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In Bulacan, the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy beckons as an oasis for faith and deep devotion
The online news portal of TV5

MARILAO, Philippines – As they did in the past nine years, the Gelles completed praying at the 14 “Stations of  the Cross,” which they began early dawn Tuesday as their “panata” (religious  vow) at the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy.

The rocky hilltop shrine, which is housed at the Marilao Parish compound in this Bulacan town, has become a popular destination among Catholic pilgrims in this once sleepy town north of Manila.

Local church leaders have converted the area into a religious theme park to honor the Divine Mercy, one of the fastest-growing devotions in this predominantly Roman Catholic country. The devotion was popularized by the late Pope John Paul II since it took its roots in his native Poland. Devotees invoke the mercy of God, best represented by the bottomless well of love in the heart of a dying Jesus, with most making it a habit to pray at 3pm or 3 am daily.

At the Shrine on one visit, we chanced on Teresita Gelle, 73. She looks tired, but she insisted to her son Robert that she had never felt better and just wanted to sit down to meditate outside the church while their other companions proceeded to the nearby “Adoration  Chapel.” 

This year, Robert, a former seaman, had invited fellow parishioners at Our Lady of Fatima at Loma de Gato in Valenzuela where he has been a lay minister. His wife Yolanda decided to assist Aling Teresita, while her three grandchildren took turns in carrying the 3-foot-tall crucifix they brought  to be blessed.

Di  bale, malaki  naman ang  naitulong  sa paggaling ko  sa aking mga sakit ang aming  mga  pagbisita dito (Never mind, our visits here have been a big help in curing  my ailments),”  remarked Aling Teresita, who said she was suffering from an acute heart ailment and diabetes, prompting her to pray to the Divine Mercy for better health.

“My still being alive today is already a miracle from God,” she said.

‘Haven of prayer’

For Monsignor Mar Arenas, the town’s parish priest and national spiritual director of the Divine Mercy-Philippines, 95 percent of those who come to Marilao are “pilgrims” who “would want to experience peace in their lives knowing God is present.”

During the Holy Week, he said, the message of the devotion is “conversion to God, conversion of sinners, reconciliation with God and experiencing the mercy of God in spite of our sins.”

The “miracle” of the Divine Mercy, he pointed out, is actually “the presence of the Lord in their Lives. That’s why the focus of the Divine Mercy is trust. Here they feel that trust in God.”

He said the shrine helps the faithful to identify their own problems as well as their beautiful deeds with the passion of the Lord, which is commemorated during the Holy Week “to provide hope despite the problems we encounter.”

Like going to faraway places

Unlike other places of worship, the Marilao compound also mimics the experience of going to faraway places in Poland, and other European Holy spots and Israel, among others---places that would be costly to visit for local pilgrims.

The Philippines has become one of the biggest  centers for the Apostolic movement that has the two-pronged task of proclaiming and entreating God’s mercy to the world.

The movement is described as striving for Christian perfection through an attitude of child-like trust in the Lord and mercy towards one’s neighbors---as what  the Lord used to relay in His message to Saint Faustina-Helen Kowalska in her native Poland.

Saint Faustina’s documentation of Christ’s revelations in her diary came at a time when Catholicism was at a crossroad, when “many of the faithful had gone astray, and devotion to Church teachings have fallen by the wayside, consumed by a diurnal concerns and buried by materialism,” according to the book “Divine Mercy in the Philippines: Continuing to Spread the Devotion.”

Early members of the movement

Ramona M. Villarica said she was 10 years when the 1937 International Eucharistic Congress took place in Manila, but it was not until seven decades later that she realized how privileged she was to be in the Congress.

Now in her eighties, Villarica  quoted an account of St. Faustina, in her diary, which said, ”Oh, how happy I am that the Holy Father’s (Pius XI) health is improving. Today I heard him addressing the Eucharistic Congress and I went there in spirit to receive the Apostolic Blessing.”

After reading entry 925 of St. Faustina’s diary, Villarica, who has dedicated her retirement life to promoting the devotion, said she realized that she had a spiritual connection with her since they both received the same “apostolic blessing” from Pope Pius XI.

A devotion that has gone viral

The Divine Mercy has snowballed as a charismatic devotion since Pope John Paul II canonized St. Faustina in 2000  and the church was consecrated for the faithful to invoke the mercy of God as expressed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In the Philippines, the devotion has gone viral since it was popularized through  the adoption of the 3 p.m. prayer---the “Three O’Clock Habit”--- to invoke God’s grace.

According to Monina Tayamen, a secular Carmelite and one of the lead conveners of the Divine Mercy Apostolate in the Philippines (DMAP), the devotion quickly spread from all walks of life in the Philippines because “it his inherent in our Filipino culture of mercy.”

“It’s always to seek forgiveness from God for your offenses and grant as well the forgiveness to those who have offended you,” she said. “That’s why in this Holy Week the message is also about hope.”

For Monsignor Ray Monsanto, the parish priest of San Antonio Nazareth  in Cagayan De Oro City and the region’s spiritual coordinator of the Divine Mercy,  the devotion is not just a search for miracles.

“What is important is the message of  the Divine Mercy.” As he explained it, the “merciful God that we have, the God who is a God of love, is someone who will do  His best to forgive us. The desire of God is that we will all be saved in the end.”

A busy week

At the National Shrine in Marilao, Msgr. Mar Arenas said they will be encouraging pilgrims, through various means, to make the place one for prayer and serenity,

discouraging some of the manifestations of folk religiosity, like flagellation, a popular practice among the sinful in the countryside.

“I cannot impose my thinking on them, but at the same time, they also go cannot overboard because it is actually hurting their bodies,” he said

Since Monday, the seven coordinators of the Divine Mercy have been promoting in the 22 ecclesiastical districts of the Church all over the country the prayers on the “Stations of the Cross.”

At the national shrine, they prepared a “senakulo” – the Lenten play --  to  be held every hour starting at 8 a.m. from Wednesday  to Friday. Here the  life and sufferings of Jesus Christ are acted out by parish youth.

During the entire week, the devotees take part in the  “common prayer” which is normally being done only by priests during their daily gatherings, as they flock to the church “to communicate with God.”

According to Msgr. Mar, the town procession will start from the shrine on Thursday and Friday. The Easter Sunday celebration will see the traditional “Salubong”, a ritual rich in symbolism, recalling the welcome for the “Risen Lord” with the Virgin Mary.

Although Jesus Christ’s meeting with the Virgin Mary could not be found in the Bible during the resurrection , the faithful consider His mother to represent the church in this symbolic gathering, he said. “We are the first beneficiaries of His resurrection.”

Every Holy Week for the past seven years that they have been married, James Galvez, a call center employee, and his wife Miriam would light three candles at the shrine.

“We practically started with nothing, but now we feel blessed, and that is because God has been listening to our Prayer,” said Miriam, as the couple hugged their two-year old daughter Lian.

It is this child-like attitude---of always being appreciative of all creation, for taking time to say thank you for all blessings big and small, and of always seeking forgiveness for one’s offenses while seeking the grace to forgive others for theirs---that has marked the movement for Divine Mercy in the Philippines, allowing it to grow not just in numbers but in the depth and maturity of its devotion. So much so that, it is said, even then Pope Benedict XVI was moved to task Filipino prelates to oversee the devotion’s growth in Asia and Oceania, where the Catholic Church has grown by leaps and bounds even as it was seen to be declining in the West.