Getting personal with Archbishop Jose Palma
Jose Serofia Palma did not aspire to become a priest, much less getting appointed as the archbishop of Cebu.
But destiny simply has its own way.
Palma is now on his 42nd year as priest and on his 20th year as bishop — seven years of which are spent as chief shepherd of the Philippines’ largest archdiocese with around 400 diocesan priests, 200 others from various religious congregations, and about four million lay Catholics.
The native of Dingle town in Iloilo has come full circle after returning to Cebu where he first served as an auxiliary bishop two decades ago.
A former president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, the 67-year-old prelate has spoken on a wide variety of issues affecting the country and the church.
Not much, however, was told about his personal life.
Cebu Daily News dropped by the Archbishop’s Residence in Cebu City one afternoon to ask him about his interests, preferences, supposed secrets, and other interesting facts that not a lot of people know about him.
The prominent but low-key archbishop often laughed as he candidly answered the questions thrown his way.
“I wanted to become an engineer because I thought I was good in numbers. My favorite subjects were Algebra, Math, Physics and Geometry. But I think God works in mysterious ways. I have a friend, who was so excited to enter the seminary, invited me to join him. And since I do not want to douse his enthusiasm, I said ‘Okay, I’ll give it a try.’ The funny thing was would you believe, that year, I was the only who entered the seminary. He did not because he was not able to prepare his documents. He entered the following year, but he did not persevere. I, on one hand, went on to become a priest.”
(Palma holds a licentiate in Sacred Theology from the University of Sto. Tomas Central Seminary in Manila, and doctorate in Theology from the Angelicum or Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome — finishing magna cum laude in both studies.)
“In the seminary, there were lots of students who would come to us. Along the way, I got attracted to intelligent and beautiful girls; brain and beauty so to speak. But to me, the vocation was stronger than any human attractions. I believe the desire to respond to the call was most important.”
“(I’m the second) of eight siblings. My brother, who was next to me, studied in the Australian Naval Academy and later worked with the Presidential Security Guard. He was blessed with a good disposition, but got ambushed when he was assigned in Mindanao.”
“I am a son of a farmer. And even now, if given a choice to eat, I would still prefer to eat vegetables like kulitis (amaranth), lupo (vegetable weed), and saluyot (Jew’s mallow). I loved them as much as I love fish. You know if there’s a buffet and there are many available food, I would pick the vegetables and fresh fish. That’s what my taste buds want.”
“People would often see me in Barong (Tagalog). I’m used to it. I have friends who supply me with Barong so I wear them.“
“5’9 and three-fourths if barefoot; 5’10 if I’m wearing my shoes.”
“I speak Cebuano but with the tone of an Ilonggo, Tagalog because I studied in Manila, Spanish because we were trained by Spaniards, and I can survive with my Italian because I stayed in Rome for some time. Of course, I speak in English. As to Latin, I can manage but don’t consider myself an expert. I’m really not a good speaker, but I try to study and learn more or less how to deliver a speech especially that I am a priest.”
“Last time, when I had my haircut, the barber asked me ‘Are you a military?’ (Levity aside), I used to have a curly, long hair. But after some time, they became unruly. I decided to have a haircut like this so it’s easy to comb my hair.”
“When I was a young priest, I would really find time to exercise. I’ve never been hospitalized until I was 60. It must be because of diet, exercise, and a good disposition. At present, however, the doctor prohibited me from playing tennis because I have a fatty liver. Why not tennis? He said because he didn’t want me to get very tired. ’When you play tennis, you run after every ball,’ he told me. So I just do some brisk walking. I hope I can go back because I enjoy tennis.”
On growing old
“I must admit I’m not as healthy as I used to be. When I became archbishop, I underwent laparoscopy to remove a stone in my liver. I could not understand what caused it but perhaps it’s part of growing old. I attribute that to age, some kind of pressure, and many other factors.”
“Most of the time, I travel alone. I watch several movies when I travel because, when you’re on board the plane for hours, all you do is to sleep, eat, and watch movie from stories of war, adventure, and history. But the one that struck me was Babette’s Feast.”
(Babette’s Feast is a story of the spiritual renewal of a fading sect of elderly Lutherans on the barren coast of Jutland in Denmark).
“When there are televised games, whether it’s tennis or basketball or even golf, I watch it for some reasons. It keeps me interested. Of course, I watch the news, but (no) teledrama.”
“My preference would be a good theology book. I read the writings of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, whatever comes out of the press. But next to that, I also read inspirational books, anything that sustains us in our ministry, like that of Bo Sanchez. I also like books on psychology and management. I seldom read novels. They are too long for me.”
“I’m not a singer. People don’t know that when I graduated, among my lowest grades was in music. I just enjoy listening to opera and Broadway music. I seldom memorize a song although some people would hear me sing John Denvers’ Perhaps Love or our own version of Greenfields because it’s like a vocation song.”
No more long walks
“Before I can do long walks, but now no more. When I was rector of a seminary, there are what we call a ‘Desert Day’ when I would pack up my things, brought with me a sandwich, and go in our mini forest, and just sit down there for many hours. I can’t do it anymore. There’s just a lot of paperworks and commitments.”
The first pope you meet in person
“Pope and now Saint John Paul II. That was during our ad limina visit to Rome in 2003. I also met in person Popes Benedict XVI and Francis.”
“I usually go to bed at around 11 p.m. and wake up around 5 a.m., go to prayer, take a bath, and then attend to my schedules.”
How to de-stress
“Stress is there. But I often recall how St. John XXIII relayed to the Lord the problems of the world and the situations all over. In prayer, he realized the Lord telling him ’You brought all of these to me. But whose world and church are these? ‘Now, if this is my world and my church, why do have to worry so much about it. Go to sleep.’ And many times, that’s also my attitude. When the day is gone and I thought I did what I have to do though imperfect, I said ‘Lord I did the best I can. This is your world, your priests, your people, your archdiocese, I’m going to sleep.’”
“I thought when people would be up on stage and present their talents, I said the Lord put me down here so that I can clap my hands and appreciate the talents of people. I’m but an ordinary person. There’s nothing extraordinary in me. I don’t sing like many of the Cebuanos. I don’t write like many good writers. But perhaps, I think, to some extent, even as a seminarian, people look at me as a leader, as someone who can accompany others. I would tell Archbishop (John) Du, that God may have taken me out of Palo because He knew Super Typhoon Yolanda was coming in 2013. God was saying ‘Palma has not much talent. He is only good in facilitating meetings. I will put him in Cebu, and I will put Archbishop Du because he is good in looking for funds and in construction.”
“We are blessed because we have Cebuano son whose cause for sainthood we are proposing. I think his (Archbishop Teofilo Camomot) simplicity, love for the poor, his non careerism, his charity, his prayer life are something we must emulate.”
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