THE PASTORAL MINISTRY OF MERCY AND COMPASSION
TO PRIESTS AND AMONG PRIESTS: THE GRACE OF SHEPHERDING THE SHEPHERDS
Most Rev. Mylo Hubert C. Vergara, D.D., M.A., S.Th.D.
Sanctuari di San Paolo, Casa Milan, Diocese of Novaliches, Q.C., June 13, 2016
When I was appointed bishop in 2005, I was required to have an episcopal motto and draw up a coat-of-arms. The motto I chose was: Pasce Agnos Meos (“Feed My Lambs”) culled from John 21:15-17. When one of my priest-friends in the Diocese of Cubao knew about my motto, he jokingly commented: “Ito talagang si Mylo, kahit sa pagiging obispo eh, pagkain pa rin ang iniisip.” (“Even in becoming a bishop, this Mylo still thinks of food.”) The coat-of-arms showed significant symbols of my vocation story as a priest. One symbol you will notice there which is imposed on a red background is a lamb hanging dead on the cross. This image was actually taken from the old seal of Good Shepherd Parish, my home parish, now Good Shepherd Cathedral of the Diocese of Novaliches. From the time I was ordained a priest in 1990 and even now as a bishop, that image depicts the core principle of my priesthood, that is, Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God, both priest and victim. He was, is and will always be the meek lamb led to be slaughtered for all. The sacrifice of Christ always reminds me of what my shepherding is all about. It is to offer my life as a loving sacrifice for the people entrusted to my care, most especially now to my priests.
During my episcopal ordination, when I was examined as candidate, one of the questions asked was: “Do you resolve to guide the holy people of God in the way of salvation as a devoted father and sustain them with the help of your fellow ministers, the priests and deacons?” I must admit that, at that time, when I gave my positive response to that question, I made a leap of faith. Though it was clear to me, then, that the question was about my being a father to everyone in my diocese, I was concerned, first and foremost, with being a father to the priests entrusted to my care. I wrestled with a number of questions in my mind: Since I was a young bishop, then, would I be accepted as a father by my priests, especially those who were older than I? How would I actually play the role of father? What does it mean to be a father to my priests? To add to this concern was my anxiety that I was the last appointment to the episcopacy in the Philippines of St. John Paul II, the last one to be elevated bishop by him in our country before he died on that same year. Sometimes I wonder if he still had the clear mind to make that decision to appoint me as bishop. If you recall, he was aging, very sick and was on his deathbed. Who knows, he might have made a mistake to affix his signature on my appointment. But, of course, it is my belief and hope, as well as yours, that the Holy Spirit was with him when he made an act of faith to appoint me bishop in the same way as I made an act of faith to accept the appointment to shepherd the Church.
Anyway, I am just grateful to St. John Paul II who appointed me bishop because he wrote these words which has served as a guide for me in ministering to my priests: “The Bishop will always strive to relate to his priests as a father and brother who loves them, listens to them, welcomes them, corrects them, supports them, seeks cooperation and, as much as possible, is concerned for their human, spiritual, ministerial and financial well-being.”
So how have I lived up to this task of being father, brother and, perhaps, even a friend to priests? Or, borrowing some words from the topic assigned to me in this symposium, how have I been a shepherd to my fellow shepherds in the ministry?
In responding to these questions, allow me to use some words from Psalm 23 which show how a shepherd pastures his sheep: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me. You set a table before me in front of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” From these lines, we can recognize that a shepherd uses three tools of restoration to tend his sheep. First, he has a rod to correct his stubborn sheep. Second, he holds a staff to guide his straying sheep. Third, he applies oil to heal his sick sheep. I draw inspiration from the Lord himself who with a shepherd’s heart tells us: “The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal but the sleek and the strong I will destroy, shepherding them rightly.”
The Rod of Correction for Stubborn Priests
It is said that the shepherd’s rod was a fascinating tool. He uses this when a sheep refuses to follow his directions. Knowing that his sheep may endanger itself, the shepherd has to step in and take drastic measures. Not out of malice, but out of love, the shepherd may even carefully break the leg of the stubborn sheep with his rod of correction.
