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Pilgrimage to Québec

Last week my family went on pilgrimage to the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in Québec, Canada.

That was not part of the original plan. My brother whom I have not seen for some time wanted to include Niagara Falls as one of the must-see places before his life’s curtains are drawn, according to him. I approved of the trip. “Let’s make it a family trip.”

Even though I am 5 years older than him I’d often hear him say he may no longer be strong enough to travel and therefore he’d like to maximize his visit and finally see the Falls -- probably for the first and last time -- he’d only read about in the textbooks.

No sooner had I said yes, however, when I realized the trip would be an 11-hour drive from my place. I used to drive to Toronto when I was younger. My wife had this craving for lanzones, her favorite fruit, which is not available in the US. This every year thing, however, became every other year, and then every 3 years, and now it’s been 5 years since I last drove that stretch. Could I negotiate it this time around?

But travel we must. In our golden years it was obligatory.

Lately, during the past few months several of my former classmates from Naga have been traveling around the world. My bosom friend JoeVic Fabregas is still somewhere in Asia after his European trip. Another bosom friend and HS classmate, Goyo Castilla, has just arrived from Eastern Europe with his wife Lynn. Likewise, another dear friend Joe Vallejo, a Navy veteran who lives in the island paradise of Hawaii, still enjoys traveling all over the world with his family. And the same is true with many other friends and relatives my age.

As I observe this I am reminded by what my spouse had been telling me all along: “Manny, when I retire this year we need to travel often habang malakas pa tayo.” Carpe diem.

I understood her sense of urgency. You see, the other day we were with my wife’s elder sisters narrating our pilgrimage to the Holy Land many years ago. We told them we were planning another one. They said they fervently wished that they could come along, but health issues and advancing age no longer made long travels feasible.

As we were discussing our plans for Toronto, my sister-in-law Ceres suggested that we travel to Montréal and Québec instead. These are closer and more scenic, she said. And less tiring.

Ceres and her husband Oggie are seasoned travelers. Canada is familiar territory to them. They just arrived from Spain, but they are leaving again for another world tour.

So, our itinerary turned out to be Québec and Montréal. Mas madali, thanks to Ceres.

This, however, is not the reason why I am writing this. You see, my sister had been languishing in a Naga hospital for weeks. Her condition was worsening each day so that her daughter had to fly home from California to be by her mother’s side “just in case.” I have only one sister and she is the kindest of the siblings. I could not bear to even look at the pictures sent by her son in the hospital without feeling her pain and agony. I could not understand why such a gentle and kind person had to go through this suffering.

And suddenly this Québec journey dropped into my lap.

“Santa Ana!” I told my wife. “Let us go to her Basilica in Québec.” My goal was to go there and pray to Santa Ana, as our family back in Naga would do each time we went on pilgrimage to Magarao.

In my childhood I would sometimes ride the bike from my house in Bagumbayan to Magarao, not for the “hilot” but for the Church of Santa Ana. Every July 26 my mother would bring us there to celebrate her feast day and I kind of liked the peace in that old church and patio. Santa Ana is the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is Jesus’ grandmother. I am going to Santa Ana’s Basilica and ask for help on behalf of my dear sister.

I grew up in a culture that believed in the intercessory role of the saints. They were a very important influence in my upbringing in the NPS and Ateneo. Saints were everywhere. Schools, churches, cities, and even streets were named after them. To top it all, we were all named after one or two saints.

We were taught that saints were intermediaries, go-betweens to plead our requests before God. They had “clout” before God and therefore we had more chances our favors would be granted than if we were to ask God directly (because we have less clout, for obvious reasons).

Of course it would be best to have a loving conversation with God Himself, which is what prayer does. In fact we were taught that God Himself wills it that we converse with Him always. But we always feel unworthy, so we turn ourselves to the culture of intermediaries.

Just as it is the best to converse directly with the president of our country, for example, it is also fitting if we connect with him through his ministers.

And so our trip became a pilgrimage.

The Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré lies 30 kilometers east of Québec. We went there during a peak period, July 26 being her feast day too, like Magarao. She is the patron of Québec.

This Basilica is visited by more than a million people every year and is recognized by the Church with many authenticated miracles.

I don’t know why but in there it felt like coming home, just like the experience I felt in Magarao. Oggie silently pointed me to the sacred place where a relic of St. Anne, a fragment of her wrist bone, was venerated. Without a moment’s hesitation, I knelt down and poured heart and soul my appeal for help for my ailing sister.

Our trip turned out to be extremely better than the original plan to go to Niagara. Funny how sometimes things that you didn’t plan turn out to be the better ones. Life is simply and wonderfully full of surprises.

We visited several churches, four in all, in that part of Canada, which also became an opportunity to bond with family members who rarely see each other. It was the first time my brother Max has been to these churches. He made 12 wishes, three wishes for every church visited for the first time, as part of the fringe benefits of our tradition.

During our last night in Canada I told my wife: now I know why many of my former batch mates in Naga have been traveling lately. Mientras makusog pa sinda. Make hay while the sun shines.

When we arrived home in NY, I checked out the unread messages on my iPhone. I was too busy sightseeing, entertaining, taking pictures that I hardly had a moment to glance at, let alone reply to, a number of messages. One of the messages came from my nephew PJ in Naga:

“Makaka luwas na po daa si Mama sa ospital, sabi kan mga doctor.”

I did a quick math to estimate where we were at the time the message was sent. It was the time we were in the Basilica of St. Anne.

Go figure that out.

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