Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Jesuit superior general in Tondo slum

Commentary
By: Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

FORTY YEARS ago the late Jesuit Fr. Joe Blanco and I had the honor of taking Fr. Pedro Arrupe, then the Jesuit superior general, to Tondo. We met the Zone One Tondo Organization leaders and Fr. Arrupe and the poor people discussed, among other matters, Marxism, armed struggle and the role of the Church in fighting poverty.

At that time in the Zone One area there were four priests helping the poor to organize their own people’s group. There was also a small convent of the Religious of the Good Shepherd who helped the organizing and took care of most other problems of the people. Now there are no priests or sisters in the urban poor area, except perhaps for Mass on Sundays.

We met Fr. Arrupe at the old Institute of Social Order on Padre Faura. Two Jesuits were sent with him by the Jesuit provincial, who, it seems, didn’t quite trust Fr. Blanco and me. We asked the two to wait at the ISO. Fr. Arrupe was excited as a boy on a picnic. He had been in meetings since he arrived in the country and was happy to be free to move around the city. He even enjoyed our mad dash to Tondo down Roxas Boulevard behind a careening bus that spouted so much foul exhaust it finally disappeared altogether in a black cloud.

Fr. Blanco arranged things in the ZOTO office while I took Fr. Arrupe around the area: Slip Zero, Pier Dos, Isla Puting Bato and Bonifacio Village (now called Parola). Some 30,000 poor families lived in Tondo at that time. I felt I was with a TV superstar, though few people had any idea of who Fr. Arrupe was, or what a Jesuit was for that matter. They saw a jolly man in his 60s, his thinning gray hair flying in the harbor breeze, with one of the most radiant, joyful smile anyone had ever seen. They crowded around, especially the children. He stopped to talk to people and was able to communicate with them in a mixture of Spanish and English. He held on to their hands while he talked to them. He had been a medical student in Madrid before he entered the Jesuits, so he took notice of the malnourished children, stagnant pools of water, the garbage everywhere—all speaking of disease.

He asked them about their incomes and other problems and their hopes in life for their children. He wasn’t shocked by the terrible poverty. Earlier in his life he was one of the first people to go to Hiroshima after the A-bomb attack. He had been stationed outside Hiroshima in the Jesuit novitiate. I thought I saw deep in his eyes traces of the horror he saw that day and the huge act of faith it took to believe God would someday renew this world.

I had some business in a nearby area, so I missed the beginning of the meeting with the ZOTO leaders, Trining Herrera, David Balondo, Pedro Timbolero and others. Fr. Blanco introduced Fr. Arrupe as a close friend of Pope Paul VI. The people met the Pope a year earlier in another part of Tondo. Later whenever the people wrote President Marcos about their problems, they sent the Pope a copy (“Copy furnished the pope,” they wrote at the bottom of their letters). Sometimes when MalacaƱang responded, they also added “copy furnished to pope.” Somewhere in the Vatican these old letters in Tagalog are filed away. Did anyone ever know what to do with them?

When I arrived in the ZOTO office, I found Fr. Arrupe and the ZOTO people discussing revolution and armed struggle. He wanted to know what ordinary urban poor people thought of these matters. He wanted to know what kind of world the poor people wanted. He gave the people his full attention and told stories of people he had met in other countries, especially in Latin America. The Tondo folk said they were open to armed struggle since nothing else seemed to work. They admired young people who joined the rebels.

When the people asked about Pope Paul, Fr. Arrupe was full of praise for him, though a gap was already opening between Pope Paul and himself (and later between him and Pope John Paul II). Some Vatican officials thought Fr. Arrupe and the Jesuits were going beyond Church orthodoxy in several matters—for example, in their openness to the use of Marxist analysis.

We ate food the people brought from the local turo-turo and then a big crowd walked us out of the area. Fr. Arrupe shook every hand and kissed the children. We took him back to the ISO where the father provincial’s car was waiting.

Fr. Blanco and I arrived late at the airport on the day he left the country. When he saw us, he left the circle of Jesuit superiors and bishops he was with to hurry down to us. He told us to keep doing what we were doing in Tondo.

Fr. Blanco is dead. I am still working in the very same streets I walked with Fr. Arrupe that day. I sometimes think he is walking along with me, with his gracious smile for everyone we meet.

Fr. Arrupe had a stroke in 1981 and resigned as Jesuit superior general. He was able to speak until 1983, but the last eight years of his life were spent in silence.

His name is not mentioned often now. Perhaps 50 years from now, Fr. Arrupe’s memory will be revived and also the spirit of optimism and openness to change of Vatican II. Some consider him the very image of a Vatican II priest. They see in him the essential spirit of Vatican II.

Fr. Arrupe’s visit was in 1971. After that came martial law and 25 years of democratic government.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is upa@pldtdsl.net.

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