(Commencement address of Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar, CSsR, at Xavier University, Ateneo de Cagayan in Cagayan de Oro City on March 30, 2017. The university conferred on him an honorary degree for Doctor in Humanities in recognition of his “extensive and excellent work as an inspiring theologian, interfaith scholar, multi-awarded writer, and Mindanaoan artist in pursuit of justice, peace, and the integrity of creation; and for his outstanding contributions to development work and social sciences in the country.”)
Good morning everyone! Maayong buntag sa tanan!
Addressing his first followers, including a young man named John who was much younger than you, members of Batch ‘2017 graduates, Jesus of Nazareth spoke these words: If anyone comes after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25).
Appropriating this text, the German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die!” To be more gender-sensitive, we can paraphrase these words into: “When Christ calls us, He bids us all to come and die!”
I am sorry dear graduates, that I start my address to you in a rather somber tone which may immediately turn you off. For today should really be a day of joyful celebration as you end the difficult years of life as students and begin a new chapter of your young lives full of excitement and enthusiasm. But allow me to dampen a bit of this celebratory mood for various reasons. First, we Christians are reminded that we are in the season of Lent; two more Sundays and we enter the Holy Week. If there are Muslim students among you, your own tradition of the Ramadhan would help you to understand why this Lenten season is important for us.
Our mother Church constantly reminds us that Lent is the season for repentance and for renewal as we seek to reconcile with God and our neighbor, which today also includes, in the words of Pope Francis – our common home, the Mother Earth.
And even if within this period, there are occasions when we burst out with joy, we also recognize the need to be in touch with the tenets of our faith and walk the talk of our Christian legacy!
But over and beyond the liturgical meaning of this season, there is also the secular world out there which has turned complicated, confusing, tumultuous and even torturous for those of us who take our faith seriously, as we humbly walk the path enlightened by the wisdom from our ancestors and from the Scriptures, from the Old Testament, to the Qur’an to the New Testament. For in the words of the Nobel laureate Bob Dylan… oh the days, they are a-changin’!
So why am I privileging the words of a German theologian? What has he got to do with you? You may not even have heard of him as he was born of a different age (like your grandparents at the turn of the century), in a country on the opposite side of the globe and whose religion – the Confessing Church of the Lutherans — you hardly know about. But I bring Bonhoeffer to your attention because he wrote about what is Christianity’s role in the secular world which became widely influential. His book The Cost of Discipleship has become a modern classic. At his prime when he was in his 30s, Bonhoeffer resisted the Hitler’s Nazi dictatorship.
He strongly opposed the genocidal persecution of the Jews. For these acts of resistance, he was arrested and was imprisoned in a concentration camp for almost two years. Slapping him with false charges that he took part in the plot to assassinate Hitler, he was tried and executed at age 39 on April 9, 1945. Eleven days from now, we recall his martyrdom 72 years ago.
Seventy-two years later, after Bonhoeffer heeded these words of Jesus – “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” – does he have a message for us, and especially for you dear graduates? Are there parallels between the context in which Bonhoeffer walked his talk and humbly walked in the path of righteousness, and our present context in the world today, and especially in our godforsaken country? If Bonhoeffer was now the one speaking to you, what would be his message?
For you dear graduates to answer these questions honestly, we have a few assumptions: First, you already have internalized the virtues that your alma mater tried to inculcate in your minds, namely those which appear in the university’s Mission Statement: the forming of men and women of competence, conscience and commitment in the service of the Church, the global community and the Filipino people.”
But what does it mean to be competent, to make sure one is guided by one’s conscience and how is this commitment is to be fleshed out in the concrete?
Competence is captured in these words of the Xavier University’s Mission Statement: “that the university shares in the privileged task of fostering the interdisciplinary and integrated encounter between faith, reason and the sciences”.
Despite the limitations of the kind of educational system we still have in the Philippines, one hopes that the Jesuit character of the education you went through – with its emphasis on the liberal arts, encompassing the epistemological knowledge from philosophy to theology, from natural to social sciences, from humanities to the arts – have grounded you firmly on a solid foundation that made possible the construct of critical minds.
