Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Pacman and the Filipino

LEST I be misunderstood, my interest in writing about Manny Pacquiao has really nothing to do with his celebrity status as a boxer. My interest is in what his relationship with Filipinos worldwide tells us about ourselves. It is beyond dispute that Manny Pacquiao, especially when he goes into big fights, effectively unites Filipinos behind him, whatever their language, place of origin, politics, religion or gender. For example, I found it more than interesting that the known terrorist Basit Usman even made himself vulnerable to an assassin’s bullet when he stopped to check on Manny Pacquiao’s ‘Fight of the Century’ at which Manny Pacquiao’s champion status was likewise assassinated, as it were, by Mayweather’s smarter defensive and evasive skills as well as dirty tactics. The resulting defeat by the Pinoy icon was as resounding as the collective disbelief and grief of ordinary Filipinos. Initially Pacman himself objected, saying he thought he won the fight but later admitted that, although he did his “best”, his “best was not good enough” at least to the judges and the computer stats.
What I find striking is how Filipinos identify with the Pacman in his victories and also in his defeats. There is no dearth of real heroes in the Philippines, what with so many official ones in history’s textbooks and unofficial ones in OFWs etc. in addition. But no one among them has achieved the celebrity status of a Manny Pacquiao in such a sensational and spectacular fashion, especially when we consider his dramatic rise from a “starving street kid” to one of the world’s highest paid and highest earning athletes. His victories over bigger and stronger foes were nothing short of incredible. But it is perhaps because he used to be as poor as most Filipinos that they feel one with him
As a priest I find it remarkable how his real Christian name ‘Emmanuel’ is hardly not seen for its symbolic value. Translated even in the gospels as “God-is-with-us” I see in the phenomenon called Emmanuel Pacquiao God’s way of grabbing our attention to his presence in our midst. That the original ‘Emmanuel’ himself went through disappointing, dismaying and violent defeat especially in his crucifixion on his way to his resurrection is, to my mind, somewhat dramatized in Pacman’s defeats and rising-again victories. Not that I’m predicting that he would rise again by defeating another foe or foes in a blaze of glory before he hangs up his gloves. A greater victory than one in the ring would perhaps be his victory over the politics of corruption and patronage in which he himself is sometimes inevitably entangled. The victory that he could help achieve with greater impact would be over the excruciating poverty and social injustice among his own constituents and in the very country that immensely idolizes him.
Again as a priest I hope and pray for another distinct victory: That Pacman overcomes the distorted view of the Catholic faith (in which he grew up) that he might have received from his non-Catholic friends as well as from unenlightened Catholics around him (alas, it could include Mommy D too). His abandonment of the rosary and the sign of the cross before his every fight has certainly earned him a lot less sympathy from priests, bishops and conscientious Catholics who look at it as caving in to the distortion of ‘Mariolatry’ from his influential non-Catholic pastor friends. It also considerably lessened the number of those who pray for him, not excluding the upright ones who are already in heaven whose prayer, if he is to believe St. James, “is powerful with God” (Jas. 5:16). I am hoping that Pacman does not distort, with his friends, the valid veneration of Mama Mary and the saints and call it worship that it is not. As long as that victory is not achieved, defeat at the hands of Mayweather can only point to an ongoing inside defeat he suffers from.
Ernest Hemingway in his novel The Old Man and the Sea once wrote:
”But man is not made for defeat. He can be destroyed but not defeated.”
Is this the reason why Manny Pacquiao, with fellow Pinoys supporting him, has not really accepted his defeat at the hands of Floyd Mayweather, Jr.? It is hard to say. But in my book both fighters have really suffered defeat at the hands of pride: Pacman when he predicted he could easily beat Mayweather and the latter when he continually touts Pacman as not within his league and can easily defeat him again and again in as many times as they might hypothetically meet in the ring. Pride is the great blindfold. Pacman’s prior prediction of victory blinded him to the strengths of his foe; Mayweather’s basking in self-glorification blinds him to his ‘hugging’ and ‘running’ dirty tactics, among others.

