NEW LOOK. The new facade of the UST Central Seminary, once home of many priests in the country. Photo by Jilson Seckler C. Tiu

A SAYING goes that whoever does not take the time to look back will not be able to go forth. For the Thomasian alumni who have gone to different places to spread the light of the Church, coming back to their alma mater was easy. After all, this was where they were molded to become faithful servants of the Lord.

More than 400 members of the Philippine clergy took the rare opportunity of their beloved University’s Quadricentennial celebration to “relive, rekindle, and reminisce” during the 76th UST Alumni Priests Association (Alpa) Homecoming last January 28 and 29 at the Central Seminary.

Alumni clerics—including Caceres Archbishop Leonardo Legaspi, UST’s first Filipino rector, and Nueva Segovia Archbishop Ernesto Salgado—joined the Thomasian community in a thanksgiving Mass celebrated by Zenon Cardinal Grocholewski, prefect of the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education and the Pope’s special envoy for the Pontifical University’s 400th year celebrations.

Highlighting the contribution of the Thomasian clergy in building the Church, the nation, and the family, a forum titled “Thomasian Priests and Bishops: Signs of God’s Unending Grace” was also held, with Couples for Christ Philippines Missionary Director Jose Yamamoto, former Ambassador to the Holy See Henrietta de Villa, and Gawad Kalinga founder Antonio Meloto as speakers.

Thirty six priests—25 silver jubilarians and 11 golden jubilarians—were also honored for their service to the Church. The event also saw the oath-taking of 27 “Benjamins” or newly ordained Thomasian priests as new members of Alpa.

“This homecoming is like a time-out from our annual priestly work, when we come together to retrace our steps,” said Tuguegarao Auxiliary Bishop Ricardo Baccay, the association’s president.

‘National treasure’

In a video message shown to the congregation during the thanksgiving Mass last January 28, Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged the University’s efforts to relentlessly propagate the Church’s teachings “as the oldest institution of Catholic higher education in the Far East.”

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“[UST] has provided higher education for hundreds of priests and bishops, religious and lay faithful, who, subsequently in the various provinces, have worked hard and competently [to] build up the Kingdom of God,” the Holy Father said.

Papal Nuncio Edward Joseph Adams referred to UST as a “national treasure”, a place “wherein God’s active presence in human affairs is recognized.”

“This University, for the last 400 years, has played its part in bringing God and His love to this part of the world,” Adams said in his homily during the opening mass of the 10th biennial conference of the International Council of Universities of Saint Thomas Aquinas last January 26.

‘Bastion of priesthood’

A study conducted by the Central Seminary in January found that 61 out of the 127 bishops of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, including retired ones, are Thomasians—41 bishops of them with ecclesiastical degrees from the Central Seminary and 20 graduating from other colleges.

Fr. Noel Vincent Abalajon of the Archdiocese of Capiz noted in the article “On the Shoulders of the Giants” that 110 of the 213 bishops produced by the Philippine Church from 1907 to 2010 came from UST.

Abalajon affirmed the Central Seminary’s stance as the first interdiocesan seminary in the Philippines amid claims that other seminaries of the same kind were established earlier. Interdiocesan refers to a seminary that caters to seminarians coming from various dioceses in the country.

“In a way, they tried to cater to students from other places in the country, but they cannot referred to as interdiocesan,” he told the Varsitarian, underscoring the fact that, by the mandate of Pope Pius XI, the Sacred Congregation on Universities and Seminaries issued the decree Quod iam provide on November 27, 1928 for the foundation of the country’s first interdiocesan seminary in UST.

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In the article “The Colegio de Santo Tomas: Forerunner of the UST Central Seminary,” UST archivist and historian Fr. Fidel Villaroel, O.P. traced the beginnings of the seminary from the old Colegio de Santo Tomas, a seminary-college.

It was in 1905 when Manila Archbishop Jeremias J. Harty proposed the foundation of a central seminary. The idea was buried with time until two decades later, when Archbishop Gugliemo Piani, the Apostolic Delegate to the Philippines, revived the discussion of establishing the seminary at UST. The Dominican Council approved the proposal in the Annual Meeting of the Philippine Bishops in January 1926.

“There is no doubt that in the 400 years of existence of the University of Santo Tomas, many clerics were trained by it in the ecclesiastical sciences, and that a certain number of them actually lived as interns in the Colegio de Santo Tomas,” Villaroel wrote.

Thomasian identity

For the alumni priests present in the celebrations, the UST Central Seminary has lived up to its prestige and has prepared them well for their priestly vocation.

For Baccay, his rearing in the seminary showed him the pillars of the Catholic faith and the importance of contemplation as exemplified by St. Dominic de Guzman and St. Thomas Aquinas.

“You must be disciplined,” he said. “You must be attuned to God and vigilant about the world, so that when you are alone—when you meditate about God’s presence in your life—it becomes fruitful.”

Baccay added that the University has taught him to live his life for others, a lesson that has prepared him for the difficulties of his vocation.

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Fr. Conrado Castillo of the Archdiocese of Lipa credited his Thomasian education for helping him sail through hardships as a priest, particularly his sojourn in Tiloy, a remote island between Batangas and Mindoro.

“The freedom, studies, prayer life, and atmosphere offered by this University made me stronger amid the temptations that came my way,” Castillo shared.

Abalajon said his journey as a Thomasian priest brought him closer to the people.

“I can feel that I bring the presence of God to the people as I feed their hunger for Him when they approach me for confession and when they ask me for prayers,” he said, adding that priesthood for him has always been a “lifetime of perseverance.”

For Fr. Dexter Sontillano, parochial vicar of the Archdiocese of Capiz, a Thomasian rearing has earned him a “fighting spirit that never wanes” and a reflective mindset needed to address priestly concerns.

“We were reminded to always consider not only the local, but the worldwide church as well,” Sontillano told the Varsitarian. “In that sense, I can say that Thomasian priests always maintain a wider perspective and understanding about various issues.”

The new priest is hopeful the University will keep on moving forward as it marks its fifth century of existence.

“Time will come and UST will exceed whatever it has achieved in the present,” he said. “It will simply grow because nothing can limit its unending grace.”

Time-out for 400. Jubilant alumni-priests and seminarians from the UST Central Seminary flash smiles four fingers as they gather and join the rest of the Thomasian community in celebration. Photos courtesy of the Documentation Committee of the Central Seminary

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