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17 in God’s mercy (Part 1)

Life is life because of its lights and shadows. Life is illusion without the challenges and frustrations. Life is beautiful, just bank on the blessings.

On the Solemnity of Christ the King (Nov. 24), I was surprised to find a booklet in my room. I ignored it, the first time I saw it. But, I was attracted to it when I saw it again. I noticed it was not an ordinary booklet.

I read from the first word to the last and I found the 31-page booklet interesting. It’s the Pope’s booklet entitled, “Pope Francis’ Letter to the Priests.” The first page says, “Letter of his Holiness Pope Francis to Priests on the 160th Anniversary of the Death of the Holy Cure of Ars, St. John Vianney.”

I inquired from my rectory girls who left the booklet. They all answered, “We don’t know.” Whoever brought that booklet in the rectory, I am grateful to you. It was a mysterious gift but it gave me loads of inspiration and learning.

The Pope’s lines left me teary eyed: “Priests need to find in their bishop an older brother and a father who reassures them in these difficult times, encouraging and supporting them along the way. As an older brother and a father, I too would like in this letter to thank you in the name of the holy and faithful People of God for all that you do for them, and to encourage you never to forget the words that the Lord spoke with great love to us on the day of our ordination. Those words are the source of our joy: “I no longer call you servants… I call you friends” (John 15:15).

Time is so fast and yet unnoticed due to hectic calendars. Seventeen years came unnoticed. On Dec. 3, I will be turning 17 years in the priestly service. My brother, Fr. Benny Castañeda, the parish priest of St. Joseph Parish, Pacdal will be turning 34. On the same date, Fr. Camilo Ongsit, Fr. Johnny Sumalileng, and Fr. Joseph Guerrero will also celebrate their priestly ordination anniversary.

I was ordained by Bishop Francisco Claver, SJ. at Sta. Rita Church, Bontoc, Mountain Province. The thousands of people who attended left a big impact to the celebration and to my ministry. It was an assurance of faithful journeying from the start of my ordination until today.

The people who came and prayed for me and prayed with me are the people inspiring me to move on until today. God is great and wise. He calls and he stays with them. In my 17 years, there were a lot of occasions that my priesthood was challenged by people, events, sufferings, and sickness. I felt alone and almost felt like giving up. I recall having said many times, “Lord, where are you? Are you still there walking with me?” He simply answered, “Marcs, I never left you but you left me and followed your will.” Priesthood therefore is a constant discernment with the Holy Spirit to know the will of God.

I am always grateful to my family whom God used to make me feel that I was never forsaken. For several occasions that I got sick, mama Carol and my siblings were always at my side despite having families and responsibilities to attend to. Their presence and their support are my propellers. The series of concerts I staged were successful because of their physical and moral support.

Personal frustrations come from stubborn and greedy contractors and politicians who are paid for their work and yet steal people’s money, build projects that endanger people’s lives, turning greedier each day and forgetting that life is temporary.

I am sad and sometimes doubtful for the lack of support among the clergy. Individualism and selfishness are causing division. Materialism is creeping subtly in the ministries, ministers, and in the system of the church.

When priests prioritize material things over priesthood, sacraments, and services, priesthood is at stake. Pope Francis will always remind us that priesthood is not a job. We are not ordained to run a business but to be servants and ministers of the Word.

In four years, the Vicariate of Bontoc-Lagawe lost six priests, three died at young age and three left the priesthood. I cried and pondered, “What’s happening?”

In 2018 and this year, I say I was in serious crisis with all the sad events and distrust. People may have not noticed it but deep inside was a drooping spirit – almost collapsing.

My family’s frequent visit to my mission station gave me strength. They may have not noticed my struggles but their apostolate to my assigned apostolate gave me strength. Prayer, arts, music, writing, and landscaping too were instrumental in keeping my sanity.

On Sept. 19, 2018 I was sick with sciatic nerve disorder caused by my initiative to clean the mess of one of the greedy contractors. It took us the whole day to clean the road from thick mud, aggregates, and stones from the contractor’s motorpool. The accumulated mess endangered motorists, pedestrians, and tourists. The following day, I felt severe pain on my butt and hips. I cannot move freely. A little jerk caused excruciating pain. I took in strong pain relievers but in vain.

My work and apostolate have to stop because of the excruciating pain. I became sensitive, paranoid, annoyed, and temperamental. For several evenings that I cannot sleep due to the pain, I laid on my bed helpless. I looked haggard the following day.

My social relationship was affected. My daily habit of waking up early and celebrating daily Holy Mass gradually dropped.

Sympathy from people seeing my pain and feeling with me, invited supernaturally gifted healers. At least five culturally gifted doctors took turns on my back with the strong hope to heal me. Interventions of all sorts came with the desire to bring me back to health.

In my 17 years, I suffered pneumonia, dengue, typhoid fever, colds, and flu. It took me almost eight months to fully recover from the recurring sciatic nerve illness. Fortunately, I got back in shape and my regular apostolate was revived.

Mama Carol donated her Ceragem Goodle mat to keep my back warm. The mat was useful to dispel the cold that causes more back pains. Physical therapy for several months facilitated by the physical therapists at the Bontoc General Hospital; Miss Anabel Pisiw, Sir Raffy Pangilinan, and Sir Ares Langcato were a big help. My niece Dublin Langbao volunteered her time to watch for me and run errands at the rectory.

Prayers from sincere friends and family were deeply felt in my struggles. I am grateful. As I celebrate my priesthood on Dec. 3, the Feast of Saint Francis Xavier, please continue to pray for me that I may remain steadfast in my vocation and in my apostolate.

To those whom I have hurt with my imprudent words and actions, I sincerely and humbly ask for your forgiveness.

Pope Francis letter reads again: “In the end, through your sense of shame, you will continue to act as a shepherd. Our humble repentance, expressed in silent tears before these atrocious sins and the unfathomable grandeur of God’s forgiveness, is the beginning of a renewal of our holiness.” Reach me at marcsongs123@gmail.com or at 0905-165-3669.

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