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Conversations with the Bishop

(Editor’s Note: The following article is a glimpse into the person of the new bishop. We emailed to him the questions and he penned his answers while he was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.)

Not My Dream but God’s Dream for Me

Looking back, I could say with conviction that priesthood was never my childhood dream. Even if during my boyhood, I once overheard my mother narrating in one our family gatherings that I would love to mimic a priest celebrating Mass on our dining table which amused them, yet I could hardly trace it in my early childhood memories. As a small boy, I just wanted to be like my father whom I idolized so much. In my whole life, I admired my father as one who was so passionate in his farm work, making both ends meet, just to provide not everything but the basic things we needed. He loved planting trees, fruit trees and trees of commercial value. He also loved raising more water buffalos (carabaos) and cows, and in such a way that made me a carabao keeper. Being his tandem in keeping the carabaos, I had to walk seven kilometers early every morning to school and another seven kilometers back home after classes in the afternoon, five days a week, from June to March, for four years in high school. It was during my fourth year, oblivious to my father, that I developed my secret love: to become an engineer. Perhaps because I was already fed up of having a seemingly natural smell myself, the most familiar smell - the smell of the carabao.

Subtle Invitation: The Beginnings of My Priestly Vocation

During my senior year in high school, just a couple of weeks before graduation, there was a vocation campaign. The Vocation Director from the Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary (IHMS) from Tagbilaran City came with a group of seminarians. During their presentation in our school stage, I felt a subtle interior “invitation” or something like a “pull” within me; it was so difficult to explain. I deeply felt it in my heart that right after that, though awkward it was, I just found myself joyfully accompanying the seminarians distributing envelopes for seminary support in the market area and in the houses nearby. I did not know any one of them, and I could not even remember who they were, kon na pari ba sab sila karon. I could not forget the “joy” within, of just “being with them” and of being “like” them even in just a very short period so much that when I reached home, I immediately and joyfully told my father: “Tay, mosulod ko sa Seminaryo!” To my dismay, his answer was: “Unsa man nang seminaryo, Ming, makaon na?” I really did not know why he answered me that way, as if he was jokingly taunting me. I thought my father was vehemently against my wish. Little did I know that he wasn’t really opposed to it because he did take the pain of looking for money, and he himself accompanied me to the Seminary to take the Entrance Exam. And upon receiving the letter that I passed the Exam, I forgot all about my first love of becoming an electrical engineer. As for my pious mother, just like most mothers, she told me later that she constantly whispered a prayer for me especially since the day I told her of my newfound love: God’s “calling”, God’s “dream” for me, that is, to become one of His priests someday.

Why Pope John XXIII Seminary in the Malaybalay Diocese and not IHMS in Tagbilaran?

It is true that life should be lived forward but it can only be understood backwards. Our God has a dream-plan for us and He works to fulfill it beyond our imagination. It was Rev. Fr. Juan de Dios M. Pueblos, then Rector of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary (IHMS) in Tagbilaran City, who would have received me as one of the seminarians in its hallowed portals in June 1977. Sadly, I didn’t have a chance of entering even for just a day in that famed Seminary in Bohol. Why? After buying just a few on the list of required items in the “Prospectus” (requirements upon entering the seminary), I could still remember vividly my father’s reaction that entering IHMS could not just be possible considering that my sister also wanted to study in college at the University of Bohol. As if he was saying to me: “Mao na ni, Meming, di jud paigo pila ka kabaw, ug maanam jud kahurot atong mga kabaw ug baka ani kon mag sulod ka Seminaryo.” A month after the classes had begun, then Father Didi Pueblos received my letter telling him that I could not make it because of financial constraints. In my letter, I could not forget, the ending summed up with a sad note:”Unsa man diay ning magpari , Padre, para ra diay ni sa mga dato?” With sadness in my heart, I left my homeland, Bohol, and headed toward Central Mindanao, to Dancagan, Bukidnon where one of my sisters and her family lived. It was Rev. Fr. Joseph Raviolo, SJ, then Parish Priest of Sto. Nino Parish (Dangcagan, Bukidnon) who inspired me to enter at Pope John XXIII College Seminary. At that time, the late Bishop Francisco F. Claver, SJ, was encouraging more vocations for Diocesan Priesthood for the Prelature of Malaybalay. Nine years later, I was ordained a priest in that same parish in Dancagan, Bukidnon. Bishop Didi Pueblos, who at this time was the Bishop of Kidapawan, knew I was ordained a priest already. It was just too unfortunate, we never had a chance, not even once, just to meet and talk to each other as brothers in the priesthood. Nobody knew, not even myself, that I would be his successor in the See of Butuan.

