FOR the past 52 years, everyone simply called him “Father Joe.” Born and bred in Alicante, Spain, and ordained priest in Rome after obtaining a doctorate in canon law at the Angelicum and a licentiate in civil law at the Central University of Madrid, he came to the Philippines after working in Chicago with the regional government of Opus Dei in the United States. That’s where he picked up his particular Yankee accent. He was sent by the founder of Opus Dei, Saint Josemaria Escriva, to help two Filipino economists, who had met the Work at Harvard, begin the apostolate in the country.
The Work is the other name for Opus Dei, which is Latin for “Work of God.” It is a personal prelature of the Church which means the relationship between Opus Dei and its members— “faithful” is the more accurate term— is not territorial as in a diocese, but personal, without in any way affecting the territorial bond between the faithful and their diocesan bishop. It is dedicated to the pursuit of sanctity in ordinary life, which happens when we offer the smallest honest ordinary work we do to God. Long before we heard Pope Francis call on the faithful to abandon their comfort zones and go to the peripheries and care for the forgotten and the neglected, I already heard it from St. Josemaria through his books and homilies and through Fr. Joe and the other faithful priests.
From the day he set foot in Manila until the day he died on May 7, Fr. Jose Monerris Cremades barely knew any rest. He heard endless confessions, gave retreats, seminars, recollections, doctrinal formation and spiritual guidance to both men and women; he also helped look for sites and sources of funds for the conference centers he envisioned for the Work. As counselor/regional vicar of Opus Dei from 1965 to 1992, he worked tirelessly to lay the foundation of the Work in the country and push for its apostolic expansion in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Macao and other parts, relying mainly on prayer and on divine assistance rather than on purely human means.
To pass unnoticed
Like the founder of Opus Dei, with whom he lived for a few years in Rome while working on his doctorate in canon law at the Pontifical University of Thomas Aquinas, Fr. Joe tried all his life to “pass unnoticed.” There was nothing showy or noisy about his work or the fruits of his work. But when he died on Good Shepherd Sunday at 86, the fruits of his apostolate could not be hid. Everyone spoke of him as the “Good Shepherd.” Everyone who had met him even just once had a personal story to share. Archbishop Pedro Dian, archbishop emeritus of Palo, Leyte, paid a moving tribute in an interview at the Stella Orientis Oratory, University of Asia and the Pacific in Pasig, where his remains lay in state.
His remains will be transferred today to the Shrine of St. Therese of the Child Jesus at 20 Newport Boulevard 183, Pasay, near the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3, where there will be a funeral mass before they are interred at the Heritage Memorial Park in Taguig.
Dian said that because of Fr. Joe’s openness to the needs of his former archdiocese, there developed a very robust and warm relationship between his former See and the Work not only in the Philippines but also in Rome. This enabled the Archdiocese of Palo to send so many priests to the University of Navarre in Pamplona, Spain, and to the Roman College in Rome for advanced ecclesiastic studies. As a result, Palo today has more doctors of philosophy in various ecclesiastical fields than any other archdiocese in the country, more in fact than the leading Catholic university in the Philippines.
Love for the Mass
It is not only the number of the doctorates though. The priests’ doctoral training under Opus Dei also helped to deepen their love for the Mass, which is the summit and center of Christian life, the sacrament of penance and reconciliation and the other sacraments, as well as their spirit of loyalty and obedience to their bishop. Some of these priests, according to the archbishop, have since received more challenging assignments within and outside the archdiocese.
On their part, the faithful of Palo joyfully talk of their priests’ more intense zeal for confession after their stay in Pamplona and in Rome. To this zeal is associated the so-called “miracle” of Palo where, in spite of the devastation wrought by the famous typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda in November 2013, which leveled most of Tacloban and unroofed the Palo cathedral, the confessional box inside the cathedral stood unharmed.
Confessions and chats
One long time supernumerary (a married faithful of the Work) who was close to Fr. Joe said the best things he remembered of their friendship were his “confessions” and “chats” with the holy priest. They never failed to transport him from his purely natural surroundings to the supernatural world, he said. It was not easy to look at nor listen to Fr. Joe, even outside the Mass where the priest acts “in persona Christi,” without feeling that he was indeed another Christ—alter Christus, or ipse Christus, Christ himself, as St. Josemaria puts it.
One of those who have read about the famous long lines to the confessional box of St. John Vianney, the Cure d’Ars, and patron saint of parish priests, thought that going to Fr. Joe was probably no different. His zeal for souls made you feel at once that you were in God’s embrace. The founder was the first one to call him “a saint.”
