From Intimidation to Friendship

Personal Memories of Archbishop Leonardo Legaspi, OP

[Written for the Festschrift for Archbishop Leonardo Legaspi, OP, launched on the Feast of St. Dominic, the First Anniversary of Abp. Legaspi’s death: Legaspi in Caceres. Naga: Ateneo de Naga University Press, August 8, 2015)

My personal relationship with Archbishop Leonardo was rough in the beginning, but it ended very well. I think he learned to trust me, as my fear of him turned to genuine affection.

The very first time I met him was during the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines. He was at the helm of the Council; I was a simple delegate. Counting the positive votes of plenary sessions had become troublesome. Different people were assigned to count sections of the plenary, and the numbers weren’t tallying.   Since we knew the total number of delegates, my bright idea was simple: just count the few negative votes, and subtract this from the total. I had the temerity of approaching Archbishop Legaspi from where he was presiding. “Just count the negative votes and abstentions,” I urged, “and subtract from the total.” For my bright idea I earned a demeaning scowl and an impatient brush off that felt like an angry slap.   The troublesome counting of votes continued throughout the Council, whose canonical validity was never doubted. But I never forget my first encounter with this intimidating Roman Catholic prelate.

The LST-UST “Encounter”

Our next encounter was not even personal, but I guess we can say it was historical. He was already the revered Archbishop of Caceres and a revered member of the Catholic Bishops Council of the Philippines (CBCP). I was still the President of Loyola School of Theology (LST), which had a pending application for ecclesiastical status with the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Schools. But I had just been assigned President of Ateneo de Naga University, which was under the jurisdiction of the redoubtable Archbishop Legaspi. I was called to a meeting of the CBCP in Tagaytay. I was asked to explain our petition for ecclesiastical status. My presentation was simple. LST was already granting ecclesiastical degrees – the licentiate and the doctorate of sacred theology by virtue of aggregation with the smaller ecclesiastical faculty of Fujen University in Taiwan. We were ready to grant them on our own. We also enjoyed a good record of service to the Church in the Philippines through the work of such Jesuit theologians as Fr. Pedro de Achutegui and Fr. Catalino Arevalo. LST’s oppositor turned out to be the University of Sto. Tomas, which presented itself as the royal and pontifical university of Philippines whose theological faculty was orthodox. The position of the two sides were discussed by the bishops, including a forced clarification from UST that its insistence on its orthodoxy was not an implication that LST was unorthodox. Archbishop Legaspi, who had in an earlier chapter of his life been President of UST and had personally opposed an earlier application of LST for ecclesiastical status for unorthodoxy, stated now that the debate was about the institutional egos of the two institutions and did not even merit discussion in the plenary of the bishops. The matter should be settled outside the CBCP. Meanwhile the status quo – where UST alone had ecclesiastical faculties – should remain. Cardinal Vidal, however, stated simply that, with all due respect to Archbishop Legaspi, ecclesiastical status for LST was for the good of the Church. After a long debate, which lasted even after the representatives of LST and UST had left the session, the vote of the CBCP was overwhelmingly in favor of LST. It was a happy victory for LST, but it cast an early shadow on my relationship in Naga with this Dominican Prelate who was now my Ordinary.

Defining Boundaries

I took the helm of Ateneo de Naga as the millennium changed. At that time, the political winds had also turned against the incumbent President, Joseph Estrada, for corruption and immorality in office. I brought my background of heavy personal engagement in what the Jesuits refer to as a faith which does justice with me to Naga, a history of open engagement especially for the urban poor in Manila roundly supported by their archbishop then, Jaime Cardinal Sin. I would later learn that my record of “activism” was a cause of concern for Archbishop Legaspi.

As pressure for a new People Power uprising against Estrada mounted, I was asked in the absence of the Archbishop to lead a march to Plaza Rizal and to say a Mass there. That was the first time I ever said a Mass in Bikol. The theme of the activity was justice and morality in government, and the hoped-for outcome was either the resignation of Erap or his ouster. It was my first public manifestation in Naga very much in line with what I had been doing many times in Manila for the urban poor. As far as I could judge, the activity was moderately successful.

