Sunday, January 31, 2010

Awesome 5 days of 'fine tuning,' renewal for RP priests

Philippine Daily Inquirer/Feature/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo
Manila, Philippines--“I SHED TEARS of joy. It was a time of renewal,” said Fr. Rocero Barroga of Ilocos Sur, a priest for 28 years.

Salesian Fr. Francis Gustilo of the National Congress of the Clergy II (NCC II) program committee said of the experience: “It hit the core of our priesthood. It was a happy surprise, a common learning experience. We relearned and renewed. It will have a great impact."

For Fr. Jun Estoque, 36, of Negros Occidental, the encounter with so many priests was unforgettable.

It was an event that was unprecedented for its sheer magnitude and spirit. “Na-calibrate na tayo! (We have been fine-tuned),” participating priests shouted with glee when it was all over.

Uniformly clad in white chasubles and cream-colored stoles, 5,542 priests and bishops were an awesome sight as they ended their five-day NCC II with a huge concelebrated Mass, which many of them had never experienced.

For the final day, all the participating priests and bishops, in their white robes, walked the 1.2-kilometer stretch of Roxas Boulevard from the World Trade Center, the congress venue, to the Cuneta Astrodome in Pasay City, for the concelebrated Mass led by Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales and Archbishop Nereo Odchimar, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).

The 5,542 participating priests represented 60 percent of all priests, both diocesan and religious, nationwide. Those aged 35 to 55 were the biggest age group represented. A number of foreign priests also participated in the NCC II. There are about 8,000 foreign priests serving in the Philippines.

For five days from Jan. 25 to 29, the priests focused on moral, pastoral and spiritual concerns in a retreat-like gathering that was closed to outsiders. Media were allowed in only at the opening and closing. The program covered prayer and liturgy, conferences, group reflection, faith sharing and journal writing. Time was also provided for interaction with host-families.

The congress, with the theme “Faithfulness of Christ, Faithfulness of Priests,” is the highlight of the celebration of The Year of Priests of the Catholic Church in the Philippines. Pope Benedict XVI has declared the period June 2009 to June 2010 The Year of Priests in commemoration of the 150th death anniversary of their patron saint, St. John Mary Vianney.

The saint’s sacred relics, consisting of a stole and breviary, were flown in from France to provide inspiration for the assembly. (The relics will be taken to the St. John Mary Vianney Parish in Barangay Cembo, Makati, tomorrow.)

An Italian priest, Franciscan Capuchin Fr. Raniera Cantalamessa, who preaches to the papal household, was the congress’ main preacher.

Celibacy is a gift
 For his last address, Cantalamessa tackled the theme of priestly celibacy, an issue that has wracked the Church throughout the world. The first National Congress of the Clergy in 2004 was held amidst the furor over violations of the priestly vow.

“Man is not determined by nature alone,” Cantalamessa said. “We are determined by our vocation.” And celibacy is closes to the final vocation, which is union with Christ, he added.

“We don’t bring offspring into the world but ours is a fecund and fertile state of life. We enhance the quality of life. Celibacy gives us wings to fly, it should not be a burden. Celibacy is not just a counsel, it is a charism, a gift we have received,” he said.

It is not an act of renunciation for priests to feel proud about but something exercised with humility, freedom and joy, Cantalamessa reminded the priests.

He said priests have to “fast from images.” Citing the Internet and television as threats to celibacy, he said priests must see the world with the eyes of Jesus. "God created the eyes, but he also created the eyelids to cover them," he remarked, to much laughter.

Several bishops and lay people also addressed the congress.

Jeans and cell phones 
The participating priests were not much different in appearance and dress from their lay counterparts. Many wore jeans and T-shirts. A few took the trouble to dress and looked stylish in black shirts with Roman collars or in casual barong. Very few wore the long religious habit. Many were in sandals and running shoes and almost everyone lugged backpacks, shoulder bags, tote bags or shopping bags.

A few younger priests sported long hair and pony tails, but the majority had regular haircuts. Many were graying and balding. Younger priests assisted the aging ones. During breaks, they
engaged in that most common of Filipino activities—texting or talking on their cell phones.

At the WTC main lobby, they shopped for religious books or souvenirs like jackets, T-shirts and ball pens, or for pricey embroidered chasubles and altar vestments. They bargained for what they bought.

Asked to contribute to the victims of the Haiti earthquake, the priests dug into their pockets. The collection reached almost P2 million.

Like family celebration
 “This is like a family celebration,” said Jesuit theologian Fr. Catalino Arevalo. "There is nothing that can substitute for the experience of being together. Together the priests experienced their priesthood in a special way, and received grace in a special way. It was both a human and divine experience.” this was what made the event special, he added.

The bearded, brown-robed Cantalamessa was given a standing ovation at the end of his final talk. He was mobbed by many of the young priests who jostled one another to take his photo with their camera phones.

Arevalo described Cantalamessa, with whom he has worked at the International Theological Commission in Rome, as “brilliant with lots of human experience. He is a genuinely holy man.”

Said Fr. Roderick Salazar of the Society of the Divine Word: “Fr. Cantalamessa speaks from the heart. You know he has lived what he is talking about.”

Emotional experience 
For many, the closed-door penitential rite and confession during the retreat was an emotional experience.

For Fr. Paul Arnel, a Monfort missionary, the experience moved him to be more intimate with Christ and strengthened his fidelity.

Fr. Reni Punnapanal, an Indian Monfort missionary and trainer of young seminarians, was amazed by the big turnout.

For Lipa’s Fr. Hermogenes Quiambao, 44 years a priest, the experience “will make me love my parishioners more.”

Creatures of the Spirit
 “It had a deepening effect. Fr. Cantalamessa’s talk on celibacy made things clearer. Celibacy is not a deprivation. It is a call, a gift,” he said, adding that he will have a lot to share with the seminarians back home.

In his homily, Cardinal Rosales spoke of priests as “creatures of the Spirit.”

“Like cows, we have been branded. We have been claimed. Once anointed we belong completely to God. There is no transfer of ownership. We cannot lend ourselves to someone. Our fidelity should go beyond observance of law and duty,” he said.

He also touched briefly on the coming elections, asking “How do we help the Filipino to be sensitive to what is good?”

Bishop Florentino Lavarias, head of CBCP’s Commission on the Clergy, said Fr. Cantalamessa led the priests in focusing on the three important elements of the priesthood—the Eucharist, the importance of social reconciliation and celibacy, which he described as a special relationship with Jesus.

He said Cantalamessa also warned against “frenetic activism.”

Only in RP 
Cantalamessa was quite impressed by the turnout, overwhelmed by the sight of so many priests in one gathering, according to Henrietta de Villa, the country’s former ambassador to the Vatican who was overall coordinator of the preparations for the congress.

“It’s only in the Philippines can these things happen,” De Villa quoted Cantalamessa as saying.

“I’m not comparing since each place has its own grace. But the retreat called in France gathered only 1,500 priests and that was an international event. Ours was a national one, and even with some walk-in (foreign priests), we gathered 5,542,” De Villa told reporters.

The attendance was so large that the organizers ran out of information kits and had to order more. Many groups and individuals donated goods and services or gave huge discounts.

Many parishes, religious houses and private homes provided lodging for the priests from outside Metro Manila.

Asked at the end of the concelebrated Mass whether they would come for the NCC III, the priests shouted with a loud “Yes!” With a report from Dona Pazzibugan