Quiet Storm by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II, 27 October 2020
Whenever people ask me about the story how I became a priest, I always begin by telling them that I am more of a “delayed vocation” than a “late vocation” because after graduating from high school seminary in 1982, I was refused admission to the major seminary to pursue the priesthood.
It was the first serious blow I have had in my life as I felt so deeply hurt because I thought God wanted me to become a priest only to be rejected. It was then I realized his saying “many are called but few are chosen” could be so bad as I had to leave the seminary.
Feeling rejected, I decided to go to the University of Sto. Tomas to pursue my “first love” – journalism to totally forget the priesthood specially when I got into the staff of the Varsitarian (1984-86). It was at the Varsitarian where I learned everything about newspaper journalism that on my senior year in college, I opted to have my training at GMA-7 News to try broadcast journalism.
And I was so amazed at how TV and radio can quickly report the news as it happened, specially whenever I would hear those alarms ringing from the telex machines of United Press International (UPI) and Philippine News Agency (PNA). (By the way, the first thing I learned in broadcast news was changing the newsprints for those telex machines.)
After graduation in college, I got hired as news writer for GMA radios DZBB-AM and 97.1 DWLS-FM. Two years later, I was assigned to cover the police beat at the graveyard shift for our television newscasts.
One morning before “going to bed”, I read a copy of the Columbia, the magazine of Knights of Columbus my father had insisted me joining while in college. At the last page was a vocation campaign written by a Carmelite priest who claimed something like “faith is a very important gift of God we must keep because if we lose it, we could also get lost in life”.
I cannot remember the priest’s explanations but those words got stuck in me that very morning when I just felt praying again after a very long time of being a nominal Catholic in college and GMA-7. The words simply flowed from my lips to become my only prayer in the next four years:
"Lord, let me grow in faith in you."
Everything happened so fast for me at GMA-7 with all the breaks and opportunities given me which I never asked nor even dreamed of. I have never wanted to be “on camera” and have always preferred working behind the scenes (even now as a priest).
As I look back and count my blessings, I always consider it as a grace, a gift from God when Ms. Jessica Soho recommended me to take her place covering the military/defense beat when she was promoted to hosting her own morning show and doing special reports that have established her now as the best in the field.
Despite the recognition that came along with a career in broadcast news, deep inside me I started feeling empty as early as 1988. Most strange of all, I felt God calling me back to the priesthood that I vehemently dismissed, knowing personally how sinful and evil I have been!
When the emptiness and priestly call persisted, I slowly returned to our parish thinking that maybe, I was just missing my old ways of going to Mass and singing with the choir. But, the more I thirsted and yearned for God!
It was so funny and even ridiculous for me at that time seeing myself praying more often, choosing to be alone inside the church like when we were in the minor seminary. I even did not know if I were praying at all except that I felt complete in silence until one day, I found myself begging God:
"Lord, let me know my vocation in life."
I thought of leaving broadcast journalism in 1989 to teach English language to Vietnamese refugees in Morong, Bataan after reading its ads in the Manila Bulletin. It seemed to me that was what I was searching for, something I can enjoy with a deeper purpose and meaning like serving others.
For several weeks I would read the ads in the newspaper until my interest died down as I got into a lot of action doing police stories in the dead of the night. It was also the time when I got so busy covering the 1989 December coup attempt and the destructive Luzon earthquake of July 1990.
Though I felt good reporting the news from the fields, one thing I noticed every time I went home was how I still felt empty inside when alone. Life had no meaning that I tried seeking it in bottles of beer, then in shots of brandy and whiskey until I thought I have found it in glasses of Tanqueray gin tonic. Mr. Marlboro in blue seal bought along Timog Ave. became my constant companion too.
Finally I sought spiritual direction from some priests I have known in the seminary like our former rector Fr. Memeng Salonga and our Sunday Mass presider in our barrio chapel, Fr. Boie Agustin. They have greatly helped me in discerning my vocation that I decided to take the entrance exams to the seminary in February 1991.
It was the last exam date for the coming academic year and frankly, I was still hesitant to give my vocation a second try because I felt unworthy of the call and most of all, afraid of failing again like in high school seminary.
For a while I felt a strong basis for my doubts with my vocation: just when I was about to take the entrance exam, our boss, Ms. Tina Monzon-Palma asked me to cancel my day off that Saturday to search for the lone survivor of the 1911 Taal eruption in Talisay town when that “small but terrible” volcano showed signs of activity.
In my mind, God must be using Ms. Palma to inform me I got it all wrong, that he wasn’t calling me at all to the priesthood that is why I was given a job that Saturday, the last exam date to the seminary.
Of course I was so glad missing the entrance exam with a valid reason that I immediately went back to “happy hours” after coverages until late March when I had a severe attack of gout one weekend. It was so painful that I could not go to work the following Monday and Tuesday.
While in total bed rest for my gout, I felt my vocation coming back again, more persistent than before that I had the stupid idea of asking God for one last sign that would clearly convince me he wanted me to become a priest.
And God heard my prayer!
By Thursday I was back to work covering the newly-assigned AFP Chief Gen. Lisandro Abadia inspecting the troops in Abra and Kalinga. Everything went well until we flew to Laoag City for the final leg of Gen. Abadia’s troop inspection when one of our plane’s tires blew on landing!
Boom! Everything was so fast as I remembered the loud explosion of the tire on my side of the plane, followed by thick smoke seen from my window and tilting of plane as I ducked my head down on my lap, repeatedly praying in silence, over and over again, “Yes, Lord! Magpapari na po ako!”
It was the big news that evening: a tire of the plane with the new AFP Chief blew upon landing at Laoag City airport.
And the bigger news among newsmen was me —- everybody was teasing I was the next Jessica Soho who used to figure out in accidents while covering soldiers and military officials.
More teasings and laughters welcomed us when we got back to Manila but all throughout our trip until I got home that night, I felt deep inside like the prophet Jonas so relieved and convinced of God’s call after being spitted out from the belly of a giant whale like that PAF’s Fokker plane. From that day also, I have never dared to ask God for signs anymore.
Faith is a relationship with God; we pray with faith not to obtain favors but to grow deeper in love and unity in Him.
It was not very easy for me when I finally returned to the seminary in 1991 until our ordination to the priesthood in 1998. There were more trials and hardships, more tests that required from me more prayers, more faith…. to which I got in return from God more love, more mercy, more calls.
From that simple prayer to grow in faith, God has blessed me more abundantly not materially but spiritually and emotionally, of being fulfilled in him. Since becoming a priest in 1998, I have stopped asking God for any specific things in prayers. All I ask him is to give me with more firm faith, fervent hope and unceasing charity and love so that in every here and now, I may say yes to his calls.
In his book reflecting his 50 years of being a priest published in 1999, St. John Paul II described the priesthood as both a gift and a mystery. Indeed, every vocation from God – priesthood, religious life, married life, and single-blessedness – is always a gift and a mystery, something so personal and so deep between me and God, or you and God.
This I realized more when public Masses were suspended during the lockdown in March. It was in that being alone and sad when I existentially experienced the Mass as truly a union, an intimacy of the priest with the Eternal Priest, Jesus Christ. With or without the people.
Let me close this with another prayer I have made during our annual retreat in the seminary in 1994 facilitated by a Cenacle sister. It is one of my core prayers next to that about growing in faith:
Lord Jesus Christ, you have given me with so much and I have given you with so little; teach me to give more of myself, and most of all, more of your love, more of your kindness, more of your mercy and forgiveness and most of all, more of YOU to others. Amen.
Enjoy and grow in your faith journey in the Lord until you find your vocation in life in him!