Of bishops, gifts, storms, and tempests

Challenges await Bishop Rex Ramirez of Naval, but the recently ordained prelate is used to overcoming turbulent times
Of bishops, gifts, storms, and tempests

Bishop Rex Ramirez of Naval (seated) along with Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila (right), Archbishop Gabriele Giordano Caccia (left), papal nuncio to the Philippines, in Palo Cathedral on Jan. 9. (Photo by Joey Reyna)

 

Shortly after Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila led Catholics in making the sign of the cross at the start of the episcopal ordination Mass for Bishop Rex Ramirez on Jan. 9, the congregation was made to sit and watch a three-minute video.

The video was about Super Typhoon Haiyan that devastated a large part of Leyte province, leaving towns that were part of Palo Archdiocese in a shambles. Photos showed Palo Cathedral reduced to ruins.

In contrast, a few pictures showed the cathedral in its transformed state after it was rehabilitated, restored and renovated.

The memory of the 2013 super typhoon serving as the backdrop of a joyful event like ordination ceremonies? Quite strange.

First ordination

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In 2015, the first episcopal ordination was held in the newly renovated cathedral, that of Bishop Oscar Jaime Florencio. Apart from being the first consecration to be held in the same cathedral in 34 years (the last being in 1981 during the ordination of Bishop Filomeno Bactol), it was a reason for optimism for a community that was still reeling from the storm's ravages.

The ordination was also considered recognition of the leadership the local clergy showed during the dark days of the 2013 disaster.

Father Florencio, at the time rector of St. John the Evangelist School of Theology, served as relief operations coordinator of the archdiocese, leading church efforts in helping affected families and communities.

The future bishop, having survived the horrors of the storm by the skin of his teeth, spearheaded relief and rehabilitation units, mobilizing seminarians in various relief efforts.

So, when news of his elevation to the episcopate came, we the clergy of Palo chorused with deep gratitude that it was a gift to the local church, the church that served as a wounded-healer in the persons of priests and nuns who were the source of inspiration, hope, and consolation in the midst of despair.

Back-to-back appointment

And just as we thought it was time to simmer down after celebrating a rare occasion and receiving a "well-deserved gift" for Palo Archdiocese, on Oct. 13, 2017, came another appointment of a new bishop of Naval from the ranks of the Palo clergy, that of Monsignor Rex Ramirez.

Call it "back to back" or "hard on the heels," the appointment came quite close, although it was not quite a surprise.

At the time of his appointment, Bishop Rex was serving as vicar general of the archdiocese and rector of the cathedral. He himself witnessed the transformation of the church from the ruins to its present splendor.

And while the cathedral rector had his hands full assisting Archbishop John Du in rebuilding the heavily damaged Mother Church, at the Vatican, its present official resident, Pope Francis, seeing the catastrophe caused by Haiyan, sent word about his desire to come to the Philippines.

It was again Monsignor Rex, in his capacity as vicar general, who took the cudgels in mobilizing resources available in preparing for the Apostolic Visit.

All plans for the visit were already neatly laid on the table, all available resources were in place, and not a stone was left unturned when the least expected news came: a storm was brewing in the Pacific. Tropical Storm Mekkhala was threatening to disrupt the entire event.

Nothing could stop the visiting Shepherd, though. On Jan. 17, 2015, the pope set foot on Leyte shores. Arguably for the first time in papal history, the pope's Mass was held with a storm raging. Needless to say, Mekkhala reminded the people of Haiyan.

Msgr. Rex received Pope Francis at the church's main portal, kissed the pope's ring, and led the special visitor to the altar. The papal visit came and went, but not without the storm stubbornly moving towards Leyte and Samar and drenching even the most important guest.

Another storm story

It's not yet the end of this storm story. For while, both Palo Archdiocese and Naval Diocese were preparing for the ordination of Bishop-elect Rex, and his eventual canonical possession of Naval Cathedral on Jan. 9, Typhoon Kai-tak inched toward Leyte, Biliran, and Samar islands last month.

The storm affected most parts of Biliran province, the island on which Bishop-elect Ramirez was bound as its new shepherd. By Dec. 18, we were seeing flood waters reaching neck-high in many areas, casualties, damaged roads and broken bridges, and impassable highways.

Within short notice, the Episcopal ordination of Bishop Rex was held at Palo Cathedral, instead of Naval. The canonical possession of Naval Cathedral took place on Jan. 12.

Storms, literally it seems, became an annoying companion to the stories of these two new bishops.

A new kind of tempest

A new kind of "storm" was felt during the ordination Mass at Palo Cathedral on Jan. 9. Right before the final blessing, Cardinal Tagle, the principal consecrator, offered those in attendance a fresh insight.

"We have experienced a different kind of tempest," he said in these or in similar words in reference to the blow of the Holy Spirit during the ceremonies and how the ordination had confirmed the gift of the Holy Spirit upon Bishop Rex, thus permitting him the exercise of a "sacred power."

From the horrors of Haiyan that caused chaos and devastation, came a "storm" that has restored order. What better word can substitute the word "ordination" to refer to the church-event? What better place to hold it other than in the freshly renovated church which, more than four years ago, was in ruins?

And who could be the better recipient of such sacred power, a priest who saw through the devastation and who, as the cathedral rector, helped restore the archdiocese's Mother Church to its present magnificence?

Challenges to the ministry

Naval's new bishop will be taking hold of a church recently affected by a storm that has caused a lot of damage and destruction. If it's any consolation at all, Bishop Rex is no longer new to typhoons and tempests and the effects that go with them. He will start a new phase of his priestly ministry in the midst of chaos and disorder. And like what he did in past storms, he will overcome.

As Naval's new bishop, Bishop Rex is bound to exhort people to "build bridges, not walls," bridges of peace, justice and understanding. In the words of Pope Francis in one of his recent homilies, "to not respond to evil with evil. To defeat evil with good, the offence with forgiveness ... to live in peace with everyone."

Once again, this tempest will create stirrups and storms, but in a new way. To paraphrase his episcopal motto, it will be in the way of "spirit and truth."

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