‘The wars being waged in the world today are the take-no-prisoners kind, merciless and vicious, even diabolical.’ (Listening to moving and momentous words from those whose lives have been like ‘dreams and prayers fulfilled,’ during the 2017 Ateneo de Manila Traditional University Awards.)
“THERE are all sorts of wars being waged in the world today. There is a war on truth, a war on memory, and wars being pursued relentlessly on the stranger or foreigner.”
Thus, Fr. Jose Ramon T. Villarin, SJ, president of the Ateneo de Manila University, welcomed guests to the recent 2017 Traditional University Awards, held at Henry Lee Irwin Theater on campus. The audience was immediately attentive; anticipation for his next words was almost palpable.
War on the soul
“The ammunition deployed in these wars is fearsome: Cars are weaponized, words are bladed, truth is mangled, history is given as spin to suit ideology or political convenience, the foreigner or stranger is demonized. It is a take-no-prisoners kind of war, merciless and vicious, even diabolical in the way these wars are sanctified and canonized.”
These wars, Fr. “Jett” Villarin, “are terrifying because they are a war on our soul,” and the casualty “is our humanity.”
But the evening was a celebration of everything that stood between those wars and their objectives—ignorance, disconnection, hopelessness. This year’s awardees were advocates of learning and community participation on five active platforms: the parish church, basic education, college education, public service, and music.
The significance of his citation “by a Jesuit-run university” was not lost on Fr. Mark Lesage, CICM. Congregatio Immaculati Cordis Mariae Missionaries was established in 1862 in his native Belgium.
Fr. Mark has been a missionary in the Philippines since 1962, and may be best known for restoring the world-famous Bamboo Organ (built in 1824) in Las Pinas’ City’s (then still a town) St. Joseph Parish and reintroducing it to the world, literally, via an annual international music festival. Actually, he said, this was just a metaphor for the real work that was being done.
“In 1971, students from the University of the Philippines asked about the sad state of the Bamboo Organ,” Fr. Mark related. “It made us realize that, as missionaries leading the community, it was our responsibility to also be responsible for the upkeep of a unique national heritage. Its restoration, and the renovation of the church, became a perfect tool to build community awareness, commitment and pride among the parishioners. To this day, the people feel they were the ones who did it.” Another way of putting it, he noted, was “moving the parish from a priest-centered parish to a participatory community.”
This is just part of the reason that Fr. Mark received Ateneo’s Bukas Palad Award. Because 2017 is the Year of the Parish as Communion of Communities, he was cited for relentlessly pursuing his vision of “a church that listens to people and is concerned with their lives, a church where everybody has a place and a space, especially the poor.”
It wasn’t easy, Fr. Mark, now in his 80s, recalled in his acceptance speech. “After 10 years as parish priest, the people got tired of listening to me and I got tired of them. I realized there was nothing wrong with the parishioners, but there was something lacking in myself. I had been dreaming for them, not with them.”
So then followed cycles of trying, failing, learning. He traveled wherever he could observe and imbibe new strategies.
In 1999, CICM turned St. Joseph Parish over to the diocese. Fr. Mark was 65. “I received a new mandate: to share our experiences, our methodology and programs with different dioceses around the Philippines. I felt like Abraham.”
Bukal ng Tipan—Wellspring of the Covenant (or of the Testament)—was born. Starting as a pastoral training center, it soon evolved into a team that worked with individual dioceses as an active partner in development. Now it counts among its partners the Philippine and Asian Bishops’ Conferences and Basic Ecclesiastical Communities (BEC).
Fr. Mark narrated a profound and validating experience with the BEC following the devastation of Isla Naburot in Guimaras by Typhoon Haiyan:
“The people said, ‘Our community center was destroyed, but not our community spirit; our chapel was destroyed, but not our faith.’ Bayanihan-style, they built new boats and rebuilt their homes, chapel and community center. Witnessing the energy of this small Christian community, I (uttered) Zacariah’s prayer, ‘Now let your servant go in peace because my eyes have seen the salvation of the church.’ But I added, ‘Lord, I am not in a hurry…”
Four other awardees
- Synergeia Foundation Inc. under the leadership of Milwida M. Guevara—The Ozanam Award, named after St. Frederick Ozanam, French Catholic leader who founded the St. Vincent de Paul Society for the relief of the poor, “for successfully (gathering) communities and inspiring them to share a collective dream for children… and convincing them that, by working together, they can be the change agents that will realize that dream.”
- Brother Carlito M. Gaspar, CSsR—Parangal Lingkod Sambayanan, “for a life well-lived in service of the Lumad communities in Mindanao.
- Patricia B. Licuanan, PhD, chair of the Commission on Higher Education—Government Service Award, “for a leadership in education marked by uprightness, integrity, practical wisdom and a high level of competence.”
- Alfonso “Coke” C. Bolipata, musician, teacher, writer, and administrator of a community school for music and the arts—Gawad Tanglaw ng Lahi, “for concretely demonstrating that the arts (can) be an instrument for social transformation.”
A resonant chamber
Anticipating moving and momentous responses from the awardees, which is exactly what happened, Fr. Villarin also said in his welcome address: “We are not here to take shelter from the mayhem and the sounds of war outside. We are not here to attenuate what is discordant out there. This… is not an echo chamber (but) a resonant chamber… resonant with dreams and prayers that are being fulfilled in the lives of those we honor today… a chamber resonant with holy and heroic desire for a world that is true and real and kind.”
As in any resonant chamber, he concluded, “it takes only a whisper to regain our faith, reclaim our hope and quicken our love.” –Emmie G. Velarde