Worm’s Eye View

by Juan L. Mercado

From a  bird’s eye view,  Manila  archbishop  Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales  is right.  Over 5,000  priests  seeking  absolution in confession, at  the Second National Congress of the Clergy, was “historical.”

NCCII  responded to  Pope  Benedict XVI’s call to  mark “Year for Priests.” Five  out  of  every seven priests in the country  converged  at the World Trade Center.  They  represent  86 dioceses and 38 religious congregations. The  realities of  their  daily work, outside the Pasay complex, are stark. “The phenomenon of bursting churches is actually misleading,” says the Jesuit magazine Windhover. “Contrary to popular belief, we are no longer the nation of believers we are reputed to be.”

Shortages of  priests and  impoverished parishes are  one aspect. The late  Redemptorist Father Luis Hechanova often recalled  the sacada or migrant worker in Antique who asked: “Padre, may Dios bala ang kalibutan? (“Father, is there a God in this world?”)

‘She was trying to reconcile her faith in a good loving Father with her situation of poverty,” he added. “For people like her, poverty is not merely a sociological problem. It poses a question about God. A church that vindicates the rights of the poor spells for itself persecution (from the elite)….”

A survey of 1,300 urban students, written by Cris Fajardo  SJ, asserts: “Their doctrinal foundation and catechetical instruction seem to be faltering.” Only 13 percent of young Catholics hear Sunday Mass.

Majority (88%) of urban students believe in a Supreme Being, earlier surveys by Philippine Jesuits and McCann Erickson, found.  Only a minority (21%) believe in life after the grave… And 15% were instructed in their faith by parents.

“The (earlier) surveys show a youth, ages 7 to 21, that has lost it’s moorings,” ‘ Ateneo de Manila University president Bienvenido Nebres noted. “They  have little sense of right or wrong, only a concern for getting caught or not getting caught.”

“The Catholic faith in the Philippines is in a state of pre-crisis,” Windhover noted. But catechetical programs are improving.   A quarter of respondents (24%) are taught by homilies. Small basic ecclesial communities reinforce “witnessing by the lay faithful.

What about the worm’s eye view then?  From birth to wedding and burial, people interact with priest in the parish. Here is one  man’s prism.

“I never told this story when she was alive,” Fr. H  said at our 86-year old mother’s funeral mass. Midway thru studies,  then-Seminarian H. wavered. A  gifted musician, he set eyes on becoming an entertainer. “I didn’t pick my scholarship check”.

“You have a visitor”, the  helper told H one morning.  It was our mother. And she came straight to the point: “Do you or don’t you want to be a priest?.” Stunned, H blurted out: “I do. I do.”  “Then, pick up your check.”  End of visit.

“If I knew she was coming, I’d have  marshaled my reasons,” Fr H recalled. “Instead, I was ambushed. The incident made me think  hard. It proved my  turning point”

Fr. H  also presided at funeral rites for our two younger brothers. “At this rate, you will bring us to our graves,” the wife and I joshed him.  It was not to be.  Fr. H  has been stricken by brain tumor.

Perhaps, one of  our  other “priest-sons” will do that instead? These are men we’ve nudged our children, friends, agencies even, to support in the seminary. We have 20 of them today.

The 21st will be ordained in Calbayog on Feb. 20.  Two from Tagbilaran, two from Talibon and one from Cebu completed their   studies. They now wait in the wings.

We’ve  walked with 61 seminarians in half a century.  Half dropped out along the way.  Some opted for other callings. Others couldn’t hack the academics or the grind of self-giving.  A protest, two days before ordination, shot down another.

Their temperaments. strengths, even frailities differ “But it was the same voice that called them”, writes Carlos Valles, SJ. “In a world that is wounded, divided, scattered, God … (calls them ) to be an image, a token, a pledge of what life in the Father’s house is to be.”

They come from  varied backgrounds:  musician, teacher, salesmen, farmer, accountant.  After Fr. S was  ordained,  a matron  scornfully snapped: “He  was just a  mananagat (“fisherman”).”  We remonstrated:  “Peter and  the sons of  Zebedee were  fishermen too.”

Over the years, these men tell us of their problems, successes —  and frustrations,

In his impoverished upland parish, Fr W needs three hours, by motorcycle and hoofing, to reach his farthest community of charcoal  makers.  “After I  pay off  parish debts, my  balance  for food is  P28.” Fr. G got an out-of-the-way posting,  “I  swallowed hard. But I am bound by obedience.”

“My thrust is to build basic Christian communities among small fishermen,” Fr S wrote.. .“I am under surveillance and suspected by the military as an NPA. They try hard to destroy these communities. Brother against brother. Filipino against Filipino, I hope  this will end someday. But when?”

The example they set – or fail to set – is crucial.

Seminarian AM is now in first year theology. And he entered the seminary because of a midnight motorcycle ride with Fr. A.  Despite the rain,  they drove to a barangay 10 kilometers away. There, Fr. A anointed a dying person. “That seared an indelible image into my mind.”

Pastores vobis dabo was how John Paul titled his letter on priests. “Behold I give you shepherds.”  That is what  NCCII  is all about.

(Email: juanlmercado@gmail.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )

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