Memories and Reflections from Barcelona

By Sister Marissa Piramide OSB

The Missionary Benedictine Sisters started pastoral ministry with the Filipino community in Barcelona in 1986. I came in 1992. A few days after my arrival, the Centro Filipino invited me to join the group representing them at a gathering of Moroccans in one of the churches. It was a peaceful assembly where the Moroccans expressed to the Spanish government and the wider community their issues, their appeals, as foreigners and migrants.

Scrutinized visitors

At the entrance to the church we were met by the police. Our spokesperson explained who we were and what our purpose was — to show support for and solidarity with the Moroccans. The police checked our identification cards. This took only a few minutes and then we were allowed to enter the church.

I’m not going to speak of police harassment. On the contrary, the Moroccans assembled there had police security. That’s why we outsiders had to be checked. The group’s right to peaceful assembly was recognized and their safety was assured. I had just come from the Philippines, with my experience of the Marcos regime followed by the unstable years of Cory Aquino’s presidency, rampant with vigilante atrocities.

Different from the Philippines

‘Unbelievable!’ I said to my companions. ‘Here they’re not only allowed to exercise their rights, but also enjoy police protection!’ In the Philippines, for doing the same, we only knew violent dispersals, teargas, shooting, detention. Baligtad! This was one of my initial impressions and experiences in Barcelona.

That would prove to be consistent. Often, as part of our ministry, we would visit government offices such as the ministries of foreign affairs, immigration, labor, justice, social welfare, culture and so forth, and also church offices. I remember only gracious hospitality in all of these.

Centro Filipino

It’s true that in Europe, Spain included, there is still a general attitude of condescension and discrimination towards non-white foreigners. But I cannot downplay the favorable treatment we got whenever we met with officials or dignitaries. I saw it was first come, first served, not the palakasan that’s so familiar to us Filipinos. But our Centro Filipino and its offspring-organizations in Barcelona have also done excellent networking and alliance building with government, non-government and church agencies.

We did have one unfortunate experience — being ungraciously ousted from the parish church where the Sambayanang Pilipino sa Barcelona had been celebrating Sunday Mass and other religious activities from the start. The parish priest reacted negatively to the creative liturgy we were doing in his church. He disliked the dramatizations, the lively singing and the cultural presentations integrated into our liturgy. The reaction was building up in him until the final rehearsal for the graduation of the very first batch of our Iskwelang Pinoy.

Let down

I was then in charge of the choir, the liturgy group and Iskwelang Pinoy – groups that prepared presentations for many occasions. After the very first year of Iskwelang Pinoy, we scheduled a graduation ceremony in the church at the end of Sunday Mass. We had the final rehearsal in the church the day before. We were practicing the graduation song, with a bit of choreography, when I got word from ‘manang’ of the church that the parish priest disapproved of the teatro, as he called it, and he would not allow it to be presented in his church.

What was I going to do? Cancel the whole thing? Impossible! In my limited Español I hastily explained to the ‘manang’ that that matter needed to be discussed by the Centro Filipino staff and that at the momento I had no alternative but to plead for the permission of the parish priest. The verdict — ‘Mañana sera la ultima! Tomorrow would be the last! That’s serious! Que pena!’

The show must go on

That night we had an emergency meeting of the five staff members of the Centro Filipino de Barcelona — Sisters Roberta, Monica, Paulita and myself, all Benedictines from the Philippines, and our chaplain Fr Avelino Sapida of the Diocese of Imus, Cavite. If the parish priest’s aversion was building up and he could no longer stand our activities, so too was our hinanakit towards him from previous incidents. The feeling was mutual. Our decision was, ‘Pues, mañana, will really be the ultima.’

We considered various possibilities and acted promptly. Father Avel went to see the archbishop. We got a favorable response and were given another church!

The lighter side

Before long I realized I was hyperactively engaged in our Barcelona mission. What do I mean? Our ministry in Barcelona continuously has programs and activities – even until now when the Benedictine Sisters are gone – in response to the needs of our kababayan. In this kind of apostolate, I realized, you have to be fit in body, heart and spirit. You have to be creative. It’s painstaking work. Then you have to be ready for an ample dose of conflicts and frustrations.

But there’s the other side to it. It’s not all work, conflicts and frustrations. With the Pinoy brand of camaraderie in a foreign land, you also get a bountiful helping of celebrations for birthdays, baptisms, first Communions, sportsfests, santacruzan, Indepen-dence Day, house blessings, caroling . . . Masaya, parang nasa Pilipinas ka pa rin!

Things I’ll bring with me

As I was leaving Barcelona for good, I knew the things that I would fondly remember: our work and apostolate, the charming city of Barcelona and other places, the wonderful people I came to know, Filipinos and Spaniards, or, to be more specific, the Catalans, as the people of that part of Spain are known.

One thing really touched my heart with sadness . . . but also with thankfulness, with a sense of accomplishment and with pride. That was all the energy, time and patience we invested in education, formation, organizing, working together, celebrating together, praying together, support in times of need. We Benedictine Sisters forged a lasting relationship with our kababayans. Together we went through difficult times: the demands of the work, the challenges of the ministry, the pain from misunderstandings and conflicts, the struggles to be, and to make a living in a foreign land. Then there were the birthing pains that come with empowering our people — more hurting when they learned to exercise their empowerment against us. In the end, I think all this only served to season relationships and temper the Sambayanan towards maturity.

More than co-workers

Like for example the volunteers and the leaders we formed. They are not just volunteers. They are friends to us, and we are friends to them, with strong bonds of mutual loyalty and gratitude. We feel at home with them, they feel at home with us. (Many would later decide to become Oblates – lay Benedictines – with us. At present the number is increasing.)

I was gripped, really gripped, with nostalgia and sadness to leave Barcelona even though I was ready to go. But I reflected on all the goodness I received from people and events. All the difficult times, all the weariness of mind and body, simply melted into the background — these didn’t matter anymore.

Pain of separation

I’m quite sure we all feel the same when we are transferred, preparing to leave, packing, leaving behind work, position, friends. In spite of everything else, nakaka-lungkot, nakakaiyak, not so much for the unpleasant things, but more for the beautiful experiences, the blessings. In the end, I see only people’s goodwill, generosity, kindness, enduring friendship and loyalty. And, yes, divine providence. Then I feel so small, humbled. What have I done to deserve such goodness? I came as a missionary, to do what I could to spread the Good News. In the end, I knew I received much more than what I gave.

Then it dawns on me: this must be the meaning behind, the purpose for, leaving and saying goodbye. It makes me regain perspective. It opens my eyes to the things that matter most, but are so easily taken for granted in the midst of routine and pressures.

I knew God did not create sunny

Spain in vain. Spaniards are a fun-loving, take-it-easy breed; in this regard like us Filipinos. It made me wonder, ‘who inherited from whom: we from them, or they from us?’ They also have – sometimes – this Spanish time, the mañana mentality, like our Filipino time. Did we inherit this from them or they from us? I can’t tell.