(Homily at the birthday Mass of Imelda O. Cojuangco)
Today’s Gospel and readings talk about humble service. It also happens to be the “60th birthday” of Imelda O. Cojuangco—Meldy or Tita Meldy to many and Tata to her family. To reflect on humble service in the context of her life and grace is not just an easy task, but one I do with great pleasure and much honor.
First a definition of terms: Humility is always seen as a virtue, whether in a religious, philosophical or moral context, but a favorite definition is from St. Teresa of Ávila, one of the spiritual heavyweights of the Catholic Church. For her, humility is truth—accepting, coming to terms with and living out the truth of who one is before God.
This truth of who one is does not simply mean a humble, self-effacing view of one’s self but more a realistic knowledge of the self, as another spiritual giant of the Catholic Church, St. Ignatius of Loyola, posits. It is to know our virtues, blessings and strengths, balancing this with a good sense of our vices, shortcomings and weaknesses.
I will not talk about Tata’s virtues, as much has been said and written about these through the years. Neither will I discuss her vices or shortcomings, as all of us gathered here today are very much aware of her “manias” or as Jayjay would put it, Tata-isms.
Let me just share two stories and wrap it up with a reflection on humility from C.S. Lewis.
The past weeks, several of Tata’s staff went through very trying times. Two of them, Nana Conching and Colas, had serious health issues; Agustin almost had his entire house burned down in a fire. Interestingly, I first heard of these concerns as requests for prayer at Mass by Tata herself, accompanied by a genuine concern for the well-being of her staff.
In the days that followed, I would hear of how Tata personally attended to the needs of her staff, directing and monitoring how they were to be helped. With each story of this personal concern, I realized that the deeper grace was not just in the help extended, but more so perhaps in the manner the help was extended.
Tata’s help is by no means a token assistance, as she is always generous in her support. The words from Mark 10 are an apt description: “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10: 45)
With every help and prayer extended by Tata came her personal care and concern. It was her own humble way of giving her life “as a ransom” for all those she helped and prayed for; standing in genuine solidarity with them in their time of need.
A few months ago, Patricia shared with me how grateful she is for having Tata as her role model, for being a mother now to her own son, Tonichi. Then she said what I thought is one of the greatest tributes to Tata, “I hope I could be half the person she is.”
These two short anecdotes about Tata synthesize for us the essence of humble service. By simply being who she is—the truth of who she is—she inspires life and hope in others whether it is her staff going through an illness or a personal setback, or her granddaughter Patricia wishing to emulate her.
The secret of all this is the humility that St. Teresa of Avila referred to: Humility is truth, the truth of who we are before God. For Tata, this truth has become simpler and thus deeper. For her, this is her relationship with God.
As she would often tell me in spiritual conversation—and I am tempted to ask Patricia to say this for me, as she does the best imitation of Tata—“God is so good.”
This has become for Tata the truth of who she is, her relationship with God, a God who is so good to her. In the past decade of her journey, she has arrived at this core truth of her life.
This has been and will always be her mission, to live out this truth and let others—Patricia, Nana Conching, Colas, Agustin and many of us who have been blessed by her kindness, generosity, presence and love—experience in our own life God’s goodness.
To many, Tata will always be iconic and larger than life, but for us who have been given the privilege to “sit at her feet,” we will see in her the deeper truth that makes her iconic and larger than life. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”