Gleaning from the cross of Sister María del Santo Niño

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In the instructions to the Israelites on how they are to live, prosper and please him, God commands that any wheat or corn left on the ground or on the plants after the harvest be left for the poor, the widows and the orphans, that is, for those whom the world has forgotten and for the afflicted.

The gleanings are the fruits of the harvest that are dropped carelessly, perhaps unknowingly or sometimes deliberately, and are in danger of being lost.  But in the story of Ruth we see how the careful gathering, the “gleaning” of these fallen fruits of the harvest leads to great benefits for many.

Here I want to share my gleanings from the harvest of Sister Maria del Santo Niño’s cross. I spent eight days with her, her last eight days in this world. But before I share what I saw and learned, I want to commend the sisters of her community and her Province for the love and dedication with which they cared for her. It was truly uplifting to see.

Sr. Santo Niño had been suffering from cancer for some years and was slowly losing her physical strength (but not diminishing her willpower!). And her medical needs were becoming too complex for untrained people to care for her. And so, by God’s grace, I was asked to travel to the Philippines to assist Sr. Maria del Santo Niño, to help care for her as she prepared to enter eternal life. Assisting the dying is always a grace. Even more so when the dying is a religious, particularly one of our own Religious Family.

So now to glean… I want to group these gleanings into some basic categories, corresponding to the non-negotiables of our Charism. For it was precisely these non-negotiables that I found myself contemplating while caring for Sr. Maria del Santo Niño.

Worthy Participation in Holy Mass

As her lung function deteriorated, it became increasingly difficult for her to stay awake and speak. However, every day, without fail, Sr. Maria del Santo Niño would say to the priest celebrating Holy Mass, “Thank you for giving me Jesus.” It was a short, sweet, simple but profound and heartfelt phrase. The first few days, I had to wake her up at least ten times during Mass. On the last day, at her last Mass, we decided to let her sleep, we were going to wake her up to receive her Bridegroom in Holy Communion. But every day, even at her last Mass, when the bell rang at the elevation of the Holy Species and often before, she would open her eyes and raise her head to look at and adore her Eucharistic Spouse.

Apostolic creativity and missionary spirit

Sr. Maria del Santo Niño used her illness to bring God to others, I saw it in how she treated her family and the sisters who came to visit her. Her goal was to orient them to God, to help them carry their cross, to lead them to a life of grace. Towards her nephews and nieces, present during the Mass in her room, she encouraged them to go to Confession and later they were able to receive Holy Communion. She also encouraged her brothers and sisters to receive the sacrament of marriage, and within a few days of her death, at least one of them was already arranging for sacramental marriage and thus returning to a life of grace. The sisters recounted cases in which, while admitted to the hospital for treatment, she would go to do apostolate with other patients, even though she herself was probably tired and not feeling well.

Biting reality

Santo Niño knew she was dying, prepared for it and tried to prepare others. One day she asked me directly what the dying process was like. And in her last two days she calmly accepted my explanation that her shortness of breath and the “strange” feeling she had were part of the dying process.

She also tried to prepare her family and told them, “I belong to Jesus, I belong to Mama Mary, I belong to St. Joseph,” biting reality meant biting the supernatural.

Providential vision of life

She accepted God’s will in her life. She did all the conventional treatments, prayed to the Filipino Servant of God, Darwin Ramos, to cure her, but on the last day she was with us she joked that Darwin had missed an opportunity, that he did not work fast enough. There was no bitterness, nor was she simply resigned to God’s will: she embraced death as God’s will.

Serious Spirituality

A serious spirituality means that we seek holiness in a practical way and do not seek mere sentimentality. Speaking about religious life and community life, Sr. Santo Niño told me simply: “I have a strong character, I have done my best to overcome it,” meaning that she was seriously working on her shortcomings and seriously striving for holiness.

She taught me that a serious spirituality does not have to be complicated, nor does it mean that we have to be constantly quoting the Summa. She understood that she was the Bride of Christ and mother of souls, called to be holy as a Servidora. She told me: “We must be mothers, not only of those in our apostolates, but also of the sisters in our communities”. And to the postulants she encouraged them to “love the Congregation and the people who compose it”.

Spirit of joy

But in her last week what characterized her most was a truly heroic joy. The sisters of the Province had been praying to the Servant of God Darwin Ramos for her healing. Darwin Ramos was a boy from the streets of Manila, who suffered from Duchene muscular dystrophy and passed into eternal life in 2012. He is known as the Filipino “master of joy.”

On June 1, Santo Niño joked that Darwin was missing an opportunity to perform a miracle and that he was working too slowly. But was he really? He did not come to help her with a miraculous healing, but rather the “master of joy” found in Sr. Santo Niño a competent pupil and it seems to me that in her last days he elevated her from competent to “master of joy.”

Many of Sr. Santo Niño’s last photos show her smiling, laughing, joking and comforting others. Her joy was real. And it was heroic. In her last agony, when her family and sisters were gathered to accompany her with prayer in her last moments, I whispered to her that everyone was there, that if her Bridegroom called her she could go joyfully to the wedding feast. She had not opened her eyes for more than an hour, her breathing was labored and her head was bowed down. However, she raised her head, opened her eyes and looked around with a big smile of gratitude and joy. This was practically her last act in this world. Only two acts followed, one active and one passive.

The active one was when I reminded her that she was the bride of Christ, that she was wearing the ring of Christ and the Cross of Matara, her key to heaven. When I asked her if she wanted to kiss the cross, she nodded. I brought it to her lips and she kissed it. She had told us many times that “suffering is my joy”.

The passive act was the reception of Viaticum. She had been in agony for about three hours, she knew a priest was on his way. When he arrived at the house, her breathing changed, became shallower, we knew the end was very near. Father Victor Galvez gave her absolution, indulgence and apostolic blessing. After her last breath, but before her last heartbeat, she received Holy Viaticum. Seconds later, she departed for the eternal nuptial banquet, she headed -with food for the journey- towards her new adventure. She departed joyfully, ready to meet her Beloved.

These gleaning ears of wheat are only a small part of Sr. Santo Niño’s harvest of the cross. The other people who accompanied her throughout her religious life and during her illness and final days surely have their own stories. But it seemed to me that these few ears of wheat should not be kept as my own, but shared for the benefit of all.

May the first of our Filipinas in heaven, our Servidora “teacher of joy”, continue her work from there, and help us to benefit from the gleanings she left behind.

Sr. Maria Boni Remedii
Lipa, June 2, 2023

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