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Diamonds and red shoes

By Juan Mercado
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:32:00 09/08/2009

Filed Under: People, Religion & Belief, history

At Our Lady of Peace Hospital in Paraaque City, I chatted with this 93-year-old writer, People Power key player and priest. Unbidden, Rabbi bin Ezra?s plea, from Robert Browning?s work, surged up: ?Grow old along with me/ The best is yet to be.?

Fr. James Reuter marks today a diamond anniversary: that of making his first vows in the Society of Jesus. He poured 69 of those 75 years here as teacher, playwright, writer, coach, chaplain?and friend. In 1984, Congress unanimously made this New Jersey native a Filipino citizen.

?Bob Hope said 75 candles on his birthday cake made it look like the Los Angeles airport runway,? I cracked. Overhead, a jet was making its final landing approach for the Manila airport and its engines? whine drowned out our laughter.

Jim Reuter joined the Jesuits as a 22-year-old novice in Pennsylvania. In 1938, he arrived in the Philippines. He was to teach at the Ateneo de Manila and Naga. When war broke out, the Japanese military jailed him, along with 2,154 other Americans, in Los Baos.

Hard labor, short rations (?two ounces of rice in the morning and two ounces at night?) and constant threats marked the next three years, until he was liberated. ?Prison camp taught me three most important things in life,? he wrote. ?Breakfast, dinner and supper.? Clothed in rags, the prisoners shuffled barefoot, vulnerable to hookworms and disease.

?Shanghai Lil had a checkered career,? Father Reuter recalled. In Barracks 20, detained Maryknoll sisters befriended her. Noticing a nun?s shoes falling apart, Shanghai Lil gave her red nightclub shoes. ?You have no permission to refuse,? the nun?s superior said. ?Take the shoes.?

Internees? hatred for the brutal concentration camp commander, Konichi, was intense. ?The nuns (nonetheless) prayed for Konichi,? who later was caught and tried. He asked for instruction in the catechism.

?At the foot of the gallows, he was baptized and received his First Communion? When the trap door sprang, Konichi fell. The priest underneath anointed (with oil of extreme unction) the hands of Konichi still kicking on the ropes? That is why I am grateful whenever anyone says: ?I am praying for you.??

In February 1945, Filipino guerrillas assaulted Los Baos as US Eleventh Airborne paratroops dropped 400 meters away from the camp. All the guards were killed in 11 minutes. Then a tall black paratrooper stood at the door. ?If you folks would get out into the road, we?re plannin? to evacuate you all in a li?l while,? he drawled.

?The late Fr. Leo Cullum distributed remaining consecrated hosts as the chapel caught fire,? Father Reuter recalls. ?The nuns ran past us to their Amtrak. So did Shanghai Lil and her friend, the Maryknoll sister, holding hands. We could see the red shoes flying.?

After ordination in Maryland in 1946, Father Reuter returned to the Philippines. ?He became, a priest whose parish was stage, radio, printing press, shooting lot, dressing room, director?s booth, the theatre.?

During his visit to Manila, Pope John Paul II cited him ?for faithfully and courageously upholding truth, justice and integrity in Catholic communications.?

That stand led to confrontation with the Marcos dictatorship?s censors. Military Intelligence Security Group shut down ?Signs of the Times,? a newsletter which Father Reuter edited for religious groups. ?Death of a cobbler? reported the military torture of an ordinary citizen. Father Reuter found himself under house arrest.

As People Power I started, Marcos troops booby-trapped the Catholic station Radio Veritas. Father Reuter got an underground station on the air: dzRJ?s radio station, hastily christened ?Radyo Bandido.? Newscaster June Keithley and her team gave People Power a voice. They did it just a few blocks from Malacaang.

?When monopolized by government or vested interests, media?s power is easily used for propaganda purposes,? the Magsaysay Foundation noted in its 1989 Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts. ?In open societies it is often squandered in trivial entertainment. Father Reuter swam against this tide? [He] employed his gifts as writer, theatrical director, and broadcaster, but most of all as teacher, to make the performing arts and mass media a vital force for good in the Philippines.?
Father Reuter has now resigned from the groups he formed and served: the National Office of Mass Media and the Philippine Federation of Catholic Broadcasters. Now and then, he works out on a stationary bike, a far cry from when, as a young chaplain to lepers in Culion, he would swim to the next island and back for exercise.

His eyesight is dim. Some prayers are whispered to him when he celebrates Mass. But he keeps to the beat of his Ateneo Glee Club boys. ?Their average age is 66 now,? he notes. We?ve been singing for over 50 years.?

He recalls giving retreats to 11 who were debating whether to become Jesuits. All decided to marry. ?I was priest at most of their weddings. At the last concert, their grandchildren were singing for their lolos.?

?I am overwhelmed with the goodness of the people God sends to me,? he wrote in his last column. ?I have been thanked for giving my life to the Philippines... But whenever you give, you always get back more than you have given. I have tried to be a priest... A priest is a bridge ... a bridge between God and man. Being strong, sometimes, means being able to let go. I know that now is the time to let go.?

?The last of life [is that] for which the first was made,? Rabbi bin Ezra taught. ?Our times are in his Hand/ Who saith: A whole I planned,/ Youth shows but half.?

(E-mail: johnnylmercado@gmail.com)

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