What is the priesthood? What is the church? These are questions that I had to struggle with in the last 26 years of my priestly life. Why even ask the question if I am already an ordained Catholic priest? The answer will be part of the very nature of the question itself. The questions have arisen not in a classroom or some special corner of an institution of higher learning. Rather, the questions emerged through the many experiences of working, serving and being involved in various causes or advocacies as a Filipino Catholic Priest. Experience has given rise to the questions. Experience too has shown the path towards the answers, if not providing the answers as well.
I have also constantly encountered another question, more fundamental than the first two: "Who is Jesus?" This question would constantly pounce on me whenever I met people on my many advocacies that led me to a long and winding road. Years before I was ordained a priest, I have walked, run, biked and traveled on this road. On this road, I met workers, farmers, youth, women, urban poor and those who live on the fringes of society. Through them, I met a Jesus different from the Jesus I got used to in the seminary. The seminary seemed to introduced me to a safe Jesus who was meant to be adored in the Blessed Sacrament. This made me ask whether there are two Jesuses, one inside and another outside? For a long time, I seemed to have acquiesced to a situation of "two Jesuses" until I was ordained a priest and had the opportunity to live and work more outside while not abandoning the call to spend time inside.
I was ordained a priest on March 18, 1982. From then until now, a long, winding and most interesting road has unfurled before me. It was not an abstract road but a most concrete map of endless highways, side roads, city streets, lonely mountain roads and trails, coastal roads and a whole variety of the beaten and hardly beaten paths. I traveled many roads literally on foot or at times on a bike. It all began in 1980 when a Belgian missionary, Fr. George Piron told me to use a racer bike to visit the various mission outposts of his province in Cabcaben, [[Mariveles, Bataan]]. It was my first time to used a racer bike, and little did I realize what that would mean when biking on the slopes of Mariveles, Bataan. I recall cursing those few days both because I did not know how to properly shift gears when negotiating hills and how to efficiently peddal myself up a challenging hill without giving in to either frustration or exhaustion.
But this Belgian task master of a priest, just smiled at me as he peddaled up and down the slopes as though it was a walk in the park. I worked the pedals vigorously , huffing and puffing with my lungs seeming to burst apart. I kept my curses to myself. How can I curse an older priest? Anyway, I cursed not the priest but the punishment he made me go through. Gradually, I noticed myself cursing less and actually enjoying those trips up and down the hills. After two weeks, I was not exactly an eagle of the mountains but both bike and mountains have become good friends. I discovered the bike and this made me discover hills, mountains, skies, seas and the many people I met along the way.
When the day of my departure from Cabcaben came, an idea dawned on me. What if I bike the 160 odd kilometers from Cabcaben to Manila? It was a truly cracy and dangerous idea for a neophyte biker. The insanity however gave in to the thrill promised by adventure. One day, I biked more than 160 kilometers to Manila. Thanks to this biking Belgian missionary, I discovered the wonders and beauty of the long journey, the roads, the open skies, the gentle and scorching sun, the gentle and at times aggressive wind, and the many interesting, colorful persons who tell me I belong and am a living, dymanic part of the great sea of humanity.
In 1980, I had two more years of seminary formation left. During those last two years, I started running more seriously. The discovery of long distance cycling must have opened another gate. I began running seriously, meaning long in distance and time. I organized an activity which I called "Patakbuhin." I would invite seminarians to run with me around the [[Ateneo de Manila]] Campus, to U.P Diliman, then back to Katipunan, to the corner of Aurora, left to [[Marikina]] and into Loyola Memorial Park.
The biking and running continued well beyond my seminary days. Those were both exciting and dangerous times, the era of the Marcos dictatorship. Both running and biking were doubly useful both for personal and spiritual nourishment, as well as tools for organizing the resistance against the dictator. I remember biking or running to deliver either money or secret messages for the resistance against Marcos. After ordination, regardless of where I was assigned, I found a way to run or bike both for personal and spiritual reasons and as part of my commitment to social change. Each assignment was only a part of an exciting and mysterious unfolding of a journey to many exciting places, over an untold number and length of roads, and an equally untold number and variety of human encounters in different parts of the globe.
