One pleasant afternoon in November last year, I found myself at the door of the Our Lady of the Abandoned Parish Rectory in Marikina City, expecting to meet Bishop Nolly C. Buco, the current Auxiliary Bishop of Antipolo Diocese.
In a moment, as he approached me, I readied myself in courteous disposition, greeted him
“Good afternoon po, Bishop,” and instantly reached to kiss his hand – to which he gently declined and just settled for a handshake sporting a down-to-earth smile. He beckoned me to “come inside and let’s have some coffee. Good to see you, pais (how we address fellow alumni from the same seminary).”
At once, as my first encounter with him, our personal barriers vanished and I instantly had a good lasting impression of him: simple, humble, and unpretentious in person and many ways.
I asked if “Nolly” was his nickname but he told me it is his given name. Again, this strikes very well with his sheer simplicity, humility, and modesty.
His journey – from his seminary formation to the priesthood – was hatched in humble beginnings. I was deeply touched by his sobering account when he entered, all by himself, the Immaculate Conception Theology Seminary in Bulacan many years back:
“Nakakaiyak isipin, ang dala ko ay isang banig at karton, hindi bag, na pinagsidlan ko ng konting gamit. Ang damit kong dala ay may tatak pa na DSWD kung saan ako ay dating nagtrabaho. Ang sotana ko ay hindi yung pangkaraniwan na ginagamit ng seminarista, kundi yung damit ng Muslim; binigay sa akin ng dating ka-trabaho ko na ang asawa ay nagtrabaho sa Saudi. Kaya, pinagkakantiyawan ako ng kapwa ko seminarista, sabi nila Imam daw ako.”
A lowly probinsyano, born to ordinary farmer parents, and who hails from a 5th class municipality of San Francisco, Southern Leyte, Bishop Nolly’s journey to the episcopate (becoming bishop) is full of paradoxes: (1) while he failed to qualify entering two Theology seminaries, he later ended up earning two doctorate degrees – in Canon Law or JCD and in Juridical Science or JSD; (2) wandering through the long and winding journey, hopping from one seminary to another, from one diocese or bishop-superior to another, and even spending a regency period out of the seminary to work in a government agency, he unexpectedly ended becoming a bishop; and (3) while he struggled with poverty and could hardly afford to pay his seminary fees, still he survived it all to climb the ladder of episcopacy.
Bishop Nolly spent his Elementary and High School studies in his hometown in San Francisco, Southern Leyte. He first spent two years of College (AB Political Science) at St. Joseph College, Maasin, Southern Leyte, before entering Sacred Heart Seminary in Palo, Leyte, where he finished AB Philosophy.
After graduating from the College Seminary, he was expecting to be sent by his Bishop (of Maasin, So. Leyte) to Cebu’s San Carlos Major Seminary – but, as his first travail, he was not included in the allotted number of seminarians to be admitted.
After spending some few months with the diocese, he decided to come to Manila and look for a job. He landed as a Development Officer for the out-of-school youth of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) NCR office, and was assigned in Tanay, Rizal – where he met the late Bishop Protacio Gungon, the first bishop of Antipolo diocese.
In early 1989, after two years with DSWD, he approached Bishop Gungon and expressed his intent to continue his priestly studies. Thereupon, Bp. Gungon recommended him to take the entrance examination at the San Carlos Seminary in Makati City. Again, for the second time, he was deemed not qualified.
Bp. Gungon then advised the young Bp. Nolly to apply at the Immaculate Conception Theology Seminary, Guiguinto, Bulacan, where he spent four years of theological studies.
Bp. Nolly queasily recalls his first year of Theologate at the Bulacan seminary:
“Walang-wala talaga ako noon. Kapos ang pamilya ko at hindi nila ako matulungan financially. Iniitially, ang pinambayad ko ng seminary board-and-lodging ay ang natanggap kong konting separation pay sa DSWD. Kahit wala akong allowance, tuwang-tuwa na ako mabayaran lang ang board-and-lodging ko noon.”
“Mabuti na lang, yung ibang seminarista who were generous, ay binigyan ako ng sapatos, damit (na ipinalit ko sa aking DSWD uniform), at sotana,” Bp. Nolly recounts.
Good enough, on his second year of theologate, a kind priest recommended a generous benefactor who supported him until he finished his Theological formation in 1993.
That year, barely few months after completing his seminary formation, he was ordained priest on October 18, 1993 by his gracious mentor, Bp. Gungon. Throughout his priestly journey, he laboriously pursued several studies – earned his Licentiate in Canon Law (JCL) at UST Manila; obtained his Doctorate in Canon law (JCD), also from UST Manila, in 2004; attended the PhD program in Anthropology at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, Q.C.; and obtained his Doctorate in Juridical Science (JSD) from San Beda University Graduate School of Law.
A priest for 24 years, Bp. Nolly serves as Judicial Vicar (“judge” of the diocesan ecclesiastical court) from 2005 up to now.
On September 8, 2018, he was ordained bishop by the Most Rev. Francisco de Leon, Bishop of Antipolo.
Did he have any inkling he would be appointed bishop, Bp. Nolly unhesitatingly said
“no! Since I started my priestly formation, ang thinking ko sa sarili ay parang ‘second class’ lang ako. Ang gusto ko lang noon ay maging pari at happy na ako.”
Now as bishop, he shares his two insightful reflections:
“Una po, God really works in mysterious ways. Isang misteryo talaga na hindi ko kayang ipaliwanag. Ako’y isang hamak lamang na probinsyano, hindi ko nga akalain na magiging pari ako, at ngayon naging obispo pa. Alam kong napakabigat ang trabaho o tungkulin bilang Obispo. But I am taking it with humility and joy, knowing that God will make things ‘light’ for me. Alam kong magiging magaan ang gawain ko dahil may Diyos.”
“Pangalawa po, I like to attribute my successful journey to Mama Mary’s intercessions. Kasi po, ang patron namin sa aming barangay sa probinsiya ay Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage (Nuestra Senora de la Paz y Buen Viaje). Bago ako umalis sa amin papuntang Manila, ay pinagdasal ko talaga kay Mama Mary na gabayan ako, at kung maaari, gusto ko talagang maging pari. Imagine po, dinala ako dito sa Manila, nagtrabaho sa DSWD at napunta sa Tanay, Rizal, nagkita kami ni Bp. Gungon, at ako’y naging pari, at ngayon ay isang obispo dito sa Antipolo, kung saan ang patron ay si Mama Mary bilang Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage.”
Indeed, as Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, now Vatican’s Prefect for the Congregation of Evangelization, once said:
“In humble servants, God can do and accomplish great things.”