I recently returned from a trip to the Philippines where I spent several weeks visiting Columban missionaries in action and helping where I could. I returned to the United States the day before the terrible Typhoon Haiyan struck, leaving a path of death, destruction and despair in its wake. The devastation, in my mind’s eye, was colored so much more vividly by the realization that my new friends, found among the caring and welcoming Filipino people, were experiencing such horrible heartache.
Like everywhere in the world where Columban missionaries work, in the Philippines we work with the poorest of the poor. I met street children from the squatter villages as young as seven years old who had been rescued from the subhuman conditions of mass detention centers or from the horrors of the thriving child sex industry.
I attended Mass one Sunday with Columban Fr. Keenan who celebrates the Eucharist every Sunday at a government youth and family detention center. The families and children here are homeless and some have been detained for curfew violations or petty theft. The conditions at the center are horrible. Open group detention cells face the elements, beds are made of boards and open sewer areas that are used by all are adjacent to where common pots of rice are cooked for meals.
Young mothers with babies barely nine months of age are grouped in the same area with other children, the sick and the old and even mixed with some who may be more egregious and hardened offenders. The children are covered with sores from the bites of bugs and the conditions brought about by living on the street and in the center.
Fr. Keenan celebrates the Eucharist here for the children every Sunday; they flock to the Mass and sit attentively as a volunteer catechist presents them with a lesson before Mass. They respond enthusiastically throughout the Mass and during Fr. Keenan’s homily, they answer his questions about life, the difference between right and wrong, school and how knowing Jesus can help them rise above their condition. Their voices lift in praise during the hymns and they eagerly line up to partake in the Eucharist, blessed to be called to the supper of the Lord.
After Mass, Fr. Keenan opens the trunk of his car and passes out bars of soap and day old rolls to eager hands and joyful faces. The children run back to their cell and, while I do not understand their chatter, somehow I sense that they are eagerly awaiting Fr. Keenan’s return, next Sunday. We return to the Columban mission house in Manila with the words of Psalm 38(37):22-24 ringing in my ears, “Forsake me not, O Lord, my God; be not far from me! Make haste and come to my help, O Lord my strong salvation!”