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.