Wednesday, January 27, 2010

When 5,000 priests gather

Philippine Daily Inquirer/Opinion/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo
STARTING MONDAY AND UNTIL TOMORROW, Friday, some 5,000 Catholic priests, both diocesan and religious, from all over the Philippines are closeted at the World Trade Center (WTC) in Pasay City for the Second National Congress of the Clergy (NCC II). They are on a spiritual retreat.

Political candidates are not allowed in the venue. During last week’s press conference, Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales stated this plainly.

People who are into cosmic projection, energy tracking, mystical divinations and the like will no doubt consider this gathering as highly and divinely charged, from whatever spiritual tradition or angle in the universe you may look at it.
For me, it also conjures awesome cinematic images, like the one in James Cameron’s “Avatar” where the imperiled beings of the forest gather to pray and chant in unison and radiate pulsating energy and immense beauty. Call me and the comparison pagan if you like.
But these priests are just ordinary men, you might say, men with feet of clay.

Early in his papacy, Pope John Paul II explained his own priestly vocation thus: “I am often asked, especially by young people, why I became a priest… Let me try briefly to reply. I must begin by saying that it is impossible to explain entirely. For it remains a mystery, even to myself. How does one explain the ways of God? Yet, I know that, at a certain point in my life, I became convinced that Christ was saying to me what he had said to thousands before me: ‘Come, follow me!’ There was a clear sense that what I heard in my heart was no human voice, nor was it just an idea of my own. Christ was calling me to serve him as a priest.

“And you can probably tell that I am deeply grateful to God for my vocation to the priesthood. Nothing means more to me or gives me greater joy than to celebrate Mass each day and to serve God’s people in the Church. That has been true ever since the day of my ordination as a priest. Nothing has ever changed this, not even becoming Pope.”

Yes, at some point in our lives we experience an absolute certainty, sometimes painfully or with profound joy, that we must tread a certain path. That’s my take.

NCC II is an awesome gathering considering that the 5,000 priests in attendance comprise more than 60 percent of all the priests in the Philippines. (There are about 8,000 in all.) And this is just the second gathering of its kind (the first was in 2004 when 4,000 came).

NCC II was held amid reports of scandals and controversies that wracked the Church in the United States and Europe. But the Philippines also had its share then. I wrote a two-part special report on this based on the research findings of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of Women in the Philippines.

NCC II is a moving forward. It is taking place during the period June 2009 to June 2010 which Pope Benedict XVI declared as “The Year of Priests.” The theme of NCC II is “Faithfulness of Christ, Faithfulness of Priests.”

NCC II’s organizers said the retreat will tackle moral, pastoral and spiritual concerns and would be conducted retreat-style. The retreat-congress includes prayer and liturgy, conferences, group reflection, faith sharing and journal writing. There will also be a time for interaction with their host families.

Msgr. Gerardo Santos of the program committee says the basic objective of the congress is to provide the priests a deep and religious experience that will hopefully lead to a spiritual conversion and greater commitment. Former Ambassador to the Vatican Henrietta de Villa, one of the organizers, hopes the priests will fall in love with their vocation all over again.

The spirit of St. John Mary Vianney, popularly known as the CurĂ© d’Ars and patron saint of priests, is being invoked in a special way. His stole and breviary were flown in from France to provide inspiration.

Franciscan Capuchin Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household, has been the main speaker and facilitator these past days. I might be allowed in to listen to his last talk tomorrow.

A great add-on is the talk today on witnessing by a woman, Maria Voce of the Focolare Movement. She took over the leadership of the Focolare Movement after the death of founder Chiara Lubich in 2008. The charismatic Bishop Luis Antonio Tagle of the diocese of Imus is also a speaker today.

Tomorrow afternoon, the 5,000 priests plus bishops will go in procession from the WTC to the Cuneta Astrodome where the closing Mass will be celebrated. The public is welcome to accompany them. Visualize thousands of priests in procession and concelebrating. That would be an awesome thing to witness.

Even with all the graces that come with the vocation, it is not easy being a priest. I have written a good number of feature stories on individual priests, most of them killed in action. One was about a priest-turned-rebel who died in a hail of bullets during an encounter with the military. A priest involved in social action died in the flash floods in Quezon while he was trying to save lives. I wrote about a priest who was shot dead in Mindanao. There was the much-loved bishop of Jolo who was murdered. A priest in Cavite was killed while out to seek the lost sheep in the dead of night. He must have known too much about drug syndicates.

And there were those who died of natural causes but whose lives were just as rich, like Jesuit theologian Fr. Carlos Abesamis and Redemptorist Fr. Louie Hechanova, both great writers and exemplary priests and men of action whose hearts beat wildly for the poor, and whom I knew well when they walked this earth.

I end with a favorite quote from Thomas Merton: “But oh! How far have I to go to find You in Whom I have already arrived!”