Thus started our acquaintance and friendship with Father Angelo Beda Ison, OFM, a talented Filipino priest in this ancient city of my catechism classes. Later after the scheduled tour, he guided us up a secret staircase leading to a rooftop of the monastery where he lived, with panoramic views. I could not help wondering how a Filipino, a Catholic priest at that, working and living in Israel could thrive in a country that defines itself as a Jewish state.
He gave us a private tour, and showed us views of Jerusalem unknown to regular tourists. Along the way, Father Angelo would greet residents and pilgrims, exchange hellos with them, chatting affably in their respective tongues. Inspired and impressed, we wanted to know more about him and his work.
We saw him again the following day and have been in touch since that time.
A Filipino polyglot in Jerusalem
A gift of tongues certainly helps one who tries to save souls in Jerusalem. Father Angelo, a Franciscan priest at St. Saviour’s Monastery in the old layered city of Jerusalem, is fortunate for this gift, thanks to God, and a healthy interest in other cultures and learning languages, according to him.
People like Father Angelo because he is interested in their lives, what they have to say and what he may offer them spiritually. He says, “I feel the hunger of people for the spiritual side of life; I know I can help them as a priest, a pilgrims’ guide and spiritual director.”
Father Angelo is fluent in German, French, Spanish, Italian and English and, of course, Pilipino. He is also conversant in Hebrew and Japanese, with a basic understanding of Latin, Greek, Bavarian, Yiddish and Portuguese.
He was sent on a two-year scholarship to the Friedrick Ebert Foundation in Germany where he learned German rather quickly. Here, he realized his love for languages. He then took private lessons in French, and later went to Paris to improve his knowledge. A Jewish friend invited him to Israel where he learned Hebrew while working in a kibbutz for one year. He next traveled to Spain to study Spanish. During this period, he met a Japanese family who asked for tutoring in German, Spanish and English. In return, he learned Japanese.
From herding ducklings
Born and raised in San Joaquin, Rizal, Angelo is the youngest among seven siblings raised by humble, hardworking parents. They were high school teachers in a Catholic college in Pasig. The family had some means, from farmland produce, rental properties, fishing ponds and a thriving duck farm. They were happy, and he had joyful recollections of helping with the ducks and running amidst all the yellow ducklings. He also remembered fishing along the “crystal-clear” Pasig River where he and his siblings caught the silvery ayungin and orange biya (native fish). They lived a very simple life with no family car, no TV and no concept of a vacation. Their modern conveniences consisted of a telephone and a radio.
He has fond recollections of his Catholic boyhood as an altar boy at the Immaculate Conception Church and singing the beautiful Gregorian chants during the Holy Mass. There was the Santa Marta fiesta in Pateros where a beautiful statue of the saint was placed on a boat with participants hurling suman (delicious sweet rice cakes) candies, fruits and sometimes balut (fertilized duck eggs) to the spectators along the banks of the narrow Pateros River. Villages danced to the rhythmic tunes played by the local music band. Everyone was welcome to each one another’s houses.
True to his parents’ dreams, he and the rest of the six children finished college. Angelo graduated with an accounting and auditing degree from San Beda College in Manila.
To herding souls
Although he grew up within the confines of the teachings and rites of the Catholic faith, he did not necessarily aspire to be a priest. Like most, he wanted freedom and financial independence by the age of 50, or so, he thought.
He first worked as an instructor at the Philippine Rural and Reconstruction Movement for the poor and disadvantaged. There, it was discovered that he was a particularly good communicator and teacher. He received various scholarships and sponsorships and was able to travel all over Europe and North America.
After realizing his dreams of seeing the world and achieving some material success, he decided that wealth was not enough to make him happy. He recounts a dream in which a Franciscan priest invited him inside a church with beautiful images of the Blessed Mother, and of angels and saints. From this, he was inspired to develop his spiritual side.
He assiduously studied the Bible and the lives of the saints and continued to pursue the nonmaterial path to happiness. In 1983, he traveled to Chicago where he became Brother Angelo of the Alexian Brothers Congregation. He eventually applied to the Franciscan Order in Washington, DC, and was accepted after three months as a postulant. He studied Italian and philosophy at the Franciscan monastery in the capital. He continued his studies in Egypt as a novice and at the International Franciscan Major Seminary in the Old City of Jerusalem near the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre from 1991-95. He graduated magna cum laude.
July 29, 1995 marked one of Father Angelo’s proudest achievements, the day of his ordination to the Franciscan Order in San Jose, California. Immediately after his ordination, he was appointed vice secretary of the province of the Custody of the Holy Land from 1995 to 2005. In 1997, Msgr. Michel Sabbah, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, appointed him as chaplain of the 40,000 Filipino immigrant workers in Israel and Palestine.
Kababayans in the Holy Land
Christmas time is usually an occasion for a good, festive gathering of the Filipino community in the Holy Land. Father Angelo is responsible for the pastoral work with the faithful, and every Christmas he celebrates the Eucharist for more than 1,700 Filipinos. He has also celebrated innumerable Christmas Masses in different languages at several churches in the Holy Land.
There are as many as two million Filipinos in the Middle East, and about 35,000 of them are in Israel alone. Many of them immigrate to Muslim countries, where for years they must give up publicly professing the Catholic faith.