I have run and biked in Europe, the United States, Australia, China and now Hong Kong. I ran across the Philippines in three phases from 1996 to 1998 (1996, from [[Cotabato City]] to [[Cagayan de Oro]]; 1997, Across [[Samar]], [[Leyte]], [[Cebu]], [[Bohol]], [[Negros]] and [[Panay]]; 1998: from [[Laoag]] to [[Manila]] and [[Sorsogon]] to [[Manila]]). During all these running and biking years, the three questions never left me. What is the priesthood? What is the Church? Who is Jesus? Answers did not come easy and quick. The circumstances of my life, however seem to point out the answer involving everything from roads, places, persons and situations.
Throughout the years of my work with the institutional church, I lived and moved for the most part from the center to the periphery. I worked and lived in parishes (six so far). At one time I worked and lived in the seminary. There was a time that I also lived abroad as a student priest in Rome. I have also experienced a variety of ministries from assistant parish priest to Seminary formator to parish priest. From Seminary formator I also worked with the Catholic Bishops as executive secretary of the Episcopal Commission on Vocation. I also ran "emergency and crisis centers" during various times of emergency and calamity (for instance: the Coup d'etat of December 1989;After the Baguio Earthquake of July 16, 1990; the Ormoc flood of 1990; the Pinatubo eruption of 1991). Although, I worked and lived in the center, I seemed to have always been drawn towards the sides, the periphery, the fringes.
Working and living in the center was comfortable, convenient and blessed with many privileges. But, the challenge and invitation of streets, the periphery, of ordinary people remained and intensified. The tensions increased. It was becoming increasingly more difficult to balance the demands and obligations of the center with the attraction, the call of the periphery. And the questions come back. What is the priesthood? What is the Church? Who is Jesus?
Life in the seminary, in official church assignments that allowed me to move with ease and facility as a regular church worker was relatively trouble free as long as I remained within the mold. Roles and functions within the institution were fairly clear cut. Most if not all did not make exceptions and carefully kept within the bounds of their given role and function. A parish priest is a parish priest. A seminary professor is a seminary professor. A director for vocation is a director for vocations. A student priest is a student priest. But something in me simply resisted the stereo-typing and the boxing in. Deep within, the spirit flows, the spirit is free.
From the time I entered the seminary in 1970 to my ordination in 1982, I learned to comply. I was formed by my seminary formators according to the "Ratio Fundamentalis" which followed the spirit of "Presbyterorum Ordinis." Yet throughout the many years of formation, I also read the "signs of the times." At that time, "signs of the times" was a catch word that the more socially oriented would use to justify their positions and actions. In non-theological language, this simply meant looking at the facts, analyizing and interpreting these as basis for future action. Reading the "signs of the times" was then a prerequisite for both collective and individual discernment. Even the [[Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines]] read the signs of the times. The 70's all the way to the 80's was an exciting time of ferment, when faith was not static but a constant dialogue between the world and the human spirit. It was at this time that my faith was honed and my priestly formation deepened.
The 70's-80's gave birth to an environment of constant tension. It was not mere tension but creative tension that challenged society, institutions, communities and individuals towards change. That time saw the emergence of dynamic individuals, groups and communities from [[Cardinal Sin]] to [[Ninoy Aquino]], from the AMRSP to the Magnificent 7, from Bandila to Kumpil 1, etc. No one escaped the ferment. No one escaped the challenge. No one could ignore the winds, waves and tremors of change.
If I were to summarize the essence of those vibrant years, itI would be, "the deep desire and yearning for a genuine community of persons and goods in contrast to and away from the elite driven and dominated status quo symbolized by Marcos and his cronies." A category that helped me understand and respond to this desire and yearning is the "kingdom of God." Everything around me shimmered with the light that came from the "kingdom of God." Even the darkest corners created by the violence and inhumanity of injustice, corruption, poverty and indifference, shimmered with the irrepressible light of the "kingdom of God."
