Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Bishop Skylstad in Manila: ‘a strong sense of solidarity’ among Asian Catholics

by Bishop William S. Skylstad

(From the Aug. 20, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)

(Editor’s note: Bishop Skylstad is in Asia for a week this month, first attending the meeting of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), and then on to visit Vietnam. He sent this report and these photos Aug. 14.)

The FABC meeting is held every four years in different locations in Asia. This is the ninth such meeting. There are about 80 bishops here, representing about 26 countries. Along with me is Ginny Farris from our Asian desk at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in Washington D.C. Ginny has about 30 years experience with the State Department so she knows the lay of the land in this complex part of the world.

My flight to Portland, Honolulu, and Manila last Sunday was uneventful, all in daylight with a nine-hour time difference. Our trip to the hotel where we are staying was marked by moderately heavy traffic with lots of jeepneys and three-wheeled taxis (a motorcycle with side cab). Jeepneys are interesting: elongated contraptions, usually highly decorated, with open side windows and backs. They don’t look too comfortable, but they are a popular mode of transportation for Manila’s 14 million people.

The bishop visited a school sponsored by the Vincentian Fathers, for children who are forced by poverty to live in the dump not far from Manila.

The general purpose of the meeting is to produce a paper, “Living Eucharist in Asia.” I am one of five fraternal delegates to the meeting. Others represent Spain, Australia, Oceania, and Canada. On Monday afternoon each of us was asked to give a greeting to the assembly. I found the bishops to be most friendly and gracious. The hospitality couldn’t be better.

The meeting of bishops from this part of the world is a rich experience. Sitting at table with bishops from Japan, Mongolia, Myanmar, Taiwan, Nepal and so on, is fascinating. Some have visited the U.S., but few know where Spokane is. (By the way, on the flight from Honolulu, the reserve pilot sat next to me for his rest period. He asked if I knew where Loon Lake was!) Despite the fact that the countries involved are spread out over a wide, area, there is a strong sense of solidarity among them, and they are proud of their Asian heritage. Outside of the Philippines and East Timor, the percentage of Catholics compared to total population is in the single digits, and quite a few are below 1 percent. With populations primarily Muslim, or perhaps Buddhist, their cultural experience differs widely from ours in the United States. Contrast that with the Philippines where, in Manila, the University of St. Thomas will celebrate its 400th anniversary.

The days of the meetings are long and always conclude with a little social event. The weather has been warm to very hot, but our rooms are air-conditioned.

The meeting itself consists of a lot of input, small group discussions, and information sharing about individual countries and the FABC. Ginny and I were assigned to different groups.

Young women roast and sell chicken feet near the Vincentian Fathers’ rectory.

Since Tuesday afternoon’s discussions were focused on the FABC by-laws, we fraternal delegates were free. Through the arrangement of the local Catholic Relief Services office, the Vincentian Fathers took Ginny and I on a tour of the garbage dump in Quezon City, just on the outskirts of Manila. Some 200,000 people live there, 50,000 of them living in the dump itself. Perhaps you remember the tremendous tragedy in 2000, when a dump slide killed 300 people. Only 260 of the bodies were recovered; the rest remain somewhere in the huge mountain of refuse. Each day, 400 trucks bring in garbage. The 50,000 who live here are probably concentrated in an area of about one square mile, in shanties cobbled together on top of the detritus. What a scene of stark poverty!

Jeepneys are a popular form of transportation in Manila. (IR photos courtesy of Bishop Skylstad)

We followed a line of trucks going in. The trucks have racks perhaps 12 feet high. Children jump onto the trucks and are allowed to scavenge whatever they can before a certain point where no one under 14 is allowed to continue. As the trucks dump their loads at the top of the mountain of trash, scavengers have just 15 minutes to take what they can before the refuse is bulldozed over the edge of the mountain. It is a way of life for the poor.

The Vincentian priests are doing great work there. They have just put up a church, though there are no walls as yet, and a chapel. They offer clinics – general medical help, plus aid for the handicapped and elderly. They also sponsor a school, where the first graders enthusiastically sang for us their song about a butterfly. The rectory is in the middle of all of this. It is pretty rudimentary at best. Right next to the rectory were a couple of young girls running a little vending stand, roasting chicken feet. Boys were playing basketball in the street. The experience is so very humbling.

As I write this on Friday afternoon, Aug. 14, we will go to various parishes tomorrow evening for Mass, and then on Sunday, Aug. 16, Ginny and I will head to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, where we will be hosted by Cardinal Jean Baptiste Pham Minh Man, a wonderful man whom I have met before. I will send a separate report on that visit.

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