Remembering Fr Acong. Hero for the Church of the Poor

clip_image002MANILA: We have a hero for Catholicism in the boondocks, the remote Church promoted especially for the poor, the Basic Ecclesial Community (BEC). He is Fr Acong, the Rev Msgr Ciriaco Alberto Sevilla Jr of Lucena City who served in the Gumaca Diocese from 1980 to 2007. In 27 years, within the Diocese, as a parish priest within an area that covered 1,200 sq km, he built 400+ BECs; that translates to 5 BECs every 4 months! St Paul would have been proud.

More than 5 years ago, the month after he died, I wrote about Fr Akong/Acong ("Love's Martyr Of Fatima. Fr Akong & The Hidden Agenda Of The Rosary," 02 November 2007, I had wished to write a book on him; now I have a book, composed by Fr Acong's own sister Milwida Sevilla-Reyes. Why did she compile a book on him? She writes on the Preface:

He was not without blemish, but his exceptional life, particularly his pioneering the MSK (Munting Sambayanang Kristiyano) - Basic Ecclesial Communities - in the Gumaca Diocese, shouldn't remain under a bushel.

Milwida, I think that beyond pioneering, your brother's legacy is persistence in work in promoting the remote Church for the poor. To "persist," according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is "to be obstinately repetitious, insistent, or tenacious" and "to hold firmly and steadfastly to a purpose, a state, or an undertaking despite obstacles, warnings, or setbacks." Perfect words for the perfectly tireless but not trouble-free MSK/BEC life that Fr Acong lived. Building an MSK and starting another every month, if that's not persistence, I don't know what persistence is.

He was a preacher who was a teacher, and as a writer who is a teacher I can relate to that. As a Roman Catholic priest, he taught by his homilies, which were unusually long and also unusually interesting; but he taught mostly by his example of living a humble life, also by dreaming for his parishioners and believing and helping them make those dreams come true. He also built a shrine for Our Lady of Fatima in Apad, Calauag, Quezon Province; it was almost complete when he died on 18 October 2007. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in July 2003; he underwent surgery for colon cancer in December 2005. Fr Acong promoted MSKs as if his life depended on them - and it did. Till the day he died, his was a life dedicated to the unchurched poor in the unreached areas of Calauag.

Milwida's book, published in 2008, reached me in 2013, finally! Titled Father Ciriaco Alberto Sevilla Jr - MSK Trailblazer, printed in Lucena City, compiled by her who lives in Australia, and published 5 years ago, the volume reached me today at about 1500 hours Thursday, 28 February 2013. Bad news travels fast; good news travels slowly.

Actually, the book is in 2 versions but with the same title: English and Tagalog (Filipino). The English one is 6" by 9" and the Tagalog is 8" by 10" - I like the layout of the Tagalog better, as it is more inviting to read. (Notes: The English version is mostly a translation of the Tagalog originals, but it was published first. The Tagalog version was published in 2010.)

Milwida, the question is, either version: Is it readable? I've written enough books (10 in all, 7 printed, 1 coming out shortly) and edited quite a few to come up with the answer to my own question in an hour of browsing: It is readable, although I prefer the English version. An Ilocano, English comes to me naturally; after all, I grew up on the Reader's Digest when I was in high school in my sleepy hometown of Asingan, Pangasinan.

Indeed, by all standards, including those of the Reader's Digest, it is readable - as an album of memories by a myriad of voices. Never mind that as a collection of recollections, I would have titled it a more meaningful Building Churches Of The Poor, Remembering Father Acong. As it is, the book is a compilation of text contributions from Fr Acong's superiors, colleagues, parishioners, nuclear & extended family members, and friends. It is, as it were, a portrait of Fr Acong etched on stone up a mountain, in this case his beloved church on a hill in Apad, Calauag, Quezon Province, a shrine for Our Lady of Fatima. Fr Acong, never to be forgotten. (The image is my Photoshop version of the book cover.)

In content, the book is more than a mere compilation; it is more than a testament to Father Acong as a priest, as a family member of the Sevillas, as a builder of MSKs, and as a builder of the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Calauag, Quezon. If I had the means, I would write another book to bring out and highlight Fr Acong's

personal triumph in becoming a priest where others failed
preference to remain a "mere" priest and not accept "promotions" of any kind
building & rebuilding relationships with family, friends and others
ups & downs with his Tora-Tora companion of a jeep covering 1,200 sq km
tortures & raptures in building 400+ MSKs all over the Gumaca Diocese, and
trials & troubles & triumphs in engineering the last edifice of his priesthood, his last offering to the Virgin Mary, the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Apad, Calauag, Quezon.

Indeed, as did St Paul, he had run the race; he had fought the good fight.

For now, with Milwida's book, let us remember him in kindness, as they did, some 70 of them:

Mother Butler Guild: "What we appreciated the most was his innate diligence" (page 7). Perla Luna: "He was an active, brave and holy priest. He trekked from barrio to barrio to bring the word of God to as many communities as he could. He even climbed mountains" (7).