Over the years, an invisible tension between the spirit within, the institution and society has led me to paths and situations that always presented a choice: for change or the status quo. The status quo was not totally bad or wrong. Certain structures and systems that operated within it did not promote the common good nor recognized the dignity of persons. Instead, only certain individuals, groups and sectors were continually favored and benefitted by these. In the last thirty eight years, since I entered the seminary, I have been drawn towards those who were not favored nor benefitted by the system. These were members of sectors who hardly had any access to the centers of power and money. These were persons who have remained on the margins of society and from where they stood watched the favored few wondering whether this was the "kingdom of God."
Wherever I went, whatever my assignment was, I continued reading the "signs of the times," followed the lead of the "kingdom of God," felt and responded to the "creative tension" within and without, and maintained links with those on the margins. This is probably why I decided to run across the Philippines in 1995 and actually carried it out in three phases from 1996 to 1998. From then until now, the streets assumed a particular and special meaning for me. In a personal mantra born out of my three part run across the Philippines, I spoke this about streets:
The Streets are my Pulpit
The Trees, my Altar
The Universe, my Church!!!
The three questions I asked at the beginning began to find a different answer . What is the priesthood? What is the Church? Who is Jesus? No, I did not find two Jesuses but only one. I found the same Jesus within Catholic churches, convents, schools, etc. But Jesus was not only in the safe and confortable confines of churches and adoration chapels. Jesus met me, greeted me and blessed me in the persons of those I met on the streets, in open and public spaces. I did not find two churches but only one, the people to whom Jesus was sent and for whom Jesus died. The physical church is really only a place of worship but the real church is the people where they are, in whatever situation or attitude they may be. Jesus did not build a single chapel but he made each one realize how she is a temple of the Spirit. The priest does not only build physical churches, like towering shrines and impressive cathedrals, rather the priest is a locator, a senser, better a discerner of the spirit and of the kingdom of God.
The church of the people, the people of God is the church of the ordinary person who walks on the countless and endless streets spread throughout the world. Streets have become part of this ever expanding church of people from all "walks of life." The streets in fact are an integral part of the church as people walked them to and from the church. Many things can and have happened on streets. I have seen this on my countless runs and walks on varius streets. The streets are conveyors and carriers of life. They, in a way convey and carry the Spirit of God. The streets may seem ordinary but they are actually sacred. On streets pass feet in search of God and God's kingdom. Thus, I have discovered the church of the streets, "PASAKALYE" (Parokya sa Kalye) and I discovered a unique expression of the priesthood, of one who walks/runs with others on the streets. I have become a priest on and of the streets, PASKAL (Pari sa Kalye). The streets where I have for years served the church has led me to Jesus, the friend of the small and ordinary. On the streets, I have discovered and shared the mystery of His Pasch, the Pascal Mystery.
On that faithful day, July 10, 2005, I discovered the streets in a deep and special way. For the next forty four days, I lived in a tent pitched on the [[People Power Monument]] along the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue or [[EDSA]]. Here once again, I began praying my mantra:
The Streets are my Pulpit.
The Trees, my Altar.
The Universe, my Church.
It was a veritable desert where I was unwittingly led by the Lord. Here I stayed, prayed and fasted. Here I found both support and rejection. Here I encountered both light and darkness. Here, I slowly learned to painfully let go of what is secure and comfortable. Everything, whether persons, ideas, groups, things passed through a certain crucible which was mysteriously described by the words on the streamer that hang beside my tent:
Let Go, Let God!
