By Ador Vincent S. Mayol
With their chief shepherd in hot water, they could have easily walked away from the controversy.
However, some 70 members of the Society of the Angel of Peace (SAP), a religious congregation based in Talisay City in Cebu province, chose to stay and continue serving God and His Church.
“If the Lord called us to serve him, we shall endure and persevere whatever adversities that come our way,” said one of them, who requested anonymity.
SAP founder Msgr. Cristobal Garcia is a scion of a wealthy family in Cebu who partly owns Visayan Electric Co., the second largest power distributor in the country.
In June 2012, Garcia was suspended by Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma and stripped of his positions in the archdiocese on orders of the Vatican pending investigation of charges that he molested altar boys in the United States 20 years ago.
Four months later, Garcia was linked to the ivory trade in an article of the National Geographic magazine written by Bryan Christy.
Christy wrote that the demand in the Philippines for religious icons made of ivory had been causing the death of thousands of African elephants.
The National Bureau of Investigation conducted a probe for two years but found no sufficient evidence against Garcia. It temporarily shelved the case.
SAP members, who consider Garcia a “father,” said the accusations leveled against him had brought them pain and sadness.
“Monsignor Cris has done so much for the Church and just like that, everything seemed to be forgotten. But that’s how it is if you serve the Lord,” he said.
Garcia founded the SAP on March 25, 1992, with a focus on liturgical services and worked for the construction of a chapel now known as the Archdiocesan Shrine of Hesus Nazareno in Cansojong, Talisay, 12 kilometers south of Cebu City.
Regular Masses are held at the shrine everyday, including a Latin Mass on Sunday.
SAP also runs a monastery and seminary, which has about 70 brother seminarians who are taking up liturgical studies. It also has a school for the brother seminarians who are studying a four-year course on Philosophy.
Of about 5,000 religious icons owned by Garcia, the NBI said only three were suspected to be made of ivory.
The NBI, however, could not hold Garcia liable for keeping three sacred images made of ivory because these may be acquired before the global ban on ivories was imposed in the 1990s.
The bureau was referring to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which earlier declared a global ivory trade ban.
Archbishop Palma was happy that the NBI had cleared Garcia. “Even before, I knew he (Garcia) is innocent. I thank the Lord for allowing the truth to come out,” Palma told the Inquirer over the phone.
The prelate said he had been talking with Garcia once in a while, the last of which was a week ago.
“He’s OK. His health is fine,” Palma said.
But the suspension of priestly duties remains in effect because the Vatican has not completed its investigation of the child abuse case filed against Garcia.
In the 1980s, Garcia, then a Dominican priest, was assigned in the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles and was later expelled after a nun reported to the police that an altar boy was found in his bed in a Los Angeles rectory.
In a previous interview with Msgr. Achilles Dakay, Cebu Archdiocese spokesperson, then Cebu Archbishop Julio Cardinal Rosales brought Garcia back to Cebu and took him as a diocesan priest.
Rosales’ successor, Cebu Archbishop Ricardo Cardinal Vidal, conferred on Garcia the title of a monsignor. Vidal is now retired.
Garcia rose to become one of the prominent priests in Cebu. He was known for his vast collections of religious icons and paintings.
He held various posts, including the chairmanship of the Commission on Worship, business manager of the Bag-ong Lungsoranon, the official publication of the Cebu Archdiocese, and spiritual director of Bukas Loob ng Dios and the World Apostolate of Fatima.
Garcia was in the forefront of the religious activities during Cebu’s grand festival, the Sinulog, which is held every third Sunday of January to celebrate the feast of the Holy Child Jesus.
Since his suspension, Garcia has been based in Manila where he is being treated for diabetes and hypertension. When news about his suspension first came out, he was already on sick leave and was staying in Manila.
There were reports that Garcia had been asked by archdiocese officials to keep a low profile while the investigation against him was ongoing.
Msgr. Esteban Binghay, episcopal vicar of the Archdiocese of Cebu, urged the faithful to continue praying for Garcia so that he could surpass “the test of his life.”
Binghay, a canon lawyer, said the suspension imposed on Garcia is not absolute.
“He could not celebrate Mass in public but he can still do it in private. Also, Monsignor Cris can still concelebrate the Eucharist,” he explained.
“Monsignor Cris may still be serving the consequences of an alleged offense he committed several years back. But the sin has been forgiven by God,” he added.
While serving his suspension, Garcia still continued to help the Church although his name was no longer mentioned, Binghay said. He was a consultant of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, said Binghay.
“Monsignor Cris obviously has the talent and the brilliance which the Church needs. We could not put to waste whatever he can do for the Church,” Binghay said.
In the meantime, life goes on for the congregation that he founded.
When the Inquirer visited the SAP compound in Talisay on Feb. 2, some brothers were busy making “liturgical hosts” which when consecrated during the Mass, became the body of Christ.
As part of raising money to sustain the congregation, the SAP has been manufacturing “hosts” which were unleavened and made of wheat.
The brothers and sisters of the SAP, which is noticeable in brown-and-white vestments, assist Archbishop Palma and other priests in the archdiocese during liturgical celebrations.
They also help the Archdiocese’s Commission on Worship in printing Mag-Ambahan Kita (Let Us Celebrate), a monthly publication which contains all the daily readings, eucharistic prayers and the order of the Mass.
It runs the religious store, San Pedro Calungsod Shoppe, beside the Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral.
Garcia’s “dream museum” was being built inside the SAP compound. The museum would house Garcia’s collections of religious images, which were being housed beside the SAP’s shrine.