FROM POLITICS OF EXCELLENCE TO POLITICS OF COMPASSION
[I want to share with you a Commencement Address I delivered on the Graduation Rites of Our Lady of Angels Seminary-College and the Inter-Congregational Theological Center on May 29, 2016. I hope this would trigger reflection not only among graduates but especially among those who are working in the academic and educational fields. Happy reading!]
I would like to thank you for inviting me to share with you something on your special day. This is a peak moment of your life – a time for gratitude, wishes and dreams. I still can remember my college graduation some thirty years ago. The diplomas and the medals, the togas and the caps, the turning of the tassels from the left to the right and tossing them mid-air as we shouted “sa wakas natapos din”! These are small gestures but they become meaningful after sleepless nights trying to write one’s thesis or cursing a professor for tons of assigned readings which you know he himself has not read. But the most unforgettable part is the presence of your parents. They are the happiest persons in this hall today. Sa loob-loob nila, sumisigaw din sila – “sa wakas natapos din”! We owe them our gratitude today. To them, we give our greatest applause.
1. The Dual Face of Graduation Rites
Beyond all the nice words that characterize all graduation speeches, I have the impression that the OLAS graduation speech is serious stuff. The theme itself sounds long and serious. Since it is not just pious words of congratulations, let me get down to work. I do not like to be a “kill joy” but let me start with the “dual face of graduation rites”. Do you know that graduation rites has two faces?
Let me start with a personal story. It was during my Grade One Commencement Exercises. My father, a Grade Six teacher in the same school where I studied, already had a copy of the program. Since I was bringing his things from school to home and back, I saw the program and read my name under Grade One. It says there I am the First Honor. To be honest, I was happy to see my name there but I did not really know what that means; that I had to go up the stage and get a medal, etc. When I was asked by another teacher in front of her class whether I knew that I was the first honor, I said yes. And everyone in that Grade 4 class applauded. While walking home with my father, he looked serious and confronted me with a strange question: “Did you brag that you are First Honor? What is it that I heard from Mrs. Yrauda?” In all innocence, I said, “No. I didn’t brag about it. She just asked me whether I was the First Honor and I said yes, as I saw in your program.” What he said after that are words I can never forget: “You have no right to brag about your academic honors. You should not... wherever and whenever.”
Thus, from Grade I on, medals and graduations, accolades and recognition became ambivalent to me. Seen from the surface, the advice was a father’s pious exhortation to his son not to be proud of one’s achievements. But viewed on a deeper level, it is an analysis of graduation rites as dual-faced. On the one hand, graduation is a moment of congratulatory wishes for a job well-done. On the other hand, it is also an act of mystification, of misrecognition, of legitimation. On the one hand, we need to rejoice and be jubilant. On the other hand, we need to look deeper if there is really something worth congratulating inside. Without his knowing it, my father just dissected the whole educational field and unmasked the pretensions of power mystified in all social rituals and symbols like togas and medals, titles before our names or at the end of them; and laminated diplomas hanging on our walls telling our whole barrio that we have graduated from somewhere else. I have not yet mentioned the large tarpaulins with our big faces on them announcing our great achievement.
One philosopher-sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, can help us clarify what is really happening here. He says: “These rites of consecration are rites of legitimation. They tend to consecrate or legitimate an arbitrary boundary, by fostering a misrecognition of the limit and encouraging a recognition of it as legitimate.” Now, that is a mouthful! Simply said, through social rites of institution – and graduation is just one of them – we are made to believe that the “consecrated” (in our case, the graduate) has become a different person even if his ideas remain the same or senseless to those who are not “consecrated”. It legitimizes but also “naturalizes” the difference. Because of these social rites of institution, people are made to believe that what is ritualized becomes “real”, the most natural thing that happens. From here on, through this social alchemy, society thus recognizes that we have indeed been “transformed” and people can now invest their trust in us.
Applying this to our context, the toga that I wear in front of you today differentiates me from you. It tells you that I have a PhD and was “consecrated” to be one. Because of my toga, you are made to believe that what I say is quite deep and profound. I also thought it is so; only to realize that, after one graduation talk years ago, I approached a young graduate what he thought about my speech. He said he could barely understand what I said. Moreover, he thought I really look funny: “Your dress looks funny like the characters of a Harry Potter movie.”
These paraphernalia – togas and medals, titles and degrees – trains you to believe that what I say is profound, even if its message is the same as what an ordinary taxi driver has already said long time ago. While listening to them every time I take a taxi, I realize that most often what they say is even more accurate than mine and expressed in a very colorful language which people can feel with. Yet, people tend to believe me more than them because of the titles that I have or the books that I carry. Think about this. Why do TV crews interview a professor from UP or Ateneo about an issue always with a shelf of books behind him? In order to legitimize what otherwise is an ordinary knowledge which an ordinary barber already knows. For if you listen intently well, there is nothing new about what he said. In other words, the professor needed props to give power and authority to his discourse as something beyond the barber’s knowledge.
It is the same in your case. When you turn the tassels today from left to right, you are “consecrated” as it were by this institution and is asked to represent its ideals. You are consecrated to be different. You can speak on its behalf. You are supposed to carry the marks of excellence, erudition and truth. And the people believe you – even if sometimes what you say was already said by a simple farmer in an even more eloquent way. Despite this, society believes you, believes us, more than the farmer, thanks to graduations and other rites of consecration.
