Father Ben: lamplighter

In the midst of chaos and despair, a candle burns, giving light to others. This sentiment sums up how people see this octogenarian.

The Lim family – Adeline, her sister Gerry, brother Ellery and mom Luz – describe Father Benjamin Sim, 80, as supportive but firm, generous, humble, simple and low key.

Other parishioners remember him as a servant-leader, kind and good-hearted. Cebuanos at the Sacred Heart Parish in Cebu remember most his tireless energy in helping others, spiced with his sense of humor. They had worked with Sim on the Stella Maris project that provides boats to fishermen displaced by Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).

When the going gets really bad, Sim would say something funny about the situation (read Sim’s humorous essay “Collateral Ripples” in Tulay March 4-17, 2014 issue).

Mike Sy, a parishioner of Mary the Queen Parish in Greenhills, San Juan, said if there is one imagery of Sim, and which the priest himself would like to be remembered for, it is that of a lamplighter before the days of electricity.

“In the dark, you don’t see the lamplighter, but you know, he is there by the lighted street lamps he left behind,” Sim explains.

He is happy to learn that his parishioners think of him that way.

“It is a great compliment, and I thank God for His infinite grace and blessings that allow me to do what I do,” he says.
Indeed, there is so much darkness in the world today and Sim’s Christian spirit is light that brings hope and joy.

Adeline says Sim was “active in leading protests.” I related this comment to Sim’s story on how he founded the Chinese Catholic Youth despite the ire of his superiors. It was the activist in him, doing what he thinks is right and defending his position against the odds.

Father Ben with his late mother Marcela.

This was what happened when he entered the seminary against his parents’ wishes. This activist stance was repeated with CCY’s founding.

Envious of youth summer camps his college pal regularly attended, Sim consulted Rev. Fr. Pierre Tritz, SJ, the school’s chaplain, who agreed to organize Chinese students from different Catholic schools to meet as a study club, the “Chinese Christophers” (Christ-bearers).

Sim sought official approval from the hierarchy for the group. He approached the parish priest of Binondo, the only Chinese parish in Manila. Instead of encouragement, the parish priest said he and Tritz were “out of order.”

Sim continued the study group while he also wrote to all the bishops he knew to seek permission to set up the Chinese youth group. They encouraged him although they had no jurisdiction over the Chinese.

When Bishop Juan Velasco became bishop of Manila, the city was divided into four parishes.

With help from Fr. Louis Papilla, SJ and the support of the four parish priests, Sim succeeded in making the CCY, later called Filipino-Chinese Catholic Youth, official. It was the first such group to be established and that was about 60 years ago.

From Zamboanga, Fr. Manny Uy, SJ remembers, “Fr. Ben played a vital role in my Jesuit vocation journey. He was my patient Christian Life Community spiritual director in Ateneo de Zamboanga University in the 1980s. By nurturing my faith life and cultivating my friendship with the Lord, Fr. Ben inspired me to become a Jesuit priest. His compassion for the needy and his persistence in helping build God’s kingdom greatly edified me. He made me realize that a Tsinoy could be a man for others, a man of God. I thank God for my spiritual mentor and friend Fr. Ben. I am blessed to labor with him now in our Cebu apostolic mission.”

Father Ben (fourth from left) with fellow priests during a concelebrated Mass at Mary the Queen Parish.

Mary the Queen parishioners appreciate Sim’s encouragement that they participate in church projects such as gift-giving, bazaars and medical missions.

His hard work also gave rise to the MTQ choir, Sunday school for kids, Christian Life Communities as well as much needed renovation of the church.

Kaisa Para Sa Kaunlaran has known Sim (fondly called Angkong Ben by relatives and parishioners) since his days at the Mary the Queen Parish.

During the inauguration of the Kaisa Heritage Center on Jan. 19, 1999, there was never any doubt that he was the most appropriate person to officiate in blessing the center. It was not just the building that was being blessed. More importantly, his presence was also an affirmation of what KHC stands for and the anointment of the activities it will undertake for the Tsinoy community to “find its rightful place in the Philippine sun.”

His big understanding heart has room for the Catholic faith and the Chinese traditions that strengthen this faith.

Father Ben with some children from barangays during a parish activity.

I continue to be in touch with the priest and met him on several occasions especially in Cebu. For the last six months since Yolanda, Sim has been giving me updates on his trips to Maya, Daan Bantayan in northern Cebu for the turnover of motorized boats for the fishermen who lost their fishing boats.

I was the only guest from Manila to attend the book launching of 50 Years of Sacred Heart Parish of Cebu on March 15.

“I know how difficult it is to publish a book, hence, I give such importance to such events,” I told guests who inquired if I went to Cebu just for the book launching.

But, I went there principally to congratulate and give my support to the parish priest for Stella Maris boat project’s success.

I have taken nine trips to the paths wrecked by Yolanda so I know firsthand how difficult some of the trips could get, especially in the early months. I wondered how Sim could undertake those frequent four-hour trips to Cebu’s northernmost tip.

“The desperate people were crying out for help, being able to lend some succor wipes out any fatigue,” he said. — with inputs from Adeline, Gerry, Ellery and Luz Lim — First published in Tulay Fortnightly, Chinese-Filipino Digest 27, no. 3 (July 8-21, 2014): 8-10.