Priests and Doctors at the Service of the Poorest in the Philippines

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“Operation Rosa Mystica”, the annual medical mission of ACIM-ASIA, the Filipino branch of the ACIM (Catholic Association of Nurses and Doctors) took place from February 14 to 25, 2017, on the island of Mindanao, in the south of the Philippine archipelago; a region shaken for years by the terrorist activism of the “reds”, small Communist groups whose harmful effects continue, almost anachronistically. Two of the soldiers from the regiment appointed to guard us were held hostage during the mission. This despite the peace process that is, however, bearing some fruit, since at the same time of the mission a dozen rebels surrendered and were promised “reintegration” in the army if they so desired. Unfortunately, the group Abou Sayaff, affiliated with ISIS, may very well take over and continue the armed struggle. Its members are present in the western part of the island where most of the Filipino Muslims live.

Here are some of the impressions of a volunteer who participated in this “Operation” for the first time.


Operation Rosa Mystica was conducted this year, as always, under the indispensable guard of the army, because of the risk of kidnappings for high ransoms, in Alabel, about fifteen kilometers from the big city of General Santos, in the buildings of the Governorate of the Province of Sarangani, pompously called the “Capitol” because they were built by the Americans to resemble the original! The Mission was officially welcomed there by Governor Solon, who placed at ACIM-ASIA’s disposal an entire building with a dining room, bedrooms, bathrooms (and even some cockroaches), where the younger volunteers slept; the older participants stayed at a hotel. The medical Mission properly speaking was set up in the Capitol’s large Gymnasium. The Governor, just like in 2008 when the mission took place at the same location, placed his secretary, the charming Asma, in charge of making sure everything went well. Asma is a Muslim. She was clearly very touched by the generosity of this Mission, and particularly by its “spiritual” aspect. A conversation she had with Dr. Jean-Pierre Dickès leaves us hoping the graces will be well received. The President of the ACIM, Dr. Dickès, along with Fr. Daniel Couture, is the founder of the Rosa Mystica operations that have been going on for ten years already.

The ACIM-ASIA Headquarters 

The ACIM-ASIA headquarters are located in General Santos, in the “annex” to the SSPX priory in Davao, capital of the island of Mindanao. By “annex”, we mean an enormous uncompleted church: the wooden scaffolding is still standing but it is starting to rot in some places; they need funds to finish the building. Construction was begun thanks to donations from some very generous benefactors, and the grateful Filipinos honored them with an immense, charmingly naïve fresco to the right of the courtyard, representing the priests and faithful under the great protecting mantle of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, just like on our ancient altarpieces/ The faith of the Filipinos reminded us of that of our medieval ancestors: simple, confident, and joyful: fertile soil for a mission. In fact, ten years ago, when the Rosa Mystica Mission first came to Gensan (General Santos), the SSPX faithful fit into a small 200-square-foot room. Now there are hundreds and the enormous church is full on Sundays.

Next to the church is the almost-completed dispensary where the Mission was held last year. The participants from last year were able to see how much progress has been made: the interior walls have been up and painted, the bathrooms are complete (which leaves one imagining how rough material conditions must have been for last year’s volunteers). This pharmacy-dispensary is the Mission’s “on-call office” all year round. The Filipina soul of ACIM-ASIA, the nurse Yolly Gamutan, discreetly and efficiently continues the Mission all year long. As during the ten-day Rosa Mystica operation, patients are received and cared for, and if need be they are sent to the hospital for more complex treatments or operations, all for no charge, as the patients are often very poor and have no “social security”. ACIM-ASIA, insofar as its means allow (hear, hear!) covers the cost of treatments, visits, medicine, etc. Yolly has also been organizing Rosa Mystica every year since 2007, in different regions of the Philippines, depending on the needs and circumstances. For example, in 2014 and 2015, Rosa Mystica took place in Tacloban, to help the victims of the terrible typhoon that ravaged the city. This year she was assisted by the joyful, very efficient, and irreplaceable Elaine.

Thus, on the morning of February 14, 2017, after a 24-hour journey and little sleep, 35 volunteers of all different nationalities arrived in Gensan: French, American, German, Austrian, Swiss, Belgian, Canadian, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Australian: not to mention, of course, the many volunteers from the Philippines. Most were doctors, dentists, pharmacists, nurses, and nurse’s aides, but there were also some “civilians” who would be appointed to the many non-medical but necessary tasks: managing the stream of patients, “preparing” medicine in the pharmacy, watching the children during the long waiting hours, or helping Fr. Tim Pfeiffer on his Marian missions.