This is where the theme you have chosen becomes significant on this graduation day. After deconstructing the rites of consecration, we are forced to ask what really remains. Sabi nga ng isa sa aking mga guro na si Fr. Carlos Abesamis, “may laman nga ba ang mangkok”? When people open our hearts, what do they find there? I hope they find mercy and compassion because these are the only things worth keeping. After unmasking the pretensions of the academe, nakita nating wala naman talagang laman ang ating mangkok. Pero tuloy pa rin tayo sa buhay paglilingkod dahil sa kanyang awa and pagmamahal sa atin. This for me is what our theme means: Grateful as recipients of God’s mercy… Going forth as bearers of his compassion.
2. From Politics of Excellence to Politics of Compassion
“Merciful like the Father” is his suggested motto of this Holy Year. Miserecordes sicut Pater, as your song goes. It is inspired by Luke 6: 36: “Be merciful as the Father is merciful”. I like the insight of the American theologian, Marcus Borg, on this text. He argues that in the New Testament, our following of God shifted from the politics of purity and perfection to the politics of mercy and compassion. The command to be “compassionate” has superseded the Matthean axiom, “To be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Compassion not knowledge nor perfection, mercy not power nor excellence, is the dominant quality of God. “The name of God is mercy”, the new of Pope Francis says. And so with us, God’s community.
Why is this assertion important? Because as you must have noticed, perfection, excellence, competencies now pervade our schools. Last week, we were trying to revise our philosophy curriculum in line with the OBE (outcomes-based education). According to CHED, all schools need to do that for 2018. These are the same words that I hear: that our graduates should exhibit the desired competences we want them to have; they should be excellent in one thing or another according to the expectations of the industry, they should be globally competitive, etc.
I notice that this “politics of excellence” is also a “politics of form”. Puro porma, walang laman. Maraming salita, walang sinasabi. Maraming ngawa, walang awa. I know of a young graduate who landed on a top position of a rich multinational company right after his graduation. I asked him how it happened so fast. He said: “In the university that I came from, we were taught how to project ourselves well... Good English, self-confidence, being articulate, and all. That is what the companies need.”
The politics of form also pervades the Church, its members, its ministers. As I observe our seminarians (and maybe priests and bishops, too), I begin to sense a resurgence not even of real excellence but of “form”. Meron pa nga akong nabababasa sa Facebook: “Hindi ang lahat ng gwapo nag-aartista. Ang iba seminarista!” Feelingera ang mga gaga! I am also wondering why the resurgence of black soutanes (and clericals) even in a very warm country like the Philippines from seminarians in central dioceses to the little sacristans in the far-away mountain parishes. It might be good to know that we have been exempted from wearing black soutanes because of tropical weather centuries ago. Moreover, many are more concerned with elaborate designs of their stoles and intricate laces in their surplices; of gold-plated retablo altars and elaborate ceremonies. There has been a resurgence of the “ars celebandi” to the neglect of the “ars vivendi”.
What comes to mind is Pope Francis’ analogy of the peacock: “Look at the peacock; it’s beautiful if you look at it from the front. But if you look at it from behind, you discover the truth. Whoever gives in to such self-absorbed vanity has huge misery hiding inside them.”
And if you want to be happy, if you want to get out of that misery, the pope suggests, go and smell like your sheep. Instead of smelling Chanel or Christian Dior, go and smell like the carabao. Be with them and show them compassion.
3. Miserando atque Eligendo
But where does compassion come from? From having been given mercy ourselves. This brings us to the motto in the coat of arms of Pope Francis: “miserando atque eligendo” – being shown mercy and chosen.
One unforgettable day on September 21, 1953, when Jorge Bergolio was still 17 years old – he went to confession on the feast of Matthew the Apostle. He would never forget that confession. The confessor died a year after and Pope Francis himself narrated that he was crying all night. Why? “I felt as though I had been abandoned,” he says. “I had lost a person who has helped me feel the mercy of God.” His motto goes back to this event. It is a commentary on the calling of Matthew – miserando atque eligendo. Matthew, the tax collector, the sinner, felt God’s mercy and was chosen. For a forgiven man, for a person that received mercy, there is no other way but also a life of compassion for others. If we knew we have nothing, who then are we to judge?
Some of you will soon become priests. Others will become lay leaders. With our togas and our sotanas, with our diplomas and our estolas, people will listen to us even if most often we do not make sense at all. But they will soon discover na wala palang laman ang ating mga mangkok. We still can keep our medals. We still can laminate our diplomas. But we will soon know that the “form” and “perfection”, the excellence and competencies, the honors and achievements do not hold on forever. What we dearly hope is that the people find in us a merciful and compassionate heart, a heart that goes out to those in need. For, at the end of the day, it is only with our mercy and compassion that the poor will forgive us for the hollow pretensions and the symbolic violence we have wrought upon them.
St. Vincent de Paul, our founder, learned a lot from your founder, St. Francis. Vincent was always touched by St. Francis’ encounter with the leper that has changed the direction of his life. Vincent himself also had the same encounter with the sick in the hospitals of his times which made him dedicate the whole of his life to the poor. In the movie Monsieur Vincent, when the old founder was dying, he called a young novice to his room and gave his last word. That novice was going out to serve in the soup kitchen for the first time.
St. Vincent said: “You will find out that Charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the kettle of soup and the full basket. But you will keep your gentleness and your smile. You are the servant of the poor, always smiling and good-humored. They are your masters, terribly sensitive and exacting master you will see. The uglier and the dirtier they will be, the more unjust and insulting, the more love you must give them. It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you for the bread that you give them.”
Let me repeat it to be clear: It is only for our love and compassion alone that the poor will forgive us for the bread that we give them.
Miserecordes sicut Pater! Happy graduation everyone!
Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M.
St. Vincent School of Theology