Story by Don Clemmer
Photos by Dcn. Skip Olson
Ronald Sagum’s ordination reflects role of the Philippines in the Church.
If four men from Kentucky became priests in the same diocese in Asia, it would probably seem like an extraordinary coincidence.
When Deacon Ronald Sagum is ordained to the priesthood on June 19 at the Cathedral of Christ the King, he will be the third priest from the Philippines currently ministering in the Catholic Diocese of Lexington and the fourth in a line to originate from the Pampanga province, north of Manila. Father Aldrin Tayag, who was ordained in 2019 and will become pastor of St. Luke’s in Nicholasville in July, explains the connection the men share:
“We basically understand each other, not only because we speak the same language, but also we share a common outlook in life,” he says. “We come from a province that boasts of being religious and, at the same time, happy people.”
“Father Aldrin and I lived in the same town,” Deacon Sagum explains. “Every Holy Week, we served in our home parish together.”
“It is an indirect effect,” says Father Jeff Estacio, pastor of St. Lawrence in Lawrenceburg, who was ordained in 2012. “I recruited Aldrin, and then Aldrin … invited Ronald to be here.”
More than coincidence, these priests — and local Filipino Catholics in general — reflect a global trend in the Catholic Church: the emergence of the Philippines as a witness to the faith all over the world. And Ronald Sagum embodies the qualities of this witness, with its humility, hard work, and spirit of service.
It began in 2000, at the ordination of Father Norman Fischer — whose mother is Filipina — when one of Father Fischer’s seminary classmates received an invitation to come minister to the Filipino community in Lexington. The classmate instead suggested a friend, Father Mateo (Noel) Zamora, who went on to recruit Father Estacio for the Lexington Diocese, setting the cycle in motion.
“It was always my hope that there would be more Filipino priests, and especially vocations from the local Filipino community, to assist me in this ministry,” says Father Zamora, who is now a Benedictine monk at St. Meinrad’s in southern Indiana. “I eventually realized that I needed to be more proactive in recruiting those helpers in ministry.”
The Filipino community is not as visible as other ethnic groups, but they are close-knit and have an impact.
“They try to keep that faith growing … wherever he or she goes,” says Deacon Sagum. “They are still continuing the devotions that the Philippines have.”
“Because Filipinos are migrating all over the place,” says Father Estacio, “there’s an indirect missionary zeal.”
Sagum’s ordination also coincides with a milestone for the Philippines: 500 years since the arrival of Christianity in the country. Today, it is the only majority Catholic country in Asia — more than 80 percent — and has the third-most Catholics in the world — more than 85 million — behind only Brazil and Mexico.
“We were evangelized in the 16th century,” says Father Tayag. “It is a gift that we received; it is now a gift that we are sharing to the world.”
The Vatican’s evangelization office is currently headed by a Filipino, the former archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Luis Tagle.
In the Lexington Diocese, the three Filipino priests serve alongside other native Asian-Pacific Islanders, mostly from India but also from Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Just over a dozen altogether, they make up nearly a quarter of active priests in the diocese.
“My parishioners at St. Andrew’s in Harrodsburg once told me: I remind them that our Church is Catholic, that it’s bigger than our parish,” says Father Zamora.
Ronald Sagum is 40 years old. He entered a religious community in the Philippines in 2007 and discerned his vocation for the next six years.
“My experience in my religious congregation, I would say, helped me a lot to have a deeper faith in God,” he says. He came to the United States in 2017 and has found the same spirit among priests as he encountered back home.
“The priests have a great relationship to one another,” he says. “In my experience here and in the Philippines, brotherhood is there.”
As he prepares for ordination, with an assignment as parochial vicar at Holy Spirit Parish/UK Newman Center following his ordination, those who came before him agree that Father Ronald Sagum will be a good priest.
“There is nothing fake about the guy. He is very down-to-earth and feels no need to promote himself or any agenda or project. He is a great listener and takes directions and criticism well,” says Father Zamora. “He has no extravagant tastes in food, clothes or gadgets. … His parishioners will find [him] approachable, accommodating and caring.”
“I think his simplicity will help him to minister and reach out to the least of our brothers and sisters in the community,” says Father Tayag.
“I would say he is a simple and hardworking guy,” says Father Estacio, for whom Sagum helped set up the livestream Mass at St. Lawrence early in the pandemic. “Even though he is accomplished … he doesn’t say that.”
“I hope that Catholics in the diocese will appreciate the fact that Ronald has made a sacrifice in choosing to minister in a place so far from his family,” Father Zamora adds. “His mother died during the pandemic, and he could not go home for the funeral or comfort his family in person.”
But Sagum voices gratitude and requests only prayer.
“I would also like to thank all the people who are supporting all the seminarians, who are keeping me and other seminarians in their prayers,” says Deacon Sagum. “I pray to God that I can keep the enthusiasm, the joy, the happiness, in serving him through others and bringing the good news to other people, regardless of who they are.”
He adds: “Pray for me that I will continuously perform my ministries according to the will of God and not according to my own will.”
“It was always my hope that there would be more Filipino priests, and especially vocations from the local Filipino community, to assist me in this ministry.”
— Father Mateo (Noel) Zamora