04/25/2023, 12.29
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Manila: the face of the Church in the slums

by Alessandra De Poli

Fr. Stefano Mosca, a PIME missionary, tells of his mission in the squatter shacks that have sprung up around the city of Navotas. A feeding programme has been set up for the children, while Mass is celebrated under a tent in a different place every week.

Manila (AsiaNews) - It is a fragmented humanity that Fr Stefano Mosca takes care of in the parish of Santa Cruz in Tanza, on the outskirts of the city of Navotas, where at least 35,000 people live in various barangays, the local neighbourhoods. "These are poor people who have migrated from the island of Mindanao that the local priests cannot reach," says the Italian missionary, recently appointed regional superior of PIME for the South Pacific.

"The priests have to celebrate up to seven masses on Sundays and a flood of other services during the week," so Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of the Caloocan diocese asked Fr Mosca and another PIME priest, Fr Robert Ngairi, to open missionary stations to take care of the poor, who are crammed into government housing (called pabahay) and squatters' houses, which are located in the north of the metropolitan city of Manila.

"About 2,000 families reside in tiny flats, consisting of a two-by-three metre room. Sometimes as many as eight to ten people live there. Inside there is usually a kitchen, a sofa and a TV, and a plywood mezzanine where people sleep'. Another 300 families live in stilts on the water, where the sheet metal roofs intertwine with the exposed power lines, while the government has planned to build another pabahay consisting of about 1,800 flats. "It means that in a few years we will end up with twice as many families," explains the clergyman. 

In order to reach the population, Fr. Stefano has started a feeding programme for the children: three days a week, the two missionaries, aided by volunteers, transport three large pots on a cart and distribute a snack of chocolate, rice and milk to about 200 children. "Sometimes the line of children never seems to end and we are forced to say we will come back the next day," says the missionary. "But this is a way to get in touch with the families, who are not used to seeing priests without vestments." 

The funerals are celebrated in the street and the mass is also itinerant: Fr Stefano has bought a tent and sets it up in a different place each time, without a real programme, because the mission in Tanza, like its inhabitants, lives by the day: "The parents go out at four in the morning and come back at nine at night. They go to Navotas, which has 350,000 inhabitants, to sell fruit, vegetables, sweets, electronics. Others do manual labour in the boats, fish at night and do other odd jobs on the boats. The children, on the other hand, go to school in two shifts and the classes are of 70 students because there is only a primary school and a middle school. There are few well-off people who can afford to cross the river and attend public schools in the city," the missionary continues.

When they are not in class, the children search through the rubbish for cans and plastic items to sell for a few pennies. Even Fr. Stefano, when he leaves the rubbish outside the house for recycling, takes care to put the bag of plastic and cans in plain sight, sure that the municipality does not collect it.

"Migrants who have arrived here have left one family and often rebuilt another with a lover. They feel uprooted and dislocated and there is no real sense of community. The sacraments are difficult to administer and many do not even know if they have received baptism. But we take care of everyone without judgement. 

Sometimes even unpleasant events can be an opportunity to meet, says Fr Stephen: "A short time ago, a young 22-year-old volunteer called Iron died of a heart attack. He never missed feeding programmes".

When the missionary went to visit the family, the parents asked the priest to bless everything that belonged to the boy, convinced that his death had been caused by an evil spirit, and showed him a sheet of paper on which Iron had planned his life year by year: 'In 2023 he would graduate, in 2024 he would buy a house, and in 2025 he would earn a million pesos, according to his plans.

But God's plans were different: 'I tried to explain to the family that now Iron, although he does not have a house of his own, has a room in paradise. Almost every day he would walk two kilometres to reach the missionary station and help out with snacks for the children". From then on, the parents and other relatives came to Mass every Sunday, something that had never happened before. "For us missionaries, just being there is enough, then the opportunities to start the journey of faith present themselves".

A faith that has not yet matured in the shantytown, even though there are statues of Our Lady or the Black Nazarene in every house: "When they see us they ask us to bless anything, as if we were magicians or holy men. They remind me of the Gospel episode of the haemorrhagic woman who touches Jesus' cloak to heal. Here, people feel the need to touch statues and relics because they find it hard to imagine that Jesus is even alive in the midst".

For the poor of Tanza, bread is for the stomach, but it will become bread for the Eucharist, Fr Stephen is convinced. At the moment, however, given the inhabitants' need to touch their faith, every week the priest entrusts a statuette of Our Lady of the Poor, to whom the community is consecrated, to a different family. "Every Monday we do a reflection on the Gospel of the day, we take the statue and bring it to another family. Every opportunity is good to meet the people of Tanza.

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