I was born in the Philippines, the second of three sons. My parents moved to the UK to work when I was five years old, and they left my brothers and me in the temporary care of my paternal grandmother while they prepared for our new life in the UK.
The idea of being a priest appealed to me since childhood. My fondest memories from my early years include Sunday mornings when my grandmother would take me to mass in our local church in the Philippines. I would often wonder what it would be like to be a priest, to make a difference in people’s lives and to spread the word of God.
But for many years, priests were distant figures for me. I placed them on the same high pedestal as I placed teachers and policemen, people I admired but did not have the courage to approach unless I had to.
My first “up close and personal” experience with a priest was when I was about eight. My grandmother took me to church on my birthday and when Fr Dizon, our parish priest at the time, discovered the reason for my attending mass that day, he invited us to have breakfast with him after the service. To me, it felt like being invited by an A-list celebrity. I was so awed by the priest’s presence that I could not ask the questions I wanted to ask during our breakfast. But I learned enough from his conversation with my grandmother to know that my admiration had not been misplaced. His stories about his life in the parish inspired me and would remain with me for many years to come.
That I wanted to be like Fr Dizon was a recurring thought through my years in primary school. I attended the Sacred Heart Academy in my home town, and in addition to providing me with a good, solid Catholic education, the school fuelled my fascination with saints and the holy people of the Church. The class groupings were named after saints and at the start of each year I was fascinated to learn about our new class patron saint. Even today, I remember how eager I was to hear about the lives of St Joseph, St John the Baptist, and St Maria Goretti to name but a few.
In 1981, Pope John Paul II visited the Philippines. His visit filled me with such joy and it became doubly meaningful for me when he beatified Lorenzo Ruiz on my birthday, 18 February. Lorenzo Ruiz would go on to become the first Filipino saint and I added him to my list of holy men from whom to draw inspiration.
How I admired saints so … and how inadequate I felt because of it. How could I ever be like them? How could I ever follow their examples? I think it was from this that my feeling of “unworthiness” first materialised. I wanted to be a priest but I instead of thinking of the reasons why I could be a priest, I focused on the reasons why I could not. I told myself that I wasn’t disciplined or religious enough. In short, I did not feel good enough. It took a very special kind of person to be a priest and I felt just too ordinary.
The doubts magnified over the next few years. It was also around this time when I started to have new aspirations: I decided that I wanted to get married and have children like my parents, and I wanted to get a well-paid job and travel the world.
When I was 11, my brothers and I joined our parents in the UK. It was a total culture shock for me and in retrospect, the main impact the move had on me was on my spiritual life. The Philippines was a devout Catholic country whereas the UK was predominantly a secular country. I never stopped practising my religion – I still went to Catholic schools and went to church most Sundays – but gradually the importance I placed on my faith became less and less. It was all too easy to become a “casual” Catholic in the UK and my religion was no longer the light that guided my decisions. Other things became more important than religion such as girls and going out with friends. Pop stars replaced saints as my idols and going to concerts became more meaningful than going to mass..
I stayed a “casual” Catholic through my high school and university years. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I was to have a rekindling of faith. Armed with my brand-new degree in business and management studies, I decided to spend a year in the Philippines to rediscover my roots, but the decision also led to a rediscovery of my faith. In the Philippines, I was once again in a society where going to church was not only normal but expected.
Re-awakening of faith
My faith was further re-awoken when I volunteered for Caritas Manila, a large Catholic charity based in the capital of the Philippines. From the beginning, there was the sense of me being called to that organisation: it wasn’t my first choice of charity to volunteer for but I believe God eventually led me there for a reason.
At Caritas, my life took on a new meaning as I was exposed to the harsh realities of life in the Philippines: poverty, corruption, and unemployment to name but a few. Knowing that in my own small way I was helping those less fortunate than I, was a wonderful feeling indeed. My life before Caritas seemed superficial. How could I have worried so about what new clothes to wear, which compact discs to buy next, or which trendy nightclub to go to with my friends?
