Bishop Manny, Brother Priest.
There were two symposia on that day: one about the Redemptorist yearlong mission that occurred in Hinatuan and Mangagoy (Bislig) during the early ’80s and the Columban mission in the areas of San Agustin-Lianga-Marihatag-Aras-asan that took about a decade until the early part of the ’90s.
Bishop Manny presented first while Columban priest Jovito Gales, a seminarian from Myanmar, and a lay missionary from Peru shared the Columban mission. The Redemptorist mission was run by all-Filipino religious clerics while the Columbans were composed of all-Irish missionaries.
It was Bishop Manny who talked at great length about the then Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Council (RIMC) laden with his significant anecdotes (now, RIMT or Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Team, with lay partners).
While on our way to Lianga the previous night, Bishop Manny briefed me already about this talk by recalling the Gospel imperative to proclaim the good news. However, in order to understand the necessity of the mission, he led me back to the pastoral methodology known in his time: see-judge-act.
He emphasized that we need to see the reality and the Gospel in the eyes of the poor in order that our actions truly respond to their salvation. It is for this reason that he organized the itinerant mission – to live among the people, among the poor that the church wish to serve.
It was in the early ’80s that three Redemptorists (Fr. Picardal, Fr. Fruto, and then Fr. Manny as head) took the mission at the height of Marcos Sr.’s martial law. According to him, in those days, it was difficult to gather people due to a very repressive military reaction.
People were afraid. Only during liturgical celebrations, people were allowed to gather. In their creativity, they came up with the idea of a ‘long’ mass: a whole day mass with the morning designed to listen and reflect on the word of God, then sometime later in the afternoon, the breaking of the bread.
He reminded me of the practices of the early Christians in the time of St. Paul. With this, they countered the one-way narrative of the tyrannical regime by conscientizing the people. In the liturgy of the word part of the long mass, they also conducted workshops on drama mirroring social realities, composed songs, and taught catechesis.
Here, Bishop Manny seemed to have endless stories with a knack for remembering even the details of them all. From preparing the people for the arrest of Fr. Frank Olvis, the parish priest then of Hinatuan, charged for ‘inciting rebellion’ to organizing laborers at a paper mill company, he shared with much passion.
When Bishop Manny recalls a certain event, it is as if it only happened yesterday. Listening to him, I can feel my heart welling up with zeal for the mission, either out of romanticized nostalgia or just sharing the passion of my itinerant passenger.
In one of our conversations, I was struck by what Bishop Manny emphasized, the need to see the radical gospel imperatives. There can be varied ways of looking at or reading the Gospel which influence our actions.
But it is through the perspective of the poor that Jesus is leading us. It is only through this vision that we can understand the radicality of the Christian life. Bishop Manny took time to remind me that ‘radix’ (Lt.) which means ‘root’ is the origin of the term, radical.
To be radical then is to be rooted in the Gospel. At this point, as a masterful professor as he is, Bishop Manny pointed to me the necessity always to look at the problem in its root causes (in order not to settle with band-aid solutions (mine).
Without the Bishop knowing it, what he shared with me was the most consoling thing that I ever heard in the past few years. There had been varied ways that I had dealt with the poor: by providing for their needs, facilitating their agency, and confronting the structures of oppression that brought them to poverty.
In his calm demeanor, Bishop Manny affirmed our Christian duty to help the poor in any possible way.
This can only be done if one has the perspective of the poor. Only the poor can identify the oppressive system that buried them and only they can see the good news for them – ways to get out from the quagmire of violence and injustices.
Reflecting on the thoughts of Bishop Manny, I can’t help but examine my current lot. Nothing is wrong when we give to the poor. Lest we glorify ourselves immediately, this act of charity is incomplete when we lack the perspective of the poor. It can be philanthropic, but not evangelical.
Somehow, I understand now what Pope Francis was trying to push us into – the need to be in the ‘street’. The spirit of synodality is not about the gathering of data only for social and cultural analysis but precisely the methodology itself is the message – to be immersed with the people we are serving.
Bro. Karl Gaspar, my mentor who happened to be a Redemptorist itinerant missionary, never fails to call the synodal spirit a reality in the Church today.
He commented once in my social media post on the clergy: “There is still a long way for the Filipino clergy to ‘go down’ with the people they are serving. The call for a synodal church is our litmus test.”
Synodality is not a new concept of the Church after all. That’s why I’m so grateful to Bishop Manny for pointing out the indispensable need to be radical – it has always been a universal calling in the Church.
Lastly, my encounter with Bishop Manny has led me to a deeper affirmation of faith. When he emphasized the need to see from the lens of the poor, I was hesitant to believe him at first because it would be difficult for the Church to see that, given the privileged position that she has enjoyed now.
It simply begs the question: how on earth (or in heaven!) can the Church look at reality from the perspective of the poor when she herself is living a life of a coveted status? Again, for man, it is impossible.
Bishop Manny shared with me some fine prints in modern Church history during the gathering of Latin American bishops, in the late 60s and early 70s, on how the theology of liberation found a voice amidst a very conservative atmosphere then.
I surmised that there was a great power at work there and even until now. The voice of the minority may be louder than the majority if it is of God. Bishop Manny is one of the few voices among the bishops who can truly identify the fundamental and liberational elements of the Gospel and their necessity to make the Church relevant to the majority of the people now.
While on the other hand, the majority of bishops prefer to enjoy the triumphant Church at present. Ironically, in his eternal wisdom, God establishes his kingdom here on earth – beginning with the poor man from Nazareth with his poor band of brothers (and sisters).
Between poverty and service on one hand, and power and money on the other, there will always be a tension inside the Church composed of men. There is tension between faith and hopelessness, between the reign of God and social transformation.
To see this tension is both a gift and a challenge. When I was a much younger priest, I suffered poverty (contrary to the expectations of many) in so many ways. Now that I’m assigned to a ‘stable’ assignment, I still struggle with my needs but somehow depended already on the parochial structure where I am in.
My experience of poverty as a priest allowed me a certain view of priesthood and the Church. Recently, I feel also that this perspective is slowly eroding me, given the comfort and privilege of the structure where I am in.
I’m just so glad and deeply grateful to Bishop Manny for both sharing the right vision and giving witness to the very principles he has preached.
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.