12 April 2009

What I Learned from My Batchmates

Rev. Fr. Francis D. Alvarez, SJ's Valedictory Speech
Commencement Exercises
Loyola School of Theology, AdMU
March 18, 2009

I am thrilled just knowing the many more homilies, retreats and reflections Francis will be giving as a priest. LST, the Society, and the Church in general, are "not any less blessed".

Congrats batch 2009!

Thanks to Weng Bava, SJ, for posting on LST's facebook group.


The fear of rigor, the fear of ugliness, the fear of change: At the beginning of the school year, during the Mass of the Holy Spirit, our then newly-installed Vice-Chancellor, Fr. Jojo Magadia, warned us of these three fears. At the end of the school year, as I graduate from Loyola School of Theology, I fear I have to add to his list of three.

What will happen when I am neck-deep in ministry? When my arms are weary as I try to juggle parish financial statements? When my chest is heavy as I listen to the pastoral council bicker yet again? When my legs buckle as I run from baptism to wedding to funeral, from labor meeting to sick call to children’s catechism, from evaluation seminar to beauty pageant to charity event? When, where once I tread with bright-eyed expectation, I find myself trudge with broken-hearted frustration, where will I be? What if I start cutting corners? We have been trained how to browse through the books in the library to nuance a complex article of the faith. This we need to do in order to come up with what Dr. Yap has always insisted on—accountable speech—even for just a Sunday homily. But what if instead of doing this, I just type words into Google? And what if Google fails me? What if I fall back on my class notes from my days in LST and realize that I had not paid enough attention in class? What if I misinterpret a precept of canon law and give the wrong advice? What if I blurt out the wrong thing while giving penance and a penitent who has not gone to confession for five years decides this is why he will not go again for five more?

As these fears ran amok in my head, what mercifully calmed them down was when I remembered how we prepared for the ad audiendas, that “board exam” future priests have to pass to receive faculties for confession. I remembered how at first we forgot to address serious sins. We forgot to give penance. We even forgot the formula of absolution. But slowly we learned. And soon, we were not just doing confession-by-the-numbers. Soon, we were giving sound pastoral advice, untangling the most convoluted cases Frs. Richie Genilo, Cel Reyes, and Rex Mananzan tried to ensnare us in. Many times, I found myself nodding—not off to sleep—but in agreement and in wonder. And I dreamt about the kind of wise, gentle, and understanding priests you, my batchmates, will surely be.

You, my co-learners, have taught me a lot. In the comprehensive exams, I had the opportunity to show what I learned from our professors. This morning, as we say goodbye to each other and to LST, I hope you allow me to share what I learned from you, my co-seminarians and co-religious here in LST.

In a famous homily, I never actually heard—only heard about (that’s how good it was)—Bro. Irvin Morastil, OMI supposedly struck a refrain that resonated not only with Fr. Manny Flores but with the rest of the Advanced Pastoral Methods class: “God is NOT good. He is very good.”

I spent the better part of the last Christmas vacation working on our graduation pictures for our yearbook. I was digitally reducing eye bags while also trying to recover from the sleep deprivation of Simbang Gabi. With Adobe Photoshop, I magically erased acne scars, deleted visible strands of nasal hair, and gave free electronic face lifts Vicky Belo would charge thousands for. I fiddled with hues, saturation, and luminosity to give each portrait a soft tone of angelic purity. Needless to say, I was proud of my handiwork, and as I showed you your pictures, I could tell that you all were impressed—except for Bro. Jonald Panganiban, OCD.

I handed him the hard copy of his grad. pic., and he asked, “Phinotoshop mo? (Did you Photoshop this?)” I puffed up my chest and declared, “Yes.” He scratched his head and suggested, “Baka pwede mong bawasan. (Maybe you can lessen what you did?)” I was aghast! Why? Who would want their pockmarks and their pimples and their warts seen?

But later that night, I realized that the blemishes and flaws I hid under pixels were so much a part of us, as much us as our dimples and clefts and other outstanding characteristics. Who would want to see these pockmarks, pimples, and warts? Well, God. The God who called us in spite of, maybe even because of, our imperfections. The God who has made use of and will continue to make use of our shortcomings and weaknesses for his greater glory. The God whom Bro. Irvin described so eloquently: The God who is not just good, but very good.

I remember serving at the diaconate ordination of Bros. Chris, Stanley, Rey, and Mark, CP. The joke, during our practice for the rite, was: With Stanley’s big tummy, would he be able to lie face-down during the litany? Would we have to alter the rubrics and allow him to lie on his side so that he will also be allowed to breathe?

