Friday, 7 December 2007

POTUIT, DECUIT, ERGO FECIT!

Since the time of Don Bosco, there has been a tradition in our Salesian houses to stage an accademia (usually a cultural presentation meant to instruct the boys on the upcoming feast). It was held on the eve of the feast. And it was so in my experience of Salesian life, even when I was a young aspirant in high school. When I was a brother in practical training, I staged accademias at the eve of almost every solemnity.

Tonight, on the eve of the Solemnity Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception, I am quite emotional. I have just come from a play staged by our Seminarians, a play entitled Ineffabilis Deus. As I watched, memories of my years as a brother came back.

And why would it not be so when this was one which I wrote and directed for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December of 1995? It was a play done by the batch of many of those who were ordained in 2005; they did it when they were postulants.

As I said, the play was entitled Ineffabilis Deus (the title of the papal document on the dogma of the Immaculate Conception). The whole musical was actually a discussion of the doctrine. It focused on the ideas that surrounded the debate between theologians throughout the ages on the Immaculate Conception. It culminated in presenting the view of the ideas of the Franciscan philosopher and theologian John Duns Scotus. The play echoed the words: Potuit, decuit; ergo fecit! (“He could; it was fitting; therefore, He did it!”) Yes, God could make Mary immaculately conceived; it was fitting that the one who would be Mother of God be immaculately conceived; and therefore He did it!

We can have a lot of reflections on this celebration but I would just like to focus on the point that the privilege granted by God to Mary was a gratuitous gift. But Mary did not just sit on this privilege. Before God’s eyes she sought to be worthy of this gift. We may not be blessed to have that privilege of being immaculately conceived, but we are graced with so many blessings from God. We have a lot to thank him for. May this thought lead us to be more conscientious in what God has called us to be. He has given us so much and so we must not be complacent; otherwise, we will be wasting a lot of the good that the Lord has bestowed on each of us. The beauty in the privilege given to Mary was that it had fruits as lived in a life that experienced Jesus and then “treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Lk 2:19)

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Saint Nicholas

When I was with the Comunità Don Bosco in our Salesian University in Rome, we had a confrere from Colombia, a very good friend of mine. His birthday fell on this day, December 6. On that particular day, as was customary for the community, those celebrating their birthday, anniversary or name day (onomastico) give a little treat to the confreres at lunch or dinner--like beer, ice cream, pastries, spumante, or liqueur. This particular confrere gave away chocolates in the form of Santa Claus as he explained that in his country, December 6, the feast of St. Nicholas, is a popular feast and people on this day anticipate Christmas by giving gifts to one another.

Santa Claus is no stranger to us for he looms as a very visible figure every Yuletide season. When I was a little child, he was always part of the Christmas celebration for I was at that time convinced that the gifts that I found under the Christmas tree or beside my pillow on Christmas Day were really from him.

Presently, however, I feel uncomfortable with the stature that the consumeristic world has given him, for his presence seems to rival the real reason for celebrating Christmas. More than the sincere giving of gifts, Santa Claus has become the icon of how commercial Christmas has become. It is a case of missing the point: that the first Christmas was a paragon of simplicity, as was the saint who came to be known as Santa Claus.

It would be of help for us to know more about the reason how Santa Claus came into the picture at Christmas time. Santa Claus is known as giving gifts to boys and girls during Christmas making him the friend of little children in this season. Two things then: giving, and children.

Saint Nicholas is known as generous to the poor and special protector of the innocent and wronged. His holiness of his life thus revolved on giving, and children. And the Christmas season is indeed about giving, and children: God gave his only Son to be one among us; and this Son, the Word Made Flesh, came as a child. This is the whole point of Christmas.

This early, as we have just come to the onset of Advent, I have already talked about Christmas. Well, with the memorial of this saint of today, we anticipate things even liturgically. It is a preparation for the celebration of the mystery of Christ’s coming. These days, in my present assignment as high school principal, we are immersed in days of preparation: for the coming examinations, for contests, for make-up lessons. But we also need to prepare spiritually: for the coming feast of our Blessed Mother’s Immaculate Conception, and of course, Christmas. This is what matters. I salute teachers and those who work with young people: for their vocation is connected to the ideals of St. Nicholas’ life, the ideals of Christmas: giving, and children.

Picture: St. Nicholas was said to have raised to life three young boys who had been murdered and pickled in a barrel of brine to hide the crime. These stories led to his patronage of children in general.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Big News

On January 30, 1996, we staged a play here in Don Bosco Canlubang. I was a young brother at that time and I wrote and directed that short musical entitled Bury Me Deep, based on the book by Peter Lappin, on the life of the young Argentinian native, Zeffirin (or Ceferino, Zephyrinus, Zephyrin, whatever language base the translation uses) Namuncurá. I opened the play with the end—the funeral scene where the company, led by Bro. Gerry Martin (now Fr. Gerry) who played the role of Bishop Giovanni Cagliero. It was a moving scene, accompanied as it was by Schubert’s Ave Maria. The end of the play continues the funeral scene with a Salesian saying: “Many years after his death, he indeed was buried deep—almost into oblivion. It is indeed sad to know all about it. Yet the name of Zeffirin will not languish forever buried…” And the reason given was that he was well way into the process of being raised to the altars.

At that time I had a strong premonition that soon this young Bosconian would be beatified. How else would I explain that strong compulsion to put his life into a simple musical on the eve of the feast of Don Bosco? “Soon” turned out to be a little bit less than twelve years. It was not really a long time for me, for the 1996 production is, up to now, still vivid in my mind.

Last week, the Salesian world was in festive mood because last November 11, Zeffirin was beatified. But not only that. The whole Church is sharing in this joy for another young person has been raised to the altars. It is missionary work at its best! Even the Philippine Daily Inquirer ran the story (from Agence France Presse) about the beatification. In other words, it is big news.

