Take it from Fr. Eldrick S. Peña, 42 years old, of the Diocese of Antipolo, who revealed that he already felt his ‘calling’ at an early age but tried to dismiss it thinking it would just go away, but it didn’t.
They refer to them as ‘late vocation’, but Fr. Eldrick said that’s the widely used term, but the more politically correct term is ‘late response’.
And true enough, when God calls you, it doesn’t matter where you are, how old you are, or you’re at the peak of your career, you cannot run or hide from it. He will equip you and prepare you for it and at some point in your life, you will have to respond to it, or it will bother you or haunt you for the rest of your life.
Fr. Eldrick grew up in a devout Catholic family. He’s the fourth among five children. His mother was a public-school teacher and his father was a police officer.
His father was always away due to his job as the Chief of Police of various towns in Batangas City, so it was his mother who took care of him and his siblings and attended to all their needs.
When he was six years old, he injured his left arm while playing with his friends. The injury was so severe that the bones connecting to his upper and lower left arm separated. Only the flesh connected the whole arm together. That traumatic experience bore him so much pain at an early age and created such a strong impact on his life.
From being very playful to the point of being mischievous and naughty, then Eldrick suddenly became timid, reserved, and could not play that much anymore since his left arm was weakened by the injury.
“I could not engage in physical activities because of such limitation and out of fear of injuring myself again. So, I just concentrated on reading books and playing chess,” admitted Fr. Eldrick.
In elementary, he and his siblings were sent to Canossa Academy, an institution run by nuns. In high school, he and his eldest brother were sent to La Salle; while his sisters remained in Canossa.
Fr. Eldrick studied in Catholic schools from preschool to graduate school and had a very Catholic upbringing, which could have contributed to the cultivation of his priestly vocation. He was also very much active in different religious organizations and excelled in religion courses all throughout his studying years.
When he graduated from De La Salle High School in Lipa, Batangas, he was awarded Catechist of the Year. In college, he and siblings were sent to various Catholic schools in Manila so he enrolled at the University of Sto. Tomas where he took up AB Communication Arts and graduated in 1998.
“People would mistake me for a seminarian during my college years. Friends, relatives, and family members would ask me if I had any intention of entering the seminary, but I would just dismiss them. But deep inside, something is telling me that I have a vocation. I can feel it deep in my heart, but I was not yet ready to respond,” he admitted.
A flourishing teaching career
After college. Fr. Eldrick pursued a career in teaching and decided to forego a promising career in journalism or advertising because he wanted to live a more laidback life in the province.
He took up graduate studies at the University of the Philippines and De La Salle University and rose into the ranks from part-time instructor to full-time, and then chair of the Languages and Literature Department, then of the Communication Department, then of the Communication and Multimedia Arts Department.
He pioneered the offering of the AB Communication Program in De La Salle Lipa as well as Multi-Media Arts. Sometimes, he would be appointed acting Dean in the absence of the Dean of the College of Education, Arts, and Science, being the most senior department chair in the college.
“For 14 years, it had been my life, building a career, pursuing further studies, and there was a time, partly being a breadwinner for the family when my father got sick and had to undergo dialysis for two years. Then I realized, I was not getting any younger. I was already 35 at that time. So, I decided to give priestly vocation a try,” he revealed.
He further added, “I wanted to confront the ‘feeling’ and put rest to this ‘discomfort’ once and for all because this will keep me hanging all throughout my life if I will not make that initial step and inquire about it. The question ‘what could have happened if I at least tried and applied for seminary formation?’ will continue to haunt me all the rest of my life.”
He tried applying in two seminaries run by the religious. However, he did not pursue his application in the first seminary further because he immediately felt that he was not for the kind of life they are espousing in the early stages of admission. Then in the second seminary, he was not accepted. Thus, he said to himself:
“That’s it! I can now move on with my life.”
Upon learning of what happened, a priest-friend advised him to apply in the Holy Apostles, a seminary for late vocations. He also told him that maybe his calling is towards the diocesan priesthood, but he was already adamant.
“Still the ‘invitation’ continued haunting me. The more I tried to evade it, the more it became louder and certain. So, after a year, I decided to pay Holy Apostles a visit, and the rest, as they say, is history,” he said.
Entering the seminary
Entering the Holy Apostles Senior Seminary on May 20, 2012, was one of the most difficult decisions Fr. Eldrick had to make as he had to give up his studies and his flourishing career.
“I was at the peak of my professional career as chair of the Communications and Multi-Media Arts Department at the De La Salle Lipa. I was also on the board of the Philippine Association of Communication Educators and in the process of completing my Ph.D. in UP Diliman,” he recalled.
As Chair of the Communication and Multi-Media Arts Department, he acted as the founding chair of both programs and had been department chair for eight years. He was also in the Board of Trustees of the Philippine Association of Communication Educators and his term of office was still up to October 2012. He also needed to discontinue his Ph.D. studies in UP Diliman.
“After receiving word from the seminary of my acceptance around the first week of April, after much prayer and discernment, I immediately wrote my resignation letter which I submitted to my superiors. They were all in a state of shock upon knowing of my plan to enter the seminary,” admitted Fr. Eldrick.
Appointments for the next school year has already been released and he was re-appointed chair of my department but since he was resigning to pursue a priestly vocation and not to look for a greener pasture somewhere else, the administration supported his on the condition that he still has to hold classes for that summer (since he was the only one teaching the course) before he was allowed to finally leave De La Salle Lipa.
