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A Composer By Any Other Name

Fr. Manoling Francisco, S.J.

It was 4:30 in the morning on a cold December morning in Daly City, California in the 1990’s. The choir of the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church filed in for Simbang Gabi, the nine day novena of dawn masses that begins on December 16 and ends on Christmas Eve. Fil-Am choir director Terry Buchholz began the warm up.

She also knew that they come to listen and sing the music of one particular Jesuit...

In a few minutes, the church would be filled with Filipino parishioners. Tradition runs deep in the Filipino community, and the act of waking up before dawn to fulfill a novena-mass daily, nine days before Christmas is a minor inconvenience. For the camaraderie and the songs, the prayers and remembrances of holidays back home in the Philippines made the time spent worthwhile.

Terry knew that the attendees were coming from various distances and were of many different backgrounds to experience something precious from home. She also knew that they come to listen and sing the music of one particular Jesuit, a Filipino composer, Manuel Francisco, S.J., more popularly known as “Father Manoling.”

Five o’clock arrived and the choir began singing “Tanging Yaman”. The four part chorale voices filled the quiet church, voicing an unmistaken love song to God . . . The music was his, the lyrics by a colleague, Philip T. Gan, S.J.:

Ikaw ang aking Tanging Yaman
Na di lubasang masumpungan
Ang nilikha mong kariktan
Sulyap ng 'yong kagandahan

Francisco's "Tanging Yaman" performed by Calasiao Childrens Chorus

The melody rose and fell and filled the church with pathos, pulling on heartstrings. Some parishioners blinked back tears, some halted then joined in. This was music that tore open the lonely homesick heart, filled it with music, and sent it home overflowing.

Horacio de la Costa, S.J., a recognized authority in Philippine and Asian culture and history, in his oratorical piece, “Jewels of the Pauper” said that the Filipinos have two jewels, faith and music. Fr. Manoling’s music is the embodiment of both.

He was born Manuel Simplicio Valdes Francisco in 1965 into a musical and political family. His grandmother was the concert pianist Leonarda Ocampo, the first graduate of the St. Scholastica’s Conservatory of Music. His uncle, Louie Ocampo, is a prolific songwriter and one of his first music teachers.  His grandfather was Senator Vicente Francisco.

Four students, including Fr. Manoling, went home to work on the melody...The next day his version won the class vote and they all went on to sing it.  The boys sang for their mothers, who cried.

Young Manoling had a typical sheltered and educated upbringing. “I thought I was going to be a concert pianist like my maternal grandmother,” he said in a video filmed by the Philippine Jesuits. He studied classical piano through his first year in high school.  One August day while waiting for the family driver to pick him up from school, he was filled with the presence of God and heard the call to the priesthood.

The path to ordination took a while to develop. First there were the years on the serene and green Katipunan campus of the Ateneo de Manila.

When he was a high school freshman, he met his first compositional challenge. His class decided to join a school wide liturgical song competition.  Their teacher, Onofre Pagsanhan (or fondly referred to by his students as “Mr. Pagsi”) asked the class to think about the Bible verse, Isaiah chapter 49, verse 15:

Can a woman forget her infant at the breast,
Feel no pity for the child she has borne?
Even if these were to forget, I shall not forget you.
(New Jerusalem Bible)

Pagsi asked them to write it in Pilipino and put rhythm to it.  He tossed out one line, writing it on the black board, the kids raised their hands and added another and so it went until by the end of the period, the class had the lyrics to their song.

Four students, including Manoling, went home to work on the melody. His was done in half an hour. The next day his version won hands down and the whole class went on to sing it.  The boys sang for their mothers, who cried. They still weren’t convinced that it was good enough. By the end of the year, the song , “Hindi Kita Malilimutan” had spread throughout Manila, and was sung at weddings and funerals.

"Hindi Kita Malilimutan" performed by Basil Valdez

In the years that followed, the song crossed the Pacific Ocean to Guam and to the United States. It went on to be a signature song for singer, Basil Valdes.