Aye, it is big news, a big deal whenever we succeed in bringing out the best in our young people. I have told my faculty members that as teachers they are at the vanguard, at the forefront of this undertaking. I urged them—and you likewise—to help make more Zeffirins among the young whom we encounter everyday.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Dedication

I was a college seminarian when I first began to be aware of the feast the we celebrate every ninth of November, that of Saint John Lateran. Here in the Philippines, we know it by the more popular name, San Juan de Letran, for it is the name of a college run by the Dominicans. In his homily for the day, one of our priests in the seminary that time told us that San Juan de Letran, or St. John Lateran is not a person, but a church (a basilica). In fact, the title of the celebration is the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran. It is the cathedral church of Rome, the official ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome who is the Pope. It is a temple so rich in history.

The celebration of November 9 takes the rank of a feast, meaning the Gloria is sung at mass and there are special readings. The Liturgy of the Hours that we pray as a religious community are taken from the a special section of the prayer book called “Common of the Dedication of a Church.”

The word “dedication” in this celebration comes in very strong for me because it speaks a mouthful. Dedication comes from the Latin word “dedo” (dedere, dedidi, deditus), a word that is much more potent that the word “do” (dare, dedi, datus) which means “to give”. The root of dedication means not merely “to give”—it means “to give up” or “to surrender”. It could also mean “to give up oneself to”.

The celebration thus means the surrender of that special place, that temple. We give up something in order to offer the possibility of it being used for a nobler cause, for a greater purpose. Taking this cue, we are reminded that dedication has always been part of our lives. We dedicate works, writings, songs, even a game or any undertaking in order to manifest affection, gratitude or devotion.

Here in the place where I work, Don Bosco Canlubang, I am happy to see dedicated people, especially teachers: persons who have not only given, but have given themselves up—surrendered—for a mission: all because they love, they care. Such nobility! Such inspiration for me! It is a feast indeed.

(photo--taken August 30, 2007-- shows Fr. Joel in front of the Basilica of St. John Lateran)

Friday, 2 November 2007

Death as a Dawning

This year, I went home for All Saints’ Day. How fast one whole year has gone by! I still remember that of last year: one reason I went home for All Saints’ Day was to drive for my parents in our visit to the tombs of our beloved departed. Through the years, we have been visiting mainly two cemeteries—San Miguel, Tarlac City and Bamban, Tarlac. My grandparents are buried in these cemeteries—paternal grandparents at the former (although now their remains have been transferred to San Sebastian, also in Tarlac City) and maternal grandparents at the latter. Since I became a priest, it was an added feature for me to bring holy water and bless not only their tombs but also those of the other relatives.

It was not part of our usual itinerary, but at last year’s All Saints’ Day we thought of passing by Murcia, Concepcion (where my father was born and grew up) to bring some of the things that my sister had sent to our relatives there. We arrived at past nine in the morning and saw my cousins and their father, Uncle Jesus, the husband of my aunt (my father’s elder sister) in tears. Earlier they had rushed my aunt, Pastora (Auntie Paring), to the hospital and at 8:00am, she was pronounced dead on arrival due to cardiac arrest. She was 85. My father was in tears. Though she was weak, we have not expected her to depart this soon.

Uncle Jesus sobbingly was saying in Kapampangan: “Penenayan ne mu rugu ing daun.” (“She seemed to have just waited for All Saints’ Day.”) And he was relating how Auntie Paring was so strong the evening before, that she was even talking so clearly. (Incidentally, some months later, Uncle Jesus would also go back to the Father and join Auntie Paring.)

Later that day, we went to Bamban (before going back to Murcia to see my aunt’s body already in the coffin) and our maternal relatives were also recounting the same thing when years ago, the wife of my uncle died—in a moment of physical strength she asked that she be brought out to see the house.

A common denominator in both events was a moment of strength before the coming of death. It makes me reflect on the fact that we really will decide to embrace death when it would come before us. And I do believe that what gives the dying that strength before they breathe their last is not only the satisfaction of having lived their life the best they could, but also the imminent entrance into another life, the other life. In the many funeral masses I have presided I always tell the people something I read from a magazine: “Death is not extinguishing the flame but putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.” Aye, death is a dawning and this dawning gives us reason to pray, to celebrate both All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.

Friday, 26 October 2007

PAP Midyear Conference Invocation (On Richard Rorty)

Today, October 27, 2007, the Philosophical Association of the Philippines (of which I am member of the board of directors) is holding its midyear conference at Don Bosco Technical Institute, Makati City, with the theme "The Philosophical Thought of Richard Rorty". I was tasked to lead the assembly into prayer at the beginning of the meeting. Here is the text of the invocation.

Heavenly Father,


In the wonderful account of creation, you made the human being in your own image, after your likeness—and at that moment, poetry was born, the beauty of the utterance called language came into sight, together with the manifestation of man’s creativity: music, crafts, science and the creative flow of ideas both oral and written. You have indeed shared with us this beautiful power.

This endowment we see in your gift to humanity—in the person of Richard Rorty, a philosopher who has greatly contributed to the endeavor of searching for truth, of asking the questions that really matter, and of being one who loved leading people—in his words in the classroom, to the nation, to the whole world.

May we who gather here learn from this man who moved others through the ideas that flowed from the mind you have endowed him. May we as philosophers, professors and students be interested in the truth and continually learn and proclaim to others the beauty of this truth.

And as was sung in the song “Est-il de vérité plus douce que l'espérance? Is there a truth sweeter than hope? This search for truth we do in hope and that is why we call upon you today to touch our minds and hearts through this man.

We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Stage Fright

The whole afternoon of yesterday I was with our aspirants (seminarian from first year to third year). Having been invited last week, I was conducting a workshop which was part of their semestral break seminar on public speaking. The topic that was assigned to me was “Conquering Stage Fright.” I told them right off: I was not very comfortable in accepting the topic assigned to me since I myself have not conquered stage fright. And indeed, it was a statement made sincerely and not just to be modest.

Yes, stage fright is still very much around in my life and I feel that it will never leave me. It is manifest even in the things that I regularly do—saying mass, preaching, giving the talks in our morning assemblies, conducting meetings, giving seminars (exactly like the one that I gave yesterday). The bottom line of all this is what stage fright is all about: fear. Fear will ever be present even in the most familiar acts that we do.

