SAN DIEGO — Around 1,000 Filipino faithful from across the region joyously welcomed Cardinal Robert McElroy at a Mass at St. Charles Church on Sept. 10 to honor San Lorenzo Ruiz, the first saint and martyr from the Philippines.
It was the first local Mass for the general Catholic community since Pope Francis elevated the cardinal to the College of Cardinals on Aug. 27 at the Vatican.
“I am delighted to be here with all of you to celebrate this Mass with the Filipino community of our diocese, which is a source strength and vitality,” the cardinal said in his opening remarks. “And I give thanks to you for all that you do in your parish communities to enrich our church of San Diego.”
The celebration included a colorful procession with the San Lorenzo Ruiz statue in the parking lot of the church in south San Diego, a recognition of the service of young altar servers, and a reception with traditional food and entertainment.
At the beginning of the Mass, Athena Besa, the chair of the Diocesan Commission for Filipino Catholics, briefly shared the story of San Lorenzo Ruiz. The commission supported the 35th annual celebration, in coordination with the Filipino communities at 26 parishes and two movements.
San Lorenzo Ruiz was born in Manila in 1594 to a Catholic family. He served as an altar server at his church. As an adult, he married, had a family and worked as a clerk at his church. His life took a dramatic turn when he was falsely accused of killing a Spaniard and was forced to flee by ship to Japan, along with three Dominican missionaries. The ruler there imprisoned and tortured the men when they arrived.
After two years in captivity, Ruiz was given the chance to live if he renounced his faith. While being tortured, he reportedly responded just before his death at the age of 42: “I am a Christian and wholeheartedly do accept death for God; Had I a thousand lives, all these to Him shall I offer.”
Pope John Paul II canonized him in 1987, and he became the first Filipino saint and martyr. In addition, he is the patron saint of altar servers, overseas Filipino workers and migrant workers .
In his homily, Cardinal McElroy said that martyrdom was not something in the past.
“It’s a reality of today for those who proclaim Jesus Christ” across the world, he said. “Today, we remember their sacrifice, their willingness to take on the cross of Christ himself.”
The cardinal said that during his recent visit to the Vatican he had an opportunity to talk with Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Myanmar, where a repressive military regime has cracked down on religious groups. The cardinal shared with him how difficult life there is now for priests and religious women.
The cardinal said that while people of faith in this country do not face martyrdom, they do encounter circumstances that make it difficult to follow their faith at work, in school, in their neighborhood, “sometimes within our own family.”
“We are called to make the same affirmation in our faith that San Lorenzo made, and every martyr before and after him,” Cardinal McElroy said. “We are called to place our lives in the person of Jesus Christ and understand that it is in the cross of Christ crucified and Christ risen that we see a pathway to our own salvation.”
To begin the Mass, a procession of Filipino clergy from across the diocese entered St. Charles Church, including Father Nemesio Sungcad, the commission’s spiritual director.
Then Father Emilio Magaña, the parish’s pastor, and Very Rev. Michael Pham, the diocese’s Vicar General, recognized the role of San Lorenzo Ruiz as an altar server. And they invited young altar servers to the front one by one, gave them a blessing and a gift.
After the Mass, the nearly 1,000 community members walked over to the parish hall for a reception, complete with pancit, lumpias and other traditional fare. Several parish groups presented traditional folk dances.
The Fil-Am community of St. Charles Parish organized the celebration, in coordination with the Filipino commission and parish communities. The participating parish communities included Ascension, Church of the Nativity, Corpus Christi, Good Shepherd, Mater Dei, Mission San Luis Rey, Most Precious Blood, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Our Lady of Peñafrancia, Resurrection, St. Charles, St. Columba, St. Gregory the Great, St. John of the Cross, St. Joseph Cathedral, St. Mark, St. Mary (Escondido), St. Mary (National City), St. Michael (Poway), St. Michael (San Diego), St. Pius X, St. Rita, St. Rose of Lima, St. Sophia, St. Therese and St. Therese of Carmel. The movements included Couples for Christ and the Cursillo.