Renewing the Faith that Does Justice

[Address to Ateneo de Naga University in Closing the Celebration of its 75th Anniversary, University Day, Feb 19,2016.]



For the longest time, I have been looking forward to this culminating celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Ateneo de Naga University. It would be, I knew, the perfect opportunity to visit the university community that so generously mentored me in being a university President. I wanted to meet former colleagues and renew dear friendships. I wanted to visit the the Jesuit Community, the Four Pillars, the University Church that is so dear to my heart, and whisper a prayer at Fr. Mike Rooney’s grave – where one day I too wish to be buried. My confession this afternoon is that in looking forward to this visit I wasn’t expecting to give a talk. In the press of many turbulent concerns at Ateneo de Davao (among them my many “senior moments”!), I must have completely blocked out the invitation extended to me by Fr. Jun Viray. Why I am standing behind this podium this afternoon is because Dr. Becky Torres wanted recently to check with me as to how I wished to be introduced. That’s how I learned – or re-learned – that I was to give a talk today entitled “Renewing Faith that does Justice.”

It is an awesome topic, especially if appreciated as a major source of a university’s soul, its driving vision and mission. In the Ateneo de Naga University that is the case. It is a university first in the pursuit of truth in academic freedom. But it is a Jesuit university because it appropriates the mission of the Society of Jesus. In the original inspiration of its founder, Ignatius of Loyola, that mission was “the service of the faith.”  But in recent articulations of the Society of Jesus, it has been clarified that the service of the faith is impossible without the promotion of the justice that faith implies. Faith is inextricably linked to justice. That is not just the justification of the person through faith. It is this, but also more.  One cannot have faith, yet be indifferent to the injustices visited on one’s neighbor. One cannot say, “I have faith,” yet be blind to the oppression visited on the poor and the marginalized. That is the insight that underlies our basic theme for this afternoon, “the faith that does justice.” In fact, as we painfully experience it in our world today, one can go further than that, as the Society of Jesus has. One cannot have faith without being sensitive to the multi-cultures in which faith must take root; where injustice has become nearly endemic to cultures, one cannot promote justice without undertaking cultural change. Similarly, one cannot promote faith outside of the challenges posed by diverse faiths and religions in the world today; one cannot promote peace without taking those faiths absolutely seriously in all their diversity; one cannot therefore escape inter-religious dialogue. The faith-justice mission of the Society of Jesus was therefore re-presented to reflect the inter-relatedness between faith, justice, cultures and inter-religious dialogue. Today, all is understood also in the context of our need to care for our one planet, our shared environment, our common home.

From this viewpoint, one would do well to review the documents of especially General Congregations 32, 34, and 35, and the writings of Frs. General Arrupe, Kolvenbach and Nicolas. An excellent recent publication would be the article by Fr. Patxi Alvarez, “The Promotion of Justice in the Universities of the Society,” published last year in Promotio Justitiae.

But the assigned topic is not only the “Faith that does Justice,” but “Renewing the Faith that Does Justice.” Viewed this way, the topic is not just objective but personal, not just conceptual but practical. E.g.: I have faith. I have lived it for years. I have lived it for all my life. Faith is fundamental to my Ateneo de Naga occupation. But something has happened. I feel faith has been discharged, like a battery discharged, or a withered balloon with most of its air leaked away. Faith seems tired, old, ordinary routine, and irrelevant to where it’s at. Towards renewal of faith, I would like to invite you to a reflection on a number of scriptural texts. Among these is Leviticus 19: 1-2; 11-18, the beautiful passage which begins with the imperative: “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The second, the Prologue of St John, celebrating the self-revealing God in the Incarnation (John 1:1-15). The third, the Transfiguration (Mk 9:2-8), the image of the Crucified Lord (cf. Jn 19:25-27), and finally, the challenge of Christ the King as the Just Judge (Mt. 25: 31-46). Perhaps in the response to the Lord speaking through these texts, or speaking to us from the Cross that we might be blessed with our renewal.

Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

“Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19: 1-2; 11-18). The Lord’s mandate may be jarring. Holiness is not something that most of us aspire to. Most of us are modest – or realistic – and content to be good. Yet the Lord’s mandate is clear: Be holy. Don’t just be successful, be holy. Don’t just be powerful, be holy. Don’t just be pious, be holy. Don’t just be learned, be holy.

Recover your experience(s) of the holy. Life is often repetitive, boring, ordinary. The holy is beyond the ordinary. One breaks the ordinary with the extraordinary. One breaks the monotonous work routine, repeated over and over again, day in and day out, with a day at the beach, an encounter with an extraordinary personality, even a trip to Davao to visit an old friend. The experience of the holy, however, is beyond the extraordinary. It is beyond the special clothes, the joyful family excursion to Mt. Banaue, the advanced degrees, the promotion to full professor, all won by extraordinary personal discipline and achievement. In the experience of the holy, God breaks through. Or, I break through to God by some graced privilege. So it is anything but an ordinary experience; it is extraordinary because it is all mine and not mine at all, totally mine yet fully and gratuitously divine. It is an experience of total fullness, that fills me in my emptiness; sometimes, even of ecstasy, that uplifts me in poverty to inexplicable heights. It is experienced in a childbirth as God’s graciousness, a helping hand as God’s providence, an accident as God’s inscrutable power. It is experience of overflowing fullness, of beauty beyond the most stunning, of power beyond the most commanding, of nearness beyond the most intimate. It is in a child’s smile and an old man’s senility, in a worker’s dedication and a youth’s hope. It is in you finding God, and God finding you.

