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Jolo Cathedral is Holy Ground

Updated: Feb 13

Homily of H.E. Most Rev. Charles John Brown D.D., Apostolic Nuncio to the Philippines

Holy Mass for the 27th Death Anniversary of Bishop Benjamin de Jesus, OMI

Our Lady of Mt Carmel Cathedral, Jolo, Sulu | February 4, 2024


My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,


I have been looking forward and waiting for this day for a very long time.


It gives me so much joy and indeed it is a privilege and an honor for me as your Apostolic Nuncio, as the representative of Pope Francis in the Philippines, to be with you here this morning in your famous and wonderful storied Cathedral of Our Lady of Mt Carmel here in Jolo, Sulu Province to celebrate the 27th anniversary of the death — you can say of the martyrdom — of your beloved bishop, His Excellency Benjamin de Jesus — Bishop Ben, Padil Ben, as he was affectionately called.


I am so grateful to your Bishop Charlie Inzon, OMI for having invited me to come here to Jolo. I have been asking him — I have been telling him — for a long time about encountering with you, to see you, to be with you in the name of Pope Francis, and to thank you for your witness to faith all these years. 


The fact that all of you are here together in this Cathedral this morning on this day, on the 27th anniversary of the death of your beloved Bishop Benjamin who died in 1997 ... 27 years ago. You're here today, together, as a witness of continued faith. That is so beautiful. I wanted to come and see that with my own eyes.


And looking at you, I see that.


I see the radiance in Christ shining in your faces. 


Thank you for your witness to the faith. 




Bishop Benjamin de Jesus

Your beloved Bishop Ben was ordained in Rome, at the Vatican, by a saint — Pope John Paul II — on January 6th 1992 at St Peter's Basilica, And he was chosen as the first Filipino Apostolic Vicar of Jolo. Before him, all the other Apostolic Vicars were not Filipino, mostly Americans. He was the first Filipino. He came here, was installed as your Apostolic Vicar on the 15th of February 1992. 


So that on this day —27 years ago today — on the 4th of February 1997, when his life on this earth came to an end, his life in heaven began ... when he was killed here not far from where you are seated here, outside the Cathedral.


Our Lady of Mt Carmel

I didn't have the joy, obviously, of knowing Bishop Ben but I read a little bit about him in preparation for my visit here this morning and I noticed that he had a sister who was a Carmelite nun. A cloistered Carmelite who was living in Baguio, in Ilocos Norte, and it was an interesting coincidence or correspondence that has been noted by people that she was a Carmelite nun and apparently Bishop Ben wore a Carmelite scapular as a bishop and this Cathedral, as all of you know, is dedicated to Our Lady of Mt Carmel. So Our Lady's presence — Mary's presence — was so much a part of Bishop Ben's life. We can thank God for that.


Witness to the Gospel

The readings this morning are really perfect for our celebration, especially the Second Reading which we heard from St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. St. Paul said this:  


If I preach the Gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:16)


Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel. St. Paul goes on to say:


I've made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible. To the weak, I became weak to win over the week. I have become all things to all people, to save at least some. All this I do for the sake of the Gospel, so that I too may have a share in it. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)


That beautiful witness to the Gospel, that is what Bishop Ben did with his life. And that is why it gives me so much joy and a privilege for me to be with you this morning.




Holy Ground

But as all of you gathered here in the Cathedral of the Lady of Mt Carmel know better than I, Bishop Ben was not the only one who lost his life here during those very, very difficult years — some 30 years of violence and suffering here in Jolo. 


And as I come here to your Cathedral, I can't help but think of that morning of January 27, 2019 — which is now 5 years ago — in which 20 people died in a bombing here and around this very  Cathedral.


When a Cathedral is dedicated, it is dedicated really on the celebration of the mass, on the altar, the blood of Christ on the altar. ... The altar is anointed with holy oil. Then the mass is celebrated. The altar is dedicated by the the sacrifice of Christ - the body and blood of Christ, by the holy sacrament of the Eucharist.


Your Cathedral is in some ways doubly consecrated. The blood of Christ on the altar and the blood of believers on the floor of the church, the floor of this Cathedral.

