Sunday, November 18, 2012

‘Blessed’ Jesse Robredo

By Denis Murphy

9:12 pm
Sunday, November 18th, 2012   Debate in the Catholic Church today is mostly about the proper understanding of the Second Vatican Council. We can discuss these matters theologically, though that is the most abstract of approaches and sometimes the most puzzling.

There are more concrete ways to seek the meaning of Vatican II. We can, for example, ask what type of saints will be canonized if the Council’s teachings are fully implemented. Will the Church continue to canonize persons such as the recently honored St. Pedro Calungsod, or will it look more to people like the late Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo?

We have been steeped in Vatican II’s teachings for 50 years. We know more about the modern world that is in great part indifferent to Christian beliefs than the bishops who attended Vatican II in 1962-1965. If we thoughtfully search for saints for our times, we can almost certainly clarify the type of man or woman needed by the Church.

Will the Church canonize brave young people like Pedro who know nothing of our modern world and little of their own world, or will it honor mature men and women of this age who have mastered the modern world’s sciences, systems, technologies and disciplines for good ends and still possess a heart and a mind for our traditional faith, and a mind and a heart for the poor? Will it seek out men and women who can show in their own lives both the achievements of this world and the awareness in the end that there are just God, the poor and those who live as the poor?

We need both types of saints, of course, now and in the future. But of which do we have greater need if we are to transform the modern world?

I knew Jesse Robredo for 35 years. Many knew him better than I. We were friends. I wrote articles about him. One was titled “An organized people and an astute mayor,” and it was intended to praise his ability to work with organized poor people and turn a small sleepy town into a bustling modern city without losing its old cultural strengths. I worked closely with him on the problem of housing urban poor people over the last two years. I certainly didn’t know his personal spiritual life as his confessors and his wife knew him. But I’ve listened to people whom I admire and who knew him well. They tell us a great deal.

His wife, Leni, for example, said in an interview in this paper that every time Jesse came home from trips around the country he went as soon as possible to the Pe├▒afrancia Shrine to report to Our Lady about the things that had happened to him. His life as secretary of the interior brought him into the middle of treachery, betrayal and danger, but it also brought him into the homes of the very poor, where he sat like any other visitor and appreciated the snacks that the poor offered. No Cabinet officer worked harder than Jesse or took on more dangerous tasks.

When I mentioned the idea of this column to one of my friends, he said: “Miracles, Denis, it’s all about miracles.” There are no physical miracles that I know of, but here is an incident that sets one wondering.

A friend of Jesse’s who held a high government position was aware of corruption in his office. He was reluctant to be a “whistle-blower” for many personal reasons, and then he visited Jesse’s grave near the Pe├▒afrancia Shrine. He said that as he stood there he became aware that Jesse was urging him to do what was right. The friend weighed Jesse’s words of advice and decided to speak up. He said he immediately felt very happy. He did speak out. A miracle? A sort of miracle perhaps that may be much valued in the modern world?

If ever, Jesse would be the first happily married man with a loving wife and children to be canonized in centuries. Wouldn’t that speak to our modern world? He talked constantly by cell phone with his family. They lived in the same simple two-story home they lived in during his first term as mayor of Naga, 1988-1992.

I have been especially impressed by the affection that retired Archbishop Leonardo Legaspi of Caceres (Naga City) has shown for Jesse. The archbishop has been one of the modern pillars of the Philippine Church. In the past he often appeared as a rather stern and conservative person, but when I heard his talk at the end of Jesse’s funeral, I was deeply touched: He was a father mourning for his son, I thought.

Lawyer Angel Ojastro, who worked with Jesse for many years, told me this story. He took charge of the last arrangements for Jesse in Naga, according to the wishes of Jesse’s wife. He waited one night at the Archbishop’s House for Jesse’s body to be brought there for the wake. He found that the archbishop was still up.

“Go to bed, Excellency, I’m here. I’ll take care of him,” Angel said. He knew the archbishop had painfully bad knees and was sick in many other ways. “Go to bed, Excellency.” The archbishop refused. They both waited until almost 1 a.m. Angel repeated the phrase that was in my head: “[The archbishop] was like a father waiting for his son.”

If such a learned and insightful churchman as Archbishop Legaspi could show such love and respect for a politician—they had been mayor and archbishop in the same small city for 18 years—there was probably nothing in Jesse’s public life that the archbishop hadn’t heard about, nothing that would diminish his admiration. The archbishop held Jesse in such high respect to the end, which should make us wonder once again about Jesse Robredo’s true value.

