The making of a “Chinoy” Parish Priest by Fr. JR Orbeta, SJ

“Fr. JR Orbeta, you are missioned as…..Acting Parish Priest of Santa Maria Parish, Iloilo City”.

Fr.-JR-Orbeta-42x150 The making of a “Chinoy” Parish Priest  by Fr. JR Orbeta, SJThese were the words of Fr. Provincial Tony Moreno SJ towards the end of the Ordination Liturgy as he sent me to my first ever assignment as a Jesuit priest.  I was sincerely very happy at that moment to be sent to Iloilo.  Though I must admit that if I were to base it on my heart’s desire, w would have wanted to be a missionary priest-either among our lumad brethren in Bukidnon or to the New Bilibid Prisons in Muntinlupa.  But no, I was missioned to Iloilo and I was happy.  Happy-not primarily because of the destination, but because going to Iloilo would mean living out my vow of obedience to the core.

As I was preparing to leave for my assignment, I felt uncertainty in my heart.  I had been readying myself to work among who Pope Francis calls the “peripheries” of human society.  But I was sent to Iloilo , to work not with the indigenous peoples or the inmates, but with the local Chinese-Filipino community.  Furthermore, my insecurities took the better of me as I wondered, “will the Ilonggo Chinoys accept me?” and “Will I be  happy as a priest working in Iloilo?” Despite these emotions, I felt that I was truly at God’s disposal. I did not know what would happen and what would become of me but in obedience and faith, I moved forward… Iloilo!

Upon my arrival, I immediately experienced the Ilonggo hospitality. After Fr. Robbie Sian, my predecessor, and Fr. Joseph Haw, our school president, picked me up from the airport and brought me to the parish rectory, I sensed how happy and excited the parish staff was to welcome me, their new pastor.  The parishioners were likewise very accommodating.  It was an assurance that Iloilo is where the Lord wanted me to be.

Working in Iloilo as parish priest and school chaplain has been both a blessing and a challenge.  My ministry brings out the very essence of my priesthood but there is always an invitation to “die to the self”, to grow, and be more adaptive to ways and means that I am not yet comfortable with but still called to embrace.  Allow me to enumerate some examples.

I had expressed to the Provincial my hope that my first assignment would really give me the feel and taste of priesthood.  It was exactly what I got when he assigned me to Iloilo. Day in an day out, I am a pastor here. I celebrate the Holy Eucharist daily, sometimes two or three or four times in a day! I hear confessions almost everyday;  and I baptize every Sunday.  From time to time, I am able to anoint the sick; I bless homes, cars, and articles of devotion regularly.  Iloilo has given me the opportunity to live out my priesthood 24/7.  I have been ordained for two years now, and in both of my annual retreats, this aspect of my life and ministry has consistently come to the fore.  My priestly ministry in Iloilo has indeed been God’s greatest blessing to me!  I could not ask for more….all I ever wanted to do and all  I ever wanted to be was given to me here in Iloilo.  For that, I am truly grateful.

Unlike my Chinoy predecessors Fathers Manny Uy, Robbie Sian, and my companion Fr. Joseph Yap Haw, I am not in any way Chinese.  I was told that my paternal grandmother was 25 percent Chinese, that makes my father 12.5 percent Chinese and therefore, I can claim that I am 6.25 percent Chinese. I used to joke with my parishioners that one mosquito bite will altogether remove the “Chinese blood” from my system! I felt insecure because I do not speak the language, nor was I reared in their rich and traditional context.  Most of all, I do not know how to do busness the “Chinese way!”  I just kid with them by saying that since I am in Iloilo now, I will be known as Oh-Beh-Tah Shenfu!

I remember one Mass when I attempted to say the greeting in Mandarin, “Yuan Zhu yu ni men tongzai (The Lord be with you)” and I said it all incorrectly!  But they assured me after Mass that it was okay, my Mass was still valid.  For me, the greatest act of kindness I received was  when a parishioner, Mrs. Cecil Limsui, did some research  to give me a Chinese name, my Chinese identity. She “baptized” me as Chinese-character-1-e1483932899985 The making of a “Chinoy” Parish Priest  by Fr. JR Orbeta, SJ(Hu Luping).  She explained thatChinese-charater-2-e1483933148637 The making of a “Chinoy” Parish Priest  by Fr. JR Orbeta, SJ (Hu) is a derivative of my family name Orbeta and thatChinese-char3-e1483932814639 The making of a “Chinoy” Parish Priest  by Fr. JR Orbeta, SJ (Luping) simply means a person known as peaceful.  Hence, among the Chinese-Filipino community, I am Hu Shenfu (Fr. Hu).

My enriching pastoral experiences in Iloilo have not been limited to the intercultural but they have been inter-religious as well.  During the Lunar New Year Mass last February 7, the Venerable Master Miao Run, a new monk assigned to Fo Guang Yuan Buddhist Temple, came with her group to join the celebration.  A few days later, they returned to conduct a gift-giving activity for our adopted community and we received red envelopes containing “good luck money” for the year of the Monkey.  Through the years,  we have maintained a good relationship with our Buddhist brethren.  It has been our practice to welcome them to our New Year festivities and they have always invited Ateneo de Iloilo to their celebration of Buddha’s birthday.

Being in Santa Maria Parish is indeed both a blessing and a mission.  I feel so potently God’s graces through my parish community.  Likewise, it is humbling to note that in one way or another,  I have become a channel of blessings to them.  Being in Iloilo is at the same time a mission since I have to give of myself daily, including learning more about the Chinoy culture, as well as assimilating myself and my priestly identity into their rich traditional context.  I know I will leave Santa Maria Parish one day. But I can say that when I do leave, I am a bit “Chinoy” already in heart and spirit.


The Making of a “Chinoy” Jesuit Priest by Fr. JR Orbeta, SJ, The Windhover, vol 1, 2016

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