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The Archbishop and the Road Less Traveled

He took up Political Science as an undergraduate course at the San Beda. He could have been a brilliant lawyer, litigator, or even a diplomat if he had chosen the path to politics or, maybe, a politician too. In his early years, he acted, sang, and displayed his theatrical prowess, so he could have been a good actor if he chose, with his natural flair for humor and witty banter. But he decided to be a priest. In his priesthood, he could have been a missionary walking in the fields or trekking up the mountains to reach the marginalized flock if he had entered the Society of the Divine Word or SVD. But the contemplative, prayerful life of the Carmelites attracted him more.

The Archbishop, the Most Rev. Rolando Octavius J. Tria Tirona, could have been all these if he had chosen to. True to his name, Octavius (meaning eight in Latin) was the youngest of eight children to a well-off family in Manila. Until he became the 34th Bishop and 4th Metropolitan Archbishop of Caceres, Naga City, he served major archdioceses as Auxiliary Bishop of Manila, Bishop of Malolos Bulacan, and Infanta, Quezon. He retired from stewardship of the Caceres, one of the oldest archdioceses in the country, covering the 3rd, 4th, and 5th congressional districts of Camarines Sur with Naga as the center.

I wish him well and openly expressed the hope that he will remain in Bicol after retirement. He still grappled with a few Bicol words the first time I met him. Today, he could outsmart most with conversations and sermons in his impeccable Bicol.

He could have remained just the amiable, happy church leader who could easily crack a joke in the middle of his sermons and meetings. But as national chair of the Episcopal Commission on Social Action, Justice and Peace and the National Director of NASSA/Caritas in 2013, he chose to speak out on urgent and critical issues of the times, articulating the views of the social action arm of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines, continuing to be at the forefront of the church’s humanitarian response and justice and peace advocates. He spoke and carried the cudgels for press freedom when there was repression, spoke for a stop to senseless killings, and, at one point, bluntly commented against including” condoms in relief goods for the people affected by Typhoon Tisoy in Camarines Sur. “ It’s not necessary, in the same way somebody sends you high heels,” he laughed sarcastically.

At the Basilica of the Nuestra Senora de Penafrancia last week, on the occasion of his Golden Jubilee of his priestly ordination, Archbishop Tirona humbly acknowledged his imperfections, stating, “I’m far from being a perfect priest, but I’m proud of the scars I carry as a priest.” His humility and self-awareness are a testament to his character and deep faith.

With a thousand well-wishers from various sectors, Fr Louie Occiano, former Caceres priest who had been with the Archbishop since 2012 and now Bishop-elect of Virac, Catanduanes, gave the Homily. Fr. Louie was profuse in his tribute as he spoke about how the Archbishop has mastered serving the poor. “He knows how to make difficult decisions and always has time [for] prayer. His leadership and unwavering commitment to social justice and peace are admirable.

Indeed, I cannot think about the Archbishop without connecting him with Tabang Bikol Movement, a broad-based, community-oriented volunteer organization that the PNVSCA awarded most outstanding in 2023. In January 2017, a few weeks after the catastrophic Typhoon Nina struck Camarines Sur, I joined TBM volunteers in contacting several well-known personalities for a fund-raising drive called “Yero Pako” to buy roofing needs for a thousand homeless families. One of the first to respond was Archbishop Rolly Tirona, who lent his name and signature to a one-page Solicitation Ad I wrote and saw printed in the Manila Times. Along with former Senators Victor Ziga, Eddie Ilarde, the Roco family, and Mariners alumni overseas, the fund drive in coordination with the DSWD raised more than 700,000 pesos in two months, yielding thousands of “yero at pako” for Canaman, Camarines Sur, and Ligao, Albay.

In one of my columns last year, I wrote one entitled, “.. and now the end is near,” referring to the People’s Farm at San Agustin, Canaman, Camarines Sur, which occupies a one-hectare church property with a Memorandum of Agreement that will soon expire this April. It was under his stewardship that the Ilaw ng Kababaihan, members of the People’s Organization of Disaster Survivors (PODiS) organized by Tabang Bikol Movement in the aftermath of Typhoon Nina in 2016 that forged the MOA to work on the piece of land for citronella plant production for essential oil distillation as an alternative livelihood.

I giggled in the middle of Fr. Louie’s homily-turned-tribute to the famous Archbishop. Extemporaneously, he said, “Whenever one retires at 60, hindi po amoy tupa, amoy katingko, o amoy tiger balm. But our dear Archbishop does not smell like that; he smells like ESense, which he shares with us; he gives us ESense because he wants to share comfort and refresh us…” Among other common advocacies and interests, I believe that our product of instant stress relief and an aromatic natural perfume called ESense is what continues to bind us.

Ultimately, he lived his episcopacy slogan, “Christi Sumus,” or “We belong to Christ.” In serving, he took the road less traveled. He even produced a musicale, The Mission, with a powerful original soundtrack during the Pandemic, with Ferdie Dimadura and Fr Wilmer Tria. And, for the ever-joyful Archbishop, that makes all the difference.


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