After nearly 37 years as a missionary priest, I sometimes ask myself, “If I were a young man today, would I make the same choice again?” and “Have I wasted my life?” And yet again, “Was it all worthwhile?”
Of course, it is easier to be wiser with hindsight. We don’t often have that luxury when we have to make choices in our life’s journey. We are, to a great extent, the product of our time, and we live in a very different time today, both in our Church and in our world.
I grew up in a pre-Vatican II Church. My early Catholic formation was secure and sure. I grew up certain that my Church was the only true church and that everyone else was wrong. I had to continually struggle to claim my identity as a person and as a good Catholic.
At the age of 16, I believed strongly that God was calling me to be a missionary priest, not a diocesan and or a Religious brother, because that was the best and most-challenging way I could serve God.
In the Catholic community at that time, being a priest was greatly admired and affirmed. It was the best thing that any young Catholic boy could do. For an idealistic person, this was a powerful attraction, and a challenge I could not resist.
Seminary life was a partial eye-opener in terms of understanding my vocation. My real education and formation as a priest began the day I stepped off the “Changsa” in Manila harbor in 1969. I thought “Oh boy, what have I got myself into now?” At 25, I thought I could make it because I had all the answers tucked away in my trunk! I was in for quite a shock.
In fairness to the seminary formation, I did get a lot of the basics that helped me in my priestly ministry, but there were no textbooks that discussed how to be a good priest in a revolutionary situation.
What I have learned as time goes on is that my vocation finds different expressions as the situation changes. There is no one unchangeable way of exercising my priestly ministry.
I believe our God is a God of surprises. Every year when I celebrate my ordination anniversary I always say. “Well, God, what surprises have you in store for me this year?” It is never the same as it was before.
The surprises make my vocation life-giving and worthwhile. I must be open to the many challenges and opportunities for doing good, both great and small, which come my way.
When Columban Father Niall O’Brien (may he rest in peace) and I were charged with multiple murders under the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, I thought to myself, “Well, God, this one takes the cake!” You wouldn’t want too many surprises like that in a lifetime. Although, I must admit, I have dined out very nicely on that surprise many times during the past 20 years.
I learned very early on to see God at work in the people and events happening around me.
This brings me back to the first question, “If I were a young man today, would I make the same choice, knowing what I know now?”
The answer is, I really don’t know. Yes, it has been worthwhile. Yes, I have grown as a person and in the understanding of my missionary priesthood. Yes, I have been able to do a lot of good with the help of wonderful people. Yes, it has been a lot of fun as well as a lot of heartbreak.
My priesthood today is very much the product of 37 years of trial and error, of reflection and prayer, of struggle and commitment, and of accompanying people in their desire for the fullness of “life.”
Now that I think about it, I just might be foolish enough to try it again!