Bishop of Gumaca Buenaventura M Famadico: Fr Acong volunteered to serve in San Andres, Quezon, "in that distant area to start a ministry focused on the formation and participation of the lay faithful in the life of the Church." (8).

Nol Tejada: He literally blazed trails with Fr Acong. "I was impressed on learning how barrio folks, when given the essential training and proper motivation, could become effective lay missionaries and MSK leaders" (11). "His opting for voluntary poverty was apparent in his lifestyle" (21).

Msgr Leandro Castro: Fr Acong "left no stone unturned to win the hearts of the people, to teach them and lead them to God" (27).

Bro Ricky Aceberas: "(Fr) Acong showed us the austere life in the way we dress and we eat - that we should be like the people we serve" (29).

Rebecca Bersabal: He was a "fearless Padre" (31).

Ramil Rey: With him he traveled the road from ignorance to knowledge of God (35).

Marissa Villasanta: "In my mind and in my heart, (he) opened my eyes to true faith and the love of God" (38).

Zandro de Leon: He became a priest because of the "persistent voice" of Fr Acong, the Lord calling "Samuel! Samuel!" (39). "I consider Fr Acong's life to be a never-ending lesson" (43).

Remy Chipongian: "It was so kind of him to volunteer to look after our children and they enjoyed his company" (45).

Ed Goleña: Because of Fr Acong, "I'm a more confident reader and prayer leader now" (46).

Belen T Mendoza: "I sensed his unfailing faith and his passion for the MSKs and the church he was building in Apad" (47). Celso Satira: "Thanks to him, I learned to read the Bible" (47).`

Bro Boy Malabuyoc: They were partners in building the shrine in Apad (48). "I'm grateful to (Fr) Acong for giving me the confidence to be a lector. Before I met him, I seldom went to church" (49).

Gemma Bañares: He was father to her and other members of the Lay Apostolate Missionaries of the Poor (52).

Seminarian Ruel Peñaflorida: He had a summer apostolate with him. "(Fr) Acong had a true love and devotion to Jesus and the Blessed Mother. I was impressed that he set aside many hours to commune with God" (55).

Gloria Allarey: "He was very good at motivating people" (56). Nilda E Acuña, his teacher in Grade School: "Ciriaco was an intelligent boy who carried out all tasks well" (56).

Norman Capisonda: He helped him decide what to do with his life - become a priest (57).

Bro Dick Barilla: "So charitable. He shared his knowledge and helped many, financially" (59).

Michael Valencia and others: "We were like one family, who had a father who cared for us, gave support and guidance, but showed displeasure when we did something wrong" (61).

Ron Aquino: He lived with him and treasured those 2 years, and was inspired to become a priest (63).

Mylene Argao: "(He) was always with the barrio folks" (65). Tessie Lamar: "When he was already sick, he was a speaker in one of the 12-Saturday training for MSK workers. He shared many beautiful MSK experiences" (65).

Carmel S Reyes: "These (MSK) activities signal more than difficulties to overcome with extra effort. They were and are a sign of purpose, a sign of interdependence. They are signs of empowerment and communion. ¶ My perplexity is now well-rested. ¶ I see the MSK as an integral Faith movement in remote areas. ¶ I now have a better understanding of the holistic mission (he) had undertaken. ¶ This book is a testament to the value of MSKs and (his) work. While it symbolizes a grand celebration, it is only a small indicator - a symptom - of an infectious development that he brought about. Mobilized. Regardless of distance" (68).

Amor Pacaña: "I missed out on the opportunity to be (his) parishioner" (69).

Fr Christopher Parraba: "As an alter server staying with (Fr) Acong at the Buenavista presbytery, I saw the unique value of the MSK. … "Through the MSK, the teaching of the Faith could come easier" (70).

Milyang Aquino: "Thanks to (him), our whole family has been at the service of the Lord since then" (73).

(The pages between pages 75 and 156 are "His Own Words" and will have to wait for my attention some other time. However, I quote from the inserts.)

Luz C Obmina: "I was impressed with how he relocated the San Andres Church from the bottom of the hill to the top" (111).

Msgr Atilano Oracion: "Acong was most faithful to his priesthood. He was a man for others" (117). Elsie Luzavia, now a member of the Third Order of Carmel: "I was always rapt listening to (his) homilies. He had a knack for incorporating the Word of God in our everyday life" (117). (A great talent indeed - FAH.)

Dr Miriam Bayaua: "As a friend I could go to him for advice anytime." "He always had his parishioners foremost in his heart" (128).

Maribel Lopez: "I thought (his) goodness stemmed from his being a priest. But I could see he was a good person even if he (didn't happen to be) a priest" (133).

Lorna Llave Yson: "I read (his) last homily and I am deeply touched. He really had a great faith and he was a true shepherd. ¶ Once I expressed to my husband my curiosity on why he remained a parish priest and didn't get 'promoted.' Pol said that unlike others who are career priests, (he) was a hands-on priest" (140).

Bishop Emeritus Ruben T Profugo: "I praise and thank the Lord for the gift of having him for a brother and friend" (160).

Joe Jara: "In your priestly journey, you remained fully human just like every one of us. Never in our ties together, with or without our classmates, did you show a holier-than-thou attitude nor moralize at every turn" (162).

