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Friday, 09 February 2024 09:13

Bishop Shane’s visit to the Philippines - Heartfelt and Historic

In January, Bishop Shane spent time in the Philippines where he was warmly welcomed by the families and home-parishes of Sandhurst’s Filipino priests, met with local Bishops and participated in religious celebrations including the uniquely vibrant Feast of the Santo Niño.

Bishop Shane’s visit was described in a Cebu newspaper as “heartfelt and historic”. He was indeed immersed at times in fervent pomp fitting an historic visit, yet his main mission was much more humble in origin — to personally express his gratitude to the families of Sandhurst’s Filipino priests for the service of their sons and brothers in regional Victoria, so far away from their homeland.

These gatherings of family and friends were joy-filled occasions. “Everywhere I went I was welcomed with very generous hospitality,” said Bishop Shane, adding “I was the occasion for people to gather as families and communities.”

Bishop Shane might be pleased he gave people a perfect excuse to feast on Lechon, (the famous coal-roasted suckling pig), but ask any of Sandhurst’s Filipino priests and you’ll find he is greatly underestimating the impact of his very heartfelt visit.

As Monsignor Cris observed, “Bishop Shane was a bit of a celebrity. He towered above everyone, so people couldn’t help but notice him; they asked for pictures with him before and after Mass; and when he celebrated Mass on the Feast of the Santo Niño he gave a very good homily and everyone really listened.”

For Fr Junray Rayna, Administrator of St Kilians in Bendigo, Bishop Shane’s visit to his hometown of Toledo City was profoundly affirming.

“As a Filipino priest who has served in the Diocese for nine years and been a seminarian of the Diocese for five years before that, I felt very acknowledged and very encouraged to see Bishop Shane meet my family on such a personal level. I was deeply moved, and my family was so excited and so happy too,” he said.

Fr Dean Bongat, Parish Priest of Kerang, Cohuna and Pyramid Hill said Bishop Shane’s visit to his family in Bayawan City was something his family could never have imagined.

“It was a deeply unexpected and extraordinary honour to welcome Bishop Shane into our humble abode, a place far removed from the grandeur of a 'Bishop's Palace.' My entire family was thrilled by the experience, and Bishop Shane's humility. His presence infused our home with a great sense of joy, spirituality, grace, and privilege.”

For many of the priests’ family and friends it was the first time they had gathered at a table to share a meal with a bishop, let alone one from another part of the world. Fr Novelito (Novie) Lim, Parish Priest of Echuca, explained that in the Philippines bishops are treated with great reverence and any meeting with a bishop tends to be much more formal. It’s therefore not surprising that Fr Novie’s family busily prepared for Bishop Shane’s visit to their home in Cebu City with eager and somewhat nervous anticipation.

“My family members were honoured to be welcoming Bishop Shane to our home, but they were also very nervous. After meeting Bishop Shane, they were so happy, because he was so friendly and relatable … He really made it easy for us to host him.”

For Monsignor Crisologo (Cris) Manongas, Pastoral Leader of Wangaratta South and Team Member at Wangaratta Parish, the best part of his visit to his hometown in Alburquerque was to see Bishop Shane lean so easily into local culture. As an example, Monsignor Cris took Bishop Shane to his familys’ salt making facility. “The Philippines is hot and humid, especially in January, and salt making is hard physical work, but without hesitation, Bishop Shane joined in the process,” he said.

For many Bishop Shane’s visit was also a way of expressing gratitude to Bishop Shane and the people of Sandhurst for their support of their sons and brothers. As Fr Denib (DJ) Suguitan, Assistant Priest at Sacred Heart Cathedral explains:

“Bishop Shane’s visit to our home gave my family a way to thank him for the care and support he gives me as a priest of his Diocese. My parents had a rare opportunity to return the hospitality he showed them in Bendigo some two years after my ordination. My parents were unable to attend my ordination in December 2020 due to the global pandemic, but Bishop Shane still invited them to the Diocese even though it was much later. ”

Bishop Shane’s visit afforded him a unique opportunity to understand Filipino Catholic culture more deeply. As Fr Junray describes, “To join in various religious celebrations, the fiesta, the procession, and to celebrate Mass with thousands of people — it’s a very good way to see how we celebrate our faith at home. To really know our story, to know our faith and our practice.”  Fr Dj agreed with this sentiment, “For me, I had a way to showcase my roots, my background. It was all geared towards having a better understanding of each other,” he said.

