Looking Back: To reminisce one’s vocation story is like reliving it all over again.
The words of our senior high school retreat master, the late Father Honorio Munoz, O.P., seem to still ring true and compelling even after 61 years since he uttered them to me. At the time, the good Father was trying to help dispel any doubts that I was being called to be a Dominican. As retreat master, Father Munoz left a deep impression on me. A former rector of the Colegio de San Juan de Letran, he had gone to school at Oxford University in England. He was the only Dominican in Letran who spoke English with a hint of a British accent, in contrast to the funny Spanish accent of most of the Dominicans I had met ‘til then. As he spoke during our retreat, I thought he was a good embodiment of what it meant to be a member of an Order of Preachers.
“God knows your family’s needs,” Father Munoz told me. “If He calls you away to serve elsewhere, trust that He will take care of your family. Between you and God, who can take better care of your family?”
These were the words I was to repeat to my lawyer-uncles who had tagged me to succeed them in the law profession and inherit their thriving law practice. Their own sons did not seem cut out to be lawyers and they thought I had it in me to become a successful one.
How the Seed Was Planted
My mother had been widowed in 1952. I was only 11 years old then, followed by three younger brothers. Daddy had unexpectedly died in an unfortunate accident during one of the strongest typhoons in Philippine history. He left four sons who were all enrolled at the Colegio de San Juan de Letran at the time.
As the eldest, I was expected to help my mom take care of my younger brothers. Her lawyer siblings drummed this into my consciousness. They encouraged me to study well and maintain the full scholarship that I enjoyed as grade school valedictorian. They said I would make a good lawyer and they would be happy to have me succeed them in their law office.
Mommy herself was a trained school teacher, a proud graduate of the Philippine Normal School. When the Dominican Fathers decided to hire women to teach the pre-school and early primary years at the centuries-old, all-male Colegio, they offered the position to my mother. It was a convenient arrangement for my newly-widowed mom. She was assured of an income and the chance to be with her sons everyday that we went to school in Letran. Mommy Cura thus became the first ever woman teacher of the Colegio.
Every morning, she would attend Holy Mass at the college chapel, watching her four sons serve as acolytes at simultaneous masses being offered at several altars in the old chapel. At the end of each day, even when she could not immediately go home with us after school because she had to tutor wealthy students in order to augment her income as teacher, she trained me, as the eldest, to lead my brothers in praying the Holy Rosary as soon as we got home. We prayed hard for the Lord to keep her safe and healthy and our family united.
So, it became a bit of a family crisis when, at the end of our high school graduating class retreat, I talked to Mommy about joining the Dominicans. I told her I had been so impressed by the preaching of Father Munoz. I also told her that Father Augusto Antonio, O.P., the moderator of the Student Catholic Action where I was an active catechist in two public schools in Binondo and Tondo, had also talked to me about going to the Dominican seminary in Hong Kong to continue my studies there and become a Dominican some day.
When Mommy told my uncles about this, they were livid with anger and disappointment. I was selfish, they said. I was only thinking about myself. How could I desert my obligation and responsibility to my mother and my brothers? I had to agree with their logic. And I felt such confusion within myself. Until I sought the advice of Father Munoz and he spoke to me those powerful words. The logic of his reasoning was unassailable. In my young mind and heart, it erased all doubts and hesitation. I was prepared to risk my uncles’ ire.
Fortunately, my Daddy’s mother – my Lola Gare (short for Margarita) – took my side and assured Mommy that everything would be alright in God’s hands. Lola Gare was the epitome of the prayerful woman. She was soft-spoken, mild-mannered and gentle in all her ways. She was the most spiritual and prayerful person I ever met.
When I was allowed to go on short vacations to our hometown in Pura, Tarlac, I was able to see and experience for myself my Lola’s unobtrusive but powerful influence in her home and her neighborhood. She was respected by everyone for her genuine spirituality. She walked in the early morning without fail to attend the daily Mass at the parish church. She was the acknowledged caretaker of the image of St. Antoninus of Florence, the patron saint of the parish of Pura, Tarlac. (At the time, we were not even aware that the town patron saint was a Dominican.)
