A Reflection on 50 Years of Priesthood: Jan 1963 – Jan 2013
by Fr. Frank Tobin, C.Ss.R.
Yahweh said to Abram “Leave your country, your family and your father’s house, for the land I will show you. I will make you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you, I will curse, and in you all peoples of the earth will be blessed. So Abram went as Yahweh had told him.” Gen 12; 1 – 3
Go East Young Priest!
On Jan 20 1963 I was ordained a Redemptorist priest together with 6 companions in Galway Ireland. In November of the same year I was assigned to the Philippines with my companion Mick Heagney. So the words of Yahweh to Abram “Leave your country” resonated with me. But unlike Abram we were young and didn’t feel any pain in leaving home. Emigration was part of my childhood experience. Thousands left Ireland every year to seek a better future. As well many Irish priests and sisters worked as missionaries in various countries of the world. We traveled to the Philippines by ship beginning on June 28 1964 – a trip of 6 weeks. We arrived in Manila bay on August 10 1964 and were welcomed by our confreres in Baclaran. We hadn’t received any “orientation” seminar or even a basic cultural backgrounder on the Philippines. We suffered from cultural shock.
After a few days we took our first flight (a DC 3) to Iloilo and were met by Pat Reynolds at the airport in Mandurriao. In the meantime it was announced by our Vice Provincial Peter Mulrooney that Mick was assigned to Iloilo and I to Bacolod. I arrived in Bacolod welcomed by Pat Nulty, Sean Magnier, Joe Corr and Bro. Clement Genciana. (Ivan Hurley, Pat Sugrue and Pat Horgan were out on missions) The first journey God invites Abraham to undertake is to leave his own country and physical securities. There are many things we take for granted when we find ourselves securely in our natural environment; we become aware of our dependence or attachment to them only when their absence begins to be felt. We enjoy the comfort of our own ‘culture’, where we relate to others without complex explanations. The comfort or the sense of belonging I have it by right of birth. So began my journey “leave your own country” My attempts to learn Ilonggo were slow and frustrating. Trying to understand the “ways” of the Filipino proved much more complex and unending e.g. sense of time and when “Yes” means “No.”
As I look back my first six years were purely survival ones. Yet in the midst of it there were wonderful times of kindness and affection. At times I did feel greatly loved and appreciated. But there were times when I cried to the lord “where are you”? What am I doing here?
Bacolod-Ireland-Iloilo, and Parish Priest!
I was transferred to Iloilo after my break in Ireland. In April ’72 I was asked to supply in the parish for Pat Sugrue (for six months) and I finished up as PP until December ‘78. These were wonderful years, I became deeply immersed in the lives of the people, my facility in the dialect improved (or perhaps I got more confident) many of the diocesan priests became my friends and I had my first genuine lay friends who accepted me in all my moods and tenses. But I had many failures too as I thought everything depended on me. The Lord had to teach me hard lessons which I can sum up in the verse “You did not choose me, it was I who chose you and sent you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” Jn 15:16. I would like to place on record my last mission work was in March ‘81 in Bucari, Leon. (I used to have a few twinges of regret about my giving up the transient mission work)
Martial Law, Various Apostolates and Caring for Mother
Martial Law (Sept. 1972 – Feb ’86) was a turbulent time for us Redemptorists. We were called “Redemterrorists”, Leftist, NPA supporters, etc. We didn’t always agree with one another but we were all facing the one direction. We were all battered and some were broken. From ’81 until 2011 my apostolate in Bacolod and Iloilo was in the parish or in the church with some involvement in the retreat houses. I did have a fairly high profile in the Marriage Encounter movement of the CFM (Christian family Movement). I would like to insert here a word of gratitude to our Vice Provincials and Provincials who gave me compassionate leave to visit my aged mother regularly. In the early 80s I had shared in our all Irish group that I had felt an obligation to care for my mother who was in her 80s and on her own (my father had died in ’73) and our patriarch Pat Nulty in his booming voice said to me “trust in the Lord” and I followed his advice and my mother lived until 2000. 2002 – 2005 was an oasis of renewed energy as I became PP of St Clément’s with a competent and committed staff.
We propose but God Disposes
But it came to an end abruptly as I had heart bypass surgery in July 2005. I was once again transferred back to Bacolod. I don’t wish to dwell on the closure of the Bacolod house except to say it was/is a painful experience. I had anticipated that my final years would be spent in Iloilo contributing to the apostolate there and to the community as my health allowed. 2011 brought the message of God to Abraham into my life “Leave your country, your family and your father’s house for the land I will show you” I was asked to go to Davao. I didn’t want to leave my Ilonggo home, my friends and my familiar surroundings. As God called Abraham so we are called by the Lord to live in radical obedience to Him, whatever that might involve. So I am in Davao as a Presence. As Pedro Munoz writes “I have discovered that I easily search for interior settlements and comfortable lands trying to avoid the risky daily experience of trusting God. I have been revitalized interiorly and deeply challenged and motivated to live with a God who is always on the move and wants me to experience the fullness of life by migrating every day from me to Him and from me to my brothers and sisters” I can identify with the words of Dorothy Day “we have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community” .
My biggest regret is not expressing my thanks (and retaining their names) to the wonderful people who welcomed me into their homes in my missionary experiences and the many people who accompanied me beyond their own barrios. Zenaida Solis of Cawayan (Neg. Occ.) still remains in my memory from 1966 a teacher who accompanied me for 3 barrios (my Visayan was bad) and helped me in many ways. But so many others are forgotten.
I am grateful for the many friends who entered my life and are still there today (even though separated by distance) but I am also aware of the many people who suffered because of my impulsive ways (in my younger years) or uncaring attitude. I remember the “lesson” I learned from Fr. Willie Daly. I had announced that baptisms would take place between 8.30 – 10.30am. Everything went well and I was charming even if there were some who arrived at 10.20. However at 11.40 the catechist called me and said there was one more. I berated the mother “Did she not know the schedule, etc.?” I did give the sacrament but with “waay sabur”. When I returned to the house Fr. Willie called me aside “Frank an important lesson; you either do the baptism or refuse – that is your decision – but do everything with gentleness and with a smile. Filipinos are a sensitive people so be kind”. That was an important day for me. I didn’t always practice the “learning” of that day but I tried.
Finally I thank God for the calling and for sustaining me to this day. I thank my parents for giving me life and love. I am grateful for being born into a faith filled community. I thank my sister and relatives for always being there for me even if I have spent most of my life in the Philippines.
As Jan. 20, 2013 approaches I use the prayer/poem of John 0’Donohue
May the light of my soul mind me. May all my worry and anxiousness about becoming old be transfigured. May I be given wisdom for the eye of my soul, to see this beautiful time of harvesting. May I have great dignity, may I have a sense of how free I am and above all may I be given the wonderful gift of meeting the Eternal Light and May I be Blessed!