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A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: A Person With So Much Goodness: A Tribute to Bert Cacayan

a sojourners view karl gaspar mindaviews column

CEBU CITY (MindaNews / 16 February) – When Bert Cacayan decided in 2022 to publish his memoirs with the title – So Much Goodness, he asked me to write the book’s Foreword. And this is what I wrote: “In every generation, there always arises a group of young men and women whose clarity of vision, strength of commitment, courage of purpose, brilliance of ideas, authenticity of spirit, kindness, and graciousness make them stand out as that generation’s model.”

I meant every word that I wrote and it came from the heart as Bert had not only been one of my closest friends but I considered him a younger brother. When I heard the shocking news on Tuesday (February 13) that he died after spending almost two months in two hospitals in Davao City (since Christmas Day 2023) and undergoing the transurethral resection of the prostate or TURP which is the surgical removal of the part of the prostate gland, like the members of his family and his circle of friends, I was devastated and heartbroken.

News spread quickly across the archipelago and overseas for Bert had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances on account of his work experiences and a variety of engagements in the NGO world. When I posted a notice of his death on Facebook Tuesday, messages of condolence for the members of his family swiftly came one after another from all across the country and the different corners of the world. It amazingly showed the hundreds of people whose lives were touched by this gentle, kind and compassionate soul!

Bert, who was from Buenavista, Agusan del Norte had entered the Regional Major Seminary in Davao City. However, I did not remember meeting him when he was a seminarian. I can recall first meeting him when he was working with Fr. Carlos Abesamis SJ in promoting the Third Look of Jesus Bible seminars under the National Secretariat of Social Action, Justice and Peace (NASSA) circa mid-1970s while he was based in Manila. Eventually he returned to Mindanao and the Board hired him to join us at the Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference Secretariat (MSPCS), helping to take care of the Alay Kapwa Program and run seminars including the Bible seminars. He had decided not to pursue his original intention to become a priest but remained single for a while.

As the MSPCS staff members were in constant move traveling to the various Dioceses across Mindanao for meetings, consultations and seminar-workshops, we found ourselves journeying in pairs and oftentimes I was with Bert. Those were difficult and scary years as we had to make sure not to compromise our security. Nonetheless, we thoroughly enjoyed the travels and being involved in a variety of activities. Being young, healthy and open to all possibilities life could offer, we found the days we shared quite exciting and enjoyable.

We easily bonded together and became close friends as we found our different personalities gelling together. What strengthened the bond was our shared commitment to be part of the resistance movement to oppose martial law and our faith options. He was such an asset in our office and provided me a lot of support as head. Bert was our Bible scholar and theologian. He was also a good writer and editor while also excelling in giving talks and facilitating meetings.

When the Alay Kapwa program was set up by NASSA and we served as the regional center to promote it among the different Dioceses, he served as Coordinator. To help the participants of the Bible seminars to have a reference material they can refer to, Bert produced a Manual that became like a textbook for his students. Being in Cebuano, this became a best-seller as many church workers found it most helpful including the BEC leaders.

While faced with a lot of excitement and fun in those years we were together, those were also years of living dangerously! Thus we were not just close friends but we were comrades-in-arms watching each other’s back. We knew – like the others in our merged Secretariat – that we were constantly at risk because we were in constant surveillance by the military intelligence agents. There was always a possibility that our office would be raided; in fact we got raided once when the military looked for “subversives” who were supposed to have transacted business with us in our office.

There were also personal problems that arose. Naturally we worried about problems cropping up in our own respective families. As Bert and I were the eldest sons in our families, we constantly tried to make sure we would be available when our parents called on us for help to look after the younger siblings. 

Eventually, Bert explored romantic possibilities and made his choice to court Agnes Miclat, who was in our MSPCS-MISSSA merged office. She was in-charge of the Indigenous Peoples Ministry. Soon we knew that they had fallen in love with each other. Everyone in the office and the network of their friends were jubilant when they got hitched together and later when they knew of their wedding plans. This was the kind of love nurtured in a time of turmoil and struggles. When they decided to tie the knot, Bert asked me to be his best man at the wedding ceremony. I was naturally happy over having a role to play at the marriage ritual.

Executive Secretaries of the MSPC in those years only had a three-year term which was non-renewable. I had taken over in 1976 so by 1980, a new Executive Secretary was to be elected by the Conference delegates meeting at the MSPC IV scheduled in Pagadian City. The staff and many of our supporters were unanimous that Bert should be the one to take over and fortunately he was open to this proposal. As many delegates knew Bert already and were impressed by him, it was easy enough for the Conference to agree that he was the best person for the job. So he got elected and took over as Executive Secretary in 1980.

