James Reuter SJ, the eminent Jesuit communicator, teacher and theater director, died just as the curtains were coming down on the past year.
For a virtual legend who seems to have been around forever—he arrived in the country when the Philippines was a Commonwealth; he stayed, give or take a couple of years for further study, for the next seven decades—his end came unexpectedly, and yet with a sure sense of closure.
He was 96.
It is difficult to do full justice to Reuter’s extraordinary life of faithful Christian witness and complete dedication to the Philippines. If only someone like the late historian Horacio de la Costa SJ were still around to write about him—a fellow Jesuit and gifted writer who would understand the burdens of a dominant reputation and the limits of national fame!
To be sure, there was no shortage of recognition for “Father Jim,” especially in the last 30 years of his life. To such high honors as the papal Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice award, the Philippine Legion of Honor, the Archdiocese of Manila’s Magnificat Award and an honorary Filipino citizenship conferred by law, he also received Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, the Magsaysay Award.
The citation for that award, presented in 1989, lauded Reuter as a communicator who “[swam] against the tide” of propaganda and entertainment trivia, and “[made] the performing arts and mass media a vital force for good in the Philippines.” Into this mission (understood in the apostolic sense), he poured in the equivalent of several lifetimes of work. He established what is now the Catholic Radio Network, turned the Family Rosary Crusade into a national tradition, implemented the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ media mandate, taught generations of students, conducted innumerable spiritual retreats and directed several dozens of well-regarded plays—each an accomplishment, a career, worthy of a lifelong commitment. (The Magsaysay citation astutely quotes Reuter’s own description of the early Jesuits as “great-souled men with powerful minds and strong wills,” precisely as an unintended self-portrait.)
The nation may best remember him, though, for his role in the epochal events of Edsa, in 1986. When the Church-run Radio Veritas (a station, incidentally, that he helped found) was knocked off the air, he maneuvered to put the now-famous Radyo Bandido on air, using a shuttered radio station’s facilities and frequency. Afterwards, when the Marcoses had fled, Fidel Ramos, one of the heroes of Edsa, paid public tribute to this guerilla media work and called Radyo Bandido anchor and Reuter protégé June Keithley the “field marshal of the Edsa revolution.”
Reuter’s pivotal role in Philippine history was prepared for in part by the high price he had to pay: He was imprisoned by the Japanese during World War II, and he was silenced, arrested, tried then quietly released during the Marcos dictatorship.
To the thousands who came to work with Reuter, it was perhaps as a teaching priest, a shaper of conscience and character, that they knew him best. In a generous tribute occasioned by Reuter’s 90th birthday in 2006, Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, the archbishop of Manila at that time, zeroed in on this particular gift.
“However, his finest hours as a communicator [are] when he is with people: with the many young people [who] went under his spiritual direction through retreats and recollections, the many nuns [whom] he directed and counseled, the many couples he guided, the many priests he walked with, the many poor he visited and assisted, the many bishops he served, the ordinary men and women who confessed to him, attended the Masses he presided, received his comfort and blessings. He communicated best as priest.”
On reflection, we can now see that the Reuter legacy was not so much the act of communicating (he excelled in many media), but the content of his communication (he had one constant message). Or to be more precise, and recalling the earliest Judeo-Christian traditions, his word was his work. It was all of a piece.
Two years ago, he paid his adopted countrymen the highest compliment: “When I first came here, I thought I was bringing God to the Philippines. But what I discovered was [the Filipinos] brought God to me.”