March 21, 2016, Sorsogon City, Philippines – The Lewis College’s Thirteenth Commencement Exercises was graced by its Founder and President, Atty. Loida Nicolas-Lewis, along with guest speaker, Rev. Joseph Costantino. Father Costantino hails from Brooklyn, USA and served as President of Canisius High School in Buffalo, New York; became first advisory board of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps; was a Board of Trustee member of Canisius College and Loyola High School, and is now a Trustee of St. Peter’s University in New Jersey; and is incoming Pastor of St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish in Chestnut Hill, MA. With more than ten years experience of being retreat and spiritual director in the U.S., Father Joe also conducted the two-day Retreat for 149 college students in El Retiro Compound, Cabid-an, Sorsogon City. He was assisted by Dr. Agnie Cruz, who has served with the Jesuit Collaborative and is a good friend of Atty. Lewis.
Students and parents were overjoyed to have the chance to meet and take photos with the president, Atty. Lewis, who flew from New York to attend this memorable event. In her message to the graduates, Mrs. Lewis encouraged them to not be afraid of the challenges or failures ahead. “You have the chance, the opportunity to grow stronger, to learn from your failure, to understand what made you fail.” Furthermore, “Humility is the beginning of wisdom, look into yourself and see what you are doing wrong…and then try again… in the end you will succeed.”
After the messages, the parents were recognized for their tremendous support and love for the graduates for the past four years. The program was truly a memorable event, which was hosted by Ms. Evelyn Mella, faculty. Father Costantino sent a copy of the Jesuit Newsletter which featured his first-time travel to the Philippines and his activities while he was here. You can see it in http://campaign.r20.constantcontact.com/render?m=1106449307960&ca=dd2161cd-2dd3-4f3c-bba6-df6813d2be49.
Father Costantino’s message can be seen below:
COMMENCEMENT MESSAGE TO THE LEWIS COLLEGE GRADUATING CLASS OF 2016
“Mrs. Lewis, Mr. Nicolas III, Dr. Azul, Mr. Gonzales, Mr. Jamisola, Miss Mella, Dr. Cruz from the United States, Engineer Naag from CHED, invited guests, grandparents, parents, relatives friends, and graduates of the class of 2016, I am truly honored to have been asked by Mrs. Lewis to visit your country and more specifically this province of Sorsogon to offer to you, the graduates, your graduation retreat with Dr. Cruz and now to address you on this most significant, memorable day in your life, a day you will not soon and maybe never forget, a day that you have worked so hard to achieve. It is a milestone. After today, you will forever be college graduates. Just think about that for a moment. Savor it: “I am a college graduate.” Yes it is something of which you should be rightfully proud.
Okay, enough of that savoring — you really should not linger there for too long. It is not that it will give you a big head or make you proud, rather your undergraduate college days are sadly now past. To quote, the very famous German 19th century author and statesman, Johann Wolgang von Goethe, “There is no past that we need long to return to. There is only the eternally new which is formed out of enlarged elements of the past; and our real endeavor must always be towards a new and better creation.
In short, your college education has given you a solid base, a real foundation upon which you can rely. But you cannot remain there in simple security for you learned yesterday’s solutions. As Goethe indicates, these past elements or learnings need to be enlarged if they are to address tomorrow’s challenges, if you are going to aid in the process of building a new and better creation. And so, your education means nothing unless you learned how to continue to learn. Unless you become “life-long learners.” After putting together this address, I actually learned that that was the theme of last year’s commencement address given here by Dr. Rosa D. Anonat. That theme, “Lifelong Learning: Key to the Challenges of the 21st Century,” is one that we will hopefully build upon today as we explore your theme for this year – “ASEAN Integration: Preserving Filipino Values in the Midst of Diversity.” Of course perhaps I should have had last year’s theme and Dr. Anonat this year’s. After all what can someone not from Southeast Asia and a non-Filipino no less have to say about this year’s challenging, momentous theme. But I will try my best.
Your theme this year – “ASEAN Integration: Preserving Filipino Values in the Midst of Diversity” is, I think, all about inviting you to leave your comfort zone. Your theme is anything but safe. If we are honest, it is riddled with anxiety, fear and distress. Just analyze the theme: we never speak of “preserving,” unless there is some risk, some fear about losing something. And who among you, given your past skills and competencies, knows in advance exactly what is at risk and what is worth preserving? And who among you, given your past skills and competencies, can ensure just how integration will be retained and disintegration avoided. Even collectively as a community of life-long learners, the challenges presented by the ASEAN clarion call, ONE VISION, ONE IDENTITY, ONE COMMUNITY, surely stretches every community beyond their current competencies, their current ways of doing things. This clarion call can, in a way, sound so positive, optimistic and hopeful, yet it can also feel profoundly threatening and destabilizing. And it is only right and natural that it should.
The ASEAN speaks of Southeast Asia as a region of magnificent natural wealth and diversity with 630 million multi-ethic, multi religious and multi-lingual peoples and points out that amidst this multiplicity there are common threads among the 10 countries who have chosen to bond together with a goal to become one community with one vision and one identity. And yet, I am sure the challenge and fear, not just for Filipino’s, but for each and every one of these other 9 countries, is how not to be absorbed, how to retain one’s individuality, identity and culture, while avoiding the threat of an ASEAN disintegration.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments in his book, The Dignity of Difference, “to recognize and give due weight to the commonalities and differences, the universal and the particular, is one of the hardest of all cultural and spiritual challenges, but it is the only way to avoid the clash of civilizations.” “Nothing,” he continues, “ has proved harder in the history of civilization than to see God, or good, or human dignity in those whose language is not mine, whose skin is a different colour, whose faith is not my faith and whose truth is not my truth.” History in fact is riddled with examples unfortunately of such clashes of cultures.
