Transcript of the Most Rev. Mylo Hubert Vergara, D.D.’s talk “The Pastoral Ministry of Mercy and Compassion to Priests and Among Priests” last June 13, 2016″During The Symposium On The Priesthood And The Gospel Of Mercy, June 13, 2016, Santuario De San Paolo, Casa Milan

(Photo grab from the FB Profile Page of Bishop Mylo.)

When I was appointed Bishop in 2005, I was required to have an episcopal motto and draw up a coat of arms. The motto I chose was: Pace Agnos Meos (Feed My Lamb).

When one of my priest friends from the Diocese of Cuabo knew about my motto, he jokingly commented, “Ito talagang si Mylo, kahit sa pagiging Obispo, pagkain pa rin ang iniisip.”

The coat of arms showed significant symbols of my vocation story as a priest. One symbol you will notice there, which is embossed on a red background is a lamb hanging dead on the cross. This image was actually taken from the code seal of Good Shepherd Parish, my home parish, now Good Shepherd Cathedral of the Diocese of Novaliches.

From the time I was ordained a priest in 1990 and even now as a bishop, the image depicts the core principle of my priesthood: that is Jesus Christ is the lamb of God who is priest and victim. He was, is, and will always be the meek lamb led to be slaughtered for all. The sacrifice of Christ always reminds me of what my shepherding is all about. It is to offer my life as a loving sacrifice for the people entrusted to my care,–most especially now to my priests.

During my episcopal ordination, when I was examined as candidate, one of the questions that was asked was, and I am sure Bishop Tony will always remember this, “Do you resolve to guide the holy people of God in the way of salvation as a devoted Father and sustain them with the help of your fellow ministers the priests and deacons?”

I must admit that at that time, when I gave my positive response to that question, I did a leap of Faith. Though it was clear to me then, that the question was about my being a father to everyone in my Diocese, I was concerned first and foremost with being father to the priests entrusted to my care.

I wrestled with a number of questions in my mind since I was a young bishop then:
(1) Would I be accepted as a father by my priests, especially those who were older than I?
(2) How would I actually play the role of father? What does it mean to be a father to my priests?

To add to these concerns was my anxiety that I was the last appointed to the Espicopacy in the Philippines by St. John Paul II.–the last one to be elevated Bishop by him in our Country before he died on that same year. Sometimes, I wonder if he still had the clear mind to make that decision to appoint me as Bishop. If you recall, he was aging, very sick, and was on his deathbed. Baka po nagkamali. Who knows he might have made the mistake to affix the signature on my letter of appointment.

But of course, it is my belief and hope, as well as yours, that the Holy Spirit was with him when he made an act of faith to appoint me as bishop, in the same way as I did an act of faith to accept the appointment to shepherd the church.

Anyway, I am just grateful to St. John Paul II who appointed me Bishop because he wrote these words, which has served as a guide for me…and I quote, “The Bishop will always try to relate to his priests as a father and brother who loves them, listens to them, welcomes them, corrects them, supports them, seeks cooperation, and as much as possible, is concerned for their human, spiritual, ministerial and financial well-being,” end of quote.

So how have I lived up to this task of being father, brother and perhaps, even a friend to priests? Or borrowing some words from the topic assigned to me in this Symposium, how have I been a shepherd to my fellow shepherds in the ministry?

In responding to these questions, allow me to use some words from Psalm 23:4-5, which show how a shepherd pastures a sheep, and I quote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me. Your rod and your staff comfort me. You set a table before me in front of my enemies. You anont my head with oil, my cup overflows.”

From these lines, we can recognize that a shepherd uses three tools of restoration to tend the sheep: (1) he has a rod to correct his stubborn sheep, (2) he holds a staff to guide his straying sheep, (3) he applies oil to heal his sick sheep.

I draw inspiration from the Lord Himself who with a Shepherd’s heart tells us, and I quote from the book of the Prophet Ezekiel, “The lost I will seek out. The stray I will bring back. The injured I will bind up.”

It is said that the shepherd’s rod was a fascinating tool. He uses this when a sheep refuses to follow his directions. Knowing that his sheep may endanger himself, the shepherd has to step in and take drastic measures not out of malice but out of love. The shepherd may even carefully break the leg of the stubborn sheep with his rod for correction.

Bishops and priests are like stubborn sheep. Even our idiosyncrasies and sometimes, our hard headedness, we want to do things our own way, not realizing that they may lead to problematic consequences for us and the Church we serve.

This reminds me of an encounter I had with my predecessor, the late Bishop Francisco San Diego. One time, when I visited him in the hospital, his caregiver complained that he stubbornly disobeyed the doctors’ orders in eating forbidden food. Mahilig po kasi sa crispy pata. Lahat ng lechon kawali. Lahat ng baboy. Lahat ng bawal. That would be detrimental to his health.

Sabi ko sa kanya, “Huwag po tayong matigas ang ulo. Sumunod po tayo sa utos ng doctor.”

