Four for the Road
by Fr. Ramon Fruto, C.Ss.R.
“Recall your ‘shrines’ was an exercise given us in our recently concluded joint seminar on “elderhood” for us who belong to the senior and the golden age generations. To the outsider, this opening sentence at once asks for enlightenment. What is “elderhood” and what are the “shrines” we are asked to identify?
“Elderhood” seems to be a more compassionate and sensitive way of saying “growing old”, the same way that we are now asked to call “suspects” as “persons of interest”! Growing old used to be taken for granted and even with a sense of pride and mission accomplished. Growing old gracefully was a lesson all those who have crossed the 60-year line were expected to learn. But with today’s sensitiveness to cultures and subcultures, “growing old” is something that the “ageing” wish to varnish over the way we ageing males try to comb our hair so as to hide the balding patches of our pate and the ageing females undergo a “Dr. Belo” on their wrinkling cheeks. And so in the retreat-seminar for us ageing Redemptorists, we are asked to reflect on our answer to the reflection-question: What do you consider as your great challenge in growing into being elderly/ ”Elderhood”? That is certainly a sensitive way of asking a question that could be put more brutally – and truthfully – as “What do you consider as your great problem in growing old?” Then we would more truthfully answer: combing our hair which is no longer there, brushing our teeth which are not our own, forgetting where I placed my eye-glasses a few minutes ago, getting cantankerous at the slightest provocation, feeling forgotten and useless. Then we can talk about “growing old gracefully” and not euphemize it with “coping with elderhood”!
Anyway, here are the four of us among the most elderly, if not THE most elderly among the ageing confreres of the Province. Hopefully we are able to face “growing old” with equal grace as facing the challenge of “elderhood”. During our senior-golden agers’ seminar, one of the exercises we were given was to get in touch with the “shrines” of our life’s journey. By the “shrines” were meant experiences or events in our pilgrim journey that had an impact of our lives. The shrines varied in kind as our experiences were varied, and varied in number with the length of each one’s life’s journey. But the four of us portrayed here had one “shrine” in common: our life in Bangalore, India where the first batches of us Filipino Redemptorist vocations were sent for our studies in philosophy and theology. We made our groping way to India, the land of magic and mystery, after a novitiate in Cebu shared with the novices from the northern vice-province of Manila. To India, we winged our way not on jet airliners but on four-engine DC-6es.
In the studendate in Bangalore, we lived in harmonious co-existence with Indian and Sri-lankan and Irish students. Asking for no special diet, we survived the years of Indian curry and learned to like it after getting over the initial conflagration of our palates. During our years there, we neither got to visit home nor got visitors from home. Long before the age of the internet and cell-phones, our only contact with our families was by an “air-form” letter once a month. Those of us who were ordained there were ordained without anyone representing our family. At my ordination I sent my blessing to my folks by telegram – in Latin! The only “exposure” to the outside world we were given a glimpse of was limited to the studendate house in Bangalore and the holiday house in the hills a train- and bus-ride away from Bangalore. The five-week holiday in the hills after each school year was something we all looked forward to. We took all this in stride because this was part of the life we had applied for without anyone forcing us to enter it. Processing was unknown to us, the only process we underwent was the once-a-month colloquium with our Prefect. Yet we lived in reasonable contentment, which was probably one reason we had little difficulty adjusting to different personalities and places and ministries of assignment in later life, and lasting longer in the active apostolate than expected in retirement years.
Over the span of ten years, Cebu Vice-Province had sent to Bangalore a total of 9 newly-professed students. There was discussion among the Superiors as to where the Filipino students might be sent for their studies in philosophy and theology. There were three openings: Ireland, Australia and India. Back in 1925 a Cebuano student (John Corominas) was sent to Australia though he left after his first vows expired. In the end the decision was for India, the studendate in Bangalore then being conceived as a possible regional studendate for this part of Asia. So, with no other student before me to tell me what life in India was going to be, I was sent there alone in 1951, before my 20th birthday, a raw, untraveled Filipino to a country I had only read about in my school’s geography book as a land of mystery, of magicians and snake-charmers. When I arrived there the students stared at me as a nine-day wonder never having set eyes on this creature called a Filipino before. Later, they would share with me the questions making the rounds before I came: Does he speak English? Does he eat with chopsticks? Does he sit on his haunches? By the time the subsequent batches would arrive, they realized that we were as human as the rest of them. Despite the world’s impression of India as the home of the caste system, we felt as welcome as members of their family and in our years there, we learned to look on Bangalore as our second home.
After my coming in 1951, Fernando Yusingco followed in 1952, Abdon Josol in 1956, the famous four (Louie Hechanova, Fil Suico, Willy Jesena, Ireneo Amantillo) in 1957, then the final batch of Juanito Caballero and Rudy Romano in 1958. The student professed after these two, Joelito Seyan, could not get a visa for India. His father was a citizen of Nationalist China and India only recognized Communist China. Consequently, Joelito was sent to Ireland, which started the sending of Filipino students to Ireland. All those sent to Bangalore reached ordination, though in later years some of them would leave the Congregation.
The photograph here represents the survivors of the Bangalore “shrine” of the Filipinos. Five of the Bangalore-Filipinos have died: Fernando had left and died outside the Congregation, after doing monumental work on the missions and in community organizing in depressed areas. Louie died as vice-provincial superior, Abdon after years of service as a missioner, vice-provincial and provincial Superior and moral theology professor and formation director in our studendate in Davao, Rudy Romano, activist and defender of the oppressed and the poor has been unheard from since he was abducted and tortured by the intelligence agents of the martial law regime, and Juanito Caballero having left the congregation and served first as chaplain in the armed forces and later as officer in the martial law armed forces has since died.
I asked the other three “golden agers” in the attached photo for a few words borne of their reflection on the shrine of our pilgrimage that was Bangalore: Here are the gems coming from their memories:
Bp. Amantillo: “To live in a country rather than your own, would make life so lonely, unappreciated and forlorn, but with the ‘shake of the head’ and welcome of Tamilnadu, those glorious days, fifty years can never undo”.
Fr. Fil Suico: “There is no death though eyes grow dim, there is no fear with your everlasting smile with me.”
Fr. Willy Jesena: “Looking back over 55 years of Redemptorist life, it is a great source of joy to me to recall the many blessings of our Holy Redeemer. I have engaged in parish mission work, retreats, parish apostolate, spiritual direction, migrant workers’ apostolate and formation work. I see thousands of faces of people who in one way or another I have served. It a great grace to be a servant of Jesus Christ for his own purpose, to touch the lives of people. I thank Mary who has always been a perpetual help and inspiration. I like to say to our seminarians: ‘Together let us face the future, and continue to accept the challenge of Jesus’ mission for the abandoned poor. Let us take the words of Pope Francis with enthusiasm: ‘Go, fear not, serve!’”
For me: summing up my fellow survivors’ golden journey, as we pause in prayerful reflection at this shared shrine of our Redemptorist pilgrimage, our Bangalore experience, these verses I have treasured from my high school days: “For yesterday was only a dream and tomorrow a vision, but today well lived makes yesterday a dream of happiness and tomorrow a vision of hope.”
From my pauses at my journey’s shrines, this brief reflection: Hope springs eternal in the heart that does not cease to dream.
You might say that we old-timers past our golden of ordination are dreamers without end!!!