Monday, March 21, 2011

An Ambassador: The Child I Was

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA— Each day brings its own set of actions and problems to deal with. The only thing common is the thought that boggles each and every individual at the end of the day. ‘It’s 2011 already?!’ There’s always so much to do and so little time. But it’s exhilarating. Life is a myriad of explorations. I guess to define it would be to say that we are a conduit for an easy way out to every problem. We not only struggle for survival. We also interact, mingle and harmonize with the people within this living world and thus, what now comes in is our task as social-beings. That’s what we do every day. What we can do, how we do it and what we can accomplish in a day, however, will vary, depending on what or whom we are dealing with.

After two decades and a half of moving up the ladder of life’s twist and turns, I consider myself as one of the SURVIVORS. Hailing not from a well-off family and born to Mr. Dionisio Villagonzalo and Segundina Tilos, I am the fruit of love from a religiously-inclined couple, having to name their five siblings after saints. The eldest Salvador, named in honor of the patron saint of the country El Salvador, soon followed by Michael-after the archangel St. Michael, the third son christened after St. Francis, then a daughter Catherine, baptized after the Dumaguete City (Philippines) Parish Church’s patron saint, Santa Catalina (Catherine in English) de Alejandria and finally me, after St. Francis Xavier—a Catholic missionary.

On 13 April, 1994, came the unexpected and most-feared about thing every child believes in, losing a parent. My mother, a public school teacher in the municipality of Siaton, happened to be one of the passengers of the RD jeepney (a popular means of public transportation) bound for Dumaguete from the community school where she taught. The said jeepney fell off a mini-cliff in the zigzag roads of Bondo, Siaton, Negros Oriental, and while about 20 passengers were critically injured, she was the only one who died.

For I was a nine-year old mama’s boy then, it was the lowest point in my life and I felt it shattered all my dreams to pieces. Never seemed to see the light of day, it took me two long and arduous years. And unfortunately, came to the extent that living without her was mere impossibility. However, what kept me holding on was what my mom told me: “Life has lots of twists and turns. If you stumble and fall, don’t ever give up! Hold on to your dreams and believe in yourself. What matters most is your faith that you can always do it no matter how hard it is!” With these words, I realized that the flame of courage was still burning. Of course, with the aid of the Divine Providence, still I managed to hang on.

Meanwhile, the year 2000 came, six years after mom passed away. Here is when I was in the deepest trenches of my soul. My sister Cathy, whom I looked up to as my mother after those long dreadful years, had to leave for Australia. I really didn’t know the reason why but one thing was for certain I believe—to look for greener pastures. Again, it was really hard for me to cope with life’s new challenges without my sister. Then it took me another two months to recover.

To the readers, let this story of my life be enough lessons that would serve as instruments to wake up the hearts and minds of the youth of today not to take for granted their loved ones especially their parents. For we do not know, when they will be taken away from us, let’s give a time to at least appreciate the simple things they offer us!

Reunion with my sister in Brisbane, Australia has definitely led us to somewhat regain some strength from what was lost after our father died of diabetes complications last June 2007. Growing up in my sister's care after the earlier death of our mom in the summer of ‘94, served as an eye-opener for me that there is still hope that I can sail smoothly knowing that someone's there to make sure my ship does just exactly that.

Brisbane International Student Ambassador

Yet another quaint twist of the wheel, March 2011, I was appointed as a Brisbane International Student Ambassador for my home country, the Philippines. Although this appointment is somehow what my idea for seeking new ways to expand my line of sight is, I did not pretty much get to impress with myself that I am an ambassador.

So I asked, “What is an ambassador?” To my modest understanding, an ambassador is someone who lives in a foreign country, showing everyone who lives there how amazing his home country is. I tried looking back on my past, and figured how I could best position myself to even fit for this title. Well I told myself, in order for me to be an ambassador I need to know the person I am representing. Just like if you take a job as an ambassador of a country, if you knew nothing about and had never been to, you wouldn’t be able to do a very good job of representing it.

