Perhaps, he was the first Filipino “celebrity” priest — a TV star sans the glamor and luxuries of show business. But he was very rich with the charism of preaching.
In the 1980s, Fr. Erasmo “Sonny” Ramirez, OP rose to become a media icon. Unlike celebrities today who are launched as idols, Fr. Sonny became popular because he brought the words of Christ through mass media.
For one, having belonged to the Order of Preachers, Fr. Sonny very well knew the tradition of “Siete Palabras” (Seven Last Words) during the Lenten season. In 1984, he made a breakthrough. He delivered the first Siete Palabras homilies for a TV special of the Channel 9 program “Sharing in the City.” Its producer was Banahaw Broadcast Inc.
Fr. Sonny was a graduate of the esteemed Drama and Theater Arts program of the Colegio de San Juan de Letrán (also alma mater to National Artist for Theater and Literature Rolando Tinio). He could have advised the production of scripted tearjerkers for the Siete Palabras, but instead he and his production staff filmed real-life stories, which captured the essence of Lent.
“The stories always had to be about the corporeal acts of mercy,” Fr. Sonny would recall some years back.
The Lenten special ran for over a decade in “Sharing in the City” until the late 1990s. But the tradition has since been continued by the Dominicans, who have broadcast Siete Palabras every year during Good Friday.
Also, Fr. Sonny would be the face of a priest among the media people in the 1990s. Some dailies would even have this caricature of him, a bulky priest donning the Dominican habit.
He had also served as anchor and producer in Radio Veritas, the Church radio of the Philippines.
Fr. Sonny was the Filipino mass media evangelist. He was there to bring the presence of the Catholic Church when the imported programs of tele-evangelists Billy Graham, Jimmy Swaggart, The 700 Hundred Club and the like were aired on Philippine TV.
Throughout his life, Fr. Sonny was among the most sought-after retreat masters, among the most effective presiders of televised Masses, and even among the most coveted TV program hosts. To cite, his Holy Week retreats filled the Araneta Coliseum with people from all walks of life.
This past week, after the news of his demise, we heard stories of how Fr. Sonny was able to help people find the love and mercy of God. Among them are couples, previously crushed by marital separation; victims of drug addiction; rebel children in the family; as well as convicts.
Members of the “Oasis of Love,” a group Fr. Sonny founded in 1988, are also paying their tributes to the late Dominican priest. Part of this charismatic community are famous show-business personalities, whom Fr. Sonny guided in their quests to witness God’s love in their life.
Fr. Sonny also formed Barkadahan, a youth group where many young men and women had memorable experiences of friendship while serving the Church. Many of them fondly remember Fr. Sonny as a good father, always available to care for his children.
Priests, whom Fr. Sonny had inspired to enter the Holy Orders, say they saw in him an ideal priest whom they wanted to become.
But Fr. Sonny would also be the one to admit that his life story was always beyond himself. His life is a reminder that the Catholic Church in the Philippines always finds ways to bring the message of salvation. In Fr. Sonny’s case, it was through mass media.
Fr. Sonny’s take on preaching became a subject of a research study titled “The Power of Preaching, the Preaching of Power: A Criticism of Popular Preaching in the Philippines.” This study was a form of investigation of the institutional practice of preaching. The study sought to prove that preaching is a political act.
The researcher said: “By employing and interposing the pronouncements of faith and the subtle machinations of secular rhetoric and institutional discipline, preaching is shown to effect/affect the communication of truth, and the creation of belief, on the one hand, as well as the power to control societal life, on the other.”
But one thing is for sure. Fr. Sonny knew that the Gospel he preached always had the power to transform the lives of its listeners in a religious or spiritual way.
When St. Dominic de Guzman founded the Order of Preachers in the 13th century, its sole mission was to preach the message of Jesus for the salvation of souls. Fr. Sonny’s preaching brought many souls back to the loving embrace of God. May St. Dominic and all the Dominican saints welcome Fr. Sonny into eternal life, which he preached in his life as a Dominican.
Jesus Jay Miranda, OP is the secretary-general of the University of Santo Tomas. He holds a doctorate in Educational Leadership and Management (ELM) and teaches at the Graduate School of UST and the ELM Department of the Bro. Andrew Gonzalez, FSC-College of Education of De La Salle University-Manila. Contact him at email@example.com.
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