By Kevin Joshua Cosme
Into the Areopagus
PERFECT TIMING | My classmates and I (third from left, standing) from two years ago. Things fall apart but at least we have each other.
Yep, we just had to be that batch.
The threat of COVID-19 prematurely ended our school year this March, just a few weeks shy of graduation. My tenth and last year in the seminary suddenly came to a close. We were told to pack our bags and go home within the next three days. Graduation would have to wait because when a pandemic breaks out, getting your diploma becomes the least of your worries.
Just Like That
There was a flurry of activity. The contents of our community store were emptied out and distributed to each class (free food!). Within the day calls were made, flights were booked, and most of the community was gone by sunset.
BENEATH THE SMILES | We were suddenly having our last lunch together in the seminary. At least there was free food.
The jarring turn of events meant different things to different people. For the undergrads, it was just a “see you later” kind of thing since they would be back next school year. But for us graduating theologians, we were suddenly spending our last day ever as classmates in the seminary.
We were practically brothers at that point after having lived together for at least five years. And then we were abruptly made to go our separate ways. Not for a few months. Not just for the summer, but for the rest of our lives. There was no tribute, no ceremonial send-off, nothing of the sort you would normally expect on your last year in the seminary.
So we just made the most of our time and held one last fellowship that night. Then we each went home to wait out the quarantine.
The New Normal
If things went according to plan, we would have all graduated three months ago. Some of my classmates would even be deacons by now. The rest of us would still be on what is usually called the “pre-diaconal program.” It’s the intervening stage between seminary formation and ordination, extending anywhere from between two weeks to an entire year.
That would have been under normal circumstances. But these are extraordinary times and abnormal is the new normal.
I didn’t expect life after seminary to be so disorienting. The schedules that gave order to my life for an entire decade promptly vanished and I found myself confronted by chaos. My classmates weren’t around anymore. I was on my own now, facing an uncertain future and a global pandemic.
GRADUATING BATCH | It’s said that your class becomes your support group after seminary. (Photo c/o Adam Arellano)
Leaving the seminary was like taking a leap of faith. It was like jumping off of solid ground and into the unknown. Normally, there would be a net to catch you in the form of the diocese’s pre-diaconal program. But things happened too fast for the net to be spread out for me, so to speak, so for some time it felt like I just kept falling and falling.
I arrived home partly relieved and partly in a daze, unwilling even to make physical contact with my family for fear that I might be carrying the virus. I went on a self-quarantine. After a few days at home, my parish priest invited me to take up residence in the parish to ease me into the life I was entering. “Oh man, this is it,” I told myself. I prayed over it and started gathering my things.
But as I was packing my clothes, the implications of my decision started bearing down on me. This was the last time I would be calling this beloved place of my childhood “home”. I wouldn’t be living here anymore, at least not for any length of time. (I honestly wished I could be with my family a little longer. I’d still get to visit them, though.)
I was closing all sorts of doors by going through this particular one. I had been preparing for this for a decade, but why was it so painful now that it was here?
At a certain point I couldn’t take it anymore. I hadn’t gotten over leaving the seminary yet, and now I was leaving the house? Events were yanking me forward. My heart couldn’t keep up.
Amidst my shirts and bags, I burst into tears.
Bending with the Wind
I allowed myself time to mourn. I mourned for the life I would never lead again. I mourned for the lives I could have led. I mourned the dreams that could no longer be because I was preparing to embrace a greater dream, the one I believed that God had been preparing for me.
All that meant dying to myself.
Nobody was forcing me to do it. I was merely bearing with the consequences of my own commitment, but I think I wouldn’t have done it any other way. Letting go is something I would have done anyway if the pandemic hadn’t struck. I just had to do it sooner than I had expected.
But I didn’t complain. I knew these hard times forced everyone to make sacrifices.
When I told my bishop about what I was going through, he advised me very simply: “Take one day at a time.” And so I did.
At length I found my bearings and carried on.
MY PARISH, MY HOME| I was welcomed by the clergy of my home parish (Presentation of the Child Jesus or PCJ) and by our bishop on the day I moved in. (Clockwise from left: Fr. William Ramos [parish priest]. Msgr. Felipe Ocol, Fr. Remigio Omale, Fr. Angel Sanchez, Yours Truly, Fr. Joel Ador, Bro. Hansel Marasigan, Bp. Jesse Mercado)
And so here I am, no longer a seminarian but not yet a clergyman. I’m in that awkward stage, kind of like adolescence when you’re no longer a child but not quite an adult. No wonder I’d been feeling angsty.
What has life been like preparing for ordination amidst a pandemic? Despite the absence of the usual activities associated with the pre-diaconal program, I found the quarantine to be surprisingly helpful. It slowed everything down, allowing my turbulent emotions to settle and my heart to finally catch up.
Notwithstanding the threat of the coronavirus disease, staying indoors gave me a lot of time to pray, to reflect and to wrestle with questions that remained unanswered. Sometimes I’d even wrestle with God.
