[Address to the ADDU HS Graduating Class, 31 March 2015.]
We are in the middle of the Holy Week. Yet, with the permission of our archbishop, Most Rev. Romulo Valles, we are celebrating a special votive Mass of the Annunciation. This is, first, because of a special announcement that was made last week on the feast of the Annunciation, but also because of the pastoral significance of this feast for your lives.
On the Feast of the Annunciation, our Jesuit Provincial, Fr. Antonio Moreno, announced a year of prayer and discernment for Jesuits and their partners-in-mission on a new Province Roadmap that had been approved in principle last month. Jesuit partners-in-mission include you, should you so choose. The new Province Roadmap focuses the three main apostolic activities of Philippine Jesuits on Mindanao. These activities include sharing the good news of a living personal relationship with Jesus Christ with others, Catholics, Christians, and non-Christians, attacking problems of poverty and inequality, and protecting the environment – all especially in Mindanao. This Roadmap is deeply influenced by Pope Francis who in an encounter with Jesuits of the Philippines challenged them to “Go to the poor, go to the peripheries.”
The Jesuit announcement was made in the context of the celebration of the the Annunciation – the announcement made by the angel Gabriel to Mary. God had worked out a plan of salvation for humankind; it involved his Son becoming man in order to bring sinful man back to a holy God. In this plan, Mary was to play a special role. Mary would conceive in her womb, bear a son, name him Jesus, raise him and love him as his mother. But that was a role that would bring her suffering and pain. It was a role, therefore, to which she needed to say yes.
Mary was astonished by Gabriel’s announcement. She did not know how it could happen, since she was still a virgin. Yet she trusted in the Lord saying yes to humankind. To God’s yes, she said yes.
On this yes all of salvation pivoted. The unthinkable happened. The impossible became possible. Divinity descended to humanity, that humanity might be raised to divinity. Divinity descended to humanity that fallen humanity might be raised to humanity: that human beings would not use their intelligence and their power to destroy one another, their education and technology to bring war on one another, their creativity, their skill and their intelligence to create economies that keep certain rich increasingly rich and the poor increasingly poor, their competitiveness and their ambition to put other people down in pushing themselves up. Through this yes, Jesus would “not regard equality with God something to be grasped at, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness…he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8). Lifted up on this cross, he would lift all up to himself (cf. Jn 12:32) that all might be restored to his Father.
You must notice here that the yes of the humble maiden, Mary, is the condition of so much divine good. God could have worked otherwise. He could have forced his power and will on us. But he does not. That is true even of the yes he asks of you in working out his plans for Philippine society, and especially for Mindanao.
For the Jesuits it is clear. If the Pope is sending us to the poor and to the peripheries, the poor are in Mindanao and in Mindanao’s peripheries. Fourteen of the 20 poorest provinces of the country are in Mindanao. In most of these provinces, since 2012 poverty has increased. The poverty index in Mindanao is 41% vs. 33% in the Visayas and 16% in Luzon. Worse, the poverty index in ARMM approaches 60%. While Mindanao accounts for 40% of the land area, it contributes only 16% to the total gross national product; ARMM has the smallest contribution. Due to ongoing bungled relations between the north and the south, through which the heroic peace advocates and peace process have been ignored, maligned, misunderstood, peace in Mindanao directly involving some 8 million Muslims, about a third of the Mindanao population, which comprises about a fifth of the national population, is elusive. At the same time, among the most neglected and peripheralised populations in the Philippines are the indigenous peoples of Mindanao.
The picture is similarly sad with the environment: Mindanao used to be richly covered with forests. God created those forests and made them flourish. They have been cut down; some people have become rich, most remain poor. Mindanao is endowed with valuable minerals, among them copper and gold. God created those minerals for the benefit of all. The minerals have been exploited; they continue to be exploited through large- and small-scale mining according to laws which even this administration knows to be unjust. Some get rich, many of them foreigners; most Mindanaoans remain poor. The environment is irreversibly destroyed; the patrimony of the nation is plundered. Meanwhile, further investments in mining threaten fresh water supply that is vital for human consumption and human agriculture. God created fresh air and fresh water for all. Fresh water is threatened, as fresh air is threatened, by an economy that benefits the included at the expense of the excluded.
With your high-school graduation, and later with your college education, you are numbered among the “included.” You have knowledge, and you shall have more knowledge. You have social power, and shall grow in social power. You have knowledge of good and evil, and you have power to choose, not only between good and evil, and right and wrong, but more challengingly, between good and good. In your situation, God approaches you with an invitation, as he approached Mary and has approached the Jesuits. “Come, let me work out my salvation through you.”[i] “Come, follow me” (Jn 1:43). He says, “Whatever you do or not to one of these the least of your brothers and sisters that you do to me” (cf. Mt 25:40.45). He says, “Come to me…. I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (cf. Mt. 11:28; Jn. 10:10).
I pray that when God sends his Gabriel to you, when God convinces you he is calling you, when he says yes to you so powerfully yet lovingly, and manifests his will to you so convincingly yet tenderly, while you know you can say no like the rich young man of the Gospel who went away sad (cf. Mt. 19:22), you nevertheless freely say yes as Mary did (Mt. 1:38) and rejoiced in God her Savior (Mt. 1:47). You say yes not out of coercion but out of love, not out of vanity but out of trust in God’s goodness. You say yes to God’s ongoing Incarnation of love and compassion. On your yes can pivot unimagined blessings for the poor and perpheralized in Mindanao. On your yes can depend not only your happiness, but the happiness of countless others. As is sung in the Blue Knight Song: “…to God’s high command your hearts bow!”
[i] Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, Mediation on the Kingdom.