Sugbuswak ‘falls on my watch,’ Archbishop Palma tells priests

(The following is the welcome address of Cebu Archbishop Jose S. Palma during the Day of Prayer and Discernment last September 19, 2023. The Clergy Recollection was held to discuss the move to break up the Archdiocese of Cebu. )

I’d like to thank all of you for making an effort to come to the IEC Convention Centre. We are aware that our travel is no longer a joy ride. Many who come from the distant north or south could say that it is almost an ordeal. And yet difficult as the travel may be, thank you very much for your presence.

We recognize in a special way the presence of our servant leaders Auxiliary Bishop Midyphil (Dodong) Billones, Auxiliary Bishop Ruben Labajo. Auxiliary Bishop-Emeritus Antonio (Tony) Rañola is coming. Auxiliary Bishop-Emeritus Emilio (Boy) Bataclan, Msgr. Rey Penagunda, Msgr. Roger Fuentes, all our Episcopal Vicars, Vicars Forane and all of you here.

SUGBUSWAK. Cebu Archbishop Jose S. Palma gave the welcome address during the Day of Prayer and Discernment last September 18, 2023, which was held to discuss the move to break up the Archdiocese of Cebu.
SUGBUSWAK. Cebu Archbishop Jose S. Palma gave the welcome address during the Day of Prayer and Discernment last September 18, 2023, which was held to discuss the move to break up the Archdiocese of Cebu. (Photo from the official FB page of the Archdiocese of Cebu.)

I’d like to welcome in particular a close friend, Msgr. Nestor Cervo, who is from Calinog, Ilo-ilo. We were contemporaries in Rome. Bishop Alberto (Abet) Uy is on his way. To the members of various committees and volunteers who would make this day indeed very fruitful for us, I could not thank you enough for your presence.

This is a very important gathering, what we call Cebu Clergy Prayer and Discernment Day. I know that many of you want to know more about our endeavor “Sugbuswak” and how it will affect your mission as servant leaders, as pastors in Cebu.

I am also aware that some of you are a little anxious about the change, perhaps a bit afraid, fearful that it means having to struggle with new responsibilities and uncertain resources. You do not know how the blessings of Cebu may be equitably distributed. I’m sure others are excited about the opportunity to see reforms, new proposals, new endeavors carried out. All of this will be part of our experience of the day.

When I first announced this direction in New Year’s Eve or evening Mass at the Cathedral, I said we look forward to a “blossoming” — I used that word– a blossoming of the local church. This is in response to the growth of the Archdiocese of Cebu not just in population or the passage of centuries but we also look at the needs of practical administration and the quality of the pastoral and spiritual care given by us, the shepherds. We look at it that way.

With all my heart I firmly believe, my dear brother priests, that the process can only move forward with the guidance of the Holy Spirit acting in each and every one of us. Not only us priests but, those as well in the religious, consecrated life and lay people.

How often we say and now we say it loud and clear : All of us are part of this journey and of this discernment. We could not say “sana all” because now it is really all of us.

For this month’s Clergy Recollection I invite you, I exhort you to listen with an open mind with your patient and trusting heart. Listen to the results of the five Sub-Committees who have been meeting several times. They will share the results of their meetings and discernment.

The results of the five Sub-Committees form the preliminary work on the proposal for “Sugbuswak”. In general, it proposes a Diocese of Cebu up north, and another Diocese of Cebu down south and the Archdiocese of Cebu based here in the metropolis.

This is a work-in-progress. At this moment, nothing is definitive. What we do today and what we do in particular in November (during the General Pastoral Assembly) will define in many ways the shape, the texture, the nature and the many aspects of the proposal that we hope to be able to send to Rome after the CBCP Conference in January 2024. So, I repeat, this is a work in progress. What we factor in today, is most important. Your input is valuable to this ground-breaking effort.

My dear brothers, especially the clergy, the creation of new dioceses in Cebu is not a new agenda – you know that. When I first came to Cebu, it was already floated. Since I assumed office as Archbishop in Jan. 30, 2011, I received prodding, hints, suggestions starting from the time of His Eminence Cardinal Vidal. I also received prodding from the two Papal Nuncios about this matter. Just to mention very briefly, the former Papal Nuncio Gabriele Caccia. Take note, he has visited around 65 dioceses. He has helped create 22 bishops. This is just to show you how well-grounded he is.

When we went to Limasawa, we both had a good talk about Cebu. In fact when he first came, he called me up: “Archbishop Palma, I heard that there is a very joyful celebration in Cebu about Sto. Nino, can I come?” What do you answer? “Of course, of course.” So he came.

After we had the Ad Limina (visit of bishops to Rome), and we came home, he asked me, “Did you talk with the Holy Father yet about the creation of new dioceses?” I said “No, I haven’t”.

