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Shalom, Fr. Tony!

Homily delivered at his Requiem Mass (15 August 2005)

For Fr. Anthony Raymond Ceresko (1942-2005)

By: Fr. Randolf C. Flores, SVD

Divine Word Seminary, 4120 Tagaytay City, Philippines


Fr. Anthony Raymond Ceresko, OSFS was my colleague, my mentor, and my dear friend.


Around 11:00 pm of Friday (12 August 2005), I woke up to read an urgent “text” message in my mobile phone: “Fr. Ceresko is in critical condition.” From Quezon City, I rushed to the University Medical Center in Dasmariñas, Cavite, south of Manila and arrived just when the team of doctors was trying to revive Fr. Tony from a cardiac arrest around 12:30 am. At 1:10 am, the first hour of Saturday, 13 August, he was pronounced dead. I asked the attending medical team to leave us, myself and two seminarians, to pray and mourn. The only words that I could muster to whisper to the ears of Fr. Tony were, “Father Tony, thank you very much! Pray for me.”


Later, one of his doctors  explained to me the sudden but expected weakening of Fr. Tony’s heart due to complications of pneumonia, dehydration, lack of food (he had not taken in food for three days), and  renal failure.  The medical reports said: “Septic shock, acute respiratory failure, type I secondary to community acquired pneumonia, high risk pre-renal asotemia secondary to severe dehydration, hypertensive athero sclerotic cardiovascular disease, valvular heart disease.” He had been ill since Tuesday, and the SVD confreres had to compel him to go to the hospital, and with only the seminar driver with him, because he preferred  to go alone, he was admitted in the hospital at 11:00 am of Friday.


I think, most of us, right now and in the days to come, feel a great loss of this great man. Nonetheless we feel grateful to God for this wonderful gift of life and service, and that gift of wisdom of Fr. Ceresko. Displayed outside the crypt where he was laid for the wake, are the books and some of the many scholarly articles he had written. He had published six books, three of them are reprinted in the Philippines. He wrote at least two articles a year, the last one he delivered in last convention of the Catholic Biblical Association of the Philippines (CBAP) to which he was an active member---a paper with a striking and foreboding title: “Endings and Beginnings”. A major section of that paper is a study on Psalm 150, the end of Sefer Tehilim (Book of Psalms). The last line of that last psalm reads: “Let everything that breathes, praise the Lord!”


The works of Fr. Ceresko bear witness to his desire to be, his life’s suffering, his mission and his hope.


His desire to be—“Salesian simplicity”.  This was also title of the first chapter of his last book, St. Francis de Sales and the Bible (Bangalore, 2005).  In that essay, he related Saint Francis de Sales’ simple of way of life to the Prophet Amos’ call for simple lifestyle in the midst of poverty and economic crisis happening in Israel in the Eight Century B.C.  This Salesian spirituality of simplicity was evident in the life of Fr. Tony.  He had lived an austere and a very simple life. He was frail, because eating for him seemed to be indulging in luxury. His usual diet was half slice of rye bread, peanuts if available, or two dried prunes, and a cup of cheap tea.  The way Fr. Tony ate reminds me of what St. Paul once wrote: “for the kingdom of God is not a matter of food and drink, but of justice, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).


In the song of Mary on the solemnity of her assumption (15 August), it says: “My being proclaims the greatness of the Lord…For he has looked on the lowliness of his servant….He has filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:46.48.53).



When I was searching in his closet for what he was going to put on for his wake, his clothes and shoes were all worn out. He had to wear that pair of worn out shoes because that was the best that he had. The old chasuble that he wore was his favorite whenever he celebrated the Eucharist. In fact, he was to preside in the mass on that Thursday and had reminded the seminarians to prepare that old chasuble. “Why do you have to worry”, Jesus once said, “about your clothes? Consider the lilies of the field, they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you even Solomon in all his splendor has not clothed like one of these” (Matthew 6:28-29).


The suffering that he endured. In the second chapter of that recent book, he discussed on “Love and Suffering in the Old Testament”. Fr. Ceresko’s suffering is shown in the many visits to doctors here and abroad.  To inform others of his passing away, I had to scan his mobile phone for numbers. There were only like ten numbers saved and most of those belonged to doctors and hospitals.  Two years ago, he was in out of the hospital due to a viral foot infection that was getting worse and affecting the rest of his skin. The doctors had suspected a problem in his blood or in his heart. I saw how he suffered at that time, especially of not being able to walk, because that was the only “luxurious” recreation he would like to do—walking at least five kilometers day, rain or shine, where he was.  And he could have walked in five years around 9,125 kilometers. The book of the Prophet Isaiah resonates this: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news” (Isaiah 52:7)


Inside his locker was a rack full of medicines. The bag that he had brought in the hospital contained a thick file of his medical records. With that frail body battling lot of illnesses, some shared but mostly unshared, we could not believe Fr. Tony was only 62 years old. Posted at door of his room is this quotation from Saint Francis de Sales: “The same Everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day of your life. Either He will shield you from suffering, or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace then, and put aside all anxious thoughts.”


