the panorama included a lake with a volcano in it and a lake within the volcano. That gave me hope I could survive the climate.

The Philippine Divine adventure had many protagonists each contributing his or her character like an experienced hand weaving a tapestry – you could appreciate its worth when you look at the back of the textile to see the interlacing strands or strips of the material used. God works like this. Very often I could not understand the Yes I have to say … only after a long time that I begin to realize His unfolding Plan.

Without the support of a living community around me I would not have made it. With Fr Victor, whose mother Maria Agius, died recently, we tried to give each other support and a community with other priests, local and not, and a spirituality grounded on Christ’s last command – unity in diversity, inclusion, integration, love the person in front of you – these are notions lived not from textbooks but from life.

Not only the weather is difficult to accept but more so the Pilipino culture. I had to learn a new language, (Tagolog is the official language (28.1% of Filipinos are Tagalog, 13.1% Cebuano, 9% Ilocano, 7.6% Bisaya/Binisaya, 7.5% Hiligaynon, 6% Bikol, 3.4% Waray, and 25.3% as “others”). I had to learn new ways of doing things, new vision of life; I had to change my scale of values based on a European civilization, to face the “Filipino values” which were supposed to make me a Pilipino. But I think I have failed.

“Unless you eat ‘balut’ you are not a Filipino” – A balut or balot is a fertilized duck embryo that is boiled and eaten in the shell. It is commonly sold as street food. When I eat it I am supposed to become a real man, a real Filipino. I never succeeded.

As also I failed to grasp some aspects of Filipino religiosity. Indeed, they say, ‘the Philippines have been 500 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood’. It is the only catholic country in Asia. When John Paul II came to the Philippines he encouraged us to go beyond the “Santo Niño” cult.  Devotion to the Little Child is found throughout the Philippines and practically in every home. In an adult world little children are the beginning towards the Christian adulthood.

My impression of the Seminary formation throughout the archipelago is lacking – or shall we say their standards are very different from ours? Part of our work was to give retreats and follow vocations throughout the three main geographical divisions: LuzonVisayas, and Mindanao. Vocations seem to be thriving. Many congregations that are dying in Europe come to the Philippines to find their resurrection. In our Parish, Mary Immaculate Parish, Luzon, Las Pinas, Metro-Manila, near the Bamboo Organ Church run by Belgian priests, we had the joy of hosting one of these Italian congregations. Those were really good times as the first Parish Priest of the newly-formed parish. I met them also in Italy and was so happy to see many Filipinos populating their Roman convents.

When you go to your home and you find no food anymore because the numerous brothers and sisters arrive before you do, then it becomes a great opportunity to enter Houses of Religious Formation to follow a vocation – and also to find a meal, a chance to study, and also, hopefully, you meet The Lord.

Saturdays and Sundays were particularly taxing throughout the subdivisions, barangays. Reaching the new Parish’s catholic population was impossible. Mary Immaculate Parish prides around 50,000  parishioners – (I never even tried to count them). My successor, an Italian priest, don Pierino, transformed it into the “Nature Church”; now a well-known reference point. How could I forget? The celebration of 8 masses each (4 on Saturday and 4 on Sunday); mass marriages, with their children lovingly (and noisily) running around during the marriage rite of their parents; baptisms in large groups with parents eager to present them to the priest to hug them. The more the population grows the more priests have to learn to survive.  With a population of more than 97 million people, the Philippines are the seventh most populated Asian country. An additional 12 million Filipinos live overseas. As they do here in Malta the Filipino community is very well-tight together and their singing and smile are contagious. I miss those moments.

Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila spiraled The People Power Revolution, where sisters, priests, lay people; catholic fraternities wore the yellow colour as a protest movement to bring down the dictatorship of Marcos.   I understood that in certain realities to combat injustice the Church has to organize the people to stand up and be counted. The film “Mission” was always a concrete challenge to me. Marcos was removed by the power of the Church. Aquino, the Leader of the Opposition, was killed on the airplane at the very moment when he set foot outside the aircraft – in spite of a spate of journalists he brought with him to ensure safety.  Soldiers in the Parish told me about the well-planned assassination, the corruption, the political maneuverings, and the corrupt judges. The rest is history.

I am my relationships. Filipinos taught me what real friendship is, the “utang ng loob” (gratefulness to the extreme),  bigyan ng kahihiyan (a sense of shame that makes you aware of the sin around us). Such Filipino values I will continue to cherish in my mind and my heart.

One moment I will always remember is the moment when I received the news that my father, Tarcisio, collapsed near Sarria Church in Floriana. They asked me to leave the Philippines immediately otherwise I would not reach him alive. I took two days travelling to arrive at Malta International Airport. When I arrived the tears in my brother’s eyes told me what happened.

I do not remember days, I remember moments – moments of deep friendship, love and a sense of life that is worthy. When you are so happy, it is so easy to be a witness of the love of Jesus…and the story continues.