Where Have All Those Years Gone?

25 Years as a FriarThis morning I received a card signed by the General congratulating me on my 25th anniversary as a friar of the Order of St. Augustine. Frankly, I wasn’t expecting this anniversary until 2013 because for years now, the idea has been floated around by a canon lawyer in our Province, that the anniversaries of religious profession should be counted from the time of solemn profession. I don’t know where our canon lawyer’s idea comes from.  But I know that a religous becomes a religious canonically on the first profession, so I accept the congratulations with gratitude.

The card forced me to think of those twenty-five years. Where have they gone? I still remember the excitement of that morning at Guadalupe-Viejo’s ancient church — the original “Lumang Simbahan” — for the celebration of the profession rites. Fr. Berdon, the then and current Provincial, received the vows. Twenty-five years after that, around the same time, I was seated in front of the TV watching the Lakers beat the Orlando Magic in its blowout Game 2 win in the NBA finals (Thursday evening in the States but Friday AM here, June 5, GMT +8). So when I saw the card on my desk this morning, I began to think: where have I been those twenty-five years?  And so as an exercise in prayer, I made a list of how I’ve been these past years and tried to see what those years mean to me. 

  • 5 June 1984. Profession at the Guadalupe-Viejo Church, Our Lady of Grace. There were about ten of us who passed the novitiate at San Agustin Intramuros. Now, the other friar still there is Fray Enrique Sagum. He is currently assigned at the Colegio de San Agustin — Biñan. That year I also begin studies at the Faculty of Sacred Theology of the University of Santo Tomas.
  • June 1984 – May 1986. Studies at UST
  • June 1986 – September 1986. Worked as assistant in the Socio-Pastoral Apostolate of the Province. That time, we were helping displaced squatters build their homes near Himlayang Pilipino.
  • October 1986 – May 1992 . In September 30, 1986 I begin my stay at the Colegio Sta. Monica in Rome and in October I continue my studies in theology at the Augustinianum and Marianum. Afterwards, in 1989, I begin the propaedeutic year at the Biblicum as a preparation for a course that leads to a Licentiate in Sacred Scriptures. I will be staying there until May 1992. The six-year stay will be broken by some months of vacation in the Philippines in 1990.
  • June 1992 – May 1994. Assigned to the San Agustin Seminary in Guadalupe-Viejo, Makati.
  • June 1994- April 2000. Assigned to the University of San Agustin. From 1994-1998 I was the Campus Minister and Director of Co-curricular activities. In 1996-2000 I was the Dean of Theology. There were two years during that period when I was both Campus Minister and Dean of Theology (1996-1998). That was the time when the Kabataang Agustino Program — which I started in 1995 in the wake of World Youth Day Manila — also became an occassion for academic activities. In 1999, when the friar community had its internet connection, I created AgustinongPinoy (August 27-28, 1999).
  • May 2000-April 2004. Assigned to the Colegio San Agustin-Bacolod where I was the VP for Academic Affairs. In 2004, our students graduated without the need for a Special Order.
  • May 2004-May 2008. My first term at the Mother of Good Counsel Parish. In 2005, I began the creation of small groups in some areas of the parish that will later on become the foundation of Basic Ecclesial Communities here. From 2006, I also began teaching at the nearby Colegio San Agustin – Biñan.
  • 5 June 2009. Lakers beat the Orlando Magic (GMT +8).  My 25th Anniversary as an Augustinian.

Liberation Theology and Option for the Poor

Work with the displaced squatters in 1985-86 and the political climate at the time drew me to Liberation Theology and the desire to what “option for the poor” meant. Those were also the years when I first got “banned” from a school because of my alleged political bible studies. When I was in Rome, those memories would influence me to do research on “the Militant Reading of the Scriptures”. The resulting paper helped me earn my STB degree from the Augustinianum (first cycle). It also became the content of my first public lecture at the Urdaneta Hall of the University of San Agustin in 1990 and the subject of my published work for “Views”.

