BALTIMORE, Md. - The throng of worshippers, many lured by the promise of relief from their varied ailments and others curious to see a priest reputed to have a miraculous touch, filled every available space at the St. Anthony de Padua church marking the start of the Filipino-American community’s Lenten observance in Metro DC.
Fr. Fernando Suarez conducted three days of “healing masses” in Washington DC and Maryland, organized by the Virginia-based Migrant Heritage Commission (MHC). The “Misa ng Bayan” in Baltimore last March 3 was culmination of the healing sessions that drew easily over a thousand people from as far away as New Jersey in the north to Virginia Beach in the south.
Fr. Suarez, 45, is renowned for his alleged healing powers (that was reportedly first manifested when he was 16 years old in Taal, Batangas). He was ordained as a priest in 2002 under the religious order of the Companions of the Cross in Ontario, Canada.
In his 40-minute homily, he repeatedly stressed that he was merely a “vessel” and only people of deep faith can be healed, through prayers and strict obedience to Christ’s teachings.
Noting the huge crowd, he admonished them not to wait to be afflicted with disease or personal crisis to rediscover God, a message that struck the Lenten theme of penance and reconciliation. He warned the audience, half in jest, that they could get cancer from engaging in too much “tsismis” and “paninira”.
This was the 7th and biggest staging of the Misa ng Bayan, an annual event originally conceived to gather new immigrants from the Philippines and the Fil-Am community in Metro DC.
“Healing does not always work at the physical level,” MHC executive director Arnedo Valera said in a speech before the start of the Mass. “Sometimes it does not work at all because doubts and desperation. Some resign themselves to ailment without knowing they can have the power to overcome it with God.”
Organizers had tried to restrict the size of the crowd, installing a giant TV screen in the church’s basement, but they were nonetheless overwhelmed. Soon, even the middle aisle had to be partly filled with folding chairs to accommodate the elderly and sick who arrived late.
Fortunately, by the time the Baltimore police swung over apparently to check on fire code violation by the overflow crowd, the 3-hour Misa ng Bayan was finished.
Fr. Suarez continued his healing session in the church’s basement. Some mysteriously blacked out, an apparently common occurrence. Volunteers stood behind the echelon of people, catching those who collapse and gingerly laying them on the floor.
“Parang may ispiritu na pumasok – biglang tumalab,” (it’s as if a spirit entered my body and I immediately felt it), said Baltimore resident Bobby Factoran. The husband of a Filipino teacher from Cebu, he confided that he’s attended a similar session by another “healing priest” in the province.
“Pangalawang beses ko na ito. Yung una talagang tulog ako pero ito few seconds lang,” (This is my second time. The first one I was really knocked out but this time it was just a few seconds), he told the Manila Mail.
One man held a cellphone and asked Fr. Suarez to heal a relative who was listening on the phone.
But for Luis Florendo, a Baltimore community leader, it was the first time. “I told him I had a pain in my stomach and he touched it. I just felt being pushed, not by him but I just felt a force on my stomach and I fell down,” he recounted.
“I could hear everything that was going on around me but I just couldn’t move,” Florendo explained.
“There was a heaviness that made me lie down and when I got up I was fine. That’s the first time that’s ever happened to me,” he added, “I’ve never experienced a healing mass or the laying of the hands. It was a very nice experience.”
Even Dr. Reynaldo Lee-Llacer of Potomac, Maryland, who’s practiced medicine for more than half a century, could not give a logical explanation to what he witnessed. “There is no logic, only individual beliefs. I cannot explain the power of God,” he averred.
He recounted a recent episode when he was suddenly awakened by a premonition that something had happened to his son Manuel. He asked his wife to call their son who it turned out had just figured in a mishap near Richmond, Virginia.
“I cannot explain that. I’m a scientist, a physician but I cannot explain it,” Dr. Lee-Llacer said.
“There are a lot of things in this world that we cannot explain,” he added, “Faith is the belief of the impossible. I believe in the ultimate goodness of God.”