[COLUMN] Fr. John Cordero: Truth, light and God’s resonating words beyond the coronavirus pandemic

Fr. John Cordero of Holy Family Church in Artesia, California | Photo courtesy of Holy Family Church

“Correct leadership is not a divine right, but a duty of service. We are known as Christians by our service. We have to remember our roles as servant leaders… to remember that the waters of truth are soft and gentle. It does not agitate, it does not incite, it does not flatter.” – Fr. John Cordero’s homily, January 10, 2021.

Henri Nouwen in his book, ‘The Wounded Healer’ described the “first and foremost task of the minister of tomorrow…is to clarify the immense confusion which can arise when people enter this new internal world. Since the God ‘out there’ or ‘up there’ is more or less dissolved in the many secular structures, the God within asks attention as never before.” He wrote that pastoral theological piece in 1972.

Fast forward 49 years later, what must a relevant pastor do to reach his parishioners of different ethnicities?

Migrants are often the subjects, relegated to the margins, not centered as part of the national landscape, according to Matthew Diller, Fordham University’s Law School Dean.

Yet, America is a nation largely built by immigrants: Irish, Italians, French, Spaniards, Basques, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Mexicans, Middle Eastern, and many more, as well as by Blacks and Native Americans.

In the Holy Family Church in Artesia, the community consists of parishioners who speak Portuguese, Chinese, Tagalog, Spanish, and English. How does a pastor become familiar with significant movements of the spirit within folks of diverse backgrounds?

What were their universal feelings during this coronavirus pandemic when lockdowns were imposed to contain the surge, now at 246,507,000 new cases and 499,008,346 deaths worldwide and 747,425 deaths as of Halloween Eve 2021 in the United States?

How will a pastor sustain their spirits dampened by “othering,” the surge of coronavirus deaths, and the closing of indoor church worship?

Keep in mind the churches’ closing indoor worship was a decision made by the civil authorities informed by the science of viral transmission and adopted voluntarily by the Catholic Bishops in Los Angeles, to protect lives.

How does one stay upbeat, optimistic, and hopeful?

I felt certain that the Holy Spirit was guiding me, when I searched from church to church, using Facebook: Quiapo, Washington, DC, Manila, Caloocan, Rome and Los Angeles, in search of masses. I prayed to find the church with the best homilist who would provide meaningful guidance, one who would journey with us in discernment, while we would listen to the best cantor, singing on pitch.

It was a lot to ask for, given the uncertainty of lockdowns, daily deaths in the thousands. Really, it was too much to just get out of bed. Rise and shine acquired a new meaning, is it to rise and shine to live, or to mourn another life lost?

Parishioners attend a seminar called “A Treasured Presence” based on a booklet by USCCB to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the presence of Christianity in the Philippines. | Photo courtesy of Holy Family Church

Thousands attended mass, digitally

I found the daily noon virtual mass at Holy Family in Artesia, where I came to appreciate the homilies given by Fr. John Cordero.

“Savor the life of the Lord the Lord gave us. We are being taught a longing for the Eucharist, not as a habit, but a belief that Jesus will give us life. He is the Bread of Life. May the Lord’s life [be what] we all seek, [as] that will only [give] us true satisfaction in this unsatisfying world,” he said in his homily.

That day, May 4, 2020, Pope Francis held a memorial mass for 100+ pastors who died, some, after blessing those afflicted with coronavirus; and 154+ doctors who died on the job in Italy.

In California, our Filipino nurses volunteered to care for the coronavirus patients. As a result, while they made up only 4% of nurses in US, but over 30% of those who died were Filipinos.

HFC-Artesia was formerly led by a pastoral Fr. Raymond Decipeda, endearingly referred to as “the super energized pastor.” From declining attendance, he invigorated Sunday masses to be packed, including the 7 p.m. mass. I walked in one late Sunday evening, years ago, surprised to see a full church and a very disciplined choir who sang on pitch and in harmony. His leadership inspired the community to care for others and helped renovate churches outside the diocese, damaged by disasters. He inspired the youth to become more active, as much as their parents.

