Commentary

‘Blessed’ Jesse Robredo

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Debate in the Catholic Church today is mostly about the proper understanding of the Second Vatican Council. We can discuss these matters theologically, though that is the most abstract of approaches and sometimes the most puzzling.

There are more concrete ways to seek the meaning of Vatican II. We can, for example, ask what type of saints will be canonized if the Council’s teachings are fully implemented. Will the Church continue to canonize persons such as the recently honored St. Pedro Calungsod, or will it look more to people like the late Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo?

We have been steeped in Vatican II’s teachings for 50 years. We know more about the modern world that is in great part indifferent to Christian beliefs than the bishops who attended Vatican II in 1962-1965. If we thoughtfully search for saints for our times, we can almost certainly clarify the type of man or woman needed by the Church.

Will the Church canonize brave young people like Pedro who know nothing of our modern world and little of their own world, or will it honor mature men and women of this age who have mastered the modern world’s sciences, systems, technologies and disciplines for good ends and still possess a heart and a mind for our traditional faith, and a mind and a heart for the poor? Will it seek out men and women who can show in their own lives both the achievements of this world and the awareness in the end that there are just God, the poor and those who live as the poor?

We need both types of saints, of course, now and in the future. But of which do we have greater need if we are to transform the modern world?

I knew Jesse Robredo for 35 years. Many knew him better than I. We were friends. I wrote articles about him. One was titled “An organized people and an astute mayor,” and it was intended to praise his ability to work with organized poor people and turn a small sleepy town into a bustling modern city without losing its old cultural strengths. I worked closely with him on the problem of housing urban poor people over the last two years. I certainly didn’t know his personal spiritual life as his confessors and his wife knew him. But I’ve listened to people whom I admire and who knew him well. They tell us a great deal.

His wife, Leni, for example, said in an interview in this paper that every time Jesse came home from trips around the country he went as soon as possible to the Peñafrancia Shrine to report to Our Lady about the things that had happened to him. His life as secretary of the interior brought him into the middle of treachery, betrayal and danger, but it also brought him into the homes of the very poor, where he sat like any other visitor and appreciated the snacks that the poor offered. No Cabinet officer worked harder than Jesse or took on more dangerous tasks.

When I mentioned the idea of this column to one of my friends, he said: “Miracles, Denis, it’s all about miracles.” There are no physical miracles that I know of, but here is an incident that sets one wondering.

A friend of Jesse’s who held a high government position was aware of corruption in his office. He was reluctant to be a “whistle-blower” for many personal reasons, and then he visited Jesse’s grave near the Peñafrancia Shrine. He said that as he stood there he became aware that Jesse was urging him to do what was right. The friend weighed Jesse’s words of advice and decided to speak up. He said he immediately felt very happy. He did speak out. A miracle? A sort of miracle perhaps that may be much valued in the modern world?

If ever, Jesse would be the first happily married man with a loving wife and children to be canonized in centuries. Wouldn’t that speak to our modern world? He talked constantly by cell phone with his family. They lived in the same simple two-story home they lived in during his first term as mayor of Naga, 1988-1992.

I have been especially impressed by the affection that retired Archbishop Leonardo Legaspi of Caceres (Naga City) has shown for Jesse. The archbishop has been one of the modern pillars of the Philippine Church. In the past he often appeared as a rather stern and conservative person, but when I heard his talk at the end of Jesse’s funeral, I was deeply touched: He was a father mourning for his son, I thought.

Lawyer Angel Ojastro, who worked with Jesse for many years, told me this story. He took charge of the last arrangements for Jesse in Naga, according to the wishes of Jesse’s wife. He waited one night at the Archbishop’s House for Jesse’s body to be brought there for the wake. He found that the archbishop was still up.

“Go to bed, Excellency, I’m here. I’ll take care of him,” Angel said. He knew the archbishop had painfully bad knees and was sick in many other ways. “Go to bed, Excellency.” The archbishop refused. They both waited until almost 1 a.m. Angel repeated the phrase that was in my head: “[The archbishop] was like a father waiting for his son.”

If such a learned and insightful churchman as Archbishop Legaspi could show such love and respect for a politician—they had been mayor and archbishop in the same small city for 18 years—there was probably nothing in Jesse’s public life that the archbishop hadn’t heard about, nothing that would diminish his admiration. The archbishop held Jesse in such high respect to the end, which should make us wonder once again about Jesse Robredo’s true value.

Maybe someone should introduce his cause for canonization. Archbishop Legaspi, perhaps? It seems a step toward the world of the future.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. [urbanpoorassociates@ymail.com].

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