But yes, we can conquer stage fright. One thing I told my young audience yesterday was that fear can actually help us in the things that we do. Fear makes us shun complacency and pushes us to do better. I gave a familiar quote: “What will push one to drive the car better is to have realized that his license has expired.” Besides, although fear makes our bodies tremble, they add sparkle to our eyes and put more color to our cheeks. In other words, it makes us look better. This will make us forget about our stage fright!

Then I gave the young men practical tips in order to handle stage fright: think that you are good, pretend that you are just chatting with close friends, remember happy moments, be prepared, anticipate hard questions, put a picture of your loved ones with your notes, and so on.

Finally I gave them that time tested advice: practice, practice, practice! It is in being familiar to what we do that we feel so much at home with it. In our first attempts at doing something, in this case public speaking, we may stumble and fall and this surely will make us fear in our next attempt. But as what Friedrich Nietzsche said, “What won’t kill you will make you stronger.” Speaking in public, reading in the liturgy, conducting meetings, teaching in front of a class—even though these actions may give us the jitters, we will still come out unscathed and the experience will make us even better persons. As our young people of today would say: stage fright rocks!

Thursday, 18 October 2007

The Lucan Viewpoint

Yesterday, we celebrated the feast of St. Luke, evangelist. As I was meditating on what this person has contributed to Sacred Scripture, I got my copy of the Bible (New Jerusalem Bible version) that I have been using for the past nine years, the one that I used during my theology years. Many of the pages have passages that are highlighted with fluorescent ink; the margins likewise have given way to very small notes written in either pencil or ball point pen ink. And then I turned to the pages of Luke—both the text and the introductory part.

Luke was the author not only of the third gospel but also of the Acts of the Apostles, immediately following the four gospels. It is interesting to note that the gospels, and many other books of the Bible for that matter, have different sources and receive their final form only after the authors have chosen what to include in their account. This is the explanation for the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke)—they are very similar in outline since they have common sources.

Therefore, it is important to know what makes Luke distinct. From what I have studied, I can enumerate off-hand some of the unique elements in his work: the infancy narrative, the portrait of Jesus as gentle, loving and forgiving, predilection for the poor and severity to the proud, the importance given to prayer, and the numerous passages on Mary.

Knowing this makes us think of how great a treasure this gospel is. These distinct elements are values that we uphold. More than that, what gives life to what the apostles and evangelists (and every follower of Christ) wrote and preached is the experience they had with Christ. This is a truth that resounds to this day—in the tasks that God has entrusted to us.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Canon

It may very well be that one of the most popular classical musical pieces is Canon in D Major by the Baroque composer Johann Pachelbel. I remember being a part of the Seminary band (I played the trumpet) when we played this sometime in 1995.

Purists may not actually be happy about it but this musical gem has already been rendered in its electronic form—a step that goes even further, beyond its rendition in the pop, jazz or rock genres.

So popular it is that its ubiquity seems unmatched: we hear it almost everywhere. More often than not, it accompanies the bridal entourage at wedding marches. Once I was looking for CD’s in a shop and I saw one on Pachelbel’s work. I picked it up and read further. It was Pachelbel’s Canon with ocean sounds—an entire CD solely on this short musical work!

One thing interesting about this subject on Pachelbel and his masterpiece is that this is that even with Canon alone, this particular composer has become famous. He is even jokingly called a one-hit wonder. Yet, even so, Pachelbel has weathered the passing of the centuries and his music remains ever new, freely adapting itself to the ever changing tastes of generations of listeners. It is ever relevant because its simplicity allows everyone—even those who are not musically oriented—to carry the tune. The different parts, though very different from one another, all blend into a single moving effect, a pre-established harmony in Leibnizian parlance.

Likewise, the simplicity of our life, together with how we blend with our family, neighbors, colleagues, or charges will make us relevant throughout the years in this world that is ever in flux. Like Pachelbel’s Canon, we will remain long after we’ve gone.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

The Rosary

One of my most treasured possessions is the rosary given by Pope John Paul II, in an audience with him exactly four years ago, on October 4, 2003. It was on the occasion of the ad limina visit of Bishop Precioso Cantillas, SDB, Bishop of Maasin (Southern Leyte).

I have intended to refer to that unforgettable event solely for the fact that I received a rosary, but I saw the date of that meeting—and I just realized as I was writing this—that today is the anniversary: God’s grace indeed!

I still remember those kind eyes that looked into mine as Bishop Cantillas introduced me to this great man. It was the second time I was shaking the hand of this great man—the first one was on February of the previous year. Yet it brought the same effect for I found myself tongue-tied in ecstasy. He handed me the rosary that I now jealously treasure. This Pope was deeply Marian: Totus tuus! And the letter M completed his coat of arms that was bathed in blue. And it was he who dared to add another set of mysteries, the luminous mysteries, to the rosary!

Last Monday, in our department, we launched the Marian month, the month of the Holy Rosary. We are set to pray this beautiful prayer the whole of October. We have reminded our Bosconians the beautiful practice of bringing the rosary in the pocket. Let us likewise do the same.

One criticism against praying the rosary is that it is repetitious. The rosary becomes meaningful if we go beyond praying it mechanically; it becomes fruitful if we carefully meditate upon the mysteries in the life of Christ; it becomes a point of contact with the people for whom we pray. The rosary gives us the fervor in looking at life!

(photo taken on Oct. 4, 2003 at the Vatican; note my left hand holding the rosary given by the Pope)

Friday, 28 September 2007

La festa degli arcangeli

Nei nostri tempi abonda la letteratura sugli angeli—nei libri che si trovano nelle librerie dove ci sono grosse sezioni su questa materia, e anche sull’internet. Purtroppo tanta di questa materia che gira non viene dall’insegnamento della fede cristiana ma dal New Age. Comunque, tutto il mondo tocca questa realtà degli angeli.

