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Fr. Andrew Recepcion and the Secret Vatican Archives in Savage Mind

Fr. Andrew Recepcion is a secular priest on a break from his post as a professor in the Collegio Filippino in Vatican, Rome. Fr. Andrew is also a Bikolano, with roots in Nabua. Months before his arrival, he was in a conversation with Kristian Sendon Cordero, the writer and poet who owns the bookstore-cum-cultural hub called “Savage Mind.” In that talk, Fr. Andrew agreed to give a talk on certain documents that he has read in the so-called “Secret Archives” of the Vatican.

Last Monday, the 16th of September, Fr. Andrew fulfilled that promise and presented to an audience of students and a few professionals one of the letters of Fray Francisco Gainza, the 25th Bishop of the Diocese of Nueva Caceres.

Perhaps, the most well-known of the friars assigned to Bikol, Bishop Gainza arrived in the Philippines on February 23, 1841. He was assigned to Nueva Caceres and was a bishop from 1862 to 1879. In Nueva Caceres, he was the man behind many significant projects, two of which was the foundation of Colegio de Santa Isabel, the first normal school for women in the Philippines, and the improvement of the shrine to the Lady of Peñafrancia. Gainza was also behind the extensive development of the seminary in Nueva Caceres naming it after the Lady of Rosary.

But who was really Gainza?

That night in Savage Mind, Fr. Andrew answered that question by presenting to the audience the Pastoral letter written by Gainza, which was not about Gainza himself but about his thoughts on Nueva Caceres and its inhabitants. Gainza was talking about our ancestors.

What made the presentation of the good priest compelling was how he dealt with the document: he read it, transliterated it or translated it literally, and confronted his own translations of certain words with questions and introspections. The result was a very tender perusal of the letter, as if the letter was being read for the first time by someone to whom the data enclosed were important.

For a nation/region that is fond and used to self-bashing, the words of Gainza paint a place and a people that were gentle. The Nueva Caceres is described as being in good location. This could be interpreted as looking at the riverine settlements as most ideal for trade and commerce.

In the words of Gainza, the Bikolanos (he used the word “Vikol”), are docile enough not to merit the presence of military supervisors. There is also the geographic revelation: the place is seldom visited by storms.

The question now is when did the typhoons start to become regular in the region?

One leaves the report with the image of a land that is fertile, full of resources. It underscores the presence of peace and harmony during that part of the 19th century, elements that were absent then in other places. This particular part of the letter indicates an affirmation about how the revolution against Spain started relatively late in the region.

While there can be a speculation that Gainza may have glossed over the description of the place to Spain and the institutional Church, the positive images about the people and the gracious landscape only confirm what later historians and geographers wrote about Bikol. There is a strong possibility that indeed there was an allure in the land, which seduced conquistadores and missionaries.

Gainza, in his report, also proves what we love about him: his genuine love for the land marked by his “respect” for the culture of the said place. He writes in the letter how there is a need for them to study the language of the land. In this regard, Fr. Andrew reminded the crowd a most unusual achievement of Gainza and that was his writing of the devotion to the Lady of Peñafrancia in the Bikol language. The same Bikol document was translated into Spanish. It is the misfortune of the Bikol scholars in particular that the only extant version is the one in Spanish. The original in Bikol is gone!

How can a lecture on a talk on a document coming from the Secret Archives of Vatican escape the scrutiny of the listeners curious as to the meaning of the word “secret? To this, Fr. Andrew avoided the mystification that amateur researchers are prone to exaggerate. He said the archives are not really “secret” because anyone can go there. There are qualifications needed though. Among the requirements are: one must be professional researcher who is trained to read and handle data; another is that the person must know the languages in which the documents are written.

The good priest also cautioned that there are many materials in the “Secret Archives” that have very sensitive information. He also stressed how many of the artefacts there are not yet catalogued. “Anyone can apply,” Fr. Andrew, however, leaves this note of hope.

Imagine 8 kilometers of archival materials was how Fr. Andrew Recepcion described the “Secret Archives of the Vatican.”

As a response to this, perhaps, Fr. Andrew did not offer any conclusion. For someone who reads and translates Spanish and lectures in Italian, Fr. Andrew showed us deference, humility, and wisdom in focusing on the materials at hand. This is a good lesson in research for those who are examining the past. This is almost Paul Ricoeur’s theorizing of “text as a limited field of possible constructions.”

Delimited, knowledge can still be a wellspring of ideas. Like that evening in Savage Mind when a Bikolano priest spoke of the secret archives and a letter that turned out to be a belated gift from the past for Bikolanos.

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