“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you. – Exodus 20:12 (NIV)
My father, Aureo Pelias Vergara, was a story-teller, that’s probably the gift that I inherited from him. In the days when there were no televisions, in rural Philippines of the ‘60’s, a story-teller is synonymous to being a talk show host. At nighttime, children from the neighborhood would come to our home and my father would regale them with stories about his exploits during the Second World War, how he eluded the pursuing Japanese soldiers and how he camouflaged by hugging a banana tree, covering himself with its dried leaves. At other times, he would tell us about legends and folk tales: the story of the turtle and the monkey, the fable of the sky and the earth, the legend of a mysterious bird, Adarna. I always know when he would end the session. He would tell an open-ended story: “There was a flock of geese swimming in the river. It was a wide river so let us now turn off the lamp and go to sleep and let’s continue tomorrow when they have already crossed the river.” We would then sleep very well, knowing that there is indeed tomorrow.
My father was a man of principles, a fiercely idealistic man, something which my mother, a pragmatist, did not fully share. My Mom thought that we could not survive only on ideals and principles. We had to do something to survive and for that matter even swallow our pride. My Dad would never stoop down to that level. For him, there were only two sides: right or wrong, black or white. After the Second World War, my Dad was supposed to pursue his military career (as soldier of the USAFFE or United States Armed Forces in the Far East) by going to Korea to participate in the Korean War. He refused to do so and was penalized by having his pension withheld. He resigned from the service. At “peace time”, he was advised to kowtow with some politicians so he could have his pension but he refused. Instead, he turned to become a tailor, working day and night, drinking away his frustrations with coconut wine (tuba), till he developed tuberculosis.
We were six children in the family and although we were poor, we excelled in elementary school. Every graduation day, my mother would come up the stage several times to pin ribbons for her honored children. When I finished Grade Six, I was supposed to be the salutatorian (second honor) but was demoted to third honor because my father refused to give a contribution of a chicken. It was a school tradition that the honor students would each give a chicken for the reception dinner for the visiting school superintendent. Although he would have freely given such a chicken as a gift, he was questioning the morality that it be tied to being in the honor roll. “It’s tantamount to a bribe,” my Dad said. My mother, behind my father’s back, surreptitiously gave a chicken to the school principal but it was too late. Furthermore, it was a spring chicken and she was ridiculed by some teachers for giving a “chicken-chicken” (a Filipino play on words, meaning a small chicken.) I would have reported it to my Dad but I knew it would be trouble.
One night, my father and mother had a quarrel. It was about our future. My mother was blaming him for our poverty. Had he not stood on his principles, we would have enjoyed receiving a military pension. He would have had money to send us to high school. We would not have to miss a meal. We would not have to squat on someone’s land. The argument became so heated that my father decided to leave. He packed up a luggage and headed to the bus station. I followed him, crying and begging for him to stay. It was providential that the bus was delayed. Till midnight, we were looking at each other. My tears dried up and the bus did not come. He finally relented. He took my hand, I carried the luggage, and we both went back home. His was the first marriage I was able to help save.
Later it was my turn to run away from home, not to spite my family, but to seek my future. When I read the parable of the prodigal son in the bible (Luke 15:11-32), I did not resonate with it personally. I was the runaway child but my father did not have material inheritance for me to squander. I suffered being homeless and alone in the big city of Manila but I was fortunate to finally land a job, obtain higher education and improve myself. When I returned home, years later, it was not to regain a gold ring or to enjoy a feast of fatted calf, like the returning prodigal. It was to buy that piece of land for our house, to help my siblings go to school and to pay for the treatment of my father’s tuberculosis. In one of his wartime stories, he talked about his favorite meal in the barracks, “pork luncheon meat.” I brought a whole box of canned pork luncheon meat. They lasted a few weeks, to his heart’s content.
I believe my own ideas and ideals were both a combination of my father’s idealism and my Mom’s pragmatism. In college, in the ‘70’s, I was one of the leaders in the National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP) and the College Editors’ Guild and our mantra was towards a “truly free, truly human and truly Christian Philippine society.” While obviously it was an influence from the Jesuits, whom our NUSP President, the national youth leader, Edgar Jopson embodied, it was also one that resonated within me. While I was doing a “teach in” on Marxist’s “dialectical materialism” using Mao’s Red Book, I was actually wondering whether a godless societal development was right. When martial law was declared in 1972, it was a deciding moment for the moderates: some went to the hills and became communists while others acquiesced and worked with the government. I went to the church and later entered seminary.
At seminary, I had a visit from Jopson (who would later die from a military raid) and he asked why I wanted to be a priest, thinking it was simply taking a refuge. I responded that I heeded the call from my three fathers: my Heavenly Father (God), my spiritual Father (the priest who ‘adopted’ and helped me go to college), and my earthly Father (my Dad).
For the short time that I had lived with my Dad and family (because I was a stow-away), the memory of him as a highly principled man never left me. Priesthood does not promise a bed of roses nor threaten a bed of nails but it offers plenty of principles to live by. To paraphrase Frederick Buechner, “vocation is where the world’s greatest need and your deepest joy meet” and I found the vocation of priesthood as a fulfillment of my Dad’s idealism and my Mom's practicality.
I was a missionary clergy in Singapore when I learned that my father was gravely-ill. I hurried to return home once again but my plane was delayed. I finally arrived but he was gone to be with the Lord. His last words were one of thanksgiving. My youngest brother said he died with a smile for he knew I was coming and we are much better than we were before. I remain a priest in gratitude to God, our heavenly Father, who makes all things possible, and who makes His children’s dreams come true.