Basic Ecclesial Communities

My assignment as Campus Minister at the University of San Agustin led me to experiment with bible reading groups. In fact, the core of the Augustinian Campus Community Workers, a project of the Kabataang Agustino Program, was built around students who came together regularly to meditate and reflect on the Scriptures. When my request for assignment to parish work was approved and I found myself in the Mother of Good Counsel Parish, I discovered that we had a sector called “Homes-Along-the-Railway” (henceforth, HAR) that was still virtually untouched. Failure in two bible-related “pastoral experiments” led me to the HAR; I celebrated my first BEC mass there in July 2005. Around that time I also began a small bible study group at Olympia I. I now celebrate two monthly masses in the squatters’ area along the railway and have created a program — the PREX-BEC Program — that would sustain our basic ecclesial communities in four areas of the parish.

Web Ministry

Back in 1999 when I started AgustinongPinoy, I only wanted a website that point our students and theology teachers to materials already found in the web. Most search engine results then yielded non-Catholic and fundamentalist results. When one of my teachers asked me how a Catholic would answer the claims of Rapture groups, I wrote my first webpage on the topic “The Rapture: A Catholic Perspective”. This was followed by others of which, the article that had the most readers was “Ten Augustinian Values”. In 2004 I published a slightly modified version of the article in the Colegio San Agustin Bacolod research journal. In 2005, I moved AgustinongPinoy to a PHP-powered server and from that time, I put up two other websites, the Mystical Geek (http://agustino.org) and Res Biblica (http://www.biblista.net). Res Biblica presents articles on the Sunday Scriptures and other Bible-related topics, the core of which is constituted by the articles I wrote for Suite101.Com’s “Catholic Bible Studies”.

Teaching Ministry

I was Dean of Theology and Director of Religious Education at the University of San Agustin and Colegio San Agustin-Bacolod respectively. From 1994 until 2004, I taught several subjects in Theology, from “Salvation History” to “Introduction to the Life and Works of St. Augustine.” This last together with the “Social Doctrines of the Church” became special areas of development for me when they were first offered as part of the Theology curriculum of the University of San Agustin in SY 1998-1999. I was also one of the first teachers of Philosophy in the University’s College of Liberal Arts, although I had to inhibit myself from teaching the subject further since I only had masteral units in Philosophy which I was not able to complete because of my studies in Rome. When I was invited to teach at the CSA-Biñan in 2006, it was for the course “Introduction to the Life and Works of St. Augustine”; the following school year, I was again asked to teach “The Social Doctrines of the Church”. Funny how things come around; these were practically the courses I invented in 1998-1999.

Promoting the Knowledge of St. Augustine

At the end of my assignment at the University of San Agustin, the Human Resource and Development Office awarded me a certificate in recognition of my efforts in promoting the knowledge of St. Augustine in the University. It was the first time that such a recognition was given to any of the friars that has worked there. And so it is an award that I will always cherish. In CSA-Bacolod, I had the chance to make the St. Augustine Quiz Bee more interesting by using the Augustine Page (http://geocities.com/hipponensis) as a review center for those participating in the contest. It also presented me the occassion to write a short article on “Why is St. Augustine Unknown in the Philippines?” The question was relevant since inspite of the fact that Augustine is the most quoted Father of the Church in Vatican II and in the Catechism, the documents of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines do not bear his mark. Currently, the opportunities for me to continue what I have been doing along the lines of promoting the knowledge of St. Augustine is limited to Theology 106 which I have been teaching since 2006, the article “Ten Augustinian Values”, blog posts at the Mystical Geek (of which the one entitled “Brown on the Dolbeau Sermons and Divjak Letters” has been quite popular) and homilies on August 27-28.