Of those working in Israel, about 90 percent are women, according to the Philippine Embassy. Father Angelo, who has been living there since 1991, views loneliness and insecurity, especially among the Filipino mothers, as the most prevalent problem of Filipinos in Israel.
At the same time, however, Filipinos in the country help ensure that there are common activities centered around the church--social events like Christmas parties and basketball tournaments lessen the alienation they feel in a foreign culture. Filipinos have a relatively good milieu in Israel. Church services are available. There are two free weekly newspapers for Filipinos in both English and Tagalog and 17 social organizations have been established under the Federation of Filipino Communities in Israel. Lastly, a supportive Philippine Embassy in Tel Aviv takes an active role in the welfare of the community.
At Home in Jerusalem
Despite the tensions and volatility of the way of life there, Father Angelo feels very much at home in Jerusalem. He loves the rich cultural and racial diversity. He loves mingling with Jews and Arabs both Christian and Muslim.
As a priest, he is careful not to get involved in any kind of politics, religious or otherwise. In general, the Jews are tolerant of Christians, careful not to provoke differences and tend to emphasize “our common humanity.”
“Jerusalem fits my personality,” he says. “I love the solemn entries of pilgrims from all over the world, the daily afternoon processions, the liturgical services in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre and the majestic musical organ during the solemn High Mass. I feel blessed celebrating the Holy Mass and hearing confessions with pilgrims in different languages.”
Father Angelo confesses that after 18 years in Jerusalem, it was initially very difficult emotionally to leave, but “he trusted the Lord; that the best was yet to come.” One of his guiding principles as a Franciscan priest is “to bloom where God has planted me.”
Tel Aviv and Jaffa
In 2009, Father Angelo, with two priests and the sisters of St. Paul of Chartres, founded the Philippine Chaplaincy and Spiritual Center in Tel Aviv. He worked here as Chaplain for ten years while living in nearby Jaffa. Today, he says the Philippine Chaplaincy is flourishing in Tel Aviv and in other parts of Israel.
During weekends, at least 300 Filipinos attend Masses in Tagalog and English. The Indian community goes to Mass on Tuesday evenings. Catechism classes in Hebrew and English are offered to Filipino children. The Center’s success is helped by its close proximity to Tel Aviv’s central bus station.
The old city and port of Jaffa has a population of 267,000. It is also home to 15,000 Filipino workers, a majority of whom are women health care providers. Father Angelo moved to St. Anthony’s Church, as vice parish priest and pastoral care assistant in 2010. Concurrently, he served as chaplain of the Chaplaincy and Spiritual Center in Tel Aviv, a four-minute drive from the church. Recently, the Father Provincial granted his request to be a full time pilgrims’ spiritual director and guide in the Holy Land.
Life at St. Peter’s Catholic Church and Monastery in Jaffa
Last September 2013, Father Angelo was transferred to nearby St. Peter’s Church and Monastery, located in the highest point of Jaffa. He works with Fr. Carlos Santos, a Filipino, who is the guardian superior responsible for Filipinos and other foreigners. Together with other priests of different nationalities, they serve a varied congregation of Filipinos, Indians, Polish, Americans, Italians, French, South Americans, Ethiopians and Eritreans, converted Jews and other smaller ethnic groups.
During the recent horrific and seemingly never-ending war between Hamas and the Israelis, Fr. Angelo and the other priests constantly prayed for peace. Upon hearing warning sirens, they would run to the open-air terrace overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and the cities of Tel Aviv and Jaffa to watch Hamas bombs explode in midair. They wanted a visual and personal confirmation that the Dome Shield defense system worked. During the war, there were very few visiting pilgrims. Through it all, the Filipino caregivers continued their roles, in war as in peace.
During the same year, he gladly accepted an appointment as attache of the Papal Nunciature (Vatican Embassy in Israel). Father Angelo’s main work is to represent the Nuncio (Vatican Ambassador) in diplomatic receptions in Israel, meeting ambassadors, dignitaries and many interesting people. His facility with languages serves as a great asset in his prestigious work. He is one of very few Filipinos who have had the privilege of meeting three popes, including the current one, Pope Francis.
The Nunciature’s office is located below St. Peter’s Church, an ideal place for Fr. Angelo to work and meet local and international tourists and pilgrims in their spiritual search.
At Home in Jaffa
Father Angelo currently resides in St Peter’s church and Monastery, the highest landmark above the Mediterranean, in a place rich in religious history. He admits that his schedule is more manageable in Jaffa than when he was in Jerusalem. He has bloomed and blossomed in Jaffa. He says he “now feels very happy and fulfilled in Jaffa as he was in Jerusalem.”
Twice a month, he visits Jerusalem, to deliver documents, meet old friends and celebrate the Holy Mass at the Tomb of the Lord or on Calvary. At least once a month, he guides English-speaking pilgrims on tours that usually start at Mount Carmel followed by the holy shrines in Galilee for three days, then Jerusalem and Judea for seven days. The last day before returning home is spent at St. Peter’s Church and monastery in Jaffa. Weekly he assists in the sacristy of St. Peter’s church and guides local and foreign pilgrims in the church.
Free afternoons are devoted to the Nunciature garden where he tends and cherishes a private bower of flowers and shrubs. Now, he has more time to read, study, pray and meditate. He expects to be in the Holy Land for the next ten years. “God has a treasury of wonderful surprises,” he says.