by Juan Pablo Pangalangan Socrates
2020 was not a good year for Father Simon of the Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Barangay Del Monte, Quezon City. Actually, it was not a good year for anyone in any part of the earth. But it was a particularly confounding one for Father Simon, the parish priest of a quaint and passerby-friendly church in Matiyaga Street, located just before the police station if you’re coming from the highway, and across a bakery called “Tina Pie.” Not that the church was struck by a calamity of some sort; as a matter of fact, thanks be to God, no resident within a kilometer radius from the parish had tested positive for the virus (none, at least, that had been reported in the homeowners’ Viber group chat). But what deeply perturbed Father Simon was that for the first time since the farthest reaches of the recorded history of their parish, daily masses had to be canceled.
Father Simon knew his doctrine well. An outstanding scholastic during his seminary days and a renowned homilist at present (a fact that he constantly refuses to acknowledge despite the barrage of compliments that flood his inbox every time he finishes celebrating Sunday mass), the problem of suffering is one that never simply made him flinch. He could recite St. Thomas Aquinas from memory and supplement it with relevant passages from the writings of other Doctors of the Church. “God does not will evil and suffering,” he once told a melancholy confessor who ended up ranting about his personal life and picking Father Simon’s brain with his questions. “He permits it because He respects human freedom, and because He can draw a greater good out of it,” he stated calmly.
“But what greater good could be drawn out of this pandemic?” Father Simon now found himself asking Ambo, the church keeper who recently got himself into the hobby of tending to plants. “I don’t know, Fads,” replied Ambo. “But see? Because of this pandemic, I have more time to take care of our garden… And to watch K Drama, hehe.”
But Father Simon’s concern went beyond just the lack of any collections from the mass-goers; or missing the sheer warmth that naturally comes with being in the company of others. His primary concern was the fact that his flock was being kept from going to mass. He just couldn’t see what greater good could be drawn out of the absence of Goodness itself — that is, the lack of access to the Eucharist and the sacraments by his parishioners. It was an element whose place online masses live-streamed on Facebook could never take.
As much as he knew the value of suffering, he knew the Catechism enough to understand that the Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life. It is, as the Pope had reminded in one of his writings, the life of the Church, as it contains the true presence of Christ Himself. Why, Father Simon reflected, would God, who is an all-powerful, all-knowing, and ever-present God, allow a tiny virus to germinate in a remote city in a faraway country, to spread worldwide, ultimately making His own body inaccessible….
This question was left hanging in the air, and followed him wherever he went– at the bathroom, in the middle of Zoom meetings, while watching news, while driving to the nearby grocery store, and during prayer time before the tabernacle. He would flip the thought upside down in his head like a delicate specimen. Lord, if You allow evil because You respect our freedom, in what way are You respecting our freedom through this?
Sometimes, during their mealtimes, he would get Ambo involved in this mental puzzle in the guise of neutral philosophizing, but secretly hoping to arrive at an answer. And Ambo would often wrap up the discussion by saying, “We don’t know God’s will, Fads. All we know is that He’s in control.”
Days came and went. Family and friends would often send Father Simon their greetings and life updates. Sometimes, he would get happy news, a niece graduating, the wife of a nephew giving birth thereby making him a lolo, so and so getting their visa approved. But sad news abounded at the same, if not a greater, rate. The firm of a close friend had closed down due to insolvency; the daughter of a parishioner had been struggling with depression; a fellow priest succumbing to the virus. His Facebook news feed, as a priest-friend of his mentioned in one of their exchanges, was becoming more and more like an obituary. He was heartbroken to hear of a lay doctor-friend whose last words before he had succumbed to the virus were that he wanted to see Father Simon so he can administer the proper sacraments for him.
Amidst all this, Father Simon searches for an answer – an answer he couldn’t find in any of the spiritual writings he had read thus far. Lord, often it is our fault that we cannot receive You. But now, Lord, why hide from Your people? Now that they need You the most?
One afternoon, after having said the Rosary in front of the Blessed Sacrament, Father Simon decided to take a walk around the neighborhood with St. Isidore, their parish labrador retriever. The cool northeast wind brushing against his face, the gentle afternoon sunlight, and the trees around him brought him to utter an ejaculatory prayer of thanksgiving to God.
Everything was still and at peace – that is, until Father Simon noticed a suspicious movement a few meters ahead of him at the corner of the street which bordered the lot on which stood the house of Mrs. Chiu, a regular Sunday Mass goer. He saw a man wearing a dark shirt, with a black mask covering his head. He seemed to be hiding, like a predator lying in wait for a target. Father Simon crouched behind a bush of yellowtops to see what was going to happen. The man, who was crouching behind the fence on the eastern side of Mrs. Chiu’s lot, seemed to be waiting for someone to arrive on the northern side of the house, where the gate to the house was located.