Flor Liza Jara-Obana: He would advise: "Magdasal ka, Flor. Magpasalamat at magpatawad." Pray, Flor. Give thanks and give forgiveness (166).

Consor Malabuyoc: "Many of the Apad menfolk learned to pray the Rosary from him. Many of them have been enlightened" (167).

Fr Heraclio Fleta: Fr Acong saved him from drowning at the Iyam River in Lucena City. "He travelled by bus (in the US) instead of the plane, saying that that was the best way to see the country" (168). (In the late 1880s, Jose Rizal traveled the US by train, the better to study the country - FAH.)

Mely R Marin: He made her, his teacher, believe she could help in the education of seminarians - and she did (171).

April Reyes: "The memory I treasure is that of witnessing the simple and humble life that (he) led and seeing for myself how well he interacted with the people in the communities where he served" (172).

Bishop Teodoro Bacani: "Acong was intelligent but was not the academic type. He was more active, had a more practical bent and was very good at making things with his hands." He was "a selfless and tireless BEC worker" (173).

Fr CG Arevalo, his adviser: "He would remember years later, that with me as mentor he wrote a paper, "The Church of the Poor. It expressed a theme and concern, which even in his seminary days was already a true preoccupation with him. … It was to become the focus of his priestly ministry, especially in spreading the MSK among people who were baptized but whose concrete day-to-day as communities had very little, if any, deeper influence of Gospel and Church" (175).

Fr Vic Aller: He was "a man of vision with an exceptional sense of mission" (180).

Dr Cesar Sia: He was "a true missionary priest in distant, isolated places" (181).

Norma Chionglo-Sia, Fr Acong's catechism classes were "so interesting and the Christian values were explained with such lucidity, intensity and relevance that no one (was ever absent)" (183).

Necy V Dimasuay: "Fr Acong was creative" and that "he never tired of teaching me and others in the office handy hints that were useful in and around the house and in the office," that "nothing was wasted with this Padre" (185).

Levi: "I wasn't at all surprised that he chose to serve the poor and the downtrodden in the Bondoc Peninsula" (187).

Nanding Habito: "(He) made a difference in many people's lives particularly in those who live in the far-flung areas of southern Quezon" (188).

Nestor Pestelos: Fr Acong saved him from harm and helped him emerge from the underground (189).

Adoracion Alvero: "With his inherent love for the poor and with his simple, humble and detached way of living: He was not fazed by his next assignment: San Andres, a poor, far-flung underdeveloped town in the 70s" (192).

Yollie Gamboa: "My memories of him are of happier times" (193).

Rem & Kits Torres: Fr Acong "felt the great need for spiritual formation among his parishioners that he alone could not provide," that "he needed outside assistance" and that "our offer to hold ME Weekends was an answer to his prayers" (195).

Laarni Reyes: After she had just picked up a $20 note on the ground, Fr Acong "with a big grin" took it out of her hand and put it into his wallet. "He probably felt that I didn't need it anyway and I know that I wouldn't have spent it on anything important" (199).

Josefina Apondar: "When I received the news that he had passed away, I nearly lost my mind. I began questioning God again, something that (he) taught me not to do" (203).

Remy (sister): "(He) was devoted to St Therese" (205). Leonor (sister): "Fr Acong and I were kindred spirits" (205).

Ebeng/Juliet (sister): (He) was one who always wanted to make most of everything, especially his time" (207).

Guadi (sister): "His leadership potential came to the fore when in our final year in high school (sister): He ran for President of the QPHS Student Government and won" (208).

Nora (sister): He was "a handyman, fixing whatever needed repair" (210).

Mil (sister): When a nun asked him, "So, will your sister be joining a religious order too?" he replied, "No, as a teacher she has her own apostolate" (212). Erning (brother): There was "some big brother mentoring" (212).

Maria: "You are a priest - a priest forever. Thank for your perseverance to remain faithful to God's call" (214).

Fr Niño de Leon, the night before his ordination, Fr Acong told him: "Niño, the priesthood is not yours alone. It is a gift from God. He called you so that you can help Him bring people to Him" (217).

Fr Christopher Parraba: Fr Acong "considered the MSK as the answer to some of the problems of the Church in the Philippines where many are baptized but ignorant of their Faith - baptized but not evangelized" (221).

Bro Boning Ong: "(He) taught by example. He gave value to each person" (224).

Loida Estravo: "(He) was like a father to us. He corrected our mistakes but at times he did it too harshly and sometimes, with other people around. … However, that wasn't for long as he would apologize soon after and the many kindnesses he showed us made up for it" (225).

Luningning Dacer: He was "The Good Shepherd of the Lord" (226). "1990. That was when I experienced a special bond with Fr Acong. I was about to go through an unexpected, unplanned wedding. I admired his concern, broadmindedness and humility when he learned about it" (227). On his deathbed, he told her: "I did ask for a long life - but for a long life that is worthwhile. If I couldn't be of help to others, what use is a hundred years!" (235).

Borrowing from Fr Acong, to all I say:

More than just remember, we should be of help to others.

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