Minds that engage the conscience with its emotional, intuitive and mystical aspects so that you can all live up to your alma mater’s motto – VERITAS LIBERABIT VOS, or the Truth Shall Set You Free. Ang kamatuoran maoy mohatud kaninyo sa kagawasan! For in the post-modern era that has dawned on your generation – as you hopefully grow in age and wisdom – and with the rise of the internet technology and social media with its cloak of anonymity, half-truths, fake news and lies, are now as common as the curses uttered by the President of this Republic when he gets upset!
More than the time when we were your age, coming out of a gentler era when good manners and right conduct were of prime importance and all of society’s institutions conspired to form us into genuine ladies and gentlemen, the binary opposition between truth and lies was far clearer. Unfortunately, the popular usage today of conscience has been appropriated by TV advertisements of corporate firms trying to sell as much detergent soap as possible.
Where are the people of conscience who are willing to suffer the consequences of a clear stance or options – no matter if such would bring retribution and persecution (think: those in Congress and the Senate who lost their chairmanships, those who get demonized or even thrown to prison?). If I were to search your heart, or look at a crystal ball, how many among you dear graduates could pass the test in terms of the exercise of your conscience in these days, when, indeed, we can be so easily swayed by sheer propaganda.
There is more, and this deals with commitment. When I was graduating at the Ateneo de Davao College way back in 1967… a long, long time ago (50 years to be exact, which is why we are this year’s honorees during the alumni gathering in August 2017), the Jesuits had not coined the term – man or, later, person for others! But our dear Jesuit teachers did show us the righteous way in terms of loving our neighbor especially as Vatican II was unfolding and student activism began to rise in the late 1960s. But in your case, ever since your youth when you entered a Jesuit university campus you have been bombarded with this mantra:
Men and women for others who are expected to internalize the meaning of the lyrics of Fr. Eduardo Hontiveros’ song: “tayong lahat ay may pananagutan sa isa’t isa.”
But in practical terms: how is this commitment to be expressed? To literally follow Jesus’ exhortations to feed the hungry? Give drink to the thirsty? Home for the homeless? A visit to the prisoners, the sick and the dying? Yes indeed, literally, but much more. For we all know by now that corporal works of mercy, if practiced in a dole-out, charity-oriented actions can only have a limited, short-term impact. Instead, we should be asking these questions: Why are there people around us who go hungry, have no potable water to drink, are living in the streets, get sick and die without seeing a doctor? Why are there poor people who can just be arrested, imprisoned and even become victims of extra-judicial killings for being labeled as “people who are no longer human beings”? Why do we continue blaming the victims themselves and justifying all these acts of violence against the vulnerable because of our simplistic analysis that they are superstitious, lazy and ignorant?
If you’ve had an education that provided you “teaching, formation, research and social outreach…that trained you to think rigorously, so as to act rightly and serve humanity justly,” you know very well that the roots of our poverty, inequality and injustices are owing to structural reasons. Nothing short of working towards social transformation is required if we are to liberate ourselves from the sad plight that we find ourselves in until today. As we forcefully accept this challenge, we have to be ready for the consequences. For as the late Dom Helder Camara of Brazil once said: “If I give food to the hungry, I am called a saint. But when I ask why they are hungry, I am called a communist!”
So are there parallels between Bonhoeffer’s Nazi era and our own times today?
Are there genocidal persecution of some sectors of our society? If this phrase seems so far-fetched as yet, can we in fact point out to segments of our population who for whatever reasons are persecuted, as in, marginalized and disenfranchised not just in terms of their rights, but their lives? If we look deeply into the manner that the majority of this nation deals with those who the imminent philosopher Lavinas considered “the other”, can we own our sinfulness in the way we have related to our Moro and Lumad communities here in Mindanao which even in the words of President Duterte have suffered “historical injustices”?
As in the days of the American colonial regime, the Japanese occupation and during the Marcos despotic martial rule, are there now prisoners of conscience who are arrested and put in prison because of their resistance to the powerful regime who has both the legal mandate as well as a high popularity rating provided by its citizens? And given the growing resistance against the skewed and anti-life policies and programs of the present administration coming from various groups such as those constituting our nation’s civil society, coupled by pressures from international bodies, the State has turned defensive and seemingly on a panic mode.
