When Fr. Bobby Yap informed me about the honorary degree to be conferred on me by Xavier University, I was actually confused not knowing how to react – it was both a feeling of surprise and at the same time, anxiety caused by a feeling of awkwardness.
Honesty, I was initially flattered to the point of doubting whether I truly deserve the honor. But I took note that the honor is actually in recognition of the principles and the ideals that I represent, particularly, the passionate campaign for the environment. The invitation clearly explains that: “The honorary doctorate is being conferred upon you in recognition of your life-long apostolate for and with the Indigenous Peoples intrinsically linked with caring for creation, our common home.”
So, I accept this honor also in behalf of my colleagues in the environmental movement, and the communities that for several decades had been engaged in sustained efforts to protect our threatened ecosystems. It must also be acknowledged that my commitment to care for the earth was deepened by my years of immersion and profound learning from the indigenous peoples of Mindoro.
Originally, I need to clarify, my primary engagements started with development work and human rights advocacy in my home diocese of Oriental Mindoro. Let me tell you my story.
My personal journey into development work started way back when I was in college, during my studies at the Ateneo de Manila University. There was an attempt, at least during our time, to instill among the students the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola. This kind of spirituality calls for social involvement, for becoming “men and women for others.” The foundation of our activism was not directly based on some ideology, but very much grounded on our faith response.
We were conscienticized to analyze the socio-political realities, and to respond accordingly using the discernment process vis-à-vis the social teachings of the Church. I joined the Ateneo Student Catholic Action (AtSCA). We were made to experience the stark reality of injustice, and dehumanizing poverty through our regular week-end immersion among the urban poor communities in the vicinity of the campus.
It is worth noting that many of the leading personalities in the civil society organizations today came from our student organizations in Ateneo in the 1980s. Many of our batchmates live up to the idealism of the youth. There were many quixotic individuals who pursued service profession over much lucrative career opportunities. Ateneo taught us to become men and women for others, and to serve the poor.
I was in the university from 1980 to 1984, a period of worsening government bankruptcy due to gross kleptocracy of those who were holding power. The situation of extreme poverty during this time provided me with a perspective in analyzing what was wrong with the totally corrupt political structure. It was a period of Martial Law. To the graduating millennials, the despotic rule of the dictatorial regime is dismissively concealed or even forgotten. It may explain the horrible possibility of another Marcos making a come back in the national politics!
I also had my theology in Loyola School of Theology. And I was ordained on April 1, 1993. That was exactly two years after the PCP II. The Council was convened to set the desired direction for the renewal of the Church in the Philippines. It categorically declared that the Church must become truly a Church of the poor. With that declaration, I was strongly motivated, fired by passion and commitment to go to the periphery!
And this was even before Pope Francis came into the scene, calling for the Church to leave its comfort zone to reach out to the marginalized! Of course, we need to understand that Pope Francis is a Jesuit. And I supposed we share the same tradition of being contemplative in action, of integrating our spirituality with the struggle for justice! This is the brand of activism that I borrowed from our Jesuits mentors. But today, when I roam around the Ateneo campus, I often ask whether this tradition has long been forgotten or it has totally become passé or relatively irrelevant.
In my sincere effort to seriously pursue the call to be a man for others, I volunteered to be transferred to the island of Mindoro. It was then that I become actively involved in advocacy for the rights of the indigenous peoples and in implementing development programs for the rural poor.
In my ministry as priest, I constantly tried integrate my faith into the demand of justice and the work for development. This journey had not been easy. My life was threatened as a consequence of living out faithfully one’s commitment to the cause of justice. I was targeted for liquidation by the notorious Army General, Jovito Palparan. In fact, I was no. 6 in the list of the so-called dissident terrorist. It was not only me, but people suspected of being rebel sympathizers were tortured, decapitated, or summarily executed.
When friends from NGOs ask why do I do the things I do? I always say that it was because I was brainwashed by the Jesuits! (Brainwashed for good, as I’ve told Fr. Joel Tabora!) This orientation is something that I supposed I share with Xavier University. After all, we share the legacy of Ateneo education and the Ignatian Spirituality.
For me, the legacy of Ateneo education is the formation of social conscience. It continually leads me to live my life in the service of the poor and in pursuing the agenda for social transformation. In the footsteps of St. Ignatius of Loyola, I tried to live the spirit of being contemplative in action. It entails struggling to find God in the marketplace of our social engagements and to generously offer myself, for the greater glory of God, for the service of His people.
The legacy of Ateneo education brought me to the place where God has invited me to be. It was a long, painstaking, but very fulfilling journey.
