Our Mother of Perpetual Help and the Muslims in Baclaran

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Some Reflections toward Dialogue between the Muslim Community and the Redemptorist Community in Baclaran

“And when the angels said, ‘O Mary!
Indeed God has chosen you, and purified you,
and has chosen you above all other women of the worlds.
O, Mary! Be devoutly obedient to your Lord
and prostrate and bow with those bows.’”

– Qur’an 3:42-43

The biggest and most tragic news last week was the carnage of Muslims in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on the 15th of March 2019. An Australian gunman with white supremacist background went on a rampage in two mosques. It is the biggest massacre in New Zealand’s modern history. According to police, 50 people were killed and 50 injured.  The victims were targeted as they gathered at the mosques for Friday prayers.

This tragic incident shows that Islamophobia is on the rise and has been for some time. British political commentator, Ayesha Hazarika claims that Muslims have been demonized, dehumanized and scapegoated on an industrial scale by society since 9/11.

In light of this sad event, this short essay explores some relevant points about Mary and our devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help and its relationship with the Muslim community and the Islam faith. Through this, the essay hopes to inspire some concrete actions towards dialogue between Catholics and Muslims. Indeed, Mary is key to ecumenism not just with Islam but with other faiths.

The arrival of Muslims at Baclaran

Outside the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Baclaran, Philippines, there are many Muslim vendors selling all sorts of wares—clothes, electronics, housewares, even Catholic religious articles like rosaries, statutes, novena booklets and other religious materials. Most of these Muslim traders came from the provinces in Mindanao, the island in the south of the Philippines that has the largest Muslim population in the country. The Muslim traders began to arrive in the 1990s. In due course, some Muslim settlers invested in established stalls (puwesto) and matched medium-and-large-scale business enterprises owned by other merchants in the area. A considerable number, however, remained as street vendors due to lack of sufficient capital.[1]

After the trade came the mosques. Four mosques were constructed within 500 meters from the shrine. The earliest mosque is the Masjid Abdullah, built in 1978; the next to be built is Masjid Rajah Sulayman in 1995. Masjid Al-Nur in Brgy. 79 of Pasay City came next in 1998, while Masjid Al-Wasat, located a few meters away from Baclaran Barangay Hall at the shrine’s northern part, was completed in 2009.[2] At present, only three mosques exist. The Masjid Rajah Sulayman which sat on reclaimed land on Roxas Boulevard just south of Epifanio de Los Santos Avenue, overlooking Manila Bay was demolished by the government in 2013. The government’s reason for the demolition was the tenants’ lack of legal ownership of the site and an ordinance to widen city streets and prevent pickpocketing and violence in the area.

The shrine has maintained a relationship of peaceful co-existence with the Muslim community in Baclaran in the past. Besides small attempts at reaching out, there was no substantial effort towards dialogue between the shrine and the Muslim community. I do not know why no substantial dialogue between the Baclaran shrine community, and the Muslim community occurred. The best reason I can offer is that both sides did not know where and how to begin.

Nevertheless, this is a big challenge for both parties now and in the future. Because of the large number of Muslim community, the Baclaran shrine has the potential to become a center for Christian-Muslim dialogue in the country. In this endeavor, Our Mother of Perpetual Help (OMPH) can play a vital part in the dialogue with the Muslims.  OMPH can be a prominent part because Mary is also greatly revered by the Muslims.

Marian Shrines of Ecumenism

An interesting phenomenon in some countries particularly in Asia where there are shrines for OMPH is non-Christians praying before the Icon of OMPH. This is true in Singapore, India (Bombay), and the Philippines. In the Novena church[3] in Singapore, for example, Singaporean Redemptorist Fr. Gerard Louis reports that 20 to 25% of those who attend the Novena are non-Catholics, people of other faiths—Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims. Among all Catholic churches in Singapore, they only go to the Novena church. They only go for the novena, not for the mass and other church sacraments and services.[4]  Some new Catholics, however, have come to faith and Baptism through the Novena Devotions.