Midway through his term at MSPCS, a crack appeared on the wall of the Mindanao Church. This was already the time of Pope John Paul II and he had a negative view of liberation theology and radical social engagements. Many bishops in the country – influenced by the example of the Pope – began to waiver in regard to a sustained engagement in social issues, especially justice and peace. Taking seriously the government intelligence agency’s propaganda that the Church had been infiltrated with priests, nuns and laypeople who were communists – being members of the NDF-CPP-NPA – a growing number of bishops aimed to get rid of these “infiltrators” working in church institutions.

Many progressive institutions became victims of the internal witch-hunting. At NASSA, there was an attempt to identify who these infiltrators were and force them to resign. The staff tried collectively to resist the move from above but in the end I became one of the victims. I had to resign, which was not such a blow to me because I didn’t really like going back to Manila to work there. I much preferred returning to Davao and finding another job there.

It was worse with the MSPC. When Bert took over as Executive Secretary, he experienced having to face the internal tensions and tried his best to find a way to resolve these. A gathering of the Bishops and the board was convened in the hope that the issues can be threshed out and things could go back to normal. There was also a separate gathering of key diocesan personnel who were deemed sympathetic to those suspected of being infiltrators as another move to resolve the tensions. And despite Bert’s attempts at keeping the dialogue ongoing, the conflict had reached an intense level of animosity that it was no longer possible to sustain the dialogue. 

Consequently, the Bishops unilaterally decided to pull out of the Conference. Where it used to convene every three years, from 1983, they decided to suspend the convening of the conference. The two bishops in the board of directors of MSPC resigned. Then they ordered that the MSPCS-MISSSA merged office be closed. I was still in prison when I heard these things unfolding and all I could do was offer prayers for the resolution of the conflicts. I thought how difficult this must have been for my friend Bert, having to face this storm. I then sent word to him that I was in solidarity with them and wrote scathing letters to a few bishops who I thought contributed to the impasse.

The MSPC board had eleven members composed of two bishops, one each to represent the diocesan clergy, the religious men, the religious women and six laypersons from the six sub-regions of Mindanao. So even if the two bishops resigned, there were still nine more members and fortunately all nine decided to keep the office intact. On the other hand, the MISSSA section of the merged Secretariat could not be disbanded as it was linked to the NASSA office in Manila left open by the CBCP.  So MISSSA continued its operations but had to transfer to another building.

Since they could no longer use the name of MSPC, the nine board members decided to change its name to Mindanao Interfaith Pastoral Conference (MIPC). And its office would be named MIPC Secretariat.  Bert finished his term as Executive Secretary of MIPC. All the staff remained in place as funding mainly from European funding agencies continued to support operations. The first MIPConference was convened where Bert tendered his resignation. Elected to take his place was the late Fr. Dong Galenzoga, who died a few years ago. By this time he and Agnes already had two sons. They asked me to be godfather to the elder son, Al David, further cementing our ties.

After his stint with MSPCS/MIPCS, Bert set his sights to a new horizon while maintaining his commitment to justice and development issues. With his talents, experience and connections, Bert set up an NGO named Managing Alternative Groups Inc. (MAGI). It would be an NGO who would partner with a few European funding institutions in the processing of project proposals. It would also develop the management capabilities of those running these projects through management seminars. MAGI grew into a respectable NGO establishing partnerships with a good number of funding institutions.

Its staff would be tapped both for assessing project proposals as well as conducting management seminars. MAGI managed to set up its own building with the support of its partners. After a few years of operations, MAGI developed a good reputation and developed more partnerships. With its training programs and various manuals they published that were materials used at their seminar-workshops, MAGI became an important agency in Mindanao for those seeking assistance in development work.

As a committed lay person, with other highly motivated lay people, he co-founded the Amaya Lay Foundation Inc. (ALFI) which served the needs of widows and orphans of spouses and fathers who perished during the Marcos martial rule. A network of lay people working in various Church agencies was also organized to help empower the laity and regular meetings and conferences were held through the years.

After I joined the Redemptorists, my contact with Bert became even rarer. I could only go home during the Christmas break. I made quick visits to visit him. Visiting Bert was also catching up with my godson Al Dave who was growing up fast. Occasionally we also held reunions of all those who used to work in Susana Building so these events became occasions to update each other on our respective engagements.

