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The Electrical Engineer who Responded to God's Call

 

My Vocation Story
Bert Cepe, CSsR



The sun had just risen at the horizon. The cool morning breeze still pervaded the surroundings: a perfect time for prayer. It was January 9, 1995. 

I was alone at that time right before the small altar in my house having my "prayer time." I was about to end my prayers when images of two distinct instances came into my mind, the two instances when I told God "not now, maybe later":

First Call: March 1988 My last month in High School. I was lying on my bed that evening. I was trying to recall the past four years of my life in Dumaguete. I was about to finish High School and enter college. I was very happy and grateful to God for what had happened in my life. I did not know how to "repay" Him. Maybe God wanted me to do something. And the idea of serving Him as a priest came to my mind. For me, it was the greatest service that I could give to Him. But I was not ready. I bargained with Him. "I can serve you in some other ways aside from being a priest. Maybe, you can call me later," I said.

I practically grew up in a barrio beside the sea in Dauin. I am the sixth of the seven children of Cornelio and Segundina Cepe. My childhood was simple but happy. Our family is quite religious and I grew up not missing the Sunday Mass. I loved going to the Sunday Mass not so much for the liturgical celebration but for the "Painit" of "Tsokolate" and "puto" after the Mass. At this young age too, I was already exposed to the Perpetual Church in Dumaguete. My aunt would usually go there for the Wednesday Novena and I would go along with her. In the Redemptorist Church, I saw foreign priests whom my aunt called "Mga Misyon." She remembered the Redemptorists having a Mission in our parish in the late 60’s.

After finishing my elementary studies, I was excited to study in Dumaguete. I thought I would go to the Catholic School where my elder brother and sisters studied. But my parents enrolled me at Silliman because it offered a scholarship program that we could avail of. Coming from a barrio school and not having much academic and intellectual credentials to speak of, I felt inadequate. I was not conversant with English. My classmates were rich. The atmosphere was new. Add to this the fact that I was living in a lodging house and practically on my own in meeting the academic demands at the age of 13. I felt helpless, even lost.

The feeling of helplessness brought me closer to God. I had no playmates. I was not close to my elder brother and my co-lodgers were all college students. And the academic demands were heavy. The thought of failing in any of my subjects especially English scared me. It was too much for me. So I turned to God. I made a pact with Him. I asked God to help me and guide me in my studies. On my part, I would pray the rosary every day. So, every afternoon I would pass by the Redemptorist Church to pray. 

High School went on. It had been colorful, eventful, and successful. There were lots of "ups and downs", surprises and disappointments, successes and failures within the four years of high school. Changes and big developments marked my high school years, as any adolescent would experience. However, they had a different impact on me. I saw in them the faithfulness of God. God did His part of the pact as I did mine. The unsure first year student was transformed into a confident person in his fourth year. Not only that. He who belonged to the third section in his first year became one of the top students in his fourth year and ready to enter college life.

It was in this context that I was reflecting on my life one evening in March of 1983. I could not grapple with all the blessings and gifts I received from God. I was full of gratitude to Him. I asked God if He was calling me to some tasks… And priesthood came into my mind... But I did not want to enter the seminary at that time. I was exposed to two types of priests: the parish priest in our town and the Redemptorists in Dumaguete. Our parish priest was rumored to have an affair and have a daughter and the Redemptorists were very "active" in the socio-political scene that some people even called them "Redemp-terrorists." I told God: "I don’t want to be identified with these people Lord. I can serve you in some other ways or perhaps, call me later."

I continued my studies in Silliman taking up Engineering. The desire to serve God and His people was still alive within me. However the way to do it was not clear. College life went on smoothly and I finished my course in March 1988. After college, I took a four-month review class in Cebu in preparation for the Engineering Board Exam. It was during this time that I sensed God called me again.

Second Call: August, 1988

One afternoon, I was praying inside the Sto. Nino Basilica in Cebu. While reflecting on my own life, I just marveled at how good God had been to me. I asked Him "What do you want me to do, Lord?" Then serving Him as a priest came vividly into my mind again. I did not know what to do then. But I told God: "Let me finish my review and the Board Exam. The Board Exam will be my last gift to my parents. After that, call me." In short, I was not ready at that time… 

After the board examination, I was hired by the National Steel Corporation in Iligan City as part of the eleventh batch of Engineering Management Trainees. This is a training program for young engineers or new graduates preparing them for supervisory, middle management or engineering positions in the company. I became so engrossed with my work, putting into practice what I learned in college and earning my own money that I forgot all about becoming a priest. During the second year, my life took a different turn. What will a young man do if he is living on his own and has the money to spend? I was practically free to do what I want. So, I began to go out, drink, and "play around." My friends were people of more or less my age who also loved to "go out and play around." There were plenty of "night spots" in Iligan where we could "eat, drink and be merry" not to mention the nearby Cagayan de Oro City where we would go on weekends. Eventhough this was my life, I would still attend Sundays Masses and go to confessions every time I commit a grave sin.

