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At Large

Two priests

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It was Fr. James B. Reuter, SJ, who ushered me into the world of reproductive health. It isn’t what you think.

I was a second-year student at the University of Santo Tomas and a newbie reporter at the Varsitarian when our publications director, the late Felix Bautista, summoned me to his office and told me he was assigning me to cover a seminar on natural family planning. The seminar was organized by Father Reuter and among the other participants I remember was the wife of fellow Inquirer columnist Johnny Mercado.

I don’t remember exactly what family planning method was being discussed but I presume it was an early form of the “Standard Days” method then being developed by the Jesuit-run Georgetown University.

It was my first exposure to Father Reuter although of course I had seen him on TV introducing every episode of “Santa Zita and Mary Rose,” and read of his work, especially on stage. And, I suppose, like every other young woman in his orbit, I was held in thrall by his personality. Even then, he was already white-haired (well, the little of it that remained), but he was still vigorous, forceful, masculine.

Later, Father Reuter invited me and other student writers to take part in a workshop on writing for radio, and at the end of the workshop he announced that we would be invited to audition for a new radio serial titled “Mister and Misis.”

There was a considerable UST presence among the cast. The lead “misis” role went to my friend, Sandra Castro Puno, now a vice president of Nestlé, while her “mister” was a male classmate of ours. Yours truly was chosen to play the role of “Oryang,” the town busybody, who was sometimes the villain and other times an ally of the couple.

Chosen to write and direct the radio drama was Bernard Canaveral, who I just found out now heads the “Family Rosary Crusade.” It was produced by long-time Reuter associate Cherry Aquino. The drama brought us firmly into the small tight circle around Father Reuter, as we taped in the NOMM studio located in the Jesuit Residence in Sta. Ana.

* * *

The drama would go on for a few years, but by the time I graduated and started working, I had to bow out and say farewell to “Oryang.” But Father Reuter remained a presence in my life, as I was working with the Archdiocese of Manila’s media office and our paths would often cross.

So it is to Father Reuter that I owe two abiding passions in my life: the media and reproductive health and rights.

At the Mass held Friday evening at the Church of the Gesu in Ateneo, Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ, another columnist for this paper, was the homilist, speaking fondly of Father Reuter’s love for embroidering his stories with outlandish anecdotes, but also of his courage in standing up for what was right, most memorably when he set up “Radyo Bandido” at a most perilous time in the nation’s history when masses were facing down the armed troops of the dictatorial regime.

Later that evening, we would hold a mini-reunion of many of those behind “Mister and Misis,” including Cherry, Bernard, and Sr. Sarah Manipol, beloved assistant of Father Jim, who treated the cast and production crew like her own children. It brought back memories of weekends spent in the NOMM office, in the orbit of a man who has been rightly called “an American by birth, but a Filipino at heart.”

* * *

They call him “Erps,” short-cut for “erpat,” itself slang term for “father,” and the term of address chosen by Fr. Ben Villote.

The story goes that when Church authorities finally granted permission in 1976 for the small chapel in Punta, Sta. Ana, to be established as a separate parish, the people held a grand welcome ceremony for their first parish priest, complete with bunting and a hired band, with residents lining the streets to greet him. But when the thin, humble figure of Father Ben appeared, “he quickly waved his hand to stop the band and the noisy commotion of the people. ‘I am not God nor a prophet to be welcomed this way,’ he said with a poker face. Everyone became silent. The gay and joyous atmosphere turned mute,” recalls a former parishioner.

Soon after, though, Erps’ unique pastoral and personal vision presented itself, in the process transforming the community and, in many ways, the lives of the people he encountered in Punta.

Recalls Florante Rapi, a youth leader in Punta: “Before 1976, Punta was one of the notorious places in Metro Manila. It was so notorious that no taxi driver would dare come in here even to transport a passenger. Now that image has changed…”

* * *

That process of “change” is attributed to the six years Erps spent as pastor in Punta, a process of transformation recounted in the book “The Journey: From BCC to CMY.”

Cecile Basabas Ikaguchi, who led the team of the Pre-baptism Formation Ministry and other parishioners in Punta in putting the book together, says the project was born of their desire “to recapture the values” that Erps embodied, shared and instituted in Punta and later in the Center of Migrant Youth.

Now that Erps is confined to a wheelchair and unable to verbally communicate, Cecile says they hope the book will document—complete with anecdotes from parish leaders, parishioners and wards of the Center—the process of creating a Basic Christian Community, of which Punta was a pioneer, and of working with and transforming the “outcasts” of society who are now themselves looking after Erps.

“It was so easy,” recalls Cecile of the entire process of putting the book together. “People were writing from their hearts.” Those wishing to learn more about Father Ben’s apostolate may order the book from Fr. Hermie Garcia at 733-0245/46, or from Cecile’s language academy at 799-7293.


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