Bishops and priests are like stubborn sheep. Given our idiosyncrasies and, sometimes, our hardheadedness, we want to do things our own way, not realizing that they may lead to problematic consequences for us and the Church we serve. This reminds me of an encounter I had with my predecessor the late Bishop Francisco San Diego. One time, when I visited him in the hospital, his caregiver complained that he stubbornly refused to follow the doctor’s orders in eating forbidden food that would be detrimental to his health. Sabi ko sa kanya: “Huwag po tayong matigas ang ulo. Sumunod po tayo sa utos ng doktor. Biniro ko pa at sabi ko: “May gamot po sa sakit ng ulo. Sabi nga ni John Lloyd eh makukuha yan sa biogesic. Pero sa matigas ang ulo, wala pong mabibiling gamot kahit anong drugstore.” Aba sumagot pa sa akin si Bishop San Diego. Sagot niya: “Hawakan mo ang ulo ko. Matigas, di ba?! At hawakan mo ang ulo mo. Di ba matigas din?! Hoy, walang malambot na ulo. Lahat ng tao matigas ang ulo!” (I told him: “Please don’t be hardheaded. Follow the doctor’s orders.” I even joked him and said: “There is a medicine for a headache. In fact, John Lloyd said that the best medicine is to take biogesic. But there is no medicine for hardheadedness that you can buy in any drugstore. But Bishop San Diego answered me and said: “Hold my head. It’s hard, right?! Now hold your head. It’s hard also, right?! So, there are no soft heads. We all have hard heads!”)
Anyway, kidding aside, in my experience, caring for stubborn priests demands a combination of being a confronting and compassionate father, a correcting and concerned brother, and an encouraging and faithful friend. Honestly, I have not mastered the art of perfectly coalescing all these roles and traits. There are some basic principles, though, that I have used in dealing with a crisis or a special difficulty which a priest encounters in his priestly life and ministry. First, once I hear of a problem concerning any of my priests, whether alarming or not, I immediately deal with it. Any delay in dealing with a problem may be costly. Second, I work with a team of priests to handle the problem, to brainstorm with them and to accompany me in the process. In my case, I have designated some of my priests to be part of a crisis management team when a crisis concerning a priest occurs. Third, once a priest is confronted and admits that he has a problem, I have to immediately offer initial intervention as well as rehabilitation and renewal measures to help him. This entails the assistance of trusted and competent professional people who will process the priest.
One difficulty I had in dealing with priests in special difficulties, be it sexual abuse, parish fund embezzlement or any grave scandal, is the tendency to deny any allegation even if there is verified proof from verbal or written complaints. In confronting these priests, I really had to be patient and, at the same time, firm in making them face the truth about what they have done. Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI, himself, said: “Only the truth saves.” What is important is that a mature dialogue-discernment process takes place where the priest concerned and I are honest with ourselves and each other in facing the truth about the crisis situation, be disposed to respect the truth, and be readily accountable to the truth whatever it takes for the good of the Church, for love of the Church.
I have had “hits and misses” in dealing with some of my priests in crisis. One thing I learned is that one way to handle it is prevention. By constantly offering renewal programs to my priests, I am able to minimize or prevent a major crisis that may harm a priest and become a scandal to the Church.
The Staff of Direction for Straying Priests
They say that the staff is considered the most recognizable shepherd’s tool. Because sheep have poor eyesight, they can be directionless and easily distracted. So a shepherd’s staff has four functions in pasturing sheep. First, a shepherd uses it to gently nudge his lead sheep to direct his entire flock to where it wants to go. Second, he uses it as a pointer to establish boundaries for the flock to prevent straying sheep. Third, he uses its curved end to pull out and rescue stranded, lost sheep. And fourth, he uses it to stroke the side or back of the sheep as a way of attention and encouragement. Therefore, a shepherd’s staff is a leadership tool that directs, establishes boundaries, rescues and encourages.
This reminds me of a story of a shepherd who pastured a hundred sheep. To call and gather his flock to the fold, he would use a bell, instead of his voice, to call them. All his sheep were familiar with the sound of his bell. One time, when it was time to gather his sheep to the sheepfold, he rang his bell for them to hear. However, he was able to gather only ninety-nine; one was missing. So he searched the pastureland, ringing his bell and hoping that his lost sheep would hear it. Suddenly, he saw the sheep from a distance. So he sounded his bell. But his sheep didn’t budge, as if it was deaf to the sound of the bell. As he approached it, he wondered what was wrong. Once near the sheep, he realized the problem. Lo and behold, around its neck was a small bell that rang whenever it moved its head. He failed to hear the bell of the shepherd because it would always hear the sound of its small bell hung around its neck.
