A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: Affectionately remembering Bishop Federico Escaler, SJ

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 30 Nov) — Before going to bed in the evening of 28 November  2015, I stood at the veranda of the convent in the Nuing Mission Station somewhere in Jose Abad Santos, Davao Occidental watching the moonglow as it was reflected on leaves of trees inside the church property.  A few evenings before was full moon so there was still a beautiful moon casting its magic that evening.

During such special moments, one is caught mesmerized by life’s surprises.  My only worry as I went to bed was that I have always known that after such a moment, there follows moments of sorrow and sadness.

Early the following morning, I took the habal-habal from Nuing to Glan, Sarangani province to catch the van to General Santos City where I was to take a flight to Cebu.  As soon as there was a signal, my cellphone caught the text messages sent earlier.  One came from BFF Jeanette Birondo-Goddar announcing that our dear Bishop Federico Escaler SJ has just passed away, the day before. Later in Cebu I found a computer with an internet connection and read the email and FaceBook messages sent by friends, including a page from the Jesuit News sent by Fr. Karel San Juan that had Bishop Escaler’s biography.

The moment of sorrow and sadness hit me and lasted throughout the day even as memory continues to bring back snippets of life shared with Bishop  Freddy.  What adds to the grief is that – owing to circumstances beyond one’s control – I can’t even attend his wake as well as the Funeral Mass scheduled on 1 December 2015.  I console myself with the thought that it will be easy to find his graveyard at the Jesuit cemetery inside their Novaliches property and visit him there later.

Why am I feeling such a deep loss at his passing?  Reading through his short Biography as written in the Jesuit News, I was amazed at how he was very much part of my life, and of my generation.  I was a very innocent and naïve sixteen-year-old when I first met him at his office as President and Rector of Ateneo de Davao College.  As first year students, we had the privilege of meeting him, individually and as a group.  He seemed formidable for us who were promdis. But one always knew that he was a very kind person.

I would experience that kindness many times.  For he was not just Rector and President; he found ways to help us when we got into all kinds of difficulties, including financial ones when college expenses either had to be discounted or scrapped in our favor. When I reached third year college – his last year as Rector at AdeDC – I applied to join the Jesuits and he headed the panel to process my application.  He made things easy for me and when a decision was made (I was accepted but that I needed to finish my college course first in Davao before proceeding to aspirancy in Manila), he made sure I understood the reasons behind the decision and promised to guide me along with my vocation.

But instead of formally applying to become a Jesuit just before graduation rites, I instead approached him asking for Letters of Recommendation to his corporate friends in Manila as I had changed my mind. Instead of the Jesuits, I wanted to explore the corporate world in Manila and get a high-paying job.  He understood my decision and wrote three letters, one for the manager of the Sta. Clara Plywood Industries, Inc.  It turned out that this manager’s office was in the neighborhood of the Asian Social Institute, along Leon Guinto St., in the Malate-Ermita area.

In a rather ironic twist, instead of ending up with Sta. Clara, I ended up with “St. Francis Senden of ASI,” the founder of the Asian Social Institute.  Instead of the corporate world, I would find myself from then on walking the path leading to activism and advocacies related to social and ecological issues, while pursuing my religious vocation but outside of the Jesuits.

I enrolled at ASI and finished my graduate studies and made it commitment to return to Davao immediately after to be part of a social movement that was now making a difference in the Region thanks to what was happening with the Mindanao-Sulu Church. I worked first with the Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP) and moonlighted with some of the activities of the Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference Secretariat (MSPCS) and the Mindanao-Sulu Secretariat of Social Action (MISSA).

After his stint as Rector and President of Xavier University and other congregational assignments, Bishop Freddy was made the first Bishop of the Prelature of Kidapawan.  I was delighted to renew my ties with him, this time no longer in an academic but rather in a pastoral setting.  He actually was a changed person by then; gone was the formality and aura of being a university President but he became a much warmer person exuding pastoral grace.

Then I got elected as Executive Secretary  of the MSPCS at the MSPC III conference in Pagadian City in 1976. Bishop Freddy got elected as co-chair of the MSPC’s Board along with the late Bishop Bienvenido (Benny) Tudtud of Marawi. No two bishops could be so unlike each other. One was sosyal being burgis, the other was pure masa. One had a tendency to be quiet, unassuming and shy; the other was spontaneous, boisterous and quick to crack a joke. Precisely because they were such opposites, they worked   as a team. I was so privileged to have both of them as my bosses. Since Bishop Freddy was closer to Davao than Bishop Benny, he became head of the Executive Committee and I had to work very closely with him on matters dealing with the enormous range of MSPC concerns.

Remember, these were the martial rule years. And the Church was the only institution that dared to challenge the authoritarian State on matters related to human rights, militarization, corporate development incursions, corruption and the evils of martial rule.

Those were contentious years, full of conflict and tensions, mis-information and mis-representations.  We at MSPCS had to deal with matters of security with State and military apparatuses on one hand, but also had to be careful in our dealing with the Church hierarchy.  Naturally, we at MSPCS were subject to all kinds of suspicions.  But through it all Bishop Freddy never lost his confidence in us; he continued to empower us with his presence at most activities and inspiring words.

I thought my association would end when our terms at the MSPC ended at MSPC IV. But life with Bishop Freddy continued. I got arrested and he intervened on my behalf. Through his connections in the corridors of power, he was able to meet with the Imeldific at Malacanang who graciously received him.  Bishop Freddy pleaded that she intervene so I could be released; she refused (her reason: what guarantee did the State have that I would not find a way out of the country if released and then make a lot of noise there against her and her husband like what happened with a Jesuit who got released). If only for this act of mercy, I am indebted to Bishop Freddy forever.

Up to the time he was Bishop of Ipil and later during his retirement years, I tried to keep in touch as regularly as I could.  During my last visit at his ancestral home near Malacanang, I intuited that this would be my last visit to him. I had not known there was a mass in his liver until I heard he was very ill a few months ago.  I had planned to visit him in time for Christmas or in the New Year. But that was not to be.

I shed tears as I write this now.  Indeed, one grieves over the death of a loved one.  And we loved Bishop Freddy as he was a teacher, mentor, friend, guide a beacon of light and hope during the dark years of martial rule, a father-figure mainly because we knew so well that he cared for us, for his people.

But perhaps the tears are also a symbol of our deep faith, believing that out there beyond pain and the trials of life, our dear Bishop Freddy will continue to watch over us.  To keep us grounded in the Gospel’s challenge to be kind of others, to do works of mercy and to walk in the righteous path!  AMDG! [Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is Academic Dean of the Redemptorists’ St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. He was author of several books, including “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations.” He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw)].