Home | Homily for the Celebration of the 150th Anniversary (1859-2009)

  • of the Return of the Jesuits to the Philippines Province
  • of Jesuit educational apostolate in the Philippines
  • of Jesuit presence in Mindanao and the Launching of the Centennial Jubilee of the Ateneo de Zamboanga University (1912-2012) 3 July 2009, La Purisima Campus, Ateneo de Zamboanga University José CJ Magadia, SJ

It was barely three weeks ago, in Intramuros, that the Philippine Jesuits gathered for the Eucharist, along with the Ateneo de Manila community, to give thanks to the Lord for the 150th anniversary of the return of the Jesuits to the Philippines. On that very day in 1859, June 14, six priests and four brothers from the Province of Aragon, Spain, re-established a mission that has continued to bear fruit to this day. A few months after, the Jesuits began the Ateneo Municipal, which also re-initiated its educational apostolate.

Today, we gather to celebrate the same anniversary of the return of the Jesuits to the Philippines. But what makes today’s event special is that for the first time, we bring this commemoration to Mindanao, the land that was the very reason for the Jesuits’ return, the land to which we have dedicated ourselves continually to this very day. After all, we must always remind ourselves that when the Jesuits came back to the Philippines, it was not to start schools, but to take on the mission posts in Mindanao and Joló.

So we look back and give thanks for the great missionaries of Mindanao – the pioneers like Father José Ignacio Guerrico inTamontaca, Father Saturnino Urios in Agusan, Father Ramón Barúa in Tetuan, and many others. Then followed the equally impassioned and indefatigable American Jesuits like Father John Pollock in Camiguin, and Father James Hayes in Talisayan and Cagayan. More recently there were Fathers Vincent Cullen, John Krebs, Luigi Moggi, and Godofredo Alingal in Bukidnon, along with Brothers Agustin Sinayan and Wenceslao Caberio, Fathers Benigno Dagani, Raimundo Argárate, and Robert Walsh in Ipil. The lists can go on and on, of men who have given up home and country, who have gone on foot, on horseback, on banca, who have preached and catechized and administered the sacraments – for love of Mindanao and its peoples.

But of course, there is an added reason for our gathering. Today, we officially launch the three-year preparation for the 100th anniversary, the centennial, of our very own Ateneo de Zamboanga. We are told of its humble beginnings in 1912, as the Escuela Católica, headed by Jesuit Father Manuel Sauras, its re-naming as the Ateneo de Zamboanga, and its slow but steady growth through the years. It was rebuilt after the war and relocated in this La Purisima land, under the leadership of the unforgettable Father Eusebio Salvador, a native Zamboangueño and alumnus of the Escuela Católica, who served as Parish Priest of the Zamboanga cathedral, Vicar-General of the Diocese, and Director of the Ateneo de Zamboanga. What began as an elementary school, added a secondary school, and then later, developed into a college. Then, in 2001, Father William Kreutz finished what Father Ernesto Carretero began, and ushered Ateneo de Zamboanga into university status. Today, the Ateneo de Zamboanga stands proud, with its top-level grade school and high school, its tertiary education units which are among the best in the region, its outstanding nursing college, its uniquely service-oriented medical school.

Truly, there is much to thank for as we prepare for the centennial in 2012. We pay special tribute to the many men and women who have become part of Ateneo’s history and growth, especially the dedicated lay teachers, and the loyal staff of so many years. Then of course, many still remember those unique Jesuit creatures who have inhabited the Ateneo, who have come and gone, especially those who have passed away, who have shared so much of their lives with and for Zamboanga – the ever-gentle Father Bo Bomeisl who walked this campus for many years, the wide-grinned Father John Chambers with his signature colorful tubao draped on his shoulder, the clownish Father Johnny Sanz, the smiling Father Asterio Katigbak with his hand to his ears trying to catch every word from those he talks to, the untiring and intense Father Agustin Bello, and many others. In the next three years, let us remember them and ask them to pray for us.

When I asked Father President Tony Moreno what the theme of the celebration was going to be, he said that today will be focused on the re-dedication of Ateneo de Zamboanga to her patron, Our Blessed Mother in the image of the Immaculate Conception. We look to her as patron, as someone whose life and spirit inspires us and gives us direction and provides special energy. This is why we read once more the narrative of the angel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Our Lady, and find in her three distinct characteristics that can give us new life as well. We see in Our Lady a woman who was first, open to God, second, actively engaged in mission, and third, committed to the end.

First, openness to God. When Gabriel appears to her, and announces her mission, Mary’s response was not a “no,” nor a “let me think about it,” nor a “sige na lang.” Her answer was a quiet but compelling yes, “I am the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to your word.” Her response was one of complete openness to the Almighty and whatever might be brought upon her. She said yes, without thinking about the shame and embarrassment that could come, resolute even if unaware of the forthcoming pain of losing a son. She said yes without certainty, without clear and detailed directions, without security. Hers was an extraordinary trust in God and in God’s ways.

