MANILA, Sept. 12, 2012—Sr. Mary Pilar Verzosa, RGS, the founder of Pro-Life Philippines, one to whom the birth of the pro-life movement in this country is attributed, will be laid to rest today after a 3 p.m. mass at the Religious of the Good Shepherd convent community chapel on Aurora Blvd., Quezon City.
Verzosa, a nurse by profession, was involved in numerous organizations and programs over the course of her 67 years, either spearheading or guiding behind-the-scenes initiatives for girls and women in crisis, individuals with special needs, providing skills training for people in poor communities, making sure the teachings of the Catholic faith on human dignity, womanhood and family remained the guiding principles of such initiatives, while helping in any way she could groups and individuals who did not share her faith but were working to promote life-affirming principles nonetheless.
Verzosa, however, was best known for her untiring efforts in starting – and being the driving force behind – the crusade to keep a genuine culture of life entrenched in Philippine society. And the beginning of this could be traced back to her encounter with an international pro-life advocate who traveled to Asia as a result of the infamous 1973 Roe vs. Wade US Supreme Court decision, which legalized abortion on demand in that nation.
The pro-life crusade: The beginning
Rev. Fr. Paul Marx, the late founder of Human Life International (HLI), spoke to different groups in the Philippines about the issues surrounding the legalization of abortion in the US, calling on Filipinos to remain staunchly pro-life. The RGS nun, who at the time was working in the Good Shepherd Home for Unwed Mothers, was among those present in one of his talks.
“The film on what happens to the baby in an abortion touched me, just as I am sure it was a shock to all of those in the audience – mostly nuns and parents. I don’t even remember where that forum was held but we were told that the guest speaker was Rev. Fr. Paul Marx, OSB, the Founder of Human Life International. That was in 1974,” Verzosa once related, recalling that the main message of the priest to Filipinos then was that “we should do our best never, never to allow abortion to be legalized in the Philippines.
“I thought that showing the same film to schools and parishes would inform the public that there are alternatives to abortion, and our Maternity Home was one of them. I then asked [Fr. Paul] for a copy of the films he was showing.”
The heavy reels of four titles – plus a16 mm film projector — which the priest generously gave her proved useful, as she lugged them around from school to school, sometimes traveling by bus or catching a flight to provinces to hold seminars.
The indefatigable nun carried out the work on her own for a long time until family life-oriented groups and the Episcopal Commission on Family of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) began inviting her to conduct sessions and, later, giving seminars themselves, too. This, in a nutshell, described the beginnings of the pro-life movement in the Philippines, with Verzosa at the helm and tireless life advocates and volunteers – whose numbers steadily grew over the years – working away.
“We then called our group the Pro-life Movement of the Philippines with me as the National Coordinator. And that was my title for the next 30 years, even when we registered it in SEC and it became Pro-life Philippines Foundation, Inc.,” she said.
Doing more according to what people need
Though initially focused on giving educational seminars, the group’s mission had expanded to include advocacy and lobbying as the need for these emerged – what with the D.E.A.T.H. bills, and particularly the reproductive health (RH) bill, threatening to radically transform society into one that shunned the value of life from conception to natural death, traditional family, marriage, chaste relationships, authentic masculinity and femininity.
Apart from education programs that include Christian-Oriented Teen Sexuality seminars or abstinence-based modules, the group has been covering a lot of ground based on the needs of those who seek its help. Among the vital measures the dynamic nun established were pregnancy counseling centers located in strategic places in Metro Manila as well as in other parts of the country, for she believed this was a practical response to those involved in untimely pregnancies. Hence, going beyond information and education activities, Verzosa worked on having trained counselors to offer free, compassionate and effective help to those who needed it.
In 1990, Verzosa, a recipient of countless awards given here and overseas recognizing her humanitarian work, went one step further and helped found Rachel’s Support Group for post-abortive women find healing and reconciliation and eventually find their way back to God.
Hurdling the turbulent ’70s
Lest the path that the “mother” of the country’s pro-life movement appear smooth-sailing, the turbulent years under martial law must be noted as posing challenges to Verzosa’s work. Cory Arevalo, a long-time bosom buddy of the RGS nun, included the following in an account published in Celebrate Life, an American Life League publication, in 2001:
“The work was not easy, and became harder when she was arrested and falsely accused as a rebel during the dark days of martial law. This only encouraged her to organize and legalize the Pro-Life Philippines Foundation, Inc., as it is known today. Inspiring lay leaders to continue the fight behind the ‘curtain,’ she orchestrated mass action. She trained leaders and volunteers of all church denominations. She wrote letters, established media connections, and exposed the international population control program and its impact on the third world countries like the Philippines. She developed professional and non-professional counselors for Pregnancy Counseling Services and established the Pregnancy Crisis Intervention Network, a network of agencies espousing pro-life values.”
The gung-ho disposition that characterized the feisty nun’s activism in carrying out her pro-life work was apparent… the compassion – sometimes the “tough” kind – with which she spoke with and counseled each of the girls, women and families she encountered in the course of her apostolate. Understanding as she was, it was not in her nature to dilly-dally. She made good use of every moment to know a person more deeply and guide her on the road toward God – and healing, when this was what the person needed. After all, it was a love for God and a dedication to giving back to Him for all that He had bestowed on her that motivated the nun all those years before her death.
“When she was too busy with seminars and a counselee came over or called, she would take the counselee with her to the seminar and talk with her on the bus, in between sessions, and after the seminar,” Arevalo recalled.
“On our way to seminars, she would share one earphone attached to the Walkman as she listened to lectures then shared the material afterwards while knitting a sweater or a bonnet for the sisters, friends or girls . Knitting was something she enjoyed,” she added.
Unknown to many, Verzosa was very introspective and deep in her spirituality. She kept little notes and poems about the Blessed Mother, God and things affecting her world. Further, she saw God and his hand behind everything, Arevalo said.
“She was very vocal about her beliefs, unafraid even if these were unpopular. But she listened to other people with different beliefs even if these were not her own. In fact, she had been accused of siding with anti-life people and [radical] feminists, or holding new age ideas, simply because she listened. But she was never anti-life, never ‘new age.’ She was a true pro-lifer,” Arevalo revealed.
Sr. Pilar Verzosa graduated from St. Theresa’s College then went on to St. Paul College to study nursing. She was one of a brood of eight that was reared by parents in a happy home atmosphere where faith was planted early and piety was nourished. In her own words when she wrote about her vocation story, “we prayed the rosary every evening as far back as I can remember and having our First Communion was a special event for each of the eight of us children. I remember walking to church every morning with my mother and father ever since I was in Grade Five. My other siblings would join us sometimes but I was the most regular even during weekdays.”
The piety obviously took root and stayed with her all her life. Several hours before the 67-year-old Good Shepherd sister slipped into a coma, she attended Mass and received the Eucharist — which is a source of much consolation for many friends who have found it difficult to celebrate the nun’s being taken Home. But as Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo said in his homily at the necrological service on Sept. 11, God takes his children home when they are ready.
“God comes to save, not to punish. Even if in our point of view, what happened to our dear Pilar is sudden, in God’s view it is the right time.” (CBCP for Life)
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