ERICc Hoffer once wrote: “How frighteningly few are the persons whose death would spoil our appetite and make the world seem empty.”
I submit that the statement is mostly true. On the other hand, President Cory Aquino was, doubtless, one such person. News of her parting certainly spoiled many Filipinos’ breakfast last August 1, 2009 and has left such a void not only in her family but also in her country, one that even fewer will ever consider attempting to fill. It could even be asked if there would be, among our present crop of leaders, those who would measure up to her standards of public service. Now that she has left this side of life people have, virtually in a wink of an eye, realized what precious human jewel the country, nay the world, has lost. She has been variously called “an icon of democracy”, “the Joan of Arc of the Philippines”, “Mother of Philippine Freedom”, “a leader who combined power and virtue” and many others.
I know that much has already been said and written, and will still be said and written, of her and her significance to the Philippines and to democracy the world over. Death somehow makes appreciators of the dead those they leave behind. Not that it is a sign of ingratitude, rather only of the natural oversight we often make of fellow humans who still breathe the same stale air of earthly reality as we do.
Among the many voices that we now hear or read on how we are to see President Cory Aquino’s meaning and significance to us Christian Filipinos who deeply care about their country, let me add mine.
I agree that she was an icon of democracy. But she was also more. To me she was a living sign of the challenge of Christian discipleship in the contemporary effort to positively transform society according to gospel values. Even when her adherence to Catholic teaching on certain policies of her government could be doubted, one would be hard put to question her sincere desire to serve the poor and make the government institutions strong and independent enough to be truly democratic. Praying presidents we have had many. But praying presidents who validated their prayerfulness with morally unquestioned acts of governance we are not sure to count with our fingers. Still, how blessed we are that there was one President Corazon Aquino. In a word, for contemporary believers she could be an embodiment or, at least, a reminder of the Vatican II vision of the Catholic lay faithful, not one who separates faith and (secular) life, but rather brings that faith right into her/his acts of social engagement.
That she was a woman and a wife with an elite family background had been made much of by friend and foe alike as among her minuses. But she transformed them into pluses because, precisely as a woman president and a former wife of a senator, she courageously stood up to serious coup attempts and the difficulties of rebuilding democratic institutions to meet the nation’s so many serious problems and needs. Even as she was being faulted for her inability to turn her back on her own elite background as the reason behind the lack of true land reform during her watch and beyond, yet she disarmed critics by her simplicity and numerous quiet efforts to help countless poor people through micro-financing and other poverty-alleviation efforts through non-government organizations. She remained true to her declaration that her stepping down from the presidency would not mean ceasing to be involved in safeguarding the welfare of her country. She left government but she did not stop being a leader in espousing causes that, in her view, uphold that welfare.
In a political culture that feeds on greed and ambition for power she dared to say “Maraming salamat at paalam (Thank you so much and goodbye)” to the highest office of the archipelago with no visible hesitation. That she did so even when her own critics admitted that she could argue against being covered by the constitution’s term limit of six years for the presidency precisely because her government pre-dated the very constitution it helped establish spoke volumes of her strength of character and her admirable detachment from the intoxication of power. In President Cory Aquino we realize that a person does not have to be materially poor to be considered, to use biblical language, among the “anawim” or the ‘humble poor of Yahweh’. Often looked down upon, perhaps even despised, by her harshest critics for being a woman and a simple wife, she, like Mary, was a visible testimony to the Magnificat truth, to wit: “[The Lord] has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly” (Lk 1:51-52).
Above all, her prayerfulness, compassion especially in regard to the poor, sincerity of intention to be of service to what is best for the country even if it meant standing against former allies and friends to uphold moral governance evince a noble Christian heart. President Cory Aquino now completely has what Michelangelo once called the “two wings that bear the good person to heaven”, namely “love and death”. Of her it is worth listening to St. Cyprian: “Our brethren who have been freed from the world by the summons of the Lord should not be mourned, since they are not lost but sent before.”
No, don’t cry for the icon. She is not asleep. Rather, she has finally awakened to never-ending day. Cry for her nation instead—to the God in whom she lives, that the light she left behind may not cease shining in this country’s darkest places.