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papa osmubal
oscar balajadia IT WAS a quarter before 5am. Some jerk could not manage to get some sleep and, for the need of a consoling soul to share his burden, was trying to wake everybody up in the building. I did not complain about him walking aimlessly around. In fact, there was something in his gait that mystified me. His footfalls were not rude and annoying, but rather chivalrous and kind—they emitted command, as if they wanted to shout "Wake up!" and yet they showed kindness and gentleness as to make one feel more comfortable and much sleepier. In between wakefulness and slumber, I heard him approach my door (yes, of all the damn doors that God or Mang Peping, our seminary maintenance worker, had made!) What was he up to now? What had I to do with his wretched condition? When that happened to me I would never bother anybody else!

We had a nice weekend party the night before and the euphoria was still inundating in my entire being as if I were dreaming. I did not want to wake up. Aah, the singing, the guitar playing, the jokes, the poetry reading, the religious discussion, and the loud debates on Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Socrates fit only for people in the know, etcetera—no, for the sakes of humanity and all its civilizations, those must go on, nobody should stop them! I had to sleep and savor one of life's free pleasures available to all sentient creatures, regardless of their species.

Then, those soft but dreadful taps on the door! Then that soft and commanding whisper! "Hey, it is time. We might be late."

It was my seminary rector. My rector was waking me up! I momentarily sat up and then rolled back into my bed, fraught with frustration, my pillow on face and my warm blanket cocooning me. "Pack all your things now," my rector reminded me once again. Then I just mysteriously started blaming both myself and God for my utter lack of preternatural power to kill (or—to use kinder and more humane words—desensitize and freeze) and resurrect individuals.

Oh, yeah, we had a weekend party the night before. We always had regular weekend parties. The weekend party we had the night before was like no others, though. It was rather bigger and happier because it was also a semester-end party, organized by the seminary beadle and his council, of which I was a member. It was actually my and the beadle's plan that we forced on the council. We thought we all deserved that party after all the harrowing barrages of consultations: "Your grade in Epistemology is low!"; "Your Old Testament grade is terrible but your Sociology was impressive!" ; "You did well in Anthropology but your Latin is a mess"; "Are you sure you want to do your thesis on Tao Te Ching? Why not try John Scotus?"; "If you continue like this you can't pursue your theology in Rome?"; "The psychologist told me you were a no-show at her office last week!"; "The doctor wants to see your condition one last time before going to summer mission camp"...

We needed a party and, for the love of humanity, we had to get it! But then it was like a death-row convict's last meal. The party was approved because the proctors and the rector knew we would have tough weeks ahead of us, as we had to go to our respective semester-break missions the following morning.

The tap on the door continued. This time it was faster and stronger. Diplomacy was going to fade, but luckily I was forewarned by some pretend coughs, indicating that the next time that that mouth opened, a burning lightning would come out. Shoving my pillows and blanket to one side of the bed, I forced myself to stand up. I never felt my body that heavy before.

I opened the door, and my rector's face was there—emotionless like an apparition in the hallway in front of the life-size statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus which was the symbol of our congregation's spirituality. My rector was an intellectual (a hard-nosed missioner with an MA degree in Anthropology and Current Issues in Philosophy from one of Rome's toughest seminaries and topped that with decades of missionary experience in the most unkindly places in Africa!) But he was still an ordinary human being like me! He needed some sleep, especially after that party that lasted until well over midnight. There were dissatisfaction and complaint painfully carved on his face that he could not (or should not) utter.

"Ready? The seminary doctor and the psychologist faxed me these. Yesterday evening before the party," he said, handing me letters that declared I was fit for a semester-break mission. I just did not know what one of the seminarians did that his application for exemption from semester-break mission had been approved. God, so they say, works in mysterious ways. Instead of going to a criminals-infected squatter area in Tondo, he had been assigned to man the seminary while everybody else was away. All of heavenly principalities were my witnesses, I was sicker than that seminarian (whom we secretly called "Pope John the 24th," not because he wanted to be a pope one day but rather we thought him next in line to Pope John XXIII in terms of body size); I was vomiting like crazy and had a freaking high fever the week before, but God was kinder to him. We carried around the same breviary and Bible, but he might have recited a few extra Our Fathers and Hail Marys. Or I might have offended the saints for reading a lot about existentialism and deism and listening to a lot of Frank Zappa (as "part of my reading in a unit on Contemporary Issues in Philosophy," I told my rector). Well, things made sense, because the seminarian who had to stay behind to indulge himself with the comfort of the seminary was a die-hard fan of Therese of Lisieux and Anthony of Padua.

