Columban Vocation: The Santo Niño and My Formation Journey

Elbert Balbastro at the Columban formation house in the Philippines holding a statue of the Santo Niño to which he has great devotion.

Fr Elbert Balbastro was ordained in June 2022. He tells us how devotion to the Santo Niño has been central to his faith journey and his formation as a Columban missionary. 

The celebration of 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines was a momentous event. The commemoration provided us with an opportunity to consider the insights, graces, and faith that our ancestors cultivated and passed on to us.

Amongst the articles and events recalling this centenary, the image of the Santo Niño (better known in the West as the Infant of Prague) stands out for me. As an Illongo, who grew up as a devotee, I regularly see the icon at home, in the market, in business offices, restaurants or even shopping malls. 

Santo Niño has always been there, guiding me, so I give thanks to God for all the gifts He has bestowed on me, especially in my seminary formation. The statue of Santo Niño influenced me in my formation journey, as it guided my ancestors to grow in their faith when they first received the statue 500 years ago.

Elbert with fellow Columban seminarians and formator Fr Fatu.

Now that I have completed my formation journey in the seminary and have embarked on a new one as a deacon, it is time for me to give back. I can only do that through my loving presence and my lifelong commitment to the service of God, His people, and all of creation. As Pope Francis said, “Faith is passed on by contact, from one person to another, just as one candle is lighted from another.”

Formation in the seminary takes time, effort, and hard work. I remember entering the Columban House of Studies in 2012 and felt like I was so far from the finishing line. As time went by, I realised that it is not reaching the fi nishing line that matters most but savouring the journey along the way.

All those years were worth it so as to foster my personal and spiritual growth and an awareness of God’s love in me. After nine years of participating in prayer life, community life, apostolate work, and study, I have been formed and moulded into someone ready to commit and offer his life for the sake of the mission.

Elbert’s ordination to the diaconate by Bishop Honesto Ongtioco of Cubao, Philippines.

Reflecting on my formation journey in the light of the celebration of 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines draws me back to the statue of the Santo Niño because it feels like meeting Him again.

According to history, the statue of the boy Jesus was a baptismal gift to Humaway, the chief wife of Rajah Humabon. Of all the material things that Magellan and his group brought, I asked myself, “Why give the image of the Santo Niño?” Then I realised the importance of the symbol that it represents. Santo Niño is an image that best represents my journey as a Columban.

The Child Jesus depicted in the statue reminds me of the childlike attitude that I need to cultivate as a seminarian. A child’s heart is sincere and generous. At the same time, his mind is open to learning. Years of immersing myself in seminary formation made me inculcate several essential values.

The feast of San Lazaro. Elbert did his apostolate work at San Lazaro hospital ministering to HIV/ AIDS and TB patients. He is photographed with some OMI brothers and the secretary of the church.

I was taught that like the boy Jesus, I need to be reformed, to have a deeper faith in God, and a wider understanding of mission. After all, I cannot minister to people and share the joy of the Gospel with others if I am not equipped with the knowledge and awareness of the presence of God in my life. It would be like the blind leading the blind.

Furthermore, the virtue of humility is an important quality. Knowing when to apologise, being able to recognise the aspects of our life we are ignorant about, and recognising our strengths and weaknesses, helped me to develop into a person who is in touch with the reality of life.

In my journey, there were times when academic studies were demanding and difficult. There were moments when academic papers overwhelmed me, and I was at a loss for ideas. However, my openness to learn aided me in refining my motivation to be a missionary priest.

My studies are not only for my personal interests, but for the people of my future ministry. Open-mindedness is one of the values I developed in formation. I remember working in prison and hospital ministry and being confronted with difficult questions. Why does God let these people suffer? Where is the hand of God in the tragedies of their life? As much as I would like to answer them, I am not a messiah; I do not have the knowledge that could answer them. At their times of distress, I could only be a companion, a brother, friend or pilgrim to them.

A pilgrimage to a Marian shrine with fellow Columban seminarians.

Love always comes from within and from that wellspring, it will overflow to others. I cannot love someone if I do not know how to love and forgive myself. Love is inclusive.

My First Mission Assignment (FMA) in Pakistan taught me that every person has dignity and deserves to be loved even if they belong to the lower caste. As a missionary, I must be capable of love for all people regardless of race, colour of skin, gender, religion, and culture and for all created beings.

Published in the July/August 2022 issue of the Far East magazine. Subscribe here and support our seminarians: