My All Souls Day Experience in New Bilibid Prison
by Mosese Yacalevu
Mosese, from Fiji, is a Columban seminarian joining the formation program in the Philippines.
All Souls Day is a significant day in the Roman Catholic Calendar. It is a day of prayer and remembrance for the departed souls of our dear families and relatives and is usually observed withshared meals and visits to the cemeteries.
A profound experience that has been ingrained in my memory was my last year’s (2019) visit to the New Bilibid Prison minimum facility on All Souls’ Day. Columban seminarians devote their weekendsfor various pastoral activities and mine were spent visiting this prison, the largest in the Philippines and about an hour drive from Manila, if the traffic is light. Upon entering the Minimum facility, I was taken aback by the atrocious overcrowding before my eyes. Many inmates were staring at the visitors, hoping that someone would come to see them. On this rainy Saturday morning, I could vividly attest that the prison environment was unfit for human habitation. I felt deep sympathy and sadness at what the inmates are exposed to.
On our way to the chapel, we passed by their basketball court. Due to overcrowding, tarpaulins are set up to accommodate inmates. It was far from being a pleasant sight. We brought some bread for the inmates and distributed them inside the prison chapel. I saw their eyes lit up with gratitude. They were happy to see us as much as we were delighted to be sharing the day with them.
I met the Prison Pastoral team with my Myanmar brother; we had a brief orientation since it was our first time here. After the orientation, I joined the guitarist Kuya Mathew (alias) on the front bench in the chapel. He taught me Tagalog songs and I sang along with him, other brothers joining later on. In thebackground, candles were being lit for the souls of the departed with their names written on cardboards and placed at the foot of the altar. These were fellow inmates who died in prison, while others werefamily members and relatives. The singing drowned the melancholy I felt over their situation andbrought me great joy and appreciation for the gift of life in each one of us.
With all the chaos and uncertainty around us, our singing meant so much to me. Being there with Kuya Mathew fueled me with the courage and determination to overcome the sadness that filled me. It did not matter much that I did not pronounce the lyrics correctly or if my singing was out of tune. My presence and movement to the beat of the songs was my prayer for the dead.
Kuya Mathew’s immense effort in trying to teach me the songs brought me great appreciation to the phases of life and the manner in which they build up our character. This experience challenged me incoming to terms with the atrocious conditions before me. But reconciling this with my vocation gave me courage and humility to develop a positive outlook instead.
I definitely encountered God through the eagerness and determination of Kuya Mathew in teaching me Tagalog religious songs. Keeping him company and being able to remember all the names written on the cardboard brought me absolute inner peace. I continue to be forever thankful to those that I encounter day in and day out of such experiences. They enrich me and mould me to maturely grow spiritually, and become a better person today than I was yesterday.