At the San Carlos Seminary, Teofilo remained modest and withdrawn as he completed his initial formation with the menoresand eventually moved onto the more challenging years of tackling Philosophy and Theology at the seminario mayor. His life followed a routine of prayer, liturgy and studies that seemed to complement his docile personality. The only variations in this daily drill were the holiday breaks he spent with his family back home in Carcar.
During those brief visits, Teofilo made up for his long absence by letting his younger siblings play while he took over the household chores like chopping firewood, fetching water, or helping prepare meals. His youngest sister Remedios, who was a mere toddler when Teofilo left home, would later recall: “At first I did not realize he was my brother because I seldom saw him. But I knew he was going to be a priest because he always wore his sutana(cassock) everywhere he went. And when he came to visit, he did not stay long in the house.
After completing his chores, he went out walking for hours, reaching as far as the mountainside. He spent a lot of time with the farmers and the marginalized people who lived in the outskirts of the city. Whenever he set out, he always brought with him bags of corn, rice or vegetables to give away. Sometimes, he also asked our mother for some medicine, clothes — whatever he could carry.”
Indeed, in the company of the poor and the powerless, Teofilo lost his usual inhibition. He was impassioned and hands-on when responding totheir needs, and showed resourcefulness in the many ways he sought to provide for them. His generosity knew no bounds and he was known toquite literally take the shirt off his back — or more often, the shoes from his feet — if he met a person who had none.
Teofilo’s years in the seminary were marked by many changes happening in the ecclesiastical leadership in Cebu.
The Philippinization of the local Church radically increased the number of Filipino priests in the Diocese. They now constituted the majority inparish administration in contrast to the Spanish era. To the delight of the Cebuanos, Fr. Juan B. Gorordo, one of their own, succeeded Bishop Thomas Hendrick in 1910 as Bishop of Cebu. He served the Diocese faithfully until 1931, when he succumbed to ill health. Bishop Gabriel Reyes took possession of the Diocese in 1934.
On April 28, 1936, two years after Bishop Reyes’ assumption, Cebu was elevated into an Archdiocese by Pope Pius XI. Under the new MetropolitanProvince of the Santísimo Nombre de Jesus were the suffragan dioceses of Jaro, Calbayog, Zamboanga, Bacolod, and Cagayan de Oro.
Moreover, the world itself was also changing around him. World War II erupted in Europe in 1939 with Germany waging war against Poland,France and the British Empire. Closer to home, Imperial Japan had been engaged in a protracted war with China. The Philippines was still underAmerican rule and it was only a matter of time before the country would be dragged into the bloody fray. The inevitable came with the bombing ofPearl Harbor on December 8, 1941. Within ten hours of the attack, the Philippine Islands was invaded by Japan, with Cebu becoming one of its major points of operation.
The Second World War caused great physical, social and economic dislocation in the new Archdiocese. Many old churches were reduced to rubble. Little was left of the Cathedral, which had just been embellished for the 20th Sacerdotal Anniversary of Archbishop Gorordo in 1940.
Teofilo was in the process of completing his theological studies at the Seminario Mayor de San Carlos when World War II broke out. As expected, with war came poverty, suffering, injustice and persecution. It was an especially dangerous time for able-bodied men as any male old enough to bear arms was subject to suspicion and harassment by the Japanese soldiers, especially since the Cebuano guerilla movement was rapidly gaining force. But the seminarian never went underground; he did not even stop wearing his white sutanawhen going out on his mercy
missions for the poor. As his sister Remedios recalls: “Some people have told him not to go around in his cassock because it makes him a moving
target for snipers. But he would always say, ‘Then how will people know I am a priest? To have a priest with them gives them hope and strength.
Despite the odds, Teofilo was ordained priest on December 14, 1941. The ordination was officiated by Archbishop Gabriel M. Reyes at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Cebu. Due to the precarious situation, he was initially sent to assist his brother and mentor, Fr. Diosdado Camomot, at his parish in San Fernando, a relatively quiet municipality next to their hometown of Carcar.
His training as parochial vicar during the war exposed him to the harsh realities of survival, all the more strengthening his inner conviction for a lifetime of service to the oppressed. He was not an eloquent preacher but he worked very hard in crafting his homilies, writing them down with his distinct broad, heavy strokes — a habit he continued throughout his ministry and is attested to by the volumes of sheets, notebooks and diaries he left behind. He was also a persevering confessor who waited patiently for penitents who wished to be reconciled with God, sitting in the confession box for hours before and after every Mass.
