Bembem Sabanal, a lawyer and a personal development coach who trains aspiring beauty queens to win the pageant, once regarded the Catholics' Eucharist as a pagan practice.
Raised in Dipolog, a component city in the southern Philippines known for its sardine industry, Sabanal did not only become a regular Adventist Protestant Christian denomination. To get deeper into her former faith, she read many books and other references on Adventism, making her well-versed in it.
Exposure to different faiths
Sabanal's father and fraternal grandparents were Adventists. Her mother was a Catholic, and her maternal grandmother was a Baptist.
But the faith of her father and his forebears had prevailed in their home in Mindanao, in the southern Philippines. All five of the siblings—two boys and three girls—became devout Seventh-Day Adventists.
When she was still young, she occasionally had the chance to enter the Catholic church. One of her godmothers brought her to the church several times. But she was not inclined to understand the Catholic faith. She went to the Catholic church just to accompany her godmother.
She grew up as a devout Adventist who would always raise her hand to defend her faith when it was called into question. She even developed a special aversion to the Catholic faith.
"I was very anti-Catholic at the time," Sabanal openly admitted.
She looked at Catholics at that time as people who would persecute non-Catholics in the latter days. She even thought the Pope was the Antichrist, someone who would appear before the end of the world and subject all the people under his rule.
Sabanal, also a political science graduate, lived with Catholic nuns in a dormitory when she was studying at the University of San Carlos in Cebu (central Philippines), exposing her to the warm personalities of the religious sisters.
And despite being a staunch believer in her former faith, she freely opened herself to different faiths, even oriental non-Christian ones, and the eclectic New Age of the West—a religious movement that believes, among others, in reincarnation, astrology, and the existence of spiritual life in physical objects.
"Our house in Mindanao is near a mosque," she said. "I was exposed to Muslims. And a Muslim princess, who was a classmate in college, exposed me to the practices of Islam."
Sabanal, a theatre performer, also witnessed Buddhist and Hindu practices. One of his co-actors in a play was a Buddhist. She even studied their religions.
She also became friends with Evangelicals and joined their worship.
The journey back home
While working in Manila in 2011, she started going to the Catholic church to hear Mass on Sundays when she missed the Saturday worship of the Seventh Day Adventists.
Sabanal is also a personal development coach, who trains people in BPO (business process outsourcing), advertising, and other industries.
She frequented the St. Joseph the Worker parish church in Palanan to visit since it was near her residence in Makati (near Manila), the financial and central business district of the country.
She recounted, "I was a devout Adventist, but I did not know why I kept going back to the Catholic church. I couldn't leave the Mass. I did not care about the images. I just came for Jesus."
On one occasion, a layperson at the St. Joseph the Worker parish (Catholic Church) asked her if she sang. She said, "Yes." So she was invited to the choir. Her visits to the parish church became frequent.
She kept coming back to the parish and was later asked if she was interested in becoming a church lector.
"It requires confirmation to become a lector," she said, chuckling softly. "I was confirmed in 2010."
In 2012, she was asked to play the role of Mary in a nativity show, offering her heart a special joy.
"When I was a kid, I always dreamed of playing the role of Mother Mary," Sabanal recalled.
Sabanal occasionally visited her former church between the periods of 2012 and 2014. But she still joined in the worship of evangelical friends.
But her friendship with the Evangelicals came to an end after one of them questioned her for frequently going to the Catholic church.
"When I told them 'The Eucharist never changed its meaning,’ they unfriended me on Viber and Facebook," she said.
In her search for more answers, she studied Catholic apologetics. She acquired books and videos to get deeper into the faith. And she read a lot to defend the Eucharist.
"The last thing I studied was Marian Theology," she said.
In her social media post in September 2019, Sabanal said, "Now, I look at it as an expression of deep faith because it is never about the image, contrary to what I was taught while growing up, but what the image represents, and the power that emanates from the true source, which is Jesus Christ.
In Matthew 9:20-22, the woman suffering from 12 years of a hemorrhage touched the hem of Jesus' garment. It was not the touching of the garment that healed her. But Jesus told her it was her faith that healed her.
"I have been privileged to experience the miraculous image of Our Lady of Penafrancia up close and personal without having to go all the way to Naga in Bicol," Sabanal said.
Sabanal converted her two brothers—both hard-core Adventists—to the Catholic faith. Her brothers are now baptized and confirmed Catholics. And she prays her two sisters will get confirmed soon.
When her mother was lying in a hospital bed with her kidneys failing, Sabanal made her four siblings pray the Holy Rosary and the Novena.
Sabanal's mother taught them to recite the rosary when they were still young. It was also her mother, who got her baptized in the Roman Catholic Church, knowing perhaps that someday her child would retrace her way back to it.
"After all, mom knows best," Sabanal said. "I thank God that I am back in the Catholic Church."
Radio Veritas Asia (RVA), a media platform of the Catholic Church, aims to share Christ. RVA started in 1969 as a continental Catholic radio station to serve Asian countries in their respective local language, thus earning the tag “the Voice of Asian Christianity.” Responding to the emerging context, RVA embraced media platforms to connect with the global Asian audience via its 21 language websites and various social media platforms.