Back to Jaro, Iloilo in the middle of 1992…
Reverend Paulino Dacanay, OAR, and I went on a benchmarking trip to some seminaries. Honestly, benchmarking was not yet in vogue in the corporate world at that time. Ours was just a comparative study of different seminary formation programs in view of re-engineering our existing Rercollect formation program.
So that night, we slept in that small formation house that was meant for a smaller group of seminarians who at that time were undergoing their spiritual-pastoral formation year. The small house was called Nazareth. What an appropriate name for a formation center intended for a deepening of the spirituality of community life and human formation.
After breakfast, Fr. Nonoy Masculino, then director of Nazareth and its Spiritual-Pastoral Program, drove the two of us, Reverend Paulino and myself, to St. Joseph Regional Seminary in Jaro, Iloilo, so that we could interview its seminary rector, Fr. Jose Palma, and another priest-formator, whoever we would meet.
In a distance, we saw a young man, maybe in his teens, and Reverend Paul and I were a little surprised that Father Nonoy stopped by the roadside to fetch him. The teen-ager smiled, got inside the car, and started gesticulating from the back seat where he sat beside Reverend Paulino. Father Nonoy, back to driving the car, reciprocated the gestures and they somehow communicated and got connected with each other. Silently. After some awkward silence, Father Nonoy told the two of us that the young man was hearing-challenged. That was why they both communicated in sign language. He told us that after we would get off the car at St. Joseph Regional Seminary in Jaro, Iloilo, he would proceed to a chapel where he would celebrate Mass for a small group of hearing- and speech-challenged persons, and would later take us back to Nazareth house late in the afternoon.
We arrived at the regional seminary earlier than expected that morning. It was providential that Father Nonoy saw some of the formators at the seminary refectory, and after a short introduction, he left us with the priests there to interview them, while we were simply waiting for our scheduled interview with then rector Fr. Jose Palma.
It was an informal interview with these young priests and we were fortunate to learn that one of them was their seminary spiritual director, Fr. Jose Marie Delgado, who emphasized the need for psycho-spiritual integration among seminarians, so that they would be equipped to process their own experiences in the future, and correlate them with their vocation, ministry, and celibate living and loving. Those were short but precious moments spent in listening to valuable insights to seminary formation.
From where I sat, I saw a tall and respectable man walk in our direction from a dark corridor just in front of us. He must have had an inkling that the two of us young deacons had already arrived, as he approached the small circle of priests-formators, and looked for the two of us visiting Recollect deacons. It was the seminary rector, Fr. Jose Palma, and he ushered us to his small office. We gently bade Fr. Joemarie and the two other formators goodbye, and joined Father Jose Palma.
On his table was a file of documents. In his shelf were the usual spiritual books close to the heart of a priest. Without even having first told him what we needed, he immediately pulled out some folders and started discussing with us their formation program, the values and virtues needed to be cultivated by each seminarian, and most precious of all was the evaluation tool that they used at the end of each school year. As we listened to him speak, we got the impression his voice was gentle yet commanding, friendly yet authoritative, and his words were simple yet wise.
In the last two years of our seminary training, we felt there was something brewing. Fr. Rene Paglinawan, OAR—prefect of discipline who later became seminary rector and concurrently Councilor for Formation with the Commission on Vocation Promotion under him—called for a three-day intensive planning and evaluation conference for Augustinian Recollect formators to revisit our existing formation programs from high school, college, novitiate to theology. This was held at the Casiciaco Recoletos Seminary in Baguio City sometime in early 1991, if I remember right.
At about that time there was this vigorous proposal of Fr. Rafael Cabarles, OAR, rector of our high school seminary in San Carlos City, Negros Occidental, to close the high school seminary, for the practical reason that the Recollect Order was just wasting time, money, and efforts in maintaining a high school seminary that would produce only one or two priests per class per year, adding that there were even years that none from the high school seminary made it to the priestly ordination.
The proposal raised eyebrows and emotions to high levels. Some of the participants of that meeting were rather surprised by the fact that it was kind of odd that a seminary rector would propose that a seminary be shut down and, in effect, render his office irrelevant and him, jobless.
I was coming from this context, and so in that interview with then rector of St. Joseph Regional Seminary in Jaro, Fr. Jose Palma, I asked him whether it was practical for the Order and for the Church, for that matter, to still maintain a high school seminary, given the low statistics of priests produced by the high school seminary.
But instead of a blunt ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for an answer, Father Palma, reminded us that there was no upward or downward trend in shutting down high school seminaries. While some dioceses had reportedly closed their high school seminaries, the others still maintained theirs, and still other dioceses were in the process of building a high school seminary.
Then came the clincher. Fr. Jose Palma, his face turning serious, told us matter-of-factly, “if our basis for closing high school seminaries is only financial in nature, then let us, by all means, shut down all high school seminaries, and all seminaries for that matter, because seminaries are never profitable. But if we look at seminary formation from the larger context of evangelization, then definitely, the seminary serves not only as a training ground for priests, but also as a privileged experience, a fertile soil for sowing the seeds of God’s Word in the hearts of the young. We evangelize them. We are sowing the seeds of God’s Word here. They may not become priests, all of them, but, certainly, we have evangelized them in a special way. Maybe in the future they would become parents or professionals in their own chosen fields of endeavor as teachers, engineers, doctors, lawyers, or businessmen—but they will have Christian values with them as they carry with them their seminary experiences and memories.”
Our schedule was hectic. On our list we still had to go to the Mill Hill Formation House in Mandurriao, Iloilo the following day.
Mandurriao used to be a laidback district of Iloilo known for its historic Church of the Espousal of Mary, farmlands, fishponds, and salt beds, until the construction of the airport which slowly transformed it to a mixture of agricultural, residential, and commercial zones. We never knew that some fifteen years later, in 2007, the Iloilo airport at Mandurriao had to be transferred to Pavia—a municipality northeast of Mandurriao district—some thirty-minute ride from Iloilo City. Now, Mandurriao is a bustling commercial district in the city of Iloilo.
We left the regional seminary of Jaro that afternoon, and the views of Fr. Jose Palma left the two of us, Reverend Paul and me, discussing things along the way. As I lay my head for the night’s rest, those words echoed in my mind and in my heart.
“We evangelize them. We are sowing the seeds of God’s Word here.”
Those words will never lose their truth, wisdom, and power in time; nay, they are timeless.When news spread around that Fr. Jose Palma was appointed by His Holiness Pope John Paul II as auxiliary bishop of Cebu on November 28, 1997, I knew deep inside my heart, here was a man who would continue to sow seeds of the Word of God, whether in convenient or inconvenient times. In 2006, he was appointed as Archbishop of Palo by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, and, in October of 2010, as Archbishop of Cebu.
Fr. Ferdinand Hernando, MB, SThL