Wednesday, May 28, 2008

He Was The "Light Calvary" Of The Jesuits In The Philippines

Austere laurels
By Juan Mercado
Philippine Daily Inquirer

The old postcard, used as a pagemarker, slipped from the book we were flipping through. It stirred memories.
The tattered card depicted the “Hundred Islands” of Pangasinan province. Scribbled on it was one homesick line: “What has Rome got to compare with this?” The late Fr. Horacio de la Costa, S.J. had posted it from the Jesuit house on Borgio Spirito Santo, a block away from the Vatican. Columnist Carmen “Chitang” Napkil described De la Costa as “the gentle genius.”
He was priest, historian, professor; first Filipino to head the Jesuits in the Philippines. Later, he became special counselor to the legendary Fr. General Pedro Arrupe. When he died, at 60, in 1977, he had touched the lives of many: from ordinary workers to classmates like Raul Manglapus, Jesus Paredes and Chief Justice Claudio Teehankee.
His statue stands today at the Ateneo Loyola Heights campus. “I was there; second year high school; section C; Boy Scout Troop No. 5, rear rank,” De la Costa lightly joshed. And two incidents come to mind. The first was the small birthday party his mother hosted. Father De la Costa apologized for coming late.
Imelda Marcos summoned him to Malacañang to ask: Would he write the “New Society’s” history? The room fell silent. “And your answer?” someone asked. “They wanted me to be their Pigafetta,” he said with a quiet smile. “I replied: Madame, my specialization is the Spanish colonial period. Perhaps, you may wish to get somebody more qualified.”
The second incident: “Who is this man?” Indonesian editor Sumono Mustoffa whispered to the late columnist Apolonio “Pol” Battala at a Press Foundation of Asia seminar. “He knows more about my country than I do.” The slim, bespectacled De la Costa had, in a few, trenchant paragraphs, sketched out the history, status and problems of Indonesia’s clove industry—source of scented “kritik” cigarettes that Sumono and many of his countrymen puffed with panache. “On my return, I drove out to Bandung to check out with our agricultural scientists on what Father De la Costa presented,” Sumono told me at a Jakarta dinner shortly before the priest’s death. “He was right with that one.”
As a 22-year-old seminarian, De la Costa wrote “Light Cavalry,” a history of the Society of Jesus. The bombing of Manila scrubbed the scheduled release for Christmas of 1941. “Most copies were burned,” wrote his classmate Fr. James Reuter, S.J. “The Japanese used the metal type for bullets. So, the release was delayed for 56 years. Sorry about that.” Harvard University Press published, in 1961, his book on “Jesuits in the Philippines: 1581-1768.”
Former students compiled, 25 years after his death, his papers into four volumes. They are a must for any library. The scope covers his early writings, to studies on colonial Philippines, religious themes and national problems. The language sparkles. “Lord, he could write,” author Raul Rodrigo commented in a book review. And the unassuming scholarship that floored the Indonesian editor is patent throughout. Volume III, for example, is titled: “Selected Essays on the Filipino and His Problems Today.” It seems tailored for politicians scrambling for pelf and power. “The survival of democratic government in our country depends on whether or not people have confidence in the ability of government to reform itself. And they will have this confidence only if they see government making a serious effort to reform,”
De la Costa wrote. “They will lose confidence, they will lose hope, not only in their government but in themselves, if they see our ship of state continues to be, in the words of T.S. Eliot, ‘a drifting boat with a slow leakage.’ “They are no longer contented to be ‘forever bailing.’ They will not long be persuaded to ‘make a trip that will be un-payable, for a haul that will not bear examination.’ “We must stop the leakage; put an end to drift, find a direction and steer. Only thus can we solve what is perhaps our most critical problem: the restoration of hope.”
How? This is a country where “for all the trappings of a national government, we are not far from the era of the ‘barangay.’ We conduct our affairs pretty much in the manner of Lapu-Lapu and Humabon. [Today’s] congressman who moves around with his bodyguards is not much different from the ‘datu’ with his retainers,” he noted. “We can only go back to basic ideas: (1) Build communities; (2) Link communities with common goals; and (3) Recapture the bureaucracy.”
His homily at President Manuel Roxas’ Requiem Mass seemed written with today’s power-seekers in mind. “Posthumous deification is often accorded to those who die in the possession of public power. This is the tawdry privilege of the despot,” he said. But “civil authority is not personal but public.… It belongs to the people who may entrust it to whomever they freely choose. [And he] may not claim thereby the ‘divinity that doth hedge a king’ … He is held accountable always for the authority he holds in trust. And when his mandate is revoked, he must be willing … to return, as a private citizen, to the ranks from which he came.“ Let him not expect any reward but the consciousness of having served his people and his God. For often, he will get no reward but this…. Austere are the laurels of the republic.”
So, will it be possible for citizens to root out injustices embedded into social structures and become free? “Doubtless, we are naïve,” he replied. “We may be attempting the impossible. We don’t know. All we know is that we must attempt it.”
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1 comment:

L. L. said...

I had the privilege to meet Fr. de la Costa when I was at Ateneo de Manila. He was a very humble man but his intelligent mind shines through the fog of petty bickering and politics. Most, if not all, of what he said and wrote still applies today with the turmoil going on in this world.
I was also lucky enough to have worked with another Jesuit-educated professor whose work on the Tobacco Monopoly highlighted the power and corruption it brought to the Philippines as a colony.
With the lessons learned from them I eventually made a life decision that followed my conscience and conviction.