In 2009, during the funeral mass of former President Corazon Aquino, “Hindi Kita Malilimutan”—credited now to Manuel V. Francisco, S.J.—was sung. How often was it to be the song of loss and consolation for generations to come?

Senator Ninoy Aquino arrived in Manila in 1981. While crowds lined the streets to witness his return, a gunman’s bullet welcomed him. The violence rocked the nation. Its aftermath stirred the masses. For Manoling Francisco, a young man still groping for answers as a freshman in college, this senseless act took a toll and in his words, “affected me profoundly.”  A decade of Martial Law filled the jails with the arrests of activists and protestors. Seventeen-year-old Manoling Francisco was a familiar figure among those visiting the incarcerated. His persistence underscores “Searching,” a poem by a political prisoner dedicated “to Manoling and his tribe”:

. . .

for as long as
you search for the truth
your thirst for knowledge
remains unquenched
as long as you keep coming back
to take with you
the little that we have to offer
then you are reason enough
for making prison
worth its while

("Searching" by Doris N. Baffrey)

Manoling was pulled in two directions, on the one hand he wanted to be part of the struggle of the people, but on the other, he felt pulled towards serving his Christ. This struggle plunged him into a crisis pushing him to beg God for clarity. When the answer came, he claims he heard it distinctly. Jesus spoke.  The message was clear:  Political freedom and economic development were not incompatible with the work of redemption.
In his heart he heard, “Will you help me save souls as a priest?”  At that moment, Manoling answered “Yes,” surrendering his life, and felt the rush of peace. The next morning he applied to the Jesuit novitiate.

California choir director Terry travelled to Manila and met the composer in the year before he was ordained. “He gave me a book of unpublished songs, all written by hand with notes on staff. He was very pleased that his music was being sung in the United States.”   Terry said that the soon-to-be priest was very simpatico, a humble and approachable individual. Unabashedly effusive, she said, “His music is so uplifting, so romantic, it fits right in with the Filipino spirit.”

He continues to writes music, and teaches a popular course on liturgical songwriting...He remains an outspoken voice for peace and against corruption in the government...

In 1997 Manuel Francisco was ordained, one of eight new Jesuit priests. He was sent to his first mission post—Kiangan, Ifugao.  He pondered his ability to survive outside the Jesuit community as his entire life had been spent in Jesuit schools.  Kiangan was remote with no telephone service. His fears vanished as he found happiness and fulfillment in his isolated mountain home.  He said after that, he learned that wherever he was sent, God would take care of him.

From rural Kiangan he was sent to the United States for graduate school. He studied at the Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts and finished his doctorate in 2005. Then he returned to the Philippines.

Fr. Manoling remains deeply involved in the Bukas Palad Music Ministry (“Open Palms”) of which he is a founding member and in the Jesuit Music Ministry. He has composed over 150 songs that are sung all over the world, wherever Filipinos gather for worship.

Toronto-based blogger Regnard Raquedan interviewed Fr. Manoling at the album launch of “Christify”, a Bukas Palad liturgical music album. When asked about his musical influences, Fr. Manoling named his Uncle Louie Ocampo and Composer Ryan Cayabyab, who are his Filipino mentors and without missing a beat he rattled off “the Beatles, Burt Bacharach, and Ennio Morricone.”

Fr. Manoling pins his hopes on young people, that they embrace liturgical songwriting so they can write the songs that are expressive of their spirit.

Today, he teaches systematic theology in the Loyola School of Theology at the Ateneo. He continues to write music, and teaches a popular course on liturgical songwriting. He remains an outspoken voice for peace and against corruption in the government.

Recordings of Fr. Manoling Francisco’s music are abundant on the internet. Complete information and music titles and lists are available at the Bukas Palad website, http://bukaspalad.com. Some recordings are available in the U.S. through the Eagle’s Corner e-store in Pacifica, California. http://eaglescorner.com

Sa 'yo Lamang performed by Bukas Palad

© Kathleen Joaquin Burkhalter

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Fr. Manoling Francisco, S.J.
by Kathleen Joaquin Burkhalter

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by Felipe M. de Leon, Jr.

by Kathleen Joaquin Burkhalter

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