John Raven Bernarte or “Raven” (as he’s fondly called) always wanted to enter the seminary and become a priest.
Born to a family who regularly attends Sunday masses, Raven shared that as a kid, he’s always in awe whenever he saw priests wearing cassock or stole, celebrating mass, proclaiming the Good News, and teaching lay people about faith.
“I would dress like them. I would cut our curtains and turn them into a cassock-like garment. Sometimes I would wear big-sized t-shirts and pretend I was celebrating a mass in our house,” Raven recalled.
But life wasn’t all bed of roses for Raven and his family. He recalled how he almost died from dengue when he was a kid. The doctors even said he’s got only months to live, but with the grace of God, he survived. Then it was followed by his mother needing to undergo a surgery to get rid of an ovarian cyst.
“At an early age, I can already say I have carried crosses. But I didn’t mind the hardships that time because I have always believed what my parents would always tell me, it shall come to pass. With God’s mercy, we were able to surpass them all and looking back, those experiences made us stronger as a family and a follower of Christ,” said Raven.
In 2005, Raven’s mother decided to move from Quezon City to Rodriguez (formerly known as Montalban), Rizal for a house they bought for a cheaper price – a house they can finally call their own since they had no permanent house or address prior that time.
But at first, they were hesitant to live in Rizal due to its the distance, not knowing, this is where he will be called to serve.
In 2007, Raven joined the Ministry of Altar Servers at the Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish in Rodriguez, Rizal, but had to transfer to a nearby parish in San Rafael after a year due to parish restrictions, where the parishioner has to serve in a nearby parish where he lives.
In 2008, Raven graduated from Eulogio Amang Rodriguez Elementary School (ERES) and from Roosevelt College Rodriguez in 2012.
“As I serve in the parish, little by little, one thing is becoming clearer to me – I really wanted to enter the seminary, but my mother won’t allow me that time,” Raven admitted.
After High School, he took Bachelor’s degree in Secondary Education, a course his mother wanted him to take, at St. Joseph’s College in Rodriguez, Rizal, only to realize later that God used that education for him to grow the seeds of his desire to pursue his priestly vocation.
“My teachers, nuns, classmates became instruments for me to continue pursuing my vocation,” Raven said.
But in 2013, the desire to pursue his priestly vocation was sidetracked by his desire to help his family by availing of a free education to help himself graduate from college.
Upon his father’s encouragement, Raven took a cadetship exam, to which he passed, and entered as a plebe at the Philippine Military Academy in Baguio City on April 1, 2014.
Apart from the noble privilege of serving the country, being a PMA cadet entitles you to free college education with a well-rounded curriculum, monthly salary and allowances, guaranteed job after graduation, and a progressive career as an officer in any of your chosen branch of service: Philippine Army, Navy, or Air Force.
“But it’s hard to be a plebe, especially during Beast Barracks or Summer Camp – my two months in the academy. I developed a health issue so I had to undergo a surgery where I was recommended to rest for six months outside the academy.”
After six months, Raven was able to go back to the academy and when he’s back, he began excelling in his academics.
“I experienced a little comfort in life in PMA, because I got to buy my things from my hard-earned allowance, but my conscience and my heart always bugged me, especially whenever I think of what profession I should have in life,” Raven admitted. “I felt something is missing. I’m not completely happy.”
Life outside PMA
His lingering health issue was all it took to make him decide to really quit the academy for good, and went back to the parish serving as a member of an all-male choir.
“At first, I couldn’t accept it. I felt I was treated like a garbage just being thrown away. I couldn’t help but feel frustrated.”
Raven came to a point where he started doubting if there’s really a Christ and questioning if his life had been really worldly to deserve all the frustrations and disappointments.
“I went to mass and sang with the choir not because I was serving God, but because it became my weekly routine. But God had been really good to me, because he didn’t allow me to go astray. He used people to lead me to the right path.”
One-on-one with God
After one mass, he decided to visit the Adoration Chapel and to really talk to God – heart to heart. But before he entered the chapel, he was already teary eyed due to sadness, frustrations, pain, and remorse.
“I didn’t do anything in front of the altar, in front of Christ in the presence of the Holy Eucharist, but just cried and meditated. I felt too dirty. I felt too evil. I’m not the same Raven anymore.”
Raven felt really, really tired that time even though he wasn’t doing anything. All he remembered saying over and over again was, ‘Sorry, Lord’ and that’s when he finally decided to start fixing himself and surrender his life to God.
“On my part, He gave me everything I needed, but I’m still sad. It’s true what St. Thomas Aquinas said, ‘Only God can give us true happiness.”
The desire to serve Him came back to life and little by little, Raven started discovering the signs God had been sending him all those years through people and his life experiences to make him decide to pursue his vocation.
“I broke up with my girlfriend before entering the seminary. I won’t forget how I asked her if it was okay for her if I enter the seminary. It was her birthday and we were celebrating it together. And she replied, ‘If that’s what you really want and God wants it for you, I’ll accept it.”
Life in the seminary
It’s been a year now since Raven decided to enter the seminary, which coincided with the church’s celebration of Pentecost, or more popularly known as the church’s birthday or the coming of the Holy Spirit on the early followers of Jesus.
“For me, this time is the birth of my vocation as a priest – by being a seminarian.”
Raven recalled how worried he was after passing the entrance examinations in the seminary on how he was going to support his education given his family’s financial situation. It was also difficult to find a benefactor that time even with the help of a parish priest.
“I cried my worries to God. I told him, ‘Lord, if your will for me is to become a priest, I lift all my financial difficulties to you.”
The next day, a relative priest who hails from Albay called and wanted to see him. After talking, God must have answered all his prayers because that relative of his pledged to take care of all his financial worries. The rest is history.
“Why do I want to become a priest? I want to become a priest not because I want to just answer the call, or be famous or popular, I want to become priest because it is only through Him I felt the love I have never experienced from anyone before. Despite my weaknesses, sins, unfaithfulness, and lack of love for Him, He didn’t forsake me. He loved me, accepted me, and forgave me. I want to become a priest because I want to be a part of Christ’s mission. I want to be a priest and become an instrument of His love and mercy through His sacraments, especially during Holy Eucharist celebration and reconciliation. I want to be like the Good Shepherd that guides his lost and broken sheep back to Him. I want to become a priest because I want to be a living proof that proclaims, “Do not fear, He is alive and He is with us.” – John Raven Bernarte
Up to now, Raven still feel unworthy of his vocation, but who can say no to God when calls one to serve Him?
Not yet a priest though but a seminarian, Raven still has more years, struggles, hardships, pains, joys, and milestones to experience and endure for him to be ordained as a priest, but with our prayers and support of his family, friends, and parish community, I’m pretty positive he can surpass them all.
To Raven, may God bless and keep you in this journey. Good luck!