Archimandrite Vincentius (Escarcha) is the senior Orthodox priest in the Exarchate of the Philippines, Orthodox Metropolitanate of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia.
Fr. Vincentius (otherwise known as Fra. Soriano "MAMO" Pastrana Escarcha) was born of Catholic parents in September, 1939 in Cataingan, Masbate. He was baptized and reared in the same religion. At an early age, he received an informal catechism which consisted in reciting prayers and the commandments. Thus, at the age of twelve, he frequented the church, to say the rosary. in reality, although he was a pious boy at that time, yet he was ignorant of the Catholic doctrine.
His association with the Mother of God came about when the parish priest of P.V. Corpus, their hometown, once introduced a novena in honor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. On that occasion, the picture of the Mother of Christ attracted his boyish heart so much that he yearned to possess such a picture. Forthwith, his grandfather provided him with it "I loved the picture of our Lady so much and held it as the most beautiful picture I ever saw." He enthroned it in his room and from that time on, it became the center of his attention. "I acquired the habit of praying often before the picture. I even used to leave a votive lamp burning before it every Wednesday."
Departure from the Roman Catholic Church
His admiration for the Lady of Perpetual Help abruptly came to an end when at the age of fifteen, he got acquainted with a Protestant friend who by citing verses from the Bible, convinced him that all Catholic priests were wrong. So, one Sunday morning, his family and friends were shocked to see him going to a nearby Presbyterian church.
His association with the Presbyterians was short-lived for six months later, after a brief acquaintance with the Minister of the Seventh-Day Adventist, he was convinced that Adventism was the true religion. As a Seventh Day Adventist, 'I believed the Pope to be the devil himself and the priests his rah-rah boys in long robes. '
'Since then, I denied the existence of the human soul and the everlasting fire of hell, I started to Sanctify Saturday as the true Sabbath. I closed my mouth to cigarettes (I still do) and from all foods forbidden in the book of Leviticus. I was so well instructed in the religion that the protestation of my parents to renounce what I professed, were all in vain. In fact, my mother one day came home with priests - friends in town in order to talk me out of my 'religious nonsense.' They failed. '
Sometime later, an American pastor promised to help him get a purely Protestant education. But his parents did not accede to his plan to go with the American Pastor, so he planned to run away from home. However, on the night of his departure, he missed something in the room which prompted him to return to look for it in the waste basket but instead 'I was surprised to fmd there the un crumpled picture of Our Lady of Perpetual help which my grandfather gave me two years ago.'
'I just could not understand how the picture got there for on the day I joined the Presbyterians, I burned all my collections. At the sight of the picture, though, I was reminded of my past life as a Catholic and there was another thought that rushed to my mind - that of studying first the doctrines of all religious denominations before giving my full service to the Adventist Church. ' That night, he did not run away from home.
Return to Roman Catholicism
'Sometime later, I chanced upon an advertisement of the Knights of Columbus which offered a free pamphlet on the Catholic Church. That started me off on a correspondence course on Catholicism given free by the Knights of Columbus. Finally, on June 27, 1956, after some months of investigation, I made the decision which I never thought I would ever make - to return to the Roman Catholic fold. My parish priest was glad to readmit me. Moreover, it is no little thing for me to discover later that the day I returned to the Catholic faith was the feast day of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. '
'Mamo Escarcha,' according to the Vinculum, the mouthpiece of the Archdiocesan Major Seminary of Naga, on its ordination issue, 1970, 'is the most prepared for parish life among those who were ordained priest that year. Fr. Escarcha is well-known in the seminary for his deep piety and unbreakable word of honor. He is a sincere, serious and simple man. Also, he is a conscientious researcher and has a penchant for history, anthropology and is an avid collector of antiques. He is an ardent student of Filipino writings especially of Mangyan. On these aspects, he presented an exhibit two years ago in the Ateneo.'
Reverend Fr. Soriano Escarcha finished Philosophy and Theology at the Holy Rosary Major Seminary in Naga City, Camarines Sur. He was ordained priest on April 21, 1970.
Desire for Monasticism
Two weeks after his ordination, he received his first assignment as Associate Pastor of Cataingan Parish. As a priest, however, he longed for the joy of monastic life which has never been satiated in the parish nor in the seminary. His meditation in the subject goaded him to found a semi-monastic congregation. He approached the bishop and explained to him his problems and his plans which luckily, the bishop approved. In addition, the bishop provided him a two-hectare lot for the purpose.
On a hilly portion of Bajada, three kilometers northwest of Cataingan municipality, once stood a small Roman Catholic monastery with its chapel. This was the home of Fr. Soriano Escarcha's Community of monastics who committed themselves to Christ through His blessed Mother and took the MCO (Oblates of the Mother of Christ) as their family name.
The community was started on June 27, 1973 by Fr. Vincentius "to satisfy my earnest desire for the contemplative life." For four years, Fr. Vincentius lived the life of a hermit until a number of men joined his life style, whose primary aim is personal sanctification through prayer and contemplation.