My relationship with God became more intimate. I felt God’s guiding hands in everything I did, from monotonous paperwork to field visits to depressed areas. I felt Him every time I wrote an article. I heard Him every time I talked to an ex-prisoner or an abused wife who was enjoying a more comfortable life because of Caritas.
I felt such a deep sense of purpose that I stayed at Caritas for about four years. From a volunteer, I became a full-time communications officer in charge of all of Caritas’ official publications including a fortnightly four-page newspaper supplement providing updates on parishes in the Archdiocese of Manila.
Faith in action
My attraction for the priesthood returned as I worked closely with Monsignor Francisco Tantoco, our executive director, and other priests in the Archdiocese of Manila. As I saw them in “action” and doing God’s work, I was reminded of what I wanted to be while growing up. One of my favourite assignments was being a part of Cardinal Jaime Sin’s party in his official pastoral visits. I would follow the then Archbishop of Manila around parishes to report on his activities and write analyses on his speeches. In doing so, I witnessed first hand the real essence of the Catholic Church.
Once again, I could hear God calling me to do something. It was stronger this time round but still, I did not feel ready to answer it. I still wanted to marry and have kids, and I still wanted to see the world. And so, even though a big part of me wanted me to continue God’s work at Caritas, I decided to return to the UK after four years of service. I justified the decision to myself by saying that I had family responsibilities back in London and the fact that my work permit was due to expire gave me another excuse to leave behind a life that I loved.
Back in London, I fulfilled my ambitions one by one. I found jobs that paid well, I travelled to various countries, I bought everything I always wanted, and generally lived a comfortable and contented life. I did not revert to being a “casual” Catholic, however. This time, I held on to my faith and allowed it to remain the centre of my life. I continued to support Caritas by maintaining their website and writing for their publications. I also joined Project 2030, a group for Catholics in the UK in their 20s and 30s. The group helped me grow in my faith with activities such as trips to the Vatican and regular retreats around the country.
In 2005, I got engaged to a girl I had known for ten years. I thought that my life was finally going to be complete, that I was going to have everything I ever wanted. I was going to marry a girl I loved and respected and we were going to raise many children. But things did not work out quite as planned: my fiancé broke the engagement citing “irreconcilable differences”, leaving me confused and feeling lost.
To quicken the healing process, I set out to enjoy myself to the fullest by jet setting to even more places, dating other girls, and accumulating material things. But gradually, I realised that those things were no longer making me happy. I thought that maybe God was once again telling me something, that He was telling me that my true vocation lay elsewhere.
In May 2009, I made my annual visit to the Philippines. I had visited the Philippines almost every year since resigning from Caritas and each time I made an effort to visit Monsignor Tantoco. The year 2009 was no different: I visited my former executive director in his office in the Arzobispado de Manila. As usual, I updated him on my life and he updated me on Caritas’ latest programmes and activities. But afterwards, he asked me something, the answer to which would steer my life’s direction from then on. He asked me, “Why don’t you become a priest?”.
I could not answer at first, not because I did not know how or what to answer, but because the answer that I felt immediately in my heart surprised me. For the first time since I first thought about the idea of becoming a priest, I could not think of any objections. Finally, I felt that there was no reason why I should not or could not become a priest. Suddenly, I had the courage to say “yes” to God.
When I returned to the UK, I contacted Fr Chris, who was then the vocations director for the Diocese of Westminster. I was nervous during our initial meeting, half-convinced that he would tell me that I was wasting his time. But the meeting led to more meetings and me getting to know other men who were also discerning.
In May 2010, Fr Richard, who succeeded Fr Chris as vocations director, invited me to a “Come and See” weekend at Allen Hall. I consider it as one of my most life-changing experiences. I felt an instant sense of belonging to Allen Hall. Everything about the weekend felt right: the prayer life, the mingling with the seminarians, and the profound sense that I was being prepared for something I was meant to do.
I was accepted for formation in March 2011.