Fishers of men
I am now 72, thank God. And I seem to live not so much in the present as in the past. I enjoy remembering old people and places.
The first priest I met when I was a boy in Cabangan, Zambales, in the 1950s was Father Convery. He was an American Columban missionary, barely 5’4”. I was 10 when he took me as a sacristan. He made me clean the convent, sweep the churchyard, scrub the wooden steps of the altar, do errands.
I served daily at Mass. Every morning I prepared the linen vestments in the sacristy: the amice, alb, cincture, stole, maniple, chasuble. I watched him put on the heavy vestments, which made him look like a stranger from another world. On Sundays he intoned the Latin verses, his sharp, high-pitched voice sending the brown birds in the church ceiling chirping, their melody blending with the joyful exaltation of the congregation.
He made me memorize the Latin responses, and I rattled them off not knowing what they meant. Barefoot, wearing a white cassock with surplice, I looked lost in an ancient rite.
Father Convery loved sports; he bought the equipment for baseball, basketball, volleyball, football. In long pants and white T-shirt, he’d run to the churchyard in front of the convent. I’d watch him sway his left leg gracefully, his right arm arching in the air, as he pitched the ball to me. Aping him, I’d throw it back at him, and he’d grin, always catching the ball in his leather glove. After the exercise, he’d tell me I was an excellent baseball pitcher.
He perspired profusely in the late afternoon sun, and his face turned red like ripe fruit. I followed him as he entered the church, watched him make the sign of the cross, genuflect, and then kneel on the pew. What did he pray? I imitated him, reciting the brief formula of prayers I had memorized.
When he went to visit the villages, he took me with him. On the dusty road, he scooped from the pocket of his white habit a handful of lemon candies and tossed these to a bunch of ill-clad children who shrieked in delight as they caught the sweets from heaven. He greeted every old farmer he met along the way, laying his hand on the man’s forehead. Once, after his visit to a village, an old woman came to the convent bringing a basket of ripe mangoes. She was thanking him for the recovery of her son after he administered the oil of viaticum.
When Father Convery was assigned elsewhere, I never saw him again.
I also remember Father Fermin, a Dutch Dominican. He was tall, and stood like an aristocrat. But he had deep, pensive eyes belying his arrogance.
I came to know that he was born of non-Catholic parents, and that after his conversion to Catholicism, he entered the priesthood. When he was assigned to the University of Santo Tomas, he took on Filipino citizenship. He became the second Filipino rector of the oldest Catholic university in Asia.
Father Fermin took me to assist him in the office on some paper and administrative work. My job gave me the opportunity to encounter a priest whose temper exploded, well, like thunder. The office staff and I would hear heated exchange in the sanctum sanctorum, and the call buzzer would blast, shocking my ears. He’d order glasses of brandy for him and his guest, a fellow Dominican. Behind the back door of the office, he did not see me peeping inside. I’d see him and his guest praying before they parted.
When I could not find the documents he needed, he blew his top. He must have seen me cringing, like a whipped dog, for later he called for me and patted me on the shoulder, reminding me that after office hours we were to attend the Beethoven concert at the Cultural Center. After the concert, he brought me to my rented apartment in Singalong. When he saw my wife cuddling our three-year-old daughter, he took fancy on the child. Before he left, he gave me extra money for the baby’s milk, relieving my anger.
When he reached 89, Father Fermin could hardly walk. I visited him in the Dominican house in Baguio City where he lived alone with the help. It was surrounded by bright flowers. He made me stay in the house for a week. I helped the male nurse put his broken figure onto the wheelchair and thence him to the table in the back room. He’d sit long at the table, reading a newspaper or a magazine, or scribbling on a notebook. I would not bother him.
Before evening he celebrated the Mass in a vacant room with the nurse, the cook, the housekeeper and me. Slumped in an armchair, his bent back protruding, he read the gospel, his thin voice betraying as if a crack of pain. One day he collapsed from the meditation table and passed away.
Our eldest brother, Father Fernando, is a secular priest. He marked the 50th year of his ordination at Quiapo Church on Dec. 14, 2015. He is now 76, definitely old, his cheeks shrunken, his jawbones jutting from a coat of wrinkled skin.
When he was studying philosophy at San Carlos Seminary, he vomited blood. He had contracted late-stage tuberculosis. When he was confined for more than a month at Quezon Institute, he looked frustrated, angry, anxious that his poor health could crush his vocation.
Our family was shocked when he announced his decision to become a priest. He was handsome and an engineering sophomore at the University of the Philippines, and he had a beautiful girlfriend from high school. My mother discouraged the girl from visiting him in the seminary. I remember that when I was young, he whipped me with a bamboo stick until the back of my legs bled.
After his ordination in 1965, Father Fernando was assigned to various parishes in Zambales until he was transferred to the archdiocese of Manila where he served for a long time as assistant parish priest in Quiapo. He was carried away by his crazy idea that modern priests should imitate St. Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa. On his birthday he had this bad habit of disappearing from the parish so that everyone would be looking for him; no one saw him distributing sandwiches and a bit of money to the beggars he personally knew.
On important occasions, my now-retired brother comes to celebrate the Mass with his siblings, Engracio, Epifania and myself. At consecration I watch him lift the chalice, the sacred vessel shaking in his grip, his frail voice catching the ardor of the liturgy.
At my age, I really enjoy remembering old places and people. But then, I realize that the past is past. Is it really gone? “The Moving Finger writes, and, having writ,/ Moves on: and neither all your piety nor all your wit/ Can lure it back to cancel half a line…”
What is written is written. I can only relive the past because I remember it. But my memory is beginning to fade. Perhaps I will relive the past somewhere and appreciate its ironies and contradictions in the proper light.
Mariano F. Carpio is a retired teacher of UST.
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