Another Marian shrine in Asia is the Shrine of Our Lady of Vailankanni. It is one of the most frequented religious sites in India, where Hindus, Muslims, and Christian from all over India congregate in large numbers and worship in harmony. Hundreds of miraculous cures are reported every year. Centuries of devotion to Mother Mary both by Hindus and Christians have evolved an amalgamation of practices borrowing elements from both religions.[5]

Here in Baclaran, there is no exact figure or percentage of how many non-Catholics pray the novena. From time to time, though, the phenomenon has received some admiration from other Christian denomination. For example, Jullian Robin Sibi said that Baclaran is one of those spots where you have to go to even though you are not Catholic.[6] Andy Dierickx, who identifies himself as a Protestant Christian, sincerely admires the devotees’ dedication despite the fact that he does not approve of every practice they do:

Let me preface my comment by saying as a ‘protestant Christian’ (for want of a better label) there are many things I don’t understand about the Roman Catholic Church. Novenas, rosaries, praying to statuary and knee-walking are just some of the things I don’t comprehend. Lately, I have been a bit outspoken on the subject and have offended loved ones in the process. On reflection, I pray and ask forgiveness for that. I may never understand the rituals and practices, but I cannot question the devotion of the devotees of the OMPH Church. They sit and sweat and kneel and sweat when they could be in SM or home in front of the aircon! If some of my fellow Christians could have half of that fervor it would be amazing. While I could never subscribe to the Catholic precepts and ideology I pay respect to the beautiful folk who gather at Baclaran each Wednesday. Next time I am in town I might just drop in and sweat with you.[7]

Ben Hernandez, a non-Christian, left a comment on the Baclaran FB page in July 2, 2017: “I am not a Christian but, as l have said in my wall post, Baclaran Church truly reflects our Filipino culture, values, and heritage.”[8]

Conflict in the Time of Ecumenism

We live at a time where there is a growing movement of dialogue among religions and faiths.  The increasing calls and efforts for interreligious dialogue continue to break down walls of prejudice and intolerance. Italian Redemptorist Fr. Serafino Fiore describes today’s global world as a world where one in seven people lives outside his/her place of origin; a world where cultures meet, spiritualities compete, and we are left wondering what to do with the faith we have received as an inheritance.[9] The world is heading towards greater openness beyond the religion we have grown into. There is no turning back, as David Tracy contended, “[T]here can be no return to a pre-ecumenical, pre-pluralistic, a historical theology.”[10]

The interreligious milieu poses several challenges to the living of one’s religion. First, each one is challenged to have a clearer understanding and deeper living of one’s religion.  As people are exposed to other religions they learn to see more the distinctiveness of their own religion and this help to clarify their religious identity. Alternatively, each one is challenged to learn from the other.  Everyone is challenged to have a wider and deeper understanding of God that goes beyond one’s own religion.  Finally, it provides an opportunity for mutual enrichment about God as each religion reveals a special facet of the truth about God.[11]  In this interreligious milieu, dialogue becomes a necessary attitude, a way of life. It challenges each one to learn the art of listening despite actual differences.

These developments affirm the church’s conviction in recent years towards continuous interreligious dialogue.  Many church documents, especially after Vatican II, have affirmed that the seeds of the Gospel go beyond the Catholic Church. For example, Lumen Gentium says that salvation is possible for all people of goodwill whether they have explicit faith in God or not.[12]  Nostra Aetate declares that other than Christianity, there is a ray of truth that enlightens all men and women.[13]  And Gaudium et Spes affirms that the Holy Spirit in a way known only to God offers every person the possibility of being associated with the paschal mystery.[14]

Despite the climate of pluralism, multiculturalism, and ecumenism there is continuous religious conflicts and the rise of religious intolerance and fundamentalism in the world today. There are those who advocate for a return to exclusion, religious discrimination, religious fundamentalism and, religious extremism. In the Philippines, there is still a perceived mutual prejudice between Muslims, Lumads, and Christians. Many suffer from the continuous war between Muslims and Christians in the south.

Mary in Islam

Vatican II ushered a new attitude towards Islam: “Upon the Muslims, too, the Church looks with esteem.”[15] Nostra Aetate listed several reasons why the Church should respect Islam; it shows parallels between Islamic belief and Christian faith. Among these many common elements, Mary is clearly mentioned: “They also honor Mary, His [Jesus’] virgin mother; at times they call on her, too, with devotion.”[16]

Love for the Virgin Mary runs deep in Islam. In the Qur’an, Mary’s name (Maryam) appears explicitly thirty-four times; in twenty-four of these references, she is identified as the mother of Jesus (Isa). Mary is mentioned more often by name in the Muslim scripture than in the Christian New Testament. One chapter of the Qur’an (Sura 19) is in fact entitled “Mary” and it narrates the events of the Annunciation of Jesus’ birth: Mary is chosen by God and given divine favors; she is immaculately consecrated to God from her mother’s womb; an angel appears to her and announces the miraculous virgin birth of a child; Mary accepts, conceives Isa and gives birth to him.[17] The very story of the birth of Mary, which the feast day commemorates, is found in the Quran 3:35-36.

