Wednesday, September 18, 2013


(this is a reprint of an interview meant to appear in a seminary publication, The Cardinal)

In retrospect.
I was born on November 3, 1982, in Makati City, to Edgardo C. Velasquez and Virgilia Velasquez (nee Acebedo). My father at that time was an employer of Nestlé Philippines and my mother stayed at home. At the time of my birth they had just settled in Makati, where my father is from, and I spent the first seven years of my life in an urban neighborhood. In those times the neighborhood in which I loved—where my relatives from my father’s side also resided—was an idyllic suburban area. Brgy. Pinagkaisahan is situated very much near EDSA, the public thoroughfare which a few years after my birth would become renowned for the peaceful manifestation that toppled the Marcos dictatorship. I am the eldest in the family, having been born almost a year after my parents married (which took place in the Palo Cathedral, officiated by no less than Archbishop Cipriano Urgel). Six years were to pass before we welcomed a new addition to the family—Nan Ivy, who was born in 1988. She was followed by Nico Ivan, born in 1990 when we finally migrated to my mother’s hometown of Palo in Leyte province. Finally along came Myko Ivon, the youngest, in 1997.
I began my education in nursery at the nearby Colegio de Sta. Rosa; I was later transferred to the Don Bosco Technical Institute of Makati, where I had my preparatory schooling and Grade 1.
I could remember that life in the big metropolis wasn’t as stressful and hectic. My neighborhood was still quite tranquil, unmarred by flyovers and billboards as it is now. My father’s family wasn’t known for their religiosity, something which my mother’s side made up for. I could remember that during the weekends we would visit my aunts who were sisters of the Religious of the Virgin Mary, who at that time resided in their mother house at N. Domingo Street in Quezon City. These religious were my first contact with the religious life, and even with the priestly life, since at times I was able to attend big feast days in their mother house, to which we were occasionally invited. Another occasion for my spiritual growth was the Sunday mass which we attended weekly as a family in the neighborhood chapel, just a few steps away from our house. I remember that it was a Belgian missionary priest who usually celebrated Mass there. Fr. Albert Meerschaert (who resided at the San Carlos Seminary just right across EDSA) was already an old CICM priest when I last saw him celebrating Mass in our barangay chapel when I was a child, and I heard he continued to do so until the very end. I heard he died in in 2010, after having lived fifty-one years of his life in the business of seminary formation.
I never knew fully the reasons why my parents decided to move the family to Leyte. By the end of the school year of 1989 we moved to Palo, where my mother was born and grew up. I could remember that it was Holy Week. It was a veritable Passover from city life to a more provincial and tranquil one, something for which I would be very thankful for as the years went by. My father stayed behind for reasons of work. When we had settled down and school was about to start, I was enrolled as a Grade 2 pupil at the St. Therese Child Development Center in Tacloban City, as it was called back then, and which wasn’t anything like what it has become right now. The main campus back then was situated by the shores of the Kankabato Bay, overlooking San Jose Tacloban. The fact that it was so close to the sea was the sole criteria why then and there I asked my mother that I study there. I was placed in a class with other children before I was transferred to another section—which they called the “pilot” class, presumably composed of kids with a higher academic level. It was in that class that I was to stay until the time came for me to graduate from elementary. Having this kind of stability I was thus able to make friends, some of which I still maintain to this very day.
When I was about to graduate from elementary the serious question of where to study high school cropped up. In those days—I am talking of 1994-1995—there wasn’t much schools of caliber in Tacloban. What we had was the Divine Word University, which offered education in all levels and which had many faculties, and which catered to many specializations. It was a umbrella institution, so to speak, so that when it finally closed down by the second half of the 90’s it allowed for other schools to grow and other to sprout up. I didn’t fancy going to DWU. Nor did I want to study in Leyte State University (the present LNU), nor in Sacred Heart School (which in our young eyes was a rival school), nor in Leyte High. I was tentatively considering St. Mary’s Academy of Palo (my mom’s alma mater) as a last resort, when luckily I got wind of the plan of some of my batchmates to take the entrance exams for the Sacred Heart Seminary. Some of them had elder brothers studying there. For me it was quite a revelation, as I had never realized that we lived near it. I could liken the surprise to discovering that you’ve been living on the slopes of a volcano all your life without knowing it.
So I took the exams after graduating from STCDC in 1995. I passed the first of the series of exams and was invited to take part in the orientation which was to be held in the seminary that summer. At the start of the school year 1995-1996, I was among the newcomers in the seminary, thirty-three of which were high school freshmen.
Life in the seminary in those times was hard. We didn’t have some of the conveniences that seminarians have nowadays. For one thing, there was no running water in the toilets. Each day we had to trek to the faucets downstairs in order to fetch water and bring it in receptacles (converted ketchup or soysauce containers). Others opted to shower then and there. The food wasn’t as good as they are now. There was a joke among us seminarians that one could tell what was to be on the breakfast plate judging on the recessional song after the Mass. Seniority was also very much in place, a culture within the community. Control was exercise by the seniors by any means and to such an extent that in our days it might as well be called bullying.
I remember that things came to such that I was resolved to transfer to another school by the year’s end. But nevertheless I was back again for my second year and the year after that, until I came at last to my senior year in the seminary.
After graduating from high school I decided to continue with my college studies in the seminary. My first brush with philosophy—and theology—was quite challenging, but I was able to cope up, and soon I was immersed in my college studies like a fish in water. I excelled in my studies, not unlike when I was in high school, so much so that when I concluded them in 2003 I was able to graduate with high honors. Those four years that I spent in college were truly fruitful. The bonds that I had built together with my classmates from high school, and now with those who came from Pre-College, were strengthened and reinforced, meant to last for a lifetime. My awareness as well as the appreciation that I had for the priestly calling grew. When I was invested with the cassock in 2002, that was a high point in the journey that I was making to the altar. It seemed that the priesthood was what God wanted of me; but there was another question to which I had to make clear to myself, and that is whether this was what I really wanted for myself. I made the decision to continue to theology shortly before concluding my college days. It was a decision done in the silence of prayer; there with the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament during Eucharistic adoration, I gave a conscious “yes” to continue to theology, which for me was already tantamount to committing myself to the priestly life towards which this special kind of training leads to.
It was a commitment that was to be strengthened by obedience. After graduation I was welcoming the possibility of going on a regency, since I believed that the time was ripe for me to have a brief respite from my studies. But the Archbishop at that time, Archbishop Pedro Dean, had decided beforehand to send me to Spain, in Pamplona. The honor was there, but the distance and the responsibility that it entailed made it a daunting prospect for me, and so I was hesitant to accept it. But accept it I did, even despite of the difficulties that I encountered along the way—the homesickness, the inconveniences of living abroad, the pressure of the studies, the drive to excel, etc.
I spent the last lap of my seminary formation in the Colegio Eclesiastico Internacional Bidasoa in Pamplona, an international seminary run by priests of the Personal Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei. I had my studies at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Navarra. Those four years were rich in experiences and it’s an understatement that I learned a lot of things.
Towards the end of my stay abroad I was permitted by Archbishop Jose Palma—who had succeeded Archbishop Dean in Palo in the meantime—to be ordained to the diaconate. I received Holy Orders as a deacon on the 27th of April of 2007, from the hands of Archbishop Fernando Saenz Lacalle, of San Salvador (EL SALVADOR), prelate invited by the seminary for the occasion. It was the first major step—as the final one—towards priesthood. I finished my studies, earning a Bachelor’s degree in Sacred Theology. After graduating, I took the chance to go to Rome. For me it was a fitting conclusion to my seminary formation, as I took the occasion to visit the Eternal City, and go on pilgrimage to the tomb of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul to profess my fidelity to the Church, and to thank God for the many graces that I had been able to receive all throughout those years of formation.
When I finally returned to the Philippines, I lived with the Archbishop, assisting him in his duties whenever he required it, and going with him on his various visits along the breadth and width of the archdiocese. It was a learning experience as well for me, a privileged one, since what better way to learn the ropes of the priestly life than from the Archbishop himself. I was also able to see the myriad realities present in the Archdiocese in my trips with Archbishop Palma.
A few months after my diaconal ordination, and about more than a month after my 25th birthday, I was ordained a priest by Archbishop Palma at the Palo Metropolitan Cathedral on the December 15, 2007. Seated on the first pew were the members of my family, first among whom were my parents. They never could’ve imagined that twenty-five years later, they would see their firstborn being ordained a priest in the same church where they married, on the same spot where they had once exchanged their vows. I celebrated my first solemn Mass of thanksgiving the next day, the start of the traditional Simbang Gabi Masses held all over the country, a novena of grace in preparation for Christmas.
Soon afterward, I was assigned to as an assistant priest to Msgr. Alex T. Opiniano, in the Parish of the Assumption of Our Lady in Tanauan, Leyte. I stayed there for merely four months, but I felt that I had lived and worked there such that it seemed that I had been there for a long time. I enjoyed my experience in Tanauan, and they surely were four fruitful and happy months in my priestly life.
At the start of the school year 2008-2009, the Archbishop assigned me to be a formator in the Sacred Heart Seminary. Particularly, I held the office of the Dean of Students of the College Department. It was a challenging task, since the work of forming young men to the priesthood is a delicate job. I was there for about three years, and I was also very happy during my stint as a College formator. I should say that it was a further learning experience for me.
By the end of my third year in the seminary, I was asked to go abroad once again, for further studies. I returned to my alma mater in Pamplona to take up Church History. It was a two-year course, at the end of which I was able to obtain a licentiate degree in Sacred Theology, major in Church History. It was quite a challenge to return to the regimen of a student’s life: to go back to the classroom, to submit oneself under the authority of the professors, to endure once again the pressure of the exams, of making the grade and meeting the mark (and even going beyond). Even after just three years in the field, I found my “student skills” and study habits rusty. Going back to school called for an adjustment, something which I was able to do in a relatively short time.
Returning to Spain in a sense also meant returning to my roots, since it was there that I had the last lap of my seminary formation. It soon became clear to me that my stay in Spain was meant to polish me further, to add the finishing touches to my training as a priest, so that when I return to the Archdiocese, I would be better equipped to serve.
Shortly before I was due to finish my studies, Archbishop John Du (who had been appointed earlier to succeed Palma in Palo) intimated to me that he was thinking of reassigning me to the seminary. It was a welcome thing for me to return to what had been my home for a long time. I was surprised though, when it was announced that I had been appointed Prefect of the High School Department. When I got wind of the assignment, what came into my mind was Pope Francis (elected a few weeks earlier) and what he must have surely felt upon being elected: surprise and awe at such a heavy task that lay before him.