During the ordination, I caught myself sneaking a peek at Stanley, and there he was, big tummy and all, yes—back slightly hunched, but head on folded arms, lying prostrate on the ground, asking God for mercy. And my thoughts went back to my own ordination. My stomach might not have been as big as Stanley’s, but my head was perhaps bigger. But overstuffed ego and all, I, too, was able to lie prostrate on the ground and beg God to accept my humble offering. Why? Because God is not good. He is very good.

I attended the diaconate ordination of Bros. Francis Ledesma and Topher Tejido. But before they even lay prostrate before God, Bishop Soc Villegas reminded us: We may wax lyrical about this great sacrifice that we make, but before God, we really have nothing to give. Yet when he accepts what we have to offer, we will have nothing more to ask. Why? We go back to the wise words of Bro. Irvin: Because God is not just good. He is very good.

Let me tell you about one other diaconate ordination. The first in our batch, actually: Seminarian Jayvee Zuñiga’s. On the day when Jayvee was entrusted with the Book of the Gospels, we were all excited, but I could not really decide whether “Congratulations!” was the appropriate greeting. Many of us knew why Jayvee was getting ordained ahead of schedule, earlier than the rest. His mother was dying of cancer. As Jayvee took his place behind the altar, I wanted to jump up and down, but I couldn’t. A few steps away in front of the same altar was his mother. And in a few days, she would be gone.

Rev. Jayvee’s thanksgiving speech then was all about the mercy of God. But what kind of mercy was this, I asked, when on a day meant for rejoicing, the air was heavy with foreboding farewell. On a day your spirit magnified the Lord, your heart was also troubled. “Our hearts are troubled.” And these very words were the ones Jayvee used when he later preached at his mother’s funeral. Bittersweet—as descriptive as that word is, it still does not capture what we experienced on the day of Jayvee’s diaconate ordination, when the alleluias and hosannas struggled to float but were drowned in the somber melody of “Inay.”

Later that night, I sought consolation in prayer. And I realized that many times in our ministry, this is how things will be. As we live out our ministry, we will find joy. We will find fulfillment. But we will not really be able to jump up and down because many times, our ministry will simply be to journey with people in their pain—an awesome privilege, an awful responsibility. In this, we will be confirmed in our vocations; in this we will find our purpose. Amidst pain. Bittersweet? As descriptive as that word is, it will not capture the experience.

But Jayvee’s story does not end there… because today is Jayvee’s mother’s birthday. And today, the son she dreamed so ardently to see ordained graduates summa cum laude. Watch that in a Hollywood movie, and you would say it’s too contrived. Read that in romance novel, and you would say it’s corny. But witness it happen in real life, and you can only say, it’s grace. It’s God.

This is not just Jayvee’s story. When Elmer gets ordained a priest tomorrow and begins his ministry, when our OCD brothers profess their final vows and live out their Carmelite vocations, when Irvin and Randy are sent to Basilan, Jolo, or Tawi-Tawi with or without military escorts, when Thomas goes back to China, Tran to Vietnam, and David, William, and Salai to Myanmar—places where the Church thrives in circumstances less friendly but not any less blessed, when the fears grip us and shake us and pound us prostrate to the ground bitter, there will be sweetness. There will be an amazing turn of events we could have never predicted, a summa cum laude ending that will tell us that God was in charge all along. “All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.”

It will be as Fr. Manoling Francisco taught us in Eschatology: We don’t know what will happen. But we are sure that it will be good. Because, as Bro. Irvin has been teaching us all morning, God is not just good. God is very, very good.

Two weeks ago, I was in front of the computer, dialing down Photoshop settings, as Bro. Jonald requested, on our graduation pictures. They will never see print, because LST Batch 2009 will not have a yearbook. Because of the financial crisis, it seems too much of a luxury. Instead, we will have a cheap CD-ROM alternative at one-tenth of the cost. Why? Because the rest of the allocated budget, LST Batch 2009 has decided to give to scholarships. I will never forget the text messages I received when this idea was floated around. Messages which basically said: “Of course, I want a yearbook I can hold and flip through. But I have grown much from the formation I received here in LST. I want others to experience the same blessings. What is memory when you can leave a legacy?” Until the very end, you, my batchmates, are still teaching me.

As I undid the digital retouching on our photographs, and the flaws and imperfections of each face started asserting themselves again, I couldn’t help but remember the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same…
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
[But] I say more…

Looking at your faces, relishing what you have taught me, I knew why Hopkins could say more. And I say more with him:

…the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places

(I know of at least forty-two.)

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Men’s faces: Be they wounded, be they scarred, be they imperfect, God can still work perfectly through them. Through us. Because… from Hopkins we return to Bro. Irvin’s words one last time: God is not just good. He is very, very, very good.


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