‘Magellan’ Was A Belgian

By Samuel Goyvaerts 

Samuel Goyvaerts, a Belgian, is a university student. His father, Jan, also has an article in this issue. 

‘Hello! My name is Ferdinand Magellan. I’m the one who tried to sail around the world, the first westerner to set foot in thePhilippines.’ Or at least I played him in the Filipino festival in Vilvoorde, Belgium, in September last year. My real name is Samuel Goyvaerts. I’m 18 and live with my parents and five brothers and sisters near the Carmelite monastery in Vilvoorde.

My siblings and I had to play and dance the Sinulog. Sister Carmela OCD told us the history and taught us the dance. Correction: taught my brothers and sisters. I, as a ‘western intruder’ didn’t have to dance. The eldest of the family, I had to play the role of the conqueror of the Philippines. I had to enter the scene with binoculars, a sword and a possessive look in my eyes. For me that didn’t involve much adaptation. I just had to play an all-knowing westerner bringing ‘civilisation’ to a supposedly uncivilised country. At least that’s what was always taught to us. But watching the play and learning from the Sisters about the Philippines, I realised that we should learn from the Filipino people, too.

In Belgium, festivals celebrating what we believe are rare. We have processions, but they’re always very serene and restrained. We sing but often our hymns, while sincere, are old. In our Sunday Mass the joy of the Lord is sometimes untraceable. There are different explanations for this. Firstly, we Belgians are, by our very nature, not that joyful. I think we do get a lot of joy in our faith but we don’t have the spirit to express this joyful feeling. We are far more reticent in expressing our feelings, very different from the Sinulog. Secondly, we don’t have a tradition of dancing and feasting in celebration of God’s greatness.

When I played in the Sinulog, when I saw and talked to the Sisters and other Filipinos, I realised it is something I think the Belgian Church misses. We do have youth Masses and songs that try to fill the ‘gap of joy.’ But the ordinary Eucharist doesn’t express the feeling of joy I observed in the Filipino festival and which I was happy to be part of.

Another great difference is the devotion. Every time before we practised the Sinulog we prayed to the Santo Niño. And theSinulog itself, dancing and celebrating with a statue of the Holy Child, is very uncommon to us. That is something we’ve lost here. There still is devotion, but it’s something for elder people. We lost a great deal of devotion because of secularisation. Practising Catholics like me are a minority in Belgium, and practising youngsters are an even a smaller minority. Being Catholic is mostly seen as old-fashioned. I think that is also a reason for our hesitation to express joy and devotion. Some feel even ashamed about still believing in God.

All this looks rather pessimistic. On the contrary, many of us young people are on the right track, trying to reintroduce belief in society and to think and act positively about the future. But there is still progress to be made and I hope we can keep learning from our Filipino brothers and sisters.