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