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I was ordained to the priesthood a week before China formally acknowledged its first COVID-19 case. Within a year, everything has changed, and my ministerial priesthood, to say the least, was not spared. This is a sharing about my experience of the priesthood in a COVID-19 epoch and how the same experience made me value more the “gift”. Together with Fr. Rommel and Fr. Glenn, I was ordained to the Order of Presbyters on December 10, 2019, at San Vicente Ferrer Parish, Cebu City by the Most Rev. Marvyn Maceda, D.D., Bishop of Antique. With no foreboding of the infamous 2020, I embarked on a pastoral journey in the service of the Church. As with any newly ordained, the future seemed to be full of excitement and surprises. As it turned out, they were more of the latter kind.

I’ve been the secretary of the Custody of St. Anthony of Padua, the OFM-Franciscan entity in the southern half of the Philippines, long before my ordination. With this ministry entrusted to me for a triennium, I have acceded to the fact that my exercise of ministerial priesthood is unconventional, to say the least. Prior to the religious formation process, my image of a priest is solely that of a pastor, that is, a priest residing in a parish doing every sort of pastoral work ranging from the sacraments to the sacramentals. Gradually, I have come to terms with my own “image” of a priest to that of the “essence” of a priest.

Cliché has it that God is full of surprises. Pope Francis even subscribed to this idea. In one of his meditations on the Holy Spirit, the Jesuit Pope with a Franciscan name and soul said, “The Spirit is the gift of God, our Father, who always surprises us: The God of surprises”.[1] But it was the Pope Emeritus’ analogy of his election to the papacy that resonates with my own experience of ministry. Pope Benedict XVI, just after his election, went on to say that he could relate to the words said by Jesus to Peter, “Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted, but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”(John 21:18).

My first year as an ordained minister ministering as a secretary is a meme-able case of expectations-versus-reality. But here is my realization and takeaway No. 1: The essence of priesthood is not so much on the kind of work and ministry as to the availability and docility of the priest. To be fair, I still celebrate the Eucharist in our community and occasionally in the parish. I have administered the sacraments of healing (confession and anointing) from time to time. In a way, I have faithfully exercised my pastoral role even in a much-limited capacity. The point is that the identity of a priest is not confined to a particular duty and ministry. I need not mention the reality of Eucharistic Transubstantiation to affirm that ministerial priesthood transcends the bounds of space and time. Availability, commitment, and passion are the big words and buzzwords.

As much as I want to be on the frontlines for pastoral works and social actions, I have to contend with the limitations. Still, there were some strides for pastoral involvements. Most of my role in the COVID-19 relief efforts of the Custody is confined to paperwork: project proposals for the funding agencies, facilitating the transfer of funds to the communities, and accomplishing the transparency reports. But these works are gratifying knowing that I can be in the service of others working as a “backliner”. A culture of encounter with the people is indeed indispensable for the heart of a pastor. But given some circumstances, not a lot is called for the “groundworks.” Again, my takeaway no. 1 is not a sugar-coated self-directed resentment. I am fulfilled and happy with my little contributions as a pastor not only of souls but of hearts even.

The mention of hearts led me to my takeaway no. 2. On more than one occasion, I got messages pleading for prayers. It might be a nonsensical question, but there were instances I asked them why asked prayers from me? Predictably, the answer boils down to the postulation that as a minister of the Church, I have a spatial(space) advantage and access to God. I am confident to assert that this assumption is true for reason that it was God who chose me. But this supposition is shady and prone to clericalism - the root of Church scandals. Ordination does not make one superhuman. It makes a priest humane. By ordination, a priest, human as he is, is configured to become “another Christ.” Here’s the gist: he does not cease to be human. He is still emotional, vulnerable at that.

The pandemic exposed us to all sorts of vulnerabilities. Nothing is more vivid than struggles with mental health – the most overlooked human aspect of the pandemic. For “anyone”, this is tolerable. But for a priest, this is unimaginable. How could a priest - the harbinger of hope and herald of positivity - struggle with such a human weakness? Are they supposed to preach nothing, but Good News and emotional vigor brought by Christ? It is an unwritten rule for leaders, priests included, that emotions make one weak. Lest we forget, Jesus wept for his friend Lazarus (John 11:35) and agonized in the garden before his death (Lk. 22:44). If priests are to be “clones” of Jesus in a positive sense, then emotional weakness is part of the presbyteral bargain. Perhaps a priest should learn to cry. Faced with the incomprehensible mystery of suffering, Pope Francis once said, “If you don't learn how to weep, you're not a good Christian”.[2] Allow me to rephrase it this way: If priests do not learn how to weep with their people, they are not good pastors. Weeping here is not so much of a swollen tear duct as to a bleeding heart for the tormented.

Yet all is not doom and gloom. My third and last takeaway is this: the JOY of my priesthood is a person. His name is Jesus. I consider this a eureka moment in my priesthood because there were instances of exhaustion in the name of service. It turned out that the ministry became burdensome when it craves peer affirmation and social approval. Jesus is not a corporate boss and the ministry is not a multinational company. A priesthood uprooted from a relationship with Jesus survives only in human praises and worldly validations. This kind of priesthood is directed centripetally – it aims and ends with oneself. Eventually, it will meet its natural death. If a relationship with Jesus is the core of priesthood, chances are, relationships with the people following the same master grow exponentially. Priesthood hinges on relationships. This is more than a master-servant relationship. It is anchored in mutual friendship.

Realizing all these takeaways in one year is no small feat. I am glad that all this happened and materialized in my first year as a priest. There might be other forms of the pandemic that may besiege me in the future. They may evolve in the form of personal and pastoral challenges. With God’s enduring grace, I can only pray to make them my takeaways.

[1] http://www.vatican.va/.../papa-francesco-cotidie_20170508... [2] https://www.ncronline.org/.../pope-francis-if-you-dont...