Delivered on 26th July 2020, at the St Ignatius Feast Day mass of the Philippine Province of the Society of Jesus
Happy Feast Day to all, sons and daughters of Ignatius: our lay partners- collaborators, alumni and students of different Jesuit schools, our parishioners in the different mission areas, our partners and co-workers in social and pastoral ministries, lahat ng nakikinig at nanunuod, maayong hapon ug malipayong fiesta kaninyong tanan!
I think this is the first Feast Day celebration of the Philippine Jesuit Province that the Provincial had difficulty looking for a homilist for our mass. And all because of Covid 19! When they decided that I would be the one to give this homily, it became even more complicated for the organizers because many were scared that I might bring the virus from Philippine General Hospital to Katipunan. I might infect the massgoers, or the mass servers or worse, the mass celebrant. All these, I think, made this celebration special – special but it created a scary, not festive feeling. So we decided to just record my homily. Hindi ako sanay at hindi ko style ang pre-recorded preaching. I don’t know how the Holy Spirit can work in me, but I trust Him that He will do something when I run out of words to say. So trust that what I will say today is not only coming from me but from the Spirit!
My dear brothers and sisters, I know that many people today are scared of the Covid 19 virus, for indeed it is scary. But as one health expert says, “Let us not make our lives useless because of fear”. I personally know people who got scared of someone simply because he/ she works in PGH. My friends, this attitude is scarier than the virus itself! If many people would think this way, I wonder if we can still have enough health workers in our hospitals. It is good to be careful and take extra precautions, but let us not exaggerate. Habang pinagnilayan ko ang mga pangyayari ngayon, kasabay ang pagdiriwang natin ng Kapistahan ni San Ignacio, napaisip ako, what wisdom might St Ignatius of Loyola want to share with us regarding our response to the Covid-19 pandemic?
An Irish Jesuit, Fr Nikolaas Sintobin SJ, wondered what Ignatius might do in response to this pandemic. Fr Sintobin imagined that Ignatius would write a letter from heaven which contains down-to-earth advice. He will write it like this and I quote:
March 1, 2020, Earth Time
Dear People on Earth,
I see you’re having a hard time finding the right attitude to the coronavirus. That’s not strange.
I myself have been struggling with chronic illness for over thirty years. As Superior General of the rapidly growing Jesuit order, I was confronted with all possible and impossible problems day in and day out for fifteen years. I would like to give you some tips through these difficult times. They are taken from my own experience.
At this time of coronavirus, obey the doctors, the scientists and the competent authorities as if it were God Himself. Beware of fear. Fear never comes from God and does not lead to God. Fear often suggests to you all possible reasons why you should be afraid. Much of it is true. Only, you don’t have to be afraid of it. The Lord takes care of you now, too. I know that, from a well-informed celestial source. Experience has shown that He can write straight on the curved earthly lines. Dare to believe in them.
In times of crisis you do not benefit less, but more, from prayer. Grant it to yourself to indulge in His love. It is the best antidote to fear.
In my Spiritual Exercises I wrote, “Love ought to manifest itself more by deeds than by words.” Look after one another in whatever way you safely can, especially remembering the poor and the vulnerable.
Finally do not forget to live and enjoy life in all this. Whatever happens, every second you are given is a unique and precious gift. There is nothing the corona virus can do to change that.
United with you in everlasting prayer,
On this note, we can ask ourselves, as sons and daughters of Ignatius, where are we right now? Are the people around us – the people we serve and the people of God – feeling our presence? It is easy to justify our absence amidst the lockdown. But people would ask where we are. People are watching how we have been behaving during this pandemic—what we have been doing or not doing, for the least and the little ones at this time. When beautiful churches, great basilicas, the grandest shrines or even the smallest chapels are closed. And when brilliant theologians and linguistically gifted evangelizers and preachers could not gather a crowd, many are asking, “Where is the Church?”