A Mission under the Protection of Mary and the Army

Fr. Tim is the very dynamic prior of Davao. Just after their arrival, after a few hours’ rest, the volunteers were whisked off for a 7-1/2-mile pilgrimage, the distance between the Gensan headquarters and the Capitol where the medical Mission was to begin the next day! They had to try to follow the statue of Our Lady of Fatima (that traveled all through the Philippines on a long 1200-mile pilgrimage from October of 2016 to July 31, 2017) at the break-neck pace of the Filipino parishioners, young and old, active members of the Militia Immaculatae. It was She, the Immaculate, who led the way to the Mission. Fr. Tim wished to place the Mission and its volunteers under the protection of the Mystical Rose, who was to be their model during the next eight days of serving the poor and the sick: a model of humility, of spirit of sacrifice, and devotion to the most destitute, an example of charity in the desire to ease bodily suffering and save souls. For such is the goal of these Missions which are not simply “humanitarian”. The vertical dimension is essential and primary. In order to understand their profoundly Marian spirit, one can compare them to the missions of St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort, who re-Christianized western France before the Revolution, and to the work of St. Maximilian Kolbe before World War II who, through the Militia Immaculatae, his great apostolic work, considerably strengthened the faith of the Polish before the trials they were going to undergo. Fr. Tim’s zeal, strongly encouraged by the district superior of Asia, Fr. Stelhin, who exercised his ministry in Poland and Eastern Europe for many years, is inspired by the missionary and Marian spirit of these two great saints. In order to understand Rosa Mystica, one can simply add the “corporal” aspect to the “Montfortan” missions, and the best reference for this is Our Lord Himself, who during His time on earth manifested His immense love for men by healing bodies, as a sign of the reason He had come to live among us: the salvation of souls.

At the Capitol, the exhausted pilgrims assisted at the enthronement of Our Lady in the buildings. No “French secularism” here! After the ceremony, there was a small welcome celebration with half-Spanish, half-Asian folk dances. Four-hundred years of Spanish presence and Spanish missionaries explains the profound Christianity that seems to hold strong – it can be seen in popular manifestations, just like in Latin America – in the face of the galloping secularization due to American and European influence. The Filipinos’ souls are still open to Catholic preaching and they even seemed very eager, in no way skeptical or indifferent, much less hostile like people in our Western societies. For how much longer? The consequences of the crisis in the Church are growing clearer every year: declining vocations, religious ignorance, and the retreat of Catholicism to Protestant sects.

Doctors of the Body

The work thus began on the morning of Wednesday the 15th under the most favorable circumstances. Outside the great gymnasium, sheltered from the sun by the stretched canvas but in the intense and humid heat, a long line of patients began to form. They were greeted by the volunteers in charge of the administrative registration and preliminary examinations (height, weight, temperature, blood pressure, pulse, blood glucose level, etc.), who then sent them on to the doctors waiting for them. This year, along with Dr. Jean-Pierre Dickès, who made the trip despite his health troubles, accompanied by his wife, Bernadette, a midwife, were the habitual “foreigners”: the faithful Dr. Gilbert Dichard and his wife; Dr. Didier Genoud, a Valaisan neurologist; and the Vietnamese soul of Rosa Mystica, Dr. Loan Phan. And the faithful Filipinos: Dr. June Viray, a pediatrician who has been with the Mission since the beginning, director of the children’s hospital in Iloilo, who often continues until late at night in order to see her daily hundred little patients; the charming ophthalmologist from Manila, Dr. Elaine Baens-Araneta, overworked since she could only stay for three days. Two new doctors joined the Mission this year: Dr. Henri Cousin, a radiologist, turned general practitioner for the occasion, since radiology equipment is not yet available to the Mission’s budget! Lastly, there was Dr. Philippe de Geofroy, an ORL surgeon, whose shack that served as an operating room (a canvas cabin, a simple table and a head lamp for lighting) was constantly occupied for small operations, mostly surface operations with local anesthesia.

Every day the army sent military practitioners and dentists, whose work essentially consisted in pulling out teeth too rotten to be treated. Two pharmacists, the faithful Brigitte and the young intern Laurène, assisted by a few “preparers”, oversaw the distribution of medicine after consultations or operations. An optician from Aix-les-Bains, Alexandra, who had long been looking for a way to donate used glasses to a trustworthy humanitarian organization, was delighted to restore sight to her “clients” herself. She brought with her a precious measuring instrument that enabled her to give them glasses adapted to their eyesight. Her heart melted over and over at the happiness of her “miraculously cured” patients, young and old, who could see for the first time in their lives! Their gratitude also goes out to those who donated the glasses! For it is possible to “participate in the miracle” by sending glasses, unifocal lenses, in good shape that are no longer needed to the ACIM. The nurses and nurse’s aides were at their post. Caroline Vergez, the kingpin of the team of French and foreign volunteers, oversaw the proceedings. Everyone took advantage of the Filipino interpreters who helped the patients (who do not always speak English) and caregivers communicate.

