Sixty-five years ago, from the deck of the freighter SS Willamette Victory, on the morning of July 30, 1946, I first set my eyes on the Philippines. The rigging of sunken ships protruding from the water of Manila Bay, and the fact that there was only one pier working attested to the fact that war had passed that way.
We were told that it might be a month before our ship would have its turn at the pier, so we 12 Jesuit passengers begged a ride ashore on the quarantine doctor’s launch. Down the side of the ship we went on a Jacob’s ladder. Let off on the breakwater, we found our way to the Customs House and surprised the staff: no ship had come in; moreover, we had no visas! When we left Jersey City on June 13, the Philippines was a Commonwealth; it had become an independent nation on July 4 while we were at sea. The customs officials scratched their heads and stamped our passports “Informal Entry.”
Our Jesuit superiors in Manila were just as surprised as the customs men; they had been told that there were no passengers aboard the Willamette. Nevertheless, by late afternoon our group was divided: the five priests waiting in Manila for their assignments and we seven seminarians on our way to Sacred Heart Novitiate in Novaliches to begin three years’ study of philosophy.
It was dark and raining as our driver maneuvered over a narrow road torn up by American tanks rushing to Manila. The town of Novaliches was only a crossroads with a few shops lit by carbide lamps.
The welcome at the novitiate was warm, and we quickly settled down to studies with our Filipino brother Jesuits who were to become long-time friends and companions. Among them I mention only Teodoro “Teddy” Arvisu, who had been decorated for heroism after spending days behind Japanese lines in Bataan spotting targets for artillery. In his modesty he never spoke of that, and rarely of the Death March. Sadly, he died shortly after his priestly ordination, and so remains forever young in my memory.
Looking back now, I realize that in the years that followed, while we were puzzling over centuries-old philosophical issues, moments of kairos, of opportunity, were being lost and the seeds of massive problems were germinating just beneath the surface of Philippine society.
Manila was a shambles, second only to Warsaw in terms of wartime damage. That would have been the time for some serious city planning, to restore its pre-war beauty and prepare it for a future that was wide open. But short-term considerations prevailed, and it grew up as one big slum; the kairos, the moment of opportunity, was lost.
Politically also, moments of kairos were being lost. From our basketball court we could see Mt. Arayat to the north. Around there, Hukbalahap guerrillas who had fought the Japanese were waiting to “come in from the cold” and support the new government in return for agrarian reform and an end to the pre-war feudal system on the haciendas. The government would have none of it; three Huk leaders had been elected to Congress, but the latter refused to seat them. Weeks after our arrival, peasant leader Juan Feleo was kidnapped and murdered. With that, many of the former Huks returned to the hills and joined an insurgency which—65 five years later—still sputters on. The agrarian problem is, in large degree, still with us, festering beneath the surface.
A third moment of opportunity lost in those days, with consequences down to today’s headlines, was the handling of the collaboration issue: what to do with Filipinos—many of them still active in political life—who were accused of having sided with and aided the Japanese invaders. Strong but deliberate action at that moment could have established the citizen’s responsibility for the common good as the bedrock on which an independent Philippines rested.
The time seemed ripe for such action—there was a kairos—after the tremendous sacrifices made by many during the Japanese occupation. But strong action was impossible with some of those accused of collaboration sitting in Congress, and one whose wartime record required serious appraisal—Manuel Roxas—elected as president. Independence arrived not with a bang but with a whimper, a People’s Court made deliberately ineffectual and an eventual amnesty.
The handling of the collaboration issue may well have been the “Original Sin” which has blighted political life in the Philippines down to the present. When a fundamental value of a community is violated, the community must rise in protest. Punishment in this case is not an act of vengeance but a reaffirmation of the value that has been violated. If there is no such reaction, the value is downgraded, no longer a community concern but a matter of personal preference. The amnesty may well have conveyed the message that the effort to distinguish patriots from traitors was not worth the trouble, that the common good is not really important.
It would be easy to trace this line of reasoning down to the quick rehabilitation, and election to public office, of some of those closely connected with the abuses—including torture and murder—of the Marcos regime. And to the argument that the nation should now “move on” and not be preoccupied with cleaning up the moral debris of the past presidency and bringing to justice those responsible.
Years from now Filipinos may look back on this period as another kairos, a window of opportunity to turn the nation around and set it on the common good as a fundamental moral value. Whether it will also be another opportunity missed remains to be seen.
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