Not so personal ‘personal’

A personal parish is created by the bishop to “better serve Catholics of a particular rite, language, nationality, ethnicity or other commonality which make them a distinct community”

I just got back from my hometown where I attended the installation of my brother-priest, Msgr. Ramon C. Tronqued, vicar general of the Diocese of Legazpi, in a new parish. It is the diocese’s practice, as in all other dioceses in the Philippines I presume, to rotate the assignment of priests every so many years.

An interesting new learning presented itself to me when I went to my brother’s new parish. The sign in front of the office read, “Our Lady of Lourdes Filipino-Chinese Personal Parish.” I learned that there are two personal parishes in the diocese, Our Lady of Lourdes in Tabaco City, Albay, and St. Jude Thaddeus Filipino-Chinese Personal Parish in Lapu-Lapu St., Legazpi City.

So what is a personal parish?

A personal parish is created by the bishop to “better serve Catholics of a particular rite, language, nationality, ethnicity or other commonality which make them a distinct community.” Ethnicity and particular characteristics define the territory. Ethnic Catholicism can be described as that special innate or deep seated quality of Catholicism that concedes, assents and accepts, at times, celebrates the differing socio-cultural boundaries of language, nationality, and faith.

Recalling my visit to the apparition site of Our Lady of La Salette in La Salette, a small town in the Alps, France, in 2015, I had the beautiful experience of participating in a Mass celebrated for pilgrims in the Basilica.

While at Mass, I was not aware where they were from but I was deeply touched and enthralled by the way the Mass was celebrated. I felt as if I were in the middle of the shooting of the film “Madagascar.” There was much swaying, dancing and singing with everyone, young and old, light and heavy, male and female, skipping and moving around the church in a joyful yet reverential manner at different parts of the Mass.

At some point, carried away by the beat and the movement, I found myself in front near the altar. At another point I was at the back where I originally stood at the start of the celebration. The presider was of course just as mobile as the faithful, yet amid all the movement, the singing and the prayers and responses, one knew that we were celebrating the Holy Eucharist.

Our host intended for us to stay overnight at the monastery as the rector, or in-charge at that time was a Filipino priest, but we were informed that a busload of pilgrims from Madagascar arrived (and we didn’t have any reservation) so they were fully booked. I told myself, I should at least hear Mass in the basilica.

Now recalling holding hands with the pilgrims and singing “Our Father,” they in Malagasy and French, me, in Filipino, my host, in English, I not only understood but felt what unity in diversity is. Yes, I danced to “Our Father” as they did.

Per Canon Law no. 518, a personal parish “carves out sanctioned spaces for expressing Catholicism in ways that distinctively cater to Catholics’ identities, preferences and needs which are not geographically determined.” This is the legal basis of the establishment of personal parishes.

Filipinos light incense sticks and offer prayers outside a Catholic church in Manila’s Chinese district in 2019. (Photo by Jire Carreon)

In the Archdiocese of Manila, the Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary-Binondo Chinese Parish on Ongpin Street is another parish serving the ethnic Chinese Catholics.

So what is the nature of a personal parish? Unlike parishes determined by territorial boundaries, the personal parish bonds together groups and peoples with similar characteristics, and they are spiritually cared for by the priest of that parish who is under the jurisdiction of the same bishop or archbishop of the diocese.

The uniqueness of these special groups of Catholics, recognized by the Church and accommodated to better serve the purpose of enhancing the faith, addresses the growing multi-culturality in evolving communities.

In the Philippines, it is clear that Filipino-Chinese Catholics are served well by the existence of personal parishes where there is a large number in the communities.

New personal parishes in different parts of the world serve various purposes, among them, devotion to the traditional Latin Mass, to social justice, charismatic Catholicism, Anglican Use, and more. In the United States, personal parishes serve ethnic Catholics, the most number of whom now are Hispanic or Latino in origin.

This makes me recall many Masses I have attended in Belgium and the U.S. where there are many Filipino parishioners. In fact, most of the choirs of these parishes are composed of Filipinos.

Tricia Colleen Bruce’s book “Parish and Place” states that personal parishes in the U.S. that are “responses to diversity and to all places shaped by identity, community and the power to draw boundaries in-between,” identifies 1,317 personal parishes in America today comprising about eight percent of the total Catholic parishes.

She continues, “To what extent these national parishes are still required is a subject for debate, but it is clear there are certain demographics — Asian, Hispanic and African-American, for example — that can continue to be served by this idea of a personal parish.”