If we had the time, I would explore with you some of the history of the Christian missionaries in the Philippines and how they too often imposed their own cultural practices, failing to distinguish what was essential to the message of Jesus Christ and the Gospel and what were merely their own cultural practices and customs. Some missionaries certainly did not honor and value the “dignity of difference” but rather valued conformity. Instead of that lengthy historical exploration, let me simply quote Pope Francis, who, on his trip to Africa in November 2015, invited the young people of Kenya to respect those who are different. He seems surely to invite them to go outside their comfort zone when he warned them about the evils of tribalism, which just like the evils of colonialism, is the temptation to value one’s own cultural prejudices at the expense of others. He called for the young people to be open to all. Overcoming tribalism is something “we do with our ear: listening to others; with our heart: being open to others; and with our hands: holding out a hand to others.” (Address to the Young People of Kenya, 27 November 2015).
Isn’t the ASEAN, asking the same of all its 10 linked nations: overcome tribalism, overcome colonialism, live with listening ears, open hearts and outstretched hands, forge a unity amidst your rich diversity? To quote Rabbi Sacks again, to accomplish this “we need more than a code of rights, more even than mere tolerance. We will need to understand that just as the natural environment depends on biodiversity, so the human environment depends on cultural diversity, because no one civilization encompasses all the spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions of mankind.” In other words, we need one another; we are enriched, not diminished by our diversity. Recognizing that need for each other and how we are enriched by the other helps us to underscore that unity does not require uniformity, that our plurality needs to be treasured for we need not all be exactly alike to be united. This recognition, however, is only a first step. Maintaining a unity amidst our diversity forces us to forever live with tension, with ambiguity, with paradox, yes even with conflict, requiring of us, therefore, to live also with patience not looking to easily or readily weigh one belief, custom or value above another. For example, some cultures highly value family or community above the individual, perhaps that is true here. I know in the United States too often individualism becomes more important than family. But both are good, both family and individuality are necessary values, and both need to remain, ever and always, in patient tension with one another. As the late archbishop and 1950’s television star, Fulton Sheen, writes about patience: Patience is power. Patience is not an absence of action; Rather it is “timing.” It waits on the right time to act, For the right principles and in the right way.
Yet, how do we know the right time? The right principles? The right way? How do we know if we have veered too far in the direction of preserving unity at the expense of our diversity or too far in the direction of preserving our diversity or individuality at the expense of our unity?
I can only give you the answer of a person of faith and of a Roman Catholic, Jesuit priest. I believe we come to this knowledge by all becoming, just like what the Jesuits say of themselves, “contemplatives in action,” that is, persons well schooled and vigilant in the practice of discernment. And to be clear, discernment is not a practice or discipline of simply over analyzing things, as it is sometimes mistakenly characterized, but it involves prioritizing our beliefs, customs and values. It is about good decision-making. To put it simply, to engage in discernment we must let go and let God. And this is important: unless we allow ourselves, with God’s help, with God’s grace, to be freed of our prejudices, we are not engaged in authentic discernment. For the contemplative in action, however, discernment is not really about making compromises; it is not as if we say we will take a little of some other culture and a little of our own and that is how we will become integrated. Discernment is also not about subsuming one group’s values or culture by another’s. Instead, discernment is about remaining in expectant, hope-filled tension, allowing conflicting beliefs, customs and values to sit within our own or our group’s inner being, patiently awaiting the right time, for God, sometimes speaking through another or through circumstances, to present something unexpected and new.
Sometimes discernment is as simple as seeing that God may be calling us out of a harmful, unhealthy or unbalanced situation. Sometimes discernment may lead us to see that some of our beliefs, customs or values as individuals or as a people have been too overly valued or possibly not truly valued enough. We need to be ever open to change and transformation for with God’s grace we can and will be transformed. But most importantly any discernment about an ASEAN Integration while preserving Filipino values needs to be rooted and grounded in mercy, forgiveness and love. We need to be merciful and forgiving since mistakes will be made. We need to appreciate and love one another, always intending what is best for those different from ourselves, even those in our own families or among our friends who may be different, who may not even share our same values. I guess you can see by now that I have provided you no simple, easy solution as to how to balance and preserve an ASEAN unity and Filipino values. Instead, what I have tried to provide is a guide, a way of proceeding, or to use a fancy term “a heuristic structure,” which requires you to take up the challenge of tomorrow. It is the work of leaders, and you are tomorrow’s leaders, whether formally or informally, you will exercise, by virtue of your education, leadership.
So, I charge you, the graduates of the class of 2016, to be life-long learners. Leave your comfort zone. Become leaders who practice patience as contemplatives in action. Be always in a merciful, forgiving, loving discernment mode, awaiting with listening ears, open hearts, and ready hands, for our God to help to lead you and all of us towards a unity amidst our diversity, to an ASEAN Integration: Preserving Filipino Values in the Midst of Diversity.
May God bless you as you boldly go forth to transform our planet into a new and better creation.”