Human Face

Conversation with Fr. James Reuter SJ

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Countless students from several generations have had unforgettable times with Fr. James Reuter SJ who passed on last Dec. 31 at the age of 96. I had mine. I was part of the production crew of the huge stage play “The Island” which Father Reuter wrote and directed for St. Scholastica’s College. I still have the souvenir program with lots of pictures in it.

I was among those who operated the music and sounds. With our head phones on, we could hear Father Reuter barking orders and cussing sometimes. One of my tasks was to make sure the sound of water splashing was right on cue when Butz Aquino (among the imported male theater veterans we ogled) jumped into the dark waters.

Fast forward to 1989. I was assigned to do a quick Q and A with Father Reuter because he was going to receive the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award. Here are excerpts from that interview that came out in the Sunday Inquirer Magazine.

He was a dead ringer for Paul Newman in his youth. But that was not what attracted the young boys and girls to him. There was something else about Fr. James Reuter SJ that drew the young to him. He had charisma, much of which could be spelled out as energy.

Being the head of the Catholic Church’s National Office of Mass Media is only one of the many jobs of Father Reuter. But this office is the hub and heart of what the Jesuit padre is into. He writes, he directs plays, gives retreats and spiritual guidance. He is also an organizer, a mover. The youth is his forte.

Q: You’ve had so many awards.

A: This one was a big surprise to me! And I received congratulations from Rome, also from our Father General Peter Hans Kolvenbach. Rome doesn’t always send congratulations. (Laughs.)

Q: What will you do with the $30,000 prize?

A: Well, the award also gives me the right to propose a project. I want a little TV production studio. We have two for radio but none for TV. We need editing machines too. The $30,000 will not be enough but we can start with that.

Q: You’re big on media.

A: The strongest force in our world is media. It used to be the home, the school, the church. Now we have to work hard on all three. So now it’s media literacy, media awareness for the home, for the people in the church.

Q: What is media awareness?

A: It’s the realization of what media does to us, especially to the kids, and how strong it is. Nowadays, what do the kids hear? “Baby Love” and “I Want Your Sex.”

Q: Aside from directing plays, retreats, seminars, what are you into these days?

A: I’m really overextended. But I don’t want to say that too loud. I’m into two things. I’m setting up 13 radio stations all over the country. Eight of these already have funding from Europe and the United States. The transmitters are ready. This is a Catholic Bishops’ Conference’s project. I have to do this. If I don’t, they kick me in the belly for not doing enough. Those radio stations have to go up. I have also been tasked by the CBCP to react to whatever is said in media. For example if (Bishop Julio) Labayen (a progressive bishop—CPD) is attacked, I have to defend him.

Q: You still have time to teach in school?

A: Yes, I teach Theater but I have to do it in a three-hour stretch, once a week. But seminars are more important, like this one on media awareness. We’re going to have an international one very soon. Everything I do, I like. That’s my consolation. The kids renew me.

Q: You’re into the third generation.

A: Many girls and boys actually met in my plays, then they married. Jimmy Ongpin and Maribel, for example. Yes, some in “Sta. Zita” are grandchildren of the kids I had in the ’50s. I call them “my children’s children.” Yes, they’re TV kids but they’re receptive. I don’t find them substantially different from their parents and grandparents. They’re very alive, very generous, thoughtful, with a big capacity for sacrifice. Oh, they play a lot of disco music. But I have no case against them.

Q: Anything about them that disturbs you?

A: There is a certain despair. This is a new thing which I didn’t see in your generation. I’m disconcerted by the suicides. As if they’re saying, “We don’t want this world.” Yes, they respond to love, appreciation. But they’re in high gear. I guess the break-up of homes is a factor. The young feel less secure.

Q: How do you find time to write plays?

A: I think about it for a long time. I also read. I don’t write until I know what it will be from the first line to the last. I sit down for three days. Then it’s born whole, like a baby.

Q: You never learned to speak Pilipino.

A: I’m okay in Greek and Latin. I know a little Bicol. But Pilipino—I didn’t get to fall in love with the genius of the language early on. It’s a pity, now I suffer from this.

Q: You were among the visible personalities during the People Power uprising. It’s been three years now since Cory became President…

A: I grieve that Cory has lost so many good men and women who started off with her. I still feel I’m a Cory boy, I know she’s doing her very best. She’s honest, genuine, she has no pretenses, no airs. The morale is on the upswing but there’s a lot of quarreling in the Senate, the Cabinet and we don’t move forward. We need to sacrifice for the common good. We have not done that since the time of Magellan.

Q: You’ve spent almost your whole life in the Philippines, you must feel like one of us.

A: I was born in the U.S.A. and I am still an American citizen but I belong to the Philippine Province of the Society of Jesus. (In 1996, Congress voted unanimously to give Reuter honorary Filipino citizenship.) I still go to the U.S., lately for business purposes. I get a culture shock whenever I’m there. I belong here. I’ll die here. I’ll be buried here, at the Sacred Heart Novitiate in Novaliches.

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