This is from a post dated Sept. 10, 2016, written by a visitor to Bilibid who witnessed Fr. Eli's profession of final vows.
Last Thursday morning, I found myself in Bilibid to witness Fr. Eli Lumbo Sj profess his final vows as a Jesuit to a chapel full of inmates, BuCor employees, volunteers, and members of his family. I had never met him before and neither did I know Fr. Henry Ponce--save for hearing him deliver that rousing homily during Ignatius's feast last July. At the time, he spoke of God's deep, abiding love that is at once a reminder of our belovedness and also, a challenge for us to emulate. His hugot lines hooked me and soon we were exchanging messages and making plans. I intended to visit him in Bilibid and learn about what Pjps Bilibid does but as grace would have it, a string of cancelled appointments and several delays led me to be there in time for Fr. Eli's panunumpa!
As a first-timer in Bilibid, I was surprised by how easy it was to get there from Quezon City. A train to Ayala MRT Station and a bus along EDSA took me straight to Susana Heights. At the bus stop, Mang Wilson revved up his trike and took me straight to the Ina ng Awa Parish inside the Bilibid compound. "Si Fr. Henry ang pupuntahan mo ano? Sakay ka na. Dalhin kita sa office. Dalian mo kasi magsisimula na ang misa." He took care of me before I could even ask and while I had expected the entire trip to be an ordeal, it seemed that all I needed to do was show up because the rest was taken care of.
When I arrived at the PJPS office, it was already teeming with people and Fr. Henry was busy collecting IDs and reminding us to leave our phones behind. I was relieved to see the familiar faces of Fr. Tony Moreno and Fr. Will Abott. We all moved to the Medium Security area where inmates were generous with their greetings. The gentle and piercing "Good morning's" made me feel more at home and at ease. For a society of pakialameros, we don't greet each other as much as we ought to in this way.
The Mary Help of Christians chapel sits a few paces away from the gate. It's a simple space where inmates come to hear mass on Sundays and where presumably, Fr. Eli has spent countless hours preaching. His six year assignment here is no mean feat and something in the way the inmates gathered here proves that his time was well spent. He exhausted all of himself to be a beacon of light for those who had gone astray.
His final vows were an outpouring of love and it was measured not only in the creased faces of the smiling inmates but so too in the buckets of tears Fr. Eli cried throughout the service. It was dificult not to be moved. He had chosen the feast of Mary's nativity to say his final vows. On one hand, he was paying tribute to Mary, mother of us all, and supreme example of living according to the phrase, "thy will be done." On the other hand, Fr. Eli was also honoring his own mother whose absence might have left a void in their mortal lives but whose presence was deeply felt in the son who chose this life of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Isn't that the true grace of love? That it is given to us freely so that we can't help but radiate it--"parang sasabog ang puso ko!"
In response to desolation, anger, and fear, I watched Fr. Eli kneel quietly before the Eucharist, humbly imploring the Father to accept all of who he is and make him an instrument of mercy and salvation. Indeed, God uses us, ALL OF US--in our frailty and brokenness, to be perfect examples of His love.
The vows take place so quickly that one would not notice them if this were just a regular mass. The formula is simple and the words few but as these are his final vows, you grow a sense of hope listening to the man profess them. It has taken him years to get here and the road has not been easy. In his final message, Fr. Eli breaks down a third time reminding all of us, the inmates especially, that sin is a fact of life but that there is power in redemption. "Huwag kayong mahiyang humingi ng tulong at tawad." Ask for help, ask for forgiveness--because however unworthy we might think we are, the truth is still that God loved us first and ours is a merciful Father.
In many ways, I had gone to prison last Thursday to witness a man walk free. Fr. Wilfredo Manalo Samson correctly distinguished between the imprisoned and the free--tayong mga nasa laya at mga bilanggo. When I returned to Manila with the faces of the inmates in mind, I wondered about my own imprisonment. When the doors of mercy are shut as tightly as our minds, and listening hearts cease to beat, are we not in prison ourselves? When we have no eyes to see the fullness of God's creation in the people we meet or no hands to reach out to them, are we not deprived and incarcerated in hate?
As Fr. Eli takes on his life as a Jesuit, I wish him well and pray for a future filled with abundant and abiding love. I also hope he gets his life sentence doing that which brings him closer to the forgotten in our society. The life he inspires in the inmates makes me wonder about people being hard to love. Perhaps it is not too difficult, after all. I pray likewise for the rest of us--"mga taong nasa laya"--that we might embrace our freedom and learn to love as the imprisoned do.
Thank you, Fr. Eli and Fr. Henry! Congratulations and see you again soon. :)