The most challenging, exacting, and delicate task is caring for children and young people. When I am with them, I feel their unadulterated energy and unhampered creativity transforming me into an approachable and relatable lolo.”
So writes the author of “Lolo Monsi Says: A Treasure of Reflections on Life, Love, and Faith,” a precious little book published this year by Anvil and available at National Book Store. It was born of an immensely popular Facebook page of the same title, put together by fans of Lolo Monsi, who will vouch for his being truly approachable and relatable—because this lolo happens to be well-loved Msgr. Manuel “Manny” Garcia Gabriel, a retired priest of the diocese of Parañaque and now the executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines–Episcopal Committee on Basic Ecclesial Communities (CBCP-BEC).
The new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has also brought to the front line the country’s army of spiritual shepherds, including priests and counselors like Gabriel.
Not all, however, can articulate what this crisis has meant to Catholic Filipinos as eloquently as the monsignor, who has authored two books of prayers and shares reflections regularly on his Facebook page. Lifestyle was inspired by his words of wisdom via an email interview.
What concerns are people bringing to you these days?
Concerns that are simply unimaginable in my 59-year ministry as a priest. I behold new faces of poverty from all sectors of our society, regardless of social status, race and religion. Extreme hunger stalks my poor neighbors. Joblessness is on the rise among our returning OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) and contract workers, among our new graduates and millennials. And businesses are down, reeling from the mighty blow of this COVID-19 pandemic.
Facebook friends request for prayers to have a “stronger faith.” They are caught between hope and hopelessness, between holding on to God’s promise and debilitating cynicism. The elderly move around with fear and caution—death, after all, is but a breath away—while the young ones are bored and unfree.
What do you feel you and other priests are being called to do? Has it been personally difficult for you?
I am officially a retired priest. I no longer manage a parish nor take care of local communities. My new platform uses social media and digital technology to get connected to the new generation, and to touch base with former parishioners and friends.
I realize that the countless “friends” who follow my accounts are hungry for reflection and discernment on the existing situation. They are passionate about deepening their faith so that they could be guided in their options and actions. I feel called to proclaim the Good News of hope and love to help them rebuild their lives in the “new normal.”
At this stage of my life, I am on a journey from the sunset years to the final nightfall of my life. I am almost 77 years of age, and slowly, with some difficulty, I am experiencing the deprivation common among the elderly: gradual loss of stamina and physical prowess, of sight and hearing, of taste and zest for living. Thanks be to God, my memory and mental faculties are still in place.
And not unlike the poor, I also experience the poverty of material resources to support myself as a retiree. But I cannot complain. I should not.
How do you comfort those who come to you who have lost their loved ones to COVID-19?
Grieving is a long, painful process. Families are unprepared for the deadly attack. As soon as they discover that a member of the family has contracted the virus, the tedious, confusion-laden journey of the family begins.
It is during these moments that I feel the accompaniment of a priest as shepherd is crucial. Through digital technology, I assure family members that their loved one is now on a journey of peace with God. I do “spiritual anointing” of the sick, and if he or she takes a turn for the worse, I do the “last anointing” and, eventually, the prayer of “final commendation.” Then the journey of peace continues, from the novena Masses to the Mass on the 40th day.
Even if the departed member of the family is already inurned, the family still needs to face the shadow and sting of death that have befallen each of them. They have to make sure there is a healing of memories, and the process of moving on is initiated. This is the task that a priest performs as he accompanies families.
Is there a silver lining behind all this?
The new normal has hammered into our minds the values of social distancing, wearing masks and washing our hands. It could further inject the values of discipline and science-based decision-making, cleanliness and health.
The lockdown in our homes has heightened our family orientation. It has brought members of the family to interact with one another, to do things together and rediscover shared dreams for the future.
Another silver lining is that we see the genuine spirit of bayanihan coming from below, the poor feeding the poor, families reaching out to families, Good Samaritans doing good things to the elderly and the vulnerable.
The virus seems to have affected parishes all over the country. In the absence of Mass celebrations in churches and other income-generating activities, most parishes have fallen short of funds to support the salaries of staff and the pastors themselves.
In a sense, however, this is a good sign. The Church becomes a poor Church in the service of the poor.
At the same time, the celebration of the Mass via livestreaming has reinforced the reality that the family is truly a domestic Church. It is a nursery where the fundamental values of the Gospel and human dignity are intimately lived.
It is also high time that we deinstitutionalized the Church from being hierarchical to communal. The livestreaming of Masses enables the family to enshrine the Lord at the center of each one’s life. Instead of a center-based Church structure, we now have household churches, families praying and witnessing to God’s love right in the home. This way of being Church, I believe, will be here to stay.