True to form, I experienced this period as a kind of “vocation synthesis,” to use the technical term outlined in the new program for seminary formation recently released by the Vatican.
Outside the seminary structure, I was now responsible for my own formation. Everything I’d learned, everything I’d experienced, I had to bring to bear on my new life.
NIGHT OUT | Being with our class adviser Fr. Jocis Syquia (center) is always a “treat”.
One of the first things I did was to draw order out of the chaos. I drew up a workable schedule to make good use of my time and to keep my laziness at bay. Among others, I put in time for prayer (non-negotiable), entertainment (like K-Dramas and video games), and exercise (we were livestreaming the liturgy. The camera adds ten pounds, I swear). All my needs were taken care of courtesy of the parish, so I wasn’t doing too bad.
But what kept me from growing complacent was the ever-gnawing thought that, outside my comfortable little bubble, not everyone was so fortunate.
Early in the quarantine, I could feel my heart going out to the families of the developing communities around the parish since they were the most affected. How would they be feeding themselves? I noted how strong empathetic feelings accompanied these thoughts during my prayers. Perhaps God was helping me to develop the heart of a shepherd by making me feel the sentiments of His own.
I was being extra careful for the sake of my bishop and the priests I was living with because they were either elderly or immuno-compromised or both. Since this kept me from going out of the convent, I just tried to support the parish’s feeding program by contributing what little help I could, financial or otherwise.
Thanks to the generosity of the parish community and some help from Caritas Manila, the parish was able to provide ayuda for over 2100 less fortunate families in its vicinity. And it doled out four waves of it! Talk about the Church in action.
“WHERE IS THE CHURCH?” | My home parish provided several waves of ayuda to thousands of families in the developing communities regardless of faith or status. (Photo c/o PCJ Facebook Page)
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder”
Yet it was not just the material deprivation that bothered me. The spiritual deprivation of even more people who could not physically participate in the Eucharist served as a continual heartache, and it does so to this day.
Because I live in church, I have access to daily Mass and the sacrament of Reconciliation. For this I am most grateful, but it also fills me with a sense of unworthiness. There are so many who long to receive Jesus sacramentally, so many holier and more fervent parishioners who could participate in the sacraments. And yet here I am. If anything, this humbling thought has driven me to make every Mass count.
I believe this crisis has taught us to cherish those things we may have been taking for granted. The old saying goes that familiarity breeds contempt. On the other hand, you only realize the value of water when the well runs dry.
So it is with the sacraments. As the days turned to weeks and the weeks turned to months, I witnessed the growing hunger people had for the Eucharist. It was painful to see, but in a way also inspiring. I don’t think I ever saw so many people develop such an appreciation for the Mass before.
When we can once again gather around the table of the Lord, I bet we will witness a revival of fervor hitherto unseen. God allows evil because He can bring about a greater good.
BEHIND THE SCENES | My parish priest Fr. William Ramos (seated) preparing to livestream a Holy Week liturgy. (Photo c/o PCJ Facebook Page)
Love in the time of COVID
In the meantime, I will bloom where I am planted. If that currently means leading a relatively quiet life in the shade, no problem. I will use the time to grow my roots.
One of the things I learned through prayer and reflection is that the more I focus on myself, the more discouraged I become. I see so much weakness, so much unworthiness, and more than once I was led to ask God if He was sure about me. Then one fateful day a priest made a passing remark that caught me off-guard. It was the divine sucker punch that snapped me out of my torpor.
I realized that I wasn’t meant to mope or to wallow in self-pity. I was called to love! I was being called precisely to go out of myself and reach out to others with hands eager to bless and ready to help. Being reminded of my call to love reignited the fire of my vocation. It gave me new eagerness to spend myself in the service of others.
I also realized something essential. My vocation is not priesthood. My vocation is love! Priesthood is just the particular manner of loving that God is drawing me to. So even in these times, my pre-diaconal program consists in grabbing every opportunity to love, every chance to serve those around me. And that’s a lot of chances! And it’s plenty to be thankful for.
WISH GRANTED | For five years I had hoped that Cardinal Chito Tagle would still be teaching by the time I was in Fourth Year Theology. Turns out we would be the last batch in San Carlos Seminary he would ever teach before moving to Rome this year.
It’s great to graduate as “Batch 2020”. It just rolls right off the tongue. But being the “Batch of COVID-19” isn’t so bad either. We made history, but we were also reminded that sometimes, it helps to take your “2020” vision and take a step back in order to appreciate what’s in front of you, even if it’s a global pandemic that bumps you down to “19”.
“All things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).
What a time to be alive!
PLEASE PRAY FOR US | [Clockwise from left] Yours truly (Parañaque), Philip Bote (Borongan, Eastern Samar), Mark Millet (Manila), His Eminence Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, Vic Kevin Ferrer (San Jose, Nueva Ecija), Angelo Ajero (Kalookan), Paulo Barbacias (Antipolo), Glendelmark Orillaneda (Tandag, Surigao del Sur), Orllie Santos (Antipolo), Jesus Madrid, Jr. (Manila), Jeffrey Abing (Taytay, Palawan)