True to his name, Teofilo proved himself to be the love of God made visible. Many years later, in the twilight of his life, he would articulate this unique and transformative relationship with the Divine in an undated manuscript:
Let us keep our heart from all that can defile it, because it is the source of life. Let us keep ourselves free from impurities from which cometh [the] death of our souls, the end of saintliness and the end of all virtues.
It is the quest of the human heart to seek constantly after things that may render it happy; but if it seeks them from creatures, how much so ever acquired, it will never be satisfied with them but if it seeks God alone…
In 1943, the 29-year-old Fr. Teofilo Camomot was given his first assignment as parish priest at Santa Teresa de Avila in Talisay. (Interestingly, the returning American forces made their historic landing on the beaches of Talisay on March 26, 1945, signaling the eventual surrender of the Japanese forces in Cebu.) It was a challenging appointment for the young priest, as parishioners were yet to recover from the trauma and destruction left by the war. Many of them still suffered from the bitter loss of loved ones, of property, of dignity… and for some, of their very faith.
When he arrived, Talisay was all but leveled to the ground by the relentless bombing of the liberation forces, so his first task was to rebuild the parish rectory and to reconstruct a place of worship for his scattered flock. His gentle and amiable ways immediately won the affection of his parishioners and soon, a chapel with a makeshift convent were erected amidst the ruins.
Fr. Camomot stayed in Talisay for 12 fruitful years. Within this time, he engaged himself in the tireless pursuit of souls through pastoral and evangelical work. He reached out to everyone, whether of the same faith or outside it. (A considerable percentage of the population had converted to the Philippine Independent Church after the revolution against Spain but according to his previous biographical accounts, the zealous Fr. Camomot was instrumental in bringing many of them back to the Catholic fold.)
In the early years of his assignment, the youthful and energetic priest regularly visited his parishioners, whether they lived around the town proper or in the remotest barrios on the mountaintops. These personal encounters with the souls under his care became invaluable tool in gaining their trust and their cooperation. As described by a researcher: “In his first visit, he guided the family to realize the grace of God [for] making them survive the dark days of the Japanese Occupation and favored them to enjoy the peace of a liberated nation. He then would inspire them to turn to God, for God is always pleased with grateful people.
This desire to gain an intimate knowledge of his flock in order to serve them better did not go unnoticed. Many years later, one of his former parishioners would recall: “He knew almost all the people in his parish because he visited even those who were living very far away, to think that he was alone to do all the parish work.
In the church, he also doubled his efforts in making liturgical services available to the most number of people and encouraged the laity to participate in the various organizations and movements initiated by the parish. More masses were added to the regular daily schedule particularly in the early evening, for the benefit of students and the working folk. He promoted the “dawn rosary” and made himself available at the confessional as early as 4 am. He likewise acted as spiritual director to several churchbased groups, such as the Apostolado de la Oracion(Apostleship of Prayer), the Legion of Mary, the Hijas de Maria(Children of Mary), the Adoracion Nocturna(Evening Prayer Vigil group), and the Catholic Women’s League.
His brother Elpidio attests to Teofilo’s dedication to his priestly duties:
“He loved the poor so much that he gave whatever he had to those who asked for help. His being kind, merciful and generous, especially to the poor, increased when he was in the active ministry of the Roman Catholic priesthood.
Similarly, Lourdes Villahermosa, an active church volunteer in Talisay, remembers him thus: “He was so humble that he lived a life of hard work and service to all people. He was very much concerned about the spiritual and physical welfare of all, to the point of depriving and sacrificing himself so that others may live. He gave direction to the spiritual life of many persons in all the parishes where he was assigned… He brought in new dimensions of Christian charity by revitalizing the doctrine of love for our neighbors. Fearless and with a living faith, he shook the conscience of those who counted themselves as belonging to the social strata of distinction, who apparently showed no concern for the lowly or for those whom society did not notice at all. He emphasized that it is in the poor that Jesus wants to be loved and served.
His generosity was legendary. No one who approached him for help ever went away empty-handed. “Padre Lolong” (as he was fondly called by his parishioners) was known to be quick to dig his hand into his pocket and give away whatever he could draw from it. When one pocket was empty, he would reach into the other and do the same. And when his personal resources were exhausted, he would invite others to provide — sometimes, even unwittingly. One account recalls how Fr. Camomot encouraged his parishioners to donate some rice, which the townsfolk did quite munificently thinking it was for the convent. Later, his kitchen staff grudgingly reported that the priest asked them to divide the collected grain into several plastic bags, which he later distributed to impoverished communities in the mountains. In the end, hardly anything was left for the convent pantry.
