Sunday, May 26, 2013

ALFREDO VERSOZA: A SOLDIER OF CHRIST


Note: This article was originally published in KNOW Magazine of the Immaculate Conception School of Theology, Vigan City, 2nd Issue, FY 2012-2013. This article is under revision for academic purposes.


Some years back, in 2003, while on a Christmas break (I was on my second year of philosophical studies then), I sent a text message to Manong Monsi (that was how the then Seminarian Ericson Josue was called by us his colleagues in the BuSeL and during his theologate in ICST) and invited him to have a chitchat regarding my seminary life. He replied to me telling that he was bound for San Juan, Ilocos Sur the next day for a research. Already known to us at that time as a prolific writer and a genius historian, that was never a doubt for me. At the back of my mind, I asked with much curiosity, “Ania man ngata ti pakakumikman ni ‘Nong Erics?” (What makes ‘Nong Erics busy?)

We travelled in Ilocos Sur morning the next day. Never did I know that I was about to meet the sisters of the Missionary Catechists of the Sacred Heart (MCSH). The name Alfredo Verzosa came across in the course of our conversations. Earlier that year, Manong Monsi had already published a primer about the life of the man who would become the first Ilocano Bishop and the first Filipino Bishop of Lipa.

The Discovery

In the afternoon of that same day, after visiting the sisters, we paved a visit at the Vigan Cathedral and went to the crypt of the bishops in the sanctuary. It was there that I realized who Alfredo Versoza is. There, he related to me the story of how he came to know about this man. The same story is related in the foreword of his primer on Alfredo Verzosa:

Some years back, while on a visit to the Bishops’ Crypt at the Cathedral of Nueva Segovia (Vigan), my attention was caught by the tomb of a bishop which bore a title different from the common Dignissimo Obispo de Nueva Segovia (Most worthy Bishop of Nueva Segovia). All of the tombs of the crypt bore the aforementioned title except one which said: Obispo Titular de Capsa, Obispo Dimisionario de Lipa (Titular Bishop of Capsa, Resigned Bishop of Lipa). Unlike the other tombs, this one seemed to be forgotten, dusty with no traces of candles or flowers. From that encounter, I asked, “Why is a bishop from a faraway diocese interred in the Cathedral Crypt of Vigan? What is his relation to Ilocos?” These questions became the primordial point in the quest for the story of the man, Bishop Alfredo F. Verzosa. [1] 

When he shared this story to me, I understood how that research meant not only to the MCSH sisters themselves, but also to the Church of Vigan. However, I took for granted that simple visit to his tomb. It didn’t give me much thought and interest, probably because I was more interested at that time to listen to his stories. But deep inside me was the curiosity to know more about that man. In spite of this, maybe I was too young for such matters at that time, I didn’t gave too much thought on my curiosity. On the other hand, I felt nostalgic hearing the stories of my manong and the information that I was getting from him would suffice to know about Alfredo Verzosa.

Never I would know how far this simple and humble work that my manong would go, until I entered Vigan for my theological studies here in ICST.


Born and Raised from Vigan [2]

At that time when I entered ICST for my theological studies in the year 2007, the name Alfredo Versoza once again came out.  It was the same year when the full length biography in book form about the latter was already published. Entitled Alfredo Verzosa, Obispo: The Life and Legacy of the Fourth Filipino Roman Catholic Bishop, it was authored by no less than Ericson Josue, now at that time a priest from the Diocese of Laoag and at the same time a budding professor in Church History here in ICST. The book was actually a fruit of his tremendous research on the life of this person. Now that the book was out of press, this gave rise once more to my curiosity about the life of this man. The book provided me with sufficient information that would help me to know more about his life and legacy. At this point, I would like to turn our thoughts to the life of this man, the first Filipino Bishop of Lipa and the first Ilocano to be raised in the rank of episcopacy.

Alfredo Florentin Verzosa was born in Vigan, Ilocos Sur on 09 December 1877 to Don Alejandro Versoza and Doña Michaela Florentin. It was said that the family was a well-known clan in the town of Vigan, having been a Cathedral benefactor. Seven months later, on 11 July 1878, he received the sacrament of Confirmation from  Bishop Mariano Cuartero, then the bishop of Nueva Segovia.