Bert eventually resigned from MAGI when he was offered a job with Terre des hommes (French for ‘Land of People’), an international children’s rights charitable humanitarian umbrella organization under the aegis of the International Federation of Terre des Hommes (TDHIF). It had  independent organizations in Canada,  Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Nehterlands, Switzerland, Spain, and Syria. Founded in 1960, an important part of the TDHIF’s work was as a consultant to the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Its most important activity was advocating for children’s rights, defending them, and spreading information on issues impacting children faced with problems of child labor, sexual molestation and trafficking.  

As area Coordinator for Southeast Asia, Bert’s base was in Bangkok. He traveled extensively across countries especially those with serious children’s problems and also went regularly to Europe for conferences and meetings. Bert stayed on the job for years until he resigned. However, a replacement could not be found to take over his job, so he returned for a few more years before finally retiring.

With the advent of social media, we tried to remain in touch with each other. However, since I was in our upland missions where oftentimes there was no electricity and definitely no wi-fi connections, I could only get in touch with them when I went home to Davao or attended meetings in Cebu. When the Redemptorists founded the St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute in Davao City, where for a few months every year I would teach a course, it provided occasional visits to Nonoy Rodriguez, who worked with us in MSPCS. Later on we invited him to also teach Pastoral Management to our students.

When Bert finally retired from Terre de Hommes, he returned to Davao just before the lockdown. But mostly he kept to himself and wrote his memoirs. Eventually, Bert also got sick which started with the onset of diabetes. A few years earlier he already shared with me signs that he had problems with his prostate. I’ve been through the same experience so I strongly suggested that he immediately undergo a thorough medical check-up to find out what was bothering him. Sharing my experience that I neglected taking care of my health which led to my illness, I warned him not to repeat my mistakes.

Fast forward and I met him sometime in mid-2022 (I did not realize it then but this would be the last time I would personally meet him face-to-face) and he told me that things have worsened also because of diabetes. We talked about possibilities that might help relieve the inconveniences of his health crisis. But I was optimistic he could surmount this crisis as he had always been far healthier than most of us, being athletic and having no vices.

It was not meant to be. Even as my own health deteriorated and I needed to transfer to Cebu, the news from him was not very optimistic. Those of us who worked in Susana Building had a reunion last June in Cebu, and I was hoping he could join us. But he told me he didn’t feel well enough to travel. When I went home to Davao City late November 2023 and launched my recent book, I was hoping he could join us in this event. I messaged him to join us but he begged off saying he was not well. My four-day schedule was too tight, so I could not go over and visit him.

On Christmas day 2023, I was jolted out of my joyous mood when I heard from Agnes that Bert was rushed to Brokenshire Hospital. Thus began a long vigil to wish Bert to get well soon. Prayers were mobilized and his wide network of friends rallied to his side. We received constant updates regarding how his medical care was progressing as there were complications with his heart and kidneys. As Lukas got assigned by the family to deal with communications, I established links with him and in the following weeks I sent messages to Bert through Lukas, mainly assuring him of our prayers and to make sure to get better soon. In one of my messages I wrote that I might perhaps visit Davao again in May and that this time I would definitely go and visit him.

That cannot happen anymore because Bert did not survive his health crisis despite the valiant efforts of the doctors and the support especially of his family. A last ditch effort was to transfer him from Brokenshire to Davao Doctors Hospital so he could undergo the TURP surgery (which I also underwent in 2016). I assured him that like me, he would get well soon after the medical procedure. It turned out that there were complications during the surgery and eventually he had multiple organ failure. A week later, he passed away which sent shock waves across his network of friends.

We have lost a rare human being! It brings deep sadness as we grapple with the pains of separation. We offer our condolences to Agnes, Al Dave and Lukas and the whole Cacayan family. But we take comfort in embracing a deep sense of gratitude that our paths had crossed and we were gifted by his friendship, his goodness and grace. He will definitely be deeply missed by all of us. His legacy will live on and we will treasure the memories of the times he spent with us for he will always have a special place in our hearts.  To end this tribute, I borrow Bert’s own words that he had left to us to reflect on:

But our hearts can be as vast as the ocean

and as immense as the forest…even more!

When we give and extend goodness to others,

we draw not only from our own wells

But from the inexhaustible wellspring

of divine goodness streaming in the universe.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is Mindanao’s most prolific book author. Gaspar is also a Datu Bago 2018 awardee, the highest honor the Davao City government bestows on its constituents. He is presently based in Cebu City.)

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