Consequently, I just feel like—to be quite honest—a very small part of a young and new Brisbane tradition of extending a helping hand to international students in the country. But then somehow I managed to grab a dictionary and found the Hebrew word “tsiyr” (tseer), from which the term ambassador is translated from. Tsiyr also means an envoy or a messenger. Now to help fine tune my adjustment in this new title I convinced myself to go back to the story of my childhood, how I was orphaned at an early age.

Only then that I have come to realize one thing I ought to do, and that is to bring out my innate passion for me to be able to share the child I was—I now reckon—is the ambassador I want to be. Having said that, it’s never a good excuse then to mess up your life because you come from a broken family or you’re parents have passed away. All the more reasons that you need to twist the fate of your life to your advantage. Just how the floods of Brisbane devastated some of the areas and families affected in January 2011, still life has to move on. I have to move on. Lucky for the city it recovered fast, but in the same manner whenever we are drenched with life situations still we keep going mate, and still we keep going.

For someone has said (who I am hoping to be a real messenger of), “No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house.” (Matt. 5:15). So here I am from the child that I was, now being an ambassador is what I have been called to do.

"Challenging will life always be!” according to my high school English teacher, Madame Florita Paralejas at St. Louis School-Don Bosco back in the Philippines. That idea clearly left an indelible imprint in my mind that I need to develop a resilient character to address such. But it will not be LIFE after all, if it isn't challenging. And as Soren Kierkegaard adds, “Life can only be understood BACKWARDS, but it must be lived FORWARDS!”

As for me, while I say hello to BRISBANE, for so long a time I have understood those challenges were not the end of everything but rather a beginning of a bright NEW LIFE!

Brisbane City Lord Mayor Campbell Newman awarding the Certificate of appointment to Xavier Villagonzalo who was appointed as Brisbane International Student Ambassador.

Brisbane City Lord Mayor Campbell Newman of Australia announcing the 29 Brisbane International Student Ambassadors from 24 countries, one of whom is Negrense's own and Silliman University Bachelor of Mass Communication alumnus Xavier Tilos Villagonzalo.

At Brisbane's Lone Pine Sanctuary—Xavier Villagonzalo and Deiter Dizon (Brisbane International Student Ambassadors 2011-Philippines).

The 2 Student Ambassadors (Xavier & Deiter) taking the initiative to mount the first gathering of Filipino students in the city, which attracted a large turnout higher than expected.

We share the same PASSION, We share the same BRISBANE!

Read as published on the MetroPost Newspaper 27March-2April 2011, Negrense named youth ambassador to Australia
Philippine Information Agency (Negros Oriental): Negrense named youth ambassador to Australia

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Monday, November 14, 2005

2005 World Youth Day Experience: In Germany I Have Worshipped Him

Cologne, Germany - I won’t forget that travel westward from Oriental Taiwan across the interminable European continent; hearing international speakers, experiencing inspired worship, engaging in practical workshop and most importantly seeing the new pontiff Pope Benedict XVI plus an exciting bonus – meeting my brother in Rome, Italy.

After passing a series of interviews: first with Youth Arise International (YAI) Manila, and second, with the German Embassy in Makati City and having been recommended by the Commission on Youth of the Diocese of Dumaguete, I joined 8 other official delegates from Oriental Negros to the 20th World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany.

The World Youth Day (WYD) is a week-long spiritual journey where young adults from all over the world unite to know and fall deeper in love with God. And yes, we embraced the opportunity to make our Filipino voices heard about the urgent need to help other young people find their useful place in society.

Before all the print and TV media were flooded with news reports on 600 or so Filipinos who were denied by the German Embassy, we were lucky and (I believe) blessed by Him that we already got at hand our Schengen Visa (a type of visa that would allow the bearer to enter all Schengen states or member-countries of the European Union-EU). So we left Manila on the 9th of August off to Germany via Taiwan aboard China Airlines.

Frankfurt, Germany – I made the Filipino man’s mistake of heading for an empty table in an airport restaurant. An airport staff was shocked: “Hold on a minute, sir! Why don’t you sit over here with these folk? I’m sure you’ll have plenty to talk about.” He was right of course. Germany is a place where human contact is easy. Indeed, German or Deutsche friendliness is proverbial; first names are used freely and “acquaintances” are easily made, especially if you show yourself ready to join in, say what a wonderful country it is (not difficult!), and refrain from invidious comparisons with wherever you come from.

