On the last day of our stay in the Philippines, my brother priests and I, along with a smaller group of fellow pilgrims traveled to the Motherhouse of the Religious of the Virgin Mary, the RVMs, as they are known in the United States. This community of religious women, founded in the Philippines, have served in the Diocese of Sacramento for over 50 years.
The sisters serving in Sacramento have considered it an episcopal sin that I had not visited their Motherhouse during my first visit to the Philippines four years ago. There were no subtleties in communicating the expectation of my visit on this return trip. So, on the morning of our last full day in Manila, a van was sent to retrieve me and the others for the ride to Quezon City and the home of the RVM.
Riding through traffic-snarled Manila was a penitential exercise of a not too long duration until, with the honk of our driver, the gates of the RVM Generalate opened up on a verdant campus comprised of various residences, offices, schools, and retreat facilities of the Sisters, all nestled among trees and plants that shelter the place from the harshness of the City.
Mother General, Sr. María Corazón and most of her Council were waiting on the verdanda of the main building. There was also a restless group of junior sisters who quickly got themselves into formation to welcome me with a song. The vivacious young group of women were mostly Filipina. I noticed young women from Indonesia and Ghana as well.
It was encouraging to see their enthusiasm. After they finished their musical greetings, I enjoyed watching their playful banter among themselves. They seemed to have a genuinely good spirit. After a few words of exchange they went back to their classes.
Following this, I was escorted over to another group of sisters, the elderly and infirm sisters needing extra care. They were no less vivacious than the junior sisters. Most were seated in chairs or wheel chairs but they sang effortlessly with their hands extended in welcome to me and other pilgrims. One of the sisters asked who of the group had served in Sacramento. Hands went up. There was before me a legacy of service and devotion. Along with other places in the Philippines and around the world, Sacramento has benefited from these generous, cheerful lives.
Afterwards, the sisters took me around to those who are frail and confined to bed. There was no singing but the joy of the Lord was apparent in even their often silent smiles. The sisters who accompanied me told me stories about each one. One story remained with me. This now frail and quiet sister had been one of the pioneers involving the sisters in social services. She had dedicated herself to working with the incarcerated.
When we had finished visiting the sisters who were elderly or infirm, I was taken to review their archives. Besides chronicles and journals of the congregation’s activities, there was a vivid display of photographs. Among these were the old photos of young sisters dressed in wedding gowns preparing to take their vows as then was the custom for some women religious communities. These charming black & white recollections from the past gave a context for the joy I saw on the faces of the women, from the juniors to those wise virgins waiting to meet the groom whenever he arrives. Not to diminish the joy on the faces of the junior sisters, but I sensed a knowing trust in the joy of those whose relationship with their beloved Lord had grown from the zealous expectation of youth to the graceful habits of familiarity, “I know mine and mine know me.” (Jn. 10.14)
I assured the sisters of my prayers and asked that they do the same for me. Whether we are speaking of religious life, priesthood, or the daily lives of the baptized, the key testimony is one’s personal relationship with the Lord Jesus. My visit with the sisters of the RVM reminded me of how important it is to witness to the joy that only Jesús brings.
Click here for a Facebook photo album that follows Bishop Soto's journey in the Philippines.