When we started visiting the Covid patients in PGH, I was tempted to say, “here we are”, as if we are bringing the Church to them. Later, I felt ashamed because I think the right answer is not “here we are” but “here it is”—they are the poor suffering people in the hospital wards, but it is the very place and the very people that Jesus would always want to visit.
- They are covid patients with chronic co-morbid conditions, advanced in age, on dialysis, stage 4 cancer, on chemotheraphy – tired and depressed, alone and lonely, hindi makapagsalita, ni hindi makapabigkas ng kahit anong panalangin, madalas iiyak na lamang, feeling hopeless and helpless, ngunit marami sa kanila patuloy na kumakapit at umaasang sila’y gagaling na ang sabi madalas ay, “Kapit lang kami sa itaas Father, siya lang talaga, walang maka-visit sa amin, mabuti nga binisita ninyo kami, lalaban kami Father.”
- Many are inmates with life sentences from the National Bilibid Prison whose both hands are tied on the bed for 24 hours, with critical and chronic cardio, liver, kidney and pulmonary conditions. Sabi ng isa, “Umaasa pa rin ako Father na makalaya, kaya sana gumaling ako sa covid na ito. Ipagdasal ninyo kami Father, salamat sa dalaw!”
- They are the dozens of mothers who gave birth prematurely with all kinds of complications and who cannot give that magical moment of a skin-to-skin first hug to their babies because they tested positive for the virus.
- One of them is a mother na isa sa mga nagdo-donate sa amin ng tubig para sa mga frontliners, isang araw nakita nalang namin siyang nasa charity ward dahil covid positive. At sabi niya, “Father, kapag gumaling na ako, magpapadala ako ulit ng tubig. Nakita ko kung gaano kahirap ang buhay ng mga nurses at doctor. Ang init-init sa loob ng PPE, kaya siguro nangangilangan sila ng maraming tubig na maiinom.
- Another mother, umiyak ng hindi pa kami nakasimula ng panalangin. Noong tinanong ko siya, “bakit ka umiiyak?” ang sagot ay, “Naaawa ako sa inyo, Father. Para kang nahihirapang huminga at ang init-init ng suot mo.” Sila yung mga taong hindi lang kahirapan nila ang iniinda kundi ang kahirapan din ng iba. Siya ang nagkasakit at may dalalawa pang anak na positive din ngunit sa akin siya napaiyak. Umiyak dahil naisip niya ang hirap ko na nasa loob ng PPE. Hindi lang sariling hirap and iniisip at iniinda kundi ang hirap ng iba.
Since the lockdown, have we truly empathized with others? Have we cried for someone’s suffering? Have we expressed our concern for others? Or are we more concerned with our own safety and self-preservation?
Last June, I felt I needed to take a break then a retreat after. I was deeply touched when a friend called me up and said, “Doon nalang kayo sa bahay ng brother ko, Father – no quarantine needed.” I was deeply touched when two religious sisters from two different religious communities offered me a room to stay in their community for a break and a retreat. They offered me a room to stay in their house hindi dahil sa wala silang takot kundi dahil frontliner ako at mas kailangan ko ng matitirahan. This is the spirit that we need this time in our community. We cannot forever insulate ourselves in a safe place. This is not the Jesuit way, this is not Christian! Love and compassion impel us, summon us, call us to go out and take the risk. Compassion is to suffer with – not full distancing.
Kasama sa simbahang ito ang:
- Mag-asawang doctor na positive. Kapapanganak lamang ng kanyang asawa, at nasa tabing room lamang ang bata na hindi man lamang malapitan dahil positive ang ina.
- Mga doctor na nahawa dahil nag-oopera. Nahawa, intubated, sedated for 2-3 weeks. Katulad sa atin natatakot din sila, ngunit nilalabanan ang takot dahil kailangang tumulong.
- Our own nurses, security guards, janitors na alam nilang isang araw mahahawa din sila at ang tanging pag-asa lamang ay sana hindi mapuruhan. Katulad sa atin sila din ay natatakot ngunit nagpatuloy hindi lang dahil “kailangan” kundi dahil may pagmamahal at pakikiramay.