Nowadays half the enjoyment of Germany lies in the many different ways there are of getting around. It was a special thrill for me to get up into the bus heading for a 2-hour ride to Essen City (northwest of Frankfurt) for our registration at YAI Youth Festival, which stretched for 4 days. However, there was a sudden change of track since we were with the four Diocesan priests Fr. Ireneo “Dodong” Ruiz, Fr. Ramonito Maata, Fr. Lonilo Torres, and Fr. Roland Omatang we decided to cut short our stay in Essen to proceed to a parish church in Mülheim-Karlich in the Koblenz region for our “Days in the Diocese.” It is a standard pre-WYD activity to give piligrims an opportunity to visit other dioceses in Germany and get a chance to meet the Deutsche people. Activities were sponsored by all 26 dioceses in Germany except Cologne which hosted the actual WYD activities.

In Koblenz, all the Oriental Negros delegates (except for Fr. Ram Maata and Ms. RubyQuilicot who stayed in Frankfurt) were housed in three different homes of Filipinas married to German nationals. Loren joined another delegate Mrs. Elena Ricklefs, a teacher of Colegio de Santa Catalina de Alejandria as the first group. The two priests Fr. Torres and Fr. Omatang composed the second, while I joined Ms. Candice Zosa, an alumna of St. Paul University-Dumaguete, and Fr. Ruiz in another. In an unbelievable span of a week, there we engaged in various spiritually stimulating activities with French, Slovakians, a Vietnamese and of course, the local German youths.

Rather more relaxing was a pilgrimage trip through the same kind of landscape to Trier near the Luxembourg national border. Tall trees still cloak some of the less accessible areas of the southwest part, but most of German’s park-like woodland there did not suffer grievously at the hands of the timber-cutters.

In the stretch between Koblenz and Trier, the Moselle (wine towns and castles) winds and weaves its way, more than any other German river. In the many meanders one can clearly see the incredible force with which the Moselle once drove its way through the slate of the mountains on its way to Trier, where it flows into the Rhine. The craggy slopes and sheer cliffs are silent witnesses of this ancient battle of water to break through stone. Dams and locks have now tamed the river, and the Moselle has been navigable along most of its length for several decades. Sitting on the rear seat in the bus, I enjoyed the view of the medieval castles rearing up over the vineyards. Their towers and battlements reminded me of older, warlike times that I only see on movies and a couple of HBO or Cinemax experience; but today the old stone walls are just as romantic as the ruins perched on the ragged cliffs.

A number of the old castles, stately homes and fortified monasteries provided me an impression of the colourful history of the region. I bet those less interested in history can simply admire the imposing appearance of the massive old buildings, and the wonderful view over the beautiful Moselle Valley.

So much with the scenes of panoramic landscape drama, we’ve finally arrived at our pilgrimage destination in the city then became known as Treveris (now Trier), a former Roman Colony founded by Caesar Augustus. According to our guide, the glory of the Roman Colony, however, was short-lived as Germanic tribes gradually drove further and further southwards, and the Roman troops finally left in the Fourth Century.

Trier, Germany – Welcoming our arrival was the Porta Nigra (“Black Gate”), the largest surviving gate from the Roman Period. The massive, castle-like structure was originally made of blocks of light sandstones; its present dark color is a result of ageing over the centuries. After the end of Roman rule the Porta Nigra was converted into a twin church (1016). Much later, Napoleon Bonaparte had the relics and other religious paraphernalia removed.

[Porta Nigra "Black Gate" (Ooops wrong camera date setting) Photo taken 13Aug2005]

In Trier, according to an old tradition the Robe of Christ is kept and venerated in the Trier, Cathedral. But we haven't got the chance to see it displayed. It is regarded as a symbol of the Son of God become man and of His redemptive work. We were told that Medieval tradition traces the presence of this relic of Our Lord in Trier back to St. Helena (died ca.330), mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine. It is said that she discovered Christ's cross and tunic during her stay in Jerusalem and gave orders that the robe be brought to Trier. Only in 1196 that it was glass-walled into the new altar of the east choir and since that time, the Robe has been displayed at irregular intervals, always attracting pilgrims to the Trier Cathedral. The age of the Robe and the fact that it was walled up for so long will no longer allow a display or long exposure to light as in earlier pilgrims, years long before I even set foot on German soil.

