Friday, March 7, 2008

The Filipino Healing Priest

Text and photos by: Yong B. Chavez

To the church ushers' consternation, the intention of the woman wearing a yellow sweater has skipped their notice. After making her way through the dense crowd, she marched straight to the altar and is now hunched in front of the seated priest, a boyish-looking petite man.

They are talking indistinctly. The mass has just ended and a healing service is about to commence.

"Mga Pinoy talaga, ang hilig sumingit," one of the men says, making jokes but obviously seething. It does look like the woman wanted to bypass the long queue so most of those within the disapproving man's hearing distance nod in agreement. "There's a line, all these people in wheelchairs... She can't just cut. She should wait her turn to be healed by Father," he adds.

"Father" is Father Fernando Suarez, the now-famous Filipino-Canadian Catholic healing priest, who travels all over the world to hold healing services. The 41-year-old man of God was in town for a 2-week stop in Southern California which began in mid-February. He is currently in the country for a multi-city healing tour.

The St. Catherine of Siena church, a good-sized place of worship in the San Fernando Valley, is filled to the rafters despite the rain.

The woman in yellow was led to the microphone by another priest. By the time she began speaking through tears, most have realized that she's no line-cutter. She doesn't need to; she's already healed, she says.

Elvira Lacson, a 58-year-old businesswoman from Rancho Cucamonga, said that before she was prayed over by Suarez in 2007, her left eye was completely blind due to diabetes. She had a host of other ailments, topped off by a mini-stroke.

"After he prayed, Father told me, 'Now, open your eyes,' I did, and then I saw him, I saw the crowd. I saw everything," she said. Her other illnesses? Also gone. "My doctors were amazed. My family was amazed."

It is her first time to share her story publicly but since she became better, Lacson has become some sort of a Suarez stalker, albeit the positive kind.

"Now, I follow Father wherever he goes. When he went to the Philippines, I went there, too," Lacson said.

In this devotion, she is hardly alone.

Since going public with his healing ministry a few years ago, Suarez's miraculous touch has become legendary.

"He's like the Pied Piper. Everyone just wants to follow him," said Vic Perez, a Los Angeles resident. (Perez is organizing a big healing concert for the priest in May 17 to be held at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Admission is free.)

But instead of drowning those who follow him like in the famous legend, Suarez lifts up everyone he encounters, Perez said.

"When I first heard about him, I didn't believe," Perez said. There are a lot of fake healers in the world, he added. "But upon seeing what he does up-close, it's… I don't know, it's just mind-boggling. My life has changed since meeting him."

Even Suarez did not believe his own gift at first.

Born and raised in a small barrio in Batangas by a tricycle driver dad and a seamstress mom, Suarez did not envision "healing priest" to be his future job title. He was the eldest child and he took the practical route of getting a college degree.

However, there was an incident when he was in high school that made him wonder if he was living the life meant for him.

At 16, he met a paralyzed old woman, and feeling sorry for her, Suarez prayed over her. To both their surprise, she was able to walk right after.

He continued with his studies and worked after college as a chemical engineer, but later on, the young man could no longer ignore the call of priesthood.

"When I was a child, I never thought I would end up in priesthood, but it has given me so much peace and joy that my soul was longing for," he said.

Still, Suarez's road to priesthood wasn't bump-free.

He entered the Franciscan Order but left after less than two years, and his stint at the Society of the Divine Word (SVD) was even shorter: He was asked to leave after 6 months. But although he stayed with SVD for only a short time, it was there that Suarez reported being visited by the Virgin Mary who told him to spread the word of God.

In 1985, Suarez immigrated to Canada where he eventually found his priestly home, the Companions of the Cross. In 1997, he joined this religious community of priests and seminarians.

By that time, many people have told him that his prayer and touch have healed them. Initially, he told those people to keep their healing stories confidential.

"I was confused. I don't know – I just didn't feel worthy. I didn't want to be the center of attention. I was so reluctant to admit it and basically just avoided the issue for a long time. Now, looking back, I realize that I just didn't feel ready to face the challenges and responsibilities of this gift," he said.

