Jesuits and compassion
July 31, the feast of Ignatius of Loyola, is an annual nonworking holiday in Ateneo. I celebrate it in a special way, too, because in another time and another life, my patron saint was Ignatius of Loyola. I answered to the name “Dom. Ignacio,” and my nickname was Nacho, not Ambeth. I celebrated my feast day on July 31.
COVID-19 changed all that. With the Loyola campus closed for over four months now, those of us presently teaching online have been advised to observe a virtual holiday and not expect our students to be online today. No quizzes, tests, or deadlines will be given today.
There is no popular devotion to Ignatius of Loyola in the Philippines, partly because the Jesuits were expelled from the islands in 1768 and only returned in 1859. Another explanation would be that being the patron saint of soldiers and spiritual retreats means he can’t compete with, say, St. Anthony of Padua, finder of lost objects; St. Francis, patron saint of animals and pets; or St. Jude, patron of desperate cases.
In art, Ignatius is depicted as a stern bald man in black vestments, carrying either a book or a banner. He was of small stature and walked with a limp, the result of his leg meeting a cannonball while he was defending Pamplona against the French in 1521. That’s three weeks after Magellan was killed in Mactan.
Ignatius can’t also compete for the Pinoy devotion often lavished on the cute Santo Niño, the sorrowful Nazareno, or the many versions of the maternal Virgin Mary. But Ignatius lives on in the Pope and the men who continue his legacy in education, social justice, and communications.
An edifying 17th-century Jesuit report on the Philippines described Filipinos as being “squeamish to a fault: they are offended and horrified by anything unpleasant to the senses, especially sight and smell, while on the other hand they are captivated by pleasant tastes and odors, and are curious to see whatever is pleasurable. Consequently, they have a repugnance for anything that has a bad smell and a great loathing for persons who have sores or wounds, so that among them such persons endured great need and abandonment, both spiritual and temporal.”
Then as now, Pinoys are very sensitive to smell. I know people who claim to smell a cockroach hiding 10 feet away. There is a brisk market for deodorants and perfumes. Browsing for detergent recently, I noted one brand touting that it was effective against “kulob,” a smell that defies direct translation into English.
The 17th-century Jesuits had set aside a day to educate the old, the sick, and the infirm. After taking a head count, one of the Jesuit fathers realized that some people were absent because there was no one willing to take them to class: “…Particularly one woman, the slave of a certain chief, whose masters had never wanted to bring her to church because of the loathing they felt for her. And so when a great number of these unfortunates were once gathered together, and the cream of the townspeople were present, the priest took hold of the feet of a poor slave who was badly ulcerated and kissed them, putting his mouth on the very wound. Another man who was an object of their derision and dared not uncover himself because the whole of his mouth and nose, and most of his face, had been eaten away by one great wound, he approached and caressed and conversed with face to face.
“This example made such an impression [on the people] that from that time on they have shown great compassion for these unfortunates, helping them in their needs and carrying them to church when they are unable to walk. This is exactly what one chief did with his slave woman. [He was] an indio of very high rank and highly esteemed by his people. Seeing that a repulsive old woman had not one to help her to church, took her upon his own shoulders and bore her there himself, heedless of the unpleasant smell or the sores, or the soiling of the very fine robe that he was wearing that day. When some people, furthermore, tried to restrain him, he told them that he was merely fulfilling his Christian duty.”
It can be argued that the above is an exaggerated, self-serving, Jesuit pious tale, but the lesson is relevant during a pandemic, when messaging paints drug addicts and individuals positive or suspected of COVID-19 not as people requiring treatment and concern, but as outcasts best removed from their homes and dispatched to a quarantine center, like Jews to Nazi gas chambers.
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