In the international pilgrimage shrine of Our Lady of Fátima, one aspect that often goes unnoticed is the subtle connection with Islam. The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to the three shepherd children near the city of Fátima, Portugal, a place named after both a Muslim princess and the daughter of Mohammed.[18] As Venerable Fulton Sheen said, “I believe that the Blessed Virgin chose to be known as “Our Lady of Fátima” as a pledge and a sign of hope to the Moslem people, and as an assurance that they, who show her so much respect, will one day accept her Divine Son, too.” Thus, not surprisingly, the shrine at Fátima, Portugal, has also attracted Muslims in great numbers. They go to see the place where the Virgin Mary appeared in a city named after one of their most highly revered women. [19]

In the light of all these, Mary can serve as a bridge between Islam and Christianity: It is certainly true that in her very person there is a meeting point, or at least a stepping stone, between Christianity and Islam. Indeed, as the Qur’an itself says: “To those who believe, God has set an example (“mathalan”) … in Mary, who preserved her chastity …, who put her trust in the words of her Lord and his scriptures and was one of the truly devout” (“Prohibition” LXVI:12).[20]

Conclusion

OMPH can be a bridge between communities. Marian devotion can be an avenue for inter-faith dialogue with peoples of other faith traditions. Devotion to OMPH does not harbor biases against people of other faiths or people with different political convictions. The devotion can be an instrument of peace, mutual cooperation among peoples of different faiths towards the common fight against poverty and violence.

One of the fruits of a healthy and productive devotion to OMPH is the openness to forge a relationship and dialogue with other faiths and Christian denomination through Mary and the icon. The icon and Mary can help to reinvigorate our devotion through dialogue with other religions.

In light of this, Mary and the Icon can be the starting of a dialogue between the Muslim community and the shrine in Baclaran in the future.

Joseph Echano

March 16, 2019

Footnotes: 

[1] Manuel Victor Sapitula, Marian Piety and Modernity: A Sociological Assessment of Popular Religion in the Philippines, A Thesis Submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy Department of Sociology, National University Of Singapore, 2013, 150. Accessed at https://scholarbank.nus.edu.sg/bitstream/10635/43728/1/SAPITULA%20-%20PhD%20Thesis.pdf

[2] Ustad Samanuddin, personal communication, 2011: Sapitula, Marian Piety and Modernity, 147.

[3] The official name of the church is St. Alphonsus but everybody calls it the Novena Church.

[4] Gerard Louis, “OMPH Devotion in a Non-Christian Context: Possibilities for Interfaith Dialogue,” in a Talk Given to the 150th Jubilee International Congress, Baclaran, April 24-27, 2017.

[5] “About Annai Velangkanni,” Velangkanni.com. Accessed at https://velangkanni.com/en/about-annai-velangkanni/

[6] Jullian Robin Sibi, “Kalye Serye Maynila: When in Baclaran,”Blissful Snapshots. Accessed at http://www.blissfulsnapshots.com/2016/11/kalye-serye-maynila-when-in-baclaran.html

[7] Andy Dierickx, “Devotees,” baclaranchurch.org. Accessed at http://www.baclaranchurch.org/devotees.html

[8] https://www.facebook.com/pg/omphbaclaran/reviews/

[9] Serafino Fiore, CSsR, “The Spiritual, Pastoral and Missionary Message of the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help,” 22. Accessed at http://www.iconoflove.org/papers.html

[10] David Tracy, “Defending the Public Character of Theology,” Religion Online. Accessed at https://www.religion-online.org/article/defending-the-public-character-of-theology/

[11] Nostra Aetate, 2.

[12] Lumen Gentium, 16.

[13] Nostra Aetate, 2.

[14] Gaudium et Spes, 22.

[15] Nostra Aetate, #3

[16] Nostra Aetate, #3

[17] R.J. McCarthy, “Mary in Islam,” Mary’s Place in Christian Dialogue, ed. Alberic Stacpoole (Slough, England: St. Paul Publications, 1982), 208-211.

[18] Philip Kosloski, “The surprising connection between Our Lady of Fatima and Islam,” Aleteia, May 7, 2017. https://aleteia.org/2017/05/07/the-surprising-connection-between-our-lady-of-fatima-and-islam/

[19] Kosloski, “The surprising connection between Our Lady of Fatima and Islam.”

[20] William Keeler, “How Mary Holds Christians and Muslims in Conversation,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops USCCB, 3.

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