FROM the minute he was born, says Msgr. Carlito Pono, parish priest of Talamban, he was already a Santo Niño devotee.

He explains he was born at exactly seven o’clock in the morning of Jan. 23, 1949, when the church bells of Pinamungahan, his birthplace, were ringing to announce the Mass in celebration of the fiesta of the Santo Niño.

He was born at home with only his father—no doctor, nurse or midwife—to attend to his mother. He was dedicated to the Santo Niño by his mother at his birth and so, at every fiesta of the Santo Niño in Pinamungahan during his baby days, his parents would bring him to church and his father would carry him while dancing the “sinulog.”

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When he was old enough, his parents would bring him to the San Agustin church for the Cebu City fiesta of the Santo Niño and there, he would again be carried by his father, dancing the sinulog, often throwing him up in the air in the fervor of the dance. It was only after he was ordained priest that his parents revealed to him that they were doing the sinulog to offer him, their first born, to God and that they prayed he would become a priest.

Msgr. Pono first acquired a Santo Niño statue during his seminary days when seminarians would sing for the fiesta at the San Agustin Church, now known as the Basilica del Santo Niño Minore.

On one occasion, a particular statue, among other “generic” Santo Niño statues sold in the sidewalk, caught his eye on his way to the cathedral where the seminarians would eat. Going back to the basilica, the statue again caught his eye and so he asked the salesgirl, who said that the particular statue already had prospective buyers but she would not sell, if he could have it at a “seminarian’s price.” She gave in. He keeps that statue at his private altar to which he offers fresh flowers every day.

He has since acquired other statues, becoming an incidental collector, acquiring only, in his words, “when something catches my eye, promotes devotion, raises my mind and heart to the Lord, that’s when I buy.”

In his collection are an ivory Santo Niño de la Viña, a Santo Niño de Jesus, a Santo Niño Dormido, a Lladro Santo Niño de Cebu he bought on installment, and an Santo Niño del Mundo sculpted by Marcial Bernales.

As a young priest, Msgr. Pono was wondering why there were and are so many kinds of Niños in the country—until the realization hit him that these icons symbolize the evolution of the expression of the faith of the Filipinos, each evolving in their particular situation, their particular state of life and time and place.

Wherever he has been assigned, Msgr. Pono has promoted the Friday devotion to the Santo Niño, a devotion he believes reminds the Cebuano of his cultural identity, of being Cebuano aside from being Filipino, and “every Cebuano should be proud of that. Nothing defines the spirit and faith of the Cebuano than the devotion to the Santo Niño.”