Very likely the question of the authenticity of the Holy Robe can no longer be settled. In that place it is regarded as image and symbol of Jesus Christ. It is expressed in this way in the pilgrim's prayer used since 1959. In this prayer we have a reminder of the sacred robe, which, according to the Gospel of St. John (19:25), was not divided by the soldiers at Christ's crucifixion, but was kept while after they had cast lots over it.

Now at this time, we were very much excited to the second stretch of another week; approaching fast was yet another track to marvel on Monday, 15th of August. The scented water we know was named after this place where it was first manufactured.

Willkommen in Köln! (Welcome to Cologne)

The city seems to offer its citizens most of the ingredients of good life: attractive homes in every price category in suburbs that range from the merely pleasant to the opulent; and every kind of outdoor playground, from the sweeps of the Rhine River and superb architectures to lavish parklands that bring the bush almost into the city center.

True Cologne is a synthesis of city and river, and I made sure that I enjoyed it not only from Rhine River but also from the Cologne Cathedral itself. For much of the latter part of my first day in Koln, my eyes returned again and again to the unforgettable image of the cathedral's clustering towers rising over the functionally elegant Rhine Bridge. The location of the present cathedral was almost certainly the focal point of Christians living here in Roman times.

In the Middle Ages Cologne was one of the largest and richest cities in Europe. The imposing panoramic view of the city and the Rhine is therefore to be found in many old pictures even on history books, circulating around Filipino readership. Here, on the city's northern perimeter, churches of ever-larger sizes replaced the buildings that were here before them. They formed part of a circle of collegiate churches and monasteries that made up “Holy Cologne”. I have seen high-rise buildings but none had appeared as tall as the Cathedral.

With the many information booklets given to us, I have encountered the name Archbishop Rainald von Dassel, the person who brought the relics (including human bones) of the “Three Wise Men from the East” to the city of Cologne from Milan in 1164. From then on, each year thousands from all over Europe made a pilgrimage to the relics of the Three Wise Men. The Pilgrimage of the Magi played an important part in the spiritual and economic life of the city. The crowns of the three wise men are still part of the city’s coat of arms today. A foremost goldsmith of the period between 1190 and 1220, Nicholas of Verdun created a golden shrine for the much-revered relics.

As we fell in line joining thousands of other youths of different colors, to march in towards the inside of the cathedral you’ve probably imagined me already: with a typical Filipino height, now desperately grasping for more air, as towering species partially blocked my sight of the edifice. Some Caucasians sunburned (by the way August is the height of summer in Europe), blond and blue-eyed. Some dark. Some Latino-looking beauties from either South America, or Latin Europe. And a few brown-complexioned just like me. So my only guide ahead was that Philippine flag raised in a pole by Fr. Ruiz, which we both took turns as flag-bearers. Good thing one generous Filipina bought us a tall yet elegant pole, which more often than not, stood out from a few ordinary flagpoles raised by other fellow foreigners.

As we were nearing towards the cathedral’s main entrance (St. Peter’s Gate in the South Tower), I could already see the arches which were pointed in the middle with all parts of the cathedral uniformly vaulted, thus underscoring the heavenward dynamism of the whole edifice. The colossal architecture was to give the people an impression of heaven, and oh my, was the sight Heaven!

With its great black-marble high altar inside, the inner choir is encompassed by an ambulatory adjoining a circle of chapels. The pillars are made up of a large number of round rods, the so-called shafts, and the vaults being supported by the ribs. The interior is decorated with capitals with gilded, naturalistic leaves. Stone ornaments are set in big windows, the tracery. The whole of the exterior is decorated in similar fashion with circles and circular elements. The southern side of the chancel, the one facing the city, is more richly decorated than the northern side.

The pier buttresses rise up from the circle of apsidal chapels as from a pedestal, dissolving in myriad arches and peaks as they soar upwards. A view of the windows of the upper choir with its fine tracery and richly decorated tympana opens up between them. The steep lead roof has a calming effect on the whole, while the golden cross on it shone forth from that point to my pupil gave a sense of the ethereal.

