It was in the summer of 1972 when the Ordinary Council assigned me to Dumaguete as assistant in our Perpetual Help parish after returning from a year’s post-graduate course in Chicago. This short stint was an experience I welcomed, a change to active pastoral ministry after ten unbroken years as teacher and director in our minor seminaries in Iloilo and Cebu. The missions (Redemptorist parochial missions) was a ministry that had attracted me to the Redemptorist Congregation whose priests were popularly known as “mga Paring Misyon” although there were other foreign missionaries in the country. After just two years fully engaging in the parochial missions side by side with our Irish missionaries, I was without warning assigned to teach and then be director of our minor seminary. Teaching or directing minor seminaries was never my first love, although in time I got to adjust and even to live happily with the change. But still, any chance I got during the summer vacation, I would go out and join the mission teams in the rural areas for direct involvement in their mission ministry.
So when I got assigned as assistant in the parish in Dumaguete, it gave me breathing space from academic to pastoral work. While in this work I worked with the parish team. This was a full time lay team newly recruited, the very first full-time lay team in the vice-province. (Note: the first full-time lay collaborators team in the vice-province was here in the parish, contrary to the usual belief that it was with the missions that the first full-time lay team was organized.) When I arrived in Dumaguete, the acting parish priest, Fr. Fonso Walsh, upon my asking him what I was to do there, just said,” go with the parish team.”
The team composed of three women and one lay man, was waiting for me and just didn’t know what to do with themselves. So, I suggested we go around the parish on a getting-to-know and getting to be known routine. We selected three pilot areas in barrio Pulantubig, which we called Zone 1, Zone 2 and Zone 3,to set up as the beginnings of small communities. At that time, the term BEC and its program in the local Church were hardly known. We started going house to house and started gathering them wherever we could gather them, since not all these “small communities” had chapels. We started to move away from the traditional idea of just the parish priest visiting a barrio for mass and disappearing forthwith. We spent all our waking hours visiting them in their homes, mission visitation style. When we met them in the designated meeting place, we had reflections and exercises for building up the community spirit. We had separate sessions with the youth who were more eager to be “organized”. We had no community masses until after some months, when a more cohesive spirit would have developed. The community liturgy got underway then.
It was not ripe yet to start action for justice. That was to come later At this time, we focused more on developmental rather than liberational community activities. We ourselves as Church pastoral workers were hardly touched by the challenge of the ministry for social justice.
Limited as our knowledge and practice were to community –building and “developmental” orientation were, we continued our day-to-day pastoral ministry of house visitation and group reflections with the residents of the organized zones.
Some five months after we started this community building work, our parish team got an unexpected boost from heaven: the entrance of three pre-novitiate candidates into our circle.
This turn of events is a story unto itself. It happened when the vocation-director of the vice-province, Fr. Noel Bennet was looking around the vice-province for a community that would welcome these candidates into their midst until they were to enter the novitiate in a few months. Normally young men interested in becoming Redemptorist priests would be sent to our minor seminary in Cebu. But Fr. Noel felt that the three young men he had among the applicants would be too old to be sent to the minor seminary which was the formation program for mostly high school boys. The applicants Fr. Noel had on hand were either college graduates or under-graduates. The stage of formation for them would have been a “postulancy” program. But at that time, the vice-province did not have a postulancy program.
So, Fr. Noel ended his search for a “home” for his candidates by leaving them in Dumaguete community with me as their guide or, in effect postulancy director, without being formally assigned. I ended up being director to Jovencio (Ven) Ma, Wilfredo (Fred) Jundis and Jose (Joe) Roca. I would have them accompany me and the parish team in our community building apostolate in the three zones. At the same time, I would hold three sessions with them each week on learning about the Redemptorist life and tradition.
We followed this informal program for more than three months. During these months, we were able to work together – the lay workers and these pre-novitiate candidates, together with the youth of the organized zones who had become willing and active parish collaborators. The three young men, by being with us in our parish rounds day by day had developed a good rapport with the team and the parishioners. But more important was that the three pre-novitiate candidates had grown in the spirit of the Redemptorist missionaries.
With all these active collaborators working with a team, our work proceeded fast. From the three organized zones, we had extended the community building work to four other zones: one more in Barrio Pulantubig, two in Barrio Bunao and one in Barrio Motong, these four new zones becoming Zones, 4, 5, 6, and 7. Our three pre-novitiate candidates and the parish team got eager help from the youth of the organized Zones
Before long, the summer break would be upon us. It would be time for the three pre-novitiate candidates to start preparing for entrance to the novitiate. At the same time, I was also asked to take up a new assignment – as Prefect of Students (that is, of our major seminarians) in Davao.
Two weeks before the summer break, we decided to hold a general mission in the seven organized zones. The idea was to strengthen the spiritual-faith dimension of the community spirit that had been built up in the small communities in the organized zones. This would eventually be the nucleus of the BECs in the parish. The result of the ten months we had spent in building up the spirit of Christian community in the zones was an almost palpable feeling of family and community among the people, young and old, in the organized zones.
The mission concluded with a field mass in the St. Paul’s College grounds in the morning and a program in the evening. The youth and parents and lolas eagerly took part in it. Months after the mission, people would talk and reminisce nostalgically of those Pulantubig-Bunao-Motong days.
Short as my assignment in Dumaguete parish was, lasting less than a year, I treasure my apostolic assignment there.
First, even though I was no longer on a mission assignment there, I found that one can exercise a parish ministry as a mission just as those assigned on mission teams are doing. It was an experience that brought me as close to the common people as I had experienced on my mission assignments. It helped me work closely as mission partner with a lay team.
Secondly, my Dumaguete experience re-introduced me to the formation ministry in a way different from my assignment in a minor seminary. Guiding the pre-novitiate candidates in their pre-novitiate preparation helped me give formation a missionary experience while at the same time keeping in touch with our Congregation’s spirit and tradition.
Looking back on that assignment, I find that in those short months, we had sown the seeds of two programs; the BEC program and the postulancy program. In those days, the BEC “way of being Church”was hardly known in the local Church in the Visayas although the promoting of BEC was also starting in Mindanao and in some parts of Luzon. On the other hand, the postulancy program would only become formally established in the then, Vice-Province of Cebu, after that Dumaguete experience.
You never know what learning-surprises God has in store for you as you turn the next corner of your Redemptorist journey.