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(a simple thanks to Fr. Albert Meerschaert, cicm)

I’m sure tributes to Fr. Albert abound these days both from priests, ex-seminarians and lay people who knew him in his 51 long years as seminary formator and specially as spiritual director of aspirants to the priesthood. Fr. Albert was my only spiritual director in my 9 years in the seminary. I knew no other guide before him and those who came after him in my life can never equal both the length and depth of relationship he offered me in spiritual friendship and accompaniment.

There are so many memories flowing in my mind right now and I believe it will take many pages to scribble them down. But the most significant one for my vocation was the story of how he saved my vocation. Fr. Albert never told me about this incident. It was in fact my Prefect of Discipline in Theology who told me the story, after being so impressed by Fr. Albert’s concern for his seminarians.

In the seminary, there came moments of desolation, low points, really. One such moment happened to me when I earned the ire and suspicion of both the Rector and the Vice-Rector of the seminary. I was a student leader, always having to represent the sentiments of the body and so, many times, I have to face up to the adverse reactions this openness elicits from formators.

I always had good final marks for evaluation, either a “Very Good” or “Excellent” at the end of the school year, save for this one year when I received a “Good” mark. Actually I should have received a “forced regency” instead – a mandatory leave from the seminary discerned for seminarians by the formators.

The only thing that prevented the formators from sending me to “forced regency” was the intervention of Fr. Albert. It may seem strange, because in both the semestral and the year-end evaluations, the spiritual director – because he works in the internal forum, the confidential, secret, almost confessional aspect of formation – cannot speak about what he knows of his directee. Spiritual direction is treated like confession – it is between the seminarian, his director and God.

My reliable source said that one formator made an accusation against me on a particularly sensitive matter, while another started to open up another issue involving me in another negative impression. All the while the accusations were adding fuel to the fire, and most formators were already inclined to have me undergo the regency period or maybe even to have me expelled from the seminary.

The only person who knew me most, and who knew the truth about the issues raised against me, was Fr. Albert. He was silently listening to the deliberations. He was impeded from confirming or denying the truth about the issues because he was my spiritual director.

But at one point, nobody was expecting and nobody could explain why, Fr. Albert banged his fist on the table and looking at my accusers in the eye, he said: I don’t believe you. Prove it to me!

At those words, everybody fell silent. Fr. Albert’s obvious disbelief of the accusations and his prudence in not revealing anything he knew about me while at the same time demanding proof from the formators, made its mark. I was evaluated as fit for another year’s formation, though getting for the one and only time the evaluation “Good”.

I was so happy to survive that test in formation. Fr. Albert never mentioned the incident to me, even if many times, I tried to insinuate to him that I knew he saved my vocation. He was so discrete he did not want to divulge any detail of the proceedings in the evaluation. Or maybe he did not want to get credit for having done me a favor. Whatever his motivation was, he was silent about this matter, preserving in his heart a healthy respect for the seminary system and his faithfulness to the vocations of young people God entrusted to him.

One of Fr. Albert’s perennial advice is to take your much needed night rest at 10:30 pm. It was easy to do this in the seminary since lights were turned off at that precise time in the Philosophy Department and the practice was highly recommended in the Theology Department. Fr. Albert believed that sleeping at this time gives your body the rest it needs for the next day. And while there may be so many other assignments and tasks you are tempted to accomplish late in the night or on to the early morning, he believed that you must entrust those unfinished business to God.

“Tapos na ang boxing,” was how he inculcated in us the value of the 10:30pm lights off. Today as a priest, I still feel guilty when I overly tire myself out with work late into the night. I know that this practice will affect all my activities the following day.

Fr. Albert, the final bell has rung for you. Tapos na po ang boxing ninyo. The lights are turned off for you here on earth. In heaven, you will have much to do, as a saint, as a father, as a guide to us who now rely on you more for your powerful prayers.

Before you go to heaven’s gate, I just want to tell you for the last time, Salamat po! Thank you for accepting me as your directee for 9 solid years of formation. Thank you for trusting me so much as to even fight for my vocation when it was challenged. Thank you for all the memories of God’s presence in a man whose one great love is to guide other young men into the lifelong commitment the priesthood demands.

And while tapos na ang boxing ninyo, Father, ours is still in its second, third or fourth round. You will forever be my inspiration in surviving, or like you, winning the match! Salamat po, Fr. Albert! Pray for us, saint of priestly formation!