Grace - not her real name - is 19, comes from a background of extreme poverty and has a case in court against a man, a relative, who took advantage of her when she was younger.She got her chance to go to school when she was welcomed by the Capuchin Tertiary Sisters of the Holy Family to Welcome Home here in Bacolod City. She was then 13 or 14, couldn't read or write, sing or dance, nor had she made her First Holy Communion. She ws prepared by the Sisters for that and can sing and dance and has grown in self-confidence.
Grace is thankful to God for the new life she has been given. One part of her ongoing suffering is that so many times when she has gone to court for a hearing - she always asks me to pray for her when one is scheduled - is that so often these hearings have been postponed for trivial reasons. I see this as a form of abuse.
We have elections coming up here in the Philippines on 10 May for every office from President down to local councillor. Before Mass last Sunday, which was Good Shepherd Sunday and vocations Sunday, I said jokingly to Grace 'Vote for me!' 'Para ano, for what? she asked. I responded 'Para Presidente, para Mayor, para Gobernador, para sa tanan, For President, for Mayor, for Governor, for everything!'
I was taken aback and touched by her riposte, 'Para pari, for priest!'
I referred to this during my homily, which was based on the Gospel. Two Sundays before Bishop Joseph Nacua OFMCap of Ilagan, in Luzon, had celebrated the Golden Jubilee Mass of Srs Maria Elena Echavarren TC and Encarnación Arangueren TC. He mentioned at the beginning of his homily that some of the girls had asked where his episcopal staff was. He explained that only the bishop of the diocese uses it during Mass. I used this to explain how shepherds used their staff to rescue strayed sheep. And then I said that Grace had got to the heart of the matter when she made it clear she would 'vote' for me 'for priest'.
Fr Michael Sinnott with the Capuchin Tertiary Sisters and aspirants at Holy Family Home. The aspirants did a traditional Filipino dance in his honour at a short programme.
I've been going to Holy Family Home for more than seven years now. The girls know me as a father-figure and they feel free to joke with me. But they know me even more as a priest who celebrates Mass with them on most Sundays and on other special occasions. Some of them will remind me that they want to confess their sins. Grace is one of the most regular in availing of this sacrament.
The Sisters and the girls prayed their hearts out for Fr Michael Sinnott, my Columban confrere, when he was kidnapped last October. They were overjoyed when he visited them to celebrate Mass with them and to thank them in February.
At times I feel discouraged by what is happening in the Catholic Church and by the almost total lack of vision among candidates at every level for the forthcoming election. But Grace's assurance that she would 'vote' for me 'Para pari, for priest', lifted my heart and reminded me once again of the great grace I have received from God through my vocation.
These children certainly know who is getting their vote 'for priest'!