Qual’è il significato della nostra festa oggi? Oggi non guardiamo qualche santo che ha superato sua debolezza per essere un vero discepolo di Cristo. Vediamo tre angeli—arcangeli—che non hanno avuto né debolezza né peccato: molto diversi da noi; molto lontano dalla nostra capacità, possiamo dire.

Allora, come ci troviamo con questa celebrazione? Ci insegna alcune cose. Prima, che esistono questi angeli come messageri di Dio, come i suoi strumenti portando la sua parola—sappiamo che la parola angelos vuol dire “messaggero”. Seconda, che questi tre arcangeli, specificamente, fanno una grande parte della storia di salvezza—Michele, come prottetore del popolo eletto, Gabriele che ha portato l’annuncio di Dio, Raffaele che ha portato guarigione al padre di Tobia.

Anche i nomi sono pieni di senso: Michele—“colui come Dio”, Gabriele—“forza di Dio”, Raffaele “Dio ha curato”. Sempre attaccati al nome di Dio. Le loro missioni dependono in Dio; senza di lui non possono stare solo. È impossibile per noi di essere angeli, ma siamo sempre con Dio e dunque, è sempre possibile dare tutti i nostri affari alla disposizione della sua missione. Quindi, nel nostro lavoro, nella nostra presenza si vedrà Dio che salva, che cura, che parla. Perché come gli arcangeli siamo chiamati di essere messaggeri di Dio.

--a homily of mine which I delivered at Comunità Don Bosco, the Salesian community in Rome where I belonged (2002-2004). I made it for the feast of the Archangels, September 29, 2003 when I presided over our Eucharistic celebration. I have not yet made a traslation of this; i'll supply one soon.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

The Courage to Die a Thousand Deaths

“To die for the faith is a call to some; to live the faith is a call for all.”

I have known these words by heart since I was in Grade 6. They have passed on from short-term memory to long-term. Maybe it was because I reviewed well for the exams of Religion Class that time. (It was Fr. Rey Ranjo who taught us that subject.) The words were by Pope John Paul II who, four years before in his visit to the Philippines, had beatified Lorenzo Ruiz.

I was quite impressed by the story of our first Filipino to be raised to the altars. At my young age, I told myself that if ever there would be a film on this man, I would want to play his character. After all, like Lorenzo I am a chinito, am I not?

Yet more than this, it was how St. Lorenzo Ruiz suffered that continues to edify me until now. His words “If I had a thousand lives, I would give all of them up for the Lord” constantly make a deep impression on me.

Suffering for the faith may not be a common experience in our country, but living the faith and doing so with courage does make a lot of sense for all of us. Life may not be easy in the daily tasks that we do but it is our way of answering the call to live the faith.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

LIMITS

And I thought I was Superman… Last week was a deluge. (When was it not?) I always tell people that the work in my office never stops, that it is okay to interrupt me because I would never find myself idle whenever I am inside. And so, welcome, come in!

My whereabouts are predictable: inside the office—writing, preparing my lessons, reading a book or an article, signing documents, arranging files (in perpetual chaos!), working with the computer, checking test papers, essays or creative literary works, meeting students, teachers, parents and confreres; outside the office—in the playground chatting with our young people, or making some three point attempts, stuffing goals in table football; in the faculty room—taking coffee and chatting with our teachers; in the classroom—teaching our young Salesians, seminarians or high school students; in the Salesian residence—doing my laundry; or outside—saying mass, attending meetings or giving talks. What I do isn’t much really… or is it? I don’t really care, for I enjoy every moment.

Then came the trip to Cebu for the meeting of the principals and deans of the Don Bosco schools in the Philippines. Sunday came and had two masses, one in the morning (at Saint Joseph the Worker Parish, Canlubang) and the other in the afternoon at Enchanted Kingdom. Sundays are always busy days for me, days of work as a priest, but as always, I enjoy every moment of it.

But activism always has a price to pay, for after my late afternoon mass, I suddenly felt feverish and drained of energy. Fatigue. I did not cough, but I felt there was something to cough out. The night’s sleep (if ever there was one) was broken by chills. There was infection. Had to see the doctor, had to stop and rest. Now under prescription drugs.

And now I have to take it easy for a while, to relax and to realize that this God-given strength, the ability to do wonders has a limit and thank God, the price that I am paying is not the extremely high one. This is true for everyone. We have the duty to conserve our health for with it we can do even better. May our work be tempered by this thought.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Chillon

Chillon! thy prison is a holy place,
And thy sad floor an altar - for ‘twas trod,
Until his very steps have left a trace
Worn, as if thy cold pavement were a sod,
By Bonivard! May none those marks efface!
For they appeal from tyranny to God.
- “Sonnet on Chillon”, Lord Byron

These days as I struggle over jet lag, scenes from my two weeks’ journey flash before me. Naturally, what remains are the unforgettables, the high moments, so to say, the human experiences that really matter.

Last August 24, as we took a break from our Societas Ethica conferences, we the participants were taken for a tour in some significant places around Leysin. Our first stop struck me: a visit to Château de Chillon, near Montreux, Switzerland. Situated at the coast of Lake Geneva, the castle was a home to the Counts of Savoy and was quite prominent in this particular Swiss region.

The tour around the castle impressed me—with our amiable and entertaining guide, a bearded French Swiss gentleman who speaks very good English. He led us through the dungeons, the courtyards, the upper rooms, the walls and the tower. The whole experience—as I touched the walls, and peered though windows—once again revived my love for things Medieval.

In our walk through the dungeons of the castle, I got fixated on the name of the English poet Byron etched deeply on one of the pillars. It was haunting and our guide told us that he was one of the visitors of the castle who was profoundly struck by the story of the place especially, that episode of Bonivard, the most celebrated among the prisoners of Chillon, that he wrote a sonnet, and then a later, a longer poem.

