His Eminence Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, Archbishop-Emeritus of Manila; His Eminence Orlando Cardinal Quevedo, Archbishop-Emeritus of Cotabato; His Excellency Charles Brown, Apostolic Nuncio to the Philippines; His Excellency Broderick Pabillo, Auxiliary Bishop of Manila, their excellencies the archbishops and bishops of the Philippines; our national and local government officials; reverend monsignor and fathers, consecrated men and women, brothers and sisters in Christ; those who are here with us inside this cathedral, and those who are patiently standing outside, and the thousands who are joining us through various media platforms.
When our beloved Holy Father Pope Francis named me cardinal, and eventually appointed me as Archbishop of Manila I must confess, I was simply overwhelmed by such honor and responsibility. I have had many restless days and sleepless nights as I confronted my doubts and fears; but now, I am imbued with confidence to own the words of the Prophet Isaiah as God’s servant in the First Reading. “Yahweh called me from my mother’s womb, he pronounced my name before I was born” (Is. 49:1b). Such distinct honor comes though with the responsibility as the Lord reveals to Isaiah, “It is not enough that you be my servant. I will make you the light of the nations that my salvation will reach to the ends of the earth” (Is. 49:6); but the Gospel and the Second Reading today make me realize that like John the Baptist, I am but a herald for Christ our Savior. He is the Light of the nations. As his name suggests, John the Baptist is the herald of God’s mercy. As Christ’s herald, I too must proclaim God’s mercy. I stand here before you today as that herald.
Let me convey my heartfelt gratitude to our beloved Holy Father Pope Francis. Your Holiness, thank you for your trust and confidence, your constant and living witness has the greatest herald of God’s mercy in our times is truly my inspiration in shepherding Christ’s flock.
This must be the day the Lord has made. For three times the bestowal of the red hat on me was postponed due to COVID-19 pandemic. Each time, I simply smile and thought, “In God’s time.” Today, I am finally here with you. I have had the red hat and the cardinal’s ring only seven days ago, when I should have been wearing it seven months ago. The pandemic has indeed held us hostage for a year and a half already. Apparently, this is far from over yet. In fact, only my two sisters residing in Capiz, only twenty-one of my one hundred forty-two priests, the mayor of Roxas City, Hon. Ronnie Dadivas and his wife Joan, and the governor of Capiz, Hon. Esteban Evan Contreras are with us in the celebration, to represent my family, the Archdiocese of Capiz, the City of Roxas, and the Province of Capiz. Also, because of the pandemic.
A good number of people who have been with us if not for the pandemic. The scourge has crippled us with many ways, but it has enabled us too, in more creative ways and has made us see clearly the things that we value most in our lives. Some people may actually think that God has abandoned us, but instead for us steadfast believers, it simply shows forth God’s power in the midst of our helplessness. For we see God as our only help in our helplessness. God’s light shines on us in the midst of darkness. For the light of our faith allows us to see God’s mercy even in this low moment of darkness. See, God’s mysterious design has made this moment truly marvelous as an event of great historic significance for the Catholic Church in the Philippines. I could see three reasons why.
First, because as we celebrate the Year of St. Joseph, God has calls yours truly, a clueless Jose from Capiz, to be the ninth Filipino Cardinal. Who would have thought? We all did not see it coming. Personally, I find it providential. Because I have a special devotion to St. Joseph.
The second reason why is its historically significant, is that as we celebrate the Five Hundred Years of Christianity in the Philippines, God has given me to the Archdiocese of Manila, as its new shepherd. Clearly, Missio ad Gentes sends me off with a mission: you are gifted to give. What is more challenging than that?
The third reason for its historical significance is the beautiful coincidence today. For this very day, when I am installed as Archbishop of Manila, we are celebrating the founding of the City of Manila, four centuries and a half ago. See, how significantly historic this day is for us in the Church, as Filipinos, and particularly, as Manileños.
However, let us not get stuck in the great historic significance of this moment, for the responsibility it brings is truly overwhelming. It behooves us to ask ourselves, “Where are we Filipinos as a Christian people after Five Hundred Years of Christianity?” Certainly, the gift of faith has grown and continues to bear much fruit. God has gifted us with faith so that we too can become gifts of faith to others; all of us are therefore gifted to give! As Filipinos, we also ask ourselves, “What has happened to Manila after four hundred fifty years since she became a city?” This is an event that should also help us reflect how significant Manila is in the formation of our values as a Filipino nation towards true communion and authentic progress. As we can see, the pastoral challenge far outweighs the significance of all these historic events converging today. All of us, Filipinos, are called to take up such a challenge, in our respective ministry or area of responsibility, especially for us leaders of our nation and of our Church.
At this point, allow me to share with you how I see the pastoral challenge before me as your shepherd here in the Archdiocese of Manila.
You must have heard something about me already, about my ministry as priest and bishop, and especially how I have tried to live up to my episcopal motto, Audiam – I Will Listen. My beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, I have nothing new to tell you today, except of my commitment to renew my heart’s desire to be a listening shepherd to the flock entrusted to my care: especially the priests, consecrated persons, and laity of the Archdiocese of Manila.
I am deeply aware how I fall short of people’s expectations of me, how unworthy and inadequate I am in many ways. Like Moses and the Prophet Jeremiah, I am not a good speaker. Despite their shortcomings, however, God had empowered them to speak on His behalf and show forth His saving power. Our beloved Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, my dear predecessor, a very eloquent speaker, assures and empowers me in a video message posted online, telling me, and I quote: “Just be who you are. Ang tinawag ng Dios, ikaw; at ang maglilingkod ay ikaw, at ang ibibigay mo sa napakabuhay na Sambayanan sa Arkidioyesis ng Maynila ay ikaw. Ikaw ang biyaya ng Dios! Don’t worry, you are God’s gift as you are, and be who you are!” Cardinal Chito, maraming salamat din sa ‘yong pagiging tunay na biyaya ng Dios sa akin at sa aming lahat. You are truly an inspiration so close to our hearts.
