MANILA—Fr. Fernando Suarez was cruising to his third victory Tuesday afternoon despite a visibly weaker serve.
Priests competing in his eponymous annual tennis tournament didn’t read much into it until he collapsed at the upscale Alabang Country Club in Muntinlupa City.
Suarez, credited for healing tycoons and raising people from the dead, passed away doing something he loved most—playing tennis—just days short of his 53rd birthday.
His death came nearly 2 months after a Vatican inquiry cleared him in a sex abuse complaint lodged by 2 seminarians, a case that prompted several dioceses to ban him.
“The Lord took him at a very good time, in God’s own timing... He’s been vindicated,” Lourdes “Deedee” Siytangco, Suarez’s longtime friend, told ABS-CBN News.
The ruling from Rome did not necessarily put to rest issues persistently thrown against Suarez—questions about his healing ministry, his supposedly extravagant lifestyle, and tendency to gravitate toward the rich and the powerful.
None of this was true, he told this reporter in a lengthy interview 3 weeks ago, brushing aside criticisms that his healing power, for instance, allegedly “came from the devil.”
Suarez insisted that bishops should now lift their ban on his healing ministry because of the Vatican ruling.
A priest from one of these dioceses later told ABS-CBN News that the prohibition would remain, suggesting there’s more to Suarez’s activities that still needed to be cleared up.
“As an act of charity,” the priest said, “we will remain silent on this.”
Born to a poor family in Taal, Batangas in 1967, Suarez’s journey to the priesthood was a bit complicated.
A chemistry graduate, he later jumped from one seminary to another for unclear reasons, until he found a home in a relatively new congregation in Ottawa, Canada. He was ordained in 2002 at age 35.
Controversies came soon after he began his healing ministry, a gift he discovered when, as a 16 year old, he supposedly “cured” a paralyzed beggar outside a church in Manila.
Later, he often told the story of a woman in Canada who supposedly came back to life after he prayed over her.
“Tatanggalin na ang mga mata e... Nabuhay din,” he earlier told ABS-CBN News, saying “3 to 4” people had risen from the dead after he said a prayer for them throughout his ministry.
(Just as the eyes were about to be taken out, the dead came back to life.)
Word of Suarez’s gift spread quickly, attracting hundreds of believers desperate for cure in his healing masses.
Among them were powerful businessmen and politicians, who later became his friends and benefactors.
But Suarez’s growing popularity also attracted critics, who questioned his closeness with the rich and the powerful.
“Hindi ko naman kasalanan na maging kaibigan ko sila. Mabubuti rin naman silang mga tao. Saka tao rin naman sila. Nangangailangan din sila ng spirituality,” he said in the Jan. 13 interview.
(It's not my fault they're my friends. They're good people too. They're also humans who need spirituality.)
Siytangco, who doubled as Suarez’s spokeswoman and a board member of his charity foundation, was less diplomatic.
“Inggit... It’s really pure inggit,” she said, noting that Suarez’s healing ministry attracted a huge following.
(Envy... It's really pure envy.)
It didn’t help that Suarez was also known for his trips to watch high-profile tennis tournaments abroad, such as the French Open in Paris, an issue he sought to clarify in January.
Expenses were shouldered by an international tennis official who was healed and later converted to Catholicism, he said.
“One thing with father was he didn’t keep anything for himself,” said Siytangco recalling how he would even take off his tennis shirt and give it to a fellow priest who asked for it.
“These are priests who’d never played in Ayala Alabang. Their parish priest don’t take care of them. Their bishops don’t take care of them.”
Suarez’s friendship with rich people also allowed him to gather donations for those in need through his Missionaries of Mary Mother of the Poor foundation, she said.
But no controversy was perhaps more painful to the priest than the sex abuse case filed against him in 2014.
It took nearly 6 years before the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ruled that the priest had been “falsely accused.”
“A big redemption on my part,” he said in January.
“Kung alam mo lang what I went through,” he added and for which, Siytangco said, Suarez’s critics should pray for forgiveness.
(If you only knew what I went through.)