And likewise I am struck by his act: not so much the etching of his name but the writing of poetry to celebrate emotion—in this case, anguish for the suffering of a prisoner. It was an act that has immortalized the place, nay more, that has proclaimed to the world the sanctity of the walls wonderfully lit by the sunlight reflected by the dancing waters of the lake. It was this kind of light that shone on all the prisoners that have passed Chillon, on all the visitors including Byron, and including my own poor self.

In every place, through every moment: let us leave a memory, an etched name—not on stone but in lucid eulogy—in rimes, in artifacts, or even in the kind act of sharing: in human hearts.

(photo: a quiet moment in one of Chillon's rooms)

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Dear Father...

It would perchance be the highlight of my two week European sojourn...

I left the country for a conference on ethics in a beautiful place called Leysin in Switzerland. Yet I saw that certain moments were much, much greater than the big event of the Societas Ethica.

One such moment I found ca. 2:45 p.m. last Tuesday, August 28, in Valdocco. I never expected that returning to Don Bosco would happen so soon. “Return to Don Bosco” is definitely the battlecry of the Salesians of Don Bosco as they prepare to celebrate the 26th General Chapter next year. I did not know that returning to Don Bosco for me would be this literal: to stand once again before his remains and touch the glass that protected the holy relics.

I have been in that very spot before; this last one was actually my third time. During the first, sometime in December 2002 (the year of my ordination), there was a tingling sensation in my spine, a sense of exuberance at the thought that I was there before the body of our Father, Don Bosco. The second was in May 2003 (tenth anniversary of my profession), when the pilgrimage to Valdocco was a personally planned journey of my faith and vocation. This last one is the most moving—for it is going back to the place of someone whom I have called “Father” in the past 25 years of my life, a return to Don Bosco in the literal sense.

Before Don Bosco’s relics I closed my watery eyes and prayed. I thanked God—for so many things. And to Don Bosco I entrusted myself, my confreres, my collaborators (you dear teachers!) and all the young people under my care.

Wasn’t it 25 years ago when I first stepped into Don Bosco Tarlac as a student? It occurred to me as I stepped into Don Bosco’s Oratory last Tuesday that this was from God, a gift gratuitous, a real human experience that yields a message so important. With this visit that I never asked for yet freely given, he has affirmed me once again that I stay with Don Bosco, that I remain the son of this dear Father.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

LEYSIN

I have branded the trip “exhausting, terribly lengthy, hassle-filled”. And indeed, I had reason to do so, and still it would be an understatement.

Our ordeal began with the usual rituals that we do in airports, on the early morning of Sunday, August 19. Fr. Paul, Fr. Mike and myself were brought to the airport from Don Bosco Makati. The ticket and passport check, the baggages through the X-ray machines, the walk through the metal detector (they didn’t detect my braces!), the checking in, the airport fee, the immigration officer, the X-ray part 2, the body check, and the dull span of time before boarding the plane.

Our flight was supposed to be 10:45am: KLM Manila-Amsterdam-Zurich. The plane was there but there was no sign that we would board. Then it was announced: the flight was cancelled due to engine trouble (another long story told to us which I would skip). We were billeted at the Manila Hotel. We have lost a day.

The next day at the counter we were told that there would still be no flight. After some intercessions from people connected with the airlines as well as some persistence from us, we left Manila on August 21, 12:20am: Korean Airlines-Air France with a new itinerary: Manila-Seoul-Paris-Zurich—a long trip of about 24 hours including the stopovers.

We reached Zurich at 7:00pm of August 21. It was the longest trip I’ve had so far in my life. If we counted since Sunday (with the limbo at Manila Hotel), it would come up to more than two and a half days. We stayed the night in Zurich with Fr. Johan Dumandan and a Filipino family as our gracious hosts. Exhaustion set in as we began to lose the adrenalin that powered us the preceding days.

The long trip to Leysin resumed yesterday morning with our train trip from Zurich. It extended to more than three hours: Zurich-Lausanne-Aigle-Leysin. And what a trip the last leg was. It was an ascent that was rewarding: very pleasant weather in a scenic village among the Alps: the destination a real consoling blessing. Thus is life: through adversity to glory.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

The Final and Ultimate Critic

The prelude was an unexpected private meeting in the afternoon of August 4. I was browsing through the shelves of Solidaridad, the bookstore at Padre Faura, as has always been my wont whenever I passed by that area in Ermita. I looked at the books written by F. Sionil Jose and saw his latest—the novel Vibora! among those displayed. There were new translations to his novels, particularly one that caught my eye—the Italian version of Viajero. I bought several titles: Vibora!, Olvidon, Ermita, Sin, Three Filipino Women and Gagamba. I reminded myself that I was teaching fiction in my creative writing class and thus needed to get familiar once again with the genre by reading. As I paid for the books, just out of curiosity, I asked the cashier whether it was possible to have my books signed by Mr. Jose himself who owned the book shop. I was delighted when I heard the affirmative. In a few minutes, I was asked to enter his study and after a short while I was face to face with the literary giant, our very own best bet for the Nobel in Literature; the 1980 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Literature; our 2001 National Artist and 2004 Pablo Neruda Centennial Awardee bestowed by the government of Chile; the Filipino novelist translated into 28 languages…

Our meeting lasted for about an hour. I had an interesting chat with him on his works that I read. What impresses me right now about that particular conversation besides the great person himself was the tone of familiarity that pervaded in that quiet interlocution.

And I realized the reason for this familiarity: it was because I have known the author through his writings; I read them and have savored the words and the experiences that they represented. In the end I asked for the possibility of him giving a short lecture to my class in creative writing and he gladly acceded to my request.

And so the next week I brought the whole class to meet the man. It was an important day for these aspiring writers. They saw the literary giant and heard him speak about himself, about his writings and about aspiring to be a writer—different themes each of which deserves a whole essay or reflection.

He mentioned that there are certain professions which are more properly called vocations: the priesthood, teaching, the medical profession, and, he added with great emphasis, writing. He affirmed with solemnity: writing is a vocation because it is meant to serve. He says that a writer must be passionate. Writers, he said, are probably the most egoistic of people since what they write is about things as viewed by themselves. However, he said, the celebration of the self must lead to a celebration that is much, much greater than the writer, something bigger, more meaningful than the self. It is this that will make the writing endure, that will make it stand the test of time. In this line, F. Sionil Jose adds that the final and ultimate critic is time. The greatness of a work will be seen if it withstands this test.

