It feels good to be back.
This is a place that shaped me to be what and who I am. This is a school that moulded me, and, by God’s grace, a home that I also helped develop over the many years I was here – all told, a total of 20 years of my life!
I came here as a wide-eyed college freshman back in 1972, when the South Luzon tollway was yet on the drawing board. Back then, from everywhere we stood in campus, we could see untrammeled, three distinct and unmistakable landmarks that told us we were in beloved Canlubang – the slopes of Mt. Makiling in the east, the horned peak of Mt. Sungay in the west, and the signature smoke stacks of the then enviable, remarkable, and at one and the same time, rustic, yet progressive, Canlubang Sugar Estate.
The Philippines then, and its system of education, was the envy of the rest of our Asian neighbors. A significant number of their citizens flocked to our universities to get a solid education in all imaginable fields. When I left Canlubang in 1979, for Theological studies, the South Luzon expressway was then in full operation, and whilst our educational system still could make a few of our Southeast Asian neighbors’ heads turn, things were starting to take a back seat to a highly politicized people whose tolerance for a heavy-handed and authoritarian regime, was running low.
I came back here in 1983, after four years of theological studies, an emaciated but enthusiastic young priest, who would rather be doing ministry anywhere else but in Canlubang. The economy was in disarray. The political scene was beginning to crumble. We hit rock bottom when Ninoy Aquino, on whom the whole nation pinned her hopes for better governance, was assassinated. That was the time when we were at our worst, and at our best. The economy was on a tailspin dive. Money was hard to come by, and imports dwindled to a trickle. But, true to our form as a resilient people, we rose to the occasion, and made miracles out of whatever precious little we could come up with. The lowly lugaw became dish extraordinaire to savor with relish, and fill growling stomachs. A variety of street food the likes of which my generation would never have dreamt of, nor imagined as children, became fare de rigueur: isaw, IUD, day-old chicks fried to a crisp and dipped in bright orange batter, adidas, and helmet, and the now all-time favorite, tokwa’t baboy.
We became creative in many aspects of our lives, from gustatory delights made from stuff that no self-respecting chef anywhere in the world would dare even touch, to hand-me-down right-hand drive vehicles that were converted in no time to run on pothole-ridden streets all over the country, to making fun of the powers-that-be through rhyme or rhythm, drama or dance. We registered our protest in music and mime, and made known our dissatisfaction with government in poetry and prose, by means fair or foul, in every imaginable way. We definitely suffered as a people. But we thrived. We flourished in circumstances where others of weaker fiber, would probably have perished.
At the lowest point in our civil lives, we rose in the estimation of the whole world. We made history as a people in 1986, precisely when we were in the nadir of our collective experience of oppression and injustice. We were at our best when we thought we were at our worst. We came up with the ultimate wonder that shocked and awed the whole world, a miracle that could not have happened without intervention from above. It was indeed, as the popular song goes, a great “handog ng Pilipino sa mundo” a gift of the Filipino people to the world.
But further tests and trials came our way. We could not handle success. We did not know what to do with newfound freedom. Just when we were poised to take off and once more take our rightful place under the sun of respected, developing and developed nations, we shot ourselves in the foot. Not once. Not twice, but many times over. We learned the art of making coup d’etat. We almost became a banana republic. But then again, some enterprising guy made use of that concept, turned it around, and capitalized on it by selling apparel appropriately named – what else? – but Banana Republic!
We found solace in humor. We rolled on the floor with national dignity and poise intact, laughing at ourselves. Congressman Manhik-Manaog became a familiar figure in our households. The face and the person behind those infamous three thousand pairs of shoes became object of endless satire and subtle – but always funny – innuendoes. We laughed when we were angry. We laughed even when our government was almost down on her knees one fine day of December 1989, when two US Phantom jets had to do what they called persuasion flights in order to send the dog of rebellion away, with tail tucked between its legs.
And it was not funny at all. We knew that. People were dying for nothing, some of them hit by stray bullets, because they were laughing their way through the lines of battle, giving silly victory signs to media people from all over the world.
We were so taken up with what they call a healthy sense of humor. Yes, probably therapists were right in talking about the uncanny ability of us Pinoys to laugh endlessly at our own foibles.