Being a formator in the High School Department.
It’s an understatement to say that being a prefect of the high school department is no easy task. It’s a tiring job, and a demanding one; it’s one wherein the best grace one could receive from God is that of prudence, generosity, and patience, lots of patience! Plus, the humility of realizing always that in the end, it is only God who could touch hearts and that we are mere instruments in the task of formation. It is a special and demanding task because of its end. Its purpose is to form young men at the onset of their most formable and impressionable stage in life, and this is no easy task for any parent of three or four. Imagine if you have more than a hundred of these teenagers. Secondly, the task of the high school formator is to help discern and “fish-out” vocations for the priesthood. There are already vocations there among the minor seminarians; all we need to do is to fish, to help the seminarians discern, to show them the way, and make this divine gift grow stronger in them.
But the minor seminary isn’t only meant to nourish vocations to the priesthood. Basically, it’s meant to educate young boys in the ways of the Lord, in the Christian life. A life of Christian discipleship is the bedrock upon which a vocation to the priesthood must rest. I think Christian formation is the greatest and the principal service that the minor seminary caters to the Christian community. It is a known fact that not all have the vocation to the priesthood, not all respond to that call; some go out and live their lives elsewhere. How good it would be if everybody were to continue to the higher levels of formation. But realistically speaking, this doesn’t happen. The minor seminary is to be a school of Christ, where one learns to listen and to follow the Master, and to discern what the Lord would want from each one. In this I am reminded by that episode in the life of the prophet Samuel, when as a young boy serving in the house of the Lord he heard the Lord calling him three times. Thanks to the discernment of the high priest Eli, who was able to tell that he who was calling to the boy was the Lord, Samuel was able to see what the Lord wanted of him. I guess this is what the task of the formator is all about: to make the call of the Lord clearer so that the seminarian could hear him all the better.
The task of the High School Prefect is demanding, which is why I have always held in high esteem those who have held this post from time immemorial. Among them I could look to Fr. Isagani Petilos, who was my prefect when I entered the seminary way back in 1995. I also look up to Fr. Erlito Maraya, and Fr. Ronel Taboso, who also came into my life as guides in my journey to the priesthood, as my high school prefect. Finally, I look to the example left by Fr. Engelbert Tiu, in whose footsteps I follow, and who had for so long, with a fatherly heart and motherly solicitude, had guided the High School Community.
Concerning any plans that I have for the community, I could only say that I only follow what the Church expects what the minor seminary should be, a community that tends “to favor in a timely and gradual way the human, cultural and spiritual formation which will lead the young person to embark on the path of the Major seminary with an adequate and solid formation” (Pastores Dabo Vobis #63).