There, in a tent at the People Power Monument, I learned to let go, to give up, to leave and to be detached. I discovered the idolatry of power and money, the illusions and delusions of institutions. In this veritable modern desert, I reflected on the Israelites' journey through the desert. Slowly, I began to understand how I too was being led to the desert, to be taught once again and if necessary to be stripped of everything and anything that did not belong to the real Jesus and His church. Unexpected rejections took place even from people I least expect. It was a painful but necessary process of going back to my roots which surprisingly revealed many familiar things. Here in a tent, I once more began reading the signs of the times, seeking and discerning the kingdom of God and entering into the dark, perilous womb of a dangerous , albeit liberating tension.
The process of letting go and re-discovering God led me to China where I immersed myself in the contradictions of poverty, oppression and the idolatry of power and wealth. There, I could not openly exercise and express my priesthood. Suddenly, I could not be what I used to be. There, I learned to live with the deepest and at times bitterest of loneliness, in a land so different, gradually learning a life so radically different from what I was used to. It was also in China that I began to understand the workings of grace.
Then, I moved to Hong Kong where, I could once again come out as a priest. I was initially happy to lived with brother priests. Initially, I enjoyed the hospitality of the Diocese of Hong Kong, which was short-lived. A few months after I arrived, I was a victim of the ugly Filipino practice of sending "poison letters" to the Bishop whenever parishioners disagreed or disliked a priest. The allegations in the letters cannot be proven for they were not true, yet the bishop seemed to give more credence to these than the testimony of the Parish Priest who upheld me. The bishop chose to listen to gossip and to be carried away by intrigue. I was no longer surprised for it was an experienced that I have grown more and more familiar with in the recent past before I left the Philippines. My life situation since 2005 offered many painful opportunities to either cling to and protect ego or simply to let go.
I left Hong Kong and presented myself to my bishop in late March. My own bishop forbade me to return to Hong Kong because of what the bishop of Hong Kong wrote in a letter. Much as I tried to explain my side, my bishop was unmoved. This reminds me of a similar situation sometime in the opening months of 2005 when I suddenly found myself before the entire hierarchy of my diocese. I was alone before two accusers, in fact two brother priests whom I have helped. Somebody then had suggested that I find a good canon lawyer, even a civil lawyer to defend me. "We are our worst lawyers," reminds my friend. However, I did not talk to any lawyer. Ironically,we might recall how our Lord, was his own lawyer and how his best defense was his silence.
I had to return to Hong Kong to honor a contract that I have signed with the [[Asian Human Rights Commission]]. My bishop initially allowed me to go to Hong Kong but requested me to resign as soon as possible. I remember asking him where then should I go after I resign. The options remained vague and even more problematic. I can go home to the [[Philippines]]. But where do I go and what can I do in the meantime? Will I be able to ask the same questions and find meaningful and life-giving answers if I go home now?
When I decided to follow Jesus many years ago, I heard the same voice who called, "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." Then, having said yes, the voice continued, "Leave everything behind and follow me." Since I heard that voice many many years ago, I began a wonderful journey, a great and awe-filled journey. The journey has not been safe. I have earned quite a few wounds and injuries, to be sure , but I have also been led to grace and healing.
Quite literally, I have nothing and no one here. I am not allowed to say mass anywhere in Hong Kong nor am I encouraged to return to the Philippines. If Limbo were not consigned to non-existence, I could call my life Limbo. Yet, it is not really Limbo but a purgatory where the stripping, the searching, journeying and the following of this voice and its source continue. In the seemingly endless darkness and solitude, I have learned to discern the light and His assuring and inspiring voice. Yes the light is there, the voice speaks but only if I am willing to trust and journey through the silence and the dark.
Now in Hong Kong, I say mass in the quiet of my room or at times secretly with a brother priest who understands. Rumors have been spread by some that I have been suspended by my own bishop in the Philippines and not by the bishop of Hong Kong. Again, another falsehood that begs to be rectified. From time to time, I would meet Filipino priests, religious sisters and brothers and sense a subtle questioning and even avoidance. I quietly bear the burden of being misjudged and once again made to feel an "outsider."
