Fr. Alden Sison’s pastoral creativity and culturally competent servant leadership

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Part III of III of St. Genevieve High School’s transformative purpose of nurturing students’ potentials and building hearts 

Love today invites us to look beyond the short-term, taking a concern for the generations to come and not leaving them a legacy of easy solutions…It invites us to move forward without numbing ourselves to reality, without being ostriches burying their heads in the sand in face of failures and mistakes. Love invites us to accept that in our very weakness is all the potential needed to reconstruct our lives, to be reconciled with each other, and to grow.” – Pope Francis, Only Love Can Save Us, Homily May 25, 2012.

Bishop Robert Barron delivered a homily at the ordination of the five deacons at the Cathedral of Angels in Downtown Los Angeles on August 11, 2018.

He recalled Fr. Larry Kelly (his spiritual mentor) and the important lesson he learned from him, which continues to inform his priesthood: “that within the bounds of law and morality, you are free to do what you can.”

Bishop Barron called it pastoral creativity. He emphasized to the deacons “to stay in God, in prayer, to reflect, and to serve.” He considered his 33 years as a priest, a life of adventure.

Like Bishop Barron who has over 30 years of priesthood, Fr. Alden Sison has been a priest for 32 years. Fr. Alden Sison was installed as St. Genevieve Church’s (St. Gen) pastor on Sept. 21, 2008, and he said, “I celebrate 32 years as a priest – unworthily – this Sept. 2018, God is good!”

In an interview with the Asian Journal on April 24, 2018, he shared his background, his spiritual mentors and his journey to the present.

I asked, “Are you related to Dr. Ramon Sison?”

He jokingly responded, “you mean the communist leader Sison, referring to Jose Maria Sison?”

“No, I am not. I was told I could be related to the former Congressman Nancy Sison and Archbishop Juan Callanta Sison. The Sisons come from Lingayen, Pangasinan,“ he added.

Pangasinan is where salt and bagoong making and carving wood furniture are some of the livelihood sources. This sense of place seems to inform his current stewardship/leadership of St. Gen’s community. Why so?

Salt is a condiment used to flavor our food. Even granola has salt added to it to spike the flavors, but also to preserve its shelf life. It seems that Fr. Sison’s pastoral stewardship is to salt the surroundings, to make communities more viable and to create more alive ministries, able to build bigger communities. It may have come from his early exposure to the Columban nuns, spiritual mentors and nuns, who taught him culturally-competent ministries.

Humble beginnings of Fr. Alden Sison
Fr. Sison grew up in Lingayen, Pangasinan. He was raised by his grandmother, Florentina Arias, while his parents worked overseas. He went to St. Columban’s Academy, run by the Columban sisters, whose principles include “ministering to people of various cultures as a way of witnessing the universal love of God. Their mission is to facilitate the formation of vibrant faith communities and help struggling people regain their dignity, challenged by illiteracy, violence and injustice.”

In the 7th grade, his grandmother passed away, and he joined his parents, Sid and Lilia Sison, who were overseas Filipino workers in the U.S. The family settled along Beverly and Rampart Blvds. in Los Angeles and he went to Virgil Junior High School.

He considers Fr. Ernest Hoerdemann a discoverer of his God’s calling. During that period, racial discrimination was on the rise, as its overt and covert features of shunning, bullying and alienation in the early 70s. While excited about his new surroundings and being in America, he felt like an anomaly, as a Filipino. He went with his family on Sundays, and at St. Kevin’s, he met Fr. Ernest Hoerdemann, an associate pastor who was previously assigned in Cebu. Fr. Hoerdemann took him to the Divine Word Missionary in Riverside, where he went to a year in high school.

Msgr. Patrick Collins, then pastor of St. Kevin’s, became his second spiritual mentor who further nurtured his God’s calling. He asked him to consider Queen of Angels High School in Mission Hills. From there, he went to St. John’s College (now closed), housed in the same campus as the seminary.

At St. John’s, there was a lot of questioning, a process of discerning – is this the life for me?

“I had a confirmation of my interior calling, a community calling, supported by my mom, who prayed the rosary and many novenas for me. My mother has not ceased saying rosaries and novenas for me,” he said.

Recall what Bishop Barron’s mentor said on pastoral creativity and how a priest can do anything, as long as within the bounds of laws and morality? Fr. Sison learned important lessons on morality from the nuns who taught him.

“I learned my chemistry lessons from Sister Leo Francis of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, who taught me patience; chemistry was not my strongest subject,” he said.

Sister Patricia Benson of the Sisters of St. Louis taught English and from her, he “learned how to respect women’s rights, how to promote women’s rights, and to draw a line on abortion, based on being a moral leader of the Church’s teachings. Sister Patrice had a very strong influence in sensitizing me to women’s issues in those early days.”

Sister Patrice Benson then moved to become a professor on literature at St. John’s and Fr. Sison minored in literature. He recalls the display of the Guttenberg Bible at St. John’s Seminary that was sold to finance the seminary needs. Only a photo remains of that rare antique bible, encased inside the second floor of the St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo.

He was ordained in 1987 by Cardinal Roger Mahony at St. Vibiana.
Of Fr. Sison’s journey during his Silver Jubilarian (25th year of priesthood), Angelus News wrote: “Father Alden Sison was born in the Philippines, in 1961.

