'National Family Planning Only Country'

Phillips, Bukidnon -- A Twenty-First Century Miracle

    Allow me to introduce you to a parish in Phillips, Bukidnon.  It belongs to the Diocese of Malaybalay, canonically, but pastorally, it has been giving itself to the service of any of the other dioceses in the Philippines in preparing  personnel for the apostolate of Family and Life.

    It was only last year, 2001, that the entire Philippine Church chose to focus on the Family as the privileged evangelizer in the new millennium.  But Phillips has already been preparing personnel for other dioceses for the apostolate of the family each year for the past several years.  This was started from almost the creation of the CBCP Episcopal Commission for Family and Life (ECFL).  The community at Phillips had been chosen for a particular role in God's plan for the evangelization of our people (Bishop Honesto C.Pacana, SJ)

They say that miracles cannot be explained -- and yet some say that miracles happen everyday, that we ordinary people just do not recognize them for what they are, limited as we choose to be by our own inability to go beyond the physical and the material.  Here is an account of a community where elements converged to achieve a dream, to demonstrate capabilities beyond reason, to bring home the point that with God nothing is impossible.

I speak as an outsider, an observer, if you wish, but as a woman, wife, and mother, whose family was privileged to witness what I speak of as a miracle at the time it was happening.  I speak of the experience now as a grandmother.  Looking back at those years when Phillips proved to be a Camelot, a Shangri-la, a Utopia, an El Dorado -- perhaps even our Lost Paradise -- with the hope that somehow lessons learned will not be lost for generations to come.

The story revolves around Nang Feling, a hospital attendant and wife to Nong Ely, who belonged to the security force at the Del Monte Corporation in Phillips, Bukidnon.  Feling had only finished six years of study in her hometown in the province of Bohol, known to be the Philippine province where good, meaning "kind," people come from.  Four children from her marriage bore witness to a good fertile relationship with Ely.  Feling was also under the tutelage of a religious missionary nurse sister who was actually her boss at the hospital.  I never met Sr. Helen, as she had gone back to the United States by the time I was coming to Phillips.  She was a dynamic loving sister, we kept hearing.  While working together in the hospital, Sr. Helen got Feling started on family planning.  Not just some Rhythm, but the modern scientifically-based Basal Body Temperature, or BBT as it was called some years after.

The method entailed daily temperature-taking, recording and interpreting the rise and the elevated state that came with ovulation, signifying after some days of the elevation that the woman was now infertile and that sexual relations would not result in pregnancy.  Through accounts of Nang Feling, we were able to visualize the moments when Sr. Helen labored through teaching her the method, as well as the elation that came with a graphic picture, albeit shwon by dots and lines, of Nang Feling's recorded fertility pattern, upon which they decided as a couple when or when not to have intercourse, and whether they were ready or not for another child at this time of their life.  Ely was a good and faithful husband, and Feling would not be dissuaded from communicating with him on the topic, endlessly.

The triumph in learning the method and overcoming the ignorance of many on the matter of the timing of intercourse proved to be her battlecry.  Neighbors, relatives, friends and eventually the community leaders, especially the parish, were one with her in espousing the medthod.  She gained the support of the company, prompting it to declare Phillips NFP country (Natural Family Planning Only, barring artificial methods despite legislative and economic pressures around).  As yeas passed, she had laborers' and factory workers' wives charting their daily temperature.  As she gained experience in interpreting the charts, she was able to devise simple rules to determine the rise coinciding with ovulation.  The anecdotes on how she rallied the community around the use of BBT would make a book filled with insights into the human struggle of couples choosing to do good and achieving it.

At about this time, the Episcopal Commission on Family Life of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines had been exposed to the goings-on at Phillips, as Bukidnon was Jesuit territory then, as I believe it still is now. Led by the workings of the Spirit through Fr. Vicente San Juan, SJ, Phillips was chosen as the site of the Family Life Values Orientation Seminars, precisely because in this community, there were couples witnessing to the values of periodic abstinence, a theme central to the Gospel truths of life and love in marriage.  Again the community at Phillips opened its doors, this time not only to their own residents but to priests, sisters, and lay workers who were housed with families for the duration of the three-week training which went on three times a year for more than ten years.  Spearheading this welcoming were the Mercy Sisters, whose superior then Sr. Emiliani.  The seminars were held at the Sisters' convent, and their generosity flowed out to the eager participants, embracing them and lending them the peace, the abundance, and the rich spirituality that characterized the community at Phillips.  Even the corporate leaders were exemplary in the humble involvement.  Here we saw how a community that worked together as one, standing, could teach others to believe in what seemed impossible to achieve:  a grassroots spirituality that so pervaded the whole atmosphere here.