His schooling began in Vigan, Ilocos Sur. Already at an early age, he manifested brilliance and intelligence. But despite of this, he remained humble and kind and all that he wanted was to serve God through priesthood. This inclination of his calling led him to study at the Seminario Conciliar of Nueva Segovia. Later on, he enrolled at the Colegio de San Juan de Letran and finished his secondary studies there. He took theology at the University of Santo Tomas and was able to finish it in 1904. 

A Young Zealous Priest of Nueva Segovia [3]
He was ordained on the 24th of December 1904 through the hands of Most Rev. Dennis J. Dougherty, then the Bishop of Nueva Segovia during that time. In the midst of the chaotic situation of the vast diocese of Nueva Segovia, the young priest was sent to a mission in Ilocos Norte to revive the Catholicism there. It must be noted that during this time, the Aglipayan Schism broke out. So, in 1909, he was sent for a mission in Ilocos Norte to bring back the heart of the people to the Church.

During his presbyteral ministry, he was also sent to various parishes of the vast diocese. He was first assigned at the Vigan Cathedral as the priest-in-charge. He later became a cura encargado of Santa, Ilocos Sur. During his incumbency in the said parish, the Abra river overflowed and the town, together with its magnificent convent and church, were washed out. He was later transferred at Bantay, Ilocos Sur to be the assistant parish priest. Meanwhile, he was asked to reside at the town of Bantaoay (now San Ildefonso), Ilocos Sur in order to build a new parish. In 1906, he was named the Parish Priest of Bantay.

He was a trusted and zealous priest during his time. This was manifested by the trust and confidence that the bishops of Nueva Segovia have for him. In fact, he was chosen to become one of the consultores of the 1911 Diocesan Synod of Nueva Segovia. He was also named to various positions in the Diocesan Curia. Such trust and confidence that the bishops had for him, as well as his zealousness in his pastoral ministry caught the attention of the Holy See.


The First Ilocano Bishop and the Great Builder of Lipa [4]
The young and zealous bishop from Nueva Segovia.

The Mons. Alfredo Verzosa was elected to the episcopacy on 06 September 1916 by Pope Benedict XV. He was to succeed the first bishop of Lipa, Bishop Giuseppe Petrelli who was then appointed in 1915 as the Apostolic Delegate in the Philippines. The Archbishop-Emeritus of Manila, Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales has this to say when he celebrated the Holy Mass in honor of his predecessor on the occasion of Bishop Versoza’s 54th Death Anniversary on 27 June 2008:

[And] then, it goes without saying that the choice for the second of the Diocese of Lipa must be another bishop no less than an outstanding youn and zealous pastor, no less intellectual, no less a teacher with a passion for training priests for the noble Church. If that were so, then there was a careful selection of the next bishop of Lipa. The choice, dearly beloved in Christ, fell on the young, brilliant, and zealous, and young priest from Vigan, Ilocos Sur whose parental lineage came from Vigan’s illusturous two families of the Verzosas and the Florentins.[5]
Indeed, what made Bishop Verzosa the choice to become the next bishop of the vast diocese of Lipa was his pastoral zeal and decication, as was already manifested in his early life as a young priest of Nueva Segovia. He was the fourth Filipino Bishop to be elevated to the see of Episcopacy after Bishops Jorge Barlin (1905) of Nueva Caceres,  Juan Bautista Gorodo (1909) of Cebu, and Pablo Singzon (1910) of Calbayog. He was also the first, in the history of Northern Luzon hierarchy, Ilocano prelate to become a bishop. On 20 January 1917, Bishop-elect Verzosa was consecrated in Lipa Cathedral by Archbishop Giuseppe Petrelli as the principal consecrator, with Bishops Maurice Foley of Jaro and John Bernard McGinley of Nueva Caceres as co-consecrator.

His first task as the bishop of Lipa was to continue his zeal to catechetical work. He initiated Sunday Catechisms in the parishes and established catechetical centers. He also established Catholic Schools so that the faith may be passed on to the young people.

