Provincial Superior of the Philippine Jesuits
January 1, 2010
It is January again, the month of Janus, the two-faced Roman god of gates and doors (Latin, ianua), beginnings and endings, able to look backward to the past and forward to the future. So now, let us simply do that – look back to 2009, and look forward to 2010.
First, we look back…
Like all years, the year 2009 brought good news and bad. Worldwide, it was a difficult year as the financial meltdown that began in 2008 continued till the middle of 2009, before the start of some recovery. The AHIN1 virus showed up in over 200 countries and alarmed many peoples. The violence in Afghanistan and Gaza intensified. A gathering in Copenhagen for climate change ended ambivalently at best. It was the year Obama took over as the first African American president of the US. It was the year of Slumdog Millionaire and Susan Boyle. It was the year of the passing away of Michael Jackson and Farah Fawcett.
Here in the Philippines, 2009 was the year of chacha’s HR1109, GMA’s 20-thousand dollar dinner in New York, Maguindanao’s shocking massacre, Western Mindanao’s many kidnappings, and the revolting scandals of Katrina Halili and Hayden Kho. A few weeks ago, Mayon began to heat up, even as it continues to stay deadly still to this day. It was the year of Ondoy and Pepeng, which hit some of our own Jesuit families and many of our friends. But it was also a great year for heroes, from Manny Pacquiao, to Efren Peñaflorida, to the much loved and respected Cory Aquino, to the many little heroes who gave their lives to save those who were trapped by the floods. It was the year of Santino, telling us about how to talk to Bro and to believe na May Bukas Pa!
For us Jesuits of the Philippine Province, in 2009, we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the return of the Society of Jesus to the Philippines after the suppression, and the sesquicentennial of the Ateneo de Manila University. On this occasion, Father General, himself, blessed us with his presence last July. Exactly a year ago, Joey Fermin was in his last days, and Rey Ocampo and Tom Green were still with us for the January 1 gathering. Now they have passed on, as have Mike Bernad and Jim Mckeough and Ignacio de Moreta. Six men have died, and we accepted four men into the novitiate, and ordained six baby priests and seven deacons. We discussed the futures of our presence in Mindanao, our work with the Chinese-Filipino communities, and our responsibilities in basic Jesuit formation. We are still bleeding financially, and yet we are strengthened and encouraged by many of our friends who have continued to support the Province and our works.
Through these peak times, we struggle with our daily routines, as we work through our classes and papers, our meetings, our planning. We do our best to live our vows. We face whatever challenges and crises come our way. We resist the fatigue and the weaker knees and the more frequent senior moments. Things happen, at a time and in a manner we only frequently just slightly understand, and only in hindsight do we discover the wisdom behind it all – truly, the Lord’s inscrutable ways.
Every year, we say that we have to give thanks to God for the blessings of the past year. But really, as I get older and become more pragmatic or even cynical, I find it more and more difficult to see God’s hand in everything, and often, giving thanks can become so routine and banal. More frequently, I have the experience of Moses who hears the thunder and the lightning and the trumpet blast, who has a sense of a powerful presence, who sees the fire and the cloud, but when he comes near, all he sees is smoke. (Exodus 19)
God revealed is also elusive and mysterious and ungraspable. Why has it gotten so much more difficult to see God’s hand in everything and so, give thanks?
One author (Mark Galli) provides an answer by comparing our relationship to God with his experience of falling in love with his wife.
“As I started to fall in love with the woman who was to become my wife, I became increasingly fascinated with her. I wanted to know what books she liked, what hobbies she enjoyed, what her favorite color was. I wondered what her family was like, if she had previous boyfriends, and what goals she had for her life.
“The more I probed, the more I became curious…. Each time I found something out, I wanted to know why and how. And I could not get enough of her. I was madly in love.
“We got married. And the years passed. Little by little, things changed. There came a time in our marriage when, sadly, my wife no longer seemed a mystery to me. I thought I pretty much had her figured out. I knew her so well, she began to grate on me—her opinions, her habits, her turns of phrase were all so predictable! Instead of longing to be with her more and more, I wanted to get away.
“The problem was not that she had become boring; it was that I had put her in the Barbara Box, a neat little container that defined who Barbara was.
So it is with God. We do fall in love with Him. But time does pass, and things change.
“A little knowledge of God is a dangerous thing, and after a while, we think we’ve got him figured out. And we put God in that neat little container.
“Then one day, we go to get God out of that container—we expect him to answer a prayer or bless a venture, or we look for an answer to some tragedy we face—and we open it and find he is not there. Just when we needed him, he’s up and gone! And we are angry.
“We stomp around the room in a fury, and we pout, and we vow never to be so naïve again about religion. And then we start to cry.
That’s what has happened. So every now and then, it is good to look back to the early days. We remember our first love, and those days “when our desire to love God was far stronger than our desire to manipulate Him. More than wanting to merely use God, we simply want God.”
And so for now, let us look back to the early days of loving God, and maybe we might be able to really give thanks to this God who very quietly moves in our lives. But if you cannot say thank you yet, I invite you to do as Mary did … and to just keep these in our hearts for now, and wait and pray, and ask for the grace of that moment when we can truly say from the depths of our hearts, thank you!
Now let’s look to the future. Let’s look to 2010…
Since none of us here are fortune-tellers, we cannot do this second task with great detail, as we did the looking back. But maybe, what we can do is to try to provide an optic to help us live the coming year, in fidelity to who we are and what we have been called to do.
Last June 2009, the Holy Father led the Church in opening the Year for Priests, which is ending this June 2010. So I invite you to look at the coming year, as members of this priestly Society of Jesus. In an article he wrote in 2002, Father Michael Buckley points out that as Jesuits, our priesthood is not mainly cultic, nor mainly pastoral. These belong more properly to our bishops and our brother diocesan priests. For Jesuits, our priesthood is mainly prophetic…
(This reflection was intended mainly for Jesuits, but all Christians, by virtue of our Baptism are called to be priests and prophets…)
…and this involves speaking God’s Word to people, and making men and women hear this word, and assimilate it into their hearts, and incarnate it in their lives. In short, it means telling the world in a powerful way, something that we often only half-believe most of the time – that yes, we can be holy, and that yes, it is possible for us to be saints.
St Hippolytus writes: (On the Refutation of All Heresies, Office of Readings for December 30):
We know that by taking a body from the Virgin he re-fashioned our fallen nature. We know that his manhood was of the same clay as our own; if this were not so, he would hardly have been a teacher who could expect to be imitated. If he were of a different substance from me, he would surely not have ordered me to do as he did, when by my very nature I am so weak. Such a demand could not be reconciled with his goodness and justice.
No. He wanted us to consider him as no different from ourselves, and so he worked, he was hungry and thirsty, he slept. Without protest he endured his passion, he submitted to death and revealed his resurrection. In all these ways he offered his own manhood as the first fruits of our race to keep us from losing heart when suffering comes our way…. He was truly Word made flesh, and …
The saying “Know yourself” means therefore that we should recognise and acknowledge in ourselves the God who made us in his own image….
So let us look forward to 2010, not knowing what it will bring. For some of us this year will be a year of transitions, for some a year of major shifts and decisions, for some a time of crisis and difficulty, for some a time of facing debilitation or diminishment or death, in our families, in our selves. For many, it will very well be more of the same. We do not really know how it will end, but as Jesuits belonging to this priestly Society of Jesus (and as Christians baptized into Christ), we are called to be prophets, and to tell all those around us that through it all, we can be holy. We have it in us to be saints, and recognize that we are creatures, dependent on the unfathomable power of God.