A Missionary ends her many years of service in Thailand

Sister Catalina has been in Thailand since its foundation in 1980 and this year 2023, 43 years after she will be going back to the Philippines to continue her journey.  Sr. Catalina spent some weeks putting a closure to her missionary experience.  She said goodbye to the people she has served and grown to love. 

In Thabom, Sr. Catalina is the most popular among the Sisters. Sr. Catalina is the depository of the stories of the families in Thabom.  She can say off-hand who is related to whom. People come to look for her to share their stories, unburden themselves and ask for advice.  She visited the sick and especially the abandoned old people. She brought them food for both body and soul.  During the good-bye ceremony in the parish, the parishioners came to offer her their blessing, a ceremony that is done only here in the North East.

Below is the sharing of Sr. Catalina when we spent the evening to say our good-bye

In our Rule of life #86 it states: “Some of the sisters have received a special call from God to leave country, family and land to love and serve the Church among other people. Their being sent in obedience confirms this call. This call involves separations and the acceptance of the loneliness and misunderstanding that apostles may meet. However they will experience at the same time, “an abundance of joy”.  Becoming part of a new people and culture, they will appreciate the friendship of those God gives them and rejoice in “the rich diversity of nations.”

This is the first gift I have received within my vocation to the Assumption: a missionary vocation where I was called to participate in two foundations at the periphery:  Kadingilan and Thailand.

It was also a grace to be able to accompany Sr. Milagros in the early years of the foundation of San Simon. Going to a place to start a foundation, is not the same as going to a mission that has been established for many years. This experience has taught me a deep trust that can only come from God because we did not know ahead of time, how the foundation will unfold nor did we have any map to follow.  It was a journey of faith and continual discernment which was not always understood, with the threat of closure.

Secondly, to be sent to a country that is of a different culture, language and religion carries with it a stronger challenge. Studying the language, passing the exams of P.4 doesn’t guarantee that you can speak the language well.  However, despite my limitations in verbal expression, God taught me another language, that of the heart.  I realized that I could relate, connect with persons of different cultures, religion and social status through the language of care, attention, respect and love. It is a process of letting God open my heart to learn how to approach these people while visiting the sick, sharing the simple moments of their lives (meals, moments of sickness and grief, family gatherings) and learning how to wait to be invited to their homes, to their temples, to their rituals, etc. Friendship happens with time even when I do not always have the words to express except through a smile, a touch, a listening ear/heart, presence. These attitudes of the heart and gestures can open doors too. It is also to witness to a life of poverty, of simplicity and living what is important to me: prayer, community, compassion, generosity and manual work (in Thathong, in Pakjan, in Thabom – I used to spend time, weeding the grounds, planting vegetables, coffee, fruits, etc….which could be consumed by the community but the produce were shared with neighbors. I felt too, that while I would invest a lot of my energies in each place, I felt I had to be always ready to leave the place and letting others celebrate the harvest.

Thirdly, living in Thailand was also to be available to the parish and its needs: ex. when I was asked by the parish priest in Bandon, to look for the Catholics especially those who did not go to Church for various reasons and I was sent by the bishop to visit families who had problems.  In St. John’s I was a member of the parish council.  In all the parishes I had been, I worked with the parish priest. Here in Thabom, I continued to visit the sick, bring communion as the needs arose.  More recently, I joined the legion of Mary, and the Seniors Citizens group.

Fourth, I opened myself to learning about the other religions by going with Sr. Mary Cecilia in her research in the monasteries and helped her make the contacts in the village where the research was being done. This was also done by attending with the villagers events in their homes and in the temples. An experience that I will never forget  in Thathong (where we, the only Christians among Buddhists and Muslims). The old woman whom I had been visiting passed away.  They immediately came to our house to invite Caridad, Mary Cecilia and I to participate in the washing of the corpse (normally reserved for the immediate family members). It was the 7th year of our stay in Thathong. The 3 of us were moved by this event because we were no longer aliens but taken in as part of the family.

Fifth, I understood through all these years, what it is to live for God alone and where one’s value in our consecrated life is not in what I can show in reports to the province but in entering fully the moments of apparent helplessness and uselessness, facing the pressure to be like the Philippines in the way we lived and did our apostolate. It is to accept being misunderstood, encounter moments of loneliness, humiliation and isolation….as well as difficulties in the community. At the same time, it is also being able to celebrate moments of joy and the tangible Presence of the God of Providence.

Most of my years in Religious life were spent here in the mission of Thailand. It is here where I have lived a religious life, truly immersed in the lives of the people but where I also felt, the deepening of my spiritual life.  “My gaze is on Jesus and the zeal for His Kingdom.”

It is here where I gave myself, all my energies and I am grateful to the Lord for this opportunity.  I have taken roots in this land among these people. I have found my home in this place. God gave me wonderful friends.  However, when Sr. Marie asked me to leave and go back to Manila, this separation and uprooting is my surrender to the Lord who has called me and sent me here and to whom I have given all of myself. Leaving is a Paschal experience but for a missionary, when it is time to disappear, we go without looking back.  I am not a person who can express myself in words so I have asked Sr. Mary Cecilia to help me put into words what I shared with her from my heart. I leave Thailand, carrying many experiences of joy and stripping. I bring with me many memories with the faces of people, some of whom have gone to heaven and some whom I will never see again.  But I am grateful for all of these years. Thank you ……