by Msgr. Ildebrando Jesus Aliño Leyson
Pedro Calungsod, Lay Catechist and Martyr – this is the official title given by the Vatican to the next Filipino Saint. The title gives us the reason why he is going to be counted among the Saints of the Universal Church. The role of a Catholic Catechist is to teach the Faith of the Catholic Church both by word and example. The Vatican underlines the relevance of Blessed Pedro in our day to the point that the canonization of this teenage Visayan lay catechist and martyr this coming October 2012 will highlight the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.
Blessed John Paul II himself said in his homily to catechists on December 10, 2000, “Your work, dear catechists and religion teachers, is more necessary than ever and requires on your part constant fidelity to Christ and to the Church. For all the faithful have a right to receive from those who, by office or mandate, are responsible for catechesis and preaching answers that are not subjective, but correspond with the Church's constant Magisterium, with the faith that has always been taught authoritatively by those appointed teachers and lived exemplarily by the saints. […] An intellectual knowledge of Christ and his Gospel is not enough. For believing in him means following him. Therefore we must learn from the Apostles, from the confessors of the faith, from the saints of every age who helped to spread Christ's name and to make it loved by the witness of a life generously and joyously spent for him and for their brethren”
Even though he was only a teenager, Blessed Pedro Calungsod already knew the Christian Faith by heart; he lived the Faith; he shared the Faith to others and he died in witness to the Faith. Francisco Antonio de Castro, a Spanish poet, wrote in 1723 about the immediate reason for the death of Blessed Pedro saying that it was because he was preaching the Faith that the assassins hurled spears at him: obstinaronse los dos indios al ver al indio cristiano predicar y le tiraron muchas lanzas. No wonder he was referred to as a vertueux catechiste, a virtuous catechist, in a book about the Mariana Mission written in French by Charles le Gobien, S.J. in 1700.
But how did a boy from the Visayas become a catechist in the far flung Mariana Islands? It was the strategy of the Jesuits who were evangelizing the Visayas in the 1600’s to train young boys as assistants or catechists to help them in their missions. The training was done in Jesuit-run boarding schools for boys. The missionaries chose boys because these were children of happy and affectionate disposition, not at all bashful or shy, well affected towards the missionary priests, lively and intelligent. By winning the boys, the missionary priests would also win the parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends so as to get them to catechism lessons, confession, communion and spiritual conferences. The boys would learn the alphabet, language, culture, civil and Christian usages, and spread them in their villages afterward.
Majority of the boys were below 18 years old. They usually started training at the age of 12. The boys were taught not only the catechism but also writing, Spanish and liturgical music. They soon were able to act as Mass servers and choristers. They were sent in pairs to outlying villages of the mission. The young catechists would gather the villagers together in the chapel and catechize them in their own native language.
Life in the boarding schools is very similar to that of the seminary. The boys would rise at the sound of the bell every morning. After a visit to the Blessed Sacrament and a short meditation in the chapel, they would form the customary procession and go through the town chanting the catechism. The townspeople would fall in line behind them and follow them to the mission church for Mass. Classes were held morning and afternoon on weekdays. They also had to learn painting to enable themselves to decorate village chapels and provide themselves with drawings as visual aids to catechetical instruction. They also learned how to present stage plays on the lives of saints to attract and better instruct the people.
Afternoon classes over, the boys would proceed to the church to pray the Rosary and sing the “Salve Regina”, and then, on to their games till suppertime. They would sit down to meals at long refectory tables, European-fashion and listen to spiritual readings. After evening recreation, they would meet in what might be called a workshop or practice session, during which one of them would give a catechetical instruction or tell an exemplary tale as he would when the time would come for him to take part in active missionary work. An examination of conscience and night prayers in the chapel would end the busy day.
Blessed Pedro Calungsod may have attended one of the boarding schools of the Jesuits in the Visayas that is why he was one of those young boys brought by Blessed Diego Luís de San Vitores to the Marianas. It was in the Mariana Mission that he applied all that he learned at the boarding school. He must have helped build and embellish chapels with the available materials they had and prepared visual aids for the catechism classes. He must have taught catechism in Chamorro, the language of the natives in the Marianas, and chanted the catechism as was the vogue in those days.
Today, Blessed Pedro Calungsod may not be considered among the professional catechists who have undergone adequate professional training and are certified as such. He may be considered only among the volunteer catechists who in one form or another help in the catechetical ministry. Yet, there is something Blessed Pedro surely possessed as a catechist which professional or volunteer catechists of today still have to prove they possess – that of being a good catechist. Pope Benedict XVI says that “the secret of a good catechist is to live what you preach. […] Unite the transmission of right doctrine with personal testimony, with the firm commitment to live according to the commandments of the Lord and with the lived experience of being faithful and active members of the Church. This example of life is necessary so that your instruction does not stay in a mere transmission of theoretical knowledge about the mysteries of God, but that it leads to embracing a Christian way of life." (Benedict XVI, To the Bishops of Costa Rica, February 8, 2008)