Maybe someone should introduce his cause for canonization. Archbishop Legaspi, perhaps? It seems a step toward the world of the future.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. [].

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Seeking Equality

By Denis Murphy

Philippine Daily Inquirer
8:19 pm
Thursday, November 8th, 2012   TO TALK of the poor in the United States is apparently bad politics. During the past presidential campaign, neither President Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney used the word “poor.” The reason seems to be that Americans were taught by former President Ronald Reagan and others that there is a good chance poor people who receive welfare payments, including widows and single mothers, may be swindlers. The suspicion spreads from welfare recipients to cover all poor people. Reagan talked of a so-called “Welfare Queen” who lived in Detroit—if I remember correctly—and had amassed cars, houses and jewelry as a welfare recipient. He never produced the woman.

American politicians talk now of the “middle class.” Obama is described by his own people as “the defender of the middle class.” As a result, I believe, his campaign speeches lacked fire and integrity, because he didn’t talk of the poor and suffering Americans he knows, including a great number of his fellow Afro-American people. It’s hard to feel passionate when you talk of the poor as “those who wish to enter the middle class,” which he did in the first debate. The historical weight of the poor people and their suffering, their central role in Scripture and their struggles to have a better life all vanish.

Romney, for his part, appeared to have lost interest in the economically lower 47 percent of Americans. This is a long way from the Democratic Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and Republican President Richard M. Nixon, who all backed the “war on poverty” of the 1960s-1970s. The United States is moving away from traditions of fair play and compassion.

Another word no longer heard in American political debates is “inequality.” The Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 focused the nation’s attention on the great and growing gap between the incomes of the top 1 percent of the working population and the remaining 99 percent. Data on this gap are still coming in: The Los Angeles Times reported recently (Sept. 12) that the present halting recovery in the United States “pushed to a new high the income gap between the country’s richest and poorest citizens.” For a time Obama spoke of this gap and called for fairness, but he soon got off that subject when his political foes pounced on him, accusing him of “class warfare” and being “a socialist.” Observers from other countries may wonder how a democracy like the United States can have a serious election campaign without talking about inequality of income and the inequality of political power to which it invariably leads. On the just concluded US election campaign, Al Jazeera News reported that the top 1 percent of the United States’ richest persons donate more to the presidential campaigns than the 150 million poorest people. What happens to democracy?

All Filipino politicians talk of the poor here, but I don’t believe any major political figure has talked of inequality in income between the richest and poorest and of narrowing the gap, though the rate of inequality of income measured by the Gini Curve is as great here as in the United States. China is now as bad as the United States in this matter. The same question must be asked here: “Can we have serious political discussion in the Philippines if people do not examine income inequality and work for greater equality and fairness?”

Some of my friends have told me that such a discussion will eventually be needed, but for the present it may be wiser to stick with a very simple work plan for the economy, such as President Aquino’s anticorruption strategy, at least until the economy gets its legs under it in a few years. But the trouble with this caution is that the economic pie grows more unequal as it increases in size.

What to do? Perhaps we can begin with one or two dramatic gestures, actions or resolutions that teach the value of moving toward greater equality and actually do some concrete good for the poor.

A visitor from Brazil told us recently that that country’s former president, “Lula” da Silva, once ordered that for every sum of money given for infrastructure, another amount equal to 2 percent of that infrastructure money be given to help the poor. It doesn’t sound like very much—only 2 percent—but in reality 2 percent of the country’s infrastructure funds would be a great deal of money and would do wonderful things for the poor. Such a practice teaches people that the poor need and deserve more than bare survival. It is compassionate giving. It is on top of money already budgeted for the poor. Maybe President Aquino can do something similar here. It would teach the values needed for democracy and narrow the income gap.

Great amounts of money will be spent on flood control infrastructure from now to 2035 under the government’s new flood control project. Can the President order that an amount equivalent to 2 percent of that figure be given to the poor? This 2 percent will be in addition to the money already allotted to them for resettlement. It can be used to improve schools and medical services for all poor people, create public work programs, enhance poor people’s diets, etc. The President can describe it as a small step toward a more just and fair Philippines. A small step for the President, a great step for all poor men, women and children, and for the country.

Can he also order that labor-intensive methods of construction be used? The International Labor Organization claims that the number of people employed will increase by 25 percent if we do so.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates [].

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