Biniro ko pa po at sinabi ko, “May gamot po sa sakit ng ulo. Sabi nga ni John Lloyd, makukuha iyan sa Biogesic. Pero sa matigas ang ulo, wala pong mabibiling gamot kahit sa anong drugstore. Aba sumagot pa sa akin si Bishop San Diego! Sabi niya, “Hawakan mo ang ulo ko…”

Anyway, kidding aside, in my experience in caring for stubborn priests, demands a combination of a confronting and compassionate father, a correcting and concerned brother, and an encouraging and faithful friend.

Honestly, I have not mastered the art of perfectly coalescing all these roles…There are some basic principles though that I have used in dealing with a crisis or a special difficulty which a priest encounters in his Priestly Life and Ministry.

First, when I hear a problem…Second… In my case, I have designated some of my priests to be a part of a crisis management team when a management concerning a priest occurs. Third…entails the assistance of trusted and competed professional people who will process the priest.

One difficulty I had in dealing with priests in special difficulties–be it sexual abuse, parish fund embezzlement, or any grave scandal–is the tendency to deny allegations even if there is verified truth from verbal or written complaints.

In confronting these priests, I really had to be patient and, at the same time, firm in making them face the truths about what they have done. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI himself said and I quote, “In one line: only the truth saves.”

What is important is that a mature dialogue discernment process takes place where the priests concerned and I are honest with ourselves and each other in facing the truth about the crisis situation. Be disposed to respect the truth and be readily accountable to the truth–whatever it takes for the good of the Church, for the love of the Church!

I have had hits and misses in dealing with some of my priests in crisis. One thing I learned though is that one way to handle it is prevention. By constantly offering renewal programs to my priests, I am able to minimize or prevent a major crisis that will harm a priest and become a scandal to the Church.

They say that the staff is considered the most recognizable shepherd’s tool because sheep have poor eyesight. They can be directionless and easily distracted. So a shepherd’s staff has four functions in pasteurizing sheep.

First, a shepherd uses it to gently nudge his straying sheep to direct his entire flock to where it wants to go. Second, he uses it as a pointer to establish boundaries for the flock to prevent straying sheep. Third, he uses its curve to pull out and rescue stranded and lost sheep. And fourth, he uses it to stroke the side or back of the sheep as a way of attention and ecouragement.

Therefore, the shepherd’s staff is a leadership tool…This reminds me of a story of a shepherd who pasteured a hundred sheep. To call and gather this flock to the fold, he would use a bell instead of his voice to call them. All his sheep were familiar with the sound of this bell.

One time, when it was time to gather his sheep to the sheepfold, he rang his bell for them to hear…however, he was able to gather only 99 and one was missing. So he searched the pasteurland ringing his bell…hoping that his lost sheep would hear it.

Suddenly, he saw the sheep from a distance so he sounded his bell. Aba tinapat pa sa tenga! But the sheep did not budge as if it was deaf to the sound of the bell. As he approached it, he wondered what was wrong. Once near the sheep, he realized the problem. Ayun lo and behold, around its neck was a small bell that rang whenever it moved its head.

He failed to hear the bell of the shepherd because it would always hear the sound of its small bell hung around its neck. A number of times, we bishops and priests, find ourselves like this lost sheep.

The reason we are lost is that we listen to other voices, especially our own. Yun po ang problema natin. Ang pinakikinggan natin ay yung sarili nating kuliling kaya yung ibang obispo’t pari, matindi ang kuliling. Instead of the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. We find ourselves like the lost sheep–either intentionally or unintentionally–listening to the bells hung around our necks.

Jesus already tells us what to do with our lives like abiding by His will, changing our sinful ways and letting go of our inordinate attachments. But the sad reality is that we condition ourselves to listen to the voices that lead us far way from Christ. Once we may listen to the familiar sound of the voice of Jesus, our True and Only Shepherd, we find our way back to Him.

I have used my staff of direction in many instances of my shepherding. But one challenging experience is when I had to deal with the lack of compassion some priests have to their fellow priests who have erred and have become scandals in the Church.

Sometimes, it is sad to say that there are priests who are ashamed of their brother priests who have fallen from the grace of priestly identity and Ministry. Instead of lending a listening ear, they talk behind the back of a priest who has a committed a grave failure, with sarcasm and cynicism.

They do not seem to realize that they are being pharisaic in ridiculing their brother priest. This righteous condemnation has led our fallen brothers to distance themselves from the fraternity of priests. They have already been led astray because of our lack of compassion, the more they are lost. What a sad plight for brothers who are called to live in unity and communion.

Let us not forget the meaning of the word compassion…Compassion means to suffer with…The compassionate love of Jesus is manifested in His decision to suffer with us from the moment He became flesh, being Emmanuel, God with us, except sin.

This became more manifest as He ministered to and suffered with the sick, the disabled, the helpless and, of course, the poor during his time. Jesus’s crucifixion is a suffering with and for us carrying all our wounds and pains, so that we too, like Him, experience the healing love, the glory of a resurrected life.

In this light, I would often remind priests that we are called to be compassionate; to suffer with a brother priest, who during times of severe crisis, needs us. Who else can better understand a priest in crisis if not a brother priest?

Naalala ko po many years back, ito pong nanay ko nakausap ko. Sabi ko, “Ma, ang hirap pala ng buhay celibate.”