A number of times, bishops and priests, find themselves like this lost sheep. The reason we are lost is that we listen to other voices, especially our own, instead of the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. We find ourselves like the lost sheep either intentionally or unintentionally listening to the “bells” hung around our necks. Jesus already tells us what to do in our lives like abiding by his will, changing our sinful ways and letting go of our inordinate attachments. But the sad reality is that we condition ourselves to listen to voices that lead us far away from Christ. Once we really listen to the familiar sound of voice of the Jesus, our true and only Shepherd, we find our way back to him.
I have used my staff of direction in many instances of my shepherding. But one challenging experience is when I have to deal with the lack of compassion some priests have to their fellow priests who have erred and become scandals in the Church. Sometimes, it is sad to say, that there are priests who are ashamed of their brother priests who have fallen from the grace of priestly identity and ministry. Instead of lending a listening ear, they talk behind the back of a priest who has committed a grave failure, with sarcasm and cynicism. They do not seem to realize that they are being pharisaic in ridiculing their brother priest. This righteous condemnation has led our fallen brothers to distance themselves from the fraternity of priests. They have already been led astray. Because of our lack of compassion, the more they are lost. What a sad plight for brothers who are called to live in unity and communion!
Let us not forget the meaning of the word ‘compassion’. Its Latin root has two terms, cum which means ‘with’ and pati which means ‘to suffer’. So when put together, compassion means “to suffer with”. In the words of Henri Nouwen: “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless.”
The compassionate love of Jesus is manifested in his decision to suffer with us from the moment he became flesh, being Emmanuel, God-with-us, except sin. This became more manifest as he ministered to and suffered with the sick, the disabled, the helpless, and, of course, the poor during his time. Jesus’ crucifixion is his suffering with and for us, carrying all our wounds and pains so that we, too, like him experience his healing love and the glory of a resurrected life.
In this light, I would often remind priests that we are called to be compassionate, to “suffer with” a brother priest, who, during times of severe crisis, needs us. Who else can better understand a priest in crisis, if not a brother priest. Naalala ko tuloy. Minsan nung dinalaw ko and nanay ko sa aming bahay, nasabi ko sa kanya: “Ang hirap isabuhay and celibacy. Mahirap talagang maging celibate priest.” Aba sumagot siya: “Madali lang yan. Eto uminom ka ng ‘pito-pito’ herbal tea, mawawala yang problema mo.” (I recall an experience when I once visited my mother in our house. I told her: “How difficult it is to live out celibacy. How hard it is to remain a celibate priest!” She replied: “That’s not a problem. Here, drink some herbal tea and your problem will go away.” I smiled when I heard this but I realized why she had difficulty understanding my struggles. She was married and not celibate. I guess it is a brother priest who could understand me.
The whole point of priestly fraternity is to have a support system that will offer an instrument of healing and love to broken, fellow priests. Oftentimes, I wonder if we, priests, realize that a severe crisis can happen to any of us. It could happen to you, or to me. It just so happened that the crisis was experienced by a particular priest, and not us. How I wish that whenever a crisis happens to any of us, we take the initiative to reach out with compassion to a brother in the priesthood. Let us utilize the gift of being wounded healers to one another. After all, Jesus said: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
During my ordination as bishop, my ordaining prelate handed me a bishop’s staff and said: “Take this staff as a sign of your pastoral office: keep watch over the whole flock in which the Holy Spirit has appointed you to shepherd the Church of God.” I knew that I would be using this staff in the eucharistic liturgies I would preside. The Ceremonial of Bishops also prescribes that I may hold my staff when I preached my homily. This meant that when I preach God’s Word, I should lead the flock entrusted to my care to where God wants it to go. I always look forward to presiding over Chrism masses, ordination liturgies and ordination anniversaries of priests. These have been grace-filled occasions when, as a shepherd of my priests, I have realized that the Gospel I reflectively proclaim is actually the staff that directs them to be centered on God; establishes moral boundaries for them to live by; rescues them when they are lost because of their sinfulness; and encourages them when they feel lonely and discouraged in their priestly life and ministry.
The Oil of Healing for Sick Priests
One other tool that a shepherd uses for his sheep is oil. A shepherd’s oil that restores a wounded sheep is like a mixture of oil, sulfur and tar. It serves as a healing agent to comfort a sheep suffering from wounds or disease. It also acts as an insecticide to shield the sheep’s hair and skin from flies so that the wounds will heal fast.
