MANILA, Philippines?Before a life-size crucifix, the venerated relics of their patron saint, and a Marian image that helped stop tanks during the 1986 People Power revolt, the biggest ever gathering of Catholic priests in the country has gone on a five-day retreat to take stock and recharge amid the growing challenges of their vocation.
With only the very old and ailing unable to attend, more than 5,000 priests from across the nation Monday opened the Second National Congress of the Clergy (NCC II) in Pasay City.
The number surpassed the attendance in the first congress held almost six years ago, and was expected to grow with the registration at the World Trade Center (WTC) complex still ongoing at press time.
?The basic objective of the Congress is to provide priests with a deep and religious experience that will hopefully lead to a spiritual conversion and greater commitment. In other words, NCC II is the retreat of priests, for priests and by priests. The aim of the retreat is to achieve the interior renewal of the clergy,? according to Monday?s program.
In a message read on his behalf at the opening rites, Pope Benedict XVI reminded Filipino priests ?to embrace more fervently the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience.?
The Pope had declared June 2009 to June 2010 as the Year for Priests in observance of the 150th death anniversary of their patron saint, John Mary Vianney.
?Poverty enabled the Curé of Ars (St. Vianney) to give everything over for the good of his church, the poor and the children he loved so dearly,? said the message delivered by the papal nuncio, Archbishop Edward Joseph Adams, and signed by Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone.
?Chastity enabled him to ?touch? the Eucharist daily and contemplate it blissfully. Obedience enabled him to dedicate himself fully to the demands of his daily ministry and prevented him from fleeing his post when faced with difficulties,? Adams said.
?By following these counsels, the Holy Father is confident that those taking part in the (NCC II) in the Philippines will shine more brightly as an authentic sacramental representation of Christ, Head and Shepherd,? he added.
?Historically, this is the biggest gathering of priests,? said Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, noting that congress participants easily outnumbered those who came to Manila for Pope John Paul II?s visit in 1995.
?(It) will be the sight of your life,? he said.
Priests need solitude
Rosales said priests, just like members of their flock, also need moments of peace and solitude since they also ?go through difficulties? and need to ?renew themselves.?
The NCC II drew priests representing all 86 dioceses and 38 religious congregations across the country.
The first congress (NCC I) was also held at the World Trade Center in July 2004 and gathered about 4,000 priests.
A Mass officiated by the papal nuncio kicked off the five-day NCC II, with all the priests in white vestments taking part.
A stage and an altar were specially built for the congress inside the WTC, with an image of a crucified Christ serving as backdrop.
The stage also featured a historic statue of Our Lady of Fatima, which church groups brought to the barricades during the 1986 People Power Revolution, the peaceful, four-day uprising that toppled the Marcos dictatorship.
Flown in from France, the holy relics of St. John Mary Vianney?his stole and breviary?were also placed on the stage for the opening rites.
The St. Paul University choir sang hymns during the Mass.
As part of security measures at the WTC, participants and staff members were required to wear IDs. Mobile phones, cameras and bags brought into the venue were also given color-coded tags.
Franciscan Capuchin priest Fr. Ranierio Cantalamessa, the only member of the clergy who had preached to the late John Paul II and Benedict XVI, will serve as the main preacher during the retreat.
The retreat will include prayer sessions and conferences presided over by Cantalamessa, group reflections and journal writing.
For lodgings, the priests will have host families for the duration of the congress.
In his homily, Adams cited St. Paul as a model of the spiritual ?conversion? needed to pursue priestly missions.
?Paul makes clear to us that a change of heart is essential not only to become disciples of Jesus, not only to believe in Christ and His Gospel but also to carry out the mission to humanity that God has entrusted to us,? he added.
Church services suspended
With most of the country?s 7,000 priests in attendance, services in many parishes?Masses, weddings and baptisms?are being suspended for a week or until after the NCC II closes on Jan. 29.
Rosales said an agreement had been reached for parishes in Metro Manila and nearby provinces to have their priests say Mass first in the early morning before going to the congress later in the day.
In other provinces, especially in the Visayas and Mindanao, lay ministers have been designated to attend to urgent cases, like the need to give communion or bless the dead, the cardinal added.
The priests in the NCC II are expected to be back in their respective parishes by Saturday, Jan. 30.
The congress will also be highlighted by a procession on the closing day, when all the priests would walk for 1.2 kilometers from the WTC to the Cuneta Astrodome, also in Pasay City, for a Mass.