YES, thank you for noticing the past tense. Sergio Utleg is set to leave the Diocese of Laoag to wear a heavier cap as archbishop of the Archdiocese of Tuguegarao.
Last June 15 at the Vatican, Josef Ratzinger, alias Benedict XVI, announced the new appointment. Utleg will succeed Diosdado Talamayan, 78, whose resignation has, after three years of waiting, finally been accepted by the Pope. Sixty-seven year old Utleg will serve the archdiocese with around 1.3 million Catholics, 82 priests and 122 religious.
I am happy with Utleg’s transfer, for his near six-year stint in the Diocese of Laoag was marked not as much spiritually as it was commercially. And it started on the wrong foot. Right after he assumed office as bishop of Laoag, the very first project to be completed was a swimming pool at the bishop’s palace.
Then the diocese worked closely with the Laoag City Government to have a mall built in a parcel of land where a heritage school building sits. “Of course, it’s about the money,” the bishop, in a personal meeting with your karikna, said of the unpopular move, explaining that revenues can be put to good use. But Utleg was all too willing to dismantle everything just to have the diocesan cash register ring louder than our famed bell tower. Boy, he even attempted (or, at the very least, condoned attempts) to wrap the churches in Laoag and San Nicolas with mall buildings. If not for the people’s strong resistance and fervent prayers, add to that twists of fate, these plans would have pushed through. Majestic Ilocos churches would have been irreparably utlegged.
Busy with his corporate dealings, Utleg was a failure at disciplining his priests. Just last week, another man of the cloth from our diocese hogged the national headlines for punching a cockpit worker. That’s actually two stones at one priest. Ronnie Pillos did not only punch a poor soul, he was at a cockpit! People surmise he may have also been drunk as he frequently is, and to usually terrible results.
Then there are priests poking guns at each other, priests going to night clubs and red light districts, and priests who live lives that are as priestly as that of a rebellious teenager bordering on juvenile delinquency.
I had expected much from Utleg, who my dear friend Anthony Dumlao of church-owned radio station DZEA looks up to. After all, the Solano, Cagayan-born bishop is chair of the Episcopal Commission on Indigenous Peoples. More so, he holds a master’s degree in sociology, my field. But expectations, dear karikna, are a cause of suffering. And I should have known better.
Utleg had the distinct privilege of leading the diocese to its Golden Jubilee Celebration, but he blew it, and blew it so terribly well. He forgot about the jubilee, and focused mainly on the gold. The main event in the celebration was a raffle draw which virtually transformed St. William’s Cathedral into a car showroom. The grand prize was won by Danilo Laeda, Utleg’s appointed Vicar General.
Melchor Co, general manager of Honda Cars Ilocos, last week requested to meet me to explain his company’s side on the Jubilee Raffle Draw, which I tackled in a previous column entitled, “Jubileeconomics.”
I wrote in that column that the humungous tarpaulin streamers hung right at the entrance of the church offended the sensibilities of many well-meaning churchgoers. The tarpaulin had the text, “Inquire inside,” which was taken to mean that people should learn about the new Honda City 1.3A inside the place of worship. I also wrote in that column that the raffle draw diverted the attention of the faithful from the real essence of the great jubilee.
Co, after receiving reactions from Honda customers who read my column, found it necessary to talk to me. The Letran-educated manager said he was just trying to help the church. In fact, their participation in the event entailed sacrifices from their end. They had to display, at the request of the diocese, the brand new Honda City in church premises to make the people believe that there really is a prize. This is because a couple of years back, the diocese also staged a raffle draw that many suspected was rigged.
Honda thus had to bring the car to church and back to their showroom in Nangalisan, and man it every single day from November last year until the draw held in April. “You can just imagine how much manpower and logistics it cost us,” said Co, who was all-too-happy to do something good for the church.
As for the draw itself, the general manager said he never had a hand on it. In fact, he was not even present when Laeda won the car and priests bagged cash prizes.
I assured Co I do not blame him for whatever damage the whole brouhaha caused the Catholic faithful in the diocese. Even if his company would attempt, hypothetically speaking, to hang a a tasteless streamer right at the altar, if the church hierarchy would not allow, it will not be possible. Even if Honda would propose outrageous promo activities, say let the bishop ride the brand new car right to the altar to say mass, or let the bishop deliver a sermon on top of the Honda City 1.3A, it cannot happen if the bishop would refuse to do it. What I’m trying to say is this: Utleg’s leadership is solely responsible for his flock’s disorientation.
My meeting with Co was revealing. Because five is my favorite number, let me, dear karikna, share with you five revelations. First, he said it was the church leaders who requested the huge tarpaulin streamer. Second, the church leaders took it upon themselves to print additional streamers, the cost of which they asked Honda to pay. Third, it was the church leaders who decided to hang the streamers right at the church entrance. Fourth, it was the church leaders who wrote the words “Inquire inside” in the streamer, which effectively made the church a car center. And fifth, everything done in relation with the draw needed the bishop’s approval.
This, therefore, is my conclusion: Co is a businessman trying to be a good Catholic while Utleg is a bishop desperately trying to be a businessman.
In closing, let me say that though Utleg, in my most humble opinion, has been a disaster at being a bishop, he is, by nature, really a good human being. My deeply religious family members admire his humility and gentle demeanor, qualities that I also observed of the man. Moreover, he takes criticisms in stride and does not harbor ill feelings. Of all people, I should know. Utleg, dear karikna, is just a product of the backward-looking social institution he so zealously represents. Even our priests deserve, more than disdain, our collective compassion.
I am happy with Utleg’s promotion, and I say “God bless” to the Catholic faithful of the Archdiocese of Tuguegarao.