This is true for any other work, great or small. In the last analysis, little failures would not count so much because of the good that we have done consistently.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Empathy

Each year, sandwiched between the feast of two great saints (St. Dominic on August 8 and St. Lawrence on August 10), we celebrate that of a great woman: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross—more popularly known in philosophical circles as Edith Stein.

Her life had many turning points as it had many facets. Edith Stein was a philosopher, a convert from Judaism, a Carmelite nun, a martyr, and a saint. She was a disciple of the great phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl. So awestruck was I by all this that once I thought of taking her as the philosopher of my choice for my licentiate thesis. Though this thought did not materialize, as I instead wrote on Ernst Bloch. However, my admiration for this philosopher-martyr has never faded. I continue to dream about her deep insights.


Her doctoral dissertation was entitled
On the Problem of Empathy. It is a philosophical work and therefore uses categories that are beyond the great majority who have not pursued the vocation to be a philosopher. However, I find it interesting that this was the topic of her choice. Sympathy for a person means feeling with that person. Empathy is much deeper than that: it is feeling in, that is, really experiencing the joy or the sorrow of the other person.

Perhaps it is this thought of empathy that paved the way for the major turning points in her life. Experiencing the rewarding life of a fulfilled philosopher who sought for truth was not enough for her: she sought the Truth who was God himself and thus went deeper—into contemplation—as she entered the walls of Carmel. It was empathy that made her endure the dread of entering the gates of Auschwitz and facing death. In what she preached she was tested and passed with flying colors.


Dear friends, empathy is not an easy thing. To sympathize is hard enough (though it is non-committal); to empathize is even more tedious as it will demands a lot from us. Yet empathy is one more way of going the extra mile, of being convinced that in the sense of living comes with doing things wholeheartedly.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Thought


L’homme n’est qu’un roseau, le plus faible de la nature, mais c’est un roseau pensant.” (“Man is but a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed.”) - Blaise Pascal, Pensées.

The human being is great because of thought. This sums up Blaise Pascal’s treatise on the human being. It was proper of the times he was in—the age of reason which began with the “Cogito, ergo sum” of Descartes.


Some days ago, I showed to my philosophy students the film Inherit the Wind
, starring Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, and Gene Kelly. The movie features the famous case of a school teacher who was charged for violating a law against teaching evolution. While the issues that it touched are quite diverse, with themes on Biblical fundamentalism versus evolutionism or religion versus science, I was struck by the fact that it is the thinking human being who was actually on trial. The following lines are worth remembering:

“Then why did God plague us with the capacity to think? Mr. Brady, why do you deny the one thing that sets above the other animals? What other merit have we? The elephant is larger, the horse stronger and swifter, the butterfly more beautiful, the mosquito more prolific, even the sponge is more durable.”


Without prejudice to the reality that it was God himself who has given us dignity, I would tend to hold that the capacity to think is among these gifts that are part of the “glory and honor” that God has crowned the human being. It is that which sets us apart from all creation.


It is my conviction that thinking is a sacred act. It is thus in making our students think that sanctifies education, when we let them share in this divine gift. It is that which bestows durability to the feeble reed. It is “teaching how to fish rather that giving the fish.”


The human mind is a well that never runs dry. Even in an environment of anti-intellectualism, the champions of thought will prevail: for God has plagued us with this capacity to think.

Saturday, 4 August 2007

“I will show you the way to Heaven”


“Tu m’as montré le chemin d’Ars; moi, je te montrerai le chemin du ciel.”
(St. John Vianney to a young shepherd who showed him the way to Ars)

Ars is a tiny village—one can see that even to these days. However, it is famous for the parish priest it once had: St. John Mary Vianney, patron of priests (especially parish priests), whose memorial we just celebrated (Aug. 4).

Ars is likewise special for me. I have been there twice—Dec. 26, 2002 and April 25, 2003. The impact of the visit to the place has been equally tremendous each of the times I was there. I always marveled at how the Saint lived his simple life with the rigors it entailed. It was a privilege to see his heart, and his remains (the body was still intact, minus the head which was replaced by a wax figure).

The first time I was there, I asked the sacristan (a certain Frére Michel) whether I could say Mass and he said yes, but he asked for my celebret (an identification which is a proof that I was a priest). Seeing the date of my ordination which was barely six months before, he told me that new priests are given the privilege to say Mass using the chalice of the Saint. And so I had that chance. And I celebrated Mass in the side altar of our Lady where St. John himself said his daily Mass.

The epigraph above is a quote from the Saint when a boy indicated to him where is the road that led to Ars when he went from Lyons to the village which was his new assignment. He told the boy: “You have shown me the way to Ars. I will show you the way to Heaven.” These words of the Curate of Ars recall one meaning that we put into the word education: leading others into a higher realm, as in drawing them from the darkness of ignorance to the light of truth and knowledge. As a Christian and Salesian educator, I can say that we not only teach our young the basics of our own field of knowledge but we also prepare them for life, nay more, even the life that comes after this. Little do we see it at times, but our contact with them is “showing them the way to Heaven.” Sometimes, we may not see the change that we effect in the young people and children who seem to be unmoved by the love we pour into our work, but dear friends, it will never be a waste: it will always be—even for us—a way to heaven.
(photo taken at Ars in Dec. 26, 2002 as I celebrated mass in St. John Vianney's favorite altar. Inset: a icon of St. John Marie Vianney)

Monday, 30 July 2007

Hearing without Listening


Last July 26 I was reflecting on the Gospel passage for the day which was about Jesus' explanation of the Parable of the Sower (Mt 13:18-23). The pericope reminded me of the time when we, as college seminarians tried to catch other seminarians off-guard as to whether they listened to the gospel reading in the Mass that morning. We just rang off with “What is the Gospel for today?” Then those who did not know it (those who either forgot or did not listen at all) would meet the one asking with a sheepish look. That made them more aware and thus be more attentive the next time the Gospel was read.

