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Andrew Recepcion


The Scuola Epi:

The challenge to be a home and a school of communion

Interview by Jose Aranas

Andrew Recepcion - 40 years of the Scuola Epi in Tagatay, Philippines - Ekklesia 17

Come January 2023, Scuola Epi, the Center of Spirituality for Priests and Seminarians of the Focolare Movement in Tagaytay (Philippines), marks its 40th anniversary. Fr. Andrew Recepcion of the Archdiocese of Cáceres [1] walks us through its 40-year history of taking the challenge to be a home where ministers of the Church learn and experience a life of unity and love.

Andrew Recepcion - 40 years of the Scuola Epi in Tagatay, Philippines - Ekklesia 17

How did Scuola Epi, the Focolare’s Center of Spirituality for priests and seminarians, start in Tagaytay?

If we go back in history, we can trace the particular continuity of formation in Scuola Epi to the Movement’s first school for priests and seminarians in Grottaferratta in Rome (Italy) in the late 1960s. The young men in formation to become priests, who made the Focolare’s spirituality of unity their own, came to be called “Gens” (New Priestly Generation) or “Gen seminarians.” Focolare founder Chiara Lubich wanted this school to become a place where diocesan priests and seminarians can experience profoundly the spirituality of the Focolare. Fr. Anton “Toni” Weber, a Swiss priest, was the first director of the priests’ school at Grottaferatta. Many of the first priest focolarinos now, who were Gens at that time, were formed in that particular period at the first priests’ school. It is interesting to know that some bishops and cardinals of the Church today who are serving at the Vatican are “products” of this school. Among them are Cardinal João Braz de Aviz of Brazil, the Prefect of the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and Cardinal Lazarus You Heung-sik of South Korea, the Prefect of the Dicastery for the Clergy. From Asia, there is also Cardinal Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovitvanit, the Archbishop of Bangkok (Thailand). I would like to highlight the figure of Fr. Toni Weber who guaranteed the continuity of formation in the spirituality of unity when, decades later, he opened the Focolare’s school for priests and seminarians in the Philippines.

... before ordination to the priesthood, God should be put first in a seminarian's life.

The 1960s, the period of Vatican II, until the 1970s were years of transition with the onset of mass media technology, gender crisis, and mass transportation. It was the height of the Cold War between the US and the former Soviet Union, as well as the Vietnam War. Priests and seminarians had a great longing for an experience of communion as many of them were discouraged and demoralized by the exodus of priests from the ministry, and those in formation to become priests leaving the seminary in the 1960s and 1970s. There was a crisis of identity among priests and religious. I think the Focolare’s spirituality of unity has offered a renewal program that gave a space, in a sense, to find new meaning on how it is to follow Jesus, to go back to the Gospel, and to be able to highlight how it is to live in fraternity.

We can show the example of Enrique Cambón, an Argentinian priest, who was the first Gens. His narrating his experience to the Focolare community helped him to go back to the seminary, and become a priest. It was in 1968 that the Gens Movement started. This movement emphasized that, before ordination to the priesthood, God should be put first in a seminarian’s life. Putting God first would mean serving God in my brothers, in my neighbor. This shows the power of the evangelical revolution proposed by the spirituality of unity to priests and seminarians in that period of transition during Vatican II and after.

The late 1970s saw the establishment of the Focolare’s Mariapolis Center in Tagaytay (Philippines). Now it was providential that Chiara Lubich, the founder of the Focolare Movement, visited the Philippines in 1982. During Chiara’s visit, she was approached by 47 Filipino bishops, who desired that there be a center in the Philippines, particularly in Tagaytay, for priests and seminarians to experience a spirituality of communion. Chiara, being a daughter of the Church, felt it was an inspiration of the Holy Spirit. She shared this desire of the bishops with members and friends of the Movement in Manila. While she was speaking, somebody stood up in the audience, saying that he owns a piece of land in Tagaytay that he wanted to give for the use of the Movement. When Chiara received this providence of land in Tagaytay, she thought that it was the sign to start this “school” as desired by our Filipino bishops. However, to start the School in Tagaytay, the right person was needed to take on this new responsibility.

It was Fr. Toni Weber who accepted this daunting task. But before he arrived in 1982, some priests of the Movement were already in the Philippines. Since 1979, Fr. Victor Agius and Fr. Colin Apap, two Maltese priests, had been doing pastoral work in Mary Immaculate Parish in Moonwalk Village in Las Piñas. Both of them attended the priests’ school in Grottaferrata (Italy). At that time, the parish was still part of the Archdiocese of Manila, and Cardinal Jaime Sin, the Archbishop of Manila, also wanted a special place where the Focolare can share its spirituality in the context of the parish community. Here we can see how God was already preparing some people for the concretization of the priests’ school in Tagaytay. So when Fr. Toni came, he lived first in the Mariapolis Center. Later on, Fr. Victor, who was a more practical guy, joined Fr. Toni, assisting him in the construction of the School. Another priest who flanked Fr. Toni was Fr. Jean-Baptiste Phạm Văn Vượng, another priest focolarino from Vietnam who was working for Radio Veritas Asia in Novaliches, Quezon City. They were the first collaborators of Fr. Toni Weber in setting up the priests’ school in Tagaytay.

Upon arrival, they started construction immediately. In the meantime, they lived as a “focolare household” [2] in the Mariapolis Center. Fr. Victor was basically in charge of the construction of the first structure which was later on called Scuola Epi (School of the Epiphany). There was no road yet to go to the site. The existing road extended only up to the Maryridge Retreat and Renewal Center of the Good Shepherd Sisters. From that point, there was only a pathway going up to the site of the School. If we try to set the official start of the School, it was when the first priests came after the whole structure was built. Fr. Victor was saying that, at that time, they didn’t have a water system yet because the local water district supplied only until Maryridge, so water supply was hard to come by. They had to gather rainwater for washing.

On Christmas 1983, Fr. Toni, Fr. Victor and Fr. Jean-Baptiste celebrated Mass together. It was a beautiful experience to start the School with the three of them. Before they could finish the Mass, suddenly, the first group of priests from Cebu came to visit them: Fr. John Du, who is now the Archbishop of Palo, and two other priests. Fr. Toni recounted, “And now the shepherds came…” These priests stayed with them for a few weeks.

While construction was going on, Fr. Toni Weber was going around the Philippines, visiting bishops and priests, talking about this center for priests and seminarians, and offering his services. Fr. Toni was quite known for his work in the priests’ school in Grottaferratta (Italy). He was also a man of great culture and learning because he studied at the Gregorian University in Rome and served as a professor in a regional seminary in Brazil.

This new task was not easy for Fr. Toni. As a European, he had to face the Asian world, a world completely unfamiliar to him. Though he was accustomed to a certain lifestyle, he had to adjust to the tropical climate and the local food. All this he did with evangelical simplicity, which was typical of his person. Fr. Toni lost no time in contacting bishops, priests and seminarians, visiting them all over the Philippines. Many priests and seminarians got to know about the School, and the bishops started to send seminarians there. In the first few years of Scuola Epi, there were very few programs. Basically, it offers this option: a possibility to live and experience a spirituality of communion. The program was later on called “One Year for Jesus.”

What are the goals of Scuola Epi?

The goals of Scuola Epi are quite clear. Its mandate is from Chiara Lubich herself: to offer a spirituality of communion to priests and seminarians who attend the School. Yet it should be a “school of life,” a laboratory of the Gospel, animated by the spirituality of the Focolare, by its charism of unity. When I say it is a school of life, I mean it is a school of evangelical life.

a "school of life", 

a laboratory of the Gospel

Communion is not just a slogan but a way of li