In May 25, 2011, I arrived in Parokya San Miguel after my two-year stint as parochial vicar in the Nuestra Seňora delos Remedios Parish in Subanipa. I remembered vividly that day. The youth from Subanipa brought me to Mabuhay.
With pain and sadness of heart, they lifted my things all the way to my new room. But they were singing happy songs. Later on, three of these young men entered the seminary. One also entered the convent.
My companion Fr. Manuel Mijares, SVD arrived the following month. I was happy because we were good friends, and we were both young. We regularly visited the communities and participate in the Poblacion kriska (Bible sharing). We pledged that we celebrate the anticipated and Sunday masses together. I personally like that kind of set-up because we get to know each other all the more. In a special way, I felt also closer to him as a confrere in our celebration of the sacraments.
I was installed parish priest by the Bishop on August 6, 2011 on the Feast of Transfiguration. Fr. Joseph Audiencia, on the other hand, finally left the Olutanga Mission on September 19 for his new special mission in Silsilah in Zamboanga City. His departure finally ended the first generation of the Divine Word Missionaries in the island. Few years after, however, he went back to Ipil Mission District as parish priest of the Immaculate Conception Parish of Alicia after a year of chaplaincy at the University of San Carlos in Cebu.
In October 20 of that year, the war between the lawless elements and the military broke out in Talaib, a nearby sitio in the mainland that affected the lives of the parishioners. Many people were displaced. The parish convent became a temporary refuge of the “bakwits” – a popular word which refers to those who were caught in the cross-fire between the lawless elements and the military and had no choice but to flee from their homes to avoid being sandwiched in the battle.
It was my first time to see fighter planes dropping bombs! In every drop of a bomb, the whole island trembled, literally. The month-long war was like experiencing earthquakes every thirty minutes. My CAFGU escorts were with me in the convent day and night. We also cancelled our barrio masses. Those were the most stressful days in the parish. However, our faith was always alive. We turned to the intercession of St. Michael Archangel , the parish patron, to guard and protect us. For several days, the parishioners roamed around the Poblacion chanting the St. Michael gozus.
My faith as the parish priest was always tested. Cases in point: On April 5, 2012, Holy Thursday, while having my dinner together with the 12 apostles, I received the info that I was at the top list of potential kidnap victims, while my assistant was second. Looking back, I did not bother to inquire if it was true or not. It did not stress me at all. Perhaps because at that time, I was still young and was looking for adventure, and more adventures!
There was also a time that our seminarian-summer camper, Frt. Charlie Bardaje, had to sleep in our sala because there were sightings of lawless elements outside the parish vicinity and his room was at the back of the parish convent. Those were really exciting times, and I could only smile when I remember those “grace-filled moments.”
I considered those challenges part of the package in this very special mission area, so I learned to just live with it. It did not cripple my spirit. In my Holy Masses, I learned to surrender everything to God, fully trusting that He would always be on my side. That’s how I survived each day.