Sunday, July 7, 2013

And the angels came: Fr. Villote, "erps" to the young and lost, 80

Philippine Daily Inquirer/FEATURES/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

And the angels came.

That was what Fr. Ruben Juco Villote used to say whenever people shared their blessings with the Center for Migrant Youth (CMY), which the diocesan priest founded 31 years ago for young men and boys with nowhere to go in the big city.

Friday, July 6, at 5 a.m., the angels came for him and took him home for good. Villote or “Erps,” as the well-loved priest was fondly called, died after cardiopulmonary arrest at CMY in Quezon City. He was 80. Villote had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for several years and had been in and out of hospital for treatment.

Villote wrote a column titled “The Word” for the Sunday Inquirer Magazine for many years until 2005. His pieces have been compiled into several volumes, among them “Empowered by His Wounds” and “A Clown Among Many.” Drawing inspiration from his pastoral work among ordinary folk, he wrote in a simple, readable style that everyone understood.

Among the parishes where Villote served were the University of the Philippines Parish of the Holy Sacrifice, where, as assistant pastor, he ministered to a generation of activist students, faculty and employees. He also served in parishes in Tipas in Taguig and Sta. Ana in Manila.

Like the Good Shepherd

After serving in parishes for many years, Villote, with the help of a small but committed group of lay persons, devoted his life to serving the youth through CMY. His wards called him Erps, short for erpat, Filipino slang for father or the Latin pater. Countless youths have sought temporary shelter, education and community life in CMY. Many came hurt and aimless, angry and alone, wounded and desperate. Many left healed and whole, ready to find their places in the world and enrich others’ lives along the way. One even gave up his life to save someone.

In CMY, Villote said, the young learn to trust and be trusted in return, and to give and receive affirmation and reverence. “To be the best they could ever be for the future,” he added. CMY is a special ministry established under the Archdiocese of Manila that included Quezon City during the time of the late Jaime Cardinal Sin. “It is our Mother, the Church, offering her presence to her wounded and defenseless children,” Villote told this writer then. “This is the specific place where I am being called to meet Christ in the poor and where I am invited to share His poverty and shame.”

He described his ministry as like that of the Good Shepherd, who leaves the 99 who are well to look for the one who is lost. It was always a special day when a former CMY resident came back to talk about his new life, he said. Many had gone on to become caring individuals, their success measured not in terms of financial returns but in the way they lived their lives, Villote said.

Masses springing to life

Bishop Honesto F. Ongtioco of the Cubao diocese, to which Villote belonged, said Villote “incarnated the Word of God in his life and in caring for others, especially the migrant youth. He touched many lives with his simplicity, humility and commitment.”

Masses at CMY had always been intimate and interactive—actually a mark of the parishes where Villote had worked. Villote’s homilies were simple but deep. He spoke softly and sparingly but carried a big message. Some years ago, however, his memory started to fail and he lost his ability to communicate.

In the 1970s, many people went all the way to Tipas, Taguig, to experience the liturgy with its glorious music and interact with the fisherfolk. The indigenous color was hard to miss. After Tipas, Villote was assigned to a small parish in Punta, Sta. Ana in Manila, where the parishioners were mostly factory workers. Again, the Masses sprang to life.

But it was really in the University of the Philippines Parish of the Holy Sacrifice that Villote first broke ground as a young assistant pastor. There, he experienced the exuberance and activism of the young, as well as the challenge of intellectual life.

CMY’s Sunday Masses—on Cordillera Street in Quezon City for 23 years and in Fairview for the past eight years—had that Villote touch that made them special. Vibrant Filipino music and sharing of personal reflections made the interactive liturgy alive but intimate. The Philippine flag was always displayed prominently. A small potluck repast capped the liturgy. During the Christmas season, he held special gatherings for street dwellers who often visited the center.


Born on Dec. 19, 1932, Villote was raised in prewar Tondo, Manila. He studied in public schools and went later to the Jesuit-run San Jose Seminary for diocesan priests. He idolized his Jesuit mentors. He belonged to Class 1959 and was ordained that same year. “We carry the marks of Christ’s passion in our bodies,” the “Josefino” said of his class of four. “Proof of the paschal holocaust we have had to offer through many years as victim-priests on the altar of the Master.”

In 2005, due to his failing health, Villote decided to stop writing his Sunday Inquirer Magazine column. In an interview for a magazine Christmas cover story, he said: “We must gradually move away from the sweet and pious rituals of the First Coming of Christ. We must journey towards the more radical and painful work of renewing the world and restoring all things in Christ so that justice and righteousness may begin to prevail in the New Heaven and the New Earth as a sign of the Second Coming.”

Villote is survived by his brother Rolly, sister-in-law Bess, nephew Jonathan and relatives, as well as his extended family of loyal friends and the “young-once” he had helped.

His remains lie at Loyola Memorial Chapel on Commonwealth Avenue until noon Sunday, at the University of the Philippines Diliman Parish of the Holy Sacrifice until Tuesday morning and at Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Cubao until Wednesday morning.#