The next morning I heard that Archbishop Legaspi had returned and has issued a public position along the same lines of our manifestations in Plaza Rizal. I was happy at the harmony in our separate but similar statements, and recalled the support that Cardinal Sin had always given me for similar events in Manila. But the happiness turned to apprehension when word got to me that the Archbishop was upset with me. “Father, have you seen the Archbishop? Please see him!” Naga Mayor Jesse Robredo advised me. Similar advice came from other personalities close to the Archbishop.

I went as soon as possible. In the Archbishop’s Palace I approached him and said, “Archbishop, I understand that you are upset with me. Whatever I did, it was not intended to upset you. I’m sorry.” He did not hide his displeasure, but he sat down with me. “You and I have had a history of conflict in Manila,” he said, referring to the LST-UST issue. “I do not want that to get in the way of our relationship here in Naga. But I have a weakness, and that is whenever I feel my authority threatened, I react negatively. You are the President of the Ateneo de Naga. The students and faculty of the Ateneo always have a right to hear what their President is thinking. But outside of the walls of the Ateneo, I am the Archbishop.” I admired him for his honesty – and humility. Of course, he was Archbishop even within the walls of the Ateneo de Naga. But he was drawing a line, defining – for lack of a better word – my turf and his, not on a canonical basis, but on an insight into his personality. I was happy to accept it, even when he instructed me before acting publicly on any political issue to clear it first with Fr. Wilmer Tria. In matters public and political, he wished to be the acknowledged leader. In his archdiocese, he wished personally to be the prophetic voice. Through my twelve years in Naga, I respected that, even when the archdiocese came into conflict with Mayor Jesse Robredo and the City of Naga on issues of propriety during the Peñafrancia Festival. His was the prophetic leadership, ours the obedient followership, both when the criticism became most intense, and when conflict turned into reconciliation.

Archbishop Legaspi was loved, in the myriad ways that love is expressed for an Archbishop. But I think he was content more to be respected than to be loved, and to be feared if the administrative duties of his office required it. He was certainly the ecclesiastical leader of Naga who cared awesomely for his priests, the discipline of their personal lives, the quality of their seminary formation; he rejoiced in their successes, and suffered in their failures. He cared for his people. His Dominican homilies were long, but always substantial. Personally, I admired how he used the immensely popular devotion to Our Lady of Peñafrancia, to strengthen the devotees in their love for Ina, yet bring them closer to Jesus and service of his poor.

Honesty, Humility, Strength

An experience in the administration of the Ateneo de Naga University (ADNU) endeared me to him. We were then opening the new high school campus in Pacol, and the issue was whether we would open the school to girls, or stay as an exclusive school for boys. I felt we should go co-educational not only to increase student population, but to improve the quality of high school education, which I believed was in itself better with girls than without girls. My board of trustees agreed. Civilly, we were empowered to do this on our own. But it was a requirement of Jesuit administration to attain first the permission of the local ordinary, Archbishop Legaspi, before any such decision could be implemented.

When Archbishop Legaspi heard of the plan, he withheld his permission. He was a member of the board of trustees of the Universidad de Sta. Isabel (USI) whose president, Sr. Justin Rosales, DCI, felt passionately that Ateneo’s going co-educational would be grossly inimical to the operation of USI. I, on the other hand, felt that not being allowed to go co-educational would be grossly inimical to the operation of ADNU. In principle, there was nothing wrong with high school co-education as a sister school of the Daughters of Charity in the archdiocese was co-educational. So why ought ADNU not be given the permission to go co-educational?

I asked Archbishop Legaspi whether we could discuss this. He readily consented. For me, it was the first of many deep and fruitful discussions on Catholic educational administration under his episcopal leadership. In this case he was not giving his permission because he felt that as father of the archdioceses, it was his duty to preserve the harmony between its Catholic apostolates. He was on the board of USI, and USI stood to be harmed by the ADNU plan. For close to two hours we discussed this. My thoughts were, first, that it was unfortunate for ADNU that while he was on the board of USI, and therefore bound to promote its institutional interests, he was not on the board of ADNU. Deciding therefore for USI in this issue as Archbishop of Caceres was unfair for Ateneo; two legitimate Catholic apostolates would not be receiving the equal protection of his episcopal care. He heard this, but he was troubled about his duty to preserve the harmony among Catholic schools in his archdiocese.   I suggested that were the two schools allowed to freely put their educational programs and products on the market, it should be up to the People of God to decide which product they wished to avail of, and it was not the duty of the Ordinary to preempt this choice on the basis of a notion of apostolic harmony. After our long discussion, I remember him pausing as he thought about this. Then he looked at me and said, “Alright, I agree. The people’s choice plays a role here.” Then, more quickly than I imagined, he said,   “Ateneo may go co-educational. I will inform USI of this.”

