LOOKING BACK and MORE…
The seed of faith, planted in this peninsula four hundred years ago by the Dominicans and the Recollects and nurtured since 1896 by a handful of Filipino priests without the help of any missionary congregation nor the benefit of a Catholic school, became a full grown tree when Pope Paul VI, through the Papal Bull “Quoniam Recte Universum”, canonically erected on March 17, 1975 the Diocese of Balanga in the province of Bataan. The Most Rev. Celso N. Guevarra, DD was formally installed as its first bishop.
The Most Rev. Celso N. Guevarra, DD, in his inaugural message to the laity and clergy of Bataan on the occasion of his installation on November 8, 1975 as first residential bishop of the new ecclesiastical jurisdiction, pronounced: “Our duty is clear. It is to merge ourselves solidly with each other so that, in this diocese, we will have a Christian community that is united, that is one in its love for Christ and for neighbor. Our duty is clear, but it is likewise extremely difficult. We cannot achieve the oneness that we desire, unless all of us forget self and submerge personal desires for aggrandizement and well-being.” Sharing what he perceived as the top priority of his episcopal ministry, he said, “but we need laborers who will go out because there is love in their hearts and apostolic zeal in their souls. We need men and women who will be missionaries like the Dominicans and the Recollects, who will be soldiers like the handful of pioneering Filipino priests, soldiers who will fight the forces of evil and dissension, combatants for Christ who will do battle because they love.” Bishop Guevarra went on a fishing expedition in the different seminaries appealing for volunteers who will augment his few and mostly elderly priests and who will help him realize his dream for the diocese. God listened to his prayers not only by calling seminarians from other dioceses to serve in Bataan but also by inspiring many young Bataenos to become priests. In 1975, only 1 of the 15 priests of the diocese was a native of Bataan. Today, 26 of the 43 members of the Diocesan Clergy are from Bataan.
During the 23-year ministry of Bishop Guevarra, the diocese has continuously spread its branches far and wide. The number of parishes increased from 13 to 25. In each of these parishes, one can find many concerned, committed and generous lay leaders. Together with their parish priests, not only have they renovated and/or totally rebuilt their parish churches and convents but are actively responding to the never-ending demands of evangelization. The major diocesan commissions, which have been established, introduced new and various apostolates in the diocese and in the parishes.
The inspiring words and assuring presence of the Most Rev. Honesto F. Ongtioco, who succeeded Bishop Celso, guided the young diocese as it celebrated its 25th anniversary and as it responded to the call of the Holy Father at the beginning of the third millennium, “Duc in Altum.” His kindness and charity allowed the various branches of the diocesan tree to grow in different directions in pursuit of his plan to convoke a Diocesan Pastoral Assembly. However, God has other and better plans both for Bishop Ongtioco and the diocese of Balanga. Bishop Ongtioco has just laid the foundation for the realization of his vision when he was appointed to lead the new Diocese of Cubao in Quezon City.
On May 3, 2004, the Most Rev. Socrates B. Villegas was appointed by the Holy Father to be the 3rd residential bishop of Balanga. In a personal letter to the clergy dated June 20, 2004, introducing himself as “I am Soc, your bishop,” he wrote: “Even now as I begin my ministry in Balanga, I am already looking towards my goal, my mission in life. At the twilight of my life, I want to be remembered as a bishop who loved his priests unconditionally. Please give me a chance to love you like Jesus, the Good Shepherd.” Fr. Soc comes to Bataan at a time when the clergy needs tough love and when the local church needs direction. His call now reverberates in the hearts of both the clergy and the laity. “Let us be heroes and saints together.” The people of the diocese are filled with awe and excitement as they experience development and innovations, coming at a very fast phase, in almost all areas of Christian life. However, one can feel the peace and hope enveloping the hearts of the clergy and laity, for they all know that leading them is a holy man of God, moved by compassion and energized by a vision. What a grace to be a part of the diocese in this God-filled moment of the history of Bataan.
Msgr. Willy Fabros