In New York, announcements of Masses in Spanish, Chinese, and Korean are posted in their bulletin boards. Attending a Chinese Mass, I found it was no different from the Masses I attended when we visited Taiwan.

Upon my return to the city, the first news I saw was from CBCP News, which read, “CBCP to decide on a proposal to create a personal prelature for Overseas Filipino Workers.”

The “personal” still called on me to study further. A recent talk given by our new spiritual assistant in our Carmelite community said that one knows s/he is already formed is when s/he is always open to learning with an open mind and open heart.

A deeper look into a different ‘personal’ beckoned.

Some members of the Opus Dei in the Philippines pose for a photograph at the Manila Cathedral on June 27, 2022. (Photo courtesy of the Manila Cathedral via Radio Veritas 846)

A personal prelature for Filipino migrants should have been part of the agenda in the recently concluded CBCP assembly held in Tagaytay, according to Msgr. Bernardo Pantin, secretary general of the episcopal conference.

If approved, the CBCP will forward its recommendation to the Vatican, which is the competent authority to establish this ecclesiastical territory.

Like the personal parish, where there are no territorial boundaries between ordinary and personal parishes, the personal prelature is a Church jurisdiction without geographical boundaries.

“Personal prelature is a canonical structure of the Catholic Church which comprises a prelate, clergy and laity who undertake specific pastoral activities.” Its origin is found in Presbyterorum ordinis, No. 10, where it was conceived during the Second Vatican Council which was enacted into law by Paul VI in his motu proprio Ecclesiae sanctae.

In 1983, this institution was reaffirmed in the Code of Canon Law. “The adjective personal refers to the fact that, in contrast with previous canonical use for ecclesiastical institutions, the jurisdiction of the prelate is not linked to a territory but over persons wherever they happen to be.”

“A personal prelature is an ordinary jurisdictional structure of the Catholic Church where the prelate is a bishop or a presbyter nominated by the Pope and governs the prelature with ordinary power. The presbyterium of the prelature is formed by presbyters and deacons of the secular clergy, that are incardinated in the personal prelature (can. 294) however, it is possible that other priests and also religious clergy take part in the pastoral works of a personal prelature: in these cases, agreements should be arranged between the prelate and the diocesan bishop (can. 271) or the religious superior (can. 681).”

It clarifies that the faithful or the person still belongs to his or her original diocese where he or she comes from but receives spiritual help from the priest in the prelature.

The first and only personal prelature is Opus Dei.

“Personal prelatures, similar to dioceses and military ordinariates, are under the governance of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops. These three types of ecclesiastical structures are composed of lay people served by their own secular clergy and prelate. Unlike dioceses, which cover territories, personal prelatures—like military ordinariates—take charge of persons as regards some objectives regardless of where they live.”

The lay faithful of a prelature are determined by a personal criteria, which in this proposal, are Filipinos working overseas.

There are approximately more than ten million OFWs, three million of which are temporary migrants according to the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Filipino migrant workers who lost their jobs abroad during the pandemic arrive in Manila. (Photo by Basilio Sepe)

The projected population of the Philippines for 2022 is 113 million. Of this, 83 percent or about 93,700,000 are Catholics. If 83 percent of the 10 million Filipinos working abroad are Catholics, that would mean eight million Filipino Catholics could be served by an OFW Personal Prelature.

And even if the estimates are conservative, at 50 percent there would still be a large number of five million Filipinos who could benefit from a personal prelature.

“This is unique … if approved it will be a first in the whole Church,” said Msgr. Pantin. This means that it will have its own bishop and priests who will look after the pastoral care of Filipinos abroad. The spiritual welfare and wellbeing of our OFWs will be specifically attended to.

The idea of a personal prelature for OFWs was a subject of study in a dissertation of Father Agustin Opalalic, a Filipino priest serving in the Diocese of San Diego, in the United States, who brought the matter to the CBCP in January, 2020.

The dissertation written in Rome 25 years ago was then studied by an ad hoc committee composed of four episcopal commissions, canon lawyers, migrants, clergy and seminarians for two years.

“This is really to take care of Filipinos all over the world as the priests will not just go to their places as guests but as their pastors – trained, formed, and oriented,” said Father Opalalic.

So I asked my brother. What now?

He answered, “My new assignment is a big blessing, aspired for by many of my co-priests in the diocese. I plan to study, to celebrate mass in Mandarin. A difficult task even if you know English, Latin, Italian, Spanish, etc., if I may say so.”

Edita Burgos is a doctor of education and a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites. Gunmen — believed to be soldiers — abducted her son Jonas Burgos in Manila in April 2007. He is still missing.

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