Paratrooper priest takes a leap of faith
BLYTHEWOOD — Father Bernardino Yebra’s life as a priest has taken him many places, one of which is 1,200 feet above the earth.
The administrator of Transfiguration Church in Blythewood is also a chaplain in the U.S. Army Reserves. He is assigned to the 360th Civil Affairs Brigade based at Fort Jackson in Columbia. It is an airborne unit, and that means jumping out of airplanes is part of his training. In the past two years, Father Yebra has made seven jumps with his unit near Lake Murray and in other areas around the Midlands.
“Once you are outside the plane, there is so much peace and quiet,” he said in a recent interview with The Miscellany. “You feel God embracing you.”
The jumps are also a way to bond with the members of his unit.
“Many of them are surprised when they see me harnessing up my parachute,” he said. “It’s their first time to see a Catholic priest who is also a paratrooper.”
A native of the Philippines, Father Yebra was one of six children raised in what he describes as a devout Catholic household. His childhood centered on the local parish, and he entered the seminary in his teens. He was ordained in the Philippines in 1988, and was a spiritual director, parochial vicar and a pastor at a formation house there.
In 2000, Father Yebra received permission from the cardinal of the Archdiocese of Manila to take a sabbatical, and he initially came to the Diocese of Charleston for what was supposed to be a four-month assignment at St. Peter Church in Cheraw.
Four months soon turned into years, however, as he grew to love South Carolina and found he was needed here. He obtained U.S. permanent residence status, and after Cheraw was assigned to St. Philip Benizi Church in Moncks Corner before moving to Blythewood in 2008.
The national tragedy on Sept. 11, 2001, persuaded him to fulfill a lifelong goal of serving in the military.
“I was always attracted to it, but I could not serve the dictatorship we had in the Philippines back then,” he said. “After 9/11, some of the young men and women in Cheraw who were in the military were called up to go overseas. They’d come to me and say ‘Father, please bless me before I leave for Afghanistan, for Iraq.’ Their commitment moved me. It reminded me of my home country, and how I could enjoy my freedom there because of the Americans who liberated us from the Japanese in World War II.”
Father Yebra received permission from Bishop Robert J. Baker to join the reserves, and in 2005 he trained at the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson.
He spends one weekend a month at the base meeting with his unit, and has also traveled to other units attached to the brigade in Tennessee and Arkansas.
During his rare free time, Father Yebra enjoys playing tennis, guitar and occasionally riding his mountain bike. He said he loves the quiet, rural environment of Blythewood, and finds simple joy in daily walks down a wooded path from his small rectory to the refurbished house that serves as the parish office.
He treasures the friendliness and devotion of the people to whom he ministers.
“I love this diocese, and really consider it a mission diocese,” he said. “There’s a great need for evangelizing because the area is really growing. One beautiful thing for me is the big number of converts I see every year. What is amazing is to see the new converts so happy to be fully in communion with the church. I’ll see them everyday at Mass, see them giving so much back. They are joyful about coming home.”
His biggest challenge can be summed up with one word: time.
“The challenge is how to really make yourself available,” he said. “Beside celebrating Mass, there is visiting the sick and the homebound, offering counseling.
“After the Mass here, there are always five or six people who just want to talk to you. When I’m at the fort just sitting in my office, there are lines of soldiers who have their own problems. There are administrative duties too. I’m always thinking about how I’m going to make the presence of a Catholic priest available to everyone who needs me,” he said.
He nurtures his spirit by praying the Liturgy of the Hours and the rosary daily, and said all the challenges of his civilian and military work diminish when he celebrates Mass.
He loves every element of preparing for and celebrating the liturgy. The homily, he said, is an important chance to interact with the people by sharing the meaning of God’s word with them. The full meaning of being a priest, he said, is being able to share the presence of Christ.
“The priesthood is an exciting life, and it’s centered around the Eucharist,” Father Yebra said. “You never remove the Mass from the priest. The Mass is the center of what I do, wherever I go, whether I’m at a fort in Arkansas or here at my home parish. My focus is the Mass. That’s the gift God has given me in my 21 years of priesthood.”