By Deedee M. Siytangco
“Take care of my priests, they are mine,” Mother Mary as told to St. John Vianey in a vision “Priests should be joyous, healthy, and normal!” Pope Francis to Salesian seminarians
Meet 35-year-old Fernando M. Suarez of Butong, Taal, Batangas who was ordained a priest of the Companions of the Cross, a relatively new congregation in the Notra Dame Cathedral in Ottawa, Ontario. He was the eldest of four children of humble rice and corn farmers, a graduate of chemistry at the Adamson University in Manila.
His was a “late” vocation, but he persevered since “the call” was strong and could not be silenced. Fernando had entered two seminaries in Manila during his college years, but was told by the religious formators that he didn’t belong to the priesthood. Disappointed, he worked for a while in a multi-national company in Manila but later ventured to go to Canada on the kind invitation and help of a Canadian he befriended who saw “something” in the shy “provinciano.”
While there, he was “led” to the Companions of the Cross who welcomed him. He joined their seminary and was eventually ordained a priest. He was ready to be a parish priest or wherever he was assigned by his congregation, but God had other plans for the newly consecrated priest.
Assigned to a parish with “healing” masses, Fr. Suarez dutifully followed and started celebrating mass at the church. On request, he later prayed over the parishioners and this is where his “gift of healing” was publicly revealed. Scores of parishioners claimed their illnesses were cured when he prayed over them after mass. Many were “slain in the spirit” and rested on the floor of the church. In a short time, his “gift” gained him a big “following” and this caused him to be known outside his parish and eventually all over Canada.
It was not the first time his “gift” was revealed to him.
As a 16-year-old boy, Fernando discovered his “gift” when he prayed over a paralyzed beggar woman at the door of the Sta. Cruz church in Manila. He felt pity for her and laid his hands on her and prayed for her healing. He left and then heard her screaming for joy because she could suddenly walk. The frightened Fernando run off and kept the incident a secret out of fear people would find him a weirdo.
Now as a priest in Ottawa, he was “unmasked” and droves of parishioners came to his masses. The Congregation took notice of the young priest and assigned Fr. Jeff Shannon as his spiritual director. Later on the Congregation gave him permission to bring his healing mission around the globe as requests for him to conduct healing masses came in. The head of the congregation felt that Fr. Suarez’s special gift should be shared by more people as a reflection of God’s Divine mercy.
Twelve years ago his healing ministry brought him back to his motherland and his intention was to stay in Batangas and serve there. But much as he wished to serve “under the radar,” his ministry became known and he was thrust in the national spotlight as a powerful healer. Those were heady days when his ministry was being introduced to the nation and unfortunately the hysteria and waves of adulation did not sit very well with some church authorities. And his persecution began as his “fame” grew.
Today many issues hurled against him in the early years have been cleared up. Extravagant lifestyle (a myth since he is so generous he will give his branded tennis shoes and shirts given by followers to fellow priests in need), disobedience (another myth), malversation of donated funds (already debunked), molestation of two minors (trumped up, cleared by his bishop protector, no charges), no longer a priest in good following (again, a malicious lie according to his bishop who says in an official letter he is “a priest with full faculties”), arrogant and so on.
Not many know that Fr. Suarez and his group have medical mission with the help of volunteers from Canada and America and sometimes Europe and from home, regular feeding programs, and now a drug rehab facility in Botong. His tasks of evangelizing among the poor and marginalized, bringing Christ to prisoners, drug addicts, indigenous people, and the sick (rich or poor) are in his priority list. Along the way he and his volunteers have built churches in far-away places like Ilin, Mindoro without much fanfare. A healing shrine dedicated to Mother Mary of the Poor is rising in Davao through donations of the faithful. His “bishop protector” from Mindoro, Antonio Palang, another passionate tennis player, keeps him on a steady course in the choppy waters of his priestly ministry.
His co-workers in the church-building ministry like Lucy Consunji, Manny and Edna de la Cruz, Baby Ignacio, Nestor Mangio, Reggie Ragojos like to stay in the background. But they are there.
I had a long chat with Fr. Suarez who I call “Pads” for “padre” when I went to the installation of the new archbishop of Lipa, the Most Rev. Gilbert A Garcera, D.D. Last April 21, he was invited by the 56-year-old Garcera, who was head of Bohol archdiocese until he was sent to Lipa. The installation was a beautiful Eucharistic celebration in the packed cathedral of St. Sebastian. It was also a “healing” for Pads and a “homecoming” of sorts for him.
After the mass and ceremonies, we hied over to the home of Dr. Robert Magasino’s mother, “manay” Lillian for a very intimate lunch of sinaing na tulingan, adobong pusit, and fried chicken. It was a good time to reminisce as it was “quiet time” for us.
