A visit to the Asian Institute of Liturgy and Music

by Audrey Seah

imageJust over two weeks ago, I had the privilege of visiting the Asian Institute of Liturgy and Music (AILM) in Quezon City, Philippines. AILM is an ecumenical school located on the campus of the Episcopal seminary that offers Bachelor and Master degrees in Church music with an emphasis on the contextualization of worship in Asian Churches. The school was founded 34 years ago by Dr. Francisco F. Feliciano who was recently named one of Philippines’ national artists of the year. While at AILM, students live in the Samba-Likhaan Artists’ Community located just behind the school, with artists, theologians, and scholars from all over the world. Students have come from as far as India, Myanmar, Singapore, Paupa New Guinea, Tonga, China, and Indonesia for this unique experience and to be trained as worship leaders.

To my delight, I learned just days before my trip, that my visit would coincide with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby’s, visit to Episcopal Church of the Philippines and that I was welcome to attend his mass at the nearby Cathedral. It was an easy invitation to accept.

I arrived outside an unassuming building, slightly dazed, after riding for an hour in heavy traffic and watching my lost taxi driver piously rub the crucifix of the rosary hanging on his rearview mirror and then cross himself after missing every close shave. As I hurried down the dimly lit hallway, feeling slightly guilty for my tardiness, my contact Tinnah dela Rosa emerged from a side door and greeted me.

Javanese gamelan in the rehearsal room
Javanese gamelan in the rehearsal room

Tinnah had told me that AILM was a small school. Coming from Saint John’s, I imagined it was about the same size. Boy, was I wrong—it was much smaller. We began our tour at the main administrative office where friendly greetings were exchanged. The room across from the office was a general classroom of a typical size where all theology, conducting, liturgy, composition, and theory classes are held. The next room held several traditional instruments—the Javanese Gamelan, the Kulintang (a small set of gongs with graduated shapes), and the Agung (two large hanging gongs) from Maguidanao in southern Philppines. Tinnah explained that the degree programs require all students to play in the Asian music ensemble for a year; their goal is to show students that the western way is not the only way to be Christian.

Gongs from southern Philippines
Gongs from southern Philippines

The final classroom held their modest library of mostly music books. This was clearly a place that accomplished much with very little. I recognized some American hymnals sitting on the top shelf of bookcase beside me. I instinctively (and naively) asked, “So, which hymnals do most parishes in the Philippines use?” Tinnah chuckled, “We can’t afford hymnals. The Episcopal Seminary and Cathedral have invested in some, but they are the only ones. We print hymn texts on paper if we’re lucky.” We left the library with me feeling slightly embarrassed and continued our conversation in the faculty lounge.

Tinnah is a faculty member and alumnae of AILM. She teaches Creative Liturgy and Liturgical Music Composition courses at AILM, and was once a student of Dr. Feliciano’s. She holds an MA in Theological Studies from Ateneo de Manila University, and a Master of Theology in Liturgy and Music from AILM. She chose to study at AILM because she didn’t want to have to study atonal western music.

Tinnah is a rare breed in the Philippines. She is one of the few Roman Catholic laywomen working in the field of liturgy and to have published liturgical music. She also runs a website, praysingministry.com where she shares weekly resources for the liturgy. Her Gaudium Mass has the entire mass—from greeting to dismissal—set to music and is published by Claretian Publications in Manila. Her mass setting has been pirated online. She found it scanned and sold online for $4.99. We joked that piracy was a sign of success.

We chatted for about an hour about all things liturgical as liturgists usually do, then went outside to join the procession to the Cathedral for Mass with His Grace, Justin Welby. Dancers representing a Northern Filipino ethnic group led the procession. Clad in traditional garb, boys of all ages played a rhythmic beat on the gongs as the girls danced in step. The AILM chorale, also dressed in the traditional costumes from their own cultures, led the singing. Most of mass was familiar and typically Episcopalian. Songs were sung in both English and Filipino. I even recognized some of them—the Sanctus was from Proulx’s community mass, and the closing hymn was Jeffery Rowthorn’s “Lord, You Give the Great Commision” paired with a local tune. The Cathedral had a large organ in the choir loft, which I was looking forward to hearing. Unfortunately, a digital keyboard with a pipe organ sound was used instead.

A bountiful offertory
A bountiful offertory

The highlight of the mass was its offertory procession. It was a long drawn out process led by liturgical dancers and members of the congregation who processed not only the gifts of bread and wine, but massive amounts of produce, mostly vegetables brought forth by the faithful in baskets which they carried on their heads. What a sight to behold! Tinnah leaned over and quipped, “No one brought livestock!” making me wonder what that might look like. By the time the offertory was over, almost two-thirds of the sanctuary was filled with baskets of food, which were to be distributed to the poor.

I left AILM feeling grateful, inspired, and humbled—grateful for new friendship and time spent with a fellow liturgist from a completely different culture, inspired by the work that Tinnah and others like her do to form future Asian liturgists, and humbled by the people I met who manifested Christ in their ability to do so much with so little.

Audrey Seah is an alumna of Saint John’s School of Theology-Seminary and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Theology (Liturgical Studies) the University of Notre Dame.

4 comments

  1. What a wonderful experience. Thanks for sharing the pictures too!
    I am still wondering how small is small. Can you give an estimate of the number of students? The number of faculty?

    I loved the idea of the offering bringing forward food to be shared. A practice of the ancient church that speaks in a symbolic and real way of how communities “live from the Eucharist.”

    1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #1:

      I loved the idea of the offering bringing forward food to be shared.

      British parishes have been encouraged to do this for many years at the Holy Thursday Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, with its twin themes of service and Eucharist. At the presentation of the gifts, along with the usual monetary collection, canned and other produce destined for the poor will typically be brought up the aisle to the sanctuary, often wheeled up in supermarket carts, etc.

      When this practice first began in the mid 1970s, the underlying rationale was presented like this:

      “Have you noticed how, when you leave your seat at a regular Mass, it’s to go and get something? This is your opportunity to leave your seat and go and give something.”

      Of course, it takes rather longer, but the symbolism is worth it!

      In some parishes, the offering of produce on Holy Thursday has died out but the idea of leaving your seat to give remains, so most people in the congregation will go up to place their money and their envelopes in large baskets at the edge of the sanctuary area, rather than waiting for ushers to bring collection baskets to them. Unfortunately some assemblies have seen this as a way of involving children, so they will be encouraged to take up the offerings while the adults remain adhered to their seats…. [sigh]

  2. I was once a student at AILM in 2000-2001. Until today I love AILM and always thankful for what AILM has taught me to be a song writer and composer today. I can still recall my good days with my international friends.
    Your good friend in Christ.

    David Maleh from Papua New Guinea.,

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