One supernumerary recalls that when Fr. Joe had to undergo surgery for his colon cancer at the university hospital in Navarre in the 1970s, he went to see the founder in Rome. The founder told him not to worry too much because the ailing priest was in God’s hands. “I’ll send him back to you (in the Philippines) nickel-plated (good as new),” he said, and this was exactly what happened. It was during this conversation, according to the supernumerary, that the founder called his priest “a saint.”
A real saint
This was also what those who dealt with him felt and said of him. Myself included. I have been in the presence of, and spoken to, at least a couple of saints in their lifetime—St. John Paul II, whom I met several times during his two visits in the Philippines, once in Rio de Janeiro, and several times in Rome, including at his private chapel in his papal apartment where he invited me and my wife to his Mass, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta whom I met a couple of times, once during a consistory in Rome where all the newly minted cardinals assembled at the Paul VI auditorium showed so much respect for the “living saint.” Being with this holy priest was no different than being with these saints.
Along with his hunger for souls, Fr. Joe gained quite a reputation for his ability to raise money for the Work’s apostolic projects. Faithful to the Lord’s injunction to the Apostles, to “take nothing for the road, no staff, no traveling bag, no bread, no money, no second tunic,” he came to us without anything, except his undimmed faith that he had been called to do God’s Work in the Philippines. His only weapon was prayer and he had a lot of powerful intercessors too. He also had a lot of daring, and did not allow himself to be overwhelmed by “human respect.” Since he was working for God, he did not hesitate to ask anyone and everyone for help, without fear of being repudiated or humiliated. This was what he taught everyone else.
Till dreams fall short
Faithful to St. Josemaria’s advice “to dream until your dreams fall short,” he dreamed big. His biggest dream, of course, was to see God face to face. One of these smaller dreams when he first came was to build a conference center where Opus Dei could hold various formation activities every day of the year—seminars, retreats, etc. “Where are you going to get the money for it?” one supernumerary asked him. “We’ll pray,” he answered. He started looking for a suitable site and finally found a failed citrus farm in a mountainside in Batangas, which he thought would be a good site. He looked for the owner and, once found, told him of his interest in his property and what the Work intended to do with it.
This story is composed from various sources, so there could be certain gaps in it. The owner proved agreeable, and they started haggling on the price. Fr. Joe apparently drove a hard bargain, but in the end they agreed. Now comes the best part. Fr. Joe thanked the owner for being so gracious, but told him there was one small problem—they did not have the money for it. Could they borrow the title of the property, so that they could take out a loan from the bank and pay the owner with it? Again, prayer prevailed.
The Makiling Conference Center became operational in 1972, and remains the Opus Dei’s main conference center close to Manila, where the faithful of the Work from as far as Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Canada, Mexico and the United States come for some of their yearly activities. Another one has come up in Mendez, Tagaytay. Fr. Joe’s approach has become more or less the desired model in acquiring property and funds for the Work’s apostolic projects.
Working for Saxum
At the time of his death, Fr. Joe was working for the completion of “Saxum,” (Latin for Rock), a conference center in the Holy Land, in honor of Blessed Alvaro del Portillo, who succeeded St. Josemaria as head of Opus Dei in 1975, and became its first prelate in 1982, after St. John Paul II erected Opus Dei as the Church’s first personal prelature, and was ordained bishop in 1991. He died on March 23, 1994, a few hours after returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where he celebrated his last Mass at the famous Upper Room where Christ had his Last Supper with his apostles before he was crucified. Don Alvaro was beatified in Madrid on October 12, 2014. St. Josemaria fondly called Don Alvaro “the Rock.”
Mrs. Chatina de Leon, a supernumerary and widow of the late supernumerary Manoling de Leon, recalls that one day Fr. Joe asked her to invite a niece of hers so he could talk to her about helping Saxum. She did as requested, and they sat down for lunch at her residence. From the time they sat down, Fr. Joe started talking about Blessed Alvaro, who had visited the Philippines and inspired several projects for the poor like Dual Tech in Manila, SITE in Cebu, and the family farm schools in Batangas. But the lady seemed to have not heard of Don Alvaro before and had no interest in what the priest was saying. Yet he seemed determined to talk of nothing else. Finally, just to put an end to the monologue, the lady said, “All right, Father, is it all right if I give you half a million?”
After that they began to talk of Saxum.
Later, Chatina asked Fr. Joe, “how did you do all that, Father?”
To which he answered, “I did not do anything, I just did not stop praying.”
Indeed, he was one priest who never stopped praying. Somehow he reminded me of Kierkegaard, who said that to breathe is to pray, and one stops praying only when one stops breathing. Fr. Joe’s last breath was also his deepest prayer. In aeternum.