We were three seminarians assigned in my mission post. One was a brat from Cebu. The other was an aspiring philosopher from Aklan. One thing that made our group interesting was that we were all planning to do our theses on existentialism. But that was not the reason why I was in that group. I was chosen to be with them because I was from Pampanga. I was the mouthpiece, or rather the woofer, of the group because we were going to work for the Aeta in a village in a lahar-filled crease sandwiched in between mountains and hills of Floridablanca and Porac.

It was a stark dark when set out on our journey. My rector was our driver. He gathered us all near the seminary van and asked us to stoop our heads for a short silent prayer. We groaned. "Don't act like children," he answered back. Then there was a minute of silence. That was perhaps the longest minute in my life.

My rector, sensing that we were through praying, blessed us all with the sign of the cross. After murmuring "amen" (frankly the lousiest "amen" I had ever heard), he got on the van, and we swooshed and swished in the streets with his Italian-style of driving, until we reached San Fernando in one piece. We never sustained even a bruise, owing perhaps to sheer luck or to the kindness of the man upstairs whose people we were going to serve, which was why we were traveling in such an unearthly hour.

From one highway we turned to another where we drove past one of the famous landmarks of Pampanga—the Paskuhan Village. "That is the Christmas village," I told my companions. "Donít mention Christmas at this time of the year and now that I haven't had my breakfast yet," warned one of my fellow seminarians.

My rector pulled over the van and stopped it into a field so we can eat breakfast. Our seminary cook, Manang Puring, packed a kingly breakfast for our travel, but none of us had the appetite for it. "Take some tomato juice," one of my fellow seminarians suggested. "It helps relieve the headache."

We continued our travel after our breakfast. We went to a relief center that cared for the victims of the Pinatubo eruption. My rector talked to the diocesan priest who was in charge of the center. My rector introduced us briefly to the priest—which was not really an introduction to me, but rather a form of livery, a conveyance: "These are so-and-so. They will be novitiates next semester and will be pursuing their theology after that. They are the seminarians assigned to your archdiocese." After the quick introduction, the priest invited my rector into his office for some priest-to-priest talk that seminarians did not have to listen to. We heard buzzes and muffled laughter coming from the office. When they got back out, my rector handed us our allowance for our six-week stay in the mountains. At the very moment my seminary rector stepped out of the door of the relief center and swooshed and swished his way back to our seminary in Quezon City, the diocesan priest became our temporary rector. As our rector pro tempore, the diocesan priest was to oversee all of our activities in the mountains, while we (or one of us) had to travel down to his center to report or to get some weekly provisions for the Aetas and for ourselves. And he had to write reports and observations as to how well we did in our exposure under his care.

The priest was a busy man that we never had a long chat with him. He just asked his secretary and some of his volunteers to prepare our rooms and meals and, from time to time, would just peep into our rooms to check if we needed something. We spent a night in his center. The next morning one of the volunteers in his center drove us to our mission camp. And then after the completion of our six-week mission we had to spend another night in his center to wait for our rector to pick us up.

The priest handed a Manila envelope to my rector before saying goodbye to all of us. It was a quick goodbye, much quicker than our introduction, typical of him who worked more than he talked. The envelope might have had the priest's reports on our exposure that would eventually constitute chunks of our overall evaluation in Social Philosophy and Church Doctrine. We must have done pretty well and the diocesan priest must have been happy with our apostolate among the Aetas.

As we drove out of the center's compound, we saw the fading image of the smiling priest. His smile was full of hope which was perhaps the driving force in his center and a moving inspiration to his volunteers. After a short while the name on the center's signboard faded from our view. But the image of the diocesan priest remained vivid in our memory.

The center was called Social Action Center of Pampanga, better known as SACOP, and the priest was Among Ed Panlilio. That was a very long time ago. It was when SACOP was just a fledgling center with but a handful of volunteers. That was long before one Among Ed became the provincial governor of Pampanga.

[About the author. Papa Osmubal is Oscar Balajadia of Magalang, now Macau resident and married to a Chinese local. He has been a Catholic seminarian, Catholic missionary, bookstore staff, teaching assistant, and teacher. Currently at daytime he is the Assistant Librarian at The International School of Canada in Macau, while at nighttime he moonlights as part-time teacher and tutor. His poems have appeared in various anthologies and publications, online and hardcopy. He has work archived in the University of Columbia Granger's World of Poetry  and other places. A work of his will also appear in the forthcoming W.W. Norton Poetry Anthology of Contemporary Voices from the East.  He is a contributing writer to Chick Flicks, Our Own Voice (OOV): Writing from the Filipino Diaspora, and other publications.]

-Posted: 8:16 AM 1/25/08 | More of this author on eK!