But on hindsight, even as we laughed and guffawed our way to mental health, we might have missed out on a whole lot of other things. We were growing immune to emerging national problems, and getting used to shooting ourselves in the foot once too often. Liberal mainstream media came out to entertain us, to inform us, and, I might add, to dehumanize us. TV Patrol took news reporting to a whole new level. Without us realizing, that prime time bit of tabloid entertainment masquerading as news began to set the tone followed by the other network, and recently followed by a third emerging media giant, all three specializing in doling out what is passed off as news - editorialized, biting against those who are not on their side, and definitely biased. As we made minced meat of the shenanigans of public figures through laughter, we missed out on so many more important issues, and we woke up one morning realizing that, first, we had no safety nets to cushion the runaway population growth and the concomitant swelling ranks of half educated graduates who had no jobs to look forward to. Second, our hearts sank in disbelief and denial realizing that the envied educational system of yore, has turned into yarn, or has become mere urban legend. Would-be lawyers who were graduates of the best law schools of the land could not pass the bar exams because of their atrocious English. They did not understand the questions, so how were they expected to give answers? Up till now, I still am of the opinion that not all of us have fully realized that the demons we fought so hard for, and laughed about and against, prior to 1986 are now back with a vengeance, or that most probably, they actually had never left at all. Hydra-headed corruption, institutionalized and deeply embedded in all aspects of our private and public social institutions, including schools, from the national government down to the lowly, but lucrative barangay offices, has actually not disappeared, but merely temporarily retreated until the coast was cleared. It rose to prominence when we let down our guard. As we laughed, it quietly took root. Even as we protested quietly, it careened out of anyone’s control. First, we thought it was only Customs or BIR that was involved. Then, before we knew it, it was the Bureau of Immigration, too; the LTO, and the AFP. The standing joke right now, as you know, is that the best business school in the world as of this time is not Wharton School of Business, but the PMA, where honor, integrity, loyalty are good only for photo ops during graduation. Now, it is all part of what Jun Lozada popularized simply as “kalakaran,” from the NAIA, to NIA; from SUCs to LGUs. We realized that, for all the efforts, hopes, and pleadings we put into getting up two historical EDSA revolts, it only takes four short years for a greedy AFP general to quietly stash hundreds of millions of pesos, and buy some ten houses somewhere in their favorite vacation and shopping place, the great United States of America, with plenty of cash to spare for relatives and friends back home.
But now, back to my story about Canlubang and me. Ten years into my priesthood, fresh from studies in the eternal city, I was back here in Canlubang in 1992. There were more seminarians than the facilities could handle. The College was getting to become close to impossible to run as a College should be run, what with the sore lack of funds to keep the enterprise of quality education going. Problems ranged from dealing with the daily hours-long "brown-outs" (power outages) to looking for decent plates, cups, and saucers, and study desks and chairs, the sore lack of which almost made college and seminary life look more like they were on perpetual camping mode with very little study on the side.
Problems had a name ... Legion ... and my having just planed in then from affluent Western Europe and USA didn't help any with my creeping sense of despondency and depression. Buildings and facilities were run-down. Cow manure littered the whole place, including the corridors. Praying the rosary while walking up and down campus was a little like playing Russian Roulette. Every evening promised to be full of surprises. And quite unlike Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, "you never knew what you were gonna git," it was just a matter of minutes before the smell of freshly stepped on manure, would waft through the air, signaling that some unfortunate soul had stepped on some mine that was definitely not gold, but something that would goad you into running for the nearest faucet for a good foot bath.
I would like to stop here ... Yes! and no, ... I am not referring to my talk, but what I mean is to stop giving you all a litany of woes.
Why do I tell you this story, you might wonder? It is simply this ... I have a story to tell and it is not about me, but about you all ...
But first, let me begin with a story within a story ... It is a story of a man named Richard Rich. In Robert Bolt's moving play "A Man for All Seasons," Richard Rich was a promising and ambitious young man who happened to cross paths with the great Thomas More. Focused on his goals, Richard, who saw an opportunity of a lifetime, petitioned the Chancellor Thomas More to give him a position among the gliteratti of King Henry VIII's court. "I can offer you no position as a courtier, but only one as teacher," the saint answered the young man. Rich was crestfallen. To lift up his spirits a bit, More rejoined: "You will make for a good teacher." The ambitious young man then asked him, "And if I were, who would know it?" He did not want to be a nobody. He wanted to make it big and be somebody. Sometime later in the moving story, after More had done him a favor by giving him a gift of a golden goblet which the saint refused to use, thinking that it had been given to him as a bribe. Richard Rich accepted it, and later perjured himself, betrayed his benefactor and mentor, testified against him for the trumped up crime of bribery, in exchange for being a collector of tax revenues for Wales, and effectively sent the saint to death in the gallows. He made it big alright, but at the expense of a man who knew what it meant to live with honor and integrity.
