Filipino couples who haven’t been married in church find help in Fr Luciano. Annabelle Liang reports
On every third Sunday of a month, Filipino Fr Angel Luciano presides over an unusual celebration at the Church of St Michael.
There, he convalidates the marriages of Filipinos – with a few with kids in tow – at no cost. After the quick afternoon ceremony, infants are baptised. Some of them belong to couples whose unions were newly recognised by the Catholic Church.
The numbers are sizable: Since 1999, the Scheut Missions priest has seen one to three couples per month for convalidation.
“Many of them were focused on supporting their children and family in the Philippines. There was no time to think about getting married in church. It was the least of their problems,” he said.
“They have children; they are already committed to one another and have a life together.”
Complications arise when these couples relocate to Singapore for work and want their children to be baptised. Infant baptisms are not granted here if the Catholic parents were only civilly wed.
Church weddings in the Philippines are often a village affair, with long guest lists, large receptions, pricey dresses and flowers. “It’s such a good business,” Fr Luciano said.
Many are therefore deterred by the expenses. A reception after tying the knot in a basilica can cost up to a million pesos (S$29,000). A similar reception after a wedding in a church in the province can be a gala worth 250,000 pesos (S$7,000), Fr Luciano shared.
On the other hand, a civil marriage certificate costs just 320 pesos (S$9), according to the official site of suburban Quezon City, northeast of Manila.
Civil marriages are also seen as a quick way to seal the deal, should a partner have to relocate for work at short notice.
Fr Terence Pereira, judicial vicar of Singapore archdiocese’s Ecclesiastical Tribunal, said that couples going for convalidation should make receiving the Sacrament of Matrimony their focus.
“Convalidation shouldn’t be seen as just a means of baptising their offspring,” he said.
In fact, opting for a civil marriage before convalidation should not be standard practice, Fr Pereira added.
“Marriage is not an issue of pomp and nice photographs – it’ll cost less if we go back to the basics of a sacred union between two individuals,” he said.
Serving the community
As chaplain of the island nation’s Filipino community, Fr Luciano keeps his door open and listens to members’ struggles and concerns. The community has grown from 70,000 in 1991 to anywhere between 170,000 and 200,000 today, he estimated.
Fr Luciano conducts house blessings, answers calls for help and visits different parishes on Sundays to get to know the Filipino congregations better. He also takes on a guiding role.
“The family should always be solid. If they would like to get married, I always tell them to follow the steps: Attraction, Courtship, Engagement and Marriage,” he said.
For those who have since found life partners within the community, the priest encourages these couples to save up before getting married in a church back in the Philippines.
“Singapore has given them such good possibilities. They have been blessed with a job that can help secure a better life for their children,” he explained.
A support net is nevertheless close at hand. Filipinos in parishes regularly organise picnics and sports gatherings. Many of them are involved in Couples for Christ (CFC, www.couplesforchrist.org.sg), a global mission committed to living in God’s righteousness and holiness.
In Singapore, the movement comprises 464 couples and 600 singles. Although it is not targeted at Filipinos, they make up 90 percent of membership.
“It’s a womb-to-tomb mission where each and every member of the family has a ministry to belong to,” said Ms Maleen Ngan, who does administration and accounts for CFC.
Apart from a CFC ministry that caters to couples, there are five other groups under the movement’s umbrella.
Kids for Christ and Youth for Christ give young members a safe place to express their thoughts and grow. Singles for Christ is suited for individuals in their 20s to 40s.
Single mature men find a home in Servants of the Lord, while their female counterparts form Handmaids of the Lord.
Ms Ngan, 58, has been a part of the movement for more than a decade now. “Through CFC, you feel the love of God in other people ... We share our struggles and pray together,” she said.
One Filipino couple’s story
On an average day, convalidation is a simple affair. But when Mr Norman Villaplana and his wife Mellanie showed up in a full suit and bridal garb on Jan 17, Fr Luciano asked if they wanted a wedding march.
Down the aisle they went. Their daughter Hannah, 15, led the way with roses in hand.
“We felt lucky to get this blessing for our relationship. Before that, we were married in the eyes of the people but not in the eyes of God,” Mellanie said. The Villaplanas, who are both 40, also organised a small reception after the ceremony.
The couple had opted for a civil marriage in the year 2000 in Manila. Norman was set to leave for work as an IT programmer in Singapore, and Mellanie could only join him six months later.
They were once co-workers on an IT project in the Philippines who worked on different floors. A mutual friend introduced them at a Christmas party, and the two have been inseparable since.
“I felt something special with her, so I told her that I was ready for a serious relationship in a letter,” Norman quipped.
Years passed and getting married in church did not seem practical. Then, the pair went through a heartbreaking trial when Mellanie had a miscarriage in January 2015.
This brought them closer and the desire to take part in convalidation slowly grew, Mellanie shared.
“I felt that God was guiding us. Even when we fight, we love each other and always value family. It’s a give and take relationship,” she added.