OFWs of the Cloth

Fr. Engelbert Gammad (right) meeting Pope Saint John Paul II (Photo courtesy of Fr. Englebert Gammad)

Fr. Engelbert Gammad (right) meeting Pope Saint John Paul II (Photo courtesy of Fr. Englebert Gammad)

Fr. Engelbert Gammad is the first president of the first national all-Filipino priests’ organization in the US. Not that there weren’t other previous efforts to organize Filipino men of the cloth. There were Filipino priests organized in the Philadelphia area. In the 1990s there was an attempt to set up a national organization but to no avail.

It was not until after the leadership of Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles Oscar Solis (the first Filipino American to be consecrated as bishop by Pope John Paul II) that the National Assembly of Filipino Priests (NAFP) was realized in 2008.

“Organized,” “under one leadership,” “voice must be heard” sound like earthly concerns, not the language of the Church. Father Gammad explains that the Catholic Church in the US is changing its color. “We’re now seeing the browning of the Catholic Church in the US. Meaning, gone are the days when the Catholic Church was purely white. I think majority of Catholic priests are immigrants. We are now more than 60 million Catholics in the US.”

Need More Than Lip Service

“In every diocese Filipinos are always at the forefront of church activities, Gammad says. “They bring their Santo Nino and Simbang Gabi as far as Alaska. The Filipino Catholics in the US are a powerful group in the sense that we can influence policy-making in doing ministry here.”

There’s a deep faith and a lively church wherever there are Filipinos, he observes. There are also the novenas to Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Antipolo. “It’s automatic to many Filipinos to come to church on Wednesday and First Fridays, on top of Sundays. These are the things that the US Bishops are looking into,” Gammad adds.

In fact, last February the Department of Cultural Diversity in the Church and its Asia Pacific Department called for a meeting of all the heads of immigrant groups – Vietnamese, Koreans, Filipinos and others in Orange County, CA. There was an attempt to confederate the different groups, and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops may soon put out a new pastoral program with inputs from the various immigrant groupings.

Filipino priests have ministered around the world, much like OFWs have found jobs.

The bishops know about Filipino Catholics, their devotion and hard work, says Gammad. “Many US Bishops support us. But they tend to say, ‘Well, it’s there.’ I have yet to hear one of them say, ‘We need you, Filipinos.’”

NAFP was formed says Gammad because “we need more than (the bishops’) support. We, Filipino priests, need to organize ourselves and make ourselves better.”

Being its first president, Gammad did “the dirty work.” He set up the constitution and by-laws and worked for the recognition of the NAFP as a nonprofit organization. He delved into state laws; it helped that he was Adjutant Judicial Vicar in the diocese six years running. What also helped was his Canon Law education from the University of Navarra (founded by St. Jose Marie Balaguer and the seat of Opus Dei) and the University of Salamanca, both in Spain. As of this writing, Gammad has submitted to their executive board their tax-exempt status. This month, he is moving to St. John Vianney to assist the new pastor.

Twice a year, the NAFP gathers for personal assessments and developmental workshops said “to equip us with better ways to minister to all peoples of the US, not just Filipinos,” says Gammad.

The second assembly will happen in November this year in Orlando, Florida. Still, its speakers are mostly white bishops, Gammad laments. “We got only three Filipino bishops,” he says, namely, Manila Archbishop Luis Tagle, Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Quevedo and Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Apostolic Nuncio to Haiti.

Everybody Loves Pinoy Priests

He also explained that Filipino priests are treasured and accepted by their bishops, except for one or two cases. “I’m proud to say that 99 percent of American bishops are contented with their Filipino priests.”

American bishops like Filipino priests because, first and foremost, they speak English and many can celebrate Mass and hear confession in Spanish. When Filipino priests ask why there’s hardly a Tagalog Mass in their parishes, the American bishops are wont to say, “Because you speak English.”

“They put us at their level, but then they assume we think the same way they do,” Gammad notes.“Add to that the ability of many Filipino priests to immerse himself into the community and the pastoral life, which is a rare trait among other immigrants.”