Soon after graduation, you will be also be taking yours. What will define your journey will definitely be influenced by the guiding principles that you hold, the inner conviction that you have come to imbibed and the kind of spirituality that you learned to live. What you choose to value will define what you will become. “Where your heart is, there your treasure be” May wish for all of you is that you may come to find the true treasure of your heart.
As graduates, you are leaving the premises of the university, leaving behind happy and painful memories, while excitedly looking forward to what lies beyond the horizon. We have our plans to pursue, our dreams to realize and opportunities to grab. Our Ateneo diploma can serve as a ticket to reaching the top of the corporate ladder.
Of course when we graduate, we are expected to be successful in our chosen career. And we are raised to believe that to be successful means to have more, to earn more and to have all the affluence that life can offer.
There is a continuing study in Harvard about what makes a good life. It was reported that a survey was conducted among the millennials, asking them what are their most important life goals. Over 80% of the respondents said their major goal is to get rich, while 50% of the same bracket said their goal is to become famous. But on the contrary, the study went to say that fame and money are certainly NOT the sure guarantee for a good life.
What keeps us happy then as we go through life? Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, in the longest and most complete studies of adult life ever conducted, asserts that it is not money, but good relationships keep us happier and healthier.
A similar line of thought is offered in a recently released book published by my batch mate from Ateneo. His name is Gerry Siquijor. He is into real estate business. And he also loves to write. He wrote a book entitled “Pointers for New College Graduates.” He advised the graduates that “before you lunge forward to landing your first job, please take time to ask yourself what you want to do for the whole span of your working life?”
He invited his readers to go beyond the conventional definition of success and to pursue the quest to have a truly meaningful life and to gain significance. He provides a working definition for a meaningful life: “A state wherein you take it upon yourself a purpose greater than yourself.”
What does it mean to have a purpose greater than oneself?
There was a story in FB that had become viral a year ago. It was about Dr. Richard Teo. He was a young 40-year old doctor who was in demand for cosmetic surgery. He is paid ten thousand dollars for a liposuction, 15 thousand dollars per breast augmentation surgery. There was a great demand for liposuction, so he became very rich. He was in the peak of his career, when it was discovered that he had a lung cancer, stage 4! When he was counting his remaining days, he wrote this reflection: “when you start to build up wealth and when the opportunity comes, do remember that all these things don’t belong to us. We don’t really own it nor have rights to this wealth. It’s actually God’s gift to us. Remember that it’s more important to further His Kingdom rather than to further ourselves.”
Working to further God’s kingdom and not furthering own ambition or agenda is precisely what St. Ignatius is seeking. In our Ignatian retreats (do you still do it in Xavier U?), we are always invited to reflect on the first principle and foundation. We are reminded that the whole purpose of our life is to love and serve God. And necessarily “the other things on the face of the earth are created for human beings to help them in working toward the goal for which they are created”.
But clearly, it was not only our Jesuit education that challenges us to love God by becoming men and women for others. Even contemporary authors and academic research contend that we can only live a meaningful existence if we go beyond our selfish interests and preoccupation in order to pursue greater purpose.
As you end our academic year and continue to chase our dreams outside the university, you need to find the higher purpose that you intend to pursue.
As for me, I found my greater purpose in my passionate campaign for the environment and in serving the poor.
In the encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis himself is making an ever-relevant appeal to us in the face worsening global poverty and ecological crisis. We are all being summoned to take on the challenge – “to hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
Clearly, our situation in Mindanao poses a concrete context where social and environmental crisis are intertwined. The ever-worsening peace and poverty problem is inseparably linked to the degradation of environment and outright betrayal of the principles of justice and common good.
For the Church, caring for the environment is clearly related to our Christian responsibility of pursuing integral development. There is an interconnecting link between poverty and ecological degradation. This is affirmed and further expounded by Pope Francis himself: “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental” (LS 139). We are challenged to work for development and at the same time, to protect our threatened ecosystems.
When I was awarded the Goldman Prize for grassroots environmental activism, I took the opportunity to re-echo the ethical framework of poverty and ecology: “Protecting the rights of the poor must take precedence over corporate greed. Genuine development must prioritize the need to ensure ecological sustainability over market profitability. We should never sacrifice people and the environment for short-term benefit of the few.”
In our campaigns to defend the environment and to serve the poor, I have found a purpose greater than myself.
You need to find yours. And the journey starts today!
Padayon! Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam!
Fr. Edwin Gariguez delivered the commencement address to 1,800 graduating students of Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro City where he was awarded an honorary doctorate in the Humanities. He currently serves as executive secretary of NASSA/Caritas Philippines, where he actively leads the Catholic Church’s advocacies, development and humanitarian works, including the Typhoon Yolanda rehabilitation program.