Witnessing to the Gospel of Life
There are many Filipino families in the parish and there will be a baptism every week until August of one of their number. It is their work in the hospital which has brought the Filipinos here and from my point of view it makes for a wonderful atmosphere there. I imagine it was similar in the Fifties when there were many Irish nurses at work. It is so nice to go onto a ward and to be greeted with a warm smile and a “Hello, Father”. I was called to a dying man the other night and the nurse who had called me came and knelt by his bed and prayed with me as I said the commendation for the dying. What care she showed for her patient -– what the health service jargon now terms “holistic care”.
Like so many other things now included in mission statements, it has been going on as long as there have been good people working in the health service. Indeed, the Sisters of Mercy who went to nurse with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea were practising “holistic care” 140 years ago, long before it had been thought of as a performance target. But I digress.
Sunday’s baby was baptised Rose-Marie. I had visited the family in their home earlier in the week. Though spotlessly clean it was shabby and very sparsely furnished. At seven o’clock the husband was just arriving home from his work in a factory some 20 miles away. He travels there by bus. The wife works in the intensive care unit in the hospital.
They were cheerful and pleasant and effusively grateful for my visit. “We never expected the priest to come to us,” they said. So we duly celebrated the baptism with friends present and the usual Filipino custom of having at least a dozen godparents. Afterwards the couple gave me an extremely generous donation.
They had invited all their friends to a local Chinese restaurant for a meal and they invited me too. Their hospitality enabled me to get to know more people. The Filipinos aren’t exactly shy; but they are, I would say, deferential. They greet me after Mass but don’t often linger to chat, so it was lovely to have the opportunity to spend some time with them. I felt it was important as they make up a significant number of my flock. Moreover, they are exiles and they need the support of the Church. Their hearts must need be divided. “All of us are supporting two families,” one man said to me. “One here and one back at home.” How they do this on nursing salaries I do not know, and while they are clearly a huge asset to the hospital, something in me is uneasy that we should continue to staff a health service by employing people whose standard of living at home is so low that it a renders a poor English salary acceptable to them.
Some of them have to leave spouses and even children behind in the Philippines until they have managed to establish themselves here. Some live in nurses’ accommodation provided by the hospital, others have moved out; many couples share a flat.
There was something deeply edifying about spending time with these joyful, gentle people whose vocation is caring, and who have left home and loved ones far away so that they may better support them. It strikes me that they are living very unselfish lives; that they are far removed from our own culture of looking after number one.
Gently they spoke about how surprised they are by the number of elderly people who live alone here, and how odd it is that so many people have to live in old people’s homes. The care of the elderly was clearly something they regard as the prerogative of the family, not the state. To them, family life means much more than the nuclear family – families are extended. I asked one woman what she missed most and she said: “My cousins. Back at home there was always someone to be with, someone to talk to, or to help you.” On the day declared “A Day for Life” by the bishops’conference, I felt I had been shown something very profound. As ever, the Holy Father is surely prophetic in his assertion that surrounding the actual issues of euthanasia, abortion or contraception, there is a culture. These issues are the barometers of the value we place on children or the elderly from day to day. If the life of old people is a burden and a trouble to your own pleasure and ability to get on, then of course you will soon look for selfish solutions. Our culture has developed a “What’s in it for me?” approach. This is deathly, for that which I seek within myself is bound to die.
I asked them to tell me what the parish could do to support the Filipino community.
“Would you like to have a Filipino Mass once in a while?” I wondered.
“Oh yes, they cried, “then we could sing our Filipino songs.” I will talk to the national Filipino chaplain and see if it can be arranged. I would love them to be able sing their songs, but in their witness to the Gospel of Life it seems to me they are already singing the songs of Zion in an alien land.