He was also responsible for the building of the seminaries. This showed his great concern for priestly vocations. According to Cardinal Rosales, “It is believed that Bishop Verzosa had the unmatched distinction of having established four seminaries in one diocese; seminaries covering all levels: two minor seminaries, one college seminary, and one theologate simultaneously existing during his incumbency of more than thirty three years.” [6]

During also his incumbency as the Bishop of Lipa, he was able to put up twenty six parishes. He reportedly used the material wealth of the diocese as well as his own money to build up churches and convents. 

Bishop Verzosa, in his desire to promote the catechetical and spiritual good of the people, invited different religious congregations to help him. They were the Missionaries of the Divine Word (SVD), Sister Servants of the Holy Spirit of Perpetual Adoration (S.Sp. S. Ap.; popularly known as the Pink Sisters; they were later to be merged with the Baguio Community due to the climate), Siervas del Espiritu Santo (S.Sp.S.), Daughters of Saint Paul (FSP), Redemptorists (C.Ss.R.), and the Discalced Carmelite Nuns and Fathers (OCD). He also founded a religious institute in order to assist the catechetical needs of the diocese: the Missionary Catechists of the Sacred Heart (MCSH), which he founded together with Mother Laura Mendoza y Latorre.

With such achievements mentioned, it is inevitable that Bishop Verzosa acquired the title of the Great Builder of the Diocese of Lipa.
Lipa: The Mediatrix of All Grace and the Shower of Roses [7]
The statue of Mary Mediatrix of all Grace, circa 1940's. It is believed that Bishop Versoza had experienced the miracle of the Lady when a shower of petals fell on him upon his arrival to the Lipa Carmel to do investigation on the alleged apparitions.
One notable event in his incumbency as the Bishop of Lipa was his involvement in the alleged miracle of the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin in the Carmelite Monastery in Lipa through a postulant named Teresita Castillo. The series of apparition started on the night of 31 July 1948 with a three loud knocks and a foul odor from her cell. Then the postulant heard a hoarse voice discouraging her to continue to become a nun. Sr. Teresita reported this to the mother prioress, Mo. Mary Cecilia of Jesus, who later reported the matter to Msgr. Alfredo Obviar, then the auxiliary bishop of Lipa and the monastery chaplain, and the Bishop Versoza.
Eventually, on 18 August 1948, the Lady appeared to her in her cell with an overpowering fragrance. She was described to be a very beautiful Lady in a bright white robe. Shower of roses began on August 20 of the same year. Subsequent apparitions came on 12 September 1948 which lasted for fifteen days. On 16 September, the Lady appeared to Sister Teresita and asked her to carve a statue in the way she manifested herself to her. She also asked her to describe herself to Bishop Obviar. On 26th of September, she revealed herself as “Mary, Mediatrix of All Grace.” The last apparition was held on 12 November where she reiterated her identity as Mediatrix of all Grace. Soon after, a shower of rose petals fell outside the monastery which became an instant attraction, drawing thousands of pilgrims at the Lipa Carmel.

Bishop Verzosa was skeptical of the apparitions. He ordered that the devotion be stopped. One afternoon, on 19 November 1948, he went to the Lipa Carmel in order to check whether his orders are carried out. According to Msgr. Gregorio Salvatus, Bishop Verzosa’s former secretary, upon arrival to the monastery, “A shower of petals fell on him and he knelt down and he could not utter any word.” [8] Eventually, from the words of Msgr. Simeon Racelis, then a chancellor of Lipa, “And by that, he did not prohibit anymore the people from going to that place, and he did not prohibit the celebration of the mass.”   [9] Eventually, he allowed the devotion to Mary, Mediatrix of all Grace.
Lipa became popular not only locally but also internationally during that time especially when Bishop Verzosa gave the approval for the public devotion of the apparitions there. On 23 January 1950, Bishop Verzosa was relieved as the Bishop of Lipa. The Holy See then appointed Msgr. Rufino Santos as the Apostolic Administrator of the diocese. It was Msgr. Santos who formed the commission investigating the events of the Lipa apparitions, declaring it a hoax on 11 April 1951.

