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.