There’s the Rub

Humbled, exalted

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There were a couple of unrelated news items in the newspapers last weekend that, taken together, make an interesting proposition about life.

The first was Voltaire Gazmin ordering Jovito Palparan to surrender: “(You) should come out if (you) did not commit any wrongdoing and face the music. Don’t smear your organization. Surface and prove yourself to be innocent if you are innocent. Right now, (you are) a fugitive. (You are) destroying the image of the Armed Forces and not just the Army.” Gazmin said this in connection with the military’s ongoing efforts to transform itself into a professional organization.

The second was Chito Tagle’s—or now Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle’s—triumphant return late last Thursday. The fanfare was not of his making. Ever a humble servant of his Lord, he downplayed his newfound stature thus: “I cry easily. What happened to me (after being proclaimed cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI) was not scripted. It was the sense of grace, of which I was not worthy of, which made me feel humble, but which I can’t refuse. Also, I cried because of the heavy burden placed on me. Now that I’m a cardinal, I asked myself, ‘Can I do this? Who am I to do this?’ It was a mixture of joy and fear.”

Nothing better could have happened to a bad guy. Nothing better could have happened to a nice guy.

Not too long ago, Palparan was one of the most powerful—and dreaded—persons in this country. You crossed his path—the way you crossed the path of Jackie Enrile during martial law—at your peril. A soldier, and quite ironically a lawyer, he was Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s berdugo, or butcher, as the activists called him, who knew whereof they spoke being at the receiving end of the butchery. Rising out of nowhere, he became the vicious face of Arroyo’s cynical war against communism. It was a cynicism that produced a pile of dead bodies—700 or so, by the human rights groups’ count—and ushered in the “culture of impunity.”

Now he is a fugitive, having disappeared from the face of the earth, completely voluntarily, completely desperately, after the courts found him guilty of making two students, Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan, disappear from the face of the earth completely involuntarily, completely wantonly. He is alone, and he is hunted. While at this, though, the generals can do better than merely advertise their newfound sense of professionalism, or the extent of their transformation, by producing Palparan dead or alive. The widespread suspicion that he remains free not because he is a magnificent escape artist but because he is a massively protected thug is not without basis.

While at this too, not too long ago, their patrons, Gloria and Mike Arroyo, were two of the most powerful—and dreaded—persons on earth. You crossed their paths and, well, look what happened to Jun Lozada. Today, both are sicker than hell. Gloria can barely swallow, not even her pride, and Mike can barely walk, let alone indulge in a few of his favorite things. Both are near-universally derided, getting little sympathy for their plight, and both are facing charges of corruption. I look at them today and see the bust of Marcos in Agoo crumbling from wind and rain.

Karma, say some of my friends, and they probably know a thing or two.

From the other end, Tagle has always been a well-loved person, though shrouded in powerlessness or obscurity, at least compared to the more prominent bishops, notably the ones who showed their moral fiber by defending Arroyo on the ground that everybody cheats anyway. I met him a number of times over the years in various forums that talked of the poor. He knew whereof he spoke: Though he didn’t come from the ranks of the poorest of the poor, he did come from a family of modest means. He knew what it meant to lack material things. But he also knew what it meant to burst with the fullness of the spirit.

I wasn’t surprised when I learned that he had become a hired help—muchacho sounds a little too much like a word former justice secretary Raul Gonzalez would use; now there goes someone too who’s gone from high to low, from spiteful to spited—in America while studying. Typical Chito—I have to get used to calling him Cardinal Tagle now—not to burden others, not even his family, with appeals for money, however desperately needed. The last time I saw him was early this year at the vin d’honneur in Malacañang when he was dressed in an archbishop’s cassock, as befitted his station in life. I told him—oh, yes, I do have friends in the clergy—I almost did not recognize him. I had always known him to wear pants and a polo barong. He laughed and said that was only the second time he had worn something like that in 10 years.

I wasn’t surprised at all at how he reacted to his appointment as cardinal, which was with thoughtful simplicity and simple thoughtfulness, despite his entourage’s justifiable hype about what a big deal it was. Asked what he thought of the possibility—not a remote one at that—of him becoming the first Asian pope, he said: “It’s better if I deal with truths and real concerns instead of wasting time about it. [Papal elections] are not a popularity contest or a reality TV race where the winner with the most text votes wins.”

If this country’s faithful remain faithful to the Catholic Church, increase in great numbers, or become more ardently faithful than they ever were, it will be no small thanks to their new cardinal, the one Asian cardinal who only wants to do well by his flock but stands to make an impact on the world.

Karma, too, say some of my friends, though karma is not a Christian doctrine. But I remember one Christian tenet that is not unlike karma and quite a bit more profound. It says:

And the exalted shall be humbled, and the humble exalted.

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