NEW PRIEST. Brother-priests of the Dumaguete clergy line up for a hug to welcome newly-ordained Fr. Alvin Villaflores. (Photo by Judaline F. Partlow)

DUMAGUETE CITY -- It’s not every day that one gets to meet up close and personal the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church, more popularly known as the Pope. For this young man in his mid-20s at the time, Alvin Villaflores, then a seminarian studying Theology in Palo, Leyte, it was more than a dream come true.

In fact, never in his wildest dreams did he expect to meet and to serve Pope Francis, a man whom he describes as “holy” and “saintly” that it was like meeting Jesus in person.

The now 29-year-old Villaflores, who hails from Tanjay City, Negros Oriental, was recently ordained as a priest. In an interview a day after, he recalled two of the most unforgettable experiences in his life that have touched him to the core, inspiring him to become a “good and holy priest”.

After finishing Bachelor of Science in Philosophy at the St. Joseph Seminary College of the Diocese of Dumaguete in March 2012, Villaflores was one of two seminarians – the first from here - who proceeded to study at the St. John The Evangelist School of Theology in Palo, Leyte.

Although he had other choices such as in Cebu City, he chose to study in Palo because the former prelate of the Diocese of Dumaguete, John Du, D.D., was also transferred there to become the next archbishop of the Archdiocese of Palo.

It took awhile, he said, for him to adjust to the new environment, language barrier, and the local culture, and later, he was “left alone” because the other seminarian from Negros Oriental decided to leave the seminary.

Near-death experience with Yolanda

Despite being alone, Villaflores continued his Theology studies, and during his 2nd year, on that fateful 8th of November, 2013, Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan), one of the strongest and biggest storms ever recorded, pummeled Eastern Visayas, putting his faith to the test.

“Abi nako mao na to ang akong katapusan. Abi nako at the time mamatay nako. (I thought that was my last. I thought I was going to die),” the young priest recalled.

He said he and other theologians who were staying at their formation house in the seminary compound, were literally caught “flat-footed” and were not prepared for Yolanda’s wrath.

“Actually, gi-under estimate namo ang Yolanda. No one informed us to evacuate so we stayed at the seminary,” he said.

They also did not expect the worse, such as flooding inside the one-story formation house where they got stuck for several hours at the height of the super typhoon’s onslaught.

On the eve of November 8, 2013, the theologians stayed put at the formation house but by daybreak, 'Yolanda" came barreling through Eastern Visayas. The super typhoon made its first landfall in Guian, Samar and passed by nearby areas including Palo, Leyte, as it continued to plow across several islands, making four other landfalls and leaving catastrophic destruction in its path.

According to Villaflores, by 7 a.m. that day, as Yolanda unleashed its fury with strong winds and heavy rains, he and other theologians decided to leave the formation house, whose roof was already swept away, and scuttled over to the chapel nearby where they sought shelter.

But it was impossible for them to cross over, “kay paliron na mi sa hangin (the wind will blow us away)” and the chapel’s roof was also already gone.

They decided to stay inside the formation house instead, grabbing hold of blankets and other items that would keep them “fastened” together as they stayed in one room and later lined up in the corridor.

The floodwaters that flowed through the house started to rise and as hours went by, the water rose up to their necks.

“Kadto nga time, natulala na ko ug ingun ko mao na siguro ni akong katapusan. Ni ingun ko sa Ginoo na ikaw na ang bahala (at the time, I was already dumbfounded and thought my life has come to an end. I told God, 'it’s up to you now'),” he said.

Many priests thought that the theologians all perished in the flood because they could see from another part of the seminary compound that the formation house was already filled with floodwater and nobody could come and rescue them, he added.

They struggled to stay alive, even doing a headcount from time to time to make sure nobody got separated, or worse, drowned.

Fr. Villaflores said he disengaged briefly from the group to swim towards his room to retrieve his wallet that had some cash and more importantly, his identification cards.

“Akong kuhaon akong wallet kay naa akong ID didto aron kung mamatay man gani ko, mailhan ko sa akong mga ginikanan (I wanted to get my wallet with ID so that in the event I perished, my parents would be able to recognize me),” the priest explained.

With no breakfast and lunch and no water to drink, Villaflores and about 40 other theologians held on until the floodwaters started to subside. By around 2 p.m. the water was knee-deep.  

Faith put to the test

As soon as they deemed it safe to get out, the young priest said they immediately buckled down to work to rescue their neighbors after seeing many of them trapped inside their homes.

They took the survivors to the nearby retirement home for priests, which was not damaged by the typhoon.

But a heart-breaking and heart-changing experience met him that day, which put his faith to a test again.

“Ang pinakasakit nga akong na experience gud kana bang una nga nitugdon ning bata nga walay kinabuhi (my most painful experience was the first person that landed in my arms was a lifeless child, a girl of about three years old),” he recalled uneasily during the interview.

According to him, he wanted to scream and his heart was crushed, but silently, he asked: “Lord, as man ka?”

“Inosenteng bata imong gikuha. Ako mismo usa ako ka makasasala apan gihatagan nimo ug chance nga mabuhi (An innocent child, you took. And here I am, a sinner, but you gave me a chance to live),” he recalled to have told God.

It was a very painful experience, he said. He struggled after that, losing hope and already entertaining thoughts of “not pursuing the priesthood, going on regency, transferring to another school,” Villaflores admitted.

