In 2012, while I was working in a parish among the aboriginal people called Atayal in the mountains of Taiwan, we organized a pilgrimage to the northern Philippines (where I am originally from) as part of the celebration of the parish’s 50th foundation anniversary. Forty parishioners joined the pilgrimage, and we went to visit popular tourist and religious spots in that part of the country for five days. There was so much excitement among the parishioners about this trip. Most of them have never left their country; all of them only speak Atayal and/or Mandarin. A lot of work had gone into organizing this trip, hoping that the parishioners would enjoy and feel re-energized as Catholics when they returned to Taiwan.
We arrived in Manila, and then rode the bus going north. We visited churches, shrines and other beautiful tourist spots. However, when the pilgrimage ended I learned that the highlight of the trip was not praying at the Shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan or at the Shrine of Our Lady of Namacpacan in La Union, or venerating the relic of the True Cross at Monasterio de Tarlac. It was not swimming in the beaches of La Union nor was it visiting the heritage city of Vigan in Ilocos Sur. The highlight was not celebrating Mass in Malate Church in Manila or enjoying the views of Baguio City. It turned out that the highlight of the trip was their visit to my parents.
On the second night of the pilgrimage, my parents hosted dinner for the parishioners in our family house in La Union. It was a simple dinner that ended with the parishioners giving gifts of handwoven Atayal clothes to my parents. When we were about to leave, the women parishioners told me that I could spend the night at home so I can have time with my mother, and we would just meet at our next destination the following day. I just smiled at them, and then they all went to the bus. I told the bus driver to wait for me as I said goodbye to my parents and my relatives who also joined in the dinner.
When I stepped onto that bus that night, the women parishioners were all surprised that I was there. They thought I was spending the night at home with my parents. “Father, why are you here?” they asked. I answered, “Because I am with you. I can’t leave you.” I thought what I said was just an unremarkable statement. I did not realize how much the mothers were touched by what I said until the fourth day of the pilgrimage.
We had arranged that the morning of the fourth day of the pilgrimage would be spent having the parishioners reflect on their experiences while we were at the Jesuit Retreat House in Baguio City. They were divided into small groups and each one shared what gave them the deepest impression during the pilgrimage. Practically all the mothers shared that learning how much sacrifice my mother makes because her son, who is a missionary priest, cannot spend more time with her. Instead her son is with other mothers like them. For the mothers who joined that pilgrimage, it made them very emotional to think how hard it is for a mother to let go of her own child, to not being able to take care of her own child.
Since that day, the parishioners became even more caring and loving to us, the Columban missionaries who minister in the parish. Vida Hequilan, the Columban lay missionary who works among the mothers in the parish, overheard one of the mothers during a visit say, “The missionaries’ own mothers cannot take care of them; we are their mothers here, so we should take good care of them.” My time among the Atayals really made me feel loved and taken care of. They tried their best to make sure that I received the love and care that my mother could not give me because I was away from her. Everywhere I went in the parish, I was always warmly welcomed into their homes. They invited me to join their families to eat and drink with them. They brought me produce from their own farms, and made sure that I joined them in important family celebrations.
When I left the parish a year later, many of the mothers in the parish prepared gifts to send to my mother. Vinai, the parish secretary and social worker, wrote me a message and part of it said, “You came to the mountains, and you brought comfort to the hearts of a lot of mothers. You made them feel the joy of having a son in their midst. However, your mom will have to wait for a long time before she can even be with you. For your mom, this must be difficult but she still willingly agreed to make that sacrifice. Please give our thanks to her; extend to her the gratitude of the mothers here. You have brought us great joy and a lot of laughter.”
My mother sent a reply saying, “I am so grateful to all of you for giving Andrei the motherly love I cannot give while he is away from home. I surely feel and understand that he has reciprocated that love to you all. It really takes a lot of sacrifice to be away from your loved ones, but we mothers must accept it wholeheartedly. He is all praises for everything you’ve done for him. Thank you very much for taking good care of my son. I felt that you really love him when you visited us here. Thank you for all the gifts you gave us. I am hoping you’ll do the same to all the missionaries who work there.”
I may have been away from my own mother, but I had the Atayal mothers who loved me, treated me with kindness and hospitality, and made me feel like I was their own son. God had gifted me with them. I felt God’s compassion through them, and that had inspired me to do whatever I could to become God’s presence in their lives, too.