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Looking Back, Going Forward

Updated: Jun 26, 2019

By Archbishop Antonio J. Ledesma, SJ, DD

Last May 16, Bishop-elect Cosme Damian R. Almedilla met with me and the diocesan Consultors of Butuan at the Bishop's House in Cagayan de Oro. The purpose of the meeting was to familiarize the new bishop with the developments in the Diocese of Butuan since the passing away of Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos on October 21, 2017, and my appointment as Apostolic Administrator two days later.

Vice-Chancellor Fr. Mart James Presillas first gave a power-point presentation on the current structures of the diocese, its eleven vicariates, and the various WESTOY-V ministries. After this, Chancellor-Oeconomus Fr. Wilbert Mark Simplicio gave a chronological presentation of the various activities that took place in the diocese over the past year and a half from October 2017 to May 2019. He ended by summarizing the main features of the development that took place. As one listening to the report on myself, this has made it much easier for me to look back from a more "objective" point of view. Although not necessarily in the same order and with some remarks, let me then recount the main changes that have been introduced.

1) The Board of Consultors has been made functional. The initial board consisted of Msgr. Marcelino Caldoza, Msgr. Bienvinido Betaizar, Msgr. Ruel Lasco and Msgr. Porfirio Colon, Jr., Fr. Isaleo Madelo, Fr. John Young and Fr. Joie Acedera, the Oeconomus. The Chancellor, Fr. Simplicio, recorded the minutes; later on he also assumed the role of Oeconomus after the illness of Fr. Acedera, and joined the board. In the course of our 21 meetings, I have relied on the Consultors to give me the needed information and practical advice on various issues and challenges. Practically all the major decisions were made after consultations with this body.

2) On December 26-29, 2017, after Christmas Day, I made it a point to meet all the parish priests and get written parish profiles at eleven vicariate meetings. It was also an opportunity for me to visit the various localities and note their distinctive characteristics. Occasionally, we had meetings of the vicars forane, of local superiors of religious congregations, of religious sisters, and of religious lay organizations. In all, these groups represented the various co-workers in the Lord's vineyard. Every last Tuesday of the month, I also tried to join and chair the clergy meetings. These gatherings brought up current issues; they also continued the regular interaction among the priests, particularly during dinner time at the Clergy House.

3) One effective way of bonding for the priests was the series of Appreciative Inquiry seminars that were held on three separate dates. Phase One (Discovery Stage) was held on January 3-4, 2018, facilitated by Fr. Raul Dael (later appointed Bishop of Tandag), Ms. Venus Guibone, and Fr. Coke Prieto. The survey questions focused on the most life-giving activities of the priest, his best practices, and the top five values of the Presbyterium.

Two weeks later, Phase Two (Dream Stage) of the AI seminar was held, facilitated by Ms. Guibone. The priests were divided into age groups— young, junior, lower middle, upper middle, and senior clergy. Various dream statements came out from the groups: e.g., a Presbyterium that is united, joyful and helping one another; "one heart, one mind, one clergy, one Church"; a community of priests that shares resources, providing social security, with ongoing formation and "where no priest is left behind"; "a holy, healthy, cohesive, participative and updated presbyterium"; and the diocese of Butuan seen as "usa ka panimalay nga nagkatinabangay".

It was after this second stage of AI that I tried to summarize the key values "discovered" and "dreamt" by the clergy. These values in four S's are: SOLIDARITY— in camaraderie, prayer, and unity with parishioners; STEWARDSHIP— in parish management, building a common fund, census-taking, and BEC formation; STANDARDIZATION— in the proportionate sharing of resources, provision of social security, and leveling of Standard Living Allowances; and SUSTAINABILITY— supporting diocesan ministries, seminary formation, and special studies.

The third phase, the Design Stage, was held on May 23-24, 2018. Present were the local superiors of different religious congregations and the diocese's lay ministry collaborators. A few days later, the ministry heads presented to the presbyterium the priorities of their respective ministries.