- Kasama ang Tatay na may mga anak. On his way to the Lung Center on a motor bike to be admitted for Covid, he got into an accident, seriously damaging his face. He was brought to PGH instead for surgery and Covid treatment.
- Ang Psych patient who harmed himself and turned Covid positive. Hindi niya alam ang Covid. Noong tinanong ko, bakit ka nandito, sagot niya, “sinaktan ko sarili ko.”
Why, Lord, why? Bakit sila? Bakit ganyan? We just have to kneel down in silence, for it is in silence that we can hear His answer. They are the Church. We did not bring the Church to them, we visited a Church when we visited them. A simple visit to them is like a pilgrimage to a famous church. This is the Church where eloquence means nothing but gives way to silence. This is the Church where long prayers and elaborate liturgies are unheard of. This is the Church where we can learn how it is and what it means to entrust one’s life to God. This is the Church that teaches us what is faith and reveals to us who God really is. This is the Church where even the believers of other religions beg for prayers. “Father, Father isama mo rin kami, bless mo rin kami”, sabi ng isang Protestant na babae na nakiusap na isama ko siya sa panalangin.
Do not search for the Church online. We cannot say our Church is closed as our cathedrals and basilicas are closed. With or without the pandemic, this Church in the hospital wards is open. If you cannot visit them, please do something for them or for those who are taking care of them—the frontliners! Reach out. See what our neighbors need.
Sa simula ng lockdown, pinagbawal pumasok sa covid areas. Masarap isipin na sana bawal nalang forever para safe kami. Masarap magtago sa dahilan na “bawal pumasok sa Covid areas.” Hindi naman obligadong pumunta. Pwede namang hindi at maraming dahilan na huwag na lang pumunta. Sabi nga ng mga nurses at doctors, huwag na lang kayo mag-ikot Father, baka mahawa pa kayo.”
But how can we do this? It is not only part of our work, it is part of our mission. We cannot just hide and feel safe in our room. That is not what it means to be a Jesuit, to be Ignatian, to be Ateneans, to be Christians. We have to go beyond our comforts and means! We have to go beyond ourselves. This is what it means to be a disciple.
As Jesus said clearly in the Gospel reading, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters and even his own life, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. Anyone of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” We have to renounce all our fears, our worries for it will just paralyze us. It will just give us all the reasons that we cannot do it.
At the start of this pandemic, simply seeing health workers in full PPEs created a scary feeling. Thinking about visiting them scared us all the more. But as we reflected on it more deeply, we realized that since it scares us and it scares a lot of people, there must something in it that we must have to respond to with courage, not fear. We feel that this is the very essence of our mission and this is where we are called to respond to. Thus, aside from visiting Covid patients, from bed to bed and room to room, to pray over them, we started to engage in and respond to the emerging needs even beyond our means. Thanks to our friends, donors and benefactors!
What moves us then to go beyond our comforts and means? In Physics, an object can be moved with a causal force which must be greater than the gravitational force or weight of the object. What greater force, then, can move us to do more and to be more for others, especially when our “gravitational force” to stay in our zones of comfort and security is naturally strong?
It is grace! It is God’s grace at work in each of us that moves us to go beyond ourselves, to renounce our strong desire for self-preservation.
It is not easy, and it will never be easy. It is a cross for many of us but isn’t it that where the cross is, there Jesus is? What moves us to go beyond ourselves, to go beyond our comforts and means? It is God’s grace, present in a messy Church, in hospital wards. It is God’s grace that is always greater than our ‘natural gravitational force” to stay safe! May the spirit of Ignatius ignite us all to beg for the grace of courage when we are drowned by fear, for the grace of self- giving when we are held back by self-preservation.
Fr Lito Ocon, SJ is a Chaplain at Philippine General Hospital.