Capt. John “Jack” Phelan, S. J.
While rummaging through household items, used clothing, old books, and other possessions to donate to the Salvation Army and the Vietnam Veterans of America, I came across a faded picture of my son talking to my former student counselor of my high school years – Fr. Jack Phelan.
Suddenly these images -- Soldier, Priest, Saint -- popped up, and the person who’d always naturally come to mind: St. Ignatius of Loyola.
And Fr. Jack Phelan. For Fr. Jack was, like the venerated founder of his Order, the Society of Jesus, all three. First, he was a soldier. During the Second World War, he served in the U. S. Military and rose from private to captain. In fact, he was assigned briefly in the Pacific with the US liberation forces in the Philippines.
Second, Fr. Jack was a Jesuit priest. After the war, he joined the Society of Jesus in New York. St. Ignatius’ famous reminder to the young Francis Xavier -- “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? -- had certainly stood the Biblical quote in good stead across the centuries. He was ordained in 1958 and later assigned to Naga in 1960.
Third, Fr. Jack was a saint -- in my book and in the hearts and minds of everyone who knew him. Allow me to “argue” my case.
I first met Fr. Jack when I was a boy during one Bicol War Veterans Convention in Naga. My father asked me to go with him. He wanted me to meet a genuine U. S. Army Captain, now a Jesuit priest, and now their fellow veteran. Fr. Jack delivered the opening prayer and the invocation. You can just imagine a star-struck boy introduced to a real live hero of WW II. What struck me, however, was the man’s saintliness -- that was my first impression of him, an impression that never faded. The humbleness of his character and demeanor bowled me over. He had this manner of making you feel as if you were the most important person in the room. After he talked to me that first time I met him, I felt ten feet tall.
I took this picture when I visited Fr. Jack at the Jesuit residence at Fordham University in the Bronx in 1990. Fr. Jack was born in the Bronx in August 31, 1922, but this time he was visiting as a Filipino citizen and a Bicolano at that, having been named an adopted son of Naga. He was in NY on a fund raising mission for the Ateneo de Naga.
He stayed in Naga for more than four decades. He chose to become a Filipino citizen. He was known and will always be remembered by many people in Naga for his gentleness, his goodness and his humility. He was known to have helped the oppressed and many a poor person without letting anyone know about it. Humility was his most outstanding virtue. Fr. Jack is the one person whom I have always admired and the one who had made an impact in my life. In short, he was a man who embodied the Spiritual Exercises of his founder, a man for others.
A grateful people loved him back. He became Naga’s adopted son -- officially. A Phelan Building now stands at the Ateneo de Naga University, and a road is named after him. Many an anecdote has been written about Fr. Jack. It is not my intent to repeat them here. Instead I would like to share my own experiences of the unforgettable kindnesses he did to me without my even knowing it.
Many years ago I wrote to a couple of friends of mine in Naga that I was looking for another job in NY because the company I was working for just closed down. A month later, I got a call from an office in Manhattan. They wanted to see me for a job. The voice at the other end of the phone said that I was recommended by Fr. Jack, an old friend and schoolmate of the owner of the company.
Another instance: During the last semester of my senior high school year, too many extra curricular activities brought down one of my grades and cost me to be moved from the honors section to the next.
I thought I was treated unfairly because all those activities were work for the Ateneo. Nevertheless, I gracefully and dutifully complied. To my surprise, a few years after my graduation, I received in the mail an honors diploma -- sent to me by no less than Fr. Jack himself.
Many of us are under the impression that in order to live the saintly life, we need to wear a serious face. We labor under the delusion that a long face is somehow connected with saintliness. Many persons, as soon as they take the path to sanctity, feel that they must now let their friends see there is a difference between them and their less saintlike mortals. Nothing could be further than truth. Fr. Jack taught us that that difference, if shown at all, must be one of cheerfulness, not grimness. And along with it, a lively sense of humor, which Fr. Jack had loads of.
I remember the account about a couple of nervous students hesitatingly enter his office to see if they could interview Fr. Jack.
“Interview? Why, but I didn’t commit any crime!” -- a totally unanticipated reaction which caused a sudden ripple of laughter and put everybody at ease.
That’s what I mean by “different.” After all, Jesuits are known to do things differently. Take Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S. J., for example, who broke centuries-old custom and protocol by preferring to call himself simply as Pope Francis.
Fr. Jack served Naga for more than four decades. He passed away in November 6, 2005.
For all the kindnesses he bestowed, I never had the opportunity to say thank you. I think it was very much like him not to wait for, let alone anticipate, gratitude, and I am sure there are many other people whom Fr. Jack helped who were never given the chance to say thank you because that was Fr. Jack’s way of helping. He never let his left hand know what his right hand did. He did everything Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.
Like I said, in my book, Fr. Jack was -- and now is -- a living saint. We usually pray to saints to ask favors. I, on my part, have opted, Jesuit-like, to do things differently; for instead of petitionary prayer, I think there is no better way of honoring Fr. Jack Phelan than to follow his example: the gentleness, the ready-smile, the cheerfulness, the wit.
Except the last. I cannot equal his quick wit which he used with such skillful timing to the effect that it always made you feel ten feet tall, like the time I first met him at that veterans conference in Naga. His quick wit was legend. Here’s a classic.
The last time I saw Fr. Jack was while visiting my alma mater with my family. We were going to the centro later. My nine-year-old son had been feeling low lately probably because he felt some of the things he did for me lately were not appreciated. My fault. I was always too busy with trivial concerns. To cheer him up, I gave him a few loose one dollar bills and promised to go to the centro later so he could buy himself some Bicol souvenir items. Didn’t work.
Meanwhile, Fr. Jack did us the honor to act as our “tourist guide” to show us the new buildings and changes going on in my old school. Especially, Fr. Jack obliged my son’s questions about the Ateneo de Naga, including his war-time exploits my son was interested in. As we were walking by the old faculty house, my son pointed to an unfinished church before us.
“That’s our church,” Fr. Jack said, gesturing in the direction of the future Christ the King Church still under construction. I listened to Fr. Jack explain that the Ateneo de Naga church was going to be the local version of the celebrated Church of the Gesù, the mother church of the Jesuits in Rome.
My son noticed that there were no workers around. “Why isn’t it finished yet?”
“We’re still raising funds. It will be finished as soon as we get donations.” Fr. Jack sounded wistful: “We’re still waiting for them.”
Upon hearing this, my son Jacob pulled out the dollar bills from his pocket and counted twenty dollars. “This is my contribution.”
“Now,” Fr. Jack said, accepting the donation with that characteristic merry twinkle in his eyes: “Now the church will be finished.”