When she was a young Filipino immigrant living in Canada in the late 1980s, popular culture worked to undermine Mary Rose Bacani’s faith. Now, as a producer and reporter for Salt + Light Television, Miss Bacani (‘03) is working to reinvigorate the faith within Canadian popular culture.
“I really want to reach young people,” she says, a mission for which she is well-placed. Salt + Light is Canada’s first and only nationwide Catholic channel. Much of the network’s programming is produced with youth in mind, featuring the vibrant content that young audiences have come to expect. “If you can show young people that the Faith is relevant,” Miss Bacani has found, “you can inspire them.”
She should know. Mary Rose Bacani’s life is full of inspirations.
Although born in Canada as the oldest of seven children, Mary Rose and her family returned to their native Philippines when she was two years old. Through that country’s rich Catholic heritage and her parents’ love for God and the Church, she received a solid grounding in the Faith. It was a very different cultural climate from what she would encounter after her family fled political instability and economic hardship by returning to Toronto in 1987, when Mary Rose was 12 years old.
Almost immediately, she knew she was out of place. “I remember kids telling me, ‘Hey, why don’t you go back on your refugee boat,’” she says. In the Philippines, children were expected to speak politely to their elders and to each other. Learning English in school, they were forbidden to speak Tagalog in most classes and required to use the most refined, proper language — all of which made Mary Rose unusual within somewhat coarser North American society. “I found my writing skills, and even my sentences, were more formal than my classmates’, and I think that was part of the antagonism toward me,” she recalls.
Eventually, Mary Rose would start to fit in — for better and for worse. She reminisces about her father’s “trying to teach us one thing at home, but the way most of the kids our age were, it was going against what he taught.” By high school, her faith would be shaken. Even though she still attended Sunday Mass, she had begun to think of it as “a family ritual that I started to despise.” Looking back, she can see that a profound sense of sorrow sprung from this loss of faith: “I was really down. I felt so alone in this world.”
The First Call
After graduating from high school in 1994, Miss Bacani enrolled in the University of Toronto and experienced the first of what she describes as the three callings that, together, have guided her toward a career in television.
It was Christmas break of her freshman year, and she was making the 11-hour car trip from Toronto to Rhode Island for — of all things — a weekend-long retreat sponsored by Regnum Christi, a canonically established movement under the auspices of the Legionaries of Christ. As Miss Bacani now laughingly admits, her reasons for going had little to do with personal piety. “This guy I had a crush on was heading down for a Legionaries retreat. So I decided to join him, not knowing he was going to drop me off at a separate house for women.”
With no way home, Miss Bacani sat through the retreat. In spite of herself, she was awed by the testimony of a consecrated woman who literally blushed when describing her love for Christ. “Wow, Jesus is real for her,” Miss Bacani remembers thinking. “There is a relationship with someone there whom she completely loves. From that point I started to think that there could be a deeper meaning to everything. There could be a real Jesus, a real God.”
Inspired, Miss Bacani enrolled in a four-week Regnum Christi summer program, where she discerned her first call. “I didn’t know why exactly, but I felt as though I was being called to live the consecrated life, and live it fully,” she says. She left the University of Toronto and, in September 1995, moved to Rhode Island to begin life as a consecrated woman. There she donned Regnum Christi’s unofficial habit — “skirts and blazers and heels with nylons” — in keeping with the lay movement’s emphasis on efficiency, poise, and presentation. “I felt like a real businesswoman working for God,” she remarks.
Over the course of three years, Miss Bacani studied philosophy, theology, and Church history, while developing “the beginnings of a prayer life.” But gradually she came to realize that she did not have a lifelong vocation to consecrated living. “I was trying to grasp at this great happiness that I saw in the women who had been consecrated for a while,” she explains, “but I was never able to share it.” Disappointed and unsure of what to do next, she returned to Toronto.
