Philippine theater

‘Grace’ play reopens controversial 1948 Lipa apparition to contemporary conversation

JC Gotinga

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‘Grace’ play reopens controversial 1948 Lipa apparition to contemporary conversation

GRACE in Spotlight Facebook page

The final play by the late great Floy Quintos means the story doesn't end just because the Vatican says so

There’s an audacity to Grace, the new play by the late playwright Floy Quintos, in reopening the story of the alleged 1948 Marian apparition in Lipa, Batangas, because it implies that the story doesn’t end with the Vatican’s dismissal of the incident as a hoax, even if the Vatican’s word on the subject ought to be the last.

The play opened to profuse standing ovations on Saturday, May 25, at the Power Mac Center Spotlight Blackbox Theater at Ayala Malls Circuit in Makati City. It was a relief to the show’s cast and creators, who worried about how the piece would land among the audience.

“This play is very quiet, in a season of revenge theater, in a season of ‘Rah! Rah! Rah!’” Frances Makil-Ignacio, whose character Sister Agatha provides much of the play’s comic relief, told Rappler. Other productions in Manila’s recent menu of shows include Bar Boys, Rent, and Pingkian – all musicals with rousing production numbers.

Nun, Adult, Female
VISIONARY. In ‘Grace’, Stella Cañete-Mendoza plays Teresita Castillo, a nun who claims visions of the Virgin Mary. Handout photo

Grace, directed by Quintos’ longtime collaborator Dexter M. Santos, is a straight play. Its action unfolds in the cloister of Lipa’s Discalced Carmelite nuns, and in bishops’ offices in Lipa and Manila. It’s about personal turmoil rooted in crises of faith, of internal conflict belied by the external motions of religion. The nuns kneel, pray, and witness a shower of rose petals. The bishops argue in whispers and hushed outbursts. They interrogate and gaslight the nuns. The main character, Teresita Castillo, beholds the Devil and the Virgin Mary in private.

The play invites introspection, said Makil-Ignacio, and its power is in its “thrumming” energy that creeps in as the story’s tensions pull at the characters who must abide by their vow of obedience that, for Filipino contemplative nuns in the 1940s, meant silence.

The minimalist staging draws focus to the determined, tormented silence of the protagonists. Translucent white curtains frame the bare proscenium, serving as projection screens for archival clippings and images that contextualize the performance. The lone set piece is a chair, at times a throne, at times a hot seat, depending on the scene.

The spectacle of Grace is in the dialogue. It’s an intellectual thriller akin to a legal drama, except what’s on the table isn’t the law but dogma.

Ito, talagang meron siyang silence na masarap (This one, it’s really got a silence that’s gratifying),” Makil-Ignacio said. “You have to listen.”

BATANGUEÑA. Sister Agatha, played by Frances Makil-Ignacio, is a fictional character that represents the other nuns in the Lipa Carmel. Her guileless quips provide for some of the play’s funniest and most poignant moments. Handout photo

The themes in Grace are fascinating: supernatural and demonic visions, miracles, church politics, racism. But what Quintos aimed to flesh out is the nuns’ dilemma: to assert their truth and resist suppression and even blackmail by the bishops, even as they fulfill their vow of obedience.

“Floy said it himself – he’s more fascinated with the nuns’ vows of obedience and how they could do it, even if they truly believed that what was happening was real,” said Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino, who plays the maternal and tortured prioress, Mother Cecilia of Jesus.

Grace is a work of fiction based on true events. If you know Lipa to be a pilgrimage site, that is because of the devotion to Mary, the Mediatrix of All Grace, which has its origins in the 1948 apparition claimed by Teresita “Teresing” Castillo, then a 21-year-old postulant at the Lipa Carmel. Although only Castillo received visions of the Virgin Mary, the other nuns and, later on, the pilgrims witnessed inexplicable showers of rose petals. These events inspired a devotion that spread quickly among Filipino Catholics around the world – faster than the Vatican could vet and sign off on it.

And there lies the conflict.