The parable reminds me of a famous song by Simon and Garfunkel: “The Sound of Silence.” It has the lines: “And in the naked light I saw/ ten thousand people, maybe more/ people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening…”

Yes, indeed, it is possible for people to hear without listening. And sad to say, this is what often happens. At school we give announcements often—surely, everyone hears them but not everyone really listens. Hearing is involuntary; listening, voluntary.

But heed this: listening opens to us a lot of possibilities. I teach music to our 3rd and 4th year high school students. Last week, I asked them to listen once more to the Medieval Music that we have discussed in the past. I asked them to write anything that came into their mind (feelings, memories, imagination, entire stories) as they listened to the selection of music. I was impressed with many of the essays. The product of listening is a work that is profound.
This is one task that we should not give up on: that of moving others not only to hear but to really listen. May this not fall on deaf ears, nay more, on ears that do not listen.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

The Teacher as Instrumental, as Inspiration


Platinum, Ten Filipino Stories; The God Stealer and Other Stories; Po-on; Tree; My Brother, My Executioner; The Pretenders; Mass; Viajero; Ben Singkol—eight books by the same author, and counting! His productive output is far greater than this shortlist, for what I have enumerated are only those volumes of his that I have read.


Any student of literature would immediately recognize that these are the works of F. Sionil José, the foremost Filipino novelist in English, a personal favorite. Once I had the chance of attending a lecture of his on the subject “The Novel as Autobiography.” Ben Singkol had just come out of the press and after a short chat with him, I asked him to sign my copy.


At about this time last year, I found myself at Solidaridad, Sionil José’s bookshop at Padre Faura. For more than an hour I was browsing through the different titles. I bought two of his books, collections of essays—Heroes in the Attic, Termites in the Sala--Why We Are Poor and This I Believe: Gleanings from a life in literature. At lunchtime the day I bought the books I began reading This I Believe and managed to go through half of the book in that sitting. The dedication page reads: “To the memory of Soledad C. Oriel, Paz Latorena, and Juan Labrador.” Who were these persons? They were his teachers. Sionil José often mentions them as the ones to whom he is indebted, those who made him fall in love with literature. Soledad Oriel, in particular, was his Grade Five teacher who introduced him to authors like Rizal, Willa Cather and the great Miguel de Cervantes.


Sionil José is a literary giant not only locally but in the international scene as well (he is translated into 24 languages!). This skill for writing and this passion for literature was awakened in him by teachers who saw his gifts—teachers like those I encounter everyday. Long live the educator!

Friday, 20 July 2007

Steps and Leaps


Sometimes, it does help to look at things which we oftentimes take for granted. In my office I am keeping a copy of the Bosconian’s Daily Guide (more popularly known as the Student’s Diary). The importance of the Daily Guide cannot be questioned--it serves as the link between the school and the home; it includes a lot of features that are valuable especially to each student who bears a copy. I myself found it thus when I was a student. However, the copy that keep in the shelf of my office is meant simply to instruct others how to use it or to serve as a ready reference with regard to the student guidelines.

Two days ago I was idly browsing through the pages of the Diary. July 20 read: “1969. Humankind first landed on the Moon. Neil Alden Armstrong, Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., and Michael Collins were aboard the space shuttle Apollo 11 for this historic lunar mission. At exactly 10:56 p.m. EDT, Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon.”
I was not yet born when that great event was seen on live television. History tells us that on becoming the first person to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong declared: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Our lifetime has seen a lot of steps—and leaps—in terms of space exploration, inventions, and other scientific achievements. Our generation never imagined that we would get this far so quickly. This is true not only in science but in other fields as well. There is a revolution not only in the world of action and inventions, but also in the world of speculation. Precisely, what we see manifested in the outside is what is happening in the human person. It is a revolution of the mind. Philosophical movements have never been so many at a given point.

The field of education where I find myself right now is exactly moving in the same direction. There are a lot of innovations, not only in terms of being able to use modern means in delivering the same lessons, but also in the process itself--in the mechanics: from planning the lesson to the delivery itself. At this point, let me say as I encourage all those in the teaching profession: the efforts that you exert in this line may be small steps to your estimate, but they are giant leaps after all. Yes, sometimes it does help to look at things which we oftentimes take for granted.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Where You Belong


It is interesting that the top two TV stations in the country try to win viewers to their side by making the latter feel that they indeed belong—via the words kapamilya and kapuso. Yet this strategy is not unique in them. All the other advertisements have this element of relationship in them. It is what is promoted in a myriad of ways via words of belonging: kaberks, katext, kainuman, kabayan, and so on.

We all desire to belong to a group. We belong to a family, to a school, to a class; we seek to be part of associations and organizations. As early as when I was in grade school, I had wanted to be part of as many groups as possible and so I joined the Knights of the Altar, the Boy Scouts, the Junior Journalists Club, the Junior Aspirants’ Club, the choir.

This is indeed one of the aims of the youth groups and sodalities whose formation we give utmost importance in our school. Membership in a group gives one a sense of belongingness, of sharing with others. In a group, one will not be lost in the crowd because he is seen more as an individual who is capable of sharing time and talent.

Don Bosco himself gave importance to this aspect of life. He encouraged sodalities—meant for the smooth running of the Oratory, but also the venue for camaraderie and formation.
In our school, we continue this wonderful Salesian tradition because we believe that in the group, young people become more aware of their responsibilities. In their own way they can make a difference—among themselves, in the school, and even in the Church and the society.

Finally, the youth group is a wonderful venue where the young person will be able to exercise leadership. In Don Bosco’s time, the leaders of the groups were later on invited to join him in his work. Aye, the youth groups are a great source of vocation. And this I would like to affirm because being part of a group and leading it was a happy memory that made me more open to God’s call for me to become a Salesian.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Lessons from the World Cup Final 2006


It was around this time last year that saw the world football fanatics (me included) glued to the television screens, save those who saw the World Cup Finals in the stadium in Berlin. The spectators were treated to a feast of football as France and Italy played for the title. It was won by Italy via penalty shootout after a score of 1-1 after 90 minutes of the regular playing time and another 30 minutes of extension.

