Introduction Before the Baccalaureate Mass: This has been a momentous year for all of us, but especially for our graduates, who had to complete their final year of academic formation in LST online in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have seen misery around us, but we have also witnessed the heroism of our medical, economic and religious frontliners as they served those in need. Among the religious and clergy who bravely – in faith – stood their ground in the face of COVID-19 are the priests, brothers and seminarians of the Camillians. In his Message on the 450th anniversary of the birth of St. Camillus de Lellis, Pope Francis said that the Camillians, “have given their lives in service to victims of contagious diseases, confirming the truth that dedication to the point of heroism belongs to the prophetic nature of the consecrated life” (Vita consecrata, n. 83). How can we not see in this flourishing holiness a confirmation of the validity of the Camillian charism as a way to the perfection of charity?”. In recognition of the service of the Ministers of the Infirm during this time of the pandemic, we have invited the Master of the Temporarily Professed of the Camillians, Fr. Angel V. Crisostomo, to be our Presider and Homilist in this afternoon’s Baccalaureate Mass.
My heartfelt congratulations to the LST Administration, Faculty, Staff and Students! Today, I wish to leave with you, dear graduates, some thoughts on the gift of our priestly vocation gathered from our humble experience as Camillians in a time of pandemic. As Ministers of the Infirm, we maintain a history of being true to our 4th Vow to serve the sick even in danger of our lives. We are to serve the poor sick, even if plague stricken, in whom we see Christ Himself in the person of the sick with the heart of a tender mother taking good care of her only child who is ill, not for any personal gain, but voluntarily and for the love of God (From the Constitution of the Order promulgated by the 2nd General Chapter, 1599).
St. Philip Neri, whose memorial we celebrate today, became the Spiritual Director of our founder, St. Camillus de Lellis. St. Philip Neri initially discouraged St. Camillus from forming a group of laymen, known to him through fake news as a “glee-club” disturbing the hospital operations with their zeal for prayer and service to the sick. But “God took it upon Himself to furnish Father Philip with indisputable evidence of the necessity of Camillus’ undertaking. One day, two of Camillus’ Religious were assisting a dying person at the home of Cardinal Pallotto. Philip entered and the two respectfully stood aside to make way for him. But the saint protested saying: “Carry on, my sons, carry on with your good work. I can assure you I have seen angels themselves putting unto the lips of two other confreres of yours the words of comfort they were searching for to console the dying man they were assisting” (Mario Vanti, St. Camillus de Lellis and His Ministers of the Sick, 84-85).
In 1994, our Order began to celebrate every 25th of May (birthday of St. Camillus) as the feast day of the Camillian Martyrs of Charity who died serving the sick since the epidemics and plagues of 17th century Europe. In 1630, we lost 56 Camillians when a plague devastated northern and central Italy. Another plague in Italy led to the death of 86 Camillians in 1656-1657, two of whom were Provincial Superiors and the Superior General then.
Now during this Covid-19 pandemic many of us are getting infected serving the sick: in India, 10 got infected; in the Sicilian-Napolitan Province 2; in the French Province 2; in the Spanish Province 3; in Kenya 1; in Brazil 9; and 13 in the Philippine Province. We have been losing confreres around the world. In the North Italian Province six got infected and three died. Six of our lay collaborators there also lost their lives. In the Polish Province, three got infected and one passed away.
We heard in the gospel that Jesus called the Twelve to him and said to them, “Anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all. For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:42-45).
Pope Francis, just a few months after he became the Pope, addressing the Superiors General, had something to say on the value of service. He said, “We must never forget that true power, at any level, is service, whose bright summit is upon the Cross. May you always know how to exercise authority by accompanying, understanding, helping and loving. Let us keep our gaze fixed on the Cross: there is found any authority in the Church, where the One who is the Lord becomes a servant to the point of the total gift of himself” (Address of Pope Francis to the Participants of the Plenary Assembly of the International Union of Superiors General, Paul VI Audience Hall, Wednesday, 8 May 2013).
St. Camillus used to call our response to a plague as a “festival of charity.” Apparently this time, aside from our pastoral care to the patients and personnel as chaplains in the hospitals, we became known through social media platforms while responding alongside the many members of the Church who have been offering a magnanimous response of charity since the beginning of this pandemic. With the grace of God, we were able to distribute relief goods consisting of food packs, hygiene kits, and PPEs for poor families and healthcare facilities in need. Some of us were also able to conduct medical missions and mental health interventions in some areas. We are grateful for the opportunity to serve as partners with many other religious, lay, non-Catholics, and organizations who are willing to serve. I must say we have not done much; but we simply did our duty.