So too, the Ateneo de Zamboanga is called to openness, particularly to its very special quest of nurturing true and lasting peace in Mindanao, of taking advantage of her unique position as an academic institution, where authentic inter-religious dialogue can create space, for Christians to begin to understand Muslims and Muslims to begin to understand Christians, and so make room for mutual respect and reconciliation. This is not an easy task. There is no certainty. There are many obstacles from history, from deeply embedded prejudices, from personal hurts. No sure-fire solutions are in store. No clear imperatives can be set in place. But the Lord calls and challenges, and so we ask Our Lady to give the Ateneo the conviction to imitate her and say yes to this unsettling undertaking, trusting that the Lord will always accompany us and somehow shed his light along the way.

Second, active engagement in mission. When the angel told Mary that she would bear a child, she did not simply submit like an unthinking sheep. She asks, “How can this be, since I do not know man?” She asks because she is a human being with her own mind and her own will. She asks, not out of lack of faith in God, but out of lack of knowledge of the means. She asks, not in contempt, but in simple inquiry and in all humility. She took on the enterprise, not passively, but actively, not out of powerlessness, but with all consciousness and deliberation.

It is this same spirit that should mark the Ateneo graduate – marked by a mind that continues to question and search for answers, that thinks straight, able to make distinctions and logical connections, able to discern patterns and analyze statements and get to the heart of ideas and propositions, never satisfied with just a simple resignation of “ansina gayud,” but always ready to pursue what is true and good, what is nobler, what is beyond what the eyes can see – ansina gayud pero tiene maga cosa-cosa mas importante pa que con ese. That is really why we pursue academic excellence in all our schools, and particularly in Zamboanga – not to get high percentages on board exams or boast of topnotchers, not to have as many honors and awards, not to win recognition from CHED or PAASCU – not really – but to produce men and women who can think on their feet, who have active minds that engage the issues of the day, who can see beyond to what is more important, who are not simply cowering and unthinking vassals of powerful masters. Our Lady was such a person, with an inner strength that made her resilient, a mind of her own that kept her engaged, and a heart that never ceased to care.

Third and finally, commitment to the end.

In his book, Light Cavalry, Father Horacio dela Costa writes about the arrival in 1865 of Father Francisco Javier Martín Luengo in “Zamboanga la bella” which “was beautiful even then; beautiful with that dark and dangerous beauty which has always been hers and her women’s” – el maga mujer de Zamboanga. Dela Costa tells us about how Zamboanga had become a town of ill repute in those days, where Spanish soldiers would come to rest after their battles, seeking only alcohol and pleasure, and how Zamboangeños came to be known as gente perdida, the lost people. But that did not stop Father Luengo and the Jesuits who came after him. Slowly but surely, Dela Costa says, they worked quietly to convert the people, not by condemnation or denunciation, not by fire-and-brimstone threats from the pulpit, but through private conversations and gradual persuasion. And so, Zamboanga was transformed. Gente perdida became gente perdonada, through the perseverance and determination and commitment of those early missionaries.

It is with that same commitment that Ateneo de Zamboanga must now continue to move forward. Yes, these years of jubilee are a time for looking back to a century of existence, for counting blessings, for thanksgiving. But I would like to think that jubilees are not only about cherishing and savoring the past. They are also a re-commitment to the future, with a firm resolve to forge ahead, while making sure to promote the same timeless Christian values of love and generosity and forgiveness, the Ignatian magis, the formation of men and women who should always be for others.

When I think of commitment, I am reminded of the many classical paintings in Europe depicting the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. What one would frequently see in these paintings is a young girl walking up the steps of the temple. Legend has it that Mary’s parents were childless for a long time. In their old age, God blessed them with a daughter, and so, thankful to God for this gift, Joachim and Anne dedicated Mary to the Temple in Jerusalem, where she was presented to the high priest, whom she had to reach at the altar, by climbing the Temple’s many steps. Hence, the paintings. Pious tradition has it that once Mary set foot on those steps, she never looked back.

That, then, is the third gift we shall ask of the Lord today for Ateneo de Zamboanga. We shall pray for the gift of unwavering commitment to do the good up to the very end. We beg for the gift of setting our feet on the right path and never again looking back. It is the gift of marching into the future, come what may, with great courage and daring.

So, this is why on this day of celebration, we come back to our patron, Our Lady, the Immaculate Conception. We beg for her powerful intercession that we might receive the graces of the Annunciation – profound openness to God, active engagement in mission, and unwavering commitment to the end. Ánimo Ateneo!