The Second Call
During a subsequent one-year stint as a kindergarten teacher, Miss Bacani experienced her second calling. Wanting to complete her undergraduate education on a Catholic campus, she sent out inquiries to “all the faithful Catholic colleges and universities.” When the packet from Thomas Aquinas College arrived, she says, “It was as though I were struck by lightning. I thought, ‘There’s something about this place. I really want to look into this.’ It was like a call, even stronger than my call to consecrated life.”
Because she could not afford the cost of tuition, however, Miss Bacani assumed that she would be unable to attend. She called Thomas Susanka, then the College’s director of admissions, “to tell him that even though I couldn’t go to the College, I thought it was wonderful.” Much to her surprise and delight, Mr. Susanka informed her that the College offers financial assistance for qualified, needy students, which led her to visit the campus, confirming her desire to enroll.
“I loved the Blue Book,” she says of the founding document that sets out the College’s mission and defines its unique, classical curriculum. “I also loved the people, the small classes, and the discussion method. I thought, ‘This is fantastic! You get to learn with each other. You get to learn from each other.’” In 1999, Miss Bacani, then 24, matriculated at the College as a freshman.
Looking back, she praises Thomas Aquinas College for “teaching me about self-discipline and exposing me to a community of young people where the Faith is alive, relevant, and something you need to know about, to discuss, to learn about.” The liberal education also gave her the confidence that she could succeed in any endeavor. “My education made me more of a whole person,” she observes, “and a whole person can be taught anything.”
The Third Call
Working on campus between her junior and senior years, Miss Bacani planned to go to law school after graduation and was studying for the LSAT when she experienced her third calling. “I was in the library, and I just had this feeling that I wanted to work for Catholic television.”
This “feeling,” she explains, “didn’t just come out of the blue.” There had been earlier hints. A classmate had asked her to play the part of anchorwoman for a short movie he was making, saying, “There’s something about you that makes you a good newscaster.” Frequently, others would tell her, “You’re so professional, you have a great presence.”
In retrospect, the effects of God’s guidance throughout her life become clear. The fine diction she practiced as a Filipino schoolgirl, the spiritual poverty she suffered as a Canadian teenager, the faith formation and poise she received at Regnum Christi, the intellectual discipline and self-confidence she cultivated at Thomas Aquinas College — all were to serve a greater purpose. “I wanted to give to others what I was missing growing up,” she notes.
At that time, Miss Bacani was longing to rejoin her family in Canada, and as providence would have it, a new Catholic television channel was forming in — where else? — Toronto. So after graduating in 2003, she went home and applied for a job at Salt + Light. “I was very honest,” she says of the interview process. “I told them I don’t have a television background, but I do have a love for creativity, a love for my faith, and I can learn anything.”
She has been working at Salt + Light ever since. In 2009, the network debuted her first hour-long documentary, Beloved: The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, which Miss Bacani wrote and produced. “I love the Nashville Dominicans,” she reflects, “their zeal for teaching, for spreading the Faith, for motivating people, for teaching them about true love.”
By telling the sisters’ story of joyful religious life, Miss Bacani hopes to connect with young viewers, especially those who yearn for God, often unknowingly. “I know what that emptiness is like. I know the pain of wanting to have some meaning in your life, of thinking there has got to be something more.”
It’s that emptiness that Mary Rose Bacani is convinced God is using her to help fill through her career in television — one inspiration at a time.
UPDATE: In October 2009 Mary Rose Bacani married a Salt + Light colleague, Richard Valenti. In 2011 the couple welcomed their first child, a baby girl named Chiara. Mrs. Valenti has since left the world of broadcasting to focus on God’s newest call in her life, motherhood. The College offers its prayers and congratulations to the Valenti family!
“By discussing the great books you learn how to think for yourself and how to come to your own conclusions — how to discover the truth. And it’s tremendously satisfying.”
– Brian Murphy (’14)
“The Church will flourish through the inspiring example and praiseworthy endeavors of Thomas Aquinas College.”
– The Most Rev. Pietro Sambi (†)
Apostolic Nuncio to the United States