Yes, we vowed to risk our lives for others. But we never promised to risk others’ lives by infecting people because we are potential carriers of the virus. We manage to commit ourselves in serving the sick by first protecting ourselves in order to protect others then. We have managed to follow safety and health protocols. My Superior in the formation house simply supported our Scholastics in their decision to continue doing their apostolate NOT to commit suicide, for they can still serve with PPEs. I must admit with deep gratitude that not only our charity but also our faith and hope have sustained us especially when we became the sick person. In July of last year, one of our Religious suffered severe symptoms and was rushed to the hospital. Sharing his story, he recalls his experience as a revelation. Experiencing all the typical symptoms of COVID-19, he had gone through the 10-day isolation with sadness and fear because of the uncertainties that the new coronavirus brought. Aside from not feeling well physically, another burden he faced was the feeling of being alone and the fear that he can be a spreader of this virus to others. Throughout his COVID-19 journey, his rosary was his constant companion. He realized a truly deep sense of faith and hope are needed to survive any undertaking; that unwavering faith in the Lord that you can be healed and that hope that you can surpass all those sufferings. There should be complete trust and surrender to the Lord.
It is worth remembering the children of Fatima. When I experienced having sore throat, muscle pains, and fever I thought it was Covid-19. Thankfully, it was just a flu and I recovered after taking some over-the-counter medicines. Nonetheless, I was scared; I felt paranoid. But the experience led me to good realizations about myself and my faith. I realized I was not ready to die. Not inside my bedroom.
I am a Camillian. I should die in the act of serving the sick. Not stuck in a bed. Not here Lord, not in this way was my pleading. Until all of a sudden, I came to remember the children of Fatima – how they submitted themselves to God and two of them praised the Lord in their deathbed. They died at the height of the widespread Spanish Flu.
I remember also St. Therese of Liseux – how she praised the Lord in her deathbed. She died quietly from tuberculosis. I came to remember our Italian Scholastic, Nicola D’Onofrio, who also praised God on his deathbed. He died of cancer on June 12, 1964. Thanks to my training in this School, I graduated here on March 9, 2005, I have developed a good sense of discernment. And so, remembering these young ones, I was able to confront my pride and I humbly begged in prayer, “If man lives by God’s Word, so should I die by God’s Word, whenever and wherever and however the Lord may be praised.”
You see, when the situation seems so disheartening for us, we just go back to the Cross. No wonder St. Camillus made sure to attach the Cross on our chests and be identified as Camillians. The Cross reminds us of the merciful love of Christ Crucified who strengthens our weak faith, restores to us His peace and eventually encourages us to serve again. While in a state of prayer, the Crucified Christ told him, “Fear not, Camillus. This is not your work but Mine.” Those were the words St. Camillus heard when he thought of quitting his ministry because he could no longer bear the ill-will and opposition of envious authorities in the hospital. He was measuring up his failure against the limited work he could ever do. Only to make him realize in prayer that his calling was just to gaze upon the Cross. With that he regained his commitment to serve. And so, I am telling you, take the risk! Do you have to delay your ordination? Is not this time the right time to be a priest? Be Christ, the Good Shepherd and Servant, to His Church. When I asked one of our Religious assigned as a parish priest how to be a priest in a time of pandemic, he quickly replied with reflections from his experience.
First, never go away from God.
Second, look back at who you are, your identity as a priest.
Third, be open to different changes in the situation.
And fourth, never get discouraged but keep moving on, knowing that you are doing God’s work. After so many things that have just happened and have been done, you will go back again to God saying: “Pasensiya na po yun lang ang nagawa ko. I am sorry, that was all that I could do”. It was enough that you have served.
May the intercession of the Blessed Mother, Our Lady Health of the Sick, be upon you. Trusting in the Lord promise of eternal life, we remember in this Eucharist the passing of our LST professors due to Covid-19: Fr. Timoteo Ofrasio SJ, Sr. Mirasol Navidad RSCJ, and Msgr. Sabino Vengco, Jr. We also pray for our student, Fr. Didik Bagiyowinadi of the Diocese of Malang, Indonesia.
Ad majorem Dei gloriam. May the glory of God be seen in the best of care we serve. Amen.