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A Friar’s Story

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Some time in November 1999, a peculiar conversation came up during dinner. One of the friars I live with in the community asked us, the younger friars, how we came to know the Order of St. Augustine. When I answered the question, I was led to recall the stages that led me to the religious life. I think it is an interesting story, so I am going to tell it here. If I were St. Paul, I’d probably begin the story of my vocation where it theologically begins… in the heart of God. But I am not St. Paul, and the more convenient beginning (when I was about fourteen or fifteen years of age) is interesting enough already, so I’d begin with that…

Sometime during the first part of school-year ’76-’77 (I was in fourth year high school then) some friends invited me to join them in an overnight vigil to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary in another school. I was invited because I was one of the tenors of our school’s YMCA singing group and I knew the tenor part of the song the group wanted to present during the vigil. Since I was just looking for an opportunity to hangout with friends, and seeing that other members of the YMCA singing group were coming along, I went with the group. It turned out to be quite a gathering. There were more than a hundred teen-agers like myself in the vigil. We came from different high schools in Quezon City. There were talks that were moving. We prayed the rosary in a way that I found quite innovative (we watched a slide show of the Life of the Lord as we prayed our Hail Mary’s). Our group was in-charge of the music and once in awhile we would sing meditative songs. It was quite a night. The vigil ended at about 6:00 AM after a ceremony that involved the crowning of Our Lady’s image. It could have ended with me and the group eating breakfast, going home (missing classes) and sleeping for next eight hours. But something happened just before the “eating breakfast” part which changed the course of my life.

Right after the crowning ceremony, while the participants walked towards their breakfast, the head organizer of the affair — a guy of about sixteen or seventeen years old — approached our group. He congratulated us for the nice songs that we sang and he invited us to pray with him in thanksgiving for the successful affair. After the prayer, he started a small “name giving” ritual that was supposed to help us become more involved in the Marian ministry we have begun. I thought that the ritual was only for the others who were already members in the ministry. So I just stayed there to see how the ritual will end. The head organizer began giving each of the other guys a lily (symbol of purity he said) and bestowed upon them the name of the saint whom they should imitate. One was given the name “Thomas,” another was named “John” and so on… I was the ninth or tenth in line and was preparing to move away to give space to another whom I knew was already a member of the group, when the head organizer fixed his gaze on me and said: “You… you look like a good convert. You receive the name of Augustine, a great sinner who became a greater saint…” I received the lily he was offering me. Little did I know that from that day forward, I will be stuck with Augustine, the great saint from Hippo.

My involvement with the Youth Marian Crusade brought me for the first time into the world of religion. Not that I didn’t belong to any Church at the time. On the contrary, I knew that I was a Catholic. I took my elementary schooling in two Catholic schools (St. Mary’s College in Quezon City and Lourdes School – Mandaluyong). I often participated in debates with bible-touting anti-Catholics. But, like most of my Catholic schoolmates, I wasn’t a Sunday Mass goer. And I didn’t feel the need for Confessions then. With the Youth Marian Crusade I began to relearn all those things that I thought can only be learned in the elementary grades: Sunday Mass participation, weekly Confessions, catechetical instruction, meditation on the Rosary (daily!), bible-sharing (at that time, an innovation)… At school, we were quite popular. We held recollections for our fellow senior students, we organized Masses within the school grounds… even Bible-touting anti-Catholics began to keep quiet whenever we made an appearance… Girls began to pay special attention to us, especially when they learned that the members of our group have promised not to have girlfriends for the rest of the school-year so that we can concentrate in our work for the ministry. Before long, many were thinking that some from our group will be ordained priests. But many won’t believe (like my adviser) that I would be one of them.

After high school graduation, our group became more involved in the Youth Marian Crusade. Before the Youth Marian Crusade, I thought that I had my future figured out: I’d enroll in an Engineering course, graduate and become like my father. But all these plans changed after I received the name “Augustine.” During the first semester of school-year 1977-78, I attended classes in the University of Sto. Tomas (College of Arts and Letters) while at the same time undergoing a special training for youth ministry. The next semester I enrolled myself in the Conservatory of Music because it had morning classes and I had to have afternoons free for work in the public schools. Finally, to culminate our months of training, on December 8, 1978, the members of our group made a special commitment to the Youth Marian Crusade — to be poor, chaste, and obedient for a year so that we can propagate Marian devotion in the public high schools with efficiency, dedication and a hundred percent availability. The next school year (1978-1979) our group was enrolled in the Central Seminary of the University of Sto. Tomas Manila as “externi.” We were not officially clerics but we were admitted in the Faculty of Philosophy by a special arrangement made with the Dominicans. We continued to stay with our parents. We left our homes daily at around 5:00 AM so that we can attend common prayers at 6:00 AM and the Mass at 7:00 AM. After school, we went to our homebase ( Don Bosco Mandaluyong) for lunch, got our assignments for the day and went to the public schools. We returned to the homebase in the evening for evening prayers and (sometimes) dinner and from there we went back home. Because of the promise of poverty we have taken, we washed the clothes we wore during the day, and ironed the clothes we’ve washed the night before. (We only had two pair of pants, some three or four undershirts, and two shirts and a very minimal number of socks and handkerchiefs). There was no time for study. (For us, study didn’t matter. We were prepared to take the vow of “docta ignorantia” — with emphasis on “ignorantia” — if there was one. But what else can one expect from ardent readers of Thomas a Kempis?). And sleep after the kind of work we did during the day, was divine…

