It’s just a few minutes after six o’ clock at the St. Francis de Sales parish church on Burnaby’s Balmoral Street, and people from all walks of life have already filled the place for the 7 p.m. healing mass by the world-famous Catholic priest Fr. Fernando Suarez.
At the main entrance to the church, complaints can be heard from the estimated 2,000 faithful jammed tight inside the archway, or from those left waiting at the church steps outside in the chill evening air.
“Call the fire department. This is not right,” exclaims one Filipino man, who hurriedly leaves the church against the tide of humanity pushing forward.
Moments later, a man tries to squeeze into the church and desperately asks: “Can I go inside?
An old woman answers back: “No! The church is already full.”
None among them recognise the man who wants to pass through the vestibule.
“I am Fr. Fernando Suarez,” says the polite young man, and the crowd quickly parts to let him pass.
He proceeds directly to the altar, where several dozen ailing and wheelchair-bound people are lined in a row.
Who is Fr. Suarez? And why is it that so many people want to see him and be touched by him?
Over 8,000 people — more than 2,000 per mass — attended the priest’s Metro Vancouver healing masses this month in Coquitlam (Feb. 8), Richmond (Feb. 12), Burnaby (Feb. 13) and Maple Ridge (Feb. 14).
Fr. Suarez is a Filipino-Canadian priest who has attracted thousands of followers worldwide with his “miraculous” healing power. In a recent case that galvanized the faith of thousands and garnered the bewilderment of many more, a Canadian woman was declared dead by doctors at the Ottawa Civic Hospital some eight hours before Suarez arrived.
With doctors present and ready to harvest her organs, the Filipino-Canadian priest who was then a seminarian, prayed over her. She opened her eyes and lived.
The woman is now well, Suarez says, and has resumed her normal life. That case, which happened a decade ago, put Fr. Suarez on the Catholic map and today he is roaming around the globe touching millions and working his miracles.
“I just wanted to be a seminarian because probably, it’s better for me to be with the seminary and teach (aspiring priests) how to be seminarians, because it took me 10 years to become a priest,” says Fr. Suarez, reflecting on his early years in the faith when he lacked the confidence to preach to a large congregation.
“I thought my vocation was to be a seminarian because everywhere I go when I left the seminary they’ve been kicking me out . . . everywhere and that’s the story of my life.”
At the time, in his early years, Fr. Suarez was asked to leave the Franciscan Order, the Society of the Divine Word and the Diocese of Winnipeg, which were reportedly uncomfortable with Suarez’ newly-found powers of healing.
“I had reached the point that I got tired of praying to become a priest, but I persisted until I was finally ordained,” Fr. Suarez explained.
In 1997, Fr. Suarez founded the Mary Mother of the Poor charitable organization (www.marymotherofthepoor.org), a Canadian-registered non-profit society dedicated to alleviating poverty by providing food and other basic needs, as well as coordinating heath care and social services for youth.
Fr. Suarez is a member of the Companions of the Cross, and a priest in good standing with the Archdiocese of Ottawa.
In his healing mass homily Feb. 13, Fr. Suarez proclaims aloud: “The truth of the matter is . . . I am not a healer. We only have one healer and that is Jesus.”
“Last night (in Coquitlam), I heard a very powerful testimony. I remember one gentleman approached me and was very, very eager to share his testimony in front of thousands of people and said, ‘Father . . . you prayed over me last year here in Vancouver.’
The man continued: ‘My daughter was a year and half last year . . . she cannot walk, she cannot talk, her kidney and brain are full of cancer, but after you prayed-over her we went to a doctor and there is no more brain cancer and no more cyst in her kidney . . . now look at her she is walking and talking.’”
During the homily, Fr. Suarez makes people laugh, applaud, cheer, cry, and constantly chant: “Praise Jesus.”
“Sometimes we’re always looking for a sign, sometimes we’re always looking for miracle,” says Fr. Suarez. “But the miracle is here right now. Jesus is always here. There is always a great miracle happening every time we go to mass.”
“Jesus is the greatest miracle in our life.”
Fr. Suarez also explains how when he became a priest, he was challenged by so many trials. “I myself taught that miracles only happen during the time of Jesus that the blind was able to see, the deaf able to hear, the cripple was able to walk that happened only during the time of Jesus.”
“Since I became a priest and in my ministry, I saw it every day . . . everything that Jesus did.”
On his website www.fatherfernando.com is a growing collection of testimonials from people from all walks of life — all praising and thanking the man they claimed cured their back pains, stabilised their cancers, and mended their broken spirits.
Soon after the celebration of the mass, the “healing session” starts, with the wheelchair-bound, the ailing elders and the sick children coming forward first.
Among them is 80-year-old Milagros Gastambelo of Bacolod City, Philippines, who has been paralyzed for the past five years.
As soon as Fr. Suarez touches and lifts her up from the wheelchair, she is able to walk down the aisle to the altar.
“This is really a miracle!” tearful Gastambelo tells the Asian Pacific Post.
Josie Tuzon, 44, who was diagnosed with ortho-arthritis, a chronic disease causing pain and stiffness in the joints, claims to be healed the same night.
“I can barely walk and there is so much pain around my knees before I went to the church for the healing mass,” says Tuzon, who is still shaking, crying and in shock as she talks to the Post. “Now, believe me, it is all gone.”
A lot of people follow and speak out at the podium near the altar, giving their own testimonies about the “healing miracle” done that same night by Fr. Suarez.
The majority of those who have been touched by Fr. Suarez either collapse for few seconds or fall seemingly unconscious to the ground.
In addition to his tireless work among the church-going faithful, Fr. Suarez, through the Mary Mother of the Poor society, is currently building a 33-story-high monument called the Oratory Blessed Virgin Mary at Monte Maria, Batangas in the southern Philippines.
When completed, the Mother Mary Monte Maria - overlooking Btangas Bay – will feature a Rosary Garden, Stations of the Cross, several chapels, a conference centre and retreat houses serving as way stations for pilgrims as well as an international center for the poor.
“It is a refuge where the tired soul withdraws to find peace and solace,” says Fr. Suarez. “And thereby discover how Mary comes to the aid of those in need of strength and consolation, the poor in society and the poor in spirit.”
In order to personally experience the “healing power,” this reporter queues and follows the instructions given . . . “Close both eyes and say a prayer while in front of the altar before receiving the ‘healing power’ from Fr. Suarez.”
Surely, I sense a different force striking through my mind and body. My knees wobble at first when Fr. Suarez mildly touches me.
I think, ‘I can resist this force.’ But when Fr. Suarez again touches my head and body . . . I can’t move even an inch of my body.
(Rey Garcia is a visiting journalist from The Philippines who will be writing more dispatches for Metro Vancouver’s Filipino Diaspora in the near future.)