Graduating magna cum laude from the Philippines’ most prestigious university and embarking on a promising career as an accountant at the country’s biggest auditing firm might easily satisfy many promising young men. But Roseller Atilano, a former sponsored child, chose a higher calling — joining the brotherhood of the Society of Jesus and becoming a Jesuit priest.
He says the foundation for his current vocation was laid in first grade when he got to know several pastors who led Sunday school activities for sponsored children. “If you had asked me in grade one or two what I’d wanted to be when I grew up, I’d answer ‘a pastor,’ because they were real good to me,” he says.
Given Ro’s impoverished background, it’s easy to understand why their kindness made such an impact.
Ro’s father made a living driving a “jeepney” — an improvised bus, based on surplus World War II American jeeps. But even this meager income came to an end when his father died while Ro was in kindergarten. The tough times forced Ro’s two older brothers to drop out of school and his mother to take a factory job.
“I tell you, I’ve experienced poverty at its core,” says Ro. “Not eating three times a day? We’ve experienced that. We came from a squatter’s area. Our home was made of nipa [palm leaves] and plywood. We didn’t own the land. The situation was very difficult.”
Ro’s dire circumstances easily qualified him for enrollment in World Vision’s child sponsorship program, which enabled him to stay in school. Ro still treasures the letters the Australian family that sponsored him sent through the years. “The program was very helpful, because that was the time when we were at our lowest,” he says.
For Ro, being a sponsored child meant more than having the essentials for school. He participated in activities like Christmas programs and Sunday school classes. He recalls his excitement whenever he saw “aunt” Becky — World Vision staff member Rebecca Valerio who, whatever her official functions, always turned up bearing gifts.
Ro consistently earned top honors in elementary school and delivered the valedictorian address for his class. He says the pressure of maintaining good grades, then a requirement of the sponsorship program, drove him to excel.
Ro’s academic success qualified him for a partial scholarship at a Catholic high school. Although his mother had no hope of paying for the balance of Ro’s tuition fees, sponsorship provided further support to allow Ro to attend.
During high school Ro developed both academically and spiritually under the guidance of the Claretians — a religious community whose mission is to see life through the eyes of the poor. He continued to earn top grades and after graduation received a full scholarship to Ateneo de Zamboanga, a Catholic university in Western Mindanao. Ro studied finance, but in his freshman year he began to sense that his true calling might be the priesthood.
After graduating with honors, Ro was hired as a certified public accountant and fulfilled a long-standing ambition to help his family. He built his mother a new house and supported his younger sister through school. He also sponsored a child of his own. Writing letters to his sponsored child was especially moving for him.
It reminded him of his own excitement when he received letters from his sponsor.
Even so, Ro became more absorbed in his accounting work. Then one night, he was almost killed after narrowly avoiding being struck by a speeding motorist. The experience caused him to reassess the path he was on. “When my work became the center of my life, I felt I lost my life,” he says.
Ro took a government job teaching bookkeeping skills to impoverished farmers. The work gave him more peace, but in his heart, he knew it was not where he was meant to be. One night he had a vivid dream: “It was like the Lord was telling me, ‘Didn’t you want to become a priest? What’s stopping you now?’”
Ro entered the Society of Jesus in 2006 and professed his vows in 2008. He has three more years of theological study before ordination. Once ordained, he wants to work among the poor. “I love that work, because I came from it,” he says.