When a visitor comes to that monastery chapel at Bajada, he may be struck by the silence and simplicity of the place. Since it was founded, the place has created an "atmosphere of prayer." Three times a day, the bell rings to summon the semi-monastic community for the Liturgy. Morning, noon and evening, the Liturgy is a time of celebration which gives time to the community to sing together or to be penetrated by the Word of God, by being there. The great emphasis on prayer won for the monastery the term "powerhouse of prayer. "
The essential service to Christ to which the community were committed is expressed in the vows of celibacy, community of goods and acceptance of an authority. The brothers renounce sex and marriage to give themselves entirely to him. Community of goods is taken to mean as sharing of both material and spiritual bounty between the monastics and the community at large. The brothers work at least four hours daily to support themselves. Their diet consists mainly of vegetables with meat and fish as appetizers. Wine and cigarettes are absolutely forbidden as part of their oblation. This one from Fr. Escarcha's pamphlet should bother everybody, including priests: Oblate Brothers "have to work at least four hours a day to support themselves. Their policy is never to molest people for food as much as possible." The brothers see the Bishop of the diocese as their ecclesiastical superior and supervisor.
The Oblates' aim at sanctification is not self-centered. Half of their day each Sunday was spent in barrios or in some sectors of the town to bring to the people the "atmosphere of prayer."
According to Dr. Eduardo Mrica, OSB, Abbot of the Benedictines in Manila and an authority on Benedictine spirituality, the Oblates of the Mother of Christ founded by Fr. Vincentius, was Benedictine because it follows the way of life set up by St. Benedict in his Holy Rule: viz. prayer, work and study. Besides the vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and conversion of manners, the MCO monks take a special vow of fidelity to the community at all times.
With the help of the lay women of Cataingan which was organized and whom he calls the Oblates, Reverend Escarcha was able to realize his plan of building the Mission Center Oblates - a name which they dropped in 1977 and later changed to the Oblates of the Mother of Christ (MCO). They were mostly poor and only two of them were well-off financially, yet all of them have contributed their bit to the maintenance of the mission. Rev. Escarcha taught them the Catholic faith, Patristic spirituality, Bible and Liturgy and trained them to be leaders. The women rendered Bible services every Sunday and teach Catechism in the parish.
Attraction to Greek Orthodoxy
From his early boyhood Fr. Vincentius has been attracted to the Greek Church and all through the years of his manhood and maturity he has been fascinated by the beauty of the Greek Orthodox or Eastern Church spirituality.
In his boyhood, he learned to read and write Greek by self study at the age of 13 and 14. At sixteen, he was wondering if there was such a thing as 'Iglesia Apostolica Griega' basing his idea upon the Roman Church, i.e. 'If there is what we call Iglesia Apostolica Romana why should there be not an Iglesia Apostolica Griega? The Apostle Paul preached in Greece and wrote his Epistles to the Greek communities of Corinth, Ephesus, Thessalonica, Galatia, etc. and the original New Testament was written in Greek not in Latin. What had happened to the people evangelized by Paul? Weren't there he any remnant?'
Such were the puzzles of an innocent High School student in his teens. In later years, when he was in the seminary preparing for priesthood, he came to know that there exists the so called 'Iglesia Apostolica Griega' known as the Greek Orthodox Church or still better the Eastern Catholic Church. tUs fascination prevailed when his curiosity was arouse. Most of the time hungering for the truth, he spent his leisure hours in libraries reading books on Eastern Catholic and the Orthodox Church aside from his personal researches on monasticism. Every article about the Eastern Orthodox Christians was 'voraciously devoured' by his curious mind until he was greatly influenced by what he had been reading.
These Eastern influences automatically came out after he had founded the monastic communities both for men and women in Bajada. Unknown to his disciples, he moulded and guided them in the principles of Eastern mysticism and the Bajada liturgy was strangely shrouded with Byzantine elements like the use of 'real' bread, communion in both species, red purificator, baptism by immersion, etc. .
Reception into the Orthodox Church
For 16 years, Fr. Vincentius' foundation has been misunderstood most of the time by the diocesan hierarchy. In spite of all his efforts to conform himself and his community to the Roman Catholic hierarchy he was still not appreciated. All his efforts were futile and hopeless until he finally came to realize that God called him to show that salvation is not a monopoly of the Roman Church because there is such a thing as Holy Catholic and Apostolic Greek Church to where he and his disciples belong.
He decided to affiliate his foundation to the Greek Orthodox Church and this was finally realized in the year 1990 after a long period of catechetical instructions on orthodoxy. On April 20, 1990, Friday, a simple but great historic event in the Philippine Orthodoxy took place in the house of Sir Alexander Adamson, then Consul General of Greece. At 8:00 a.m. Metropolitan Dionysios of New Zealand, Exarch of the Philippines and of the Far East officially accepted into the Holy Orthodox Church Fr. Vincentius and his twelve other companions by the Solemn Rite of Chrismation. The next day, April 21, 1990 Fr. Vincentius celebrated his first Divine Liturgy as an Orthodox priest which coincided with the 20th anniversary of his priesthood.
The Divine Liturgy was celebrated in the presence of His Eminence, Metropolitan Dionysios and His Vicar Archimandrite Sotiros and the Australian Archdeacon Fr. John Chryssavgis. Then on April 22, 1990, Second Sunday of Easter, Fr. Vincentius concelebrated with Metropolitan Dionysios and companions at the Greek Orthodox Parish of St. George in Makati, Metro Manila.
Now Fr. Vincentius hails as the first Filipino Greek Orthodox priest in the Philippines and that honor and privilege can never be taken away from him now and forever.