Doctors of the Soul

While this whole team worked ardently with only a short break at lunch, another team also set to work: three Oblates of the Society assisted by six Bethany sisters (postulants, including a Chinese postulant from the People’s Republic of China) and Sister Lucie of the community of the Missionaries of the Immaculate, went out to the patients (who sometimes waited for half a day or even longer) to speak to them of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, and exhort them to wear the Miraculous Medal and the Scapular, and to enter the Militia Immaculatae. Many did so solemnly, in consecration and engagement ceremonies that were repeated several times a day.

And there, under our eyes, we had one of the Mary’s Missions we mentioned earlier, and that Father Tim multiplies everywhere in his territory. It was impressive. In those eight days, we saw hundreds of soldiers, policemen, young men, young girls, handicapped people, and old people kneel before Our Lady of Fatima. The gymnasium also served as a chapel: on the podium where the statue of the Blessed Virgin presided there was also an altar; Mass was celebrated every evening after work. The faithful, with their simple and trusting good will, after being taught by the sisters and vigorously exhorted by Father in Visaya, the regional dialect, promised Our Lady to pray to her every day with at least three Hail Mary’s and the invocation of Fr. Kolbe: “O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee, for those who do not have recourse to thee, especially for the Freemasons, and for those who are recommended to thee”, and to do “something” for her every day. The message of Fatima is being spread, and with these little seeds, it is a call to prayer and sacrifice, through Mary, in a spirit of reparation, to save our souls and those of the most hardened sinners.

The eight days flew by but were not all identical: one day was dedicated to receiving a large number of children with multiple disabilities or malformations, which are not often seen in our countries, either because they are eliminated (abortion is not yet legal in the Philippines, despite the recurring attempts of the “forces of progress”), or because they are able to be treated and healed, which is impossible for most Filipinos who do not have the means to pay for this sort of treatment (no social security coverage, except for tuberculosis). Some of these little patients were able to be treated thanks to the ACIM.

During the last two days, a delegation of volunteers went out on a mission to two mountain villages: two doctors, a dentist, a pharmacist, several nurses and some non-medical volunteers. The operation was conducted exactly as at the Capitol but in a barangay (district) under the covered playground of a parish or school. They were accompanied by some sisters, Fr. Tim, and Fr. Jacques Péron, who was dragged into this adventure in the Philippines by two “multiple offenders” who work at his school in France. It was the same principle: while the doctors saw the patients, the sisters taught catechism to children and adults, explaining the meaning of the scapular, etc. The priests preached in the streets, with megaphones, announcing the evening Mass, at which hundreds of villagers assisted, administered Extreme Unction several times, and received the engagements of the new Knights of the Immaculate: hundreds of them! At the end of one of these missions, one barangay leader consecrated his district to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Imagine your mayor doing that!

We’ll Be Back Next Year!

One can only imagine how exhausting these eight days were, but also how full of emotion: sorrow and joy – often mingled, always strong and deep – sorrow at seeing all these children whose suffering we could not relieve, consolation at sometimes being able to lessen their pain and misery, and give them hope by covering the cost of their treatment – Hippocrates’ wisdom is true even in the Philippines: “Heal sometimes, relieve often, console always!” Sadness at learning of the death of a patient, carried off by blood poisoning on the first day of the Mission, but joy at knowing he is in Heaven, since he was baptized and received Extreme Unction before leaving for the hospital where he breathed his last: the Mission had its protecting Angel from the first day. But it would take a book to tell you everything!

The impressions were often so strong that it was a good thing these intense moments were broken up by some time to relax, allowing the volunteers to catch their breath! A Thanksgiving celebration, courtesy of the governor with a giant paella, and regional folklore and songs. For lovers of local specialties, tasting a “balut”, a important part of Filipino gastronomy: an almost hatched duck egg, steam-cooked. In other words, you swallow a whole duckling –  an initiation that was beyond the ability and taste of some newcomers! On Sunday, after the Mass celebrated by Fr. Stehlin at the Gensan mission church and dozens of engagements in the Militia Immaculatae, the parish prepared a joyful feast of welcome and thanksgiving, a true image of the Filipino people’s love of life: a roasted pig, with charming dances by the children of the parish. Some are surprisingly similar to the traditional Basque dances, probably a result of the Spanish influence. The last evening was joyful and moving as well: who did not shed a tear when Yolly and her team of Filipino volunteers intoned the Scout promise song in a hesitant and charming French? The refrain that everyone took up in chorus resounded in the room and in our hearts: “I wish to love unceasingly, more every day. Please help me keep my promise true, Lord Jesus, I pray!”

Did they want to convince us to come back for next year’s Mission? They couldn’t have found a better way to go about it!