That is an honor or a consecration that few Cathedrals have. So when you come into this Cathedral you are coming into holy ground.


Holy Ground.


Sanctify the place. The place where the blood of martyrs, especially those 20 people we think about who died in 2019 — only 5 years ago.


Martyr

Martyr. What is martyr?


The word martyr comes from the Greek word "to be a witness". You know what a witness is in a court of law. A witness is called to give testimony, to say  something that is true. A martyr gives witness to something that is true not by words but by his or her love. By shedding his blood in testimony to his or her faith.


A martyr is one who loses his life or her life in testimony to her faith, saying I will believe, even if it means I will lose my life.


A martyr is one who seeks peace and reconciliation. Think about Jesus on the cross. Our Lord, our Savior, God made man, Son of Mary. What does he say on the cross? Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing. Jesus died asking forgiveness for those who killed him, for those for those who put him to death. He is our he is model, he is our guide. He is God made man. He shows us how to live.


A martyr is one who seeks peace and reconciliation. Who is the first martyr after Jesus? (Of course, after the church, protomartyr, the first martyr.) St Stephen. Who was put to death in Jerusalem, stoned to death. And the Acts of the Apostles tells us that St. Stephen, as he was dying, fell on to his knees being stoned to death. What did he say? Lord, do not hold this sin against them. 


Lord, do not hold this sin against them. He was praying for those who were putting him to death. That is what a Christian martyr is: praying for our persecutors, loving our persecutors, interceding for our persecutors. That's what Jesus does on the cross. That's what St. Stephen does in his life as a martyr.


Sanguis martyrum semen Christianorum. That's Latin. What does it mean? In English, "The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians." When the blood of martyrs is poured out, as here in your Cathedral, Christians rise up. We are edified, built up by the witness of martyrs, even by the witness of martyrs here five years ago. Of course by the witness of your wonderful Bishop Ben, Bishop Ben de Jesus.


The Preaching of the Martyrs

The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians because it is an evidence of faith. It's a testimony that makes us believe in the truth of the Gospel. And that's why St Paul says, Woe to me if I don't preach the Gospel. Let me preach the Gospel, St. Paul says. 


We preach oftentimes without preaching.


I'm preaching to you this morning with words. But more powerful preaching comes without words. The preaching of the martyrs. The death of Bishop Benjamin outside of this Cathedral. Those who died outside this Cathedral in 2019 in other bombings.



"Woe to me if I preach the Gospel."


But let's preach without words.


Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Interesting, she died the same year as Bishop Ben — 1997. She died in September at a ripe old age in Calcutta where she had served for many, many years. September of 1997, maybe ten months after Bishop Ben.


Mother Teresa has a beautiful prayer that she has for nuns — her sisters — to pray at mass when they receive Jesus in the Eucharist. It's about witnessing our faith not by words but by our example. 


She uses the imagery of fragrance, of aroma, like perfume. Interestingly, I told you, the altar when it is dedicated is  anointed with chrism. Chrism is a holy oil with perfume, a fragrance. It smells beautiful.


We are supposed to be a fragrance of Christ so that people can smell our Christianity even when we're not speaking.

This is why Mother Teresa uses it as prayer. Let me read it to you. After receiving Holy Communion, she says,


Dear Jesus, help me to spread Your fragrance wherever I go.

Flood my soul with Your spirit and life.

Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly,

That my life may only be a radiance of Yours.


She uses the image of light.  Light. Her words: fragrance and light.


Shine through me, and be so in me

That every soul I come in contact with

May feel Your presence in my soul.

Let them look up and see no longer me, but only Jesus!

Stay with me and then I shall begin to shine as You shine,


So to shine as to be a light to others;

The light, O Jesus, will be all from You; none of it will be mine;

It will be you, shining on others through me.


And then these words: 


Let me preach You without preaching, not by words but by my example,

By the catching force of the sympathetic influence of what I do,

The evident fullness of the love my heart bears to You.


