A STABLE income. House. Car. Good education for the kids. Just when they have attained financial success, my parents felt an existential void, a void waiting to be filled. Something was missing. They were searching. They were wanting.
And then there was Fr. Jose Agustin.
Back in the 70’s and 80’s, mom and dad would visit Fr. Joe at the parish rectory nighttime to ask questions like, “What is the Immaculate Conception?,” “Will non-Christians go to heaven?,” “Why can’t we confess our sins directly to God?” Soft-spoken and gentle in every way, Father Joe, although tired from a day’s work in the parish, would patiently and passionately answer each query, and my parents would always go home enlightened and eager to visit again.
Fr. Joe was a good preacher, but it was not the only reason the gospel was not difficult to believe when it was he sharing it. He did not only speak the good news, he lived it. He did not befriend jueteng lords, did not dip his fingers in the murky waters of politics, and was never embroiled in any controversy. God’s light radiated through him like a lighthouse on a stormy night.
Far from the capricious and empty lifestyle most priests now lead, Fr. Joe has always lived very simply. Nothing ostentatious. Nothing flashy. He did not have ambitions of grandeur. As other retired priests either went back to their families or built their own houses, Fr. Joe, 85, is today the sole resident of Domus Patri, the priests’ retirement house owned by the Laoag diocese.
As a retiree, he could choose to just rest and lounge around at the diocesan swimming pool, but Fr. Joe had a divine mission to carry out—to help children from poor families realize their dream of becoming catechists. He organized in 2006, singlehandedly and by sheer “inspiration of grace,” the Divine Mercy Scholarship Fund.
DMSF, which has so far produced three graduates and currently sponsors six scholars at the St. Benedict’s Institute in Vigan City, is struggling, and Fr. Agustin says it operates on a “hand-to-mouth existence,” but that it survives by God’s providence made manifest through the generosity of people.
To understand why catechists have a special place in Fr. Joe’s heart, we must revisit his childhood. The youngest of nine siblings, Li’l Joe attended public schools from elementary to high school. In the St. William’s Cathedral where he found a second home, he attended catechism sessions conducted by nuns every Sunday. It was there that he found answers to many questions that troubled him as a young man. It was there that he heard God’s subtle calling for the priesthood.
When I visited Fr. Joe at Domus Patri on a sunny morning, he was reading a book entitled The People’s Priest by John C. Heeman. He bought the book when he was still a newly ordained priest, but never had the chance to finish reading it given the everyday hustle bustle of parish life. He had always been busy. After Fr. Joe was ordained in 1954 by the late Archbishop Juan C. Sison, he was assigned in the Arzobispado in the Diocese of Nueva Segovia, and then in the Laoag Bishop’s Palace. Over the years, he served in parishes in Laoag, Vintar, Bacarra, and Badoc.
Fr. Joe is very much a part of our family story. He baptized me, led us in celebrating my parents’ silver wedding anniversary 24 years ago, and, hopefully on January, will join us again to mark mom and dad’s golden jubilee.
In the course of the interview I conducted with him under a young mango tree he planted four years ago, I figured that he has been reading this column, too. Although I have occasionally written unfavorably about the Catholic hierarchy, Fr. Joe never judged me. He was oozing with compassion and understanding. He has my respect.
I encourage my friends, especially those whose spiritual lives Fr. Joe helped shape, to support his program for catechists. If you have something to share, please do, don’t think twice. If you cannot give money, please tell this story to your friends who may be in a position to help. God does love a cheerful giver, and blesses back over a hundredfold. I am not exactly a church guy, and of course you already know that, so it says a lot that I am supporting Fr. Joe’s advocacy. Some well meaning folks show their love for the church by pampering priests—by giving them expensive gadgets, by throwing fancy dinners for them, or by sponsoring their trips abroad. They might want to consider this option.
While I do not agree with all the teachings of the church, especially now when I am piqued by its blocking of the Reproductive Health Bill, I agree that we must have more catechists who will help people find answers to their most meaningful questions. The answers they offer may not be acceptable to all, but it worked for my parents, uncles, aunts, and other relatives—all of them responsible citizens and good human beings—it could work for many else, too.
Even with his degrees in philosophy and theology from the Immaculate Conception Seminary in Vigan, his education in commerce and ecclesiastical accounting from UST and La Salle, and his six decades of experience as priest, Fr. Agustin speaks of no grand theories nor revolutionary ideologies. He thinks of the main role of a priest in plain and simple terms: lead the people closer to God by spreading the good news and by administering the sacraments.
Governor Imee Marcos, in her first 100 days speech, thanked Sergio Utleg, bishop of Laoag, whom she described as “a genuine provincial treasure,” for being a “resource for everything from mountaineering, biking, heritage and music.”
I thank God for Fr. Jose Agustin, a real treasure, and for reasons not mundane.