In his sophomore year at Notre Dame High School in Riverside, he entered Our Lady Queen of Angels High School Seminary and was ordained from St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo. He has a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and a master of divinity. His first assignment was at Holy Family, Artesia, for four years followed by six years as associate at St. Bernardine of Siena, Woodland Hills. Father Sison was named pastor of Our Lady of the Valley, Canoga Park in 1997, and since 2008 has been pastor of St. Genevieve, Panorama City.”

His journey to cultural competence
He credits Sister Marilena Narvaez of Sisters of Social Service as a good example of culturally relevant social ministry. He described her as fierce, undaunted and fearless and perhaps, may have pioneered the installation of Simbang Gabi masses in the Archdiocese.

She sent him to different churches to celebrate Simbang Gabi masses, “I had to go to nine consecutive evenings to nine different churches, from Dec. 16 to 24, and even to Santa Barbara to celebrate mass.” He also credits Cardinal Mahony of being supportive of this ethnic ministry.

In serving at different churches, first at St. Kevin’s, he observed that Filipinos have several devotions, one of which is the Wednesday novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Because of that devotion, it solidifies their practice to attend church regularly.

By 1996, he became the youngest pastor, at 34 years old at Our Lady of the Valley in Canoga Park.

“I had to become culturally sensitive in my ministry. That includes women and because I am a Filipino, I also need to focus on ethnic ministries. In this church, it was populated by mostly Latinos as the white flight had begun from Canoga Park to Santa Clarita. The pews were emptying of whites. I focused on ministering to the Latinos and Filipinos and established the first Simbang Gabi, a novena of nine-day masses at 5:30 a.m. in 1998 at this church,” he shared.

“I also focused on developing ministries for the older parishioners and developed programs on how to unify the Anglos, Filipinos and Latinos,” he added.

It was not about building compartments, he said. Instead, it is about developing awareness of one another, like having masses together, a fiesta where everyone can participate and that became a milestone for the growth of the church’s population at Our Lady of the Valley.

“It was about building community, a functioning community with ministries that were alive. It was about opening the classrooms so they can meet and pray for bible study and prayer groups.”

By the 11th year, he was pulled out by Msgr. Gabe Gonzalez and transferred as pastor of St. Gen.

A chance to bear fruit
At St. Gen, Fr. Sison’s 10 years have not just preserved the core formations of faith, but he has enhanced its music ministry and faith formation groups.

He looks to improve structures where needed.

“In initiating the reorganization and restructuring of our educational journey, which is presently underway, I have taken a very broad view about what our two schools [St. Gen Elementary and St. Gen High School] and our students, will need in the future to become good citizens, contributing members of our society and, most importantly, good Catholics who will walk in the light of the Lord for their entire lives. I am really very happy with the direction in which we are going and ask everyone in our community to give the good works that are underway a chance to bear fruit,” he wrote in their Church’s news bulletin.

At first, these two schools were under two distinct leadership models and competing directions. By consolidating the two schools under Dan Horn, the principal of St. Gen’s high school, both schools are more collaborative, with the preschool feeding its graduates to the elementary, while the middle school graduates matriculate into high school.

Consider Charina Vergara, a single mother who is both a breadwinner and nurturer of her daughters. She still found time to head a fundraising event at St. Gen, sharing, “I am blessed with flexibility in my working hours and I have been volunteering for years at St. Gen, where I feel welcome. I consider St. Gen as our second home, with a sense of family and community. The people are warm, friendly and respectful. I find that [my] volunteering [creates] a huge impact on my daughters to become high achieving, confident, and to perform well in school. I have noticed a big change in the way they run the school, a better organizational structure now. They offer opportunities for our children to grow their faith and develop leadership skills. Missy is an active altar server and she wouldn’t miss a Sunday nor be late for mass. She finds joy and delight in serving. She is happy at St. Gen. I took a video of how excited she was that she was going to go to SG for kinder. [Years later], the excitement is still there.”

St. Gen.’s Fourth Sunday of Easter Church bulletin informed the congregation of the New SG Priests’ Residence and its open house on April 22, 2018. The pastor thanked the parishioners who made the purchase of this home for the priests possible. The Church’s community considers this a milestone of their “stewardship of treasure,” a $4 million goal of their inspiration building campaign, with pledges to date at $3,503,129 from pledges/gifts of 1,091 families, as illustrated in their church bulletin of July 29, 2018.

At the Freshmen Welcome day, Fr. Sison led everyone in prayers. He reminded everyone that as “you attend the field of games, listen to the whirlwinds of sounds and drums, it is Jesus Christ who animates us daily.”

Today, the school has boldly undertaken a strategic campaign for their Inspiration Building, now at $26 million, short of $4 million of their $30 million goal. This building will be the site of inspirational leaders’ talks to parents and students, but also where the students can freely express their music, cheerlead, dance, and perform their musicals like “Bye, Bye Birdie,” “The King and I” and “The Little Mermaid” and even their school events.

Pope Francis invites us to believe that “Only Love Can Save Us” and a universal love that seeks strategic long-term solutions for the next generations to come. It is similar to what I witnessed at St. Genevieve School and perhaps, soon from the 1,091 church-going families who had pledged and some who had already fulfilled their pledges.

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Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 10 years. She also contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Japan, Costa Rica, Mexico and over 22 national parks in the US, in her pursuit of love for nature and the arts.

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