When I was welcomed by the people in my new parish assignment, their leader remarked, “Welcome ka rito sa amin, Father… Kaya lang po mahirap po rito at malungkot.”
It has been one month that I officially took over as parish priest of San Nicolas de Tolentino Parish in Brgy. Napsan, west coast of the city of Puerto Princesa (It certainly rings a bell if we mention the West Philippine Sea, does it?). The half-month of which was spent in lockdown. In other words, there was no religious gathering for two weeks. Automatically, it would also mean no income for the parish. Instead of being locked up and feeling down though, I used the time to get to know my new parish by browsing through old files (history, list of parish priests, organizational chart, chapel officers composition, financial status, among others) and by looking around the church surroundings.
Truth be told that I did aspire to be assigned in Napsan. Above and beyond other reasons, I was aware that the motivation was the echo of what a mentor would tell me- “Huwag kang mamimili ng assignment… At kung may pagkakataon naman na ikaw ay papipiliin, piliin mong paglingkuran ang mga mahihirap.” I must confess that I would romanticize that missionary wisdom over and over again. But as I get closer to reality, I would already sense butterflies in my tummy. Anxiety and worry also enveloped me a bit. I have been used to the urban setting for the most part of my life, then Napsan? I have been in the cathedral parish and in the academe for over a decade, then Napsan? A jet setter was how I was often seen by not a few, then Napsan?
Actually, Napsan is not all there is. Still, Simpocan and Bagong Bayan are the other two areas under the jurisdiction of the parish. Traditionally and significantly, the area is of the indigenous peoples (the Tagbanuas specifically). The Cuyunons and the Cagayanens came to settle later on. Curiously, the patron saint of the parish is San Nicolas de Tolentino, the same patron saint in Cagayancillo. Your guess is as good as mine as to who brought Christianity in this side of the world.) On the other hand, the pristine beauty of beaches and the idyllic greens keep on attracting investors to transform our beloved area into another tourism mecca. As such, different cultural groups have also arrived on the West Coast, notably big investors.
In matters financial, as told by one leader, indeed our parish is “mahirap”- one of the poorest if not the poorest of parishes in our Vicariate. The parish fund that was turned over to me was Php 945.00. Saan aabot ang ito? What was there to look forward to when for two Sundays the church would be closed due to the pandemic restrictions? I simply smiled and had my hope calibrated that God would find rescue, either to surprise me or to shame me when I would doubt. Lo and behold, help keep pouring in ways wonderfully unimaginable to me. And voila, just before the month ended, we already have something that could make us survive well for another month.
One time I called for a meeting with the parish coordinators. I set it at 10 o’clock in the morning. I was surprised that as early as 7 AM some would already be coming. “Hello, Father… Early bird po kami. Kasi po kami ang may pinakamalayo na lugar.” I fell silent as to why would these people had to be very early at 3 hours before the scheduled meeting. “Hinabol po namin ang morning trip (public transportation) kasi po ang susunod na trip ay 4 PM pa po.” Talk about dedicating time (so much time, that is) only to serve God and His Church. In their faces, I had not seen any expression of impatience or the like. Instead, what I felt was the joy in their hearts as shown by their collective gentle smile. “Masaya po kami, Father na may panahon kami sa Simbahan. Bine-bless po kami ni Lord sa aming buhay.” Need we say more?
After having spent a month in Napsan, I would dare say that I have debunked “mahirap at malungkot po rito”. Totoong merong kahirapan pero hindi naman nagugutuman. At ang kalungkutan ay tila nasa isip lamang. Well, one month pa lang naman, 5 years and 11 months more to go. Gudlak!
I would always challenge my parishioners, “6 years ako rito ha. Walang iwanan. Walang tampuhan. Tyagain na lang natin ang isa’-isa.” All said, “mahirap at malungkot” could just be an opinion. What matters is in taking up the challenge and rising to the occasion. And since our work is actually God’s work, there is no cause for worry; there are only reasons to be confident about as you do God’s work.
Interestingly, our parish with its 3 barangays has been dubbed as Simbana. It stands for Simpocan, Bagong Bayan and Napsan. Quite a fitting challenge and inspiration to always declare- Simbana, or better yet, Simba Na! Roughly translated as “It’s time to go to church!”… And so be it.