Pope Francis opened the Christmas season this year by celebrating with Filipino expatriates and other devotees the first of the nine “simbang gabi” Masses leading up to Christmas, and it has not been easy to recover from the impression that Filipinos have a truly special place in the life of the Roman Catholic Church. We Filipinos have the longest Christmas season in the world, partly because of these nine-day dawn masses, and partly because we begin singing our Christmas carols as early as September. Now the Filipino expats have infected the capital of Christianity with this spirit, and the Pope has given his go-ahead. This is an enormous good for the world.

For Filipinos living and working in Rome, this papal gesture and all the lights that illuminate the city do not quite fully replicate Christmas in the Philippines. There’s nothing like home, said several young people I spoke to, but they thought it’s a good beginning. They do not yet have the sound, the song and dance of Christmas in the Philippines, but someday, we should all be celebrating like we do at home. And we should all be as deeply Catholic as the saints buried with St. Peter’s bones.

It filled me with pride and joy to hear these words from young Italians born of Filipino workers in Rome or Milan, who spoke Italian like natives, English better than most Italians, and Filipino because of their resolve to remain Filipinos at heart forever.

One such young man is Marko, the only son of a couple of domestic workers. Born in Rome, his parents sent him back to the Philippines as a young man to get an education; then he came back to help run an international school for migrants—the only such school for Filipino migrants in all of Europe. This school tells a much bigger story about our migrants. Many young Filipinos and other nationals who cannot afford the high cost of education elsewhere are being helped here.

Started three years ago as a self-help project by Dr. Milagros Nabur, Ph.D., a longtime Filipino resident of Italy, with only three students, the school has grown into a viable institution with at least 122 students, including some non-Filipino nationals, and a teaching staff of 16. Nabur’s main interest was to help Filipino migrants who could not afford to send their children to expensive Italian schools and keep them out of potential trouble.

In recognition of Dr. Nabur’s pioneering work, the Italian government has gifted her with a three-storey building with spacious classrooms and school ground. This allows her to bid for formal recognition and assistance from the Philippine government.  On a previous visit to Rome, Education Undersecretary Anne Sevilla visited the school and was favorably impressed by what she saw. Together with two Dominican sisters who are working in Rome, my wife and I visited the school before Christmas, and were entertained by the students with a lively musical and literary presentation. We were favorably impressed as well.

Both Ambassador Domingo Nolasco at the Quirinale and Ambassador Grace Princesa at the Holy See would do well to visit its premises and give the home office their own recommendations. The most ambitious of the students want to become citizens of the world; one girl dreams of a career in space.

My wife and I missed the first simbang gabi with Pope Francis by one day, but we were able to join the papal audience at the Paul VI auditorium after a private Mass by Father Glen, a Filipino priest in Rome, at St. Peter’s Clementine chapel. We met another priest who had come from Sorsogon and was saying Mass in another chapel. At the auditorium, a large group of married couples received their blessings from the Pope; these included Ako Bicol Party List Rep. Zaldy Co and his lovely wife Mylene, who were celebrating the 20th anniversary of their nuptial vows. Together with their four young children, their meeting with the Holy Father took the largest, if not the longest, moment on the live Vatican TV screen.

Having given priority to the papal audience, the Cos’ actual renewal of their vows took place at the Villa Miani on the outskirts of Rome in the afternoon. Co’s family and friends from the Philippines, the US, Canada, Europe and other parts joined them on this occasion. Ambassador and Mrs. Nolasco came for the reception.

Nolasco appears to be doing a good job, and has recently acquired a new building for the Philippine embassy, which allows him to use the old embassy premises for other productive purposes. But he is saddled with one cultural and legal issue which Carlito San Nicolas, a transport service operator, has made it his own personal cause to pursue.

Under Italian law, Italian citizens write their names without including any middle name. This does not apply to foreigners. For instance, the Egyptians can write as many as four names. But a few years ago, a Philippine ambassador informed the Italian government that Filipinos in Italy would write their names the way Italians do. This had no basis in Philippine law. San Nicolas brought his case to the Italian government, but was told the decision had come from the Philippine embassy, which then claimed Italian law required it.

This is not a minor issue. It is a question of culture and law. Ultimately the Department of Foreign Affairs and Congress may have to look into it before San Nicolas’s lone voice becomes a majority.

Christmas came to Rome with the best possible weather. But even its most beautiful walks have their own perils, especially for seniors. On the cobbled stones near the Spanish steps, I found my 80-year-old knees unable to sustain my balance, I had to hurl myself against a young man and his father on the sidewalk to keep myself from falling. They turned out to be fellow countrymen, longtime residents of Rome. In the kindest act of the good Samaritan, the son who introduced himself as Mark Jeron Macadang from Batac, Ilocos Norte, assisted me all the way to my hotel, after making sure I had not suffered a stroke or anything.

My experience with ordinary Filipinos in Rome was as enriching as my spiritual pilgrimage to St. Peter’s. It allowed me to spend the final days of Christmas with my two of my daughters and their families in Iowa in the United States, thinking how truly blessed we Filipinos are. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


Thumbnail photo: Vatican Media/CBCP News