This is a story within a bigger story that I want to share with you today, especially the graduates.
This is the story of Don Bosco College, Canlubang and a great deal of the graduates that she has produced since 1963, and the people who formed them ... a story of simplicity and quiet dedication to things that people wouldn't even know about. This is the story told by so many individuals who were the exact antithesis of the likes of Richard Rich and his ilk, who had focus, but no refinement; goals, but no vision; ambition but no dedication; achievement but no honor and integrity.
This is the story of Father Joseph Carreno, who, together with the likes of Father Carlo Braga, and the selfless generosity of the late Don Jose Yulo, Sr. saw beyond the seeming lack of promise and prosperity in the sugar cane studded fields out in the boonies of Laguna, and invested their time, treasure and talent, and a lot of courage and hope to lay the foundations of a college you chose to enroll in.
Father Joseph Carreno, educated beyond my capabilities, learned beyond compare, a mathematician, a polyglot, a scientist, and so many other things all rolled into one, left a very successful mission in far flung India to lay the cornerstone of a dream that was Don Bosco College. Quite unlike the ambitious Rich in Bolt's play, he died relatively unknown, uncelebrated, perhaps even unappreciated in his native Spain. He worked hard for others, but did not work hard at getting a name for himself.
This is a story about the likes, too, of Fr. Alfred G. Cogliandro, founder, builder, photographer, preacher par excellence, spiritual director and leader. Having spent so many years in Italy, India, and the United States, he saw the best and the worst of both worlds. He was at home in plenty, and even more so at home in situations of want. He had a vision, and little ambition. He lived and worked quietly, simply, faithfully all the way till the last days of his earthly life till he died September 11, 1992.
This is the story of Father John Monchiero. He was a Jack-of-all trades. He was a farmer, a pastor, a confessor, a self-styled chemist, and a social worker. As Director of RI, he was the lifeline of many a poor family in Buntog, Mabato, Mangumit, Kasile and many other far-flung barrios. He would buy their meager vegetable harvest, for they had no way of taking them down to market. He helped many sick people earn back their health and regain their self-respect. His simplicity is summed up by his motto which we found attached to his bed: "Ask for nothing. Refuse nothing. Expect nothing. Be satisfied if they tolerate you."
This is the story of Fr. George Schwarz, a scientist, a confessor, a builder, a total educator. Hundreds of millions passed through his hands. When he died, he had nothing more than a few shirts, a few pairs of pants, and a few threadbare cassocks in his possession.
This is the story of Jomar Forcadilla, Noel Caibiran, Jovito Soberano and everyone they stood for ... No one, then and now, would know it. No one would probably care anymore. But theirs is a story of simple and quiet personal transformation. They all died in their prime, but they died as they lived ... simple and unassuming.
But this, too, is the story of a great many of the graduates of this college since 1963. The great majority of us are not known and definitely not adulated. We don't make it to the headlines, and we don't hog primetime TV like that boorish yet immensely popular guy of Wowowee notoriety. We are not matinee idols and most of us would not attract second glances at any event.
But ours is a story of simple and silent transformation ... of ourselves, and of the places that are blest and enriched with our presence. We have graduates who live and work in the US; graduates who find themselves in Western Europe, South America, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea, China, Japan, the Middle Eastern countries, Australia, New Zealand, and many others in more than 140 countries all over the world. They do everything one can imagine. Most are teachers and educators like me. A few who sort of “fell along the way,” five of them to be exact, are Bishops serving not only here, but abroad. A great many are lowly machinists and machine operators who take pride in their work. But almost all are engaged in what Don Bosco College has trained most of us for, and hopefully, you too, and that is, engage the world in a constructive interaction for quiet transformation and social change. Even now, the magic of social networking sites show me almost on a daily basis what good so many Bosconians from Canlubang have done, and are doing quietly, in their little corner of the world.
