Filipino Diaspora: Modern-day Missionaries of the World
di Santosh Digal
Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) who are spread all over the world. The term denotes to Filipinos who are abroad indefinitely as citizens or as permanent or temporary residents of a different country and to those Filipino citizens abroad for a limited, definite period. OFWs take and practice their faith fervently wherever they go or are. OFWs are in more than 193 countries. That is why the Catholic Bishops of the Philippines deem OFWs as they become modern apostles of evangelization in the foreign countries where they go to work or immigrate.
Mary Jane Soriano, a 25-year college-graduate Filipino domestic worker, has been working in Hong Kong for some years. During her stay there, she always made a point to attend the Sunday Mass in a local church, even if her employer and his family belonged to another religion. Besides Mary’s humility, simplicity, hard work, honesty and other human qualities that inevitably impressed her employer is her indomitable Catholic faith the way she practiced—simple ways to keep her life and faith going and always trusting in God and pray daily, and be good and do good to others.
In due course of time, the employer and family voluntarily embraced Catholic faith with their own volition and interest. One reason for this was Mary who practiced her faith in a simple and sublime manner being a domestic worker inspired them in a non-subtle and non-assuming manner. Mary is one of the millions Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) who are spread all over the world.
An OFW is a person of Filipino origin who lives outside of the Philippines. The term denotes to Filipinos who are abroad indefinitely as citizens or as permanent or temporary residents of a different country and to those Filipino citizens abroad for a limited, definite period, such as on a work contract or as students.
About 80 percent of the Philippines’ 100 million people are Catholic and, unlike in many other countries where the faith has waned, the majority still practice with enthusiasm. And OFWs take and practice their faith fervently wherever they go or are.
About 10 percent of the population of the country are OFWs in more than 193 countries. Half of them are in the US, where over 85,000 more Filipinos continue to migrate every year. That is why the Catholic Bishops of the Philippines deem OFWs as they become modern apostles of evangelization in the foreign countries where they go to work or immigrate.
For Manila Archbishop Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, OFWs play a big role in sharing and proclaiming the "joy of the Gospel" given their sheer number. "Our overseas Filipino migrant workers have become the big missionary presence," says Tagle.
Government data shows that over 10 million Filipinos are living and working overseas with varied professions like medical doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers, caregivers, domestic helpers and others.
In Brunei, there are about 20,000 Catholics and 70 percent are Filipinos, those who are working in Brunei. Bishop Paul Hinder of the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia has appealed Filipino Bishops to send more Filipinos based in the Middle East to join the vicariate. About 90 percent of Hinder's apostolic vicariate is Filipino. Without the Filipino workers in the Middle East, Bishop Hinder would not have a diocese.
OFWs bring their faith to wherever they go. It is this faith that many OFWs and their families turn to prayers for guidance and strength to lessen the impact of separation caused by migration. Spain brought Christianity to the Philippines centuries ago and eventually, it has paved a way to make it Asia's largest Catholic country.
Now, with the West facing emptier pews, it's time for the "heirs" to become missionaries themselves and bring the faith back to Europe and other parts of the world as it is time for Asia to come back to Europe and America in order to "give back the faith."
OFWs are seen as heirs, who have received a legacy or an inheritance as a gift of faith, which cannot be used only for oneself, but it is to be shared it with others. OFWs share it even with those who have given them a legacy. They have received faith and now it's time to share.
With millions of Filipino migrants all over the world, Archbishop Gilbert Armea Garcera of Lipa, former chairman of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) Episcopal Commission on Family and Life said they have become missionaries, living their faith and setting examples to their host communities and countries. Besides being the most trustworthy employees, Filipinos abroad actively participate in church activities as they practice their faith deeply, religiously and vigorously.
Filipinos actively take part in church-related activities. They fill empty churches; fill the air with joyous songs, praising God. They are the answer to the prayer of parish priests who have only a few old people left in a parish. They are active in the parish. Many fallen-away Catholics return to the faith of their fathers led by a child catechized by a Filipina caretaker. A Filipina, taking care of children left alone by parents keeping up with young kids, shares the essentials of the Faith. The OFWs, who stayed away from churches at home, become fervent Catholics and even become apostles. In Christianizing others, they Christianize themselves.
Their efforts are efficacious, even without training in catechetics. God more than makes up for their shortcoming. God cannot be kept from being with those He loves. He always finds or makes the way. The hand of God is not shortened.
Filipino overseas maids or domestic helpers in Beirut, Lebanon, walking the dogs of their masters discovered a shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes. They made it a frequent place to visit. Not only do they fill empty cold churches, they also people have forgotten neglected shrines.
Late Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila, was able to send many priests to Rome for their annual retreat without spending since the money came from one who had returned to the church because of their children were practicing the faith. These had been catechized by a Filipina maid.
In Philadelphia (USA), the OFWs set up novenas on Wednesday. Not to Our Lady of Perpetual Help but to some other Saint. This shows that they were able to adapt. They carried their practices in the same way that the early Jesuits brought to South America through the Atlantic Ocean, and the dangers from Huegenots, their image of the House of Nazareth. In the diocese of Sacramento, California, they got the Bishop to allow the simbang gabi (pre-dawn Christmas novena Masses celebrated from Dec 16 to 24).
