I have a strange feeling for nurturing a desire to write about Bishop Ner (Nereo P. Odchimar, DD, JCD, MBA) the second bishop of Tandag, who died last February 1, 2024, and whom we buried two days ago.
After all, I was not close to him and even clashed with him on many issues. I felt however that after a sincere evaluation and honest assessment of his life, I must say that we buried a humble man and a great bishop.
It took me some time to realize that we never really meet eye to eye on many concerns because we have been standing on different platforms brought upon by different circumstances.
Being interested in the history of our diocese, I found that his presence is difficult to be unnoticed and his contributions are too big to be neglected.
Sui Generis Bishop
I must say that Bishop Ner is a one-of-a-kind individual that would take another hundred years to find. His uniqueness is not based on his perfection nor his imperfections but on his capacity as a person in terms of motivations, aspirations, and visions.
His standard of probing one’s decision to be right, by conferring it with the Gospel, with the canon law, with the Magisterium, and with charity, is my cherished learning from him. He seemed to imbibe the laws of the Church (Canon Law) at heart but the way he kept them matters a lot from others.
It must’ve come from his father, a longtime mayor of Bacuag in Surigao del Norte whom he referred to as both loving and disciplinarian, that Bishop Ner aspire for excellence in everything.
As practiced before, he left his family right after grade school and entered a minor seminary in Butuan, a considerable distance already then from his home. From there he learned to budget his allowance and even save a bit from the budget.
It crashed my heart to learn from him that once at the minor seminary he received a telegram from home, telling him not to go home for Christmas break, to save his allowance. Instead of wallowing in nostalgia, he endured the distance and warmth of a home, to answer God’s call.
At a college seminary in Manila, he was about to be sent out due to his poor health condition. He wrote to Fr. Pio (now St.Pio de Pietrelcina), who was known to have exhibited miracles even then, and asked for his prayers.
He got healed completely and attributed everything to the dear padre. It is no wonder that when he became a bishop of Tandag, he made St.Pio the second patron of the diocese.
Bishop Ner’s spirituality is rigorous as was his formation of old. When I was a bishop’s deacon then, I cringed on praying the breviary and the readings all at once in the morning before or after the mass.
We need to recite the rosary in the car every time we travel. Yet when I became a priest, he never imposed his discipline. Prayer is something personal to him and his prayer time is untouchable.
His serious attitude in prayer is extended in terms of his studies (He completed a Doctorate in Canon Law and a Master’s in Business Administration with flying colors). He used to tell us that he spent most of his savings on books in such a manner that his library was more updated than his school library.
As a bishop, he was focused on being an administrator of the diocese, looking after the spiritual welfare of the people as well as the common good of the society. Many canon lawyers that I met would always look up to him as someone who is an authority in the said field.
While most of us enjoyed bonding in different ways, Bishop Ner was always bent on reading cases as his passion for being a judge of a matrimonial court.
Duc In Altum
Bishop Ner chose the phrase, ‘Duc in altum’, as his ‘slogan’ in his coat of arms. The phrase is taken from the gospel of Luke (5:4), which means to ‘put out into the deep’, referring to the fishing expedition that culminated in the call of Peter.
From the command of Jesus, Peter threw the net once more despite having caught nothing after a whole night’s fishing. They then caught a great number of fish that their net almost broke and they needed to call another boat.
The phrase then, duc in altum, is a reminder for us to put our faith in Jesus, like Peter, and get ready to venture into the unknown. This was the prevailing liturgical theme also when Bishop Ner was elected by Pope Saint John Paul II who issued an apostolic letter – Tertio Millennio Ineunte – closing the jubilee year in 2001.
When he took this theme, I thought that he was just carried by the spur of the moment. To go into the deep is not easy nor encouraging in the sense that no one likes to go through uncertainties, let alone dangers.
Bishop Ner was already 61 years old and was comfortably serving the Archdiocese of Manila when he was elected bishop of Tandag. He left the diocese during the troubled times in the 80s for further studies until he was incardinated in Manila.
He knew that to go back to Tandag as a bishop was an act of faith. He must have understood already that apart from the dignity of the office of the bishop, there is also a corresponding sacrifice he has to make to live up to its gift.
During my diaconal ordination in 2007, he joked once to my visitor-priest whom he knew well from Manila by saying, ‘Welcome to this God-forsaken place’!