This was unforgettably endearing to me not because an argument had been won, but because of this ecclesiastical superior’s willingness to think through a policy in discerning dialogue with a subordinate. When he had intellectually accepted an argument, he had the freedom in his newfound insight to immediately reverse his position. I was unforgettably impressed by his honesty, humility and strength.

Looking back, even after the decision of the Archbishop and the admission of girls in Pacol, USI continued to thrive under the leadership of Sr. Sony Evidente, DC. Sr. Sony, Archbishop Legaspi and I had many occasion to celebrate together our shared Catholic mission in Naga.

Support for the Catholic University

The Catholic University is not an oxymoron, at least, not necessarily. As university is is a “community” (the original derivation of “university”) of scholars and students who pursue truth in academic freedom. As Catholic, according to Ex Corde Ecclesiae, it has the privilege to preside over the tension between on the one hand knowing Jesus as the Truth, yet on the other hand having to search for the truth. Those who misunderstand and abuse the Catholic University fail to understand this tension and its necessary implication for confronting controversial contemporary issues, especially issues which involve the teaching authority of the Church.

During the earlier debate on a possible reproductive health law, members of the faculty of the Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) had taken a public position that was supportive of the “RH Law” to the consternation of the CBCP which had taken the contrary position. This called into question the catholicity of ADMU.   Reaching out to faculty members of sister Ateneos, the ADMU faculty sought statements of support from the ADNU faculty. The matter was brought to my attention.

My response was to call a no-holds-barred university discussion on the issue, the proposed law, and the theological and philosophical positions impacting on this law.

I then went to Archbishop Legaspi to inform him of my decision, and to seek his guidance. He listened intently to my description of the problem, and why I had called for the open discussion. He then asked, “But what if your faculty members come up with a position similar to that of the ADMU professors? My reply was, “Archbishop, I hope that in the dynamic of the university, other faculty members who will come up with a contrary position that would force the university discussion.”   “I understand,” he replied. But he then asked, “You would fire nobody?” I looked at him and said, “Archbishop, under the terms of academic freedom, I would be unable to fire anyone – unless perhaps it were a theology professor teaching directly contrary to defined doctrine.” He looked at me, then said, “I understand. I agree.” After a reflective pause, he said, “You know, Fr. Joel, the issues of reproductive health are so important for human persons and human society that there is no better place for them to be discussed than the Catholic university. Make sure that you have competent people to input into the discussion.” I said I would, and went back to the university feeling the full support of the Archbishop for the central mission of the Catholic University. This Archbishop embraced Jesus Christ as Truth, but understood the need nonetheless to search for truth.

Throughout my tenure as President of ADNU, I learned to go back again and again to this wise man for his counsel. I would always need an appointment. But I would always get an appointment within twenty-four hours.

Treasured Friend

I was deeply saddened when, after one of the lunches we had with the local clergy in celebration of the Feast of St. Ignatius Loyola, he took me aside and basically bade me farewell. He told me of his advanced cancer, and that he did not have long to live. That was before Ina interceded and worked out for her servant, the Archbishop of Caceres, an extension on life long enough for him to preside over the Tercentenary Celebration of Our Lady of Peñafrancia.

Before I left Naga after twelve years of service to the Church under his leadership, it was he who feted me with a despedida in gratitude for shared friendship. On that occasion he gave me the replica of Our Lady of Peñafrancia which stands in my office. I will always treasure this gift – and the memory of the intimidating Church prelate who became a friend.

About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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1 Response to From Intimidation to Friendship

  1. says:

    Bravo, Fr Joel! Excellent post! You never cease to amaze me. What a wonderful story of a Dominican and a Jesuit and and a great friendship. Up close and personal ! Reads almost like fiction but with great depth which successfully portrays the humanity and struggles of two great minds forging a friendship. What amazes me is that you’ve been able to include in the article ideas about academic freedom, the search for truth, etc. You also wrote so beautifully about your “activism”. Great piece of work and a wondeful tribute to Archbishop Legaspi! It also gives us a peek into your soul and the events that have shaped your life.

    Cheers, Chita, your footsoldier now back in Mla


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