MANILA, Philippines — As the world watches the rapturous reception Pope Francis is receiving in the Philippines Jan. 15-19, it’s easy to forget that there are 10 million more Filipinos out there, likely equally enthused, but who won’t be seen or heard in the streets this week.
That’s because they’re now living outside the country, a vast Filipino army of migrants who have left in search of economic opportunity, and who form the backbone of an intensely missionary Filipino diaspora all over the world.
With a faith first brought to them by Spanish missionaries for more than 300 years, and then by missionaries from the United States in the first half of the 20th century, these Filipinos have been dubbed “the new Irish,” often representing the most dynamic pockets of the Catholic Church in many places around the world, just as Irish immigrants and missionaries did in the 19th century.
A solid chunk of those Filipinos outside the country are Catholic priests, today serving in parishes and missions all over the world, from the United States to Australia.
“We’re aware that the faith we received was from the missionaries themselves,” said Monsignor Raymundo Sabio. “We always had the idea that faith has to be shared, not kept to yourself.”
Sabio is one of those missionaries. Appointed the Church’s prefect of the Marshall Islands in 2007, he’s one of five priests and eight nuns who tend to the 5,000 Catholics who live in the country.
The Marshall Islands are located in the Pacific, and once were a US territory.
Today, Sabio said, Filipino missionaries are working in Europe, the United States, Africa, Asia, and Latin America, giving back the faith they inherited. Many are priests or members of religious orders, but the heart of the Filipino missionary force aboard is made up of millions of lay men and women, often working in the cleaning and construction trades to support families back home.
“We go to countries such as Italy, where our women work as nannies,” Sabio said. “They share the love of God for their children. They’re the ones teaching Italian kids to pray the Our Father and the Hail Mary.”
“For us,” he said, “not doing so is not an option.”
Interestingly, Sabio considers the Philippines’ poverty as a key factor underlying this missionary zeal. A quarter of the population is under the poverty line, living on less than $400 a year.
“I know that many don’t agree with me, but I think God doesn’t want for us to be a rich nation because then, everyone would come back home,” he said.
He believes that through such difficulties, God flushes his people out so they can share their faith.
“Again, I know many disagree with me, but I think that in a way, our poverty as a country is a blessing from God,” he said.
Sabio agrees with the idea that Filipinos are like the new Irish for the Catholic Church, mainly because they learn to adapt to their new communities, working hard and enlivening the cities they go to.
“They integrate beautifully, but without losing their own culture,” Sabio told Crux in Manila, where he’s one of thousands of Filipinos who have returned home for the papal visit.
“They’re not exclusive, not ghettoish,” he added.
Kim is one such worker. She’s been an illegal immigrant living in Rome for the past 6 years, taking care of the children of three families while cleaning houses in the weekends. A widow since 2007, she left her five children behind in the Philippines with their grandmother so she can earn money to send back to them.
“I want to give them an education,” said Kim, who declined to give her last name for fear of deportation. “But back at home I couldn’t earn enough to do so.”
She talked to Crux as she was leaving an evening Mass at Santa Prudenza Church in Rome, one of the many that feature weekly services in Tagalog, the native Filipino language.
There are only 7,335 priests for 80 million Catholics in the Philippines, a ratio of 1 priest for every 11,000 people. (By way of comparison, in the United States it’s 1 to 1,300.) As a result, the missionary-minded Filipinos themselves sometimes depend on missionaries from other countries to help fill the gap.
One is the Rev. Lorenzo Ruggiero, an Italian priest who came to the Philippines 18 years ago. He told Crux he’s a Filipino at heart.
Ruggiero disagreed with Sabio on one point. To him, the migration of Filipinos aboard in search of work isn’t necessarily a blessing, because it often has the effect of splitting husbands and wives apart.
“It’s done out of love, not hatred for the spouse,” says Ruggiero. “This is a challenge that we need to address.”
One of the consequences of living abroad, says Ruggiero, is that the sense of family is being lost, and in the long run, this will have a deep negative effect on society.
As he put it, “How can you grow as a nation when society’s main cell is broken?”