I first met Mgr. Tantoco in 1993. I had just finished my degree in the UK and decided to spend a year in the Philippines to rediscover my roots. I thought that a good way of doing that was to do voluntary work in my country of birth. My Aunt Nila, a good friend of Mgr. Tantoco’s, took me to see him in his residence at the Arzobispado de Manila in the hope that he would be able to help me find a suitable placement.
My first impression of Mgr. Tantoco was that he looked very serious. But as soon as I heard him speak, I knew that behind that somber and piercing exterior was a kindness and gentleness that made him the great and inspiring leader that I had the fortune to work with for many years.
At that time in 1993, Mgr. Tantoco was the executive director of Caritas Manila, the social services and development arm of the Archdiocese of Manila. He did not hesitate to offer me a place as a volunteer there. I loved assisting for a fundraising campaign called Be A Friend For Life. I learned many things about myself, the Church and plight of the poor. Just as importantly, I made many lifelong friends.
Even so, I decided to go back to the UK once the year was up. I reasoned that I couldn’t have “fun” forever, and that I had to go back to the UK to get a “serious” job. But it seemed that God had other plans for me. Less than a year after my return to the UK, I heard that Mgr. Tantoco was visiting a friend in London. I grabbed the opportunity to see him. I still remember how happy I was to see him again: something felt very right about it, as though it was meant to be.
I was with my mum when I caught up with Mgr Tantoco. We were all happily chatting away when, just out of the blue, my former executive director casually told my mum, “Let Jun [my Filipino nickname] go back to Manila. That is where he is happiest.”
I couldn’t argue with that, and Mum also saw the truth in it. She said there and then that she would support my decision to go back to the Philippines, and I did not have to think long and hard to reach that decision.
And so, about four months later, I found myself back in Caritas. This time, I was a full-time employee, hired as the communications officer in charge of all the corporate publications. Once again, I worked with the poor, the parishes, and the benefactors who made it possible for Caritas to reach out to the needy. This time around, I worked even closer with Mgr. Tantoco and other members of the clergy from the Archdiocese of Manila, including Cardinal Jaime Sin himself. One of my fondest memories is following Mgr Tantoco and the Cardinal wherever they went to document their activities. I was there wherever they were, armed with my camera and notepad.
I left Caritas Manila for the second time in 1997. I went back to London, carved myself a career, and tried to settle down. But Caritas had left a mark that I could not shake off. It had sown a seed in me that I could not prevent from sprouting. I had a sense of what it was but I did not acknowledge it for a long time. But once again, Mgr Tantoco would steer me in the right direction and give me the courage to do what I had to do …
When I visited him in 2009, he asked me a very simple question: “Why don’t you become a priest?”. It was the question that I had for so long avoided, but when Mgr. Tantoco expressed it, I knew that the time had arrived for me to take another life-changing step. Once I was back in England, I contacted my vocations director and I formally started to discern for the priesthood.
When I heard that Mgr. Tantoco had passed away when I woke up this morning, it seemed that an era had ended. I cannot put into words what I felt. I was sad, certainly. A mentor, a teacher, a guide, and an inspiration was gone. A sense of loss engulfed me.
Mgr. Tantoco ruled Caritas Manila not with a fist but with a heart. He treated his subordinates not as employees but as members of his family. He was our father who cared for us as much as we cared for the poor people that we were helping. He never sacrificed his principles but he was always fair. He was our director but he was also our motivation.
I would not be where I am now if it wasn’t for him.
The Catholic Church in the Philippines has lost a faithful and much-loved servant. But he will forever be in our hearts.
We love and thank you, Mgr. Tantoco. Rest in peace.