To put out into the deep is to allow uncertainties to happen but keep the faith intact. For someone who faced many insurmountable difficulties in life, Bishop Ner has the patience and tenacity to weather the storms.
In difficult moments, I’ve seen him remove his glasses and wipe his face with his bare hands. Yet, he never backed down. He always finds means or answers to crises with calmness and fortitude. To put out into the deep is also to actively hold on to one’s decision despite being unpopular.
When he became a CBCP president (2009-2011), he led the bishops to ask President Aquino to scrap the mining law and opposed the RH bill, among his many other social engagements. Locally, he defended the Lumads against the attacks of the militia who were cuddled by the military.
Immediately after assuming his office, Bishop Ner bravely issued a pastoral letter condemning the extrajudicial killings enveloping the province of Surigao del Sur then.
Bishop Ner’s decisions reveal that he is out to bring the diocese to a new level of depth. It can be said that when the diocese of Tandag was erected in 1978, under the then Bp. Ireneo Amantillo, DD, CSsR, the diocese was more of a missionary church, having inherited the missions from the Recollects, Jesuits, and the Dutch MSC missionaries.
Being one of the poorest provinces of the Philippines then, Bp. Amantillo, himself a Redemptorist missionary, ran it like a veritable mission place – in terms of its financial system, parish administrations, apostolates, etc. Under Bishop Ner and together with the clergy, a parish financial system was introduced and established that paved the way today.
This was considered a paradigm shift of the diocese from being a missionary to becoming an established one. It was never easy as it caused many uncertainties yet he made it possible. There are trade-offs we pay for every change we aspire to. We may be a poor diocese but we have an orderly financial system and services now.
This I believe is the greatest contribution of Bishop Ner to the diocese of Tandag – for providing stability in its finances and pastoral works without compromising its missionary spirit. I saw this during his pastoral visit when he tirelessly visited the people in the margins, from the main church to the farthest corners of the parish. After checking the records and meeting the parish servant-leaders, he went on to visit all the faith communities whether by his car, a dump truck, a habal-habal, or a pump boat, or on foot.
Bishop Ner is an intellectual who has a shepherd’s heart. He loves to be with people on the ground but knows his boundaries. He would sympathize with the people’s struggles and balance them by engaging with government leaders. He felt deep within the necessity to defend the poor and renounce the structures that oppress them yet he believed that this was a long-term fight.
The most that he can do perhaps is to provide foundations for structures to stand someday and dismantle other dehumanizing structures. His anti-mining stance encouraged the people to stand for their rights. He was instrumental in the (presidential) proclamation of a watershed area, crucial to the lives and livelihoods of the downstream community of farmers.
He dined with businessmen and politicians but refused to compromise by not allowing his clergy to bless the heavy equipment to be used for mining. Being a CBCP president, he succeeded in convincing former PGMA to pave a good portion of our highways.
Pastorally, he issued a profound decree to baptize anyone who asks, regardless of any ‘pastoral impediments’, opening the local church to all especially the poor.
I do not wish to canonize Bishop Ner at all. As I’ve said above, we have skirmishes. But as I have deeply reflected on his life and mine, I found that our visions of the Church are really not that far from each other. I felt that his treatment of me warmed through time until he proudly introduced me to many as a ‘social activist’ for whatever that means.
I believe however that we clashed due to our different lenses brought by our different upbringings. Bishop Ner is a man of his time. He did what he was supposed to do, as he was taught to do, despite his limitations. We are on the same ship with just different roles in it.
At the end of the day, we are but ardent laborers in the vineyard of the Lord. But I have to give him the credit for having persevered in his calling and having facilitated this local church into a transition with stability and vigor.
Why did I profusely cry during his committal? Well, I just missed the man. I felt orphaned by his passing. In his last moments, he exhibited a fatherly love to me, something that I had never experienced when he was still my bishop.
Whenever I stayed with him in his Davao residence, he always made me feel that my needs were taken care of. At meals, he would tell me stories about his experiences that I’d never heard before.
Even on my last visit to the ICU, amidst difficulties of talking and moving, he would make gestures that I should take some food considering my long travel. We might have not really seen each other eye to eye for a while but I thank God for that.
Bishop Ner sees further than I do because that’s what leaders are. And if I am seeing now what he wants me to see before, then I am deeply grateful to him for having lifted me so.
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.