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Dateline Seattle: Making of a Saint

There he goes again.

This time he did not call God stupid. This time he made fun of the saints during the recent feast of All Saints’ Day, a religious tradition observed by millions of Filipino Catholics.

During the situation briefing on the destruction caused by Typhoon Rosita, President Rodrigo Duterte was quoted by the media to have said, “We don’t know who those saints are, those fools, those drunkards.” He continued, “You stay here, I’ll give you a patron saint. A patron saint where you won’t have to go elsewhere. Get hold of a picture of mine, place it on your altar, Santo Rodrigo,”

Of course, when cornered, Malacanang always has an excuse: It’s just a “playful jab”, it was said in jest or it’s a hyperbole.

Actually sans the joke explanation, Duterte was right. Saints were sinners. Some, but not all, were also heavy drinkers.

Take, for example, the venerable Matt Talbot. He was born in Dublin in 1856. He came from a family of heavy drinkers. Drinking was his way of coping with the harsh conditions experienced by the Irish during those times. As a young man, Talbot frequented pubs almost every night. To sustain his habit, he pawned his clothes and stole. Simply put, he was a drunkard.

In 1884, Talbot stopped drinking, started going to Mass daily, helped the poor, read the scriptures and the lives of the saints, lived like a monk, and experienced a total conversion until his death in 1925.

News of Talbot’s death spread rapidly among Dublin Catholics and he was popularly hailed a saint. He was declared venerable by Pope Paul VI in 1975. Since then he was regarded as the patron and protector of alcoholics. The Irish believe that one day he will be canonized.

Another drunkard was St. Augustine of Hippo. He was also known for his promiscuity. He partied all the time before he radically changed his lifestyle.

Duterte could probably see himself in St. Augustine before the latter’s transformation.

What annoyed many Catholics, I think, was Duterte’s manner of expressing himself. His tone was harsh, insulting and arrogant. One can sense that when he speaks, especially about the Catholic Church, he always says something uncalled for or unnecessary and disrespectful. He often crosses the line to hit someone he does not agree with – definitely not a saintly virtue.

People know that Duterte is far from being a saint. But his rabid followers may think otherwise. Some of them may even actually take his picture, frame it, and place it in an altar, and start calling him Santo Rodrigo. Nothing is no longer impossible in this day and age. Even an aging fashionista with a penchant for wearing colorful tailored suits can now become the president’s spokesperson.

So to put things in perspective, I revisited in a cursory manner the lives of my two favorite saints: Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, and Saint Oscar Romero, the newly canonized saint from El Salvador.

Ignatius’ early adult life was said to have been characterized by gambling and womanizing. He took pride in being a Basque military officer. The youngest of thirteen children, Ignatius, like his brothers, wanted to fight for the king and become a famous defender of his homeland.

In 1516, Ignatius was sent to Pamplona to defend the capital city against the French military. He was determined to fight to death. Unfortunately, his leg was shattered by a cannon ball. Luckily, he survived when the French spared his life and sent him to his parents’ home to recuperate.

While recovering from his injury, he started reading the life of Christ and the lives of the saints, followed by intense periods of praying, doing penance, and fasting. During this period of spiritual transformation, Ignatius started writing about his spiritual experiences, which later became his greatest work, The Spiritual Exercises, which I had the opportunity to do for thirty days in total silence.

In 1534, at the age of 43, Ignatius and six other companions vowed to live a life of poverty, chastity and to offer themselves to the apostolic service of the pope. Years later, Ignatius made his group permanent and Pope Paul III gave them his stamp of approval. Thus, the Society of Jesus was born. The group’s spirituality was expressed in its motto – Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam – For the greater glory of God.

The recent canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero speaks volumes. It is a reaffirmation by the Catholic Church that the struggle for justice is a Christian thing to do. It is a way of saying, this time in a manner that is clear and direct, with no ifs and buts, that working for justice, though it has a price to pay, is the way of bearing witness to the Gospel.

Archbishop Romero was assassinated on March 24, 1980 as he was saying Mass. Before his assassination, he was a consistent critic of the ruling military junta which, by all accounts, was repressive.

To understand and appreciate the context that led to Archbishop Romero’s assassination on March 24, 1980, one needs to know the social and political conditions during his time.

The El Salvador that was embroiled in civil war from 1980 – 1992 was in a similar situation as the Philippines when it was under Martial Law: proliferation of government- sponsored death squads, increasing number of desaparecidos (disappearances mostly of human rights workers), assassination of political opponents, lack of adequate services, all forms of

government-sanctioned violence, corruption of all shapes and forms by those in power, etc.

It was the worst of times in El Salvador, but a voice refused to be silent: “I implore you. I beg you. I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression,” preached Archbishop Romero.

A day later, he was shot through his heart by a single bullet while saying Mass.

From what I can infer from the lives of St. Ignatius and St. Romero, theirs were centered on three things: a life of prayer and sacrifice, identification with Christ’s values, and working for the poor and the oppressed.

The difference between Duterte and St. Ignatius is obvious. Ignatius abandoned his desire for fame, honor and power, and focused instead on what mattered most in life. Duterte appears to continue to play political games to preserve power by eliminating his political opponents and failing to curb corruption in government.

The difference between Duterte and St. Romero is more than skin deep. Nearly everything that Duterete is doing right now is the opposite of what Romero stood for. We have a sitting president who cannot stop the inflation and the almost daily killings of suspected poor drug abusers, making the lives of the people worse.

It’s not enough for Duterte to call himself a saint. Calling him a saint will not make him a saint. What will make him a saint is to imitate the lives of Ignatius and Romero. That honor, generally considered the highest one can become as a Catholic, is what Duterte should aspire for. But there is no absolute guarantee that he will become one.

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