Saturday, September 14, 2013


The cross is honorable because it is both the sign of God’s suffering and the trophy of his victory. It stands for his suffering because on it he freely suffered unto death. But it is also his trophy because it was the means by which the devil was wounded and death conquered; the barred gates of hell were smashed, and the cross became the one common salvation of the whole world.--ST. ANDREW OF CRETE

Priesthood and the Holy Cross

And yet to serve in the position of Christ himself is to embrace failure as the world understands that term. The world thought that Christ came to be a ruler, a king of the world. This he did not do. He was killed in defeat on the cross and his followers left him in disappointment and devastation. In resurrection, he then revealed an unexpected victory over death itself.

And so too with priests, who have rejected every definition of success that the world has to offer, and yet find a victory in a path that the culture and social order least expects: the service of Christ, his Church, and others. There are easier ways, more mainstream choices, smoother paths. But these men of courage have embraced the way of the Cross.

Sunday, April 28, 2013


I've been away from this blog for quite a while. I've been placing much-needed attention elsewhere, and since that now I'm gearing myself for the end of this academic year (and a licentiate program which, I must confess, has already become quite tedious), I believe I shall be occupied more than ever. The last entry that I made here was about after the election of Pope Francis, and a lot has taken place since then. Forty days into his pontificate, the Pope has done and said a lot that has made its rounds the world over. Like his predecessors, he's stamped his own mark in the papacy in more than just a month. This doesn't come as a surprise, since every pontiff has defined the papal office with his own personal style. John Paul II did it, and so did Benedict XVI. Francis is no different in this respect. No comparisons could be made there. But then, is it always good to make comparisons, where no comparison could be made? Francis is yet another proof that no moment in the history of the Church is ever the same with the ones that went before it, and that the Holy Spirit always guides the Church in the election of every Shepherd that the cardinals choose with each conclave. As with Benedict before him when he assumed the highest post in the Church--that of the Servant of the servants of God--interesting times lie ahead of us with Pope Francis in the forefront. 

Speaking of forty days, a few days ago this week I just started my own little countdown before finally leaving for home. After Holy Week and spring break--both of which i spent in Barcelona and Palafrugell (making one last visit to some relatives before heading for home), I started working on THE TRIP home, settling on a date and buying the ticket that would take me back home, thus ending this episode here in Spain. I confess that it's quite exciting, realizing that each day brings me quite closer to THE DAY, which is June 4. I even bought the train ticket for Madrid already!

When one period closes, it does in order to usher a new one. Two weeks ago my appointment as a formator at the Sacred Heart Seminary (Palo, Leyte) was announced. The Archbishop had changed the team of formators in the two seminaries of the archdiocese, and as regards to the new team at Sacred Heart I am to be the Prefect of Discipline of the High School Department. I must confess that when I heard the news I felt what Pope Francis would've felt at the time of his election. Being the formator of well-sized group of teenagers isn't something that you learn with thesis-writing, I commented to one of my companions when I shared the news. I quickly regained my composure soon after the announcement. Well, we could always learn something new in life, couldn't we? I was never trained to be a seminary formator, much less for the minor seminary, but hey, when the Lord grants a responsibility (burden is not a generous word), he also grants the strength with which to carry it. 

I've deactivated my Facebook account for a while; I just feel like doing it. God knows when I would be re-activating it again. For the moment, I'm enjoying my freedom from Facebook (as well as coping with the withdrawal syndrome with fingers itchy enough to type the password and press ENTER once again). Maybe it would give me more time to get familiar to the blog once again. 

My neck hurts; it's been hurting for a couple of weeks now. This is the worst case of stiff neck I've ever had (and which I ever hope to have). 

This reconciliatory post is done. May this signal the start of more frequent entries, now that for the moment its fiercest rival--Facebook--has been put to sleep (I'm going to miss all the likes for every word that I utter. But then, it's part of the withdrawal syndrome).