His mission. For him, it was service to God’s Word--in the solitude of books, in the lonely path of thinking and research, the “loneliness of the just man” as the first Psalm implies.  He had served the church in his honest quest of the meaning and the truth of the biblical text. This ministry had made daily interaction with other people quite limited. But a lot of biblical students here and abroad has engaged and will continue to engage with him in his works and in his insights. He had lived that he taught; practiced what he preached. He was indeed a oblate missionary of the Word.


This service to the word is also service to that Word-made Flesh, to Jesus with whom he had always wrote of as “friend” in the covenantal sense of the term --commitment and fidelity.  He was a faithful friend of Jesus. It is on this committed friendship with Jesus that we have hope that Fr. Tony will share in the “fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20, from the Second Reading of the Solemnity of the Assumption).


In a way, it was also a service to the word, to the Divine Word School of Theology where he taught for five years. I remember in 1999 when we deliberated to accept a certain Fr. Anthony Ceresko, OSFS to teach in our school of theology and to live in the SVD seminary—I could not believe that Ceresko whose works I have referred to in my Licentiate thesis at Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute would be coming to teach here in our unknown school of theology. Indeed, he had brought fame to our school by contributing scholarly articles to respected biblical journals here and abroad, affixing his address as Divine Word School of Theology, Cavite, Philippines. He taught with passion even with a meager financial compensation. On his table were examination papers of his students. He was correcting as he was already sick. The last article that he wanted me to read for my dissertation was dated 9 August (Tuesday), the day he got ill.  He died in action.


Once he gave a speech some years ago in an academic convocation of this school of theology. The title reveals that service to our school: “Not Microsoft’s “Word” (For Windows [?] But “The Divine Word” (And A/The School of Theology): What does this text (ing) mean?”


His hope. If there’s a word that would summarize the life and works of Fr. Ceresko,  it is the word, “hope”.  Hope was the underlying theme of his works. It was this theme of hope that led him to interpret the biblical text from a liberation perspective. It was this theme of hope that he stayed in India and later on in our country, to countries “swallowed  by the hopelessness of poverty and social injustice. In the two last conventions of the Catholic Biblical Association, he was responsible for its themes: “Hope for a Suffering People” and “The Scripture and the Quest for a New Society.”


It was Tuesday two weeks ago (2 August) when I talked to Fr. Tony for the last time. He was telling with excitement that the school of theology had organized a huge gathering to discuss the political crisis of the country and to discussed the bishops’ statement on the situation  He said that he raised an observation that that bishop’s statement lacked the terminology of hope. While most of us have seen a hopeless situation, he saw the light of hope in our country. He had hope in the goodness of its people.


It is on this theme of hope that Fr. Ceresko allowed me to work with him as his doctoral student. He was convinced that the bible is a literature of hope and hope becomes strongest in situations of despair.  He had wanted me to explore the theme of hope in the book of Job, the book he loved most, the book on which he had doctoral dissertation. He wanted me to study hope within history and also hope for eternal life that could be intimated in that book.



It is probably coincidental that we say goodbye to this righteous man on this great feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  This feast re-expresses this hope that Fr. Ceresko had worked on, the hope that the mystery of Assumption reveals to us.   Fr. Ceresko had, in fact, liked to call Mary as “dear sister”—affirming that hope for all people to be children of God.  In a reflection that he shared at a prayer vigil on the eve of the Feast of the birth of Mary in Sept. 7, 2002, he wrote these poetic lines:


“Let me sing you a song, dear sister,

on the eve of your birthday.

Let me add my voice to the chorus

of many generations in praising

your loveliness and virtues.

And please allow me to address you as “sister”, “dear sister”,

companion disciple of your son, Jesus.

Even Broadway and Hollywood

 have stolen from your luster

in echoing your lovely name:


Maria-Maria, Maria, Maria.

Say it loud, and there’s music playing.

Say it soft, and it’s almost like praying.

Maria—Maria, Maria, Maria.


On that early dawn of his passing away, I stayed with Fr. Tony for an hour alone in the morgue while waiting for others to assist me.  In the tag, it said: “Cadaver of Anthony Ceresko.”  The man whom I had admired most is now a cadaver. And if it were Job he would made this lament: “If the only home I hope for is Sheol….where is my hope?” (Job 17:13.15).


This lament has its answer in Job himself, in this passage which Fr. Ceresko had spent years of “wrestling” for its meaning.  

For I know that my Redeemer lives,

and that at the last

he will stand upon the earth;

and after my skin

has been thus destroyed,

then in my flesh I shall see God (Job 19:25-26)



That fateful Saturday, after Fr. Ceresko’s body was returned to the seminary, I drove back home to Manila remembering the many times I drove with Fr Ceresko to meetings and to places. My prayer was a prayer of lament: “Why did God take this righteous man away from us?” “Why. O Lord, have you done this to us?”  I couldn’t accept that this good man whom I have seen naked as we cleaned his body in a funeral house is gone forever.  But then I remember the goodness of this just man, dying in a foreign land, in the arms of strangers, in the silence of the night, “when deep sleep fell on mankind (Job 14:13).  In Fr. Tony’s life, God had visited us. This is echoed in the book of Job:

Naked I came out from my mother’s home;

Naked I will go back there.

The Lord has given;

The Lord has taken away.

Blessed be the name of the Lord! (Job 1:21).