Bishop Shane visited the families of all Sandhurst’s Filipino Priests, except for Fr Rene Ramirez’ family members who now live in America and Fr Jinjo Solis’ family who are in Zamboanga, an area deemed unsafe for travellers due to political unrest. He also met with the family of Sandhurst seminarian Jhunel Mendez who commenced studies at Corpus Christi College, Carlton this year, after a year of distance education while being a Sandhurst Seminarian in the Philippines.

Fr Junray reflected on Bishop Shane’s visit to various parts of the Philippines,

“Every priest and every family is different. We come from different places; we live on different islands; we speak different languages. To see the diversity of our priests, was not only interesting for the Bishop, but also interesting for we Filipino priests as well.”

Of the ten Filipino priests serving in the Diocese of Sandhurst, all but one joined Bishop Shane at some point in his journey. Fr Ruel Desamparado was unable to return to the Philippines because he had only recently started working in Australia.

Many of the priests spent time together with Bishop Shane in Cebu in the days leading up to the Feast of Santo Niño and all took part in the Mass on the Feast Day. For Bishop Shane this was a significant time, “I certainly appreciate where these men come from and the gifts they bring much better now,” he said. Fr Novie said people commented to him on the obvious camaraderie and sense of collegiality among Bishop Shane and his priests, something which has been strengthened through this visit.

Above: Sandhurst priests and Bishop Shane travelled together in a mini-bus, they took time out to see the sites between engagements. They ar epictured here at Chocolate Hills on the island of Bohol where Monsignor Cris is from. The hils covered in green grass turn brown during the dry season hence the name. 

While in the Philippines Bishop Shane also took time to consolidate relationships with local bishops:

• In Manilla, he met with the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) Most Rev. Pablo Virgilio David David, the Bishop of Kalookan in metropolitan Manilla.

• Just north of metropolitan Manilla he met with Most Rev. Dennis Villarojo, the Bishop of Malolos, (Fun fact: Bishop Villarojo is the Uncle of Sandhurst priest Fr Nathan Verallo, priest at Wangaratta, Wangaratta South and Moyju).

• In Cebu City, he met with Most Rev. Jose S. Palma, D.D., SThD the Archbishop Of Cebu, where Sandhurst priests Fr Junjun Amaya, Fr Junray Rayna and Fr Novelito Lim are from.

• In Toledo City on Cebu Island, Bishop Shane met with Most Rev. Julius Tonel, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Zamboanga, the home diocese of Fr Jinjo Solis, Bendigo Chaplain. Archbishop Tonel had strongly suggested to Bishop Shane that it would not be prudent to travel to the Zamboanga area due to political unrest and the presence of Islamist militant group Abu Sayyaf, so they met in Toledo City. “The Archbishop of Zamboanga was clear that there’s reason to be cautious, so my decision not to travel to Zamboanga was appropriately placed caution. Locals are getting on with life, probably there is disquiet, not fighting on the streets, but there is disquiet, it’s not settled,” said Bishop Shane.


As Rogationist priests Fr Rene Ramirez RCJ and Fr Ruel Desamparado RCJ serve in Shepparton South, Rushworth and Nagambie, Bishop Shane spent a couple of days with Fr Rene and his Provincial in the Tagaytay and Silang areas south of Manilla. “They were very keen that I see a number of the services and ministries they are involved in,” said Bishop Shane. “I visited three seminaries, a retreat centre, a statue workshop, schools, parishes and boys’ home,” said Bishop Shane.

A memorable highlight of Bishop Shane’s journey were the Feast of Santo Niño (Holy Child of Jesus) celebrations in Cebu City on Saturday 20 and Sunday 21 January. Although these celebrations were not a reason for Bishop Shane’s visit to the Philippines in themselves, his Filipino priests were eager for him to experience them.

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Above: Bishop Shane with Sandhurst Priests onthe Feast of Santo Niño. Front Row L-R Sandhurst Seminarian Jhunel Mendez, Fr Junjun Amaya, Fr Jinjo Solis,  Fr Junray Rayna, Fr Nathan Verallo, Bishop Shane Mackinlay, Fr DJ Suguitan, Fr Rene Ramirez RCJ, Fr Novelito Lim. To the left in the background is Monsigor Crislogo Manongas who didn't quite make it to the photo in time.