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Sunday, March 10, 2013


A couple of weeks ago I was invited by a friend to go up a mountain. At more than a thousand feet, it was to be the highest that I’ve ever climbed so far. The temperature was freezing, and there was even snowfall. The climb was steep, and my friend warned about climbing to fast, because it was a long way up. He did right in telling me about it. We came upon a certain point wherein we had a very good view of the peak that was our destination. It seemed so near. My friend, who was familiar to the place, echoed my thoughts when he said, pointing at the summit, “There it is, our target. It seems so near, but don’t be fooled by it. We still have a long way to go”. Despite of that, knowing that we’ve made it halfway, and relieved by the sight of the summit, yet far but seemingly so near, did much to boost my waning energy. After catching my breath, I was on the move again, not stopping until I finally made it to the top. From there I could appreciate that all the effort was worthwhile; the view was breathtaking.

The Fourth Sunday, halfway towards the end of Lent, could be compared to climbing a mountain. In fact, somewhere in liturgical and patristic tradition, Lent is compared to a mountain that we climb, the summit of which we are able to celebrate the central mysteries of the work of our salvation. Halfway towards that peak, the somber curtain of penitential preparation opens up for a moment, offering us a glimpse of the glorious celebration of the Paschal Mystery, which culminates in Easter. Somehow, this lightens our ascent, and tempers our days of penance with the joy that always comes as the fruit of true repentance.

This Sunday is particularly called Laetare Sunday, the Sunday of gladness. The Christian message, the message of the Cross-, is one that leads to authentic joy. Ours is not a religion of sadness, of pain, of suffering: over and above all, it is one that always leads to an encounter with the Lord, who detests long, serious and sad faces.

With this, as the words of the Mass’ Opening prayer would say, “with prompt devotion and eager faith, we hasten towards the solemn celebrations to come”; to live Lent authentically means to hasten towards this encounter towards the Lord, who always waits for us. Let us hasten towards this encounter, done in a life of prayerful penance, in a life of charity towards neighbor, in the sacraments, especially that of Confession and the Eucharist. We hasten because we know that it is the Lord who awaits us at the summit of the mountain, which, as our Pope-Emeritus had said, is a place of prayer and encounter with the Lord, the Lord Jesus who is the source of our joy.

But the Gospel also tells of another thing. It is not only us who hasten to the Lord’s encounter. The Lord Jesus himself, through the parable of the prodigal son, tells us that in reality it is God who runs to encounter us. The pardon and forgiveness that we seek for our sins, and the fullness of life that comes from it, is not a result of our own efforts to better: it is rather a gift of his loving grace. It is always God who seeks us out. Much like the father in the parable, and infinitely more than the father, our Father in heaven who is rich in mercy always has the initiative in our conversion.

The words of the Lenten liturgy remind us always that today if we hear the voice of the Lord, we should not harden our hearts. Likewise, St. Paul reminds us that now is the acceptable time, now is the time of salvation (cf. 2 Cor 6: 2). Conversion is our response to the God who runs towards us, yearning to embrace us once again with a heart full of mercy. He is a Father who desires to cover us with his mercy like a new cloak, one who wishes to renew his covenant with us, like a ring being placed on our fingers; placing new sandals on our feet, he is a provident Father who wishes to teach us how to walk once again with him, as he walked with Adam before the fall.

Once again the message of personal conversion is made out to us. But this conversion is not only personal: Lent is not meant to be lived on one’s own. It is a time to live in sync with the whole Church. This is most especially true nowadays, now that all the more each of us should feel the need to be with the whole Church, united in prayer for the election of the new Holy Father. May we learn to ask not for ourselves alone, but that the universal—catholic—Church may always respond faithfully to the call of conversion, because only when we are faithful in heeding this call can we truly be able to listen to the Holy Spirit who speaks to us in the heart of the Church. This is not the time to bicker and argue who ever the best cardinal may be, as if it were a mere political process, or that I prefer this cardinal and despise this one; it is a time to pray for the whole Church, and for the College of Cardinals especially.

May we feel all the more in this special time of prayer and discernment the gentle motion of the Spirit who transforms those who know how to listen and accept him into their life.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Meine Benedikt: Roman Autumn (Conclusion of the series)

Soon after the close encounter of the papal kind that I had in the eternal city, I returned to the Philippines, to my home Archdiocese. I got ordained, got assigned to a parish as a vicar, and a short while later, was appointed to join the group of formators in the seminary. It was a very fruitful time for me. The rector of the seminary, Fr. Gil Manaog always believed that the first steps of any young priest ought to be memorable and fruitful; I believe that, thanks to his insight as well, mine were. Those were years guided as well by the magisterium of Pope Benedict. His words were among those that nourished the further development of my young priesthood. What I received from the Holy Father was further channeled in my preaching and in the work of formation in which I was blessed to be a part of; it was not only a formation catered to seminarians but which also spilled out to the rest of the faithful.

This period of early pastoral labor in the Archdiocese of Palo ended when I was asked to go for further studies as the school year 2010-2011 drew to a close. I was reluctant to go, to be frank, and I was dreading the possibility of being sent once more to study. But the best remedies are the more bitter ones, I reflected, and so I decided to return abroad once again. I chose Pamplona over Rome (there are times when a man could be so stupid, not because Pamplona was not good, on the contrary, it’s one of the best; but Rome is Rome!), and took up Church History.

The first year was not without it’s challenges: it meant going back to the life of a student, and not just that, but a foreign student. I had to adjust myself once again to the pressures of classes, long hours of study and the pressure of meeting the deadline and exams. Along with that, I was far away from my home, my family, and most of my friends. My two-year Pamplona winter had begun.