Everyday, she led her entire brood in praying the Angelus and the Holy Rosary. I don’t remember ever hearing her cuss or raise her voice in anger or say anything mean about anyone, even during conflict situations in the family. In fact, she had a way of easing the tension by the pious exclamations that came from her lips with such spontaneity and sincerity.
In my view, it was my Lola Gare’s piety and spiritual life and my mother’s complete confidence in God’s providence that prepared the soil into which the seed of my vocation was eventually planted.
The Years of Formation
That breakthrough paved the way for my admission into the Order. It signaled the beginning of eight years of intense, complete, and thorough formation. I went through an education and training that molded my character and forged principles and values that would indelibly become a part of me for life. It touched and transformed the very core of my being. Through carefully planned stages, the Order prepared and formed me and my batchmates into becoming preachers of the faith as envisioned by Saint Dominic de Guzman in the 13th century and sustained faithfully through the centuries thereafter.
From 1956 to 1959, we went through first, the one-year postulancy at the Holy Cross Parish in San Juan del Monte, Rizal, then the one-year novitiate and the first three years of simple vows in St. Albert’s Priory, or Rosaryhill, in Hong Kong. During this period, we learned the basics of Latin and conversational Spanish, the history of the Order of Preachers and the lives of Dominican saints and martyrs, the discipline of living, working and praying in community, observing the religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, praying the Divine Office in community, learning the practice of semi-contemplative asceticism, and, particularly, of study as an essential part of the Dominican way of life. Formal studies in scholastic philosophy also began.
In 1959, Rosaryhill was shut down and all the brethren from different Asian nations were sent to the Philippines to continue our formation at the new Dominican Novitiate and House of Studies in Sto. Domingo Convent in Quezon City, with formal studies in philosophy and theology at the UST Central Seminary. Thus, I received a baccalaureate and licentiate in Philosophy in 1959 and 1960, and made the solemn profession of my religious vows. Then I completed a baccalaureate in Sacred Theology in 1963. I was ordained priest on December 8, 1964 at the Manila Cathedral, but still had some years of theological studies to complete.
In the meantime, as an ordained priest, I began receiving preaching assignments. When Father Jaime Boquiren, O.P. became prior of Sto. Domingo, he undertook to transform Sto. Domingo Church into an active preaching center. A core team of preachers was organized to take care of all preaching activities in the church. I was the youngest member of the five-man preaching team. I thus became involved in running the Cursillos of Christianity and the Ultreya Center in Sto. Domingo, preaching a series of Masses every Sunday, hearing confessions and counseling, and preaching retreats for special groups in schools, parishes, and other institutions. I was also given teaching assignments in Stella Maris College, Siena College, and Maryknoll (now Miriam) College. I did all that while pursuing my theological studies and preparing for the licentiate and lectorate in Sacred Theology.
Eventually, the conflicting demands, responsibilities,, and schedules for pastoral work and formal studies came to a head. Worse, the tension between two authorities – the Prior of the Community and the Regent of Studies – whom I was both obligated to obey heated up considerably. In my view, I was the unfortunate casualty of the conflict. I ended up not finishing the lectorate and feeling burned out, drained, and really quite unhappy. But I must admit I really enjoyed both pastoral work and academic work in schools.
In an effort to ease the tension, the then provincial Father Jesus Gayo, O.P. told me to prepare to go to Rome to take up biblical studies there and in Jerusalem. Before that, however, he assigned me to a one-year transitional stint at Aquinas College in Legazpi City to assist then Father Rector Ramon Salinas, O.P., in rebuilding the community. When I returned to Manila after one school year, the provincial advised me to change my program of studies. Instead of biblical studies, he suggested that I take up studies in mass communication as the province’s way of adhering to a new edict of Vatican II on the use of mass communication for evangelization.
