My countrymen are dispersed all over the city and by late morning I’ve walked passed a delivery man lugging trays of bread; a maid walking a frisky poodle, reining it in Ilonggo; a gardener with shears entering a house and a shop clerk opening a store.
Traveling outside Rome, I see from my bus window a garbage collector in baggy uniform with orange fluorescent stripes, a clerk selling Pope Francis souvenirs, waiters in distant towns, and maids wheeling small carts with laundry. For the most part when they avert their eyes from their work or charge and see me, there is recognition and a smile.
One Sunday, I am at Santa Pudenziana Basilica in Rome to hear Mass. This was the first Catholic Church erected in the 4th century and was originally the home of the Pope. Its basilica status belies the reality of a simple compact church. Frescoes and paintings abound inside with saints looking up to the sky, their arms outstretched in supplication.
Before the noontime Mass, the church’s courtyard is filled with Filipinos, many greeting each other in the various languages after a week of not seeing one another. Some have their children along, speaking Italian. There is a stall to one side of the courtyard with volunteers selling arroz caldo (rice porridge), pancit (noodles), cuchinta, puto (rice cakes), boiled peanuts, the proceeds going to help those who suffered the recent earthquake in the Visayas. They had already raised over 1,500 Euros.
A Filipino priest starts the Mass in Filipino and continues till the end through the singing and the readings. The singing is plaintive, asking for God’s pity and forgiveness for their shortcomings. One reading is about God hearing the cry of the humble rather than the proud, which later becomes the priest’s instructive sermon. Another reading is on securing justice in an unjust world, a salve perhaps to some among the faithful who are subjected to weekly pain by their employers. When we all give one another a handshake and the sign of peace, all the hurt disappears, replaced with gentle and endearing smiles. We have a way with smiles and showing genuine affection. There is communion, with some women assistants in cassocks ministering, a surprise to us visitors but probably in keeping with the Pope’s enunciations on a more active participation of women in the church.
The priest bids the faithful, all Filipinos, to think of and support those suffering in the fighting in Zamboanga, the typhoons in the North, and the recent earthquakes. The Mass ends, and we all shuffle out, the familiar languages echoing in a Roman church and even louder as we walk out to a sunny courtyard.
I speak to a countryman. He trains in from the countryside every Sunday. He is a gardener and has lived there for over ten years. He proudly tells me that in many Italian churches, maybe four, no more than five people attend the Masses. In their church, every Filipino Mass is packed.
I slowly walk through the throng, listening to stories, one about a servant who had a heart attack and was sent home, of another sick with cancer, of another — of a happier note — marrying her wealthy American employer. There are exchanges about new jobs available in Milan or some unknown town.
One can simply attribute the weekly packed crowd to lonely immigrants needing camaraderie with tropical souls. It is, however, more than that. The imposition of Catholicism in our country lasted hundreds of years and continues today.
Despite the spotty record of the friars in governance and religiosity, ended by a revolution aimed at their excesses, our countrymen still seek a sacred space to get some bearing amid the harshness they go through and find peace. This need is answered in the churches they flock to each Sunday, their sacrifices and suffering heard and succored by a divinity that will, seemingly, never fail them.
I leave Santa Pudenziana (the patron saint of the Philippines) and join a group of Filipinos walking to nearby Termini Station to catch their trains for the outlying towns. Realizing I’m a visitor they ask how the country is faring. I give an upbeat brief report, and they smile that familiar smile and sigh, hoping to go back soon.
Despite being briefly reunited every Sunday with friends, praying and laughing and eating comfort food, and despite the Mass recited in the syntax of their birth, they still don’t have it all. They still don’t have our country.
I’ve experienced this irony many times before, the irony of loving our country and its people much more when we’re far away from them.