It wasn’t that hard though. One of the reasons why I chose to return there was to spare me the tedium of learning another language (though learning Italian would’ve been a plus!) and adjusting myself to unfamiliar surroundings. Having left behind my comfortable circle of friends and family back home, I got to know more people and made new friends. That first year went by swiftly, and thank God, I was able to conclude it with a flourish.

But before it ended, the news of the canonization of the second Filipino saint gave us another reason to look forward to the following year. With the announcement of Blessed Pedro Calungsod’s canonization in Rome, in October 2012, we made plans to be there and take part in such a historic event.

After doing some careful planning, I returned to the Eternal City in the company of three others from the Archdiocese of Palo who were also studying in the University like me: Fr. Paulino Cabahit, Rev. Raymun Sotto, and seminarian Jan Raymond Ramos. We arrived in Rome a few days before the actual canonization, in order to be there to be with our new Archbishop, John Du, on his birthday (October 18). We also wanted to take part in the solemn triduum of Masses in preparation for the canonization.

For the Canonization Mass, which was to be presided over by the Holy Father himself, I was able to secure the chance to be one of the ministers of communion. This was possible thanks to the assistance of some friends.

On the morning of the Canonization, we woke up very early. By luck, we were accommodated in a sort of hospice which was merely a stone’s throw away form St. Peter’s; it was so near the basilica’s bells could wake us up, and that the window of our room gave a very good view of the imposing dome of Michelangelo.

Despite of the early hour, we saw that there was already a big crowd of pilgrims waiting outside the gates of the square. We made towards the gate of the sacristy, which was through which the people to be seated in the sacrato with the Holy Father had to enter. There were bishops waiting there, all in their choir robes. There was color everywhere.

When the gates finally opened, we went our way into the smaller enclave at the side of the basilica, going past the entrance to the Paul VI Hall where the Synod was being held, and into a small entrance that led into the basilica. The big church was silent and empty when we entered it. Only with a handful of people within, it appeared even larger than before.

We stopped in front of the Altar of the Confession, just above the tomb of the Apostle Peter. Getting on my knees, I began to pray silently, reciting the Apostle’s Creed, taking advantage of that unique moment, swallowed up in the silence of the empty basilica, as if having it all to myself. When it was done, I went towards the famous bronze statue of St. Peter and bestowed the traditional kiss on the worn foot of the image. Then I joined the others who were already congregating in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament.

Quite outside of the chapel were some bishops and cardinals who were in prayer. Among them was Cardinal Vidal of Cebu. I greeted him with a slight inclination of the head and he acknowledged it with a smile. Then I went in.

Simple surplices and white stoles were provided for all of us. We were quite a number of priests and deacons right there. We were told to be present for some instructions, which were first given by one of the “footmen” (that was the impression that I had when I saw the elderly man; I’ve been besotted to much by Downton Abbey). We were expressly told not to give communion on the hand, something which was really practical, not to mention that it was also the best thing to do in circumstances such as these. Those given by the masters of ceremony who appeared a bit later reinforced his instructions. Then we filed out in procession in order to take our place at the right side of the papal altar, facing the square.

The first impression that I had when I finally stepped out into the sunlit portico, after emerging from the gloom of the great basilica, was that of seeing a great sea of people. It was shimmering in the light of the midmorning sun, and there was color everywhere; what dominated were the red, white and blue of the Philippine flag. It was truly like a Filipino fiesta.

We took our places near the altar, and at a small distance away from the papal throne. The sun shone hot on our faces, and I began to envy the religious who were seated with us because they were able to make use of their cowls in order to find relief from the relentless attack of the sun’s race. But I was grateful for the splendid weather of that day.

The announcement being made in various languages concerning proper decorum during the Mass signaled that it was about to start. Everybody was requested to refrain from applauding and shouting, and to keep a meditative silence instead for the duration of the Mass. Then the choir started to sing the Litany of the Saints, during which we began to see the concelebrating bishops and cardinals file slowly out, until we saw the Holy Father himself step out of the gloom, aided by his masters of ceremonies.

When I saw the Holy Father emerging amid the applause of the people, I noticed that he was wearing something that hadn’t been seen for more than forty years: the papal fanon, a short cape with gold bands. A liturgical vestment reserved to the Roman Pontiff, it was thought to keep the pins of the pallium away from the chasuble. I guessed correctly there and then that this would cause a lot of buzz from liturgical observers. But another thing that I noticed about the Holy Father was that he was much older—and frailer—than I had last seen him. This was a general observation. I saw him being assisted by Msgr. Marini and another master of ceremonies as he climbed wearily up through the steps into the papal throne.

There was another thing worthy of note that day, and it was the fact that for this canonization the Holy Father had decided to bring back some of the elements of the old rite of canonization, with the three petitions to the Holy Father, and with him responding to each of them, the third time reading the formula of canonization.

The Mass continued in a similar fashion. During the Offertory we began to move into our positions before the papal altar, each of us bearing a ciborium with the hosts to be consecrated. Before the Mass we were told that we were not to be concelebrants; we were asked not to pronounce the words of the consecration with the Holy Father. We stayed there directly before the altar, on the steps of the great platform. We started to move down towards the crowd once the Lord’s Prayer was intoned. As we filed down the steps, each of us was given an assistant who would accompany us through the barricades.

After giving communion, I made for the famous Portone di Bronze, the main entrance of the Apostolic Palace. Instead of going through the doors, I went straight ahead for the basilica, up a grand flight of steps, back into the great church, and returned to the Blessed Sacrament into the chapel. After taking off the surplice and stole, I went back outside, just in time in order to receive the final blessing of the Holy Father.

The Mass having been concluded, he climbed into the popemobile, which began to make its rounds in the plaza, among the people. In the meantime, all of us who were in the platform began to dissolve into a delightful chaos. The maintenance committee began to dismantle the papal altar at once with an efficiency that left me awed. I—like many others—began to take a lot of photos of almost everything.