This is the unfolding story of bloggers, of accomplished writers in their own right, ordinary workers and employees, teachers, managers, or successful entrepreneurs who tell the world about what they have learned from the school of St. John Bosco. As a former student, teacher, formator, leader, administrator and pastor myself in this august institution, I can tell you that there is nothing sweeter than to hear former students give us back what they learned from us, or heard us say, all done in the spirit of gratitude and simple delight.
But this story is an ongoing one. It is by no means finished yet. And today, as I tell you some bits and pieces of this ongoing saga, I would like to offer a word of caution.
We live in a world saturated by conflicting and contrasting stories. Whilst we have, and can recount stories of selfless quiet heroism, we do live in a postmodern world, which, according to Elaine Robinson, is filled with the contours of hopelessness. The mainstream world of mass media is never wanting of wicked stories of exploitation, abuse, and dehumanization. The so-called "media moment" dominates our waking thoughts, and inundates our subconscious. The precious little young people can now get from education in a catholic school such as ours, is effectively canceled out by crass materialism, hedonism, and what Fr. Rolheiser refers to as “unbridled restlessness.”
Back in 1986, I was here. And so were some of you who are here now, including your most capable Dean of College. I was in tears when, just a few days prior to the four fateful and faith-filled days of February, I had to be sent on exile for doing what I thought was the best then, help the best way I knew how, to engage the world around me in quiet transformation. Forbidden to leave my post, but raring to join the millions who braved hunger and the very real possibility of their lives being snuffed out by the big guns out there in EDSA, I kept tearful vigil listening all day and all night to Radyo Bandido. Fast forward to 1989 ... at an early December late afternoon, atop my perch at the antenna tower of Don Bosco in Mandaluyong, as I saw the Tora-Tora planes pulverize Camp Aguinaldo, again, like the cry-baby that I had always been, I was in tears, grieving for a country brought down to its knees, and set back by another decade, poised as it was to take off, and join the league of respectable nations. Again, fast forward to the year 2000 ... I was fuming mad in my office here in Canlubang, as I saw the now infamous non-opening of that sealed envelope. As I was wiping away tears, I called for a quick prayer service and gathered a little crowd of students and families from around Ceris, Canlubang, and Mayapa. After the rosary, I told the little flock: "Something big will happen later this evening. We have to be prepared to do something." That very evening, I mobilized this little flock and went to EDSA. And I am proud to tell you, that we were among the first few people that got to EDSA. And as you all know by now, the crowd swelled to hundreds of thousands within a few hours.
The story goes on. I came not just to tell you snippets of it. I accepted the invitation to challenge everyone who has spent many years internalizing the school motto that we set in place way back in 1993, AD MAIORA NATUS.
The story is ongoing because it is a story still being written by others who, like me, follow the footsteps of giants like Fr. Carreno, Fr. Cogliandro, Fr. Monchiero, Fr. Schwarz, and everyone else I mentioned, and many more I choose not to mention. It is a story which I definitely hope would have some consistency and continuity further down the road, egged on by respect for history and tradition, spurred on by the spirit that originally inspired the founders of this institution.
It is a story that I challenge everyone of you now graduating to continue on writing, if needed, with blood, sweat, and tears, as those who came before you did.
The world as we know it now is deeply mired in everything that is not life. Life disabling events continue to barrage our daily lives, and life-enabling leaders are few and far between. The landscape of our lives is characterized, like Robinson says, with the unmistakable contours of hopelessness. Millions of Filipinos cheered, and clapped, and laughed as Jan-Jan, the little boy of 6, was being subjected to a degrading, dehumanizing, and life disabling ridicule as he “macho-danced” and shed tears before what appeared to me like Roman crowds of old, lusting and thirsting for blood in the cruel circus of life as we now know it. The Wowowee or Willing-wili culture has taken hold of the national psyche of the Filipino, to our national shame, and, the worst part of it is, no one seems to be bothered anymore.
This is a story that I challenge you, even beg you, to write. Just recently, I was saddened to have noted that, at least one company around Canlubang has banned Bosconians from ever being employed therein. Reason? Some alumni were involved in pilferage and falsification of inventory records.