In fictionalized scenes, the play imagines the encounters that led to the Vatican’s dismissal of the Lipa apparition as a hoax, and the aftermath of that verdict. Events from extant records are dots that Quintos’ writing gracefully connects to create a compelling impression of what could very well be the truth behind the Lipa apparition.

This is relevant – even important – because the Lipa apparition continues to divide Catholics. On different dates in 2022, the esteemed former magistrate Harriet Demetriou, a Mediatrix devotee, sued the esteemed priest Winston Cabading for perjury and offending religious feelings, over his insistence that the Vatican had officially disavowed the devotion to the Mediatrix, and that what appear to be visions of the divine might actually be demonic impostors. Cabading ended up spending a weekend in jail in March 2023.

‘Grace’ play reopens controversial 1948 Lipa apparition to contemporary conversation

Then, in March 2024, the Vatican publicized its 1951 decree that declared the Lipa apparition had no supernatural origin, reaffirming its position and vindicating Cabading. And yet pilgrims continue to visit the church in Lipa dedicated to the Mediatrix. Stories of Mediatrix madonnas that weep, bleed, exude fragrant oils, and even shed gold leaf still abound.

Centenera-Buencamino verbalized why Lipa’s veracity matters to Filipino Catholics: “Ang sarap isipin, para sa Pilipino, na mahal tayo ng Ina. Kasi ako I believe [in the apparition]. Ang sarap isipin, ‘My God, mahal tayo ng Ina. Mahal tayo ng Mama Mary.’”

(It feels great to think, for Filipinos, that the Mother loves us. Because I believe [in the apparition]. How wonderful to think, “My God, the Mother loves us. Mama Mary loves us.”)

But Grace doesn’t assume that veracity. It airs both sides of the argument. In one of the scenes, the Vatican envoy, the Italian Monsignor Egidio Vagnozzi, played by Leo Rialp, says that the Virgin Mary presenting herself as the “Mediatrix of All Grace” is theologically problematic, because it’s a distinction that should belong to Jesus Christ.

“I told Sir Floy, ‘You wrote [the play] in such a way that I don’t know if you believe in it.’ And I think that was the point,” Nelsito Gomez, who plays the visionary’s interrogator Father Angel de Blas, told Rappler.

“It’s very even to all sides, actually.”

It’s the clash of conflicting persuasions that make for the high drama in Grace: a young, rural Filipino nun is interrogated by a Hispanic friar under orders from Rome; the Bishop of Manila condescends on the Bishop of Lipa, who rightly protests that they are co-equals; the Italian monsignor threatens the Filipina prioress with excommunication; a jealous, unbelieving sister puts malice into what she sees and weaves her own plotline.

INQUISITOR. Father Angel de Blas, played by Nelsito Gomez, plays the Devil’s advocate in the investigation of the apparition. Handout photo

Fear not – spoilers aren’t a problem with this play. It supposes the audience already knows at least a little about the Lipa story. It is history; the plot holds no surprises. The story is in the portrayal of the characters and their motivations, and the exploration of what-ifs that the facts of the case leave room for.

And because the scenario pits the “little nuns of Lipa” against the “mighty princes of the church” who derive power from Rome, Grace raises some questions with implications beyond Catholicism: Was the Vatican inclined to disbelieve the nuns because they were Filipinos? Because they were women? Was the clergy in Manila averse to the Mediatrix devotion because it originated and flourished in what was then a backwater, without their influence or participation?

So that the Catholic Church is proven correct, could the nuns of Lipa – sworn to obedience by their vocation – have been forced to deny their own truth, and then lie to the world and to themselves? Did the institution supposedly entrusted with propagating the divine mysteries suppress divine revelation because the medium was a lowly Filipina novice?

It appears these were what Quintos wanted the audience to think about.

“I remember the words he told me: ‘I just wanted to write about something so pure and beautiful that was blown out of proportion, and all these different energies came in and messed it up’ – to that effect,” Gomez said.

In his notes for the souvenir booklet, Quintos said he “developed, researched, and wrote the play independently over a period of three years.” This wasn’t typical of Quintos, who often took a script into rehearsal as a work-in-progress. This time, he wanted to lock the text before the company began rehearsing. On April 7, after a series of initial readings of the draft with the cast, the production paused to give Quintos time to edit and finish the piece. He died of a heart attack on April 27, a week after he finished writing Grace, just as the company was to go into rehearsal.