4) Several key councils or committees were created. These include: a Diocesan Finance Council to ensure financial accountability; a Stewardship Committee to review permanent building plans and purchases of vehicles; a Diaconate Program Committee to oversee the formation of pre-deacons and deacons; a Ministerial Management Board to review cases of clergy misconduct. Likewise, a Prefect of Health, Fr. Joseph Borja, was appointed to look after the health needs of the clergy. Fr. Borja was also instrumental in accompanying Fr. Dick Russo Endriga during his last days in March 2019 at the Cardinal Santos Hospital in Manila.

5) Standardization of Living Allowances (SLA) had been a recurrent expectation of the clergy. The proposed SLA program identified four objectives: a.) to resolve the disparity of allowances among the clergy; b.) to provide social security; c.) to provide funding for diocesan ministries; and d.) to establish a proportionate sharing scheme among parishes for the diocese's central fund.

As early as December 2017, we asked all the parishes to remit regularly their 10% Cathedraticum plus another 5% for the clergy's social security. At the same time, the Finance Office issued a uniform format for financial reporting. After four months, we were then able to establish the average monthly income of the parishes. The Finance Council made several studies resulting in the categorization of parishes ranging from Type A (with the highest income level) to Type F (with less than Php 50 thousand). Percentage remittances were also progressively pegged at 40%, 30%, 25%, 20%, and 15%. Type F would be considered a Mission Station and could even be subsidized. Furthermore, it was agreed that one half of all Mass intentions in every parish would go to a separate central fund for the social security of the clergy.

On August 24, 2018, the Presbyteral Council discussed concerns relative to the operationalization of the SLA program. By a virtually unanimous vote, the clergy agreed to start implementing the SLA program in September, with the first remittance to be made in October 2018. At the same time, standardized allowances would now be given all the clergy. In the meantime, on Sept. 17-18, 2018, the clergy had a seminar on financial management conducted by Sr. Ma. Clarita Cinco, RVM and Sr. Genevive Guyano, MSHF from the Finance Office of the Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro. Parish secretaries and bookkeepers had the same seminar on Oct. 2-3.

So far, only the 40 parishes run by diocesan priests have been covered by the SLA program. The 13 parishes run by religious priests are still in the process of adjusting their financial support which normally includes subsidies from their congregation. In general, the local religious superiors have expressed their readiness to also join the SLA program.

6) Diocesan ministries have been reinforced. After three months of increased remittances to the central fund as a result of the standardized sharing by parishes, the diocese was able to provide a budget for key ministries. All ministries were first asked to submit an end-of-year financial and narrative report by December 2018. They also prepared a budget proposal for the next six months. On Feb. 4-5, 2019, the ministry heads presented their budget proposals to the Diocesan Finance Council. Initial budget releases have been made with the expectation that ministries at the diocesan level can implement more of their action plans. Thus, for instance, we have:

  • Family and Life Apostolate (Natural Family Planning Seminars)

  • Catechesis (Professionalization of Catechists Program)

  • Youth Apostolate (Youth Formation Program)

  • Social Communications (Diocesan Website and Publication)

  • Social Action (Small Farmer Programs, also with Misereor funding)

  • BEC formation (Survey using the KRISKA Matrix)

  • Por Cristo Home for the Elderly (with regular diocesan subsidy)

  • Indigenous People Apostolate (Collaboration among IP schools and ministries)

Several new ministries have been inource persons from Cagayan de Oro Archdiocese sharing their pastoral experience: Responsible Parenthood and Natural Family Planning, Migrants Ministry, Hapag-Asa Integrated Nutrition Program and Ganda Organic Farming, and Exorcism

7) Butuan Diocese plays a significant role for the Agusan provinces in its educational apostolate. The diocese owns and runs Father Saturnino Urios University, the leading university in the Caraga region and among the top ten universities in Mindanao. It has been managed by its President, Fr. John Young, and a team of four other diocesan priests. In addition, the Diocese of Butuan Educational System (DBES) includes all the other schools owned by the diocese. These include St. Michael College of Caraga in Nasipit, and ten high schools in the two Agusan provinces. The present school directors like Msgr. Colon, Msgr. Betaizar, Fr. Roberto Butawan, and Fr. Carlito Clase have shared their challenges in running the schools, such as the need for more classrooms, decline in enrollment in some areas, etc. The school building of Immaculate Heart of Mary Academy in Kitcharao was razed to the ground last October 18, 2018. With the help of the Consultors, we have reviewed the by-laws of DBES and particularly of SMCC to ensure that the diocese in the person of the bishop retains full control of these institutions.