Bishop Shane concelebrated Mass at Basilica Minore del Santo Niño de Cebu on Saturday evening and led English- speaking Mass at the Basilica at 8:30 a.m. the following day to a congregation of thousands.

“The Fiestas are just so utterly different from anything we experience here in Australia,” said Bishop Shane describing the event. At dawn on Saturday, the day before the Feast of Santo Niño the Fluvial procession on the harbour started with 250 boats, there were thousands of people around on the foreshore who wanted to be part of the procession. The foot procession started at 1:00 p.m., and at 6:30 that evening there was a major Mass at the Basilica with up to 50,00 people in the courtyard of the Basilica and communion distribution points around the streets.”

“At the Fiesta on the Sunday the Archbishop of Cebu led the 6:30 a.m. Mass, I celebrated the 8:30 a.m. Mass and there were masses every hour and a half until 7 o’clock that night. The Masses just seemed to roll into one another, the Basilica, the courtyard and streets were full of people.”

Philippines Procession 980 2Officially there were 200,000 devotees who participated in the Fluvial Fiesta, on Saturday 21 January and over 1.1 million* devotees joined the solemn foot procession from the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño and back. From the tens of thousands of people who participated in the Fiesta, it would be easy to think the Philippines is a nation of practising Catholics, yet this isn’t necessarily the case. “The local Bishops were very clear that even though there are a lot of Masses and the Churches are full, the practice rate is only about 10%,” said Bishop Shane. With about 86% of the Philippines’ 118 million people being Catholic, there are large crowds just because of the sheer population numbers.”

Considering that some people are called ‘Fiesta Catholics’, Bishop Shane observed that participants were sincere and very reverent. “The Rosary was going through the speakers throughout the entire procession and people were reverently praying as they walked. A very sincere faith was being expressed,” said Bishop Shane.

In his homily at Mass on Sunday Bishop Shane preached:

“It’s not the wooden statue of Santo Niño that we celebrate. Rather, it’s everything that this sacred image represents — the Christian faith proclaimed here, the willingness of Filipinos to embrace the gospel, and their unwavering devotion to Christ ... Wherever people encounter the love of God they experience a magnet — a force drawing them into relationship with the God who is love. It’s this love that enriches not only Filipinos but cultures worldwide.”

His Homily reflecting the sentiment of Pope Francis three years ago in his message to the Filipino people on the occasion of 500 years of Christianity in their country:

“… five hundred years have passed since the Christian message first arrived in your land and you received the joy of the Gospel. And this joy is evident in your people. Thank you for the joy you bring to the whole world."

As Bishop Mackinlay’s visit reminded us in his Homily on the Feast of Santo Nino, the love of God has no borders.

“It transcends oceans and connects hearts, echoing the love that first arrived on Philippine shores with the gift of the Santo Niño.
May this pilgrimage strengthen the bonds between our two lands, as we celebrate faith, family, and the enduring spirit of gratitude.”


Fluvial Parade

Held at Cebu Pier 1 at dawn on the day before the Sunday feast of the Santo Niño, the fluvial parade is a procession of boats re-enacting the arrival of the Spanish on the shores of Cebu in 1521, and symbolising the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines. The procession carries with it a statue of Santo Nino (baby Jesus) and an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe which are then processed to their home at Basilica Minore del Santo de Cebu.

Origins of the Santo Niño statu
Not long after his arrival in Cebuin 1521, Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese Captain of the Spanish fleet, presented Rajah Humabon’s wife, Juana, with a small wooden statue of Baby Jesus. The Rajah and Ferdinand became blood brothers (they sealed their friendship with a traditional Cebuan ritual called sandugo “one blood”) and the rest is the Christian history of the Philippines.


The Filipino diaspora continues to bring joy to the world.

There are now an estimated 310,620 Filipino-born residents in Australia, forming the fifth-largest migrant community in the country. These sons and daughters of the Philippines contribute to Australia’s rich tapestry, bringing their warmth, resilience, and strong family bonds to our Diocese.


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Sandhurst's Filipino Priests

Of the 32 priests actively serving in Sandhurst’s 40 parishes, ten are originally from the Philippines and six studied as Sandhurst seminarians at Corpus Christi College, Carlton. At least two of these priests now hold Australian citizenship. Their contribution to our Diocese will continue for many years to come.

* In 2023 an estimated 3million people participated in the procession. With a change of route via residential areas many participants chose to join the procession from their area partway through the parade.