By Sonia Pelmoka-Mohr
The feast day of the first Filipino martyr-saint, San Lorenzo Ruiz, will be celebrated on September 28.
He is the patron saint of immigrants, altar servers, catechists, and separated families.
Saint Lorenzo was beatified in Manila in 1981 and canonized in 1987 after I had completed my studies in Metro Manila under Maryknoll nuns and at the University of Santo Tomas.
During those years, I was not informed of any Filipino who had led an exemplary life or was on the path to sainthood. Similarly, his martyrdom never came up during visits with my mother’s faithful weekly devotions to Our Lady of Perpetual Help (which Pope John Paul II visited), the Black Nazarene at the Quiapo Church (Manila), and occasional visits to the Binondo church. Hence, the elevation of Lorenzo Ruiz to sainthood was a sur- prise.
On the other hand, San Lorenzo Ruiz’s sainthood expresses the well-recognized deep faith of Filipinos, considered the only Christian nation in Asia.
Filipino foreign workers exhibit deep Christian values in many foreign lands, carrying their devotion to God, the saints, hospitality, and kindness — even in Gulf states where public Christianity is forbidden.
His martyrdom in Nagasaki in 1637, under the Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan, was preceded by flight from a false accusation against him in Manila while working as a notary for the Spanish friars at the Binondo Church, founded in 1587 to serve the Chinese-Filipino community.
But in Japan, he found a world of persecution — merely because one was a Christian.
Asked to renounce his faith, he refused and died a slow death after being hung upside down. He proclaimed thus, “I am a Catholic, and I wholeheartedly accept death for God. Had I a thousand lives, all these to Him, I shall offer. Do with me as you please.”
On my trips to visit my family in Manila, I have often passed the Binondo Church, where the Shrine of San Lorenzo Ruiz is now located, in which he was baptized and worked before he escaped to Japan.
A 12-foot bronze statue now stands on the plaza before the Church of the saint in a simple shirt and pants, with his arm pointing to the heavens as if he’s preaching.
The saint in layman’s garb strikes me as very different from the saints painted in religious garb that I often see.
His status as a layman and a saint, as depicted in the statue, dispels any feeling that only the chosen and consecrated religious can be saints. Laymen and laywomen, like San Lorenzo Ruiz, can exhibit heroic virtue.
The veneration of San Lorenzo Ruiz resonates with me as an immigrant.
Indeed, it stirs me when I contemplate the men I see every morning on the streets of Queens, waiting for a day employer to hire them, as well as the numerous overseas workers lining up with me at the Manila International airport — some heading to the Gulf countries where they cannot worship.
San Lorenzo Ruiz also embodies the multi-cultural nature of Christianity, for he was of Filipino-Chinese parentage.
He is alive in my heart when I hear my Chinese friends pray in Mandarin or see my Chinese neighbor walk daily to Mass. Likewise, when I see a Japanese lawyer kneeling every day at Mass who could say the petitions in Japanese and Chinese.
San Lorenzo Ruiz, a lowly servant of the Spanish friars, is alive in my heart when I see a group of Filipino babysitters and caregivers gathered in a mall in Hong Kong or in Central Park.
He walked with me in spirit when, on the grounds of the Takanawa Catholic Church (aka Our Lady Queen of Martyrs), I saw the marker designating the place where the great Edo Christian martyrs were mas- sacred by fire.
His life is proof that defeat or death is not the end of a good life but the beginning of eternal life with God.
Sonia Pelmoka-Mohr, who was born in the Philippines, is a lawyer and a parishioner of St. Andrew Avellino Church, Flushing.