To preach without preaching — that's what martyrdom is. The most eloquent form of preaching: to show by our actions that we believe, that we are Christians, that Jesus is our Lord and Savior.


Words are easy. Actions are more difficult.

Inter-religious Dialogue

Finally, this morning I think I'd like to also mention the importance of inter-religious dialogue and peace, peaceful co-existence.


As I said earlier, the difficult period of 30 years of violence, of hatred. But now thanks be to God and as I mentioned when mass begin, thanks to the prayers of many, certainly the prayers of Bishop Ben and others, peace seems to be flowing.


The Bangsamoro peace process is something we must all thank God for. This peace process, which is moving forward is so important. We need to pray for peace and work for peace. Between religions. Between believers. Because we are all sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. We are all brothers and sisters by our humanity. Whether we're Catholic, whether we're Muslim. We're all brothers and sisters in the same humanity. Which is lovely, because we are brothers and sisters.


Albania

Before I came to your wonderful country, the Philippines, I was the Nuncio in a small country in Europe called Albania where the majority of the population was Muslim. Where Catholics are about ten percent, more or less, of the population, a little bit more than you are here in Jolo. Ten percent of the population was Catholic. But Albania has been known for really wonderful, good relations between Christians and Muslims for a long time. Really good brotherly relations for a long time, between a Muslim majority, and a Christian minority. A real blessing, an example to the world, in Albania.


One reason maybe that in the last decade of the 20th century  both Christians and Muslims were persecuted, faced violence, from atheists. It was the atheists that did the persecutions. The Muslims and Christians - Christians and Muslims - were being persecuted together, drew us together, in Albania. And they had a strong and beautiful relationship between Christians and Muslims.


In fact Pope Francis visited Albania. It was the first country he visited in Europe after he was elected Pope, one of the smallest countries in Europe. He wanted to visit Albania first ... in September of 2014. And I want to read to you (what he said) in Albania because I think it's something that is good for all of us - Muslims and Christians - here in Jolo, Sulu, to think about. What Pope Francis said - this was in September 2014 - what he experienced in Albania shows is that:


 A peaceful and fruitful co-existence between persons and communities of believers of different religions is not only desirable but possible and realistic. The peaceful coexistence of different religious communities is, in fact, an inestimable benefit to peace and to harmonious human advancement. This is something of value which needs to be protected and nourished each day, by providing an education which respects differences and particular identities, so that dialogue and cooperation for the good of all may be promoted and strengthened by mutual understanding and esteem. It is a gift which we need to implore from God in prayer. May Albania always continue to walk this path, offering to other countries an inspiring example. ” (Address to the Authorities, 21 September 2014).


Peace

The example of inter-religious co-existence — peaceful co-existence — is so important for us in the entire world. Here in Jolo, Sulu, throughout the entire world. To remember that we are all sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, or all common humanity. We have differences in our religious but that shouldn't in any way stop us from being kind. From treating people with respect. From treating people with all the respect they are due no matter their religious beliefs.


It is my joy, a privilege for me to be with you this morning.


I see, as I said, the light of Christ shining in your faces.

You are a witness, all of you this morning, to the continuing faith of the Catholic people here in Jolo, after everything you went through. 


So I came to honor you. Of course I came to honor your bishop, Bishop Ben, on his 27th anniversary. But I came also to honor you. To encourage you. To thank you for your witness.



"I see the light of Christ shining in your faces." - Archbishop Brown to the faithful of Jolo

As always, we need to pray to Our Lady, as Bishop Ben did to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, our Blessed Mother, who takes care of us, who knows us so well, who is really Our Queen and Our Lady in heaven, who has such a maternal, motherly concern for us.


So dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we have to pray to Our Lady of Mt Carmel. Remember to pray for Pope Francis. I, as the representative of Pope Francis, always ask people to pray for Pope Francis. Whenever I see him in Rome he always asks me, "Are you asking the Filipino people to pray for me?" I say, "Yes, I am. The Filipino people are praying for you, Holy Father." And I will tell him that you here in the Cathedral of Jolo are praying for the Pope.


Thank you. And God bless you.


Video, photos, transcription

by Margaux Salcedo

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