To be a priest

My parents’ idea of fulfillment was to see all their children finish college and become successful professionals. That makes them typical Filipino parents.  But, in addition, my mother’s idea of parental achievement included having a priest for a son. That makes her a typical Kapampangan mother.  After my father died, she imagined keeping house for her son at his parish, and listening to all his homilies.

We were not poor, but my parents did not believe in family planning. In the beginning, my father’s standard quip, “cheaper by the dozen,” seemed sensible.  Food was cheap and the public schools were free. My parents dreamed of sending all thirteen of their children to Manila for college.  This wasn’t easy on a government employee’s salary.

Perhaps if I had a sense of the economics of raising a huge family, I would have volunteered, as the eldest of the children, to enter the seminary.  For many provincial boys, the priesthood was the surest, if not the only, route to a good education.  Many rich people were willing to sponsor the formation of a priest.

I did well in grade school, and our parish priest saw in me the signs of a priestly vocation.  But I did not feel called to the priesthood.  Soon he turned to my younger brother Nestor, who also showed little interest.  The archdiocese of our province had opened a new seminary in San Fernando, and the pressure on my parents to contribute a son to the Church became strong.  The third boy in the family, the quiet Isaac, finally agreed to try it out.  After only a week, the seminary sent him home. In embarrassment, my father volunteered his fourth son, Dante, as replacement.  He, too, did not last.  The fifth, Pedro Jr, seemed more engrossed in play than in prayer that my parents finally gave up.

Pablo, the sixth boy, was so young and small that nobody thought of him. No one had noticed the contemplative spirit that was welling up in the little boy.  Four sisters sandwiched him in the sequence of births, and so they naturally regarded him as one of them.  This gentle spirit became my mother’s favorite.  One day, he told her that he wanted to be a priest, and she wasn’t at all surprised.

Ambo was not yet in his teens when he left home and entered the Mother of Good Counsel Seminary. From there, he proceeded to the Jesuit-run San Jose in the Ateneo campus, finishing his philosophy and theology.  He was ordained in 1983. Twelve years separate us; I am the eldest and he is the tenth.

In the Martial Law years, like many young priests and nuns, he became involved in the organizing of peasants in Central Luzon.  His bishop must have worried about him; he sent him to Jerusalem and Louvain for further studies.  He came home seven years later with a doctorate in Scriptures.

Ambo has since spent all his life teaching, forming young seminarians, leading Bible study groups, giving retreats, and, in the last three years, bringing the gospel closer to the people through television. Through “Men of Light”, a weekly program on cable TV and directed by Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Ambo and fellow priests Fr. Raul de los Santos and Fr. Deo Galang take up the week’s gospel reading and use it as a lens by which to see the problems of daily living. Yesterday, Ambo finally got his life-long wish – a parish of his own, the Lord’s Ascension Parish in San Fernando.

Ambo is a much sought-after speaker. But when I asked him whom they have invited to speak to the entire clergy of Pampanga when they went on a retreat recently, he said “one of the very best of our biblical exegetes,” Fr. Broderick Pabillo.  I know that name.

Fr. Pabillo is the parish priest of the St. Ezequiel Moreno parish in the outskirts of Puerto Princesa.  He runs a dormitory school there for the children of the poor from the outlying mountain communities.  Two years ago, my daughter Jika quit her job in a multinational company to work as a Math teacher and dorm mother in this unique school. She quickly became a disciple of this priest who lives among the poor and draws his theology from them.

Fr. Pabillo was rector and theology professor in the Salesian seminary in Paranaque for many years.  This was what his postgraduate training at the Biblicum in Rome had prepared him for. In the secure and comfortable surroundings of the seminary he felt something missing.  He longed for a parish, where he could be with the poorest of God’s children. His friends could not understand him when he left his congregation to go to Palawan to serve as a diocesan priest.  The parish in Macarascas covers the main church that he built, and 28 other smaller chapels scattered in the mountains and far-flung islands.  He celebrates Mass in each one of them at least once a month, traveling by boat, on foot, and by a battered motorbike.

In 2005, Fr. Pabillo was asked to give the keynote speech at a national conference of priests.  He said:  “I cannot as a priest but be poor.  It is in being poor that we can better live out our vocation and be more effective in our ministry.  People can see Christ better in us and can have a clearer idea of who Jesus really is if we are poor priests.”  His brother priests rose to their feet when he ended and gave him a standing ovation.

A few days ago, Pope Benedict XVI named Fr. Broderick Pabillo the new auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Manila.  Yesterday, by a happy coincidence, I also learned of my brother’s appointment as auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of San Fernando. I am sure neither one of them wished to be anything more than to be a parish priest.

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