"I finally embraced it the day before I was ordained when my spiritual director told me that this gift is not for me; that I have to share it because this is for the people."

Suarez was ordained as a priest in 2002. While representing the Companions of the Cross, he goes to parishes all over the world, performing healing services. He also created the Mary Mother of the Poor Foundation (MMP) which supports a number of indigent families in the Philippines. He is also building a Blessed Virgin shrine in Batangas. Suarez's ministry is supported through donations from many countries.

Since he started traveling, testimonials about the priest's healing touch have multiplied. Some can be read through his website, www.fatherfernando.com.

"Explanation ko dito, healing is possible and it is happening in order for us to know that God is present and He is available and He is alive and is there to help us. Because of this healing ministry, I have the opportunity to tell many people about our faith and the beauty and the gift of being a Roman Catholic," he said.

He conducts the healing service only after celebrating mass.

During a recent homily, he reiterated that "healing flows from Jesus. He is the only one who heals. Jesus will be offended if you go to church only because I am here, and if you go to church only because you're sick. Even when I'm not here, the same God is available to heal you."

But whether he likes it or not, people have been packing churches he visits largely because of him. He dismisses this notion, and even makes jokes about his gift.

"I get people all time telling me that they have a headache, I tell them, 'Then take Tylenol,'" he said while the congregation laughs.

He also loves to tell the joke about how one follower revealed that the reason why the priest is able to get to so many people so fast during the healing service is because Suarez's prayer consists of only one, quickly uttered sentence: "There's nothing wrong with you."

Turning serious, he added, "It's true – for those who believe in God, there's nothing wrong with you."

Suarez is very specific in what he says and doesn't say to those who seek healing. He never promises any miracles.

"I don't give false hope – I never say that if they come, every cripple will walk, every blind person will see, everyone with cancer will be cured. No. I tell them to be open to God. The bottom line is, it's all about God's will. If they don't get healed physically, maybe they'll get healed in other ways," he said.

Suarez adds that more than physical illnesses, more people today are afflicted with emotional and spiritual pain.

"There are a lot of people who won't forgive, who have so much hatred in their hearts, who wishes ill on other people. That's a serious illness." He prays over them just as much as he prays for anyone else, he adds.

The exploding popularity of his healing ministry has recently been met with challenges.

In the aftermath of the healing masses that he recently officiated in the Philippines where tens of thousands attended, Catholic bishops in the country said in January that "while they are happy for Suarez," they will be "watchful" of his healing activities. One bishop has even lodged a complaint against him for not following church rules on healing activities, specifically the one that asks that priest healers first ask "explicit permission" from the governing bishop before conducting a healing mass in his diocese.

A Las Vegas church also cancelled his healing masses last week because, aside from other unnamed reasons, the last time he conducted a service there, the church was displeased with the multitude of clutter left behind by the mass attendees. Suarez has instructed those who invite him in their parishes to follow church protocols but unfortunately this time, this violation caused many Las Vegas devotees to lose out on a chance to attend his healing service.

But those who seek him will get many other opportunities in the future as the priest does not show any sign of slowing down. His schedule is fully booked for 2008.

At the beginning of his healing service at the St. Catherine of Siena church, Suarez sat down on the steps in front of the sick and downed a bottle of water in one big gulp. He looks tired, and he should be. Every single day of the week since he arrived in Los Angeles, he has been officiating healing masses.

At each one, he picks up people in wheelchair in a seemingly random fashion and helps them up to the altar for instant testimonials.

He doesn't know how many he has healed and doesn't sound interested in finding out.

"It's not about me. It's about God," he says. He is aware of skeptics, and he asks them to come to church just the same. "Just come and see the power of God."

He adds that it is there, during the mass, that the biggest miracle happens when the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ.

"Our understanding of healing is very limited," he says. "For a miracle to happen in their life, people just have to open their heart and believe."

After his short rest, the priest stood up, cracked a big smile, and began healing.


[A shorter version of this story currently appears on Philippine News]

1 comment:

monster paperbag said...

miracles happen in real life :)..