Pads and I share a special devotion to Mary, Mediatrix of All Grace as she appeared to the visionary Teresing Castillo in 1948 when she was a novice in the Carmel convent. In fact, we met in Lipa 2006, January after the First Saturday mass. He walked in the monthly procession and I hardly took notice of the short, stocky priest walking at the tail end. Arch. Ramon Arguelles invited him to our breakfast with other Marian devotees and gave him permission to pray over us. From that day on, I became a follower of “Pads.”
He was a favorite of Teresing and he loved her back. She understood his “dark nights of the soul” as she also went through these dark nights.
We talked about his priesthood and his coming 15th sacerdotal anniversary on May 18 and he was sad Teresing was not going to be around.
Well, we are all here, I reminded him. We have remained friends ever since. Thru good times and bad times too, as they say “walang iwanan.”
“I am so grateful for my vocation. Priesthood is a privilege, not a right. It is a sacred calling, a vocation that I chose when I consecrated myself to serve Jesus in the ministry,” he said.
Later, he discovered, that “it also meant I endure all hardships and persecutions to be a priest and remain a committed one, subservient to the church and its authorities. There were times when I felt the heavy burden of envy from others, but I focused on Jesus alone.”
And as for my tennis, which he is also lambasted by some who love to criticize everything he does, he sheepishly admitted, “I focus on the ball, not them.”
He loves the sport as it’s inexpensive, gives him a chance to interact with other priests who play, and tennis, teaches him to be humble. There is always a better player than him, he admitted. You can’t blame anyone but yourself and must have the humility to congratulate those who beat you!
Pads has a foundation, “Born to Serve” to help priest-players. It has organized eight annual national tournaments to afford his brother priests the chance to get together for three days and play to their hearts content in a plush members-only club, like the Alabang Country club, thanks to his tennis friends there. The last two tournaments were sponsored by San Miguel Corporation, whose big boss, Ramon S. Ang saw the value of keeping our local priests healthy. He also picks a poor parish from his participants’ ranks to give financial assistance to every year.
Pads recounted that he was having problems with his serves a few years ago and sought a professional’s advice.
“Father, bend your knees for a better serve!” And that was when the name of the foundation was born” “Born to Serve.” This tennis -playing priest said, “On the tennis court or in life, bend your knees to serve the Lord!”
The eighth national tournament drew 250 priests and two bishops, Antonio Palang and Wilfredo Manlapaz of the Diocese of Tagum. Some of the priests did not know Fr. Suarez personally, but they had heard how generous the tournament was to participants like them, from far away parishes. Some were coming to Manila for the first time and some were balikbayans from previous tournaments who had so enjoyed their games and newfound friends they had to come back. Fr. Suarez’ friends from his tennis circles here and abroad like Fr. Igor from Poland. Friends came up with prizes and food for the participants too. His volunteers, like Paul Dizon, Niel San Pedro, indefatigable ladies Judy Perez, Alice de la Cruz, Lucy Consunji, Nina San Pedro, Anna Pastrana, Beth Tagle, Charo Yu, Lydia Secosana, Miriam Chin (from Palau), Dorothy from Canada, Annie Cruz (from London,) Billie Su, donated prizes, and brought in merienda daily for the players.
“Of course I enjoy my calling as I can help alleviate illnesses or miseries. I consider my gift of healing a huge responsibility, but I have nothing to do with it in the sense that I did not ask for it, it was freely given. This is what I am grateful for and I enjoy this gift, I can truly reach out and help others. I humbly accept it, always keeping mind that I am but His instrument and He heals, not me.”
Is there anything he might want to change in his life? “There is nothing I want to change in my life,” he quickly replied,” even if I have suffered from uncharitable criticisms, lies, envy, and sometimes, downright hate in fulfilling my priestly ministry. I forgive them. I offer all these hardships to Him who suffered and died for sinners like me.”
He mused, “I think God is working to build a stronger priest in me, giving me trials to keep me simple and humble. I love Pope Francis’ admonitions to us priests to serve faithfully and humbly. I try, believe me I do, which is why I always sincerely ask for prayers from everybody!”
He had had the chance to be presented to the Holy Father in an intimate audience, hugged by him and told to “continue your mission with the poor” and given him his beanie (the white cap popes wear) in exchange for a new one Pads gave him. “It’s like being hugged by the Holy Spirit,” he gushed in recounting his “encounter.”
Which is why, he added, “I ask forgiveness from those who I may have hurt in any way, not giving in to their requests maybe, or misunderstanding them. I am imperfect too, you know… Help me grow as a priest. True, I am enjoying being alive now and my priesthood. I am cherishing it day to day at a time.”
And, he said before we parted ways after her prayed over Nellie Lopez, manager Lillian Magsino, and Dr. Weng Magsino in Lipa, “Please let me know if you think I am straying off the straight path. I owe Our Lady my priesthood. I do not want to do anything that would hurt her.”
Yes, we will Pads. And all your friends and supporters will continue praying for you and your ministry.