The Road from Sagay to Damascus
by Margaux Salcedo
Monsignor Esteban "Bong" Lo is truly blessed:
He is currently the National Director of the Pontifical Mission Societies (PMS), a group of Catholic missionary societies that are under the jurisdiction of the Pope himself. That means that every time we pray for the intentions of the Pope, since we indirectly pray for the success of the missions under the Pope's jurisdiction, including PMS, we indirectly pray for the success of Monsignor Bong Lo!!
He now also has the distinction of being directly under the office in Rome of His Eminence Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, now Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. This is a fact Cardinal Tagle shared last December in one of the last masses he celebrated in Manila before leaving for Rome.
"Msgr. Bong is the national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies and that office is under Propaganda Fide where I am now assigned (in Rome), so he won’t be able to escape me!!” Cardinal Tagle said at the mass.
Propaganda Fide, which Cardinal Tagle now heads, is the department of the pontifical administration that is charged with, among other things, the spread of Catholicism and the regulation of ecclesiastical affairs in non-Catholic countries like China.
It seems that Msgr. Bong was born for the mission of reaching out to the Chinese and to Chinese communities around the world.
Unlike most Catholic Filipinos, while his mother was a Filipina Catholic, his father was a Chinese Taoist Buddhist.
He grew up exposed to the two religions: In their family home in Sagay, Negros Occidental, he vividly recalls his parents' bedroom: it had his father's Taoist altar beside the door and his mother's Catholic altar near the window.
The Taoist altar had an image of an ancient Chinese man while the Catholic altar had the images of Our Lady of Fatima, St. Anthony de Padua and St. Joseph.
I grew up seeing my father pray before the Taoist altar everyday. But I also saw my mother pray everyday, reciting from the booklet Our Lord of Pardon.
"Kapag si mama nagdarasal, si papa nasa sala; and vice versa (when my mother would pray, my father would be in the sala, and vice versa)," recalls Msgr. Bong.
Hence, he grew up exposed and respectful of Chinese religion and culture
In spite of being born into an inter-faith family, Msgr. Bong was baptized Catholic. His father, while a devout Taoist, allowed his children to grow up in the Catholic faith.
Born for Mission
Even as a child, he already had an inclination to become a priest.
He remembers literally playing the role of priest in their childhood games: "Kung may baril-barilan (toy guns), bahay-bahayan (playing house), meron din misa-misahan (pretend church)," he shares, fondly explaining the childhood games that he would play with his 8 older sisters and 7 older brothers. (Yes, there were 16 of them siblings, with Msgr. Bong Lo as the youngest or bunso!)
His siblings allowed him to play the role of priest and he would use a blanket as his sutana or cassock, then use Marie biscuits as the host and Coke or Pepsi as the wine. "And siyempre, may collection!" Msgr. Bong recalls, laughing. The collection would consist of candy from his siblings. When they were older, he had a brother who joined the Carmelite seminary but who eventually did not pursue the vocation. This sparked in Msgr. Bong a desire to "finish"
what his brother started, i.e., become a priest.
The path to priesthood, however, was not a straight line.
In high school, he was diverted to the Protestant Christians when a friend started courting a beautiful Protestant girl who was an ardent evangelical churchgoer of Trinity Church in their province, just a few blocks from their school. The young Bong Lo accompanied his friend to Protestant service so that his friend could spend time with his crush. But soon, he found himself going out of his own interest for bible study, fellowships and even summer camps.
"Less and less Catholic mass, less and less Novena to the Sacred Heart and Perpetual Help, less and less Rosary, less and less Catholic Church, more and more evangelical," Msgr. Bong says of those days.
He was so active with Protestant activities that he was even invited to become an evangelical pastor and offered a scholarship to a Protestant seminary as he graduated from high school. By this time, he in fact considered himself a Protestant.
"I questioned the authority of the Pope, the presence of Christ in the sacrament, confession, the veneration of saints."