As statements after public pronouncements have been issued by the likes the CBCP, the major religious superiors, non-government organizations, academic institutions like your own school, artists and cultural workers, those in mainstream and social media as well as from the United Nations to Human Rights’ Watch to the International Court of Justice, the State mobilizes its forces to counter the nascent opposition, even as it asserts that the majority of the people are supportive of its trajectory. With the growing discontent among Filipinos with critical minds, the State is forced to promote the discourse of a destabilization plot of various groups from the Liberal Party to the mining firms.
It is, of course in this context that I do not envy you dear graduates. Above our heads right now like the sword of Damocles, is the threat of the President who in a number of recent speeches have been quoted as saying “I will be forced to declare martial law, especially in Mindanao, if the peace and order situation will further deteriorate.”
To our generation, this threat comes as a voice that awakens the fears we all experienced through the 16 years of authoritarian rule when many among us stood up to the despotic rule, and consequently got arrested, tortured, spent long years in prison…or worse were disappeared! When he heard of this threat, a friend of mine, an OMI priest exclaimed: “Karl, are we to experience martial rule twice in our lifetime?”
For your sake, dear graduates, I pray that this threat will not come to pass. For all the words spoken that justify a martial law regime that will not be a repeat of the Marcos years, but will be gentler and will not abuse the people’s rights, we know very well the consequences of the adage: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Try hard as we do, I cannot think of an example of a martial rule regime that was not despotic, authoritarian and abusive.
And it will be your generation that will face the consequences of such a martial rule as it was our generation – when we were your age – that faced the horrendous martial rule for 16 years. But then who knows, it could open up a new chapter in our history that will add to the heroic exploits of young people who “rage against the dying of the light” and will “not go gentle into that good night,” as the poet Dylan Thomas wrote. Like us, you will be forced to take radical options. And who knows, you, too, will follow the legacies of young people that go way back to Hermano Pule, Rizal, Bonifacio, the Silangs, Gregorio del Pilar at the height of the Philippine Revolution, to the young guerillas who fought the Japanese Imperial forces and those who faced Marcos and his minions squarely throughout martial rule and suffered, and for some, died for that cause!
We have seen how some of you have come up openly to oppose the Marcos burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, as well as assert your stance on the death penalty. Perhaps these are just preludes to more radical and militant commitments, if ever the situation goes from bad to worse and martial rule will once more become a reality in this country. If it will come to pass and if more of you will be challenged to take on the radical option in defiance of a despotic rule and fight to restore freedom and true democracy, then you take a pride of place following the footsteps of all the young people in previous eras who now constitute your ancestors who dared to defy oppression. That can then perhaps be the shining moment of your own generation.
As you can tell, I cannot help it but be passionate about how I locate myself within the unfolding events in our country today. Perhaps some of you have grandparents or parents who were part of our generation who responded to this clarion call as things were a changin’ in the late 1960s through the 1970s-80s! A number of us came from various Ateneos across the country; some of us at the Ateneo de Davao College were no exception. Our own motto in my alma mater was Fortes-in-Fide or Strong in the Faith.
Were the Jesuits of our youth in Davao successful in forming us towards having a strong faith? As we all know, it is always a minority who would be willing to dream dreams, walk the extra mile and to be willing to pay the price for a militant option. For me, it was my faith, strengthened through years of religious education mainly by Jesuit teachers (not a reality for most of you now as a few Jesuits teach in the classroom), involvement in extra-curricular community outreach activities that led me to the choices I made later on when the country’s political landscape demanded from “the hope of the motherland” their contribution to nation-building.
The path I took ultimately led me to imprisonment — as a political prisoner. In those lonely and excruciating times as a prisoner of conscience, it was the writings of those who experienced the same desolate existence – the likes of St. Paul, Nelson Mandela, Benigno Aquino and yes, Bonhoeffer – that got me through the darkness of prison and helped me to survive to once more experience the blessing of light when I was finally released.