I thus ended up going to the United States instead of Rome and Jerusalem. Some knowledgeable people had advised me to go to Boston University which offered advanced studies in Public Communication. So, I was in Boston, USA, from 1969-1972. After completing a master’s program in public communication, I also took up an advanced graduate degree in educational administration at the urging of the Vicar Provincial, Father Aniceto Castanon, O.P., because of the turmoil then raging at UST and various schools in Manila as a result of student activism. Luckily also, I was able to land a scholarship at Boston College for a Ph.D. program in Higher Education Management.
My study sabbatical in the USA lasted for three years. Through that period, however, I realized that the wounds that were inflicted by the conflict between the two legal authorities who both laid claims to my fealty had seriously compromised and damaged my basic vow of obedience. I had become a rebel, an angry, disillusioned, and cynical religious. I found that I could not, in all sincerity, give assurance of my readiness to obey official authority in the Order nor in the Church. After much thought and consultation, I decided that I was unfit to continue being a religious and practicing as a priest. In 1973, I begged to be allowed to return to the life of a layman.
Back to Being a Layman
It took a long time for the approval of my request for laicization. In the meantime, God’s providence was never wanting in my search for an honest and honorable means of earning my keep and providing for the needs of my family. I still can’t explain how my career path opened up to new opportunities at crucial stages of my life as a layman. All I know is that I invariably received timely invitations from certain people who had known of my background as a former priest and religious.
In more than four decades from 1973 to the present, I have served as either senior executive or president and CEO or chairman or director of companies and institutions in both private and public sectors. In such capacities, I have worked with and served the following sectors: human resource development, educational management, engineering consultancy, housing and urban planning and development, insurance and financial services, real estate marketing and sales, management and organizational development, publishing, broadcasting, watercraft manufacturing, events organizing, and public relations and marketing.
While doing all that, I have managed to be involved in civic and volunteer work in such institutions as Rotary International where I have served as club president and district governor; the Bishops-Businessmen’s Conference for Human Development, as executive committee member and chairman of the urban poor affairs committee; the National Coalition for Transparency and National Peace Conference, in both as chairman, and various others.
I also continue to be active in professional associations, such as, the Chamber of Real Estate and Builders’ Associations, Inc. (CREBA), as four-term national president; the ASEAN Association for Planning and Housing, as past president and founding secretary-general; and the Philippine Institute of Real Estate Service Practitioners (PhilRES) Inc., as its executive director.
As I reflect on the path through which Divine Providence has led me, I sometimes ask myself what credentials have I brought with me to merit those jobs and engagements?
From feedback that I have received from time to time from people who know me up close and personal, it is not so much my academic training or work experience in specific areas. It has to do with character, values, and principles and the readiness and facility to articulate such values and principles in a manner that is timely and relevant to the human situation at hand.
If that is true, then I cannot but go back to where all these were forged at a crucial time in my life – in fact, in the prime of my life, when I first responded to what I thought was a call to become a Dominican and serve God and His people. It is to the process of becoming a Dominican and the years of training that it entailed that I attribute much of what I am and have been all these years. Even in the midst of worldly concerns and situations, old habits die hard, including those of prayer, study, and contemplata aliis tradere.
The Filii: What it means to me
A few years ago, Father Rey Adalid, O.P., who was my Dominican batchmate, invited me to address a group that I now know as the Filii Sancti Dominici. I did not meet them again for a while. But at the beginning of 2017, they were able to track me through social media. Could I join them to meet the new provincial, Father Napoleon Sipalay, Jr. O.P., they asked. I found myself responding readily.
Since that wonderful evening at the Bahay Dominiko, I think I have managed to keep in step with them as they communicate with one another on social media and organize reunions and similar gatherings for old times’ sake.
But for someone two generations removed from most of the Filii, there are questions that come to mind.
If, indeed, there is a persistent nostalgic feeling and a deep yearning to share some kind of embedded Dominicanism that refuses to wilt and die even when we have long discarded the trappings of convent life, do we Filii all know what this is?
How does the Dominican vocation manifest itself through the Filii? Under the present circumstances, is such a thing even possible in the first place?
Where all these will lead, remains to be seen.