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 Talibo