Challenges as a Pastor

After being assigned in the seminary formation, I was given a pastoral ministry as a parish priest. The most challenging one was at the Immaculate Conception Parish in Wao, Lanao del Sur. In response to the call of the times, inspired by a common faith and bonded by shared vision and mission of the Diocese of Malaybalay, together with the fearless parishioners of Wao, led and inspired by then Bishop Gaudencio B. Rosales, D.D., the Local Church of Malaybalay courageously fought against unbridled commercial and illegal logging activities through a diocesan-wide, Church-led pro-environmental mass action. With much determination, aligned with the diocesan vision-mission, we, in the Parish of Wao, with help of non-government organizations like the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center or LRC, acted also because “the once beautiful forested region”, as Bishop Rosales observed, “has been reduced now into isolated patches of tropical forest”. Then, more unexpected events came. Situations worsened. Rev. Fr. Nerilito Satur was murdered. Our lives were endangered. We received more death threats. I do not know if I acted right or I was just too coward, or I just wanted to save my life – I acted like Peter who ran away upon seeing the awful fate of the Master, acting no more than a hireling rather than a faithful shepherd to His flock. Out of fear, I ended up asking from Bishop Onie Ch. Pacana, SJ, the successor of Bishop Rosales, to be excardinated from the Diocese of Malaybalay, and returned back to my home diocese, the Diocese of Talibon, in 2002. I have been serving the Diocese of Talibon for 17 years now. And here comes, the moment of truth of finding myself being sent back to Mindanao.

Reflections on Priestly Vocation

Being ordained as a priest is just the beginning of a life engulfed with God’s grace, immersed in Christ’s mysteries. The priestly life demands a continuing process of daily selfless living out of Christ’s life. If Christ himself, the Good Shepherd, Master and Lord, experienced suffering and death, would the servant expect less than that? Thus, as sharer in Christ’s task of shepherding the flock, I have to be where God’s flock is, sharing the joy of being with them, accepting whatever risk and vulnerabilities that my vow entails. Priestly vocation is all about becoming Christ. It is becoming another Christ, an “alter christus”.

What is your vision of your future ministry in the Diocese of Butuan?

We do not start from zero. As a Diocese, we have a lot to thank for, particularly to our Apostolic Administrator, His Excellency Archbishop Antonio Ledesma, SJ. Under his care, both the Administrative and Pastoral Structure with all the Commissions/Ministries/Programs are already put in place. And more than that, the equally important legacy Archbishop Tony has left us is the Standardization of our Diocesan Finance System.

As a Diocese, we have already articulated our Shared Vision-Mission Statement. What more should we need to do? My task is to oversee that all these would be realized, be implemented or witnessed. I do not come here to make another structure or make my own vision. Be assured that the Diocesan Shared Vision-Mission is itself my vision-mission too.

We envision a Church that is more participatory, a holy and witnessing Church. I would be very happy if all of us will do our respective role as best as we could to make our dream, as a Church, come true.

There are a lot of things that I need to know yet. I need to situate or be immersed first in the life situation here. Only then can we see what else we can do as a people of God.

What do you expect from the faithful, clergy, and religious of the Diocese of Butuan?