But when the popemobile began to finalize its short trip, it went towards the entrance by the side of the basilica. All of us began to run toward the side. I began to take photos once again. And then he disappeared into the Vatican.

As I conclude, I have before my eyes the images being brought to me live by the news of Pope Benedict XVI making his last journey towards Castelgandolfo aboard the helicopter. These days the Holy Father has managed, for the last time at the sunset of his pontificate, to place the Catholic Church once again at the forefront. “The Church is alive!” he said, as he surveyed the huge crowd that turned up for his last general audience. These were the same words with which he inaugurated his ministry about eight years ago. Now, despite of being battered by storms and marred by scandal, he has shown us that the Church remains as alive and as vibrant than ever before.

For me personally, I have a feeling that the end of this pontificate signals the end of the formative period of my priesthood. As I have mentioned at the start of this article, my priesthood started within his pontificate. It had grown, nourished by his magisterium, under his watch. With the whole Church now in expectation, I look towards the future with hope to whatever it may bring.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Meine Benedikt part 3: The Day the Pope finally got to see me...

Referring to the older post, I wasn’t totally candid when I said one of my childhood dream was to see the Pope in person. You see, aside from that, I also wanted to go to Rome at least once in my life.

My diaconal ordination in April of 2007 signaled the beginning of the end of my stay in Pamplona (or so I thought back then). By the end of June I was expected to be back in the Philippines. But before doing so, I decided to fulfill this childhood dream, now that I was nearer than ever before to one of my dream cities (aside from Venice, Milan, and the Holy Land, which comes in the third place). After talking it over with another newly ordained deacon from Palo, then Rev. Marlon Cua, and arranging things with a priest who was then at that time finishing his masters in Social Communications in the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Fr. Amadeo Alvero, and (then) seminarian Christian Golong, we went to Rome by end of June.

We stayed in an apartment that was adjacent to the seminary Sedes Sapientiae, which was a kind of sister-seminary to Pamplona’s Bidasoa, though a bit younger. I remember that we touched down in Rome on the feast of St. Josemaría Escriva (June 26), and so one of the first things that we did after having placed our things in our lodgings was to go to the Prelatic Church of Our Lady of Peace, where the remains of the saint lie under the main altar. I was told before that the church—the “cathedral” of the Personal Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei—was quite small, but I hadn’t any idea how small it was until I came to visit it. It was really small, considering that it was supposed to a sort of “cathedral-church” of the Prelature. It was like a small chapel; even the main chapel of the Sacred Heart Seminary could contain it comfortably. But it was very beautiful and certainly very dignified. After venerating the remains of the saint, we went down to have a look at the crypt, where the first Prelate of the Opus Dei (Bishop Álvaro del Portillo) was buried, as well as the remains of Carmen, St. Josemaría’s sister.

After dinner, Fr. Amadeo took us to St. Peter’s. I was very excited, since up until then I’ve seen it in videos and read about it only in books. We boarded the bus and when we were quite near, we went the rest of the trip on foot. Suddenly, I was before the famous plaza and the façade of the great basilica. I could remember being very overwhelmed at the sight of it all. It was all so huge. I raised my eyes towards the Apostolic Palace, and saw that the windows of the Pope’s private apartments were all lighted. It was thrilling to know how close we were to the Holy Father at the moment. In the course of our stay there in the plaza, I could see the lights being put out one by one, until the last one was put out.
The next day, we made a tour of Rome’s basilicas, especially the four papal ones: St. Peter in the Vatican, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul-Outside-The-Walls. We started with the Vatican Basilica. It was all so huge, even the angels at the holy water stoops were gargantuan. More intense for me was when we went to the crypt underneath the big church, where the most recent popes are buried. Two years after John Paul II, the queue towards his grave was still quite long. This was the closest that I would be getting to him in this life, I said to myself as I joined the line that passed before his tomb. The feeling was intense, more so because of what this man meant for me. People would take of the “presence” and the “power” issuing from the place. Call me a subjectivist rationalist, but I think what I felt was more because of what this man meant for me and for my vocation.

After the tomb of John Paul II, I went to visit the tombs of other popes: John Paul I, Paul VI, John XXIII and Pius XII. I also went to the tomb of Pius XI. I couldn’t help but feeling awed at being so physically close to the remains of all of these men.

The highlight of the trip was not just that, however. We were able to celebrate the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in the very city where they made their supreme witness to the faith. As is well-known, on this day the Holy Father bestows the pallium on the new metropolitans appointed throughout the past year. At least there was one Filipino among those invested, the Archbishop of Davao, Romulo Valles.

When we went into St. Peter’s, we decided not to push further into the front, but instead contented ourselves at the back, near the entrance to the sacristy. It was a good decision, because it afforded us a view of the Holy Father as he went out. When the procession towards the altar started, everyone was serious, meditative. But after the Mass, more people were talking pictures and waving at the Pope or their archbishops.

As I had said, we were waiting at the end of the barricades, next to the entrance to the sacristy. Clad in clericals at the end of a line of lay people, we stood out from the rest; we were the last people the Pope would see before he final entered the sacristy. When the Pope was just a meter away from my reach, he turned and looked at me. For some moments we looked at each other, and I noted how warm and paternal his gaze was. I remembered this especially because it changed the way I considered him up until then. Clearly, earlier photographs of Cardinal Ratzinger didn’t do him justice, since they gave the impression of a stern German inquisitor. No, what I saw where the eyes of a gentle grandfather, who was smiling at me a meter away.

I broke the spell by doing a small inclination of the head. The Holy Father responded inclining his. Later on I would laughingly say that now I could be happy since the Pope had acknowledged my existence. I also jokingly say that that was the day the Pope finally got to see me.

