RIVERMAN’S VISTA: Mindanao giants of the Catholic Church

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 CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 24 May) — This Pentecost weekend, we lost two giants, saints in fact, of the Catholic Church in Mindanao. Sister Agnes, a Carmelite Nun in Zamboanga City, and Father Eliseo “Jun” Mercado, Jr., OMI, former president of Notre Dame University in Cotabato City, were very different people and had different missions. But together, they represented the best of the Catholic Church in our great island and country, in fact the world.

Sister Agnes, as a prayer warrior, and Fr. Jun, as a warrior for peace and justice, is why we are always given second opportunities – to renew our society, to make it better, kinder and more just.

Sister Agnes may have hardly left her monastery but she was a friend and adviser, an influencer in today-speak to the powerful, from President Cory and Noynoy Aquino to Vice President Leni Robredo. The latter described Sister Agnes, when she got the news of her death to COVID-19: “She was my number 1 prayer warrior. Every time work brings me to Zamboanga, I would visit her at the Carmelite Monastery and we would spend hours talking . . . Our loss is indeed heaven’s gain. We are grieving but we know that Sister Agnes has finally gone home to where she really belongs.”

Fr. Karel San Juan, Ateneo de Zamboanga University president, recalled in his funeral homily for Sister Agnes one of her last texts: “The prayer is sustaining us.”

According to Fr. Karel: “These few words of Sister Agnes struck me then. Our prayers were sustaining them. Our prayers were sustaining her, as she went through her own trials. I was struck because these past weeks, it was our turn to pray fervently for her and her community, when all this time, all these months, and years, she and the sisters had been praying for us. It was our turn to be prayer warriors praying for our prayer warriors.”

“Their prayers had been sustaining us. Their prayers had been encouraging us during so many times of need and weakness. Their prayers have accompanied many people, coming from different walks of life, from the ordinary folk, to church leaders, to top government officials. Their prayers sustained us. When we were confused and we needed clarity of purpose, clarity of meaning in life, clarity of decisions to be made. When we were afraid, and we needed someone to pray for loved ones who were sick and suffering. When we simply needed someone to talk to, to listen to us, to our confused state of mind, our chaotic state of feelings, someone patient, someone who will not judge, someone who would say, do not worry, you are not alone, I am with you. God is with you. Mary is mother to you . . .”

Fr. Karel describes the passing of Sister Agnes and fellow nuns Sisters Ann and Bernie as painful: “We have lost prayer warriors. More than this, we have lost friends, extraordinary in their sincerity and faith, genuine and generous, constant in their loving.”

This is how I felt when I saw the news about Fr. Jun on Pentecost Sunday afternoon: “Why leave this suddenly? We still have a lot to do together!”

I am so proud of the work I did with Fr. Jun under Ciel Habito’s leadership, with Samira Gutoc, Marian Pastor Roces, Fr Albert Alejo, and others to produce Mindanao 2020. This was in 2009, the first time I met and worked with him – although his fame and reputation preceded that and I was already a fan then. For that work, I recall how Fr. Jun arranged our dialogue with Nur Misuari, saw how much he was respected by the man.

I also remember how I rejoiced when Fr. Jun survived brain surgery in 2016. I visited him in the OMI house in Loyola Heights and we were so excited that we will still be able to work together for many more years. We supported different candidates then, Fr Jun for VP Binay, me for Senator Poe, but we were both thrilled and worried that our fellow Mindanawon Duterte was now president.

When the pandemic is over, I was hoping we would meet again in Mendiola during our classes in the San Beda Graduate School of Law where Dean Fr. Rannie Aquino has gathered the best minds in law and policy, or maybe in Cotabato City for a seminar on peace issues or innovation in education. I hoped that one day we could walk together in the streets of Rome with the OFWs we both loved. I was hoping to walk the Camino de Santiago with Fr. Jun or maybe even explore the South of France where OMI founder Fr. Eugène de Mazenod came from. As serious a man he was, this priest was also fun to be with, a true intellectual, a man with true insight of many of the world’s cultures.

We shared many passions – peace in Mindanao, tolerance and mutual appreciation of the religions in our land, human rights and ecological justice, education, governance, above all our love for the Church.

We both had great respect for revolutionary movements – the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), as well as the National Democratic Front (NDF), the latter rooted in our experiences in the anti-Marcos struggle. This was the case even as both of us were strong advocates of non-violence and peace.

Fr. Jun supported my work in the peace process with both the MILF and the NDF and current work with youth activists and the Lumad Bakwit schools. Fr. Jun was a good neighbor to everyone, teaching Fratelli Tutti with the example of his friendships with Muslims and Lumad, national democrat and social democrat, and all the politicians in Cotabato and the country.

As I have been doing with the Carmelite nuns in Zamboanga, I had prayed very hard for the last few weeks for Fr. Jun and Sr. Agnes, and the other Carmelite nuns.

God heard all our prayers and healed with finality Sister Agnes and Fr. Jun – with eternal rest! And look at that, our Lord chose Pentecost Sunday to bring both of you to heaven – you who spoke different tongues, you who worked with men and women of different faiths, you who embodied the Spirit of truth, peace and love in our beloved island.

As a fellow Mindanawon, I thank you Sister Agnes (and Sisters Ann and Bernie) and Fr. Jun! Thank you Oblates and Carmelites for these saints! Thank you Catholic Church for the gift of these brother and sisters!

Website: tonylavina.com, Facebook: deantonylavs, Twitter: tonylavs

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

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