Goodbye to our spiritual rock

Author’s Note: Rewritten from a previous letter sent in
January 2010.

One of the memories I have as a kid is of watching a video clip on a cassette tape. The first thing I would see is a big cross being held in procession, the first sound I hear is a choir singing the hymn, Atan Bithen de Carmen. At 9 years old, I didn’t really think of what it was I was watching so I never bothered to watch the whole thing. 

What I do remember is that, after the singing, a man with an unfamiliar accent spoke about Padre San Vitores, a name I remembered from reading history books and my Social Studies classes. I forget what he said but, a few years later, I realized that the guy was a representative of the then-Pope, now Saint John Paul II, speaking to our islands’ faithful of the magnitude of the event they were witnessing. The place these remarks were made was the newly elevated Mt. Carmel Cathedral. The date was Jan. 13, 1985, and the occasion was the ordination of Msgr. Tomas Aguon Camacho, the soon-to-be first local-born bishop of the then-new Diocese of Chalan Kanoa.

This special event, held on the same day as San Vitores’ feast of honor and remembrance as the first missionary to bring Christianity to the Marianas, made me recollect some of the things I remember about this individual. This video was not the first instance I ever came across the man we simply called “Bishop,” or “Bishop emeritus” after his retirement seven years ago. I knew him from the first time I asked my parents about a man in scarlet and white whose picture hung on our living room wall for years. The first time I ever met him was as a little kid at a family party as he socialized with the uncle, and seeing him as a familiar face, I shook his hand, unaware that the appropriate gesture was to kiss his hand.

The first Mass I remember attending that he presided over was the funeral of my grandmother a little over 30 years ago. I was always curious about the man and did not get to know him until I became an altar server and over those years, I got more comfortable around his quiet yet strong persona.

At first, at every time I had to serve a Mass for him at our church, I would freeze in place until the master of ceremonies would tell me when to go to pass him his miter or to wash his hands. Whatever butterflies may have been in my system would soon dissipate, just seeing his friendly approach. We served at so many of his Masses that we got over our nervousness.

That experience taught all of us how to be professional in whatever we did. Yet the thing that always made me look at Bishop Camacho in a special way was how, despite his high title, he never forgot that he was still just like us.

He had humble beginnings. He grew up in a big family and helped out at the farm, like we did when we were kids. He had to deal with the growing pains all of us endured, along with all the hardships of surviving when left to be independent. He faced many challenges, even during his time as a seminarian. But through all of the adversities, he never gave up and always kept his focus on what he wanted to accomplish. 

For a dignitary, he came off as very approachable and was always eager to meet new faces, ever open to sharing a cup of coffee with friends and never hesitating to greet children and other souls with his familiar yet gentle “hello.” Many kids my age found it interesting that he could instantly connect their family lineage just by asking who their parents or grandparents were. Chances are, he may have wed them or possibly baptized them.

Throughout the decades he served as a priest and a quarter century as bishop, he kept close to his heart the importance of being there for our diocese’s faithful, especially in times of sorrow. Where some bishops left it to parish priests to officiate funeral rites, Bishop Camacho tried his best to be present at almost every funeral in the diocese, keeping to the island tradition of coming together in times of bereavement—a simple act not only appreciated by the family in mourning but certainly also for the soul he offered prayers for. 

We also shared in his sadness, such as when his mother and sister passed away, and when he officiated over the funerals of beloved priests as Msgr. Ben Martinez, Fr. Gary Bradley, and Fr. Roger Tenorio. Men of faith that the bishop always turned to when he needed advice and counsel, traits we have always looked to him for.

Despite being old-fashioned, he never lost the instinct of staying young-at-heart. Where some people his age barely know how to use a cell phone or even an ATM, he constantly kept in contact with his fellow priests by texting or e-mailing them. For many manhoben, he was the only bishop they have ever known prior to the ordination of Bishop Ryan Jimenez. And when he was with them, no matter how old he got, the heart that beat inside him still remained vibrant and youthful.

Bishop also made it a point throughout the years to promote awareness of good health. He himself stated that throughout the two decades he was bishop, he was rarely sick, even considering common colds as a “minor malfunction.” He braved through many physical difficulties, all with the prayers to God as well as the prayers of the faithful as his strength.

Many times, he stayed steadfast in maintaining peace and harmony in our community by speaking up against vices hurting the community, not just a voice in the community but as a citizen affected by what goes on in our islands.

Traits such as this have, in turn, inspired many to be a better individual for our islands. Some people touched by this man have gone on to be civic leaders, pillars of education, as leaders of our government, and leaders of spiritual faith, taught by the strong yet humble man with the credo, “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (Thy will be done).

The video where the ordination was recorded on is long gone and so is the picture of the bishop emeritus I remember in our living room. However, the respect that many of us, I included, still remains for the man who went from “goatherd to shepherd” who we bid farewell to last week and lay to rest inside the cathedral he helped build when he was just a 12-year-old altar boy. Though our hearts are in mourning, we also look back with pride at the 25 years he served as our spiritual rock of wisdom, counsel, and faith.

As we say goodbye to him, we commemorate not only the memory of the man but his mission that has inspired many generations of Catholics both young and old to stay true to their faith. Though he now belongs to the ages, he will continue to be in our prayers and for those who shared special memories with him, in our hearts and minds.

So now we say to Bishop Camacho “farewell,” but more importantly we say, “Thank you,” as a people well served, in appreciation of a life well lived.

Adios yan si yu’us ma’åse bishop emeritus! Asta ki manali’e hit talo. (Luis John DLG. Castro, Special to the Saipan Tribune)

Castro chairs the Saipan & Northern Islands Municipal Council.

Luis John DLG. Castro (Special to the Saipan Tribune) Author

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