(to be continued…)

Monday, February 25, 2013

MEINE BENEDIKT part 2: the Pope in Valencia

I’ve always dreamt about meeting the pope in person; it was one of my most cherished dreams. Since I was born wit John Paul II being at the helm of the Church, I always wanted to meet him personally; his death had thwarted those hopes for the meantime (I’m looking forward to meet him in heaven).

But when it was announced that Benedict XVI was going to Valencia in the summer of 2006 to conclude the fifth World Meeting of Families, I was excited at the opportunity that had presented itself, most especially when it was made known that he had reserved a special meeting with seminarians.

The affair in Valencia was slated for summer, during the first week of July. At that time I was working in a summer camp, teaching English to a group of unruly Spanish teenagers, in order to earn money in preparation for my diaconal ordination and for the plane ticket back to the Philippines. The camp was held at El Poblado, a property owned by the Opus Dei, quite near to the only sanctuary properly owned by this personal prelature (the sanctuary of Our Lady of Torreciudad). It was designed to keep youngsters busy for three weeks during the summer months, allow them to learn a bit more of English, and for members of the Opus Dei, this was a fine opportunity to proselytize.

The seminary where I was studying in Pamplona had organized a trip to Valencia, to be there with the Holy Father when he came. For us who were out of town, we were to join the rest of the seminary community there. And so, with the rest of the summer camp (who also went to Valencia to meet up with the Prelate of Opus Dei, among other things), I made the four-hour drive to the capital of the Valencian province. The city was already packed with pilgrims and participants. The kids were accommodated in one of the centers of the Work, while I joined the rest of the seminarians from Bidasoa (as the seminary was called, short for Colegio Eclesiastico Internacional Bidasoa). It was a welcome respite, since being with a bunch of rowdy kids could be very stressful, starting from day one.

The Holy Father arrived in Valencia on July 8; from the airport there was a motorcade that lead him directly to the cathedral, where he was welcomed by the city’s notables. A great number of religious and clergy were waiting to meet him inside the cathedral. From the cathedral he walked the short distance to the adjacent basilica of Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados (Our Lady of the Forlorn), were he stood for a few moments in prayer.

I got my first real glimpse of him as he was crossing from the cathedral to the basilica: a distant figure dressed in white and red, with the white skullcap almost undistinguishable from his snowy white hair. When the people assembled in the plaza (we were there since seven in the morning) came to know that the Holy Father was within a few meters, we all became very excited. I was situated not far from the stage where he was about to appear. It was decorated with a huge mural of Our Lady; at the foot of the mural stood the throne where he was to occupy. There were a lot of seminarians coming from different parts of Spain as well.

After some minutes, about quarter of an hour perhaps, he finally came out to meet us. The Holy Father wasn’t very tall, and yet he had this presence that made him stand out. We all erupted into cheers as he waved at us. Finally, when he had settled on the throne he, addressed all present, but spared a few words for us seminarians that were gathered there. He talked to us about our vocation to the priesthood, and the great part that our parents played in the story of our vocation: the family is the best setting which best enables us to hear the call of the Lord and to accept the gift of a vocation. He also told us to live intensely the years of preparation in the seminary.

After the traditional prayer of the Angelus, he imparted to us his blessing, and then he was off. He passed quite near to where I was. Perhaps that was the time when I made the decision not to return to the Philippines without first passing through Rome. I told myself then, a seminarian about to be ordained, that this was not to be the last time that I would find myself with Benedict XVI.

 (to be continued)

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Dear brothers and sisters…The Lord is calling me to "climb the mountain", to devote myself even more to prayer and meditation. But this does not mean abandoning the Church, indeed, if God is asking me to do this, it is so I can continue to serve the Church with the same dedication and the same love with which I have done thus far, but in a way that is better suited to my age and my strength...We will always be close in prayer!"


The professor was talking about the councils of Christian antiquity when the vibrations in my pocket told me that my cell phone had just received a message. Being in class and judging it not to be that urgent, I decided to let it be and see it later. But after five minutes or so curiosity got the better of me and so I glanced at it to see whose message it was. It was from my mom, asking me if it was possible for a pope to resign, since it was on the news that Pope Benedict had just made known his decision to step down. A bit stunned by it, I immediately got into the Internet, trying to see if it were true. It was already about half past twelve in the morning of Monday, February 11, 2013, and I was in the middle of our class in the history of the ecumenical councils of Christian antiquity. The news that I read left me very stunned: the Pope had made known his decision to step down by the end of the month, for reasons of old age, due to which he acknowledged his increasing incapacity to remain in the exercise of his ministry.

The classroom, being situated in the bowels of the building, was usually chilly; the news struck me cold. The professor’s voice became a droning sound in my ears, as I realized that this was something that hasn’t been done for a very long time, and which up until now, though provided for by canon law, was hypothetical, something that the popes of the twentieth century had not done—though contemplated by some—even when the going went rough in the Church.

Certainly the news was a bombshell, which at that moment was making rounds all around the globe. I managed to contain myself up until the end of the class, when I finally got to share the news:“The Holy Father has made known his plan to abdicate”, I said. There was incredulity in everybody’s face. I was afraid for a moment that I wasn’t able to make myself clear; I chose to read the most essential part of the Pope’s address, delivered just that morning. I could barely read it, since I was choked with the emotion of the moment.

Nobody talked of anything else all throughout the day. Once again Pope Benedict has surprised us. They used to speak of Blessed John Paul II as the “Pope of surprises”, but I think this present pontificate that’s about to come to a close has been one full of surprises. But this last surprise has been the most unprecedented one of all, well for the last six hundred years at least.