As fruit of my prayer and discernment, I draw inspiration especially from the personal encounter of Simon Peter with our Lord. When Jesus asked him three times, “Do you love me?” Peter replied “Yes, Lord” for three times. Only after Peter’s total and unconditional commitment to love Jesus did our Lord empower Peter by saying: “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:17). We all know how Peter denied Christ three times and cried bitterly afterwards for his weakness; how he tried to escape from Rome to avoid persecution and death but our Lord challenged him, “Quo Vadis?” (Where are you going?). So, he went back to Rome and eventually died by crucifixion as his ultimate witness to Christ. Despite his shortcomings, Peter served Christ’s flock faithfully until his last breath, giving his total and unconditional love to our Lord Jesus Christ. Peter proclaims that same fidelity as he urges the elders of the Church: “Give a shepherd’s care to the flock of God that is entrusted to you” (1 Peter 5:2).
Heeding the call of the Apostle Peter, let me renew my love for Christ once more, so that I may be able to give a shepherd’s care to the flock He has entrusted to me. As He empowered Peter, our Lord empowers me too: “Feed my sheep.” First of all, it reminds me that it is not my sheep that I am entrusted to take care of. Rather, lest I forget, it is Christ’s, sheep not mine. The real owner and shepherd of the sheep is Christ, not me. I am just His herald, His instrument; but I own them with all my heart in the name of Christ as I surrender myself in prayer: “Lord, use me; I beg you to grant me a steadfast faith that You will always be with me and will never abandon me.” If the Lord were to use me as His herald, then that means, I must listen attentively to Christ, what He wills me to do for His sheep; and He reveals His will as our Good Shepherd when He laid down His life for us that we may be saved and have life to the full (Jn 10:11-14). Please pray for me that I may have a heart after that of Christ our Good Shepherd – a listening shepherd to Christ’s bidding – ever ready to suffer for and serve Christ’s sheep. And Christ bids me to feed His sheep. Feeding Christ’s sheep implies knowing them and their needs, each one. “The shepherd knows his sheep and they know him” (Jn 10:14). Knowing them implies listening to them, paying attention to the distinctive sound of every sheep.
For Pope Francis, it is a call to stay close to the marginalized and to be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.” It is my ardent desire to listen to all but especially to the lambs which represent our youth and other people in the peripheries; because of less attention given them by the Church. Their faith is as fragile as the health of a lamb. They are the first target of the marauding wolves. I cannot feed my flock unless I listen first to their needs, their longings. While listening to them, I would be able to journey with them – in their sorrow and joy, in their suffering and glory – and collaborate work with them, to bring them closer to Christ. I pray that Christ grant me the grace to be a listening shepherd to His flock, so that I can journey with you and lead you all back to Christ our Good Shepherd.
Our solemn celebration of the Birth of St. John the Baptist sheds light on this mission which brings me here with you today. As I have pointed out at the start, John was the herald of Christ our Savior. As the newly installed Archbishop of Manila, I share in the mission of St. John the Baptist as Christ’s Herald. St. John the Baptist laid down his life for such a mission. I believe it also demands nothing less of me. I am now sixty-nine years old, at the twilight of my ministry. I thought I was that old to be transferred to another diocese. I was hoping to spend my remaining years in the Archdiocese of Capiz, close to my family and fellow Capiceños. But in a mysterious fashion, God has called me to get away from my comfort zone, and serve Him in a manner far beyond my expectations; and it demands of me a lot more than I can give if I am to shepherd His flock after His own heart. I remember the words of our dear Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Charles John Brown, when he bestowed on me the cardinal’s insignia in Capiz seven days ago. He shared how our Holy Father, Pope Francis, reminded the new cardinals last November 28, “that the color red that the cardinals wear is the symbol of blood, a sign of martyrdom, a sign of witness; because that martyrdom means to be a witness even to the shedding of their blood.” Therefore, I surrender myself to God in total and unconditional trust like John the Baptist and the Apostle Peter who laid down their lives for Christ’s sheep. In this spirit, I also see myself like St. Paul, who was empowered by God, the same God who assures me now: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).
Before I end, let me thank the priests, consecrated persons and laity of the Archdiocese of Capiz: thank you so much for teaching me to be a shepherd who listens. For almost ten years of being your bishop, I tried to be a listening shepherd to you. Yet, as you know well, there are still a lot that I should learn. As I leave you, please do not feel orphaned and shepherdess. As Cardinal Tagle reminded one of our priests in Rome, “You are not orphans. You are not shepherdess. God is your father. God is your Shepherd.”
As I official start my ministry as Archbishop of Manila, I humbly plead with all the priests, consecrated persons and the laity of the Archdiocese of Manila: let me be a listening shepherd to you all, and let us learn from one another how to listen after the heart of Christ our Good Shepherd. On the Day of Judgment, we are but Christ’s servants; and how blessed are we to have such an opportunity to serve Him in our respective capacities and ministries. We are no more than Christ’s heralds and instruments. Yet, if we remain faithful until the end, the Apostle Peter assures us, “When the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4).
My beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, let us entrust ourselves to our Blessed Mother, the brightest herald of all times; in her loving embrace, we always find hope and consolation, strength and inspiration. May her maternal care keep us from getting astray and lead us closer to Christ her Son and our Divine Shepherd. Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, pray for us who have recourse to thee.