From Lipa back to Vigan: A Homecoming

Relieved as the Bishop of Lipa, he went home to his native Vigan where he spent his retirement years. He obediently bowed his head in obedience to the Church authorities. Later, he filed his resignation as the Bishop of Lipa. He was also assigned as the Titular Bishop of Capsa, a defunct diocese in the ecclesiastical territory in North Africa. In his years of retirement, Msgr. Salvatus recounted that he was “a broken man: a sickly old man, nervous. He was depressed. But he never complained.” [10] 

His return to Vigan became his dark night. Salvatus affirmed, “He [Verzosa] was so shocked, depressed and became weaker and weaker; I think it was a sickness. Not physical, it was psychological; really depressed.”  [11] Even with such a condition, he kept his prayer life and this strengthened him despite of the deep pain and suffering that he was experiencing.

With the weak condition of Bishop Versoza due to his sickness, scrupulosity and interior loneliness, after receiving the final sacraments and the Apostolic Blessing from Padre Salvatus, he died a saintly death on 27 June 1954.

Remembering our Bishop

Then Archbishop Cardinal of Manila Gaudencio Rosales remembering "his bishop" on  his first visit to the tomb of Bishop Verzosa, 27 June 2008.
Fast forward to the present times, in the Formation Year 2008-2009, as the editor-in-chief of KNOW, I was tasked to cover the visit of the then Archbishop of Manila Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales. He came through the initiative of the Verzosa clan in celebration of the 54th Death Anniversary of his predecessor Bishop Alfredo Verzosa. He delivered a moving homily which recounts his personal experience with the saintly Bishop Verzosa. Below is an excerpt of that homily:

“When my father decided that I should be confirmed, just as about when I was to make my first Holy Communion…, I was brought by my father to Lipa. We are from Batangas City so my father brought me to Lipa City and had me confirmed by no less than Bishop Alfredo Versoza….

“But I will tell you what I experienced which I have not told many people. That anointing on my forehead in 1939 stayed there, not the oil, but the touch of the confirming prelate… but there are moments when I could feel it. It also came to a point where the whole being would be there, almost to the point when I am about to lose consciousness. And I could recall it again and again, almost at that time when I entered the seminary…. It disappeared only when another bishop, in ordination, anointed me again, this time, not in the forehead, but in my hands as a priest.” [12]

Indeed, such affirmation is enough that this humble bishop from Vigan is indeed a saint.

From Obispo Dimissionario to Servant of God
The new tomb of the Servant of God Alfredo F. Versoza located at the side altar of Vigan Cathedral.

That accidental discovery of Fr. Ericson on the tomb of Bishop Verzosa was somehow a blessing in disguise. With a book published on his life, people would now have an access on the life and virtues of this saintly man now being considered as a candidate for beatification and canonization.

In the aftermath of the canonization of Saint Pedro Calungsod in October 2012, the Archdiocese of Nueva Segovia has initiated the opening of the cause for his beatification and canonization. The Diocesan Process for the inquiry of life, virtues, and fame of sanctity of Bishop Verzosa was formally opened by Archbishop Ernesto Salgado, the Archbishop of Nueva Segovia, on 11 January 2013 at the Conversion of Saint Paul Cathedral, Vigan. Again, for this occasion, Archbishop-Emeritus Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales of Manila came to preside over the mass for the formal opening of the cause of Bishop Verzosa. News about this event were covered by the local and national media in print and television.

Now that the diocesan process of his beatification and canonization, the people of Vigan are hopeful that this holy man, our kailian, may be recognized and raised to the honor of the altars. If that would be so, he would be the first saint from the Ilocandia region.

Conclusion

What can we learn from this simple and humble bishop? At this point, I wish to share my personal point of view about his life and virtues.
First is his pastoral zeal and dedication to his priestly ministry. As a young priest, he tirelessly worked for the evangelization of the peoples. With the present situation that we have now, we cannot deny that some priests are losing their zest and zeal to go for pastoral work. For my part as a seminarian, it is a great challenge for me to go for my apostolate work. The example of Bishop Verzosa inspires me to go on with my pastoral immersion, especially with my deep and filial concern for the youth because their presence is the one that animates the Church to go on to a new threshold of hope.