The Arts

Song and Music. Before I left for Rome in 1986, we staged a musical on the life of St. Augustine. The script of the musical was one that I wrote in 1979 for the Youth Marian Crusade;it was restaged for the Faculty of Philosophy (University of Santo Tomas) in 1980 as a class requirement in English. Originally, it was a play about young people having a conversion experience and afterwards dedicating themselves to youth ministry. I rewrote the script so that it can tell the story of Augustine’s conversion. In the process I had to come up with a new song. Fray Ricky used it for Vocations Promotion in subsequent years. When I got assigned to the University of San Agustin and worked as the Director of Co-curricular activities, I had the opportunity of overseeing the veladas produced in the years 1994-1996. Those were creative years at the University of San Agustin with the Conservatory of Music and the Kawilihan Dance Troupe coming together to produce a musical on the life of St. Augustine. During those years I had the opportunity to be with the men and women who helped us form culturally involved students. And though I no longer held the office of Director of Co-curricular Activities in 1997 following the case of the starlet whose show I cancelled, I still got directly involved in some of the co-curricular activities of the University. There was even this event where, in the absence of a group that would perform a number during a cultural presentation, I and the younger friars of the community presented ourselves. We called ourselves “The Musky Pops” (Anglicized and short form for maski papano kakanta) and performed some songs that had the first and second year students talking about the friars for a week. The songs that we included in our medley number — however old they had been — even got repeated requests in the nearby radio station.

1998 was the last time I appeared in our graduation ceremony as the University’s Campus Minister. But by that year, I already had some lines of poetry based on the opening lines of the Confessions Book 1 turned into song, thanks to Fr. Jonas Mejares’s "Tunog Agustino II". Since the music did not fit the lyrics and some of the words themselves were mangled in the process of converting it, I rewrote it for the Opening Prayer of the graduation ceremony. In the Tunog Agustino II, the song is entitled "Pusong Balisa" (English: Restless Heart). The graduating students of SY 1997-98 would remember it differently.

Drawing and Cartoons. While a student in Colegio S. Monica, I used to draw cartoon illustrations for the Sunday Mass songs. Drawing became my recreation especially since basketball — my favorite sport — was not played by the other friars. During the cold winter, I would create clay models — three-dimensional versions — of my cartoons. When I turned thirty in January 1992, I presented my little creations as part of the decorations. These didn’t last long though; when winter passed, my clay models grew soft and it was only by putting them in the refrigerator that they would harden and become fit to be displayed.

In 1990 while on vacation in the Philippines, the then Rector of the University (Fr. Ricafrente) asked me to draw some cartoons that illustrated the Mission and Vision of the University of San Agustin. I completed the drawings after I went back to the Colegio and sent it to him. I don’t know whether it reached him, but when I started working at the University of San Agustin, I found the illustratiions in the Office of the Media Director. Since there wasn’t any immediate need for those illustrations, I told the one in charge of the office to just keep the drawings. Before I left the S. Monica to return to the Philippines, I illustrated a book on good manners and right conduct authored by one of the friars of the Italian Province. I saw copies of the book, once while I was in Guadalupe-Viejo and another time, a new edition of the book while I was in the University of San Agustin. Since then I haven’t heard any news about the book.

Web Graphics Since the year 2000, I haven’t had the opportunity to do something along the lines of music and song. But the web presented me with an opportunity to develop a new art form, web graphics. Given the fact that it was easier for me to write than to draw, web graphic became more of a means to illustrate some of the ideas I write about. The slew of graphic software one finds on the web for free was a great help for me in creating images that inform.

Life with the Augustinian Friars

In Touch with the Roots.  I wouldn’t have been able to carry out my pastoral experiments if not for the support given me by the friars. In fact, it was a friar from one of the Latin American Provinces who asked me to remain with the Order. This was back in the summer of 1987, the first time I found myself the only Filipino in the Colegio. This was followed in the following year by a strong religious experience that told me I should make my solemn profession soon. So I did; even if it meant the possibility that in absenting myself from the classes at the Biblicum (before that solemn profession, I had to undergo a week’s retreat), I may fail the propaedeutic year. Those years in Rome were years when I got in touch with the roots of the Order of St. Augustine and with the traditions that created it. My experiences at Genazzano, Maenza, Cascia and Tolentino were experiences that opened up to me knowledge of the spirituality of the Order and the people it touched.