In Phillips we saw doctors who, in their simplicity, exuded the wisdom of age and their profession, as in a doctor affectionately called "Tatang" -- father, and the doctor's wife "Inang" - mother, and who humble served as the cook during seminars; teachers who used evenings and weekends for parish activities; and corporate bosses who opened their homes to crowds of threes and fours for three straight weeks at a time and hosting socials for this motley crowd of participants from the provinces, adoptive parents and their children who bore no mark of differentiation from any other child, and parish priests who were welcome in their parishioners' home like a member of the family.

Through the Values Orientation seminars, word spread out to the outlying dioceses that indeed the core teaching in Humanae Vitae was vital to the sanctity of married life:  that artificial birth control goes against the very grain of married love.  Couples, priests, sisters and lay leaders working in the Apostolate testified to this, providing our pastors, the Bishops, with the foundations for pronouncements on the matter.  The Philippine Bishops issued policies promulgating the wisdom of HV, leading to a dissociation of its programs from the Philippine population program, which then till now, focuses largely oncontraception.  In close vigilance of global developments, it was found that family planning programs were carried out throughout the world, particularly in Third World countries, through coercive strategies tied up with foreign funds.  The policies emanating from the CBCP were unequivocal and uncompromising.  These were hailed by those involved in the Apostolate throughout the country because they had the practical experience to understand the truth behind the policies - they who had experienced the positive rewards of a vibrant family life that flowed out the community, and the gifts that came from the practice of natural methods of regulating fertility -- knowledge and appreciation of the fertile and infertile periods, enhanced couple communication, and openness to God's interventions in the timing of a child's coming.  Sadly, many were dismayed by these pastoral guidelines -- even groups within the Church who were actively involved in marriage and family enrichment.  On hidsight, these groups in the more recent years, have come around to appreciate these guidelines, realizing the folly of counseling couples " to follow their conscience" in their choice of a family planning method.  Realizing also, perhaps a tad too late, that indeed contraception can and does erode both the individual's and the couple's integrity.

Phillips served as the locus for the deep spiritual experience that served for many as the turning point in their lives, renewing and confirming the communitarian aspects of both the priestly and married vocations.  In the cool crisp foggy mountain air, amidst the pine and eucalyptus trees and boundless acres of the pineapple plantation, vocations were challenged and strengthened, religious and married couples and singles came together committed to rediscovering the Family as the domestic Church, recognizing the vital role it plays in forming members bonded by life and love.  I may even be so bold as to say that the Family Life Values Orientation seminars brought us to a profound realization of the theology of sexuality, convinced as I am that God, in His infinite wisdom and goodness, made us sexed persons that we may strive constantly towards the perfect union.

And so it came to pass that when the Roman Synod of Bishops was convened in 1980, the cuople whose life served as the seed of the Phillips experience, Ely and Feling Porsuelo, sat as one of the couple Lay Auditors for the Synod, defying and surpassing all ecclesiastical political barriers.  When the document " Familiaris Consortio" was finally released in 1981, the Philippine experience in the Family Life Apostolate was confirmed further by the grassroots spirituality that the document expounded on.

Even now, this spirituality lives on... in the lives of thousands of people who at one time or another were touched by the Phillips experience, and many more who hear about it.  A third or even fourth generation of children have been born since, but the values each of us were confronted with somehow egg us on the work for Life, for Marriage, for Family, notwithstanding the pressures of modern living.  It is this same spiritual values of self-knowledge, responsibility, and generosity that prompted Nang Feling, when asked by His Holiness Pope John Paul II over breakfast at the Vatican, on what she thought was the success of the Family Life Program in Phillips, to say:  "when couples accept the child no matter how or when it comes."

Truly a humbling statement for many of us who thing we have the "right" answers.

Miracles happen... in our own lifetime.  It is interpreting daily events in the light of God's continuous grace to man.  They are not to be forgotten, but somehow live on... through generations... for the telling.

Among the wonders wrought by God in the seminars in Phillips was the gradual shift of the main concern of the apostolate from birth regulation to the "Covenant."  God intended to lead the Philippine Church to opt for the Family as its privileged evangelizer -- as Church, for the third millennium.  This it did in January 2001.  And what makes for Church is the Covenant of Jesus lived by the spouses.  For years then, through the formation seminars in Phillips, the Philippine Church was already being prepared for that option.  God be praised!

Instrumental to that were a couple in Phillips, CFMers focused on the Covenant in their per-Marriage program; and the chosen Director of Programs of ECFL, Sister Blesila Fabricante, a formator by endowments and experience.  She it whas who saw the key to God's design for the family to lie not so much in the number of children as in the relationship of the spouses.  Quietly the programs veered around that Covenant.

[The writer is a former staff member of the CBCP Episcopal Commission on Family and Life.  She has requested that her identity not be revealed.]



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Phillips, Bukidnon -- a Twenty-First Century Miracle

The Joys and Challenges of the Diocesan Bishop in Working with His Priests for the Kingdom of God

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