Isaiah says, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord” (Is. 6:3). There is only one holy: God. In the Gospel it is he who brings so many fish together in boat, that Peter is at one and the same time awed and terrified.   “Get thee away from me, Lord!  For I am a sinful man!” he exclaims (cf. Luke 5:1-11). The experience of the holy is always an experience of unworthiness and fear. Like being in a splendid palace I should not be in for all of my tattered filthy rags, fearing the magnificence would consume me, annihilate me. So it is with holiness. You feel the presence of God, you bow. You feel your nakedness. You cover your face. You take off your shoes. You know: you see the face of God, you die.

That is why the experience of the holy demands a purgation of all that is incompatible with the holy.   For Leviticus it was: Be holy as God is holy. Do not be a stealer, a liar, a swearer, a defrauder; do not withhold your wages from your laborers; do not be mean, cursing the deaf and placing a stumbling block in front of the blind; do not be dishonest in judgments, a slanderer, one filled with hatred (cf. Lev. 19:11-18). In experiencing the holy, you naturally wish to rid yourselves of acts or qualities or blemishes incompatible with the holy. In Ignatian Spirituality, the Principle and Foundation is an experience of the Holy as a source of order in life’s fullness, that demand’s honest confrontation with one’s sin, then conversion. Towards renewal of faith, you may wish to do similar. You know what I mean. There, in that area of guilt that you have kept most secret, sometimes, as much as you are able to manipulate it, secret even from yourself.

Towards the renewal of faith, I suggest: Get in touch anew with your experience(s) of the holy: in the person who helped you unexpectedly, in the death of a loved one, in the chirping of the birds after a stormy night. Then listen to the Lord’s mandate, which is at heart only an invitation: “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Notice the justification. Be holy, for I am holy. Be holy, as you are made in my image and likeness. Be holy – the fullness of life, because I, the Lord, am the fullness of life. Be the fullness of life, not its truncation, its abbreviation, its reduction to just wanting money, or just craving recognition, or just living in a celfon. Consider what Jesus said, “I have come to bring life, and life in abundance. I have come to bring life, life to the full” (Jn 10:10). Consider, how full is your life? Is its fullness filled with your successes, or is its emptiness filled with God’s fullness? Is its emptiness because you do not do enough to achieve fullness? Or is it empty because you are not holy – not courageous enough, nor humble enough, to be holy and God is holy? Today, be holy.

Holiness Shared, Inviting us to Be Holy.

Meditate on the beautiful Prologue of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the father’s only son, full of grace and truth… From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (Jn 1:1-18). The divine fullness, the divine, the holy, overflowed in its self expression, in its self expression in creation, in its self sharing, in its holy Word made flesh, now incredibly dwelling among us. The passage should be appreciated in its awesomeness, it its proclamation of divine, redemptive freedom, in its message of holiness dwelling with us and gratuitously shared. At the same time, the passage should be appreciated as terrible, terrifying, pointing to the presence of the Holy with us, and the fearsome freedom that we share in his image and likeness: “He was in the world, and the world came to being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” I think, in our effort at renewal of faith, that is something we must quietly consider. We can say no. We have said no. We can simply not recognize the Holy present, his Presence in our lives. We can distract ourselves, look the other way, watch TV, tinker with our computer, feed the compulsions of our pettiness, reinforce our smugness, choose the selfishness, preserve the indifference to one’s neighbor, prefer the illicit pleasure, the sinful relation, maintain the mediocrity which shields all from the Holy. We can say no. But at the same time, the Gospel is saying, “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God.” To all who receive him, they are born not just of the ordinary, nor even of the extraordinary. They are born of God. And so the invitation of this renewal. Be holy. Because the Lord is holy.

The Holy Breaks Through

 This consideration of Creation and of Redemption, is a consideration of holiness breaking through, isn’t it? It is holiness choosing to express itself beyond itself, to utter from all eternity a creative word, a loving word, a word that does not just remain breath and sound but incarnates itself, extending holiness to the created, making holiness present in mighty winds and in the gentle breeze, in the mountains and valleys, in the rivers and streams, in the birds of the air and the beasts of the forests, but most of all in the intelligent and free creature made in his image and likeness, made with the ability to choose to be away from him or to be unto him, to be disjoined from him or to be aligned with him, to be in chronic desolation or stable consolation, to be depraved or to be holy. Jesus came to bring us the fullness of God, the sublimity of the holy; he came preaching the Kingdom of God, despite as we know temptations to go it on his own, to use power to isolate himself from his Father, temptations which were magnified by the scorn and disbelief and opposition he encountered in remaining loyal to the message of his Holy Father. In all this, we know Jesus chose to be holy as his Father is holy. So we see how on the hill of Tabor, in the presence of his closest disciples, the Holy broke through (cf. Mk 9:2-8). It transfigured him, uplifted him, strengthened him in his choice to be holy. I suggest we can find that also in our own experience where in our discouragement, our isolation, our loss of self, in our fear, God breaks through to encourage, to enlighten, to restore.

