Msgr Ernesto Espiridion
MSGR. ERNESTO A. ESPERIDION: A LAUGHING SAINT
I have yet to see a statuette of a Saint posed in his full divinity clutching his tummy and bursting with laughter. Well, except for Buddha with toddlers cramped in his belly and torso, nothing would come close. Besides, Buddha is never a saint at all but a philosopher, a sacred one though. In the list, a long list actually, where Christian religious icons would predominate church altars, Saints were either martyrs, prophets, blessed leaders, divine persons and those during their ministries would indulge in mystery. They were incorruptible, approximating a sanctified life. Saints were the ideal representation of faith and the true picture of belief. Their seriousness to the cause of faith is without blemish. They are the epitome of devotion and commitment. It is not therefore commonplace to picture a Saint in all his or her solemn and staid appearance. The Saint depicts the somber and vital thread of salvific resolution.
And where will Msgr. Ernesto Espiridion come in if in the final analysis he would later be canonized and would become a Saint? He was an electronic engineer who later would embrace the celibate life of priesthood. But that is too shallow a consideration. During his youth, no one can defeat him in the game of chess, but that does not make him blessed more than Kasparov. There must be something more than meets the eye. Saints must be solemn in their postulant ways. Compared with the sacrifices of Saint Peter, he is a small potato. Both Blessed Lorenzo Ruiz and Calungsod, to include Mother Ignacia of RVM congregation, suffered and die clutching their belief in the Lord and willing to die, never renouncing their faith. Saint Francis discarded wealth and embraced poverty, Saint Paul left soldiering and founded Christianity. The Apostles, all of them, lived and died under the spell of love and forgiveness. But what about Msgr. Espiridion? What made him a saintly material? He is still alive and poking fun with his present illness, convincing his friends to bring their problems through lighter moments. The threats he would received were perceived like treats he would often get. While he found the religious ministry too serious for a radiant world view, he would rather look at the incongruities of reality rather than the stern representation of life. He would rather laugh than cry; guffaw and chuckle than whimper and weep. His sermons were never an episode devoted to shedding tears and sobbing; it was always an occasion for amusement and hilarity.
After the celebration of the Mass, people were relieved of the tension of struggle. Their collective laughter would punctuate the completion of the day. It may for a while promote a respite from a troubled life, a break in a competitive world, but for every laughter, there is liberation of spirit. And it is for this reason that Msgr. Espiridion, all by himself, with faith in man’s capacity to defeat the evil of the world need not disturb the heaven for indulgence but would rather tap humanity’s vast reserve of strength to deal with moral challenges. He used laughter as a prayerful gesture. For him, laughter is not only the best medicine, it is also a tool in defeating wickedness in this world.
Msgr. Espiridion spent the best years of his religious ministry attending to the needs of the prisoners, they who were considered the most dangerous sector of society, those convicted and condemned in the bar of justice. He was in the midst of that community conjoined with hopelessness and desperation. He would find himself while accosting the inmates exposed in extreme anxiety and fear. Prison after all is a community inured in despair and despondency. Here, misery is commonplace, anguish a part of every expression. His presence and this is where his attendance becomes a significant occasion, would redefine and alter the environment. There would be laughter and mirth, there is delight and recreation. Suddenly life pulsates. Cheerfulness replaced the grim exterior of a prisoner. Suddenly, the prisoner becomes man again, becomes a member of humanity, becomes conscious of his self, becomes humane and reasonable, qualities that defies and defeats criminal proclivity.
The prison community was an entity that never merited any significance except when occasional riots occur. It was during this period that Msgr. Espiridion proclaimed that society must have role in improving the lot of the incarcerated community. “Prison is People” said Msgr Espiridion and it became the catch phrase that would reformulate the importance of prison in the context of building Christian communities. No sooner than the Catholic Bishop Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) organized the Episcopal Commission on Prisoners Welfare (ECOPRiW).
The struggle for recognition would not stop with the establishment of ECoPriW, it would even signal Msgr. Espiridion’s crusade to save prisoners from death penalty. Several condemned men were lined up one after another for electrocution and for each occasion, Msgr. Espiridion would painstakingly lobby for a stay of execution until finally, death penalty was technically abolished. Throughout his stint in the prison service, the Chaplain’s quarters, where Msgr. Espiridion had chosen to encamp even after his retirement, were virtually transformed into a half way house for released prisoners. It would not take long for this arrangement when a prison director would recall the quarters privilege from the crusading priest in favor his enterprising personal driver. To date, the historical quarters is virtually a flea market by day, a KTV watering hole at night.
On the whole, Msgr. Esperidion, in his more than three decades of religious ministry in prison has literally changed the outlook of the prison community. He brought humanity back in the heart of thousands of prisoners. He successfully converted them back to their faith not only in Man but also to his Creator. And he would always do it in a zanier way. He transformed faith into something a prisoner could hold on, to sustain his sanity, strengthening his bearing and leading a life away from moral decay. Those who were released found new life. Those left behind are continuing what Msgr Espiridion has for years introduced to the prison community.
And where is this saintly religious man now? He has retired from the prison service where the prison community badly needs him. Laughter for a while departed as soon as he left. He would however show up once in a while to remind his constituency of a funny incident but his health is already deteriorating. His sense of hearing became a problem but for him it is a blessing since he would be able to ignore the noise of depravity and decadence. As soon as medical intervention restored his hearing, he pledged to listen only to jokes and amusing tales.
Msgr. Esperidion is already in his twilight years, twitching, ailing and weak. He is a regular patient of San Juan de Dios Hospital. Sometimes he is bedridden, at times drafting a joke in one corner. His relatives were too busy to take care of him. His friends were nowhere struggling in their respective turf. He would oftentimes find himself nursing his troubled body with his healthy amusing thoughts. The prospects of regaining health are slowly dimming. He never had anything by way of luxury to maintain his health. As a matter of fact, he merely rely on promises since it is cheaper than medicine. He would rather seek his strength in his faith and prayer. He has done after all a monumental task of transforming a sector, a dangerous sector, back to the fold of humanity. The thief beside the Lord upon assuming faith was accompanied to heaven. In the case of Msgr Espiridion, the thieves and murderers and a host of other characters with villainous background, were cajoled to despise their past and accosted, laughingly, back to their senses, back to their community of orientation with faith in their heart. Truly, a remarkable way of projecting what Christian love is all about. Msgr. Ernesto Esperidion, a true follower of the Lord, a Saint in waiting.
By: Venancio J. Tesoro
Office: Penal Superintendent IV
Superintendent, Davao Prison and Penal Farm
Davao del Norte