Bishop Manny, Brother Manny.
Being in-charged of organizing a series of symposia, about the history of the Diocese of Tandag, to drumbeat the culmination of the 400 Years Celebration of the Evangelization of the diocese and the entire northeastern Mindanao, I met Bishop Manny Cabajar, CSsR, DD, a former bishop of Pagadian.
I was desperately trying to contact the provincial superior of the Redemptorist-Cebu Province and I almost lost hope already until someone texted me, humbly introducing himself as the one sent by the provincial superior.
In the text message, he told me in the most unassuming and self-effacing way, “Good morning, Fr. Raymond. This is Manny Cabajar. Fr. Bert Cepe gave me your number. He wants me to respond to your request for a speaker on the Redemptorist Mission during the symposium on 12 Aug in Lianga”.
The moment I read his message, I almost choke on the coffee I was drinking. I was more than relieved than thankful. But I know there is something wrong or missing in the message.
There was no initial of the congregation at the end of his name. If he is sent by the superior, he must be a member of the congregation. On the other hand, the name is familiar to me but the Manny Cabajar that I know is a retired Bishop.
How come he did not mention this lofty status and just introduced himself by his nickname? I was puzzled for a while, trying to reconcile my compartmentalized mind and make sense of his simple introduction.
Then, he sent another message, “May I know who is the audience? Should I do my presentation in English since I do not speak ‘Kamayo’? Are there flights to Tandag from Cebu? Thanks”.
There was seriousness in his tone yet remained very sincere in his inquiry. He seemed to take into heart the ‘order’ of the superior and hope to fulfill it in the best way he can. Here, I began to reconcile that the Manny I am communicating with now is the same Manny, the Bishop, the missionary, the professor, the progressive cleric, the painter, the poet, the screenplay writer, and the composer that I know (mostly I knew these later).
On Friday, August 11, I was trying to fetch him on his 6:15 am flight to Butuan. But less than an hour before boarding, the flight was canceled!
The symposium in Lianga about the Redemptorist mission in Tandang has been set already. It would have been meaningful considering that our first bishop is a Redemptorist himself.
However, knowing that Bishop Manny is an octogenarian already, I cannot insist on him coming by all means. Yet, when bishop Manny informed me about the cancellation, he remained his usual calmness and assured me that he will take the next flight which will be at 6:30 pm on the same day.
It would mean that he will most likely stay in the airport terminal for another 11 hours or so. Or at my end, I would have to stay in Butuan for another 12 hours, canceling my other engagements in the quasi-parish.
But taking the cue from Bishop Manny himself, I regained my composure, assuring him that there is no problem and that I will wait for him until evening. Deep inside, apart from the talk that he is going to give, I became curious to meet Bishop Manny the person, get to know him further, and understand where did he get this form of humility, simplicity, and firmness in commitment.
It was already past 7 pm when his plane landed, earlier than we had expected. Coming from an early dinner, I rushed to the airport and found Bishop Manny outside the terminal already.
Two kindhearted ladies accompanied him, knowing that he is of advanced age but not knowing that he is a bishop (despite his pectoral cross). They were surprised when I took the hand of Bishop Manny and kissed his ring the moment I got near him.
I immediately introduced myself to him and took his luggage. He was happy to finally see me and asked me if I need to eat yet. Likewise, I asked him if he would like to take something before taking the long ride.
He respectfully declined yet earnestly offered me the food given by the airline. I still felt awkward in the beginning to drive for the bishop and I was clueless on what we would talk about during the next two hours-or-so drive.
Yet Bishop Manny has his way of not letting me feel alienated or embarrassed by talking to me as an equal. He never looks at me as a priest nor as a driver, but simply as a friend who journey with him at the moment.
As a filler, I tried to brief him about the series of talks or packets of history that we essentially needed to construct our own narrative as a diocese.
However, he went personal by sharing with me his vocation story, his previous assignments, and even his family. Eventually, he shared his experiences being an itinerant missionary including the different strands of liberation theology.
From theories, he leads me to praxis with his wide array of experiences. From praxis, he lifted my consciousness to the radicality of the Gospel imperatives.
When we arrived in Lianga we never finished yet our soulful conversations. As the parish staff received us warmly, we continued our talk in the dining, oblivious for a while that other people need to sleep too.
I left him there in the good hands of the staff as I drove for another hour to reach my place. While on my way, I felt certain stirrings in my soul as if I was nostalgic for the good old days of the mission.
I was simply stuck on the part of his sharing that he has been asked three times to become a bishop (one of Tandag!!) and he refused them all. It took another seven dialogues (on his third election) with the papal nuncio before he finally accepted the princely seat.
I cannot simply imagine how come he refused when he has all the qualifications to become a good bishop. Then he succinctly told me, “It’s the dignity of the call that frightened me, I am never worthy.”
Those words kept ringing through my ears like the endless ringing of bells, inviting me to dwell in the presence of God. The church now is much more complicated than the church in the time of Bishop Manny.
With the politics inside and out, I must admit I feel terribly exhausted and jaded, trying to be a good laborer in the vineyard of the Lord. The exhaustion comes primarily from the many engagements I deal with.
But being jaded comes from my own ‘loyal dissent’ or critique of the church that I serve now. Sometimes, I feel I’m being pushed to hopelessness or tossed into disillusionment.
Yet, without intending to dissuade my doubts, Bishop Manny jokingly told me that in his talks on BEC, he would underline that the (parish) priest can be both an instrument of its failure and success.
He is not impervious to the reality of the church at present, but rather keenly aware of its current power dynamics. Gradually, based on the words of Bishop Manny, I come to understand that the best way to serve the Lord is to serve him as we are, not with our titles, nor with our authority, but our bare soul: flawed but loved.
We serve the Lord because we are grateful, we are blessed. We don’t serve so that we can be blessed. It is ironic that even in his advanced age, Bishop Manny has rejuvenated my drooping spirit.
In the Church, time may change but the commitment is the same. In this initial encounter with Bishop Manny, I learned that the loftiness of our service is, not measured primarily by our position but by our relationship with God.
Authority is temporary while spirituality remains. This is something of a rarity among the diocesan clergy now.
I’m just so much grateful to God for this encounter with his humble and faithful shepherd whose heart and actions mimic the Chief Shepherd.
In this short journey, I found a home again in the Church I am serving, with him as my big brother.
Fr. Raymond Montero-Ambray is the Ecology Ministry director and head of the LGBTQIA+ apostolate in the Diocese of Tandag in the southern Philippines. The priest is a staunch environmental and Indigenous Peoples’ rights activist.