Second is his generosity and concern for everyone. He was sacrificing his own wealth and resources in order to build churches, catechetical institutions, schools, and seminaries for the spiritual welfare of the faithful of his flock. As we usher into a world animated by materialism and secularism, it is hard to give up our own resources for the sake of the good of the other. 
Third is his life of prayer and spirituality. In this fast changing world, people are hard up in keeping their prayer life and spirituality. Many people are too busy with their work that they have no time to pray. It is fortunate that here in the seminary, I am given the schedule allotted for my prayers. One thing that I learned from Bishop Verzosa’s life is his persistence and perseverance in prayer. His life, even until the final hours, was animated with a deep filial devotion to prayer, especially to the Blessed Mother under her title Mediatrix of All Grace..However, when there are moments that I feel the academic pressure and the hectic schedules, I admit that I am unable to pray and focus more on beating the deadlines and going to the flow of the schedule. However, the example of Bishop Versoza’s holiness is something that reminds me that I should continue and be fall in love with prayer. 

Fourth is his humility and deep faith and trust. Bishop Verzosa was silenced at the peak of the apparitions of Lipa. Yet, he surrendered himself and bowed his head in obedience to the Church authorities. This is something that I have learned to him. Even if he was humiliated and silenced, he was silent. Yet deep inside was the hope and trust coming from his deep spiritual life. Sometimes, doubts and questions cloud my decisions in my life especially on my vocation. But his life is something that I could draw inspiration to. It is his acceptance of suffering and his deep surrender to the will of God that I keep my faith alive even in the darkness of my life.

Finally, this year is proclaimed as the Year of Faith by Pope Benedict XVI. In his Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei, he says, “The renewal of the Church is also achieved through the witness offered by the lives of believers: by their very existence in the world, Christians are called to radiate the word of truth that the Lord Jesus has left us”(Porta Fidei, §6). We need witnesses of holiness and virtuous life as examples for all people who have lost their faith. May the example of Bishop Verzosa help us to discover our faith in our lives as meaningful and relevant even in the midst of the post-modern times.

Let us ask the intercession of the Servant of God, Bishop Alfredo Versoza:


Lord, our God, through the Most Sacred
Heart of Your Son,
we thank You for having given us
Your faithful shepherd,
BISHOP ALFREDO VERZOSA.
His life is an exemplary model of humility,
obedience and
patient endurance in suffering.
He revealed to us
Your compassion for the multitude
By his example of love for the poor
and the needy.
Grant us, through his intercession,
the grace we ask of You.
(Mention your particular petition or favor)
And if it is Your divine will, may his sanctity
be lifted up to the altar so that in him more
people will be drawn to You.
We ask this through Mary our Mother in
Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.


ENDNOTES:

                [1] Ericson Josue, Miles Christi: The Soldier of Christ (A Short Biography of His Excellency, the Most Rev. Alfredo F. Verzosa, D.D.) (Lipa City: Missionary Catechists of the Sacred Heart and Ericson Josue, 2003), no pagination.
                [2] See Ericson Josue, Alfredo Verzosa, Obispo: The Life and Legacy of the Fourth Filipino Roman Catholic Bishop (Baguio City: Baguio Allied Printers, 2007), 7. Henceforth, Alfredo Verzosa, Obispo.
                [3] See Ibid., 32-44.
                [4] See Ibid., 48-60.
           [5] Gaudencio Rosales, “Remembering our Bishop,” KNOW: The Official Publication of the Immaculate Conception School of Theology, XVII/1 (June-August 2008), 22. Henceforth, Rosales.
                [6] Ibid., 24.
               [7] See June Keithly, Lipa – with the original account of the events at Lipa Carmel in 1948 by Mo. Cecilia of Jesus, OCD (Manila: Cacho Publishing House, 1992). Henceforth, Lipa. See also Alfredo Verzosa, Obispo, 135-147.
                 [8] Lipa, 64.
                [9] Ibid., 73.
                [10] Alfredo Versoza, Obispo, 155.
                [11] Ibid., 155.
                [12] Rosales, 23-24.