He is ahead of his time. He takes risks. He encourages the love for mission and demonstrates the meaning of a missionary Church. He is compassionate. He enjoys celebrating the good times with his priests.
These are but a few of the many positive traits of the Most Rev. Antonio R. Tobias, D.D. as revealed by friend and former colleague, Sr. Amelia David, ICM. She was the last speaker of the Symposium on the Priesthood and the Gospel of Mercy, which was part of the three-day celebration of the Bishop’s 75th birthday and 50th Sacerdotal Anniversary at the Santuario de San Paolo in Casa Milan, Quezon City last June 13 2016.
Initially doubtful that she would be able to make the given time of 30 minutes, she could not have painted a better picture of the Bishop as a priest and an ultimate man of God.
Sr. Amelia started her interesting storytelling by citing one of the questions posed by the women of the International Union of Superiors General to Pope Francis last month. It was about the possibility of including women in the decision-making processes of the Church.
“Pope Francis did not give a categorical answer of yes or no and his response was that he does not see any difficulty in it,” she added.
While the inclusion of women continues to be debated on today, Sr. Amelia recalled how 41 years ago, Bishop Tobias, together with Archbishop Emeritus of Lingayan-Dagupan Oscar V. Cruz–who was then seminary formator of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Minor Seminary, and the latter, rector of the San Carlos Seminary–invited women to be part of the seminary staff.
“I was requested to be the academic dean of the college seminary (San Carlos Seminary) and I was also asked to be the principal of the High School seminary (Guadalupe Minor Seminary),” she recalled.
Soon after, female teachers were also added to both seminaries’ faculty.
The Bishop’s receptiveness did not stop with the involvement of women in the seminaries’ faculty. He continued to institute bold measures–no matter how unpopular–that forever changed the way both seminaries were run.
“It was the First Quarter Storm at that time and there was a lot of restlessness in many high schools,” Sr. Amelia revealed. “Parents were sending their boys to the seminary because it was a safe place and with the recommendation of their Parish Priests, they were accepted and given a good education and the priests served as their babysitters.”
Some of the seminary expenses were subsidized and the Sister wondered if the investment on these young men were worth it. She added that this was coupled with disciplinary problems that lack the proper formation of the boys towards the priesthood since they had no interest to begin with.
Bishop Tony then took the risk of initiating a stringent admission process with the then current student population. In collaboration with Sr. Amelia, he came up with a more probing screening process where motivation and intellectual capacity, among others, were measured. There were test requirements to fulfill as well as a panel interview to face. A conference with the parents was likewise held to validate findings of the interview. At the end of the screening, only 25 out of the 120 boys were accepted.
“The openness of Bishop Tony to new ideas also led the seminary formation to broader horizons that covered not only Manila but the rest of the country as well,” she said. “The idea was shared to the formators of other seminaries all over the Philippines and this led to the beginning of Isang Angkan Para Kay Kristo which later on became more popular as SANGKAN.”
She added that a Code of Ethics was introduced to delineate proper behavior among seminarians that led to the slogan Laking Guadalupe, Maipagmamalaki.
More than a risk-taker, Bishop Tony was uncompromising when it comes to formation work. Sr. Amelia related an incident of a training seminar that included the support and service personnel in the seminary.
“Everyone was required to attend the week-long seminar, including the drivers as well as the sisters who were supervising the kitchen,” she said. “It happened that the sisters cannot attend the seminar for one reason or another and after two weeks when they came to report for work in the seminary, I was surprised the Bishop did not accept them anymore.”
No amount of explanation from the sisters made the Bishop change his mind, “He did not accept the excuses the sisters presented because he said they were informed about the seminar way ahead of time.”
This uncompromising attitude was not limited to his work in the seminary and the formation of the young men entrusted to him. He remained the same in carrying out the tasks given to him in fulfillment of his commitment to the Church.
“I saw him return gifts of some people who had pending cases at the matrimonial tribunal (he was also with San Carlos Seminary’s Metropolitan Matrimonial Tribunal), especially when he was the judge on duty,” Sr. Amelia shared.
“Compassion is a lifestyle of Bishop Tony,” the Sister continued. “Oftentimes, I saw how fellow priests would go to him in times of trouble.”
As much as he doesn’t compromise, the Bishop is encompassing in his compassion. The Sister added that he took under his care priests who were former classmates or friends in the seminary as well as priests who were not in good terms with their bishop or fellow priests or parishioners. They sought his counsel and it didn’t matter to him how long they stayed–either in the Seminary or in the Diocese–or even in his house.
“His compassion continues to this day as a bishop,” the Sister said. “He would get out of his house any time, day or night, even at the risk of his own life just to get a person out of danger. He would set aside his personal life just to attend to the needs of others and there was a time when he was called by his fellow priests as a refuge of sinners and the father of perpetual help.”
And because he was compassionate, the Bishop is unafraid to put his life on the line for those in need. Sr. Amelia had the privilege of witnessing such show of unconditional mercy.
With this, she remembers what Pope Francis told Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli in his book, The Name of God is Mercy: “By welcoming a marginalized person whose body is wounded and by welcoming the sinner whose soul is wounded, we put our credibility as Christians on the line.”
“I have seen Bishop Tony put himself many times on the line just to help people find their way back to the Father,” she said.
She likewise recalled some excerpts in the Homily of Pope Francis at the Manila Cathedral: “Ours is a ministry of reconciliation. We proclaim the Good News of God’s infinite love, mercy, and compassion. We proclaim the joy of the Gospel. For the Gospel is the promise of God’s grace, which alone can bring wholeness and healing to our broken world. It can inspire the building of a truly just and redeemed social order.”
This typifies Bishop Tony’s undaunted commitment to seek those who are lost and bring them back to God. Sr. Amelia then recalled an incident in Zamboanga del Sur where the Bishop had to help a wounded rebel, bring him to the hospital for medical assistance, and convince him to relocate out of reach by his comrades-in-arms.
“He gave him some means of livelihood to start a normal life in a new community. He also tried to help his family by sending the young ones to school,” she added. By doing this, his mercy has empowered the rebel to live a more fruitful life.
There is no mistaking this empowering mindset has long been practiced by Bishop Tony. Sr. Amelia volunteered that long before empowerment became a byword in Church circles and gatherings, it was already evident in his leadership.
She said that he was sensitive to the needs of his fellow priests and the Christian community. He led his parish and then the Diocese in such a way that it continued to grow into a sustainable organization.
“I have seen many parishes born from the Mother Parish as he developed many leaders among his priests,” she said. This eventually led to creating sub-parishes in preparation to becoming independent parishes with the corresponding priests becoming part of the growth and development.
“This to me is empowerment,” concluded Sr. Amelia.
In ending her meaningful narrative, Sr. Amelia expressed pride at having been a part of Bishop Tony’s life–from the time he was a priest until he moved higher in the Church hierarchy. She was likewise grateful, that through him, the people around him and all those he has touched have encountered God’s mercy and compassion. Indeed, there is no better time to celebrate the man and his priesthood than in this Jubilee Year of Mercy. (~Lulu Reclusado-Nario)