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alex r. castro
alex r castro IN MY younger years, whenever I was handed a slum book for signing, I would often write under "Ambition," the vocation of my dreams: "To be a priest." I do not know exactly what motivating force(s) led me to decide on such a holy aspiration, considering that at age 10 or so, I was into petty domestic theft---pilfering 5-centavo coins from my Ingkung's empty Newport cigarette pack that doubled as his coin purse, when he's not looking. It may be because I had a Monsignor for an uncle, Fr. Manuel del Rosario, parish priest of San Roque Church in Blumentritt for over 30 years. Or it may have something to do with the visual appeal of wearing a soutane matched with gold-embroidered chasubles and fancy headgear. Then again, it may just have come from my mother's inescapable power of suggestion. Anyway, the closest I ever got to my dream was spending my high school at Sacred Heart Seminary, extern department. By then, my interests had shifted and my ambition irrevocably changed.

Of late, the priestly vocation has fallen into hard times what with the dwindling number of seminarians and the current attack on priests with hormones gone berserk. But in the early part of the century, to have a priest in the family meant singular esteem and distinction. Priests were generally accorded with reverence and their families looked up to them with respect. Becoming a priest, after all, involved years of disciplined education, rigid character formation, and profound spiritual preparations under spartan conditions, making one, in effect, more than your average ordinary person.

Take the case of the country's first Filipino priests, Pampanga's own sons who fought adversities and suffered unjust discrimination in pursuit of their religious calling. Archbishop Diego Camacho y Avila is credited for initiating the training of Filipino aspirants for priesthood when he headed Manila's archdiocese on 13 September 1697. Before that, only Spaniards were allowed to enter the priesthood.

Francisco Baluyot of Guagua, Pampanga broke barriers by becoming the first known indio priest, who, upon ordination in 1698, was assigned to the archdiocese of Cebu. Soon, more Kapampangan priests were blazing new trails: Alfonso Baluyot y Garcia, the first indio missionary was sent to the northern diocese of Nueva Segovia, Abra de Vigan. The first Filipino pastor, Blas de Sta. Rosa, became the cura of Tabuco (now Cabuyao), Laguna, after a series of competitive exams. Upon his death, he bequeathed an obra pia  for the perpetual support of his parish. Juan Mañago became the first Filipino chaplain for both the royal regiment and hospitals. In September 1705, another Baluyot, Martin Baluyot Panlasigui, was ordained by Bishop Andres Gonzales of Nueva Caceres, and nominated for the curacy of Abuyan, Tayabas. The same bishop had a change of heart and refused to install him to his post, even after the governor general gave his approval---clearly, a discriminatory act. Fr. Martin Baluyot assumed his post only in 1711, years after Gonzales's death.

By the twentieth century, seminaries like San Carlos in Mandaluyong were graduating men of the cloth at a steady rate. Newly-ordained priests from this era (1910-1930s) included young Kapampangans, who sent out real photo souvenir postcards (such as the one pictured here) to friends, relatives, madrinos and padrinos (rich sponsors who supported the education of less privileged seminarians). While conditions have considerably improved, these young priests still had to endure the physical rigors of ministering to the spiritual needs of people in far-flung Pampanga barrios and sitios, often trudging dirt roads or riding horseback to reach their constituents.

photo from the alex castro collection

Among the Kapampangan seminaristas  included in this august group is the very young Andres Bituin, (top row, first at right) whose roots are in Betis. In 1956, he was a Monsignor, still serving San Guillermo parish in Bacolor. The accomplished Fr. Bituin rose to become a Vicario Forane, while his younger first cousin, Rev. Fr. Cosme Bituin, became a Vicario General and parish priest of the Holy Rosary Parish in Angeles City in the 1950s. Fourth from right is the future Fr. Elias Reyes who was to serve as the first priest of the new Virgen de los Remedios Parish of Sto. Domingo, Minalin. In the second row, third from right, stands Teodoro Tantengco, who was to be assigned to Masantol early in his career, but by 1947, he was stationed in 287 Sta. Cruz, Manila. Next to him is Felipe Roque, who was to make his mark in Mabalacat as its progressive cura for a decade (1949-1959), with his major renovations of the church and its altars. The third bespectacled man seated in the front row is the future Fr. Vicente M. de la Cruz, who was to become the longtime parish priest of Mexico, passing away in 1941.

With the surprising turn of events in Pampanga's political landscape, the focus has shifted once more to the Kapampangan religious. It took an Among  and his missionary zeal to give Kapampangans a fair and fresh start---still a little shaky, perhaps, but nevertheless, a new beginning that is very much wanted and welcomed. A lot has also been said about our new leader's political inexperience, a calling far different from what he was brought up to do. Cynics among us are quick to point out this imagined weakness, taking very little note of the "experience" of the two movie stars that preceded him. In reality, one can say he's been trained all his life for this role. One needs only to look back at the life stories of young Kapampangan priests before him, who broke barriers, made personal sacrifices and moved heaven and earth in response to the call of God and humanity. The problem these days, is that we have become men of little faith. It's best then we keep what's left of it before we become totally jaded. If faith can move mountains, then surely it can move our beloved province forward.

[About the author. Alex R. Castro has been an adman all his professional life. Presently, he is a business director of Makati-based Jimenez Basic Advertising. His job has taken him around the world, training in New York, London, working in Asia and Australia, and living in Bangkok for 4 years. Yet, Mabalacat, his hometown, continues to be his favorite place on earth. So much so that in January 2006, he singlehandedly researched, wrote, designed, and published a book of his town's history, titled Scenes from a Bordertown & Other Views/Views from the Pampang & Other Scenes. The twin book also featured Pampanga-themed pictorial essays that previously saw print in his column for Sun.Star Pampanga. When not writing advertising copy, he does consultancy work for the Center for Kapampangan Studies at Holy Angel University, collects antiques and books, and tends to his two cats, Uma and Pikachu. A true nerd, he received his Communications degree from St. Louis University in Baguio City and was named as one of the Philippines' Oustanding Students of Communications by the Broadcast Media Council and KBP (Kapisanan ng mga Broadcaster sa Pilipinas).]

-Posted: 1:16 PM 10/8/07 | More of this author on eK!