It was the same with our present Papal Nuncio John Edwards Brown. He has come to Cebu four times already. He went to Boljoon, he went to San Jose Recoletos, he came here for the 500 Years of Christianity celebration and for another event. These Nuncios are very much in touch with Cebu and when they asked me about the progress of the plan for division I could say, “It’s in the process, your Excellency.” I know that they will again ask me “Where are we now?” So I present this to all of you because this is not so much my plan.

Before I was installed in Cebu, the idea of creating new dioceses was already floated and even the Nuncios are very interested. Ilo-ilo suggested this ahead of us. Bishop Dodong (Midyphil) and I are from Ilo-ilo. Ilo-ilo is the first daughter of Cebu. They have proposed four churches — the mother diocese plus three more. In Cebu, we propose the mother diocese and two daughter dioceses. But Ilo-ilo is ahead of us in the proposal for division.

Likewise in Mindanao, Butuan has already presented its own proposal in dividing the area into the north and the south. Butuan has less than two million inhabitants. Butuan’s plan has already been approved. We are five million in Cebu. My point is the reality of the mother church giving birth to daughter churches is now the talk of many. I’m sure if Bishop Dennis Villarojo were around he would have shared the plan for Malolos (Bulacan province in Luzon) because I know it won’t be long before Malolos would be in the map for the proposal of daughter dioceses.

We are aware that the Cebu Priests Congress of 2002 had already floated the idea. It became clear to us and to me that the question is not whether this should be carried out but for many of us, it’s a question of when and how. That’s how we feel at the moment. Anyway, I said nothing is definitive.

While this is not my initiative, it falls on my watch. It happens in our time, a time of grace of five centuries of Christianization, to draw up a blueprint for inspired growth of the Cebu Church. This proposal will be submitted next year to the Vatican for review and approval. In the final analysis it is Rome which will give the stamp of approval. We can only propose.

God willing, the foundations will be set. God willing, we should have a clearer direction and actual changes set in motion before I retire in March 2025 because I will be 75.

Deep in my heart, I have no attachment. This is not my diocese. As I often say, this is the diocese of Jesus. Even your parish — that is not your parish, that is the parish of Jesus. So I hope that a certain detachment would also be there.

You may ask, why change at all?

We have the largest number of priests in the country — 380 active, more than 40 not so active, and around 250 religious priests. What a blessing for us.
But the situation is still far from ideal.

(AJP describes the distance and traffic problems of travel in Cebu. He recalls presiding over Mass at 6 PM in Santander, at the the southern tip of Cebu, and returning to the city overnight, then going on the road again early morning to say Mass in Daanbantayan town in far north Cebu.)

That’s part of the reality. One time I had a Mass in Oslob (southern Cebu) and I told Mariano, the driver, “Let’s try to make it to the Golden Jubilee Mass of a sister in Cebu Carmel” in Cebu City at 6 AM. You know how Mariano drives; there are times he would overtake even the ambulance. I’m used to fast driving in Samar. But at 4:30 AM, we were still in Naga, south Cebu because of traffic. You know well about the circumstances of distance and travel when we consider pastoral initiatives.

I am also aware how people – while they love the auxiliary bishops – they also want to see the archbishop. One time a visitor came very early from Camotes Island to talk to me about his problem with the parish priest. He left home with no time to eat a proper breakfast. Imagine the travel from Camotes Island to Danao City and then to Cebu City. If the diocese were closer to Camotes, he could have cut the travel time by half. These are among the reasons why we pursue “Sugbuswak” now.

We are aware that many of our barangays are still, for many lay people, distant from the main church. How can we make them closer to the parish? How can we share the faith with them in a more personal way? We know all of these challenges.

So the challenge of restructuring the territorial boundaries and the resources of the Archdiocese is about doing what needs to be done, taking a long view of our ordained role as shepherds for the care of our people.

Sugbuswak will open a new chapter, a new way of journeying for all of us.

You may ask why the Cebu clergy is hearing details of the proposal only now. Why only now? It took some time to gather to start discussing the project “Sugbuswak” for several reasons.

For one, there was no template. Not many of us have had an experience of division of a diocese. We heard of Manila’s case but after that, nothing recent. We also wanted to thoroughly discern on the matter. This matter was superseded by many significant milestones in recent history. We had to set aside plans for “Sugbuswak” because of these celebrations and to attend to the needs of our people in several disasters.

In the year of my installation, I was elected president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines. I had to be away to attend to the many needs of that office but even more importantly during the nine-year preparation period of 500 Years of Christianity we had a lot of activities. In 2012 we as an Archdiocese were deeply involved in the canonization of San Pedro Calungsod. So we shelved many other plans because we rejoiced with Cebu having produced a new saint. We remember that many of us went to Rome for this. Any other plan would not be meaningful. This was the moment we were called to rejoice at the blessing of a new saint. Then in 2016 we hosted the International Eucharistic Congress. There were many fruitful results in that great event because we prepared for it.