During my priestly ordination, my hands were anointed by the bishop with chrism oil. This holy anointing bestowed on me the grace to administer the sacraments of the Church proper to a priest and to pray for God’s people. I was doubly blessed when I was ordained bishop and my head was anointed with chrism oil by my ordaining prelate who prayed these words: “God has brought you to share the high priesthood of Christ. May he pour out on you the oil of mystical anointing and enrich you with spiritual blessings.”
Pope Francis has repeatedly emphasized that our precious gift of anointing came from Jesus Christ himself, the Eternal High Priest. He even points out: “The Lord anointed us in Christ with the oil of gladness, and this anointing invites us to accept and appreciate this great gift: the gladness, the joy of being a priest. Priestly joy is a priceless treasure, not only for the priest himself but for the entire faithful people of God: that faithful people from whom he is called to be anointed and which he, in turn, is sent out to anoint.” In other words, we were anointed with the oil of joy so that we can share the joy of Christ to others, especially those experiencing loneliness, misery and hopelessness
Many years ago, I can still recall what the late Jaime Cardinal Sin would often remind his priests. He wants us to be happy priests, serving with joy. Why? The people we serve desire to have happy, joyful priests proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ. He argued that many people already suffer from a lot of problems in life. He said that if they see an unhappy priest, someone who becomes a burden to them, gives them a hard time and causes them to have anxiety attacks, then we become an unwelcome addition to their many problems. Sabi nga: marami na silang problema sa buhay. Dapat hindi na tayo magiging dagdag sa listahan ng problema nila (They already have many problems in life. We should not be an addition to their list of problems.).
On several occasions, I have found myself applying the oil of joy and healing to sick priests. In fact, there have been some instances in my hospital visits when I discovered that some bishops and priests have been in the hospital for many days, been visited by priests, but have not received the sacrament of anointing for the sick. Perhaps, out of familiarity, we have failed to ask if they have received the sacrament or not. In my personal experience, applying the sacrament to them and praying over them has lifted up their spirits.
I have had the same experience with aging and retired priests. We also know the difficulty of some priests to accept old age and retirement. Having been active in the ministry for many years, a priest may find it very hard to accept that he can no longer be as productive and as effective as before. Last year, our diocese was blessed to host the yearly gathering of these priests led by Msgr. Sabino Vengco in one of our parishes. It was a joy for me and the priests of Pasig to be with them. The oil of joy we administered to each other was like a spiritual balm, making us realize how beautiful it is for brothers in the priesthood, young and old, to live in unity and love.
At present, we are constructing a retirement house for our sick and aging priests we have named “Tahanan ng Mabuting Pastol”. Hopefully, we will complete this project next year. Though this is a tough challenge, given our meager resources, we rely on God’s providence to make this a dream-come-true.
Almost two weeks ago, Pope Francis, in one of his meditations during the Jubilee of Priests, reiterated what he has been advising us, bishops, in shepherding our priests. He said: “As I told the bishops: ‘Be attentive and learn to read the faces of your priests, in order to rejoice with them when they feel the joy of recounting all that they have ‘done and taught’ (Mk 6:30). Also do not step back when they are humbled and can only weep because they ‘have denied the Lord’ (cf. Lk 22:61-62). Offer your support, in communion with Christ, whenever one of them, discouraged, goes out with Judas into ‘the night’ (cf. Jn13:30). In these situations your fatherly care for your priests must never be found wanting. Encourage communion among them; seek to bring out the best in them, and enlist them in great ventures, for the heart of an apostle was not made for small things.”
As we celebrate the Golden Jubilee to the priesthood, the 75th Birthday, and the many years of service of Bishop Antonio Tobias as shepherd to his priests, we are grateful to God that we have a loving and caring shepherd in the person of Bishop Tony. He is neither a perfect priest nor a perfect bishop, given his human frailties. There may have been times when he was not able to live up to becoming a father, brother or friend to us. Yet, by God’s grace, he has never stopped trying to be attentive to his priests, able to read their faces, one with them in their joys and pains. Indeed, we thank God for the gift of Bishop Tony who has used his rod of correction, staff of direction and oil of healing to shepherd his priests with the compassionate love and mercy of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
Questions for Prayer and Reflection:
1. What method of restoration (rod of correction, staff of direction, or oil of healing) do I find significant in my experience as a priest or religious? Why?
2. Who are the persons I should be grateful for because they have been God-sent instruments of my restoration?