As one Local Church, we all belong to one Body of which Christ is the Head. Each member, whether a lay faithful, a priest, or one in consecrated life, is gifted with different charisms/talents, and with these, he/she is empowered for the building of the Church. As a member, each one has his/her rightful place in His Body. And as we move toward a more participatory Church, let all participate in the task of building up His Church, our Diocese here in Butuan. Let each one do his or her part by fulfilling his/her God given duty, assigned task or mission. One is not meant to substitute the other in doing what God has tasked us to do.

As a Church, we are called to be holy and be real witnesses of our faith. We are men and women of faith. We live not by sight but by faith (2 Cor. 5:7). As your new Bishop, let me ask everyone to join me in this “F.A.I.T.H. challenge”.

F – Fidelity - this is faithfulness to our calling as lay baptized Catholics (married or unmarried), as priests and religious. Imperfect and weak though we are, but with God’s grace we can be more faithful because God remains faithful to us in His great love, mercy, and compassion.

A – Accountability. Before I come here as your Bishop, you are already a Christian, a priest and religious. All of us need to be responsible and be accountable to God in our respective calling: that is, to live out our Christian life and fulfill our respective duties/tasks/assignments by positively manifesting it in our daily choices, decisions, personal dealings and actions.

I - Integrity. It is another face of holiness. Living a clean and virtuous life is the result of a fully-lived Christian faith as opposed to a vicious and scandalous life. In matters of good morals and right conduct, if possible, “Kana untang gamay ra o mas maayo walay ikasaway.”

T - Transparency. It is honesty. Because we believe in God and we serve Him, this is not something that is to be taken as optional. If we cannot be honest with ourselves before God in His Church – to whom can we be honest with?

H - Humility. We are all God’s servants, Christ’s learners and followers. If we have done anything better, it is because of God’s grace. It’s not solely our own doing. Pride is the work of the devil. Humility is a grace from the Holy Spirit. Pride and desires for selfish interests bring divisions, factions, rivalries and competitions. If we are to compete, let us compete on who is more loving, not on who is more feared. Humility should distinguish us from worldly rulers.

Pasce Oves Meas

When the Apostolic Nuncio called me up and told me that the Holy Father, Pope Francis, has appointed me as Bishop to the Local Church of Butuan, I was deeply troubled and afraid. I could not believe I would be sent to oversee Butuan Diocese. I am already old, and I am not qualified. I have no ecclesiastical degrees, not even further studies. I am just a simple and plain pastor. I have nothing but a long and difficult experience of being a parish priest.

After five days of guided discernment and prayer, despite my weaknesses, sinfulness and unworthiness, I made an act of faith and full trust in Lord’s hands. To the Apostolic Nuncio (representative of the Holy Father, the Successor of Apostle Peter) I said: “I choose to listen and obey” - to obey His will, that is, to tend His flock here in Butuan. And I did it trusting only in the mercy, goodness, love and faithfulness of God, in and through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. Then, right there, it dawned on me the injunction of Jesus to Peter: “Tend my sheep,”Atimana ang akong mga karnero.” In Latin :“Pasce oves meas” (John 21:16).

Photo courtesy of Eldon Philip M. Bravo

Looking from hindsight, when I was ordained a priest almost 32 years ago, that image of a good shepherd also inspired me, that from thereon, I did try living my priestly life as a fitting shadow of Christ shepherding the flock. Yes, as a priest, like Peter, I do have my share in” running away”, and failing to “stay with” the sheep. It is because sometimes I become excessively mindful getting the answer to my own need over the needs of the flock entrusted to me. Like Peter, I have my share of “denials” also. Yet, the Lord has been merciful and forgiving to me as He always does to all whom He loves.

Pasce oves meas, tend my sheep. This is Christ’s command to Peter, to all His Successors and especially to me and as well as to all priests and to all baptized Christians alike. Taking care of His sheep till I “smell like the sheep” will always be my guiding inspiration as a Bishop.