Sabi ng nanay ko, “Madali ‘yan, anak.” Sabi niya, “Ito uminom ka ng isang baso ng herbal tea, pito-pito mawawala yan.”

Naisip ko, ang nanay ko married, hindi niya alam ang buhay celibate. Ang makakaitindi ng buhay celibate, kapwa celibate hindi ba? The whole point of priestly fraternity is to have a support system that will offer an instrument of healing and love to broken fellow priests.

Oftentimes, I wonder if we priests realize that a severe crisis can happen to any of us. It can happen to you or to me. It just so happened that the crisis was experienced by a particular priest or bishop and not us. How I wish that whenever a crisis happens to any of us, we take the initiative to reach out with compassion to a brother in the Priesthood.

Let us utilize the gift of being wounded healers to one another. After all, Jesus said and I quote, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead and they will hear my voice and there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

You know during my ordination as bishop, my ordaining prelate handed me a bishop’s staff and said–I’m sure Bishop tony will also remember this. “Take this staff as a sign of your Pastoral Office. Keep watch over the four flocks in which the Holy Spirit has appointed you to shepherd the Church.“

I knew that I would be using this staff in the Eucharistic Liturgies I would preside. The ceremonial of bishops also prescribes that I may hold my staff when I preach my homily. This meant that when I preach God’s Word, I should lead the flock entrusted to my care to where God wants it to go.

I always look forward to presiding over Chrism masses, ordination liturgies and ordination anniversaries of priests. These have been grace-filled occasions when as a shepherd of my priests, I have realized that the Gospel I reflectively proclaim is actually the staff that directs them to be centered on God, establishes moral boundaries for them to live by, rescues them when they are lost because of their sinfulness and encourages them when they feel lonely and discouraged in their priestly life and ministry.

One other tool that a shepherd uses for his sheep is oil. A shepherd’s oil that restores a wounded sheep is like a mixture: oil, sulfur and tar. It serves as a cleaning agent to comfort a suffering sheep from wounds of or disease. It also acts as an insecticide to shield the sheep’s hair and skin from flies so that wounds will heal fast.

During my priestly ordination, my hands were anointed by the Bishop with Chrism oil. I’m sure the priest here, remember that. This holy anointing bestowed me and you the grace to administer the sacraments of the church proper to a priest and to pray for God’s people.

I was doubly blessed like Bishop Tony when I was ordained Bishop and my head was anointed with chrism oil by my ordaining prelate who prayed these words, “God has brought you to share the high priesthood of Christ. May he pour out on you the oil of mystical anointing and enrich you with spiritual blessings.”

Pope Francis has repeatedly emphasized that our precious gift of anointing came from Jesus Christ Himself, the Eternal High Priest. He even points out and I quote, The Lord anointed us in Christ with the oil of gladness…In other words, we were anointed with the Oil of Joy so that we can share the Joy of Christ to others, especially those experiencing loneliness, misery and hopelessness.

You know, may years ago, I can still recall what the late Jaime Cardinal Sin would often remind his priests. He wants us to be happy priests serving with joy. Why? The people we serve even desired to have happy, joyful priests proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ. He argued that many people already suffered from a lot of problems in life.

He said that if they see an unhappy priest, someone who becomes a burden to them, gives them a hard time and causes them to have anxiety attacks, then we become an unwelcome addition to their many problems. Sabi nga po, marami na silang problema sa buhay, dapat hindi na tayo maging dagdag sa listahan ng problema nila.

On several occasions, I have found myself applying the Oil of Joy and Healing to sick priests. In fact, there had been some instances in my hospital visits when I discovered some bishops and priests have been in the hospital for many days, been visited by priests but have not received the Sacrament of Anointing for the Sick.

Perhaps out of familiarity, we have failed to asked if they have received the Sacrament or not. In my personal experience, applying the Sacrament to them and praying over them has lifted up their spirits.

I have had this same experience with aging and retired priests. We also know the difficulty of some priests to accept old age and retirement having been active in the ministry for many years. A priest may find it very hard to accept that he can no longer be as productive and as effective as before.

Last year, our Diocese was blessed to host the yearly gathering of these priests led by Msgr. Venco in one of our parishes. It was a joy for me and the priests of Pasig to be with them. The oil of joy we administer to each other was like a spiritual balm, making us realize how beautiful it is for brothers in the priesthood, young and old, to live in unity and love.
At present, we are constructing a retirement house for our sick and aging priests. We have made it The Tahanan ng Mabuting Pastol. Sinimulan na po namin ito. Hopefully, we will complete this project next year, though this is a tough challenge, given our meager resources. We rely on God’s providence to make this a dream come true.

Let me conclude. Almost two weeks ago, Pope Francis, in one of his meditations during the Jubilee of Priests, reiterated what he has been advising us bishops in shepherding our priests. He said, and I quote lengthily, “As I told the Bishops, be attentive and learn to read the faces of your priests…Do not step back when they are humbled and can only weep because they have denied the Lord. Offer your support in communion with Christ whenever one of them, discouraged, goes out with Judas ‘into the night.’ Encourage communion among them, seek to bring out the best in them…for the heart of the Apostles was not made for small things.”