The high quality of all the work done, from the hundreds of sculptures hewn for the façade to the towers and the entrance portals to the large stained glass windows, makes the Cathedral indeed one of the foremost works of art of the Neo-Gothic Period.

Before we could all finally flock together in one big gathering for the entire WYD delegations from all over the world, our days were first filled with a roster of interesting catechetical activities: together with the Sacrament of Reconciliation and celebrations of the Holy Eucharist all over the 3 core cities of Cologne, Bonn, and Düsseldorf.

Public Transportation

The sprawl of high-density suburbs surrounding major cities is conducive to the operation of an effective transportation system, and Germans have become very dependent on cars for work, shopping, and recreational trips. However, city public transportation services based on bus and rail are surprisingly efficient, albeit a heavy drain on the public purse. But lucky for us we did not have to spend a Euro or two, our WYD pilgrim IDs served as tickets and passes.

So within the intervals of the different events we were to commute from one venue to another via all-access-free rides on Inter-City Express (ICE) trains wherever in Germany for the entire duration of the WYD for as long as we wear our pilgrim IDs.

Food and Drinks

Dishes found nationwide and even in our host families tended to be of the heart variety and included cold meats, veal, pork chops, cheese, wurst (sausage), superlative breads, potato or bread dumplings (knodel) served with meat and sauce, fabulous Lake Constance trout, Wiener Schnitzel (breaded veal cutlets), duck and game (especially in the south), Konigsberger klopse (pork and veal meatballs with capers), apfelstrudel (apple strudel), Rhine salmon and sauerkraut. These were food totally new to my palate; however, I started to feel a strange hunger, because every time we ate I was not quite satisfied. I felt something was lacking, until I realized I was in dire crave for rice. Well as expected, where can you see rice fields in a non-tropical setting? But that wasn’t at all a major problem since I then administered in my system a forcible no-carbo diet. So my lady companions, Candice, Loren and Ma’am Elena thought it was a blessing in the guise of finally getting rid of the numbers around their waistlines.

Though I don’t really drink any sorts of liquor, I must admit it was difficult not to try the excellent German wines and beers for the sake of quenching my curiosity. Weisse, weizen or weissbier refer to a wheat beer, which comes in 2 varieties: hefe (high yeast content) and kristall (clear, sparkling and served with a lemon slice). Apfelwein (apple wine), a Frankfurt specialty, was also very good.

The Vigil with the Pope

What a better way to conclude the World Youth day is by enduring that feeling of renewed spiritual awakening spent on a vigil night at the Marienfield. Walking 8 kilometers for an hour or almost two to get there was nothing to measure, what seemed to be immeasurable was the thought that we neither got hungry or too tired while hiking. Finally entering the field felt like we were on hallowed grounds: a place where I can meditate and be in communion with my Higher Self. Seeing all the other youths of different races march in jamboree is like witnessing Moses’ people traverse a long and arduous journey to Canaan. That one of a kind feeling transcended my inner being to another dimension.

We laid our sleeping mats at our respective areas in the open field with the usual setting of the summer sun still at 10 o’clock in the evening. The night was unbelievably cold, that we talked with smoke coming out from our mouths. “It’s like I’m gonna die with the coldness here, ‘dong Xavier,” said Fr. Torres, who decided not to join the other priests who went to concelebrate the mass the next day.

And all commenced the following day (21st of August) in a Holy Mass with Pope Benedict XVI. I heard the youths repeatedly cried: “Papst Benedikto, We love you!” followed by two subsequent claps over and over again. So finally we received the final blessings of the pope. And yes, indeed “We have come to worship Him” Matt. 2:2 (The latter is also the official theme of WYD 2005).

Simply Xavier Slideshow: Xavier’s trip from Dumaguete, Negros, Philippines to 15 cities Rome, Taiwan, Sydney, Gold Coast, Hong Kong, Brisbane, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Byron Bay, Makati, Trier, Koblenz, Cavite, Vatican City and Iligan was created by TripAdvisor. See another Italy slideshow. Create a free slideshow with music from your travel photos.

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