I agree with H. W. Beecher who said that “defeat is a school in which truth always grows stronger.” And the truth that we must let grow stronger is this: The hero is really not out there in someone like Pacman but in ourselves whenever the values that define who we are define the way we live.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

San Pedro Calungsod: What a young Pinoy martyr says to us today

NO, it is not as if San Pedro Calungsod is calling a press conference to read a prepared statement. It is rather you and I being challenged to read his statement from what words don’t provide: namely, his acts that led him to a violent death and to a martyr’s crown. These acts also lead us to glimpses of his character, the kind of life he represents and the response we are asked to make.
            To me the following are among the volumes his acts speak.
What is done for God’s Kingdom is timeless
First, we ask the question: How come it took more than three centuries for the Church and the world to recognize the heroism of one Filipino young man named Pedro Calungsod? The answer is that his cause was effectively shelved when the cause of Blessed Diego Luis de San Vitores, the Jesuit missionary priest whom he accompanied even in death was also shelved shortly after they were violently murdered. It is beyond us to determine what factors were behind the centuries-old delay. But it goes without saying that being recognized by the Church on earth and the believing world then or now matters only insofar as it helps believers and non-believers come to know, give due honor to and emulate an authentic witness to Jesus Christ.
It seems to me that San Pedro Calungsod’s testimony may have greater weight now than in his own time if only because our young today are ever constantly challenged to be true to their Christian faith. The one truth that rings with greater clarity is that it matters little if he or his companions were not recognized at the altar of the Church sooner; his act of self-giving and martyrdom neither grows old nor irrelevant. The reason is that the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ that he proclaimed by his life and death is timeless. Here the axiom applies: “Age doesn’t matter because the matter doesn’t age.”

No one is too young to be a witness to Jesus Christ
Filipino parents, as a rule, are very protective of their children. In fact, even after marriage many of them live close to their parents, if not in the same roof with them and under their protective care. It is the poor who are mostly compelled to sometimes give up family proximity, for example today, because either the parents have to leave the country to find decent work or when able children themselves leave home to do their own share in the family’s survival and upkeep through a job thousands of miles away. Whether or not San Pedro came from a poor or well-to-do family is not established; no documents are on hand to provide that information. But it would not be surprising at all if, given the conditions and circumstances obtaining in his time, he did not come from a family of landowners or the moneyed elite. It would not have been easy for a Jesuit missionary to recruit for the missions a companion from among the natives’ elite families but a lot less harder to do so from poorer families who would have regarded it a great honor and privilege.
A willing young man, like Pedro, not without the lure of adventure possibly also at the back of his mind, would have likely come from such families. This consideration should not, however, detract from the fact that San Pedro Calungsod, whatever his social background was, proved himself a true witness to Jesus Christ in life and especially in death. I see in this a twofold challenge for today’s Pinoys: To the older ones among us, to not allow the opportunity of evangelizing the young to pass us by; to the young, to never delay evangelizing because of youth.

The missionary is a person of sacrifice
Today countless Filipinos continue to leave the country to look for opportunities to a better life. But at the time of San Pedro Calungsod this was not so. Leaving the country was mostly a choice for the moneyed elite, the criminal or the missionary among the native Filipinos. For the moneyed elite, it was mainly to seek better European education; for the criminal, for the obvious reason of being able to evade not only the responsibility for his actions but also a justice system tilted against him; for the missionary, to follow a vocation, a spiritual calling to leave everything for the sake of Jesus Christ and his Gospel.
In a word, San Pedro’s departure was to a life of sacrifice, not to greener pastures, except when the greener pastures referred to the other life. For San Pedro it was not been easy. He was young, he was a lay person who had to live like a religious detached from everything and everyone familiar. More than this, he had to embrace a life of uncertainty and danger, of provisions not sure of arriving regularly, of constant prayer and self-giving, of being with people teaching, catechizing or organizing them as Christian (Catholic) communities. San Pedro was a sacristan; part of his work was to carry a rather heavy altar stone everywhere Padre Diego Luis would go to, especially on extended periods where the Eucharist would have been celebrated periodically. Yet to all this he said yes and out of all this he even found cheer and contentment.