The young girl who was unidentified, was separated from her parents and among those buried in the mass graves later.

Later on, in the seminary compound, they found so many dead people scattered all over. A neighbor lost 12 family members while all 10 family members of another neighbor perished, Villaflores said.

He stayed on for two weeks in Palo, helping out in rescue and relief operations until he finally found a chance to go home.

In the aftermath of Yolanda, telecommunications were down, there were no trips to and from Leyte, and his parents and relatives were frantically trying to locate him.

His mother had even gone to local radio stations and national television stations with branches here to find out if his name was included in the lists of the dead, missing, and survivors but there was no information at all about him that they could get.

During this time, he had the opportunity to reflect and was overcome with grief for doubting the love of God. He said he was able to bounce back and asked for forgiveness from the Lord, and realized that God was indeed present in the midst of the tragedy.

“Kay sa wala pa ang bagyo duna man gisibya sa mga tawo nga dili basta basta ang bagyo (before the storm, there were already advisories and warnings to the public about how devastating it would be),” he said.

As he regained strength, he continued to help out in rescue and relief operations, not feeling any fatigue at all, but was still worried about his parents who still did not know of his whereabouts.

Finally, a priest gave him a ticket to Cebu so he could return home to Tanjay City.

In Tacloban City, he said he borrowed the cellphone of a friend and inserted his SIM card, and a call came in from someone from his hometown who had been trying to reach him all this time.

He spent his Christmas break at home and by January, was awaiting word of when they could return to school. It was highly considered that they be distributed to other theology schools but eventually, all of them who survived the harrowing encounter with "Yolanda" returned to Palo.

In the succeeding months, Villaflores said his faith became stronger as they were assigned on “immersion” visits to typhoon-stricken areas.

Face to face with God

When the Vatican announced that Pope Francis was scheduled to visit the Philippines in January 2015 and had included Leyte in the Pontiff’s itinerary, Villaflores was among those picked as Pontifical servers.

Already in his third year in Theology then, Villaflores said his first assignment was to help distribute Holy Communion during the mass of Pope Francis, but things changed later, much to his surprise.

“Nag sige na mi ug practice unya ang liturgist sa Palo niingon nga ilisan ang altar and microphone servers kay puro tag.as (we were already practicing when suddenly the liturgist of Palo said the Pontifical servers had to be replaced),” because of their height that would obstruct the Pope.

It was clearly stated in the liturgy that the height of the Pontifical servers must not be more than that of the Pontiff, he added.

At first, Villaflores said, he was assigned as a candle bearer during the mass but when the liturgist from the Vatican saw him during the dry run, he was once again removed as a candle bearer and this time, was assigned to be the microphone bearer for the Pope.

“I was stunned. I could not believe it. Syempre, taga Dumaguete gud ko. Dili ko hatagan ug priority kung dili ang taga Palo (Of course, I’m from Dumaguete and so the priority would be for the seminarians from Palo),” he said.

He admitted, though, that he was grateful, overjoyed and overwhelmed to have the opportunity to serve because “Santo Papa gud na (he is none other than the Holy Father),” he went on to say.

And then came another surprise, the best of all, he said.

On the day of the Pope’s visit to Tacloban amid stormy weather, Alvin was preparing the altar table for the Pontiff’s mass when suddenly, their liturgist came up to him and told him to meet Pope Francis at the sacristy.

“I was told to bring two candles with me and to meet Pope Francis at the sacristy where he will be changing his vestments for the mass.”

“I was nervous but proceeded to the sacristy, and there, up close and personal, I met Pope Francis and kissed his ring,” Villaflores smilingly said.

“Lisod ma describe unsa akong gibati adto nga time (it’s difficult to describe how I felt then), happy kaau ko ug nitulo gani akong luha (I was so happy and my tears fell),” the young priest recalled.

During the entire celebration of the Holy Eucharist, he stood on the right side of the Pope, with all of them wearing yellow raincoats and drenched. That did not dampen his spirits as he held the microphone for the Holy Father.

“Nangurog ko siguro, pero sa katugnaw ug dili tungod ky naa ang Santo Papa (I must have shivered due to the cold, but not because I was in the presence of the Holy Father),” he shared.

Asked how he would describe Pope Francis, he said, “He is very simple. Iyang vestment nipis ug dili arte (his vestment was made of light material and not fancy)” and even his watch looked like an ordinary one.

Journey to the priesthood

The encounters with Yolanda and Pope Francis, he admitted, have played significant roles in his decision to enter the priesthood.

“Nakatabang kaau ug dako ang akong experience sa Yolanda (my experience with Yolanda has truly helped me),” he said.

The simplicity and humility of the Pope have had an influence on him.  “Makita gud nimo nga down to earth siya, pareho ba ni Jesus (and you can definitely see that he is down to earth, just like Jesus),” he said.

Last Sept. 18, Bishop Julito Cortes ordained Fr. Alvin Villaflores at the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria in Dumaguete City.

The eldest of 10 children of Serafin Villaflores and Alice Fe Almendra had this to say of his recent ordination: “Please pray for me. All I want is to be a good, sincere, and holy priest.”

In response to the call of many for a “priest to go down to their level and understand them”, as what Bishop Cortes shared during his ordination, Villaflores said he is prepared to take on the challenge.

Coming also from a not-so-privileged family, he said he can relate to them after all. (PNA)