The Philippines—touted as Asia’s only Christian country—is running out of priests fast. Even in our very own province, our parishes are being left to aging priests way past their retirement years. As a result, the quality of their ministry have suffered and continue to deteriorate. Our good priests are humans after all, subject to natural frailities—mood swings, memory loss and the occasional hormonal imbalance. Talk about rambling sermons that go nowhere, mismanagement of church funds, hidden families, wealth accumulation sprees and grouchy temperaments.
This has led to ‘disgusto’ on the part of the parishioners sometimes, and I have heard of at least one story where church elders of one Pampanga parish tried to oust their indifferent priest through ‘people power’.
As a general rule though, we Kapampangans are a forgiving and understanding lot. We are long on tolerance, quick to kowtow before authorities. Thus, when it comes to our priests, we treat them consistently with our pampering, over-solicitous attitude. A Kapampangan hymn sung during Mass goes: “Balen a pari, balen a ari” (Town of priests, town of kings)—and this speaks true of the royal treatment we accord our religious leaders.
We call them “Among”—a derivative of the word “amo”, meaning Master or Lord—thus putting them in a class above us. We kiss his hands, we trail behind him when we walk and we give him money envelopes with his every visit. During fiestas, the best seat of the house is reserved for the priest. It is no wonder that, served with the richest, most delicious food, he fattens up—from his belly to his nape—leading to an expression called “katundun pari”, a bulging nape like a priest’s.
This extra reverence of Kapampangans to their parish priests can be traced back to the days when the Augustinian friar was looked at as the most powerful figure in town. It is this same attitude that our national hero, Jose Rizal, took note of and loathed, documenting these excesses in his novels.
On the other hand, there is basis for this unabashed attention given to priests. The early Augustinians assigned to Pampanga were noted for their rare virtues like compassion, humility and the will to serve. Several letters in the Augustinian archives reveal the sincere feelings of the Kapampangans towards their church leaders. Written by gobernadorcillos and local town people, these testimonial letters give us a glimpse of the heroism of early Augustinian priests.
In a letter dated 11 December 1897 sent by the Angeles principalia to the Augustinian Provincial requesting him not to transfer their cura, Fray Rufino Santos, the people wrote: Fr. Santos is a kind priest, a good father, the best advser and assiduous protector. To him, Fr. Provincial, we owe our peace in these (critical) times..”.
Floridablancans also asked for a permanent stay for their parish priest Fray Pedro Diez Ubierna in an 1898 missive: “ During the ill-fated days of such disastrous Revolution..our Rev. Parish Priest protected us, who, like Providence, arrived in time to be our venerable Pastor. With his affable treatment and talent, he knew how to inculcate in the hearts of all his faithful, the humility and true obedience to the Divine Laws, strengthening us with the Word of the Gospel and setting good examples, which he so eloquently knows how to transmit in the local language”.
Returning friars assigned to Pampanga spoke glowingly of the renown hospitality of Kapampangans, news that reached even the Augustinian Royal College in Valladolid, Spain. In the years that followed, this same indulgent regard was transferred to native priests, and to this day, this attitude persists, notwithstanding conduct unbecoming. The dwindling number of priestly vocations have also given the Christian populace not much choice but to accept whoever is assigned to their parish, warts and all. As one parishioner moaned, “ala tang agawa, ditak na la reng mag-pari” (‘we can’t do anything, only a few are entering priesthood).
With that tone of fatal resignation, we might as well rephrase that familiar line: “Ya ing pari, ya ing ari…itamu ing mayayari!” (He is the priest, he is the King…but we are the victims).
(*NOTE: Feature titles with asterisks represent other writings of the author that appeared in other publications and are not included in the original book, "Views from the Pampang & Other Scenes")