I could go on and on. The fact that it almost took ten years since I left Canlubang for me to be officially invited to do something like this does not help me any right now. I have a lot to share. As an educator, poor copy though I am, of the giants I talked to you about, I do take my role seriously. And this is where I go personal, and, with your indulgence, a little theological.
Your theme could not have been better chosen, GRACED BY HIS VISIT, SPURRED BY HIS SPIRIT. Don Bosco’s sacred relics just paid you a historical and monumental visit. The saint, the man, the father and teacher of youth, is credited with setting into motion a whole slew of everything you can think of to transform culture on a grand scale. In his humble and seemingly little ways, he spurred the young to do ordinary things extraordinarily well. He engaged the world of his time and place in a mutually interactive mode that led gradually to social transformation and personal change. The places he visited in his life, the people he interacted with, powerful and powerless alike, rich and poor, educated or not educated, felt graced, empowered, & enabled. But all those who felt graced and empowered, were also eventually spurred on, goaded on, and encouraged to do likewise. And the remarkable thing about all those who followed him and were spurred on by his spirit, was that they were all simple and humble folks, ordinary people like you and me, but called to do extraordinary things.
Richard Rich, for all his naked ambition, did make it big up there. But he was no more than a hated tax collector. He was nothing more than a person with a pusilla anima, a small insignificant soul. Fr. Carreno was a giant, a soul that can only be described as magna anima, magnanimous in his dreams for others, magnanimous in his work as genius, magnanimous in his gift of himself as formator, teacher, writer, father, and friend, par excellence. Ad maiora natus was the spirit that spurred him on, the same spirit that led all the others I mentioned to heights albeit unrecognized by the world deeply steeped in the Willing Willie culture of inanity and plain sordid and shallow material gain.
This is the story I would like you to tell …a paradoxical, seemingly contradictory story of humility and greatness; a story of quiet dedication and commitment; a story of silent magnanimity of heart, never mind if the world does not recognize it; a story akin to what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls the “theo-drama,” where not all are prima donnas, not all are top billing actors, and not all can be accommodated to the courts of the reigning Kings and Queens of our times. From here on, I would like to get it straight from the horse’s mouth. I quote Robert Barron who wrote apropos this so eloquently:
The story goes on … this theo-drama in a world satisfied with mediocrity and a lack of pursuit of excellence. Ad maiora natus is an antidote to all this. Forza is our battle cry as we Bosconians go out in full force to engage the world toward transformation. But while I spoke about things in the past, the recent visit of Don Bosco is really a call to engage the future. Graced by his visit in the past, we need to allow him to spur us on further, not in time past, but in time future and time present. As T.S. Eliot puts it, “time past and time future, what might have been and what has been, point to one end, which is always present.” (Burnt Norton)
But we need to go a little philosophical and spiritual about it. We need to disabuse the linear mode of thinking that equates success with power, prestige, position, perks, and perch. We need to allow the spirit of the founders to gently mould us into becoming seeming signs of contradiction: learned without being pedantic; moneyed without being enslaved to it; educated without becoming bloated with intellectual pride; simple whilst not being simpletons; humble without being irrelevant; engaged without being too involved in sordid affairs; focused on goals without being myopic; in love with life yet not being unduly attached to it; earthly without being worldly; heavenly in outlook whilst not being too spiritualistic; … yes, born for greater things, without being too engrossed into things; imbued with a passion for greatness without being given to grandiosity. This is the classical way of our God, who is Lord and King, but who was never curvatus in se, that is, caught up in Himself, but one who humbled Himself as man like us, and gave Himself fully “for the life of the world,” pro mundi vita! This is the way of paradox … a way that the world does not easily understand, a way that is summed up by this great teaching of Scripture, that the way ultimately to life in its fullness, is by way of death, death to self, death to all that is not life.
When I left this little paradise in 2002, I wrote in borrowed words the deep emotions I had, that were all part of the great love I nurtured, and still nurture, for this place that molded me beyond my imagination:
I end this talk with more borrowed words from this great poet, T.S. Eliot … words that speak to me of this paradox of life that has to do with simplicity and greatness and active, while at the same time, passive engagement with the world:
Barron, Robert (1998). And Now I see: A Theology of Transformation. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.
Eliot, Thomas Stearns (1971). Four quartets. New York: Harcourt Publishers.
Robinson, Elaine A. (2004). These Three: The Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love. Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press.