BISHOP SERGIO UTLEG sent me an email asking if I could meet him personally regarding my previous column [“Slap the Bishops: Support the Reproductive Health Bill (IT, Nov. 10-16)].
Initially, I was bent to shun the proposed meeting because I don’t exactly love being in awkward situations. Convinced, however, that what the bishop has to say deserves my ear, I obliged.
I thought of inviting the bishop to our place for dinner, but my mom, a daily communicant and church volunteer, strongly opposed. It was one of the rare moments she was not proud of me, she panicked at the prospect of the bishop discovering that I am her son.
So, on Wednesday evening, I asked my friend Angelica Salas to accompany me to the Bishop’s Palace to meet His Excellency. Putting her best foot forward, my usually vivacious Mareng Angge transformed into a “mayuming katekista” the soonest we stepped on palace grounds.
A blue barong-clad Utleg welcomed us at the Palace lobby and led us to his office. And when we were seated, he looked at my eyes and flashed a toothy smile for a few seconds that seemed to me like eternity. He began the conversation by asking why I wrote of him as a bishop “best known today not for anything spiritual”. He said he was curious to know, and wondered if it was because he is often seen bicycling.
But of course, it’s not his bicycling. I have always believed that pushing the pedals is one of the most spiritual of exercises. I told the bishop that I am aware of his dedication to social action, given his chairmanship of the CBCP Episcopal Commission on Indigenous Peoples, but that the people know him best as the prelate who supports the construction of a mall that will force the transfer of a top-performing elementary school. He is receiving a lot of bad press these days, and no thanks to his ardent support for the divisive undertaking.
Sounding resolute, Utleg detailed to me why he is in favor of the mall project. He offered the following points:
-The Laoag Central Elementary School will be moved to another location. So, there is really no harm done. It would have been immoral if it were to be displaced and offered no place to relocate to.
– Nobody has said that the Central Elementary School is a historical landmark nor an architectural wonder, not until now. The Gabaldon Elementary School structures deserve preservation, but not Central.
-History shows that schools whose campuses were transferred to other locations did not necessarily perish. He cited the cases of Far Eastern University and Divine Word College. I added Assumption, Ateneo de Manila, Sto. Tomas, and San Beda to his list.
-The site is a commercial area and it will serve us best if it could be utilized as such. “It’s a gold mine”, he explains (quickly assuring us that he was just employing a figure of speech and that he is vehemently against mining). It is but fit, he says, to maximize the use of this particular resource.
“Of course, it’s about the money”, Utleg admits in captivating honesty. It will mean more money for the government and for the church.
Herdy’s Riknakem: I am not against the transfer, and I am not against more money either (Keep ‘em coming!). For the record, I think the bishop’s reasoning on this issue is sound. I just feel uncomfortable that a church official is very vocal and conspicuous in his support for this project and for what it represents. Malls are monuments of materialism. That a bishop serves as a barker for the ‘mall express’ makes me feel something could be wrong.
Much of our 65-minute conversation revolved on the reproductive health bill. I will no longer relay here the bishop’s contentions. We have heard enough of those tired discourses on the natural law, and we have grown weary as well of the church hierarchy’s scare tactics and slippery slopes.
I asked the bishop if I could promote the Reproductive Health Bill and be a good catholic at the same time. The bishop’s answer went into circles and was evasive. I think it was a NO, although he conceded that a person must listen to his conscience.
I don’t think I can ever be a good Catholic then because I go against the church on many other issues as well. Let me assure my family though that while I may never be a good Catholic, I will always strive to be a good person.
On second thought, I always strive to excel in what I do, and if I could not be good, much less excel, in being a Catholic, I’d rather not be.
“Your pen stings like a venom”, Utleg remarked at one point. I am not sure if it was a compliment, but what recent scientific findings reveal should console the bishop: venom may actually be used to cure cancer, impotence, epilepsy, and other ills.
Venomous as I may have seemed, the bishop struck me as humble and meek.
In spite of his rank and age, he never appeared domineering or arrogant. He explained to me, in a firm-but-calm manner, the church’s stance. It dawned to me that this master’s degree holder in Sociology is a believer in dialogue.
Utleg would later on confess that he was tempted to write me a strongly-worded letter. He seriously thought of slapping back by saying: “You are an irresponsible, bitter young man… an ignoramus.” He said he thought about it a couple of times but heeded his better judgment. Had he decided to write such letter, His Excellency said he would have consoled me anyway by saying, “…but I think you are sincere.”
I also felt the sincerity of the bishop, and that is why I decided to visit him. Every letter and comma of his correspondence spelled sincerity, signs that I read so well. If it were Bishop You-know-who who invited me to a meeting, I would not have gone. You-know-who is notorious for being self-absorbed and close-minded.
Thank God, Utleg is the antithesis of Bishop You-know-who. Unlike the latter, Utleg is not a party animal, he veers away from patronage politics, and his ego is not bloated like a balloon.
This man is wise. This man is kind. This man is unassuming. Yes, he might be a mall barker and he might have, shortly after he was assigned to our diocese, constructed a swimming pool by the Palace, to the dismay of his third-world flock both clergy and lay, but Sergio Utleg has my respect.
At the end of the day, we shall hold on to our convictions in the performance of our duties: he as a bishop and I as a writer, both serving our fellowmen in the most virtuous ways we know.
Saying goodbye, I kissed his hand but avoided the ring and the blind submission it so shiningly, shiningly represents.