‘Grace’ play reopens controversial 1948 Lipa apparition to contemporary conversation

“Honestly, this production is not easy. There’ve been so many obstacles besides Floy’s passing,” Stella Cañete-Mendoza, who plays the visionary Teresita Castillo and co-produces the show, told Rappler. “Financially, psychologically, spiritually, ang dami-daming hindrance na puwede mong sabihing, ‘wag na natin ituloy (there were so many hindrances that could’ve led you to say, let’s just drop it).”

“But, in a way, this was also what Sister Teresing went through…but she stood by her truth.”

The principal actors in Grace, also the ones interviewed for this article, were Quintos’ longtime collaborators whom he chose specifically for their roles: Cañete-Mendoza, Centenera-Buencamino, Makil-Ignacio, Gomez, and Missy Maramara who plays the envious, doubting Sister Lucia. They knew Quintos and his process well. They all believe the play would have been even better, had he been around to see it through.

“If Floy were alive, you would see a different Grace, a different production. For sure,” said Centenera-Buencamino. “But at the same time, ang iniisip ko na lang, ito ‘yung sinulat ni Floy na napakatagal (I just think to myself, this is the one that took Floy so long to write). He took so long in writing this play as compared to other plays.”

“A few days before [he died], sinabi niya, ‘Ito na, go na tayo, this is it.’ Natapos niya.” (He said, “It’s here, we’re a go, this is it.” He finished it.)

TORMENTED. Mother Cecilia of Jesus, played by Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino, is torn between leading the Carmelite sisters and obeying the Vatican’s demands. Handout photo

Having the playwright around to tweak the material and guide their performances had been a luxury, the actors said. Now, they could only put their faith in Quintos’ finished work and the fact that they are his chosen ones.

“His feedback was invaluable – where he would want to edit, cut, or when there were scenes he wanted to overlap,” Cañete-Mendoza said. “We’re a little iffy about how to call the shots about those things, but I think, because we were all handpicked for the roles, maybe our input will bear weight eventually on what we will do with the totality of the play.”

Quintos’ plays tackle deep, difficult issues. His recent works include The Kundiman Party and The Reconciliation Dinner, both of which waded into the polarizing politics of the day but were still pieces of good theater. They were hits, in spite – or perhaps because – of the social commentary they offered.

His collaborators agree that writing Grace was an escalation of Quintos’ pursuits. Here, he takes on religion, spirituality, identity, politics, colonialism, racism, and the battle of the sexes all in one go. It could have been a mess. It isn’t.

In reaching back to 1948, Quintos reveals why Philippine society must make its own decision on the Lipa apparition and not leave it to Rome – why it’s an issue not just for Catholics but for all Filipinos to resolve or at least ponder.

“It’s because it was a method of suppressing the Filipino,” Maramara told Rappler. “It was the way by which colonial mentality, patriarchy, and these other oppressive ideologies subjected us to silence and stopped us from speaking our truth, which is still very true today.”

“While the silence was [the nuns’] way of resisting, it was still very much a powerful method of depleting the Filipino understanding of self.”

ROOM FOR DOUBT. Sister Lucia, a fictional character played by Missy Maramara, represents the nuns who disbelieved the apparition. Handout photo

And yet in Grace, Quintos also makes it clear that no single answer would satisfy every side. If Sister Teresing really did see and speak to the Virgin Mary, why wasn’t her message theologically kosher? If what she saw was a demonic deception, how come it inspired piety among believers? If it really was a hoax as the Vatican insists, then why would a cloistered nun rather be expelled and publicly humiliated than recant her testimony?

The play’s most graceful masterstroke, after all that questioning and exploration, is it still leaves the story of the Lipa apparition in the realm of mystery, where faith ultimately resides. –

Grace runs until June 16 at the Power Mac Center Spotlight Blackbox Theater at Ayala Malls The Circuit in Makati City. Follow this link or this for tickets. Rappler is one of the production’s media partners.

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JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.