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Finding meaning in what is ‘not of this world’

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In 1995, when I was starting my work as principal at the Ateneo de Manila High School, I was blessed with the luxury of coming into my job without needing to worry much about day-to-day operations.

I spent the time learning the ropes, so to speak, and starting the process of our coming up with a 10-Year Development Plan. One of the first steps was to interview the different stakeholders of the school.

I saw all our faculty, staff and representatives of the students, parents and alumni. For the fourth-year students, I got 10 students from each class and spent an entire period, which was then 40 minutes, conversing with them in my office.

The basic goal was getting their perspective of what made the Ateneo de Manila High School distinct, what it was we did best, etc.

My final question to the seniors was what it was in their high school experience that they would take with them as they leave, to cherish and always guide them as they move on in their journey. Almost all of the close to 90 seniors I spoke with said it was the Tulong-Dunong Program that they considered the defining moment of their high school experience.

Tulong-Dunong is a program of the Ateneo de Manila High School started by the late Fr. James O’Brien, SJ, in 1975-1976, when I was a senior high school student myself. We did not participate in it, since only one out of our seven sections piloted the program.

In a few years, the program was implemented for all senior year sections. It was a combination of our religion and socioeconomic classes, with close to three hours a week dedicated to tutoring Grade 6 students from a nearby public school. Each senior student, on the average, tutored two groups of six to eight students per group in two 40-minute periods. Every Tuesday or Thursday, half of the fourth year sections would go to their assigned public school.

Aside from this, the high school students did home visits, an educational tour with their students and various programs in the public schools as part of their practicum.

I taught this subject for three years before I entered the seminary, and knew it was indeed a life-changing experience for many of our students.

Scholars

The program also produced many scholars from the public schools who were able to study in private schools for high school, Ateneo de Manila for the boys, and for the girls Miriam, St. Joseph’s College, St. Scholastica’s Marikina and St. Bridget’s. Most of these scholars moved on to various colleges and are now accomplished in their respective fields.

The classes who tutored these scholars would continue to support them as they went through high school, providing allowances and, at times, part of the tuition, if necessary. A number of classes also helped their scholars through college.

The memory of those conversations almost 18 years ago always reminds me of how a person is naturally good and compassionate.  Those young men would normally be considered “the young and the restless,” but to hear them talk about Tulong-Dunong  gives us faith that any person, given the right exposure and motivation, is naturally compassionate and caring, especially for those who are less fortunate in life.

Last Thursday, I celebrated Mass for the 41st wedding anniversary of close friends, friends who have become family to me. I talked about mission, and discovering the moment when our mission becomes clearly defined, and after which we give ourselves totally to the work, totus ad laborem. Of course, I told them my mission and first love was teaching high school.

After the Mass, one of the guests asked when I had my defining moment. It was realizing what teaching was all about, which is to love our students into excellence.

I told her how a young man of 18 or 19 then taught me this, a story I have shared with you before. Joe Lynch, then a freshman at Harvard on a full scholarship, while discussing his options to go into law or medicine, ended up saying, “I can live on a farm, for all I care, so long as I have a happy family.”

Then after a minute or two of silence as we continued our walk along Central Park, he stopped and  said, “I guess, Father, whatever makes me a more loving person.”

Four years later, he gave up entering Duke Medical School, among the top three medical school then, to study in Oregon Health and Sciences University in Portland, ranked 20th then, so he could be close to his parents one last time before he lived his own life and started his own family.

Grateful

When he moved to Seattle after medical school and was doing residency in the University of Washington, we would get together almost twice a year since my work then with the alumni brought me to the US at least four times a year. He always told me then how grateful he was for choosing to stay in Portland.

During that four-year period, his mother was afflicted with cancer and he managed to take care of her. She recovered and continues to be in remission. His parents also went through a trying time in their relationship, and his presence helped see them through. Best of all, he met his wife a few weeks before he graduated from medical school.

We would recall not just these stories, but that walk in Central Park 18 years ago: “Father, whatever makes me a more loving person.” For both of us, that was a defining moment in our respective journeys.

This was my defining moment in my life and mission as a teacher, realizing that teachers love our students into excellence, and excellence is their becoming more loving persons.

Almost 21 years after that walk, I had another epiphany of sorts. Another old story I have shared was my conversation with my spiritual director, as we discerned if God was truly calling me to the work I am doing now, and to leave the Ateneo and the Jesuits.

He asked me, “What good will your teacher formation do for an education system beset with so many problems?” To which I responded that if I form only one good teacher a year for the next 20 or 30 years of my active life, I will be doing God’s will. It was very clear to me that this was what God wanted me to do.

These seem like strands of memories, slender threads of my life which, today, on the Feast of the Solemnity of Christ the King, seem to come together. The tapestry is not so much that of my life, but of God’s plan, design and mission for my life.

It is all about compassion, loving, and living a mission-inspired life.

This Sunday’s Gospel, the Gospel for Cycle B in the liturgical calendar of the Church, comes from John, and highlights the famous exchange between Christ and Pilate.

Testify to the truth

Christ declares, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

In Cycle A, we have the Parable of the Final Judgement, where Christ clearly defines that it is a life lived with compassion for others, especially the needy and the oppressed, which will earn us entry into God’s Kingdom, or as the king in the parables says, “Come enter the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

The Gospel for Cycle C is about Christ dying on the Cross. This is the Kingship of Christ. This is the Kingdom of Christ the King. It is not of this world.

The “surprising” response of the graduating high school students on what defined their high school life was perhaps “not of this world.” Yet it was what gave meaning to these young men.

Joe, who had the whole world before him but chose to put family and being a loving person above all the success the world had to offer, is perhaps “not of this world.” Yet it was what defined and continues to define all of Joe’s choices, giving him both success and meaning.

He is now a top orthopedic surgeon in the US, happily married to his beautiful wife Sarah, and blessed with four equally beautiful daughters. What continues to give meaning to his life is family and being a loving person.

To this day I face many challenges in my work for public schools. I made many mistakes and made bad choices, but what always centers me are the defining moments of my life, my journey: the high school seniors who showed me that compassion and service are  most meaningful to them; and Joe, who embodies my basic philosophy of education—loving our students into excellence, making them loving persons.

Perhaps all these are “not of this world.” Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world. Perhaps his love, his compassion are not of this world. Perhaps this is why time and again we are called to mission: to render compassionate service to others, especially those who have less in this life; to love others to becoming loving persons; “to fill the world with love.”

Today we pray, in the words of Ignatius of Loyola: “Give me only your love and your grace. These make me rich. I ask for nothing more.”


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