1 April 2010 Holy Thursday
Exodus 12, 1-14; Psalm 116; 1 Cor 11, 23-26; John 13, 1-15
In the island of Culion, Palawan, there is no way for a Jesuit priest not to recharge and rethink his priesthood. Here, in one of the isles in the Calamianes, the Jesuits are also rethinking their mission after a century of service. This was once a sanitarium for lepers. Today, “we have around 100 healed lepers still living here. But no more new ones,” said Fr. Florge Sy SJ, the parish priest. With the advent of MDT, the cure for leprosy, the disease has long been eradicated, except for the dark spots the medicine left on their skin. With the help of our partners in service, the sisters of St. Paul of Chartres, Loyola College has been established to provide education to the lepers’ families. But when Culion turned into a municipality, it envisioned a new course for the island: to turn their home from a place of despair to a paradise of hope. Because indeed it is.
And so here I am, from the dregs of Manila, into a new course. And so today, on the Solemnity of the Holy Eucharist and the Anniversary of the Priesthood, I write this essay. The English noun essay comes from the French verb, essayer, meaning “to attempt”. Thus to essay is to attempt, to test, to make a run at something without knowing whether you are going to succeed. As I share my personal journey here in Culion, I’d like to invite you to travel with me, but to offer no judgment. Henry Nouwen once said that it is difficult not to judge, because it entails one to continually hope and trust on the person. Bishop Antonio Tagle says this also in terms of forgiveness, “when we forgive, we say, I hope in you” — meaning, despite every betrayal and failure, we continually trust and hope that the person who wronged us will change.
I am a man in the middle, literally and metaphorically. Literally, because at 41, I know I am in the “middle” of my life. Metaphorically, because I know I am in midlife in all its colors. I am done with the honeymoon stage. In my early days as a Jesuit (20 years and counting) and as a priest (9 beautiful years since my ordination in 2001) in a Church beset by scandals and the loss of trust, all my enthusiasms and romantic notions have lost their luster.
I am still a man who loves my priesthood (or else I wouldn’t be writing about this), but now I am asking many questions culled from my sea travels from one island to another. As I have been tweeting, I feel like a person in the middle of the sea. I have left land. I am braving the waves, asking why in the first place I embarked on this journey, and thinking how I am going to reach my destination: an island where people are waiting for me, eager to receive the Word and Body of Christ. The thing is, in the middle of the sea, I am at the mercy of the raging wind and waves of this vocation. I am precariously afloat. And I am afraid. Do other priests share my love for the priesthood, despite the drafts that endanger their vocations?
Since ordination, we have been loading the carts. My work has been easier, compared to some of my fellow Jesuits, because I have been assigned in school, but nonetheless, it is taxing. We have been ‘loading the carts’ as sacramental ministers every single day. Despite the common notion that priests are not as busy as the ordinary employee of the masses — and with some valid experiential basis — not all priests are like them. I personally know many priests who have worked their butts out (forgive the language) and it would be very unfair to generalize.
As a personal essayists who believes that a single tree can illumine the whole forest, what I have as proof of a larger reality are my fellow Jesuits assigned in the hinterlands of Bukidnon, Zamboanga, the missions of East Timor and Cambodia. But for this purpose, let’s use the mission of Culion. Think of two Jesuits in this mission: Frs. Florge SJ and Javier Alpasa SJ who service 48 destinos (small communities of indigenous people) within the island and in neighboring smaller islands. More than 50% of this areas are only accessible by boat. How can it be possible for them to serve the destinos regularly if you need more than half a day to reach them? I have been to only two: the destinos of Patag and Bulokbulokan. In Patag, you get only one jeepney trip every day. Bulokbulokan, the destino of the Tigbanuas, you travel by banca for two hours. If I was already frightened by the waves of summer, I am sure both of these priests would be scared to death in the months of November to January when the waves are tough.
But these Jesuits know that pastoral responsibility is not all about ministering the Eucharist. So, both of them are also developing livelihood and literacy programs. As people in these small communities receive the Body of Christ, they must also nourish the stomach and not just the spirit. As they listen to the Words of God, they must also listen to their needs and share their stories.
People think that being a priest is like being on a cruise. But experience has it that if you take your vocation seriously, you are opening a Chinese box in reverse. As you open one box, you discover a larger box; and when you keep on opening, you find yourself inside a far bigger box. The work becomes larger and larger. If you take the priesthood really seriously, you’ll find yourself exhausted, and not even the regular food loving parishioners send will restore you to health.
In the morning of this day, priests will flock to the cathedral for the Chrism mass. It is a mass that celebrates priesthood, as well as the occasion when the oils for baptism (chrism) and the sick (olio infirmorum) are blessed. Each year, we change the scent of the oil. Perhaps, it is indeed a symbol of renewal, like a person who just came out of the shower. On this day, we, priests, renew our vows.
However, it is also on this day that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples to celebrate the Last Supper. I too will wash other people’s feet in one of the destinos here in Culion. But is there a limit to washing another’s feet? What if it exhaust you to death? Yes, Fr. Pedro Arrupe SJ said that we have all of eternity to rest. But it is also a reality that ministers (all care-givers in fact) die of fatigue. They also desire that his or her feet be washed too. Think of loving parents: there is no limit to giving themselves totally; but they also need our care in return. The grace of the priesthood has been given to us, and it is also in like manner that we give it in service.
In recent years, the Church has been beset by scandals that wrecked the lives of priests and people all over the world. The shock was horrifying and rightly so. But what was I suppose to do? It’s like having a problem child in a family: you don’t disown them, you find ways to help them, but whatever scandals they do also mars your reputation. And if there is one effect it brought, it is this: people lost trust in the priesthood and in the Church. If in the past, there was what Michael Heher called “a collective fiction” that priests are supposedly innocent, well, the truth is out: we are not. It is what people want us to be; it is what is expected of us. What we are is this: we are both saints and sinners. Like every student, parishioner, and citizen. Very much like you. Like the rest of the world.
Nevertheless, as a priest, I still have to perform my duties. I still have to say mass and respond to every sick call. I have to bless every single nook and cranny so that people are assured no misfortune will befall their business. But the experience is changing. In any of these events, there are people who actually don’t care about what we do. We just have to ward of evil and that’s it. They make faces when we do the entire ritual. You will know who among them are relieved when they begin to eat. They pick up their plates, rush to the buffet table, take their forks and then punch them on the nearest pork chop. The test of true character is a few seconds after the final blessing. The good thing is this: despite the diminishing trust, you get to see and hear the truth in people’s lives. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I feel so much honored and privileged: people allow me to see their vulnerability and true character. The ordinary person will rarely experience listening to people’s secret lives as raw as the sins they tell me in great confidence. Or as ordinarily as how people eat pork chops from buffet tables. And I tell you, there are many ways to eat pork chop.
But the need for something greater remain, despite the global culture of individualism and consumerism. People crave and hunger for more than just their lives, whether it is about meaning, direction, love and God. St. Ignatius of Loyola said that the soul is satisfied, not by the accumulation of knowledge but by the inner taste for things. That is probably it: we didn’t force people to join our 3-hour Station of the Cross yesterday. But as the throng of people snake through the alleys of Culion to the San Ignacio Retreat House in Baldat, the number increased.
For many who claim to be intellectuals, they will look at people and the priests who lead them as fools. But for many of us, it is the most rational and reasonable way to show our gratitude to the God who loves us.
When you fall in love, you become a fool. I became a priest, because I fell in love. And the God who chose me once, continues to choose me, warts and all.