“I had to work until the afternoon of May 19, which was a Saturday, in order to make sure that I have turned over everything to my successor and have submitted the grades of my students for summer (although technically, the end of summer classes is still in the last week of May) and the next day, which was a Sunday, the feast of the Ascension of the Lord, my four other batch mates and I entered the seminary,” recalled Fr. Eldrick.
Life inside the seminary
Fr. Eldrick, however, underestimated the seminary formation, thinking it would be something easy since he was used to reading a lot due to the nature of his former profession, he already had a regular prayer life even before the seminary and generally, he was obedient to his superiors.
“I thought seminary life will be a semi-retirement type of life I will enjoy without experiencing so many stressful situations. Well, I realized later on that I had wrongly imagined the life in the seminary,” he admitted.
What made it more difficult was living with 27 other men who came from various backgrounds, experiences, and values in one house. These men were now living together as a community of brothers who were already of age, successful in their chosen fields and careers before they entered the seminary.
The seminary’s first task was to deform a person of its old self-values, attitudes, and ways of looking so that he could be formed to the person and later priest, patterned after the heart of Jesus the Good Shepherd.
“The process was difficult and painful at times. You have to submit to the wisdom of formation even if sometimes, it doesn’t make sense to you at all. You have to swallow your pride many times to the point of asking yourself: ‘Why am I doing this?’
He also kept questioning himself at times why he remained in the formation when there is much work to be done outside where he can be more productive and fruitful. Sometimes, he doubted himself if he really had a vocation.
“But you know, God really works mysteriously in His own pace and time,” he said.
And with God’s grace, Fr. Eldrick has only words of gratitude to God for giving him the grace to persevere.
“Seven years of formation is no joke. And I firmly believe that God was really behind me all throughout my seminary formation. Guiding and strengthening me when I doubted, encouraging, and rallying me when I fail and wanted to give up and most especially, nourishing and refreshing me spiritually that I may continue with my formation. I could say that it was really only through the grace of God that I was able to overcome the obstacles of formation,” said Fr. Eldrick.
He, however, clarified that he was not painting a stark image of seminary formation. There were also many happy and unforgettable memories in seminary formation which he will always remember and cherish, most especially the deep sense of brotherhood and family.
“You know, in the seminary, there is a really deep sense of brotherhood and being a family. And I could say that seminary really became a second family to me even after I graduated from Holy Apostles. The bond of brotherly love and friendship continues even after ordination,” he quipped.
Diocesan vs religious priests
But while discerning to choose between diocesan or religious priesthood, Fr. Eldrick strongly felt that he was for the diocesan priesthood ever since.
According to Catholictv.org, diocesan priests usually serve in the particular geographical region of a diocese or archdiocese, serving the needs of the parish, and they make three promises to the bishop at their ordination: to recite daily the liturgy of the Hours, to obey the bishop, and to live a life of celibacy; while religious priests are not assigned to a particular diocese it could be in a different city or country, their work depends on their religious order but they also administer sacraments and celebrate mass; and they vow to three evangelical counsels: poverty, chastity, and obedience.
“Religious life did not appeal to me as much as the diocesan priesthood. But you know all vocation is good in itself, whether religious life, diocesan priesthood, married life or single blessedness,” he explained.
“The key here is that you are able to discern to which vocation is God calling you to serve and in that way of life, you bloom and bear much fruit. And in my discernment, I strongly felt that God wanted me to become a diocesan priest,” he further added.
Advice to those who wish to enter the seminary
For those who wish to enter the seminary, Fr. Eldrick advises them to know if it’s the will of God and to help them determine that ‘calling’ is by seeking the help of their parish priest.
“If your answer is a clear ‘yes’ or at least leading towards that realization, then go for it. And if you feel that God is calling you towards priesthood (whether diocesan or religious), I tell you there is no way to really find out if the calling is authentic until you make that first step of maybe talking to your parish priest, and then, later on, applying on a seminary for admission,” he said.
One can always disregard his calling; however, it will continue to haunt and bother him for the rest of his life. There will always be this pending and outstanding question: “What if I pursued priestly vocation?” just like what happened to him.
“That same question continued to bother me until I was 35 years old when I finally attempted to apply for admission in a seminary. And mind you, it really felt great and was one of the most life-changing and important decisions I ever made in my entire life,” he added.
He revealed that seminary formation is not a bed of roses. One will encounter problems and difficulties in other vocations he might pursue himself, but if you really put your heart and mind, your whole being into something that you really like, the pains will be transformed into joy, the difficulties into opportunities,” he concluded.
Last November 2019, at the age of 41 and after seven years in the seminary formation, Fr. Eldrick, together with his four other batchmates were ordained as new priests of the Diocese of Antipolo. He is now the Secretary to the Bishop of Antipolo, Most Reverend Francisco M. De Leon, DD.
Prior to his current assignment in the Diocese, Fr. Eldrick was given assignments in different parishes for pastoral exposure and transferred parishes every two months. Some of his parish assignments include St. Paul of the Cross in SSS Village, Marikina, Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish, and St. Raphael Parish both in Montalban, Rizal.
Holy Apostles Senior Seminary (HASS) located along EDSA, Guadalupe, Makati City is for late vocations. It accepts candidates who are 25 to 40 years old, who have finished college, have at least two-year work experience. At present, the seminary has 80 priests, three of whom had been ordained bishops: Bishop Mylo Vergara of Pasig, Bishop Robert Gaa of Novaliches, and Bishop Alan Dialogo of Sorsogon, all of which became rectors of the HAAS. (Thanks to Mr. Ryan Tristan Digan for the info.)
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