When JP (aka Fr. John Paul) passed away on July 12 after some days on life support, some began to wonder whether the church in Palau was under a curse. JP’s passing was just the latest in a series of deaths among Palauan clergy and religious. Wayne Tkel and Juan Ngiraibuuch had also left us in the past year or two.
I first met JP when he was just a kid, so to speak. A recent high school graduate, he was one of the early candidates at St. Ignatius House of Studies on Guam—our large pre-seminary in Yigo that could house a couple dozen young men. We all learned early on not to expect the normal carefully controlled island behavior from JP. Once, while taking his seat at a diocesan gathering in Chuuk, he introduced himself to the Mercedarian sister beside him, and proceeded to scold her for something or other before he directed his fire at me. He may have been signaling to everyone that he was not one to coddle either nuns or priests. Not that anyone ever believed he was! I’d like to think that I was a friend of his over the years, but let me assure you that he was as tough on his friends as on anyone else. That was just JP.
At some point in his theological studies in Fiji, JP returned to Palau to receive minor orders. Fr. Tom Smith, who administered these, planned a formal mass to celebrate this step and assigned JP to do one of the readings at the mass. Tom was surprised when another parishioner came up to do that reading. “Where is JP?” he asked afterwards. “Oh, he got me to take his place because he wanted to go to a Seabee picnic” was the reply.
After completing his theology studies in Fiji, JP returned to Palau in 1990 for his ordination. I was honored to be chosen as the one who would help him vest in his chasuble. That signified to me that I was still a friend of his—with all that relationship entailed. Priest or not, JP was a wise guy—someone who didn’t hesitate to stick it to outsiders—or insiders either, for that matter.
After ordination he spent his whole priestly ministry—over 30 years—in Palau. Like so many of us, he had his ups and downs. All the while, he remained close to Bishop Amando, and as the years went by became more deeply involved in diocesan planning. As those who knew him well would attest, John Paul offered loving pastoral care for his people over all those years.
A warm pastoral heart, yes—but you had to get through the rough exterior first.