Please tell us about your work as executive secretary of the CBCP-BEC.
Immediately after my “official” retirement, I was tapped by CBCP-BEC to serve as its executive secretary. My work is to coordinate all efforts in the country to ensure that the Church gets rooted in the very context of grassroots communities, and from below, move up to bring about the mission of evangelization in our societies.
This work gives me opportunities to experience the communities at the base and the local churches all over the country. From this vantage point, we experience the Church as God’s people on a journey toward the fullness of life. We all share a common dignity as God’s children. This is where the real hope and future of the Church lie.
When did you know that you wanted to become a priest?
I come from a family of humble beginnings in Sampaloc, Manila. My father, a musician, died in his 40s. My mother, a physical therapist and natural healer, took charge of raising us.
My mother’s inherent spiritual disposition and quality of self-giving—she adopted the homeless elderly and families, and made them part of our household—influenced my decision to enter the seminary after finishing my studies at Mapa High School.
My “idol,” so to speak, for what it means to be a priest, as a young boy at Our Lady of Loreto Parish and up to now as a retired priest, is and always will be Fr. Vicente Planta. It was he who encouraged me to become an acolyte in our parish, and who confronted me with the question: “Do you want to become a priest? I will take care of your education.” I said, “Yes.” And throughout my studies as seminarian and my life as priest, I have looked up to him, a good shepherd par excellence.
The tipping point for my decision to get ordained was a near-death experience in a car accident in April 1969. A coseminarian, Renato Rufino Galvez, died instantly. I was seated beside him. By God’s providence, I survived. At that time, we were tagged as “activist seminarians” involved in the student upheaval of the First Quarter Storm of 1968-1972.
As street parliamentarians, we fought for the rights of the poor and the workers. We even held pickets at San Miguel Church to seek from the hierarchy the full implementation of the Second Vatican Council’s agenda for Church renewal. We believed in a renewed Church engaged in social transformation.
For this involvement, I was almost not ordained. But when Cardinal Rufino Santos finally approved my ordination, and I vowed my service to the Church, it was this Church conceived by Vatican II that I promised to build.
I am not a Jesuit, but the Jesuits formed and trained me from the beginning of my studies at Loyola School of Theology at Ateneo de Manila University, up to my doctoral program at Gregorian University in Rome.
What led to your digital engagement and the birth of the “Lolo Monsi Says” Facebook page?
I retired officially on April 17, 2017, for health reasons.
As soon as I vacated my room at Resurrection of Our Lord Parish in BF Homes Parañaque, I needed to be busy. To overcome the fear of early dementia, I decided to embark on two things to keep my mind working. The first was to pick up the French language again at Alliance Française, and the second was to befriend and study digital technology.
I was a digital alien, and I asked my millennial parishioners to help me—Roche Pineda, Ellen Baylon and David Ramos. The first lesson they taught me was how to navigate Facebook, and how to address issues of faith and life that people their age are faced with. They came up with the idea of a blog, and I suggested that the title of my ruminations be “Lolo Monsi,” as my grandchildren love to call me that. Thus was born “Lolo Monsi Says.”
Roche coordinates the project, Ellen does all the design, and David came up with the Lolo Monsi figure.
So how do you keep the youth close to the Church at a time like this, when there is so much distraction and disillusionment?
At a time like this, as in other times, my experiences with the youth have revolved around the way the Lord himself ministered to the needs of the marginalized people of his time, namely, the poor and the suffering, women and widows, the sinners and the outcast, the children and the youth. The Lord spent time with them, listened to them and accompanied them.
This was also the way I tried to relate to young people in my younger years, and especially now that I am in my sunset years. I was privileged to accompany young people in all the parishes I’ve been assigned to, in all the schools that I directed, and in the courses I’ve handled in a classroom setting.
Whatever the context may be, I employ the “Jesus way.” It works. Spend time with the youth and create a space where they can be themselves. Listen to their stories, trivial and strange as they may be. Help them explore possibilities and make options based on their perceptions, worldview and Christian faith.
Present the Church and the life of faith not in an institutionalized framework, but with focus on the connectivity between Christian faith and human life, Jesus Christ and contemporary cultures, the Church and our globalized societies. To my mind, this is how we are to cotravel with the youth today.
Any good ‘lolo’ advice for people in despair at this time?
The one piece of advice that I wish to give anyone struggling with fear and uncertainty is this: In God’s plan,there are no coincidences. Everything has a purpose to pursue, a meaning to cherish. Persevere in the thought that there is a sense to what is happening. We may not immediately discern it. But meaning comes in the process of becoming.