Yes, Virginia, hundreds of priests know who is “Church.” It’s city folk and rural folk; it’s you and me, priests included, and bishops, too. It’s people, Virginia, Vatican II’s “people of God,” not ecclesial statements many of which, of late, are hardly edifying, not the church building under continual “beautification.”
It’s time we read about priests, foot soldiers, right where the people are. Forgive the favoritism, but let me pick two priests, one each from the seminaries where I’ve taught.
Msgr. Pablo Legaspi of San Carlos Seminary was immediately sent forth to serve after deaconship in 1990. Now he is parish priest at the Malolos Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. A premier parish usually begets lateral roles. Two of them have brought Monsignor Legaspi to the people at close range: education in the province and the grassroots of Bulacan.
For education, he is rector of the Immaculate Conception School for Boys, another for Girls, the Immaculate Conception School of Malolos beside the cathedral, Stella Maris in the island-parish of Pamarawan, a 30-minute banca ride from the cathedral, and others; all are run with lay partners, with a collective enrollment of around 1,600.
Even closer to the people are Monsignor Legaspi’s forays into the mountainous areas of the Sierra Madre range. There he meets with Fr. Johann Sebastian, parish priest of the quasi-parish of the Most Holy Eucharist in Gabihan, which includes far-flung sitios with so-Filipino names like: Biga, Camachin, Akle, Casalat, Talbak, Kalawakan and, into the fastnesses, Cambubuyugan, where live the Dumagat cared for by Fr. Edgardo de Jesus.
Also coworkers in tough social apostolate are Fathers Joshua Panganiban and Boyet Concepcion, in rehab work for drug dependents and in Bethlehem House “where kids study, are guided and fed.”
The terrain is “Survivor” landscape, up and down mountains, beautiful perhaps from afar, but nothing romantic about it when negotiating bad roads in 4×4 trucks or on foot (as in Jesus’ “hill country”?). Some sitios are hours apart and the good fathers visit them once a month, oftener when possible, or once a year, but not even that when the rains come, for then the sitios are cut off, inaccessible.
There are around 100 families per sitio living far from one another. The people quarry limestone, iron ore and silica on public land, and haul these to trucks for several hundreds of pesos, which they divide among themselves. They also fish. Released in the rivers in GMA’s time was a tilapia species popularly named “Arroyo.” Unfortunately piranha-like, the tilapia ate up smaller creatures like alamang.
With one teacher per community, school is a two-room affair, offering two grades per year, moving up as pupils go to the next grade. One of the people’s few perks is the distribution of Christmas packs by the priests in makeshift, multipurpose shelters.
From rural space and sky, let us drop into urban pits of poverty in Pasay and Manila. Rogationist Fr. Dexter Prudenciano, who has just marked his 10th year as a priest, wondered how far dogmatic truths could go on empty stomachs and sick bodies.
In 2004, he initiated a transformative miracle of housing, livelihood, education, health, value formation, etc. Named SHEC (for St. Hannibal Empowerment Center), it operates seven sites of urban poor communities in Malibay, Tramo and Maricaban in Pasay and Baseco in Manila. To date, with more on the planning board, it has built 414 housing units, literally lifting hundreds of families from riverbanks to dry land, from airless and waterless “boxes” to decent 24-square-meter units. It’s a great idea—seeking out 400-, 500-, and 1,000-square-meter lots that owners can’t use or can’t sell, and converting these to neat clusters of row houses.
What is remarkable is that the housing goes hand in hand with “formation” and “empowerment.” Several hundreds of families where genuine BECs (basic ecclesial communities) can thrive, have organized into neighborhood and homeowners’ associations federated into SHACC (St. Hannibal Christian Community Inc.).
They make soap, fabric conditioners, bleach, etc. We buy “Go Healthy Products” like chicken, pechay and camote, all organic, of course. There is youth formation, an excellent singing group, trained health workers; what else!
The priests do not just visit the sites. RCJ Fathers Dexter, Orville Cajigal and Arlene Gumangan LIVE there. Talk of immersion!
When can we get it into our thick skulls that Jesus was poor, that our country in too many corners is scandalously poor, and that the institutional Church in too many corners is scandalously rich?
The Church is people, often poor people, whether in Monsignor Legaspi’s rural Bulacan or in Father Dexter’s dense Pasay. “Mission” is written all over the spirit behind their work. Truly, priesthood is nothing if not mission.
Asuncion David Maramba is a retired professor, book editor and occasional journalist. Comments to marda_ph @yahoo.com, fax 8284454.