Exam Thoughts

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For this academic year at least, our lectures at the Pontifical Gregorian University are over and the exam period has begun. I have mixed feelings about entering the exam period because, like most things, it has its pros and cons.

During the exams, the normal seminary timetable is abandoned to give us more flexibility. It’s the formation staff’s way of acknowledging that during the exams, we students face more pressure and a more relaxed timetable could make all the difference.

I think it would be fair to say that having to wake up early is one of the least popular aspects of being in a seminary. We normally have our morning prayer at 6:45 am and this is immediately followed by mass. Those who hate getting up early in particular welcome the exam period because the more flexible timetable eliminates the need for early starts: the exam timetable gives us a choice of two masses to attend – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – and the communal morning prayer is also suspended (it is said in private instead).

Another great thing is that during the exam period, we are relieved of certain house duties such as setting up the refectory for breakfast – these are done by members of staff instead.

These are the pleasant things about the exam period. A less pleasant aspect is the sense of isolation it gives me. I live in a community and I am surrounded by people who are on the same boat, but ultimately I am on my own. Nobody can study for me and nobody can pass my exams for me. It is one of those occasions when only I can help myself. It feels that the tunnel that I have to journey under is long and dark, and that the light at the end of it takes a while to show.

How do I cope? By making time to still do the things I enjoy such as blogging and other creative pursuits. It goes without saying that taking time to pray is also important, as is doing something physical such as going out for a walk. I also constantly remind myself that exams do not last forever. The light at the end of the tunnel is there and it will eventually reveal itself.

Or, as one of my Theology professors would put it, there is no Resurrection without the Crucifixion.

Mgr. Francisco G. Tantoco, Jr. (1939–2014)

tantocoIf you were to ask me why I want to be a priest, one of my reasons would be Mgr. Francisco G. Tantoco, Jr.

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.

Three Wishes

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Sometimes wishes do come true … but not in the ways you expect.

In the Noughties, I had three three wishes: I wanted to go back to full-time education, I wanted to experience working and living abroad, and I wanted to get more involved with the Church.

Wish No. 1

I’m not quite sure why I wanted to be a student again. Perhaps I had missed attending lectures and campus life in general. Or perhaps I thought I was getting old and being a student represented being young. Whatever the reasons, going back to full-time education was not an option. Financially, it was not possible. The only way I could have afforded the tuition fees was to have had a job, and I couldn’t have a job if I wanted to go back to education full time. I had to content myself with part-time courses. I lost count of the many evening and weekend courses I enrolled on (many of which I did not finish because I lost interest after a while). I did complete a master’s degree in digital media, however, which I did part time over two years with the support of my employer at the time.

Wish No. 2

Working abroad attracted me because I liked the challenge. I fantasised about moving somewhere unusual: somewhere I had never been before and where I did not have any friends or relatives. I saw it as a grand adventure. At one point, I came close to getting an interview for a web editor job in Qatar. I got very excited about the prospect of working in the Middle East but it never happened.

Wish No. 3

Wanting to get involved with the Church was nothing new but in the Noughties I wanted greater involvement. I think it was because I had fond memories of when I worked for Caritas Manila in the mid-90s. Those years were among the happiest in my life and I guess I wanted to bring them back. I remember applying for jobs with Church-related organisations such as CAFOD but my efforts did not bear fruit.

Good things come to those who wait, so they say. In 2009, I had the big idea of applying for priestly formation and when I was accepted in 2011, all three dreams came true all at once. Being a seminarian meant being a full-time Philosophy and Theology student, living in Rome for seven years, and – most importantly – offering my whole life to the Church.

So pray, wish and dream. To do so costs nothing but the rewards could be great.