And so it ends. As we may read and hear a lot of things about the Holy Father during these last days, I was moved to think about my own experience of Benedict XVI. This pontiff was at the helm of a very crucial moment of my young life: he was there as I made the last preparations before getting ordained to the priesthood, and as I made my first steps in the priestly life. He was the Pope of the formative years of my priesthood. Now as he steps down, I’m having a feeling that the curtain is about to be drawn on a certain period in my life. Though the years will have to confirm it still, I have a feeling that the formative years of my early priesthood are coming to a gradual close. It’s coincidental that I was able to witness live that event when, as Pope Benedict XVI, he first stepped onto the balcony of St. Peter’s as Pope, soon after his election; I was then a theology student in the Ecclesiastical Sciences building of the University of Navarra. Years later, more than seven to be exact, in the same building, now as a priest, I came upon the news of his stepping down.

With the shocking news, I returned to that spring day in 2005, the day when this man first entered, shyly though it may seem but with a firm step, into the public spotlight.


The death of Pope John Paul II on the second of April was something that we would certainly never forget. The drama of the endless surge of people coming into St. Peter’s Basilica in order to pay their last respects to a man whose giant figure defined the better part of the last decades of the 20th century, and the huge farewell which was his funeral was still fresh on our minds. Soon after the funeral, the preparations for the conclave began in earnest. For a much younger generation, this was going to be the first experience of transition that we ever had in the Church; it was an exciting time to be in. I considered myself lucky to be closer to Rome those days (relatively closer than I would’ve had I been in the Philippines), and the air of expectation that was building up in Rome was enough to reach us in Spain.

The day the conclave started, I watched the proceedings intently, absorbed in something which up until that time I had only read during my earlier days in the seminary, or watched in some videos about the papacy. We were praying for a short conclave: among other things, the demise of John Paul II really left us feeling orphaned, and it was strange not hearing the name of the Pope being mentioned in the Eucharistic Prayer.

The 19th of April started normally enough. Black smoke issued from the famous chimney that had been installed on the roof of the Sistine Chapel by midmorning, announcing that the cardinals had not come up with the election.

At class that afternoon, we were having Sacred Scripture with Don Vicente Balaguer. Owing to the Internet connection that the classroom had (there was no Wifi in those days, unlike now), we had asked the professor if we could keep the screen down in order to monitor the election via on the Vatican website while class was going on. Don Vicente said it was okay, since he himself was anxious to see what the afternoon’s balloting would bring. The period ended with nothing special. The next period was a class on Dogmatics, and we had Don Francisco Lucas Mateo-Seco as our professor. He ordered the screen to lifted and the computer turned off, since this would distract us (and him, presumably) from the class.

Just as the class was about to end, Don Vicente Balaguer went by in order to announce that the chimney had just emitted white smoke. We tried to reconnect with the Vatican website but, as one could suppose, at the same time, millions were trying to do same thing. We weren’t able to have a good connection, but we could see white smoke issuing from the famous iron chimney.

Outside the classroom, there was major pandemonium. Some were undecided whether to go home or wait for the historic announcement that would reveal the new pope’s identity to the world. Some professors were looking for the dean, who later on told them that classes were suspended for the afternoon. A group—myself included—crowded into a small room with an equally small television set which at the moment lacked an antenna for it to function well. Somebody produced a fountain pen, which served considerably well for the purpose. Everybody was tense; in the images broadcasted from St. Peter’s Square we could see the crowd increasing by the minute. People were flocking to the square—some were running—and soon the place was jam-packed with people. The excitement in the square seemed to ooze into the room where we stood. Minutes later, the glass doors of the central balcony of the façade of the great basilica opened, and the same ceremonial played out several times before in the past was once enacted before our very eyes.

Habemus Papam!” was the announcement that elicited shouts of joy and revelry from the crowd far below the balcony, something duplicated in all parts of the world. We erupted in cheers when we heard that. It’s quite amusing to consider the thought that we all knew what the cardinal proto-deacon had to say, and yet it was as if we were hearing it for the first time.

When Cardinal Medina-Estevez mentioned the name Josephum, it dawned on us that it had to be Ratzinger, something that was confirmed after a few moments. The good cardinal knew how to elicit suspense from the world audience, which practically breathless until he said Ratzinger! with flourish.

The crowd went bonkers, unbelievably, at least for me at that time. I wasn’t familiar with this German cardinal until after the death of Pope John Paul, and I had images of a stern, disciplinarian cardinal in my mind, partly fed by mainstream media. But the death and funeral of the great pope—now his successor—had relayed a different image of Ratzinger, as well as more of his brilliance and deep spirituality, thanks to the homilies that he had delivered during the papal funeral and the Mass before the conclave began.

But the crowd went crazy with joy, despite of that picture. We had a pope, and we weren’t orphans anymore. I believe that was the general feeling at that moment. It didn’t matter if he was German or that he was likened to a German shepherd.

The name that the new pope chose—Benedict—was another surprise. The last time any pope had used that name was not too far away in history: in 1914. Despite of what his figure meant in the history of the Church in the 20th century, which was certainly great, Pope Benedict XV was never well-known, and this perhaps because he was overshadowed by the equally gigantic figures of the other popes and the fact of two great world wars.

It’s interesting to note how the acceptance of a great responsibility could change a person almost instantaneously. There was certainly something different about Ratzinger—now Benedict XVI—when he emerged. In this first meeting with the world, he stepped a bit timidly into the balcony, but that timidity remained only for a moment; what we began to see was a man who had placed everything into the hands of God.

When the Apostolic Blessing had been imparted, and the classes having been suspended, I started the long walk home. As I crossed the university campus, I could hear the bells of the city ring in jubilation. I was smiling as I walked.

That evening, we celebrated solemn Vespers with the Blessed Sacrament exposed; the Te Deum was sung. Everyone was in a festive mood. 

 (to be continued...)