But he said no to becoming a Protestant pastor. "My whole family is Catholic," he explained to his recruiter. "I will not jump ship. I have to stay. I cannot just leave them behind."
Instead, he boldly declared, "I will change the Catholic church from within!"
Today he says it was this "Messiah complex" - a psychological complex in which sufferers have a desire to redeem and save others - that kept him Catholic. "It was a very human situation and yet God used it to put forward His purpose," he reflects.
With the determination to "change the Catholic church from within", he enrolled himself at the Sacred Heart Seminary in Bacolod City.
The Road to Damascus
As a seminarian, the young Bong Lo was incorrigible. He constantly debated with his professors, determined to "reform the Catholic church from within". When leading the rosary, he would recite, "Hail Mary, Mother of JESUS", causing the spiritual director to call him to explain why he was saying Mother of Jesus instead of Mother of God.
All this time, he kept researching, reading, debating, trying to find answers to convince himself of the Catholic faith. His fellow seminarian, then Bro. Gerardo Alminaza, now Bishop of the Diocese of San Carlos, offered to pray for him.
Then the Holy Spirit intervened.
A Catholic charismatic priest from India, Fr. D'Souza, visited Bacolod.
Msgr. Bong remembers the day vividly. It was raining. The grounds were wet so he slipped, fell, and literally slid into the church.
Fr. D' Souza's homily lasted almost two hours as the Indian priest elucidated on sources of grace. Then he touched on issues that are intellectually impossible to comprehend, such as the Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
During the homily, the struggling seminarian found himself crying. Not because he tripped and fell into the church but because he fell into grace.
"That day, I simply became fully Catholic. Tanggap ko na lahat: the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, the necessity of confession, the Pope's infallibility."
He remembered the conversion on the Road to Damascus of St. Paul, whom the Lord called 'my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel', who also literally fell to the ground and became blind before he could see.
As he received communion, he found himself once again crying.
"Lord," I said, "You conquered me today."
A couple of years later, he enrolled at the UST Central Seminary, where he vividly recalls joining other seminarians as they responded to the call of H.E. Jaime Cardinal Sin+, then Archbishop of Manila, to go to EDSA for the People Power Revolution against Martial Law.
But his calling, even then, was to help the Chinese communities get closer to the Lord. He went on a 6-month program in Taiwan to learn language and culture and stayed at the St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary and with the Maryknoll Fathers.
On his final year of seminary, he was invited to become part of the founding batch of the Lorenzo Mission Institute of the Lorenzo Ruiz Mission Society, which was established for the Filipino-Chinese Apostolate and to help Chinese communities abroad. (Years later, he would become Dean of Seminarians and Rector of the Lorenzo Mission Institute.)
On October 16, 1991, the rebel seminarian was ordained a Catholic priest. He was 28 years old.
He found his way back home to Negros Occidental, this time as Father Bong.
Today, you might be familiar with Monsignor Bong Lo if you've ever heard mass at SM Megamall, where he is chaplain of the Chapel of the Eucharistic Lord in the mall.
He is also very busy with the Pontifical Mission Societies as this is in fact comprised of four sub-missions: the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, the Society of St. Peter the Apostle, the Holy Childhood Association and the Missionary Union of Priests and Religious).
Last October 2019, Msgr. Bong also launched the Pista ng Misyon (Feast of the Mission), which seeks to send the message to all that every baptized person is a missionary and has been sent by the Lord.
The Road from Sagay to Damascus to Rome
It's been quite a journey and a long road for Msgr. Bong Lo - from the little town of Sagay to the Pontifical Mission Societies office that reports directly to Rome.
Perhaps like St. Paul, Msgr. Bong has also been destined to teach the Gospel to different communities around the world, especially China. He ended up fulfilling his proclaimed "Messianic" mission of saving the Catholic Church after all - not so that it would transform its ways, though, but in order that others may transform through it.