Four schools for the Lumad communities are run by the Missionary Sisters of Mary (MSM), the Religious of the Good Shepherd (RGS), the Missionaries of the Assumption (MA), and by an SVD priest, Fr. Ruby Tagaro. These are subsidized by their congregations.

We have also reviewed the possible linkages between FSUU and St. Peter College Seminary with regard to the formation of seminarians. Likewise, SPCS is exploring a Religious Education certificate course as a step towards the formation of professional catechists.

8) Several Diocesan Policies have been reviewed and issued. Earlier guidelines drafted by the Diocesan Pastoral Assembly headed by Fr. Madelo were reviewed and updated. A manual on financial management and temporalities is being drafted by the Oeconomus. Fr. Rodel Malazarte has also followed up on land records and other fixed assets of the diocese. Electoral policies during the election period, particularly pertaining to parish lay workers, were publicized. One particular initiative that needs nurturing is the empowerment of the laity in terms of their involvement in

"principled transpartisan politics." They have formed the Concerned Citizens of Caraga, no longer speaking for the institutional church, but rather exercising their right and responsibility as Christian laity to choose and support candidates. Hopefully, all these policies on electoral and diocesan matters should help strengthen collaboration among clergy, religious, and laity.

We have also initiated joint meetings for the Social Action ministry workers, the Caraga Council for Peace and Development, and the Lumad school heads to explore linkages and complementary roles. The objectives include the sustainable development of indigenous people communities while addressing peace-building efforts between armed groups.

One ongoing issue involving several public statements has been the question of the site of the first Mass in the Philippines. Fr. Joesilo Amalla, the diocese's museum curator, together with some local historians and civic leaders, have been pushing for a particular site in Butuan instead of Limasawa island. On the other hand, other proponents cite other places. Officially, the Apostolic Administrator has endorsed the ongoing joint inquiry of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines and the CBCP Episcopal Commission on Cultural Heritage. Working closely with the Commission is the Church Historians' Association of the Philippines. I commend the ground-breaking research of local historian, Mr. Greg Hontiveros, along with the contentions of Fr. Joesilo Amalla and the Filipinas Quincentenario. However, the final decision will have to come from the joint NHCP-ECCH panel— hopefully, in favor of Butuan, in time for the 500th anniversary celebration of Christianity in the Philippines in 2021.

9) Ongoing clergy formation and updating continue in terms of various kinds of seminars such as Appreciative Inquiry, financial management, etc. and assignments for parish reporting and budgeting. The Pre-Diaconate and Diaconate programs under Msgr. Betaizar and his team have also been strengthened. For instance, deacons spent two months at FSUU to learn first-hand about financial management and the running of a complex institution. In July 2018, several priests and their co-workers were asked to prepare chapter narratives for the Ad Limina Report that was asked by the Vatican for every diocese in preparation for the Philippine bishops' official visit to the Holy Father in May-June 2019. These chapter reports were collated by the chancery staff and edited by Fr. Michael Abellanosa and his team and submitted to the nunciature by November. This report is probably the most comprehensive profile of the diocese as of the year 2018.

Looking back at these nine summary areas of development in the diocese is also a way of going forward. They are actually all works-in-progress with an open-ended outcome, depending on the pastoral agents of the diocese— priests, religious, laity, and the bishop himself. Let me just express my own gratitude and appreciation for the warm hospitality and cooperation I have received from all these co-workers wherever I celebrated fiesta Masses, ministered the sacrament of Confirmation, called for "endless" meetings, or simply visited some parish convento or religious house. The year and a half that was given to me in the Diocese of Butuan was, looking back once more, a distillation of my 10 years in the Prelature of Ipil and 13 years in the Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro— avoiding the blunders and building on lessons learned. In one sense, all these dioceses form only a small but privileged portion of the one vineyard of the Lord.