In the middle of 1991, I was recruited to be part of the pioneering chapter in Iligan of a Catholic group called "Ang Lingkod Ng Panginoon" (or simply "Lingkod"). I joined "Lingkod" because the girl I like was in it and some of my friends were recruited too. Looking back, I viewed this event as God’s saving act on me. I was practically "going down", physically and spiritually with my lifestyle. At this time, God brought me up.

In Lingkod, my life took another turn. I began to develop a daily prayer habit and my relationship with God became closer. It was in this relationship that I became aware again of my plan to become a priest. But at this time, I was already into a relationship with a girl and very active in Lingkod as one of its leaders. So, I wanted to be sure. I asked God to give me a sign: perhaps a dream or a vision. I said: "if there is no sign within three months, maybe you already changed your mind." I was playing God at that time. Naturally, the sign did not come.

After three months, I became serious with my relationship hoping that it would be for good. But deep inside me, the desire to become a priest was very much alive. But I could not decide. I wanted God to decide for me.

After two years, the relationship did not prosper. I was angry with God for that. "Why didn’t he bless my relationship when I was very active in the Church?" I consoled myself by saying that maybe we were not meant for each other. After the split, I decided to "lie low," to give myself time for healing. I became more active not only in Lingkod but also in the Cathedral parish and in the Council of the Laity of the Diocese. 

In 1994, I started to go out again with some girls but without entering into any serious relationship. At the same time, I said that I would devote the year to "listen" to my heart where would I really go. "This is my ‘discernment’ year," I said. But I did not ask for assistance from a spiritual director. I did the listening "on my own." At the end of the year, while having my year-end recollection, I found out that I could not live without a woman in my life. So, I decided I would go for marriage. But I could still remember the words that I said in my prayer time on December 31, 1994: "Lord, if you have a better plan, just let me know."

Nine days later, January 9, 1995, the Lord answered. He brought before me the two instances that I said: "call me later." The March 1983 and the August 1988 scenes just came before me very clearly. God did not push me to change my decision for married life. He just set before me those two instances as if trying to tell me: "Did you consider these in your reflection?" I was floored. I did not know what to do. The scripture readings of the succeeding days "spoke personally" to me. "The harvest is plenty but the laborers are few" brought home the call more clearly. I was afraid to make any decision. Then the reading the following day from the Book of Deuteronomy: "Take courage for I will be with you" (Yahweh telling Joshua) encouraged me. "Hey, is that you Lord?" I said. Then the gospel of Mark spoke so eloquently: "Courage, it is I." I was naturally disturbed. I was not "Bible cutting." They were the daily readings. 

So I asked for help, first with Fr. Michel de Gigord, a French missionary in Iligan who recommended me to Fr. Ramon Fruto, a Redemptorist. Since Fr. Ramon was very busy, I decided to have Fr. Louie Selvadoray, an Indian Redemptorist, as my spiritual director. But Fr. Ramon did not waste time. He referred me to Ailyn Maravillas; the Redemptorist lay vocation promoter in Iligan who, in turn, referred me to Fr. Edmor, the Vocation Director of the Redemptorist at that time. Fr. Edmor talked to me and invited me to take the exam in May 1995. Personally, I was not ready but I took the exam anyway.

I was accepted by the Redemptorist in July, 1995. But I declined simply because I was not ready. I did not want to make a hasty decision. It would take time to go through all the legal requirements in resigning from my job. It was while I was attending a "Lingkod" retreat in Bacolod with Bishop Lagdameo that I made my final decision. Bishop Lagdameo’s words were the clincher: "God has already given His 100% to you. It is now your turn to give your 100%." It was really meant for that group of young, working people to be good Christians in the workplace, but it had a very personal effect on me.

I re-applied to the Redemptorist. Believing that the previous acceptance was good for a year, I already resigned from my job. But I was not accepted for reasons I did not know. I asked for reconsideration and fortunately, my case was re-considered. I formally joined the Aspirancy program in October 1996 in Davao with Fr. Ben Ma as my director. Then, as they say, the rest is history. I was professed in May 1999. 

Looking back, I have gone a long way in my personal journey: of evading the call and of following Him as a Redemptorist. I am now in my sixth year in formation and three years as a temporary-professed Redemptorist. The group that I once called "the Redemp-terrorists" is now my new family. The journey has not been always smooth. I went through "ups and downs, successes and disappointments, lights and darkness" along the way. But this is the life that I want. I still continue my journey. I cannot be sure of what I will attain in this life. It is in God’s Hands. But I am sure of one thing: God is faithful.