Three Years of Jubilation: Zambo Catholics Are Set to Enter a New Faith Experience

“Zamboanga today, its unique culture, its Chavacano language, its songs, its dances, its people’s heart and charm, its festive and respectable character, its people’s piety and sense of the divine, all this has been greatly shaped, influenced and sustained by the presence of the Catholic faith among our people”, Archbishop Romulo G. Valles said.

“Let us celebrate the jubilee with extraordinary intensity,” the archbishop exhorted during the launching of the three-year Jubilee celebration last April 10 in joyful yet solemn rites held at the Nuestra Señora del Pilar shrine.

That 400-year religious fervor – popularly represented by a lively devotion to the Patroness – will reach an unprecedented fever pitch in the series of inter-parish pilgrimages, renewal assemblies, forums, and basic ecclesial community gatherings scheduled for the next three years. Since he assumed as head of the city’s Catholic community one year and five months ago from his stewardship of Kidapawan City, Valles said he has been amazed and gratified by the Zamboangueños’ deep sense of piety.

“It is the most beautiful thing I discovered here”, he said in an interview with PeaceWorks. He attributes this proverbial fear of God to the serious work of the eight prelates who preceded him, and the countless missionaries whose pioneers first set foot here in 1593.

In his research for the jubilee documentation, Dr. Hermenegildo Malcampo verified at least 25 Spanish Jesuits who were martyred in just the first hundred years or so of Spanish occupation of Zamboanga. European power politics forced the Jesuits to turn over Zamboanga to the Recollect friars in 1768, but the frontier enclave was restored to them in 1864. All these priests, including the Spanish Claretians who came as lately as 1951, built schools to educate the populace as soon as they finished the barrio’s chapel. One outgrowth of this strategy was the development of Chavacano as the local lingua franca, proudly persisting to this day.

Ateneo de Zamboanga University, today’s foremost Catholic school in Western Mindanao, formally started as “Catolica escuela” in 1912, but Malcampo said its roots date back to 1635, when Fort Pilar was built and the Jesuit missionaries opened a school inside the garrison to teach the Subanon and Sama children living in the fledgling town. Ateneo is only one, though, among the several Catholic schools in the diocese today, run by missionaries and diocesans alongside their many other programs. There are at present 23 parishes and over 50 secular priests, not counting the busy missionary congregations.

One of Valles’ projects for the grand jubilee is the translation of the Old Testament into Chavacano by the city’s biblical commission. The New Testament already has a Chavacano version. The archbishop has also commissioned Dr. Malcampo to write a standard Chavacano liturgy for Eucharistic services in all churches.

An upcoming third Archdiocesan Pastoral Assembly (of Zamboanga, or APAZ) may especially target the strengthening and expansion of the Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs), said Valles. He is particularly intent on developing better BEC leaderships, both lay and clergy.

Another priority is inter-religious activities. We need a new paradigm in inter-religious affairs, he said in effect. The second strand in the jubilee theme – “living the present in communion” – poses a special challenge to “find creative ways” to deal with city residents professing other faiths, he noted.

We need, too, to train more young men into priesthood, he said during the interview held amid the din of an ongoing general renovation of the Pastor Bonus seminary in Tetuan. When finished, the seminary can house as many as 75 aspirants. “I will be jumping for joy if we can reach that number”, he said with a grin.

But never the pushy type, Valles said he will undertake all jubilee plans only by “planting ideas” in his priests and lay leaders. Isn’t that how God works, too – ever through the heart-warming whispering of the Holy Spirit?

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