Filipino Friars.  The friars — in Italy, Spain and Ireland especially — were aware of who they were and their place in the Church. Sadly, this was one of the aspects of our life that I missed upon my return to the Philippines in 1992. We Filipino Augustinians seemed unattached to any Augustinian root; we were like diocesan priests wearing the garb of a friar. Even the students I found at Guadalupe-Viejo in 1992 did not seem to understand the difference between them and the diocesan seminarians at the school they go to. Although I also spent four years in that same monastery years before (79-83), I could not recognize them as aspirants and postulants of the Order of St. Augustine. And to top it all, even the Formator then preferred to use resources that were foreign to Augustinian spirituality, resources that were more native to the spiritual group he was frequenting. From that time, however, I have seen how this aspect of our life has changed. I especially like it now when our professed students refer to themselves as “Fray” and not the diocesan-sounding “Brother”. There was even a time when our students at the old monastery in Guadalupe-Viejo referred to us as “the priests”. Perhaps it is because during these years following the Special Jubilee of the Order (2004-2006), we have become more conscious of our particular character as members of a Mendicant Order that a lot of changes in the way we perceive ourselves are occurring. In 1992, a lot of us saw ourselves as simply priests under a category called “Augustinian”; even our aspirants and postulants regarded themselves as “seminarians” of the Order of St. Augustine. I had the opportunity to indirectly change this perception through a lecture on the way St. Augustine read the Scriptures given to our professed students sometime in the latter part of the 1990s. This became an article in “The Augustinian Legacy”, a journal published by the Province. During the Special Jubilee, I was invited to the San Agustin Center of Studies to talk about the reasons for the Jubilee itself. I told my audience that it was part of the Order’s ongoing return to its roots as an Order founded by the Popes in 1244/1256 and how it has appropriated St. Augustine of Hippo as its spiritual founder.

Making Augustine and things Augustinian our Own.  The process of appropriation still goes on. After the 25th anniversary of the Province, it is now easier for us to remember that the indigenous Augustinians — of which we are the first fruits — are products not only of the Province of the Most Holy Name (which proclaimed the gospel here for the first time) but also of the Order of St. Augustine as a whole (under the Generalate of Fr. Martin Nolan and sustained by two other Generals since then, Frs. Orcasitas and Prevost). In fact, what should characterize our life as Augustinians now is the active appropriation of the roots of our tradition as an Order. What the first congregations of the Unions of 1244 and 1256 did should now become our program as a Province. I remember reading an article by the Irish friar F. X. Martin, OSA where he described how the first members of the Union made their own the spirituality of Augustine to the extent that after some time, the label “Augustinian” became a title unique to them. Right now, one of the the stumbling-blocks to the way we appropriate those Augustinian roots is the way we understand “community life”. What a lot of our friars do not understand is that the term has a meaning that is distinguishable from any concept of “community life” one may enjoy harboring. It has a meaning that was teased out by the friars of long ago from Augustine’s concept of “communion”, “common good”, “charity in its two-fold aspect as friendship with God and with others” and “Church”. The Order has put the phrase “community life” in its post-Vatican II editions of the Constitutions as a phrase that best expresses the Order’s charism, nothing more. Since then we have been fighting over what that phrase means and what it does not. For us Filipinos especially, the phrase “community life” has a wide variety of nuances. Even the expression “one mind, one heart” (isang diwa, isang puso) now has a non-religious and non-Augustinian meaning, thanks to Imelda Marcos’s Augustinian ghost writer. Which nuance is truly “Augustinian” is something that we will have to discern and redefine if needed.

For a related post, go here: A Friar’s Story