By Theresa Carson
For the gregarious Divine Word Father Paul Aquino, one of three men ordained to the priesthood on Saturday, silence is key to his vocation.
A musician by profession, a gifted singer and the youngest of his parents’ four sons, Father Aquino is not naturally given to silence. Born in San Nicolas, Pangasinan, Philippines, he first joined the Society of the Divine Word at age 16 and enrolled in the Society of the Divine Word’s Christ the King Mission Seminary in Quezon City, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1995.
Shortly thereafter, he left the seminary yet stayed in touch with his Divine Word teachers and classmates who went on to the novitiate. He served as lector, organist and choir conductor for the lay choir and choir conductor for the seminarians at Christ the King Mission Seminary. As such, he was invited to conduct the choir during vows ceremonies and ordinations.
A self-taught musician, he earned another bachelor’s degree— in music—from the University of the Philippines and worked as a choir director and private music teacher.
Before returning to the Society of the Divine Word, he also worked with special-needs children while pursuing a master’s degree in psychology with an emphasis in child and family development from Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines.
He taught the children how to count and spell while they also focused on good nutrition, hygiene and fine motor skills.
"I can see the teacher in me in all aspects of my life," he said. In fact, the theme of education has been constant throughout his life. Both his father and mother taught school and instilled the value of education in their sons. As a layman, Father Aquino also taught voice and piano at The British School in Manila, the University of the Philippines and other schools.
During that time, he not only made music, but he avoided the quiet. He surrounded himself with friends’ voices, mellifluous notes from instruments, and music on his car radio.
"Every time I came to silence, that call [to the priesthood] came to mind," he said. "That went on for four or five years. I stopped going to ordinations because I was so moved."
The turning point came when he attended an ordination in 2008. He said, "I surrendered and asked, ‘What do you want for me?’" More than a decade after leaving the seminary, he returned to formation with the Society of the Divine Word. In early 2010, he began studies at Catholic Theological Union (CTU) in Chicago and moved to Techny for his novitiate in 2011.
He said his priesthood was 25 years in the making. His father journeyed with him—a gift that seemed an improbability when the young Paul Aquino was a child. His father was a practicing Methodist. Mr. Aquino had lost his mother when he was eight years old. His aunt who cared for him sent him to a Methodist school. Although he was baptized into the Catholic faith as an infant and married a woman who practiced the faith, he felt indebted to his second religion.
When Father Aquino was eight, he almost found himself in a similar situation. One day, Mr. Aquino was rushed to the hospital with hypertension. The prognosis was not good. As a family, the Aquinos prayed. Fortunately, family history did not repeat itself. Decades later, when Mr. Aquino’s youngest son entered the seminary, he returned to the Catholic Church.
As part of Father Aquino’s formation, he went to Portland, Maine, for his clinical pastoral education. At Mercy Hospital in Portland, he had hands-on experience as a hospital chaplain.
Not only did he live in a city where he had never been before, but he also lived at the deanery of an Episcopal Church. "I wanted to challenge myself, to go to a place that was new to me, where I didn’t know anyone," he said.
He later fulfilled his Cross-Cultural Training Program at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, the only Catholic parish in Alice Springs, Australia. The town is surrounded by desert with its nearest neighboring towns 300 miles to the north and 500 miles to the south. The population numbers about 28,000 people with about a fifth being aboriginal. The parish is multicultural, made up of people of African, Filipino, Indian, Island Pacific and European backgrounds.
While there, he helped facilitate Bible study, worked with the ladies who cleaned the church, visited prison inmates, helped with music, trained altar servers, and visited a local nursing home and the aboriginal community, often traveling a dirt road for one to three hours at a time. He "practiced the ministry of presence" as he called it. "They appreciated the presence of a religious coming for Mass," he said.
Throughout those many experiences, Father Aquino’s father was with him in spirit, encouraging and supporting his son through correspondence. While members of Father Aquino’s family celebrated the priest’s ordination with him, this time his father could be with him in spirit but not body or voice. The day after the younger Aquino was accepted for perpetual vows and priestly ordination, his father passed away.
Father Aquino is grateful, though, for the 41 years that he had with his father on earth. "My gratitude is even greater than my sorrow," he said.
Lessons learned during that long path to the priesthood have stayed with him. He tries to go to the chapel and practice silence for an hour a day. His desire for silence intensified when he was preparing for the 30-day retreat in the novitiate, he said.
"‘The unexamined life is not worth living’: that thought stuck in my mind," he said. "I also speak my mind to God. I ask, ‘What are you telling me to do?’ Most of the time, I sit. I pray words of gratitude and examine what I did during the day."
As a seminarian, Father Aquino sang in the parish choir at St. Thomas the Apostle parish in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. He left an impression on the pastor, who personally invited him to serve as a deacon at the parish. From October to May, Father Aquino did just that. He will serve his first assignment as a priest in the U.S. Southern Province.
"I tend to be very busy all the time," he said. "Silence connects me back to God in a practical way. I try to organize my thoughts. It is in silence that God speaks, and being quiet is an integral part of my life."