I enjoyed my one year with the Youth Marian Crusade. I was not fit to continue with them for another year though. The foundress found me disobedient (I guess blind obedience was and is not my forte). Health was another obstacle (the food that we ate, the hours of work, lack of sleep took its toll on me). And my parents were beginning to wonder about the future I will have with the group (we were not technically “seminarians,” we continued to get financial support from our parents inspite of our “promise” of poverty). So on Dec. 8, 1979, I was released from my one-year contract with the Youth Marian Crusade. I and some of the other members of the group who did not renew their membership, continued to attend classes at the Central Seminary. It was then that I came into contact with some students from San Agustin Seminary Makati, a formation house run by the Augustinian friars. It was with their help that I and three other ex-YMC members were admitted for the first time inside a religious formation house. That was sometime in March, 1979.

And this point in the narrative, let me unravel a thread that until now I have left undeveloped: the significance of the name “Augustine” that was given to me one morning in 1977 and which I bore for more than a year before I entered the Augustinian formation house in 1979.

The name-giving ritual that I participated in had two effects on me: it gave me a sense of identity with the group (especially since the saint name was affixed to the surname “Maria”) and it prepared me psychologically for the formation in Christian holiness that the organization had in mind. Each of us who received the saint name had to know the saint behind the name and strive to live according to the virtue that made that saint famous. St. Augustine of Hippo became a problem to me then since there was so much about him and by him. I read the “Confessions” for the first time during the summer of 1978 but got only as far as Book IX. His main virtue seemed to be chastity, but chastity received by grace, not by conquest (so different it seems from the chastity that Aloysius of Gonzaga lived). I was sixteen years old then and I found myself sympathizing with Augustine the student in Carthage and the Augustine who would cry out “Give me chastity, but not yet!” In short, I have lived with Augustine in my mind even before I came into contact with the Augustinians. With the Augustinians, I came upon a different way of getting acquainted with Augustine.

Did I know anything about the Augustinians before I entered their formation house in 1979? The answer is yes. But mainly because of the name Augustine.

As a YMC member, we had to attend some sort of catechetical instruction as part of our training. There was a lesson about religious life and religious charisms and the lecturer was explaining to us the association between St. Francis of Assisi and the Franciscans, St. Dominic and the Dominicans. So I asked: “How about Augustine, does he have a congregation?” And the answer was, there is an “Order of St. Augustine.” That was during the summer of 1978, the first time I heard about Augustinians.

I learned about the Augustinians in the Philippines while I was taking up courses in Philippine History and Rizal at the University of Sto. Tomas. But what I learned there was about their role in the 1898 Revolution and their resistance to Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere.” Then, I associated the Augustinian friars with “frayles” who worked for the Spanish government during the past century.

One day I was wondering aloud whether there were still Augustinians in the Philippines. One of the leaders of the YMC was then collecting pictures of Mary from different parishes in Metro Manila. In answer to my question, he gave me a picture of a priest leading a procession of Our Lady of Grace. “What’s this?” I asked. “That ‘s your Augustinian,” he said. And he added: “Do you remember that small old church where we used to attend Mass in Makati?” (He was referring to that time in 1977 when the YMC leaders like himself were still housed in the San Carlos Minor Seminary at Guadalupe Viejo, Makati.). “The one with the small statue of St. Augustine?” I asked. “That’s the one,” he affirmed. “Well, that ancient church is administered by the Augustinians.”

Little did I know that some years after that exchange, I would be presenting myself at the door of the Augustinian convent attached to that small ancient church at Guadalupe-Viejo, Makati.

I wrote the above account of how I became an Augustinian several years ago and posted it originally at Tripod. I wrote the article in order to avoid saying the same things to students who would interview me each year for an assignment on the Sacrament to the Priesthood. Read more about this here.

Update: June 6, 2009

On June 5, 2009 I officially became a friar of twenty-five years. Too long? Nah!

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