Anecdotes about Fr. Camomot always abound with tales of selflessness and total detachment to material possessions. Although he was always neat and well groomed, his clothes were usually worn-out and his shoes, scuffed. This was for the simple reason that he habitually gave his personal things away. One such account tells us:
One day, passing by the house in Cebu City, my wife and I noticed that his [Camomot] socks had big holes in them. And I exclaimed: “What, are you wearing these in your visit to Rome?” And he had a torn undershirt too. We rushed to buy him these and other little needs. And what happened? He reached Rome — as in, nay, as was: he had given to the pier boys in Cebu the new things we’d bought!
In another instance, Fr. Camomot was said to have been making his usual round of sick calls and home visits when he saw a tuba-gatherer perched on top of a coconut tree. The man was wearing shabby pants that had more holes than cloth in them. Good-naturedly, the priest summoned the fellow to come down and when he did, he reached inside hissutana,took off his own pants and gave them to the man. “You can have these,” he said to the bewildered man and went on his way.
Such was his largesse that it was not surprising he became an easy target for beggars, conmen, even thieves. Before the crack of dawn, a long line of indigents would queue at the parish door begging for alms, food or medicine. Amongst them would also be jobless and indolent men who went on the guise of need but used the money for drinking and gambling instead. His siblings — particularly his elder sister, Hedeliza — tried to warn him against such abusive people but to no avail. The priest would always reason out: “Ang mangingilad kausa ra mangilad. Ug ang tawo dili mangilad pirmi.(A charlatan will only cheat you once. People can’t be cheating you all the
time.)” Such was his faith in the inherent goodness of man.
It was this same sister who protectively watched over her younger brother during the times he was sick, yet continued to attend to the crowd of indigents asking for help. Despite her protestations, Padre Lolong always found a way to get up and leave his room, sometimes chiding her as he ministered to his people despite his illness.
Fr. Camomot enjoyed over a decade of quiet existence in Talisay under the gaze of its patroness, St. Teresa of Avila, for whom he developed lifelong fidelity and esteem. It was in this parish that he started to develop an attraction toward Carmelite spirituality — a deep devotion that would be visible throughout his life.
Despite being a diocesan priest, Fr. Camomot was very much animated by the charism of Carmel. There are no known existing documents or concrete primary references on how he was first introduced to the Carmelites, but we can derive pearls of information from the history of how the Order of Discalced Carmelites (OCD) was introduced to the Philippines and the manner in which it drew members of the clergy into its fold as “tertiary priests”. It would be interesting to note that Fr. Camomot figured prominently in the growth of the order’s chapter for priests:
Cebu is the cradle of Christianity in Asia. Its Carmel, dedicated to St. Therese, was founded on May 27, 1949, by Mother Mary of Jesus, OCD. The following year, on July 16, 1950, the same Mother Mary organized the TOCD, and then Archbishop Julio Rosales received into the Third Order his secretary, Fr. Epifanio Surban (later bishop of Dumaguete), the chancellor, Fr. Luis Ceballos, Gorgonia Niere, Concepcion Borromeo, Venestrano Borromeo, Ester Borromeo, Tomasa Jurado and others.
The following year, Archbishop Julio Rosales himself became a member with Msgr. Cesar Alcoseba, Fr. Sergio Alfafara and Fr. Teofilo Camomot.
In 1952, Fr. Silverio of St. Teresa, Prior General of the Teresian Carmelite Order, appointed Fr. Mark Horan of the Immaculate Conception, from the Anglo-Irish Province as Apostolic Visitator to the Carmelite nuns in the Philippines. Fr. Horan also became the first National Director of the Carmelite Third Order in the Philippines.
The following years saw more priests joining the Secular Order, and their number was even bolstered when a group of seminarians who had made their profession as Secular Carmelites were ordained priests. This led to the establishment of the St. Elias Chapter for priests with Fr. Teofilo Camomot as prior in 1955.
The article further states that throughout his life, Fr. Camomot “served other dioceses afterwards but remained a Carmelite at heart”. This would be apparent on how, throughout his life, he would use the symbols and motto of Carmel to herald his ascent to higher office within two months of becoming prior of the secular priests.
The fruits of Fr. Camomot’s pastoral labor and the respect that his parishioners held for him did not escape the notice of church authorities. They saw in this humble, self-effacing man a beacon of light that would bring more people closer to God through his shining example. So they decided to officially proclaim him as a “herald of faith… a steward of grace… a defender of the faith” and successor to the Apostles. They decided to ordain him Bishop.