The good work of Fr. Decipeda, from 2010-2016, are continued now by Fr. John Ernesto Roxas Cordero, with assistance from Fr. Joachim Ablanida, Fr. Joshua Santos, Fr. Dominic Deniña and Fr. Luis Proenca, along with lay leaders in various ministries.

Fr. Cordero’s leadership is effective as he “can articulate the movements of his inner life,” while he clearly explains his varied experiences (walking around the block to do groceries, to prepare his meals, to pray, to meditate and to write), allowing more of us, his parishioners, to connect, while his homilies “removed the obstacles that prevent the spirit from entering.”

HFC-Artesia grew its virtual mass attendance to 13,000 in a week, while other churches struggled to retain the few or hundreds viewing their mass. YouTube and Artesia’s radio TV station added more attendees to the masses.

Compare this to a local neighborhood church in Miracle Mile that shut down with a huge notice on its front door, “Only God knows when we reopen.” Each time I walked by to read its notice, my heart felt grateful to be able to attend HFC-Artesia’s noon masses, under 500 masses by now, able to pray for the healing of folks, peaceful and honest elections, drought to end, safe road trips, folks to find their desired jobs, and more often for coronavirus to lose its hosts, by having more folks vaccinated.

Listening to inspiring homilies from HFC-Artesia, the well chosen sacred songs, as well as Pope Francis’ homilies in celebrated masses in Casa Martha in Rome from March to May 2020, gave me a profound sense of hope, an emotional uplift that soon, this darkness will be taken over by light.

Truth, light and beyond

The coronavirus felt like a war. A war to stay alive. A war that spared no one. A war that kept us all apart. A family loses four out of six family members, just like that. Many died alone.

Bones Deoso, Jr., a nurse, periodically posted on Facebook that a colleague nurse was lost to coronavirus. He implored folks to get vaccinated. What touched me most was his singing Ave Maria to a dying patient, accompanying him to his journey home.

“In war, the first casualty is truth.” Bishop Marc Trudeau said. He shared the story of Paternoster Square in London, once the center of London’s publishing trade that was bombed in “The Blitz” during WWII, destroying the book publishing square. After the fire, ignited by the bombing, what survived [in London] was stone etchings: ”The word of God remains in eternity.”

I conducted a one-on-one interview with Fr. John Cordero in the rectory. He invited me to join Fr. Dominic and him for a healthy lunch of fruits, vegetables and lean meats in August 2021.

“How do you stay fearless and upbeat Fr. John,” I asked.

“Because I am a Filipino, good or bad, I am used to tragedy. I was born in Manila where our house got flooded year after year. Then, our seminary roof flew over our heads during one typhoon. Resilience of the Filipinos is highlighted during this pandemic. For example, the lack of toilet paper is mitigated by using a tabo (plastic mini bucket),” he replied.

His father is Adelardo Cordero who comes from Rosario, Cavite. He described him as idealistic, creative, a writer and a speaker. His mother is Maria Loreto Roxas from Marilao, Bulacan. He described her as devout, practical and a grounded Catholic.

It is these stories that endear him to his parishioners, including an optimism that these challenges can be transcended.

“I am quite blessed. This pandemic has made us realize that we have a say in the landscape of our faith – not as mere subjects, but we have something to bring to the table of worship,” he continued.

He methodically increased modes of worship, rooftop masses were introduced around June and July 2020 and he waited for the best way to do it. Some folks objected, afraid that the priests might fall off the balcony. He listened, paused and devised ways to assuage concerns.

It evolved to garden services for confession, outdoor services for weddings, drive-in masses using FM car radios to listen, including rooftop masses wherein the priest celebrating mass is seen by hundreds of parishioners, safely inside their cars, honking horns to signify amen as well as turning on headlights.

Hundreds of car headlights became an inspiring image that brought more hope, signifying hundreds of human beings, who are alive.

Fr. Cordero initiated systems of decision-making within his parish leadership council. “I am initially cautious and I avoid knee jerk responses. But, also I feel blessed that I am walking through the dark valley with friends.”

He sustained his engagement with his parishioners to critically discern the source of light: “Man cannot be separated from God, nor politics from morality…indeed all can contribute, by voting in elections for lawmakers and government officials, and in other ways as well, to the development of political solutions and legislative choices which, in their opinion, will benefit the common good.” (Source: Doctrine of the Faith, Sept. 14, 2020 broadcast).