Life in prison is no picnic, which is why you never wish it to be the experience of even your worst enemy. I do not wish that any one of you here will have to face this kind of experience. It is hard enough for most of you to reach where you are now, having finished a degree after having gone through so much stress and hard work. While at the surface, the life of millennials seem much more enjoyable, exciting and optimistic, we all know in real life this is not so. Your generation may have much more by way of gadgets and technological advances, and perhaps even opportunities for advancement, but the risks out there for you are immense: family disintegration owing to globalization, unfettered bullying, difficulty in developing healthy social relationships, attraction to drugs (and the threat of Tokhang), promiscuity that could led to HIV-AIDs, impact of climate change as in the occurrence of more disasters and so many more.
Yes, you do have endless choices, but there is is always the problem of having far too many choices, in the end, we may not make the right choices that guarantee life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
You dear graduates are far luckier than millions of Filipinos your age who do not have the same kind of advantage that you enjoy: stable families, parents with high incomes that can afford a Jesuit education and therefore have an early edge in climbing the ladder of success. But unlike our generation, even if you finish a college degree these days, it does not guarantee a job that could support a family.
According to to the Associated Labor Unions-Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (“1 M graduates face bleak future” by Tina G. Santos, PDI, March 14, 2017, page A4), the one million students graduating from college this year are facing a bleak future as you will be faced with the same old problems of job-skill mismatch, low wages, contractualization and unsafe workplaces. The data from the Department of Labor and Employment for 2016 indicate that the great majority of the country’s unemployed not just come from those who did not finish high school, but also those who have graduated in college. (“A Brave New World for the Class of 2017”, PDI, March 5, 2017 page A-14). On the average a total of almost 50% who are unemployed are from age 15 to 24. You are in this category so prepare yourself for stiff competition in the labor market.
Despite all these rather gloomy mirroring of where the Philippines is today, I do wish you well, dear graduates. I wish you all the luck in the world. I wish that your parents and teachers’ expectations of where you will end up – maybe to be rich and famous – will be fulfilled. But sana, not at the expense of the weak and vulnerable among our people and our planet. Go grab all the opportunities to build up your career and firm up your bank account, but not while you destroy other people’s dignity and the integrity of creation. Go explore the world, as travel can only expand your horizon and find antidotes to being bigoted and prejudiced against other people’s culture, genders, ethnicities and religions, but come back home. Invest in the future of North Mindanao which is your home and help this city of gold prosper.
Is there a handful among you who will commit to exploring these possibilities? I hope so because that is our only hope for the future.
Once more I invoke Bonhoeffer’s words: “When Christ calls us, He bids us all to come and die!” But is the dying only to mean, literally to give up one’s life following the examples of Jesus, his disciples, and our modern-day heroes? While martyrdom is the apex of total surrender, the clearest sign of a person’s self-giving for the sake of others, in the end, not all of us are called to this mystical event!
But there is a way we can “die” for the sake of others. Perhaps once you are more settled, try something that will help narrow the gap between the rich and the middle class on one hand – which is where most of you belong – and the very poor on the other pole. Where you might have time, talent and treasure, get involved in advocacies and programs that will strengthen a society that honors the rule of law, alleviates poverty, brings about a better quality of life for everyone, especially the poorest among us, namely the Moro and Lumad communities of Mindanao.
Connect yourselves to all those in this city and Region that go back to the likes of Jesuits like Frs. Bernad, Madigan, Demetrio and Masterson and now the likes of Dr. Linda Burton and other social scientists who helped advance the field of social sciences and development as well as the arts. Join your Engineering Department led by Engr. Dexter Lu in making more people know the geo-hazards you face here in Northern Mindanao and pressure the local government to do much more to protect lives and property at risk with the city’s constant flooding. All these are forms of dying, because we take on the challenges knowing fully well that we will be inconvenienced, made to face risks and even encounter great difficulties.
But as Jesus, other prophets and wise ancestors have said: there are rewards if we die unto ourselves for the sake of others. And these rewards can actually be enjoyed while we live on this planet, and not just wish for all these to come our way in the after-life.
By being women and men for others, we become fully alive, feel a deep sense of fulfillment, and can maintain a sense of peace in our inner selves and in our relationships. For truly in the words of St. Irenaeus “Gloria Dei est vivens homo,” – God is truly glorified when we live the life of grace here on earth. In others words, “The glory of God is a person fully alive!”
May the blessings you receive today dear graduates further enrich you to make you more fully alive so that you can then be a source of life for others!
Daghang salamat! Maayong buntag sa tanan!