I have rooted for France, and so I lost in the “bets” I made with friends who cheered for Italy. Anyway, this championship match gave me several thoughts to ponder:
1. Leadership matters a lot. One of the highlights of the match was Zinedine Zidane getting a red card for the head butt he gave to Italy’s Marco Materazzi. His ejection was the turning point of the game: the French players lost their spirit; from that minute they crumbled and made the Italians force the deadlock to the end. His leadership and presence mattered a lot.

2. The last act will always be remembered. It is true, Zidane’s greatness will be forever etched in football history—his skills, his leadership, his sportsmanship. I can even say that he deserves the Golden Ball award that he got as the best player of this tournament. Yet, it could have been sweeter without that head butt.

3. In a winning team, everyone delivers. Italy is a clear case of this. They made twelve goals in all—from 10 different players! It was all so well distributed that no one really cared if there were superstars or not. They just had to win as a team. Part of the picture was the superb performance of their goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon who conceded only two goals and neither was scored on the run of play.

Dear friends, these lessons can be adopted in whatever vocation or profession we are in. In a good number of ways, we exercise leadership daily. Our inspiring presence means a lot--to our family, to our colleagues. Our deeds create a deep impression in the lives of the people we encounter and we have to preserve the beauty of this happy reality. Together with the people around us, we work to be a winning team.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

The Age of Chivalry


Throughout the years, ever since I acquired this insatiable passion for reading, I have accumulated books enough to build a modest library. This library I have enshrined in our humble home (first at Tarlac and now in Angeles). The classics dominate the collection, beginning with the first novels I read—Oliver Twist, Don Quixote. The Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid are not to be missed. Later on, philosophy and theology books joined in to fill another section.


One book that I have opened more than once or twice was Bulfinch’s Mythology—and it was not only because of the classical Greek and Roman Mythology beautifully recounted by Thomas Bulfinch. Rather, it was more because of the second part of the trilogy: The Age of Chivalry.
This part recounts the tales of kings and knights, particularly, the legend of King Arthur. What drew me to these was the sense of the heroic that was very much present even in the non-fictional counterpart of these tales—the Middle Ages.

I love dwelling on this portion of history as it is truly rich in so many aspects. Literature in this stage teemed with so many productions, most of them, epics; philosophy had St. Thomas Aquinas at the fore; architecture yielded the castles whose majestic remnants continue to captivate tourists; the paintings were not pompous but were powerful. And its music: from the ubiquitous Gregorian chant to the wandering music of the minstrels. It was the bridge from the ancient to the gifted flair of the Renaissance.


It is this brand of music that I am presenting these days to my students in Music 3 & 4—Gregorian Chant, Old Roman, Arabic-Byzantine, works by Richard the Lionheart and others. It is the deep breath before we plunge into the more popular periods—Baroque, Classical and Romantic.


In our discussion, I asked my students what they can say about the quality of Medieval Music. They produced many adjectives that may be summed up into two: serene and deliberate. This is what draws me to the Age of Chivalry: it is not a shallow whim. May our lives be a reflection of this wonderful era where nobility and honor reign supreme.

Friday, 6 July 2007

The Color Yellow


Twice, and twenty years apart, the color yellow has made an enduring dent on my memory—and for different reasons, events literally and conceptually far apart. 1983 saw Ninoy Aquino lying in blood, dead on the tarmac. But the days that followed were covered neither by red nor black. It was yellow that swept the scenery: in flags, shirts, headbands, confetti, not only in the funeral but beyond, onto the EDSA revolution.

However, that is altogether another story different from what I wish to develop now. Allow me to be less profound today (yet equally fervent) as I write about the color yellow 20 years later—in 2003. Today, I take on the shoes of a spectator as I join many others in watching a spectacle (via TV), in witnessing a display of heart and endurance in the world’s most prestigious cycling event: the Tour de France. In July of 2003, as I did my French course in Angers, I was taken up by this sporting event that I went to Nantes (the birthplace of the writer Jules Verne) just to see Lance Armstrong retain his yellow jersey and assure himself of winning against his closest rival Jan Ullrich who took a spill in that stage. It was in that stage that I personally encountered Ivan Basso, the winner of the white jersey (best young rider) the year before and subsequently 2nd runner-up in 2004 and 1st runner-up in 2005. However, it was the yellow jersey won by Armstrong that made me a fan of this sport as it is a showcase of what the human spirit can achieve even after a fall. One should note that Armstrong was a cancer survivor before winning the Tour seven consecutive times. I was also viewing recently on youtube one of his most memorable stage wins: the climb to Luz Ardiden (also in 2003; see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=27SFeKk2LpY). Such tremendous determination! And in the end, the yellow jersey to savor. May our personal struggles see the color yellow in the end. (photo shows Fr. Joel with Ivan Basso at Nantes)

Thursday, 28 June 2007

With You, Always


The celebration of today brings me back to Parañaque five years ago when I was ordained priest. Many years before that, I had dreamed of the day I would become a priest and thence had always looked forward to it. That moment of my ordination was the first time I stopped looking forward to it. It was a thing of the present, always present, for priesthood is forever. In my thanksgiving Mass the next day, I told everyone present in the Chapel of Don Bosco Tarlac: “Once there was a boy who served Mass almost everyday in this Chapel. Then for a while he was gone. Now he is back, not anymore to serve the Mass. Now he will be the one to preside the Mass.”


One of the beautiful thoughts I had in the days surrounding my ordination was my chosen theme from Matthew 28:20 which I have always fondly abbreviated to “with you, always”. I was awestruck at the fact that in everything that was, in the path towards priesthood, God had always been there for me—ever present, ever assuring me of His great love.


Today I bask in that love.