A lie is kin to death
Padre Diego Luis de San Vitores and Pedro Calungsod were killed because of a lie. It was one whose source was a Chinese merchant, exiled from Manila for having committed a crime. His name was Choco who spread the rumor that the water being used by the missionaries to baptize the children of the native Guamanians was poisonous and that this was the reason why some of them died shortly after baptism. A father named Matapang whose child was baptized by Padre Diego, with the assistance of Pedro, became murderously furious, as he took Choco’s lie hook, line and sinker. He had a partner named Hirao who initially refused but later joined Matapang after being called a coward by the latter. They killed Pedro first and then Padre Diego Luis.
The circumstances were uncanny. They seem reminiscent of the death and murder of Jesus himself: of the lie authored by Jewish and Roman authorities that he was an impostor, that he deceived people by his declaration that he is God’s Son and by his promise of eternal life. Incidentally they also remind us of real lies in our day and age that are just as deadly: for instance, that we can make life better without God and without the constraints of faith’s moral values, that promoting contraception and abortion are essential to human progress and development, that money and winning are everything, even at the expense of suppressing the voice of conscience and the demands of justice.

It takes courage to proclaim Christ in a hostile environment
San Pedro Calungsod and Blessed Padre Diego Luis de San Vitores had to face a group of people led by Matapang and Hirao that could only be described kindly as unfriendly. Of course, the better representatives of the Marianas’ populace could have been more numerous; unfortunately they did not rule the day. Historians point out that Pedro and Padre Diego could just have left the Marianas and returned to the Philippines or proceeded to more welcoming territories to proclaim Christ and the gospel. But they chose to stay and, without question, to offer their lives for the sake of the mission.
Their courage and generosity should not escape us. Courage because they did not run from their  mission even if they could; generosity because, in choosing not to fight even in self-defense, they made themselves ready for the ultimate sacrifice. For these reasons alone they deserve to be recognized even as human heroes. But having taken those actions for Jesus Christ and his kingdom especially makes them heroes of the faith.

Loyalty to Jesus Christ means loyalty to my brother or sister in faith
From hindsight students of San Pedro’s life and times, with ample support from historians, point out that, being young and strong, San Pedro Calungsod could have ably defended himself and even defeated his killers, Matapang or Hirao. He could have easily fled to safety and Padre Diego Luis would have understood, or been happier about, his action.
But the unshakable point is, San Pedro chose not to. He chose to stay with Padre Diego Luis and at some point used his own body to shield the priest. At that point Hirao struck him on the chest and, sensing an opportunity, went to strike him on the head as well, leading to the saint’s death. San Pedro’s action is often extolled for its depiction of the Filipino loyalty to friends and superiors. But in this specific case, something even higher was at stake: He was a catechist and a sacristan standing by a spiritual friend and pastor (Padre Diego) right to the bitter end. That is, and it is worth repeating, we see someone dying out of a sense of loyalty to Jesus Christ; to San Pedro loyalty to Jesus Christ and loyalty to a brother was inseparable.  San Pedro Calungsod, in a word, was an icon of the gospel.

The reality at work always and everywhere: love of God in Christ Jesus
There is always a veil of mystery when we are confronted with extraordinary heroism. Who would not marvel, for example, over a twelve-year-old St. Maria Goretti being able to resist a rapist, preferring instead to die rather than sin in his hands? Or who would not be in awe at the ability of a St. Maximilian Kolbe to courageously volunteer to die in place of a condemned married man and be the last to actually expire after helping his fellow condemned prisoners to face death under God’s grace? In the case of San Pedro Calungsod, who would not admire his choice to ignore his own personal safety and to sacrifice a whole future to stay and die with a friend and pastor? The event happened so fast and so was his fateful decision. But San Pedro did not hesitate.

I submit that this is because in all of these instances we witness the same reality at work in diverse ways and forms—God’s love. It is this love that we see in the most sublime way shining in Jesus Christ’s own sacrifice. And we see it continually shining in those who, like San Pedro Calungsod, are moved by the Spirit in certain graced circumstances, to follow Jesus Christ unhesitatingly on life’s many pathways to Calvary and the Resurrection.