This article was originally published in the May edition of the Melbourne Catholic Magazine.
At the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary in Manaoag, Philippines, it is customary to kneel at the foot of the icon of Our Lady of Manaoag and touch her elaborately embroidered gown. While waiting to participate in this act of popular piety, people shuffle forward patiently in a slow-moving line. Nobody complains or pushes, no one takes photos, no one points or stares. Kneeling before Our Lady of Manaoag is not a tourist attraction but rather a religious practice that demands the quiet respect of everyone present.
As a mother, teacher, student and woman of faith, I often find myself feeling discouraged when I consider how faith plays out in popular religious practice in Australia. Australians don’t always express their religiosity in creative or public ways; in my experience, the practice of Catholicism in Australia seems restrained.
I’m a student of theology, and particularly drawn to the challenges of faith expression and the renewing identity of the Catholic Church. That’s why I recently welcomed the opportunity to re-evaluate my understanding of faith through a pilgrimage to the Philippines.
Through Australian Catholic University (ACU), Dr Gemma Tulud Cruz organised the postgraduate study tour. Dr Cruz is currently a lecturer at ACU and was formally a Fellow at DePaul University in Chicago. An inspirational educator and theologian, she skillfully guided her students through a wide variety of experiences to broaden their understanding of social justice and faith expression.
I had the opportunity to observe and participate in traditional Filipino popular piety and to examine the role of motherhood within a religious perspective. From my experience at Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, Manaoag, it struck me that the Filipino people express their faith unapologetically and without hesitation. People are open in embracing their faith and it is joyous.
Popular piety is also a means of connection. The trip provided a rare opportunity to connect with many different people. It was to our great fortune that Maria Socorro Villafania, former theologian and participant of the 2015 Synod on the Family, addressed us personally.
This warm and welcoming woman spoke to us openly about her childhood and work as an educator. However, what really struck me was the connection and value she placed on her family. When asked what was the most important role she has had to date, she replied without hesitation that it was her role as a mother and grandmother.
Through listening to her stories, I began to see and appreciate motherhood in a new light. Feeling both empowered and strengthened by her words, I discovered newfound value in myself as a mother; as someone who is responsible for the social and religious development of my own children.
In the Philippines I noticed that in both motherhood and expressions of faith, individual experience is inseparable from the communal. Touching the gown of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary is an individual act, yet the experience is enriched by the presence of the other people attending. In the same way, motherhood intertwines the personal with the shared. While your child is so reliant on you for care, your understanding of motherhood may focus on your individual experience. But it is also like a ‘club’ in which familiar experiences have the potential to band mothers together in solidarity. Both motherhood and expressions of faith have the ability to nourish and support.
In Filipino culture, this link between faith and motherhood seems to be a particular strength. Women are typically responsible for passing on the faith to their children. In that sense, the mother is the face of popular piety, evident in the numerous Marian devotions that can be observed across the Philippines.
I have two small children who are not used to my absence, so it was challenging for me to commit to this trip. I was worried that they would experience stress and anxiety and that the benefits to my studies would come at their cost. However, I came to realise that the learning, insights and experiences I gained while in the Philippines would in turn benefit my own children’s understanding of the world and of faith and religion. My pilgrimage developed into both a quest for knowledge and an exploration of joy.
At the close of the trip, our final reflection included the famous St Óscar Romero prayer, ‘A Step Along the Way’: ‘We plant the seeds that one day will grow … We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.’
As workers, we may not always see the fruits of our labour. I found the idea refreshing and one that rang true to my experience of faith and motherhood. We can’t always see how things turn out when it comes to faith or motherhood, we simply have to be faithful and do our best with the time we have.
When reflecting on the legacy I hope to leave, I sometimes romanticise it, imagining that I will make a significant contribution to society in some way. Following this trip, I have come to the realisation that the greatest contribution I can make to this world is to do God’s work: to raise my children well and with love, to educate them to the best of my ability, to show compassion and to live my faith with pride.
With that realisation came great joy. And joy is God’s way of telling us we are on the right track.
One’s faith and one’s role as a mother are singular experiences and yet deeply communal in nature. They are also interwoven and collaborative and therefore nourish one another. Most importantly, they are a source of great joy. Have faith, love those around you, and pray for the joy of God to be with you and your loved ones.
Claire O’Brien is currently studying a Masters of Professional Studies in Theology at Australian Catholic University.