Former Cerritos Mayor Mark Pulido validated his effective leadership, saying “As a longtime parishioner of HFC-Artesia, I am grateful for the great leadership of Fr. John Cordero. He continues the servant leadership tradition of his fellow Filipino predecessors, as Pastor of our beloved community.”

Ann Ferraren-Tecson, a lector and a long-time  parishioner, shared the impact of his leadership in her Facebook post of May 13, 2020: “As negative comments and videos came through, a number of them unverified, I feel the comforting words of Fr. John Cordero, who continues to guide us beyond our daily mass. Yes we do long to physically receive the body of Christ but you always remind us that Jesus is the bread of Life and we truly receive HIM spiritually. Thank you Fr. John as you always advised us to discern between the truth and the lies.”

Holy Family Church in Artesia’s priests and congregation during the memorial mass for Fr. Pius Pareja, who was beloved by all. | Photo courtesy of Holy Family Church

Prayers sustaining leadership and parishioners

Fr. Cordero worked hard for the parishioners, including holding weekly sessions, using Facebook, with parishioners; even while he did the pastoral duties of masses, communion, preparing homilies, writing, as well as leadership meetings by Zoom.

He shared that “we all draw spirituality from the same river of tradition, downstream from the Jesuits.”

Perhaps guided by his favorite St. Teresa of Avila’s: “Her [His] own answer is prayer – prayer when it seems impossible, prayer when others do everything to dissuade you and shake confidence in it, prayer when you are not sure whether you are being led by God or by a devil, in a phase of prayer of quiet, a gifted state of prayer in which we experience God as the active one while we are more passive,” he prays for enlightenment before saying mass.

He emphasized that any growth seen in HFC-Artesia is the result and product of relationships – “people who have committed themselves to the Church, not from an idea imposed by faith. It is a family; it is a network of care, animating the ‘boots on the ground’, or the altar on the roof, staffers and volunteers literally working hard to keep up with sanitizing the church to be safer for others. They are mobilizing themselves by the strength of their faith and credible relationships. We improve being together by doing things together.”

He added, “if you want them to be in a community, make sure you have a welcoming home that they all want to come home to.”

It is that welcoming attitude that Melissa Ramoso, mayor pro tem of Artesia observed: “I recently just met Father John Cordero in-person at the event, but have corresponded previously. He struck me as kind and understanding. He is willing to work on issues and collaborate for the greater good. It is important for a leader in the Catholic Church to embody this. He welcomed many visiting priests, our regional bishop and parishioners to Artesia with open arms. He made many (including myself) feel at home.”

Home is a recurring theme in his homily, including homemade goods.

In another homily, he said: “Trade your gifts. Don’t hoard them. Trade is not forcefully selling. It is a spirit of engaging with another to grow your faith. Make our faith grow — engage in lively, peaceful, and respectful dialogue, allowing our faith to grow, we are not in the business of making jams and pickles.” Some fellow priests of his congregation wanted him to write a book but realizing the need for more academic weight, he took further studies, a doctorate at Fordham University.

The greatest gift of this pandemic is that: “The preaching event itself …is a living, breathing, flesh-and-blood expression of the theology of the Holy Spirit,” James Forbes’ Yale lectures in 1986 as cited in a foreword of Overshadowed Preacher by Jerusha Matsen Neal.

As earth pilgrims, we instinctively seek clarity. “Go to the light,” a friend said. Just as in a Camino journey, we carry on our backpacks, our provisions, our baon. In today’s current pandemic our baon consists of guidance from above, a critical ability to discern truth from lies, an inner capacity to find facts,  based on science-based information, and most especially, guidance from God’s word, through holy pastors, prayers, bible studies, including being part of a faith-based community,  conscious and aware of contributing to the highest common good.

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The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the Asian Journal, its management, editorial board and staff.

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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 13 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, Spain, Portugal, Japan, Costa Rica, Mexico and over 22 national parks in the US, in her pursuit of love for nature and the arts.

Prosy Abarquez Dela Cruz, J.D.

Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 13 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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