Fr. Engelbert Gammad, Adjutant Judicial Vicar in the Diocese of San Jose and first president of the first US national all-Filipino priests assembly (Photo courtesy of Fr. Gammad)

Fr. Engelbert Gammad, Adjutant Judicial Vicar in the Diocese of San Jose and first president of the first US national all-Filipino priests assembly (Photo courtesy of Fr. Gammad)

The Latino community loves Filipino priests, he claims. “They say we are like them except that we don’t speak Spanish. They would say, ‘You express the faith the same way we do.’”

Gammad points out that Filipinos, being part of Hispanic culture, still have the same mentality of giving only a coin to the collection box. “This is not just a Filipino thing but also Hispanic. I think this is one thing we can all learn in the US. Tithing – it’s something alien to us. It’s not that we can’t. It’s like asking your white buddy to eat balut. And it will take the priest at the diocesan level to re-educate the Filipino faithful.”

What many Americans don’t see is that Filipinos contribute time and talent, and for free. “When you go to Mass and the choir director is not Filipino, do you think that service is free?” Gammad asks rhetorically. Also, many Filipinos in Catechism ministry don’t charge a cent.

Cardinal Roger Mahony once acknowledged that 85 percent of those working in the Cathedral in LA are Filipinos who do it for free. “Sad to say that those who count at the collection box don’t see this,” states Gammad. “To Filipinos, ‘volunteer’ means absolutely free, no stipend, no benefit. Fr. John Sandersfeld (who used to be) at St. Francis of Assisi (in Evergreen, San Jose) approached problems in meetings by saying, ‘the Filipinos would do it this way.’ And remember what Pope John Paul II said, something to the effect that Filipinos are the most loyal to the Catholic Church.”

Stand on Current Issues

But what about Filipino priests’ loyalty? Gammad replies: “I’ve not heard of a single Filipino priest who went against the teachings of the Catholic Church. In issues like should there be female priests and should artificial birth control be allowed, Filipino priests – both trained in the US and in the Philippines – are loyal.”

The only surprising thing about it, he says, is that “the younger US-trained priests are more in line with the teachings of the Church than their Philippine-trained counterparts.”

Also according to Gammad, to many Filipino priests, the issue of priests accused of sexually abusing young boys takes a different spin: “Filipino priests don’t have long discussions about priests sexually abusing children. We tend to think that’s a perversion that’s totally alien to us. Most Filipinos couldn’t imagine abusing a child. When I was in LA, there was a discussion about it and the question was asked if the Filipinos could give some new insight from their country. Somebody replied that there were some Filipino priests who have sexual relations with girls but not boys. In fact, at some levels of Filipino society, priest who sire children are openly accepted. Because Filipinos are also forgiving people. They know that priests are still human.”

But you can’t change the rules either, says Gammad. Pope Francis said it’s a discipline in the Church that priests shouldn’t be married, “but that’s open to discussion. We belong to the Latin rite. Prior to the Council of Trent (between 1545 and 1563) priests who became bishops were not married. That was the only requirement – they could only get bishops from those who were celibate.”

The majority of the priests then were married and that’s when corruption set in, explains Gammad. “Imagine the Borgias already having designs for their offspring to lead the Church before they were even born. If I were married and I got a call at two in the morning to administer the last rites in the hospital, do you think my wife would let me go without argument? If you have no attachment, you are free to serve.”

Father Gammad, who turns 56 this November, celebrated his 30th anniversary as a priest this year. He was ordained by the late Cardinal Jaime Sin. He is the second of eight children. He lives with his mother in San Jose and visits a sister in Seattle, Washington. He likes to listen to Jazz, big band or fusion with lots of wind instruments. When he’s not too busy, he indulges in books about Canon Law and politics.

“If I did not become a priest, I may have been a politician,” he confesses. He is fluent in Spanish and Ilocano and, of course, he loves pinakbet.

Harvey I. Barkin

Harvey I. Barkin

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