He then saw the man pick up his phone to call someone. From afar, Father Simon could see the car of Mrs. Chiu arriving, seemingly about to enter the gate. On the other side, the man, who already put his phone back to his pocket, pulled out something – a different object this time. Father Simon didn’t have to go nearer to see what it was – it was a gun.
The closer Mrs. Chiu’s car got to the gate, the lower the man crouched. Father Simon, perhaps by divine inspiration, realized what the man was going to do — he was going for the car of Mrs. Chiu. And when the man cocked and raised the gun, Father Simon at once jumped out of the yellowtops and ran towards the man with the gun, shouting, “do not shoot the gun! Do not shoot the gun! Shoot me instead! Shoot me instead!”
A number of men from a nearby carwash emerged upon hearing the shouts. When they saw that it was their parish priest lunging towards the masked man, they howled in panic. The man, out of fear perhaps, or, no one knows, maybe out of anger, pulled the trigger, shooting Father Simon at the right side of his stomach causing him to fall to the ground. St. Isidore ran barking towards the gunman, so the latter shot him as well. The neighbors who went outside upon hearing the noise, began to cry at the sight of their bloodied priest lying on the road.
The gunman then ran in the direction where Father Simon came from, the direction of the church. A motorcycle suddenly came to pick up the gunman, but by then, it was too late for them. Policemen from the station near the church came rushing, accompanied by a firetruck. Some people from the barangay already blocked the way behind, making the escape of the gunman and motorcycle rider impossible.
When Father Simon woke up, his eyes were blinded by the morning sunshine flooding through the window. “Fads, you’re awake!” When he turned to his right, he saw Ambo seated on the sofa. Although his face was covered by a mask and face shield, the expression in his eyes made it evident that he had been worried sick about what happened to him. “I’m glad you’re safe Fads. We have all been praying for your recovery since yesterday! Our whole parish is proud of you, Fads! Look, you’re viral on the Internet!” He said, showing him his phone’s screen. Father Simon opened his mouth to say something, but somehow, no sound came out; he probably needed more rest.
“You know Fads, if it hadn’t been for you, Mr and Mrs. Chiu and their children would not be alive right now!” said Ambo. “It was a planned massacre! The police and the barangay were able to catch the gunman and the rider and they admitted that they received an order to kill the whole family. It seems they got into a fight over business matters. Tsk, tsk. Rich people, they always get into dirty affairs.”
“Anyway,” he continued, “we’re all glad that no one died. Except our poor St. Isidore,” said Ambo while shaking his head. “You almost died, Fads, but we prayed really hard, we prayed for your recovery. God answered our prayers.”
Father Simon lay quiet on his bed. Ambo stopped speaking upon realizing that the priest probably needed more time to rest. Eventually, he went out to get them something to eat.
Left alone in his hospital wing, Father Simon took the time to contemplate. And what if I died? he asked himself. I wouldn’t be here right now. I wouldn’t live to see the day when people would start going back to churches. I’d be missing a lot of milestones in the life of the parish. Oh, he thought further, and I would no longer be able to tell my parents and siblings that I love them and that I’m grateful for them. God knows how many more Christmas parties and get-togethers I’d be missing, movie nights with the youth ministry, chit-chats with the parish council officers, drinking instant three-in-one coffee on a dull Saturday afternoon with Ambo…
Suddenly, it became clear to Father Simon — it’s when things are given back to us after having almost lost them that we see their quiet splendor.
In the end, thought Father Simon, nothing is lost. Things may have gone wrong in Mr. Chiu’s business dealings, a bit of carelessness here perhaps, or a lack of scrupulosity there on either party, that led to some bickering, that opened a deep chasm between them. And, most likely, that led to the choice of the mastermind of the massacre to hire the motorcycle-riding suspects, and the latter’s desperate poverty leading them to choose to accept the job.
Unfortunately, those choices happened to coincide with Father Simon’s free choice to take a walk around the neighborhood with St. Isidore on a cool and sweet weekday afternoon. But these choices didn’t need to be tampered with, for we are free.
Still, nothing ultimately is lost, because God is always in control. For even if that led to the gunman choosing to aim the gun at Father Simon’s heart or head, instead of his stomach, leading to his being dead on arrival, still, nothing would be lost – for in dying, Father Simon would have had the hopeful assurance of gaining everything in heaven.
But as it is, he survived, and for this, he is able to start life afresh, to live in a better way, with greater appreciation for the little things of every day, with gratitude, with greater love. Truly, the goodness that was absent in any of the conspirators to the attempted massacre, came out somewhere else.
Oh, and another thing – it seems that he has finally arrived at an answer to his question. A vague and incomplete one, yes. But somehow, for Father Simon, it’s enough.