I don't avoid the seemingly condescending and even supercilious looks. I try to understand what makes people look at and down at others. Special victims of "the look" were the lepers of Jesus time. Prostitutes, beggars like Lazarus hungrily looking towards the rich man's palace were a few of the many outcasts of Jesus' time who suffered from "the look." I also notice quite often, a similar look, part pity, part embarrassment from both Filipino and non-Filipino tourists walking around Central looking at the long line of Pinays meandering like a snake seeking to strangle and swallow Hong Kong. I notice "the look" and simply return to the streets where thousands, oblivious of what others think or say find a temporary home, to talk, laugh, eat, sleep, gamble, flirt and simply be.
On the streets, I discovered life in the raw. Hidden behind the apparent joy and camaraderie is an entire spectrum of problems threatening to destroy hope and breed despair. One such problem touches the body, the challenge to keep healthy and at worst to keep alive. Cancer, kidney failure, heart problems, high blood, diabetis, etc. Thus, I was led me to begin a little ministry of forming a support group for Overseas Filipino Workers with life-threatening diseases. The group is now known as "Buhay Ka." The number of patients, from Cancer survivors, end-stage kidney failure patients, stroke victims, etc. keeps growing as well as the number of volunteers. This led us to create a health and fitness program called ONE K- HK (nagkakaisa sa kalusugan at sa pitong kahalagahan). Recently, with the eruption of violence in Mindanao, Filipino Muslims and Christians organized a morning of prayer and fellowship at Chater Road, Central Hong Kong. From this was born the Filipino Muslim-Christian Community of Hong Kong.
Yet, another group, in fact the oldest of four, every Sunday, without fail, goes around the streets of Hong Kong. Its mission is easy and simple. They don't go around with a mission to help and change people. They go around to simply sit and listen..."Paupo-upo." The group is known as "Lakbay Lingap" or "Journey with Care or Compassion."
It is from this listening and simply being present to people that many wonderful and even miraculous things happen. The streets do offer an alternative world and spirituality specially challenging to us priests. Instead of homilies preached to a congregation, the streets teem with people eager to share their stories. There are as many stories eagerly waiting to be told as people walking and seated on the streets of Hong Kong. Whereas, those of us used to speaking and preaching tend to develop the organ of speech, on the streets, one learns to see, smell, feel and listen better.
Thusfar, is the story of the streets from the Philippines to China, from China to the Philippines, from the Philippines to Hong Kong, from the "Church" to the streets, from the streets to the "Church"...to the church of the streets....PASAKALYE....
Soon, the listening and sharing will go elsewhere, from the streets to cyber space, the web. Weeks after we packed up and left the People Power Monument on August 22, 2005, Kubol Pagasa, the community born of forty four days of prayer, fasting and righteous dissent began talking about a cyber parish, "Parokya sa Web" or "parokyasaweb." The idea was supported by Msgr. Pepe Quitorio who volunteered to host us. Thus, his staff wasted no time to construct our website at http://www.bukal.com/kubol/. That website has been there since its launch towards the latter part of 2005. However, shortly after the launch of this website, I left for China. The website has been dormant since. This did not stop members of Kubol Pagasa from the exercise of engaged christianity. Even while I was away, the Kubol Pagasa community continued meeting and expressing their faith through creative advocacies whether initiated by them or others.
Communication among the members of Kubol Pagasa has been limited to email, phone calls and text messages. From time to time, we get to meet when I go home on official business. The questions asked are predictable. Where is your parish father? Where do you say mass?
Soon, there will be a different answer. Aside from the usual, "I say mass in the privacy of my flat," I can now add, "I say mass in front of my computer." All I need is a computer with either a broad band or wi-fi connection. I can say mass in my room, at a street corner, under a bridge, on a mountain or hill, in a beach, anywhere indeed as long as I have a computer wired and ready ...Even more complex and far reaching than the physical streets are the seemingly enless stretch of the information highway. The spirit does move and flows where it wills, whether on streets or in cyber space.