RIVERMAN’S VISTA: Fr. Bill, Mindanao, and the Jesuit volunteers

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 24 August) — Fr. William Kreutz SJ, Fr. Bill to all of us who love him and are grateful for his guidance and support all our lives, first came to the Philippines in 1963. He was still a scholastic then and took his theology courses here. He was ordained in 1969 and celebrated his 50th year as a priest last year. A Jesuit now for 62 years, Fr. Bill turned 85 years old last week, on August 16.

I have known Fr. Bill for 44 years, since June of 1976 when I enrolled as a freshman at the Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU). I was never his student but I used to go to daily mass at the college chapel where he regularly celebrated mass. He was, during my college years, the campus minister and, today, Fr. Bill is back in ADMU assisting again in the campus ministry.

Later, he would also be appointed Director of Admissions of what was then the ADMU College of Arts and Sciences, now the Loyola Schools. From that position, he helped thousands of young people get a great college education. Many have told stories of how Fr. Bill was instrumental in their finishing their degrees, especially by giving much needed financial help and spiritual guidance in crisis moments.

Fr. Bill, a New York native who became a Filipino citizen in the late 1970s. was appointed President of Ateneo de Zamboanga in 1989 and served in that school for 18 years. In that assignment, Fr Bill was at his peak as a leader. Among others, he was looked up to a civic leader and a vocal and effective advocate for peace in a city that was prone to conflict. ‘

Building on the work of his predecessor Fr. Ernesto A. Carretero SJ, Fr. Bill was instrumental in Ateneo de Zamboanga acquiring it’s university status in 2001.  Today, Ateneo de Zamboanga University is thriving (disclosure: I teach at its College of Law which although new is now one of the top performing law schools in  Mindanao) under the leadership of Fr. Karel San Juan SJ who followed Fr. Bill’s successor Fr. Tony Moreno SJ when the latter, a native of Cagayan de Oro, became Provincial Superior of the Society of Jesus in the Philippines.

Fr. Bill Kreutz with some Jesuit volunteers (Photo from the FB page of Tony La Vina)

Fr. Bill, with other Jesuits, founded the Jesuit Volunteers Philippines  (JVP) in 1980. In its first decade, Fr. Bill was JVP chaplain and sent out the first volunteers (mostly to Mindanao). Today, since his return from Zamboanga, he is once again chaplain of JVP.

Super Fr Bill is how we Jesuit Volunteers describe him, not the least because he looked like Christopher Reeve in his younger days and seriously because he has been so instrumental in our lives and has helped us so many times. That is why Jesuit Volunteers from Batch 1 (1980) to Batch 41 (who we just sent for their mission) joined Fr Bill’s 85th celebration last week.  Jesuits, priests, nuns, church workers, school administrators, teachers, development workers, lawyers, doctors, psychotherapists, judges, corporation presidents, government officials, overseas Filipinos, business and social entrepreneurs; among us are leaders and ordinary citizens; we are all over the Philippines and the world: we all came to thank Fr. Bill for preaching Christ to us.

In that celebration, attended by Jesuit Volunteers and other friends (most prominent was the composer and singer Jose Mari Chan), Fr Bill thanked us, recalling Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s exhortation not to preach ourselves but Christ – as crucified, healing, forgiving, and loving. As for me and my wife Titay, we thanked Fr Bill for accompanying us for 40 years now, since we were Jesuit Volunteers together in 1981-82 (Batch 2), which included celebrating our wedding mass in 1985.

In his letter of gratitude sent to us, Fr. Bill wrote:

“So much to share from the heart remembering all with whom I have shared my life over these years – I thought of my dear parents and brothers and sisters and their families and mission, of the priests in our parish and the sisters in our school and my classmates then, and of my teachers and friends in high school and in college at Fordham. I thought to of my fellow Jesuits from the day I entered the Jesuit novitiate on August 14, 1958 – batchmates over the years and my Jesuit teachers in philosophy and theology. On my mind, too, like places of Jesuit assignment – Ateneo in Manila and the Ateneo in Zamboanga – my students, my fellow teachers and administrators and the community we served  . . .

But with this email, the special remembrance is with the Jesuit volunteers Philippines which was begun in school year 1980 – 1981 with the efforts of four Jesuits – Jemy See, Vic Labao, Noel Vasquez and myself. It was a wonderful experience  – would young people accept the call, the challenge, to serve in the many poor rural areas or in difficult urban situations? The answer was a resounding – YES! And here we are, almost 1,000 JVPs later – Pagliliingkod-Kusangloob. We thank God for his grace.

It is not a coincidence but a grace that Fr. Bill came back to be the chaplain once again of the JVP community.

Jesuit volunteer Genifer ‘Gen’ Buckley, from Guipos, Zamboanga del Sur was stabbed to death in Pangantucan, Bukidnon on August 23, 2019, the first volunteer killed in a violent incident in the 40-year JVP. Photo from Gen Buckly’s FB page

Last year, on August 23, 2019, for the first time in its four decades of existence, a Jesuit Volunteer, Genifer Buckley, a graduate of Ateneo de Zamboanga University, was killed during the mission year. When Gen was buried, I wrote:

“You live in your partner Kath who knows how blessed she is and will give even more than two persons could for the rest of her life.

“You live in your fellow Jesuit Volunteers of Batch 40 who knew you most in our community and will always tell the wonderful, funny, and profound stories about you.

“You live in Fr Bill Kreutz, founding chaplain of JVP, who has gone back and forth to Mindanao this week to be with your family and loved ones, neither age or distance preventing him to exemplify cura personalis – the empathy and love for others that you also showed in your brief sojourn on earth.

“You live in all of us – volunteers from 40 years who died with you last August 23, knowing what happened to you could have happened to any of us, gathering together this week in our local communities and places of work to celebrate your generosity and sacrifice.

“You live of course in your family, your students in Ateneo de Zamboanga and Pangantucan, your friends and school mates in Zamboanga City and Zamboanga del Sur, and even in those who haven’t met you but has been touched by your story, inspired now also to volunteer and give without counting the cost.”

Indeed, Gen’s death (and COVID-19) did not deter people from joining the Jesuit Volunteers.

Two weeks ago, we sent out Batch 41 – a total of eight volunteers. Five women, three men; one from Manila, two each from Zamboanga and Cagayan de Oro, and three from Naga. Four of the volunteers will be sent to Mindanao (Bukidnon and Davao del Norte) to work in schools and social development organizations, while the other four will serve in Luzon, two for the Jesuit Prison Service, one in a parish in Caloocan, and the last in a Jesuit college in Culion, Palawan. One of the volunteers is a lawyer, joining a cohort of Jesuit Volunteers who were already lawyers when they volunteered or like me went to law school after our volunteer years.

We used to say that JVP ruined our lives, but that was not really accurate, even if partially correct in that JVP messed up many of our well-laid plans. What becoming a Jesuit Volunteer has instead done is to transfigure our lives, change it forever in ways we could never imagine or hope for. This is surely the case for our Batch 41 volunteers.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Antonio “Tony” La Viña of Cagayan de Oro City is former Dean of the Ateneo School of Government. He teaches Constitutional law in several schools in Manila and Mindanao)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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