At peril of losing their lives, Filipino men and women and others in Muslim countries gather for the celebration of Mass and in sharing communion with those unable to go to the improvised chapels. Without a missioning ceremony, the OFWs are Christianizing a dechristianized Europe and Muslim countries. Just as the early church was spread not only by missionaries but by slaves, the same task is being achieved by lowly domestics.
These Filipinos who leave their families behind not do so not because of incompatibility or misunderstanding but “out of love”. Filipino husbands and wives live separate lives because they love their families which literally meant leaving their families behind for overseas employment.
Archbishop Gilbert Garcera of Lipa in Batangas says, however, while the economy benefits from foreign remittances sent back to Manila, the Philippine government should do its best to introduce and create humane and decent jobs to keep Filipino families intact.
Garcera recalled Popes Paul VI and John Paul II during their visits to Manila over ten years apart when they called on Filipinos to be “missionaries to the world.” “That is what’s exactly happening now,” he says. However, bishops say that OFWs as missionaries is "something that we did not plan.”
There have been a lot of efforts to awaken in the Filipino church this missionary calling. In the past 50 years, the church has had like the Filipino Mission Society which now is very much present in different parts of Asia. It also has the Lay Mission Association. It has lay missionaries also being sent to different parts of the world.
There are also many Filipino priests, as well as other religious men and women, working in different parts of the world.
The CBCP Episcopal Commission on Migrants says the Church through the Episcopal Commission recognizes the sacrifices and services of those working in foreign countries for their loved ones and country.
Foreign employers recognize their honesty and deep faith in God. Italian parents, for example, admit their children under the care and hands of Filipinos are safe. The Church is thankful to the OFWs for showing the true face of Filipinos who are God-fearing, hardworking and very patient.
They are new missionaries of faith to the world. The Church is praying for them to be safe in their workplaces, keep away from troubles and harms and to find caring and humane employers. Bishops have urged the government to ease the hardships of OFWs from dehumanizing conditions, unjust labor practices, and other abuses they face in parts of the world.
Filipino workers abroad are of big help to the economy remitting annually about US$2.55 billion. The remittances are hard-earned money from their blood, sweat and tears and products of their sacrifices and sufferings.
Filipino bishops reiterate the flight of Filipinos searching for jobs abroad, saying overseas workers are “missionaries of the Catholic faith” and help the Church in its mission to spread the Gospel.
Former CBCP president Archbishop Angel Lagdameo of Jaro says, “the notion on Filipino diaspora has been redefined" after they were given a clearer picture of the "new situation" of OFWs.
Coming from a predominantly Catholic country, these migrant Filipino workers in search of livelihood are equipped with the disposition and skills of lay missionaries, who will not necessarily preach, but live the Gospel of Jesus in the context of cultural and religious pluralism.
They are Filipinos in dialogue with other cultures and religions, which for them would be a new way of being Church and a new way of being in a mission, beyond adding to the number of church-goers in the receiving Churches which have fallen victim to materialism and secularism.
The CBCP has called on the government to focus on programs that would raise job opportunities in the country to prevent the flight of Filipino workers, who "have become part of our social concern."
"How many of them are made to suffer because they are deprived of employment rights, their salaries or travel documents unjustly withheld? How many of them, mostly women, are abused, assaulted or sexually harassed by employers? How many of them suffer the pain of isolation, alienation, and discrimination? And need we talk about the innumerable cases of broken families and conjugal infidelities?" asked outgoing Archbishop Angel Lagdameo of Jaro as he enumerated the concerns of the Church with the migration of Filipinos.
Lagdameo said it is about time to look at the "positive aspect" of the global migration of Filipinos.
"Along with our smiling faces, we are offering to the receiving countries or Churches, our Christian faith lived in the context of different cultures and religions. This positive aspect is likewise the new challenge of the Filipino diaspora. It is both a challenge and a concern," Lagdameo said.
"Two million Filipinos have already made the Middle East their home. Would you believe that 30 percent of the entire population of Malaysia that is 900,000 is Filipinos?" Lagdameo asked.
Of the 140,000 in Hong Kong, he said, a majority are Filipino domestic helpers.
In Italy, only one half of the more than 1 million Filipinos are listed; the same is said of the one million in Japan, he added.
"These few examples are only a portion of the migrant Filipinos we find present from America to Asia, from Africa to Oceania, from Russia to Australia and also from Jordan to Saipan," Lagdameo said.
Professor Amaryllis Torres of the College of Social Work and Community Development of the University of the Philippine and social scientist says there many flipsides of Filipino migrant workers. Due to OFWs phenomenon, there many “social costs”—children growing up with without parents’ physical presence and guidance but taken care of grandparents or other relatives pose many challenges for children. Another aspect is when one of the parents away, there are reports of illicit relations either or both ends.
“How to balance, the economic factor with social cost is the big challenge for the country and church,” Torres said.
According to observers, about 5000 Filipinos leave the country daily in search of employment overseas.
It is a dream the one day, there would be a day, where no Filipino would ever leave the country in search of job abroad for the sake of the family, she said.