Quiet Storm by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II, 27 February 2023
Lent is my favorite season in our Church calendar: partly because of my melancholic tendencies and mostly, its closeness with the realities of life, of its daily “passovers” and exodus that eventually lead to Easter. That is why for me, life is a daily lent.
This became truest to me yesterday afternoon, the First Sunday of Lent when one of our elderly priests, Msgr. Vicente “Teng” Manlapig died past 3:00 PM at the Fatima University Medical Center in Valenzuela City where I serve as chaplain.
I am still in the process of gathering the many insights and realizations I have had these past three weeks when Mons. Teng was confined with the final five days in the ICU. What is so remarkable for me which dawned upon me yesterday is the fact that Mons. Teng is the second priest I had taken cared and died in the season of Lent. The first was the late Msgr. Macario Manahan in March 16, 2014, the Second Sunday of Lent at that time.
Yes, another monsignor I took care and died in the season of Lent. I was then assigned in San Juan Apostol at Ebanghelista Parish in Bagbaguin, Sta. Maria, Bulacan when Mons Macario retired in an apartment with his adopted family in the next barrio to my parish. Like Mons. Teng, I gave him daily communion and anointing of the sick during his final stretch of about two or three weeks before death. The only difference is that Mons. Macario passed away in my presence that Sunday afternoon; I visited Mons. Teng Sunday morning before he expired in the afternoon.
I have been wondering what must be God’s message for me in making me directly involved with two elderly priests dying in the season of Lent.
It seems to me for now that Lent is the best time for us priests to die because it leads to Easter. It would be a great extra bonus perhaps for us priests to die on Easter Sunday like the Jesuit Father Teilhard de Chardin or on Divine Mercy Sunday of the Easter Octave like the great St. John Paul II or at New Year’s eve like Pope Benedict XVI recently.
In my 24 years in priesthood, I have found our life, and death, follow a certain pattern. That is another topic I intend to develop further but for the moment, here is God showing me a pattern in priestly deaths in Lent which is the season characterized by prayer, fasting, alms-giving and penance.
Thursday night, Mons. Teng he asked to me listen to his “story” which turned out to be a confession, his final one. And what a tremendous grace from God for it was a triumph against his final temptations by the devil. How wonderful that he died yesterday, the First Sunday of Lent when the gospel from Matthew was the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. The hospital ICU is the modern wilderness of temptations where there is the macabre atmosphere of gloom and dead-seriousness, cold and lifeless with just the eerie beeps and whirring or humming of various machines accompanying patients in separate cubicles along with doctors and nurses garbed in overalls and masks like in those movie scenes of invasion by aliens or zombies.
I must confess that after witnessing another death of a senior priest this season of Lent with my ministry this past year being in the hospital, I actually feel more afraid than ever of getting old, of getting sick.
It seems to me for now that Lent is the best time for us priests to die because it leads to Easter.
I cannot say I am ready. No. The more I see myself afraid and so unprepared. It would be a big lie no fool would ever believe to claim I am ready to get sick and die. And even if I felt so tired and sleepy watching over Mons. Teng these past weeks, I could not pray in silence to God and ask him that he spare me those sufferings. Yes, the sense of entitlement crossed my mind many times like the thought “siguro naman, pwede na ako ma exempt, Lord” but no! I could not ask God. I feel so ashamed. It felt so bad on the taste-buds. Whenever such thoughts crossed my mind, there was always something or someone inside me preventing me from asking God for that privilege. Or grace? Because our suffering in sickness is precisely the very gift and grace of being one with Jesus Christ in the wilderness, fighting the devil’s temptations.
The gospel said it so well yesterday that after Jesus triumphed over his temptations, “the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him” (Mt.4:11). See that it was Thursday when I heard Mons. Teng’s final confession, Friday night was the last time he received the viaticum because Saturday morning he could no longer speak, could not eat that I had to consent into the insertion of an NGT for his feeding Saturday night until he slowly deteriorated Sunday morning after I had anointed him again with oil and died around the hour of the great Mercy of God at 3PM.
The same thing is true with Mons. Macario. For about two weeks, I would rush to his apartment mostly at night and midnight to anoint him, pray for him, and give him the viaticum. Once I even celebrated Mass for a peaceful death around midnight when we thought he was about to expire which eventually came a few days after he had met and presumably reconciled with a family member. It was the Second Sunday of Lent, March 16, 2014 when he died. The gospel was the Transfiguration of Jesus. If there is anyone who would truly experience the Cross of Christ on the way to transfiguration, it is surely us, his priests.
A few years ago a friend commented to me that he thought priests were exempted from sickness and other sufferings. He could not believe that we priests get cancer, suffer stroke and other debilitating sickness. In fact, I told him that suffering is our life. One of the priests with tremendous impact on me was our formator in high school seminary, Rev. Fr. Leopoldo Nazareno we called “Fr. Naz” who spent maybe 40 years of his life with Parkinson’s disease that was so rare at that time in the 80’s.
Am I afraid of getting sick, of dying? Yes. Very much! But, what can I do? Like Jesus in the the garden of Gethsemane, even if I pray that God would take away this cup, it is still his will not mine.
Maybe for a good reason, to suffer unto death is the ultimate gift of priesthood. Even in old age for us priests, there is still the essence of victimhood, of offering. It is when out deathbed becomes our eucharistic table and altar where we finally offer ourselves to God in union with Jesus our Eternal High Priest, no longer the bread and wine because we could not celebrate the Mass nor even receive Holy Communion. It would be very sad for a priest to die not a martyr, a witness of Christ on the Cross, loved and forgiven like the “good thief”.
That is what I have seen in these two deaths of priests in the season of Lent: the immense and immeasurable mercy and love of God for us all, especially us priests. Yes, we are sinners, even more miserable than others. But, still loved and forgiven by God. May we strive more to be holy priests, thinking more of the people than ourselves. Pray for us your priests, and help us fix our eyes unto God more clearly through you, the people, the sheep of his flock. May we your priests find that life is a daily Lent, a daily passover, a daily carrying of the Cross and Crucifixion in Christ that leads to Easter. Amen.