That is ultimately what happens on the holy hill of Calvary. In the Suffering Servant who took on to himself the sin of the world to vitiate sin, who took on to himself the hatred of the world to love it, who hated by us in our sin looks on to us from his Cross, peers into our eyes, into our hearts, in love, the Holy breaks through to us communally and individually.   Be holy. As I am holy. You are loved. You are precious. (Finally, do you get it?) Be holy.

Holiness and the Drive for Social Justice

For Ignatius of Loyola, this redemptive deed of God’s holiness and love needed a response. The response is a response in faith. And if today we are opening ourselves to a renewal in faith, the substantial renewal is here. We are asked to answer three questions. Looking into the eyes of the Crucified Lord looking into our eyes in love, we ask, “If you have done this for me, Lord, in love, what have I done for you, what am I doing for you, what ought I do for you in love.”

In considering our response, a prayerful mediation on the Last Judgment (Mt. 25…) may be helpful. The just judge separates the sheep from goats. The sheep are admitted to eternal blessedness; the goats are condemned to eternal damnation. The criterion: whatever you have done or not done for one of these the least of my sisters and brothers, that you have done or not done for me. Here we may appreciate the Lord’s attitude towards what we would call social justice. It is not just the justice where the terms contracts are fulfilled faithfully (commutative justice). Nor the justice where the burdens and benefits of society are equitably shared (distributive justice). It is also not the social situation where the good of the majority is pursued in democratic pragmatism. Social justice pursues the common good where the good of every person in the fullness of the whole person can flourish optimally in a given point or period of history. We must understand: social justice is not the majority over the minority, the established educated over the unlettered, the powerful mainstreamers over the disempowered excluded, the cultural majority over the culturally despised, the majority Christians who belong over the minority Muslim who don’t fit. Social justice pursues the benefit of all, including the least, the excluded through a shared good that is truly common.

Ultimately it is the Eternal King who establishes social justice completely in the fullness of the Kingdom, bringing each to full participation in God’s holiness; we look forward to his heavenly banquet for all where food is bounteous  and the cup of all overflows. Meanwhile, however, this side of heaven, the establishment of social justice under conditions of our historical era is a challenge of bringing about conditions where the least in society can participate in a shared common good. Those conditions – pertinent to such as the satisfaction of human needs, the prioritization of which needs to address and which needs to postpone, the establishment of the political community, its structures and its leaders, the management of the religious communities in the diversity that is given, the preservation of peace between forces of religious extremism and abstract nationalism, the provision of a complete, adequate and integrated system of education for all, the preservation of our common home – constitute the common good that we must work for together in social justice. The common good must be worked for through dialogue and negotiation and compromise and forged agreements – towards which multi-disciplinary university communities such as this have a great role to play. They all contribute to and emerging fullness that is ultimately inseparable from the fullness of the holy. All are part of a fullness through which the holy breaks through into our history. All are part of a fullness and abundance of life which the Lord Jesus came to bring.

The implication for us is that the faith which does justice, the faith which renews itself in quietly – prayerfully – responding freely to the fullness of the holy, the faith which is holy because God is holy, the faith which is a vehicle of the holy breaking through in history in our responding to the love of the Crucified Lord as a moral imperative – really, a quiet invitation! – does justice eminently in daily nitty gritty instruction, in painstaking research and and in courageous outreach that promotes the common good. This is faith that brings the student to genuine learning and competencies, but also – beyond the desire to use knowledge and skills just to get a high-paying job – to an intellectual appreciation of the demands of the common good and a commitment in freedom to serve the common good for life. This, we know is no mean thing, since so many of our alumni/ae have reached notoriety in serving private good and private interests, that are oftentimes inimical to the common good. This is faith that brings the academician beyond the routine of teaching venerable doctrines into the realm of finding new theories, new truths, new vistas pertinent to the common good, how for instance to better create wealth in what is naturally provided and equitably distribute it, how to coax prosperity out of Pili resins, how to draw wealth out of the Caramoan fisheries, how to improve the administration of justice in Bikol, how to preserve and promote the genius of the Bikol heritage and share it with humanity. This is faith that stands up for the common good not only individually but as a university community, as when for instance, the environment is threated by mining, or peace for all is threated by the ignorance and partisanship of bad political leaders.

In renewing faith that does justice, be holy as God is holy. There, find the inner drive towards social justice, which proceeds from the fullness of God. Find the inner drive driven by the love and fear of the holy.






About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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