Then because Cebu was the cradle of Christian civilization in the country, we prepared for 2021 to commemorate 500 Years of Christianity (YoC). By God’s design the first baptism happened here, the main devotion to Sr. Sto. Nino started here, Magellan’s Cross is here. We know we did a wonderful job even when COVID-19 erupted in 2020. In between joyful events, we joined the world in responding to the needs of people in disasters. So many were affected by typhoon Haiyan and the pandemic.

How could you plan for “Sugbuswak” when our country was saddened by Yolanda/ Haiyan in 2013? Even northern Cebu was devastated. Any other plan or program had to be postponed because we attended to the needs of our people. Added to that, in December 2021, we had to address the ravages of typhoon Odette.

Seen in that context, you will understand why this matter which was floated years ago had to wait for its proper time. Now we feel is the time after having celebrated 500 YoC. And in the spirit of synodality, journeying together, we feel we can sit down and discern. We can kneel down and pray. We can open our hearts and minds with discernment and prayer. What could be the best that can happen for Cebu?

We know through all of these experiences that we have been blessed with the opportunity to reflect on what it offers to all of us now as a church and people.

And so on the eve of 2023, New Year’s Eve, I announced the start of the project “Sugbuswak.” You have the folders. Please read and reflect on A Feasibility Study on the Proposed Creation of New Dioceses in the Archdiocese of Cebu.

I’d like to believe that the various committees have done a wonderful job. When we presented this to the CBCP with Bishop Ruben Labjao and Bishop Dodong Billones, the bishops were awed. No comment from them but only a big round of applause. They know we prepared well for the presentation.

The five Sub-Committees, joined by the bishops and clergy members and lay people and volunteers, have been meeting regularly for this. We often met in the Oakridge business park. Today I refer you to the narrative and the data in your handouts. Browse them, reflect on them. It is a summary of what happened since my announcement in 2023. In July, when we presented this to the CBCP, every bishop will tell you there was a unanimous endorsement. So when the Sub-Committees — Geographic, Demographic, Finance, Institution — were finally identified, the core committee felt that a truly important group should be there because the blossoming of new dioceses leads to breaking up. There is no other way.

Like any community project, it requires both social and spiritual preparation. Hence the Formation Sub-Committee was added as a crucial and critical component of the process. The team came up with a Formation module which has been shared in many of the vicariates. Here we reflected on the natural stirrings of the spirit. It started probably with a little stirring, then increased. Now we feel birth pangs, almost like the time for the mama to give birth. The stirrings of the spirit now become louder, clearer.

Then there is the ecclesiastical grounding. The reflection: If there is a birth in the new diocese, it should only be the fruit of love. It springs from the love of God. It springs from the side of Jesus pierced by a lance where blood and water flow, the symbol of the church. Nothing short of love could be the reason, the love of God for His people.

There is the historical impulse, the awareness that we are looking at history. We are a historical people. I say this because we take pride in the thought that Ilo-ilo is the first daughter of Cebu. But we’re also aware of the many other daughters – Calbayog, where I have been (as bishop of Calbayog, Samar Province), Bohol and many others.

At that time, Cebu gave birth to daughters in other provinces. Now it’s a little sentimental for us because we are talking of one province of Cebu. Before the change was about other provinces. But that’s the dynamics of history.

I’d like to end with this thought: During our ordination as priests, as deacons, as bishops, we all promised obedience. I would like you to look at obedience this way: (from the Latin root word) obedire which means “to listen.” I often stress that my obedience is to the Pope. You may think your obedience is to the bishop. But in the strict sense of the word, all of us listen to God and obey God.

If what I tell you to do is wrong, don’t obey. If what I tell you is a sin, don’t obey, it does not come from God. All of us listen to God. If we are meant to serve, then as servants we do the will of the Master. He is the one we follow, He is the one whose will we do.

The question is: Is this the will of the Spirit? Is the Spirit speaking to me? Is this the will of God for the good of the community?

This vow we fulfill more mindfully today and the days to come. The famous theologian Walter Burghardt says contemplation, prayer which we do today, is taking “a long, loving look at the real.” We pray for the eyes and the heart to see what is real and good in “Sugbuswak”.

“Sugbuswak” requires this vision.

Finally I would like to end by quoting from a Spanish author about discernment. He said simply that discernment and prayer should assist us, help us move forward. It does not mean at all to hinder or stifle. It is important but it is not everything.

“Wayfarer, sometimes you feel there is no way.
But if you go on your way, you will find the way.”

It is a way of saying Jesus is the way and the Spirit leads us on the way. We discern, we pray. But we don’t expect everything to be plantsado (ironed out) with every discernment. We trust. We put our trust in the Spirit who leads us to Jesus, the Way. And Jesus will lead us to the truth and light.

Kaninyong tanan who came, daghang kaayong salamat. Let’s make this day fruitful because of our openness of heart and mind.


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