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25th Commencement Exercises of LST as an Ecclesiastical Faculty of Theology

Jun 4, 2024

May 08, 2024, University Church of The Gesù

 Commencement Address of Dr. Estela P. Padilla

(An edited transcription from YT video clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Pik18mDUxA)

Good afternoon, and a big thank you from my heart for giving me a space on this very special day to share my insights with you, dear sisters and brothers. I was asked to share my experiences and insights on formation with the clergy, seminarians, and religious, especially towards a synodal Church. I have three stories to share, as well as three insights, on how the synodal Church understands formation. I know that many of you, graduates, have completed a significant part of your formation, and I believe that formation has succeeded in making you effective disciples and missionaries. When I share these insights, I speak from my experiences.

First, let me begin with a little graduation story. I graduated from the University of the Philippines. When you graduate with honors, companies send you invitations to work for them. Before my graduation, my mentor asked me to sit down with him so we could decide which company I would accept. I told him I had already decided, and he was surprised. “Which company did you choose?” he asked. “The parish,” I said. “Paris?” he responded, thinking I had trained under the French News Agency. “No, the Parish of Saint Joseph in Las Piñas,” I clarified.

He was taken aback. “What’s that?” he asked. “What are you going to do there? In two years, you’ll come back to me begging for work. You’ll be totally bored.” Despite his concerns, I chose to work for the parish after graduation. It has been 40 years, and I have never had a boring day.

Entering pastoral ministry as a life, as a work, and as a way of being discipled means you are in for a lot of surprises, joys, and also frustrations. However, if you are a follower of God, you will realize that these are simply opportunities for you to grow even more as disciples and missionaries.

The first insight I wish to share about formation is that DAILY LIFE FORMS YOU. In a very short ride I took from our place to Alabang, a family got in the vehicle—a mother, father, and a small child also got in. I was surprised because I knew the father. I remembered him as a boy who used to beg where I took the tricycle every day to go home. I watched him grow up, but now he was a grown man with a family. However, the family still looked like beggars.

I readied my change, as I always gave him money, and I waited for them to beg. Often, people in their situation distribute envelopes in the jeepney, asking for donations, or pass around cans for coins. But they did not do any of these things. They did not sing or beg. Instead, they paid their fares.

Why did I think they would beg? Because he had always been a beggar, and they still looked and smelled like beggars. That afternoon taught me a very important lesson: we cannot presume or judge a person based on what we know of him from the past or how we see him now.

God surprises us. And that day, God surprised me.

When I told that story to a group of clerics, the bishop approached me after the talk. He told me he was very disturbed because that very morning, three women stood in front of his car, stretching their arms to stop him. He knew they needed money, so he rolled down the window and gave them some. He felt very guilty, thinking he had missed God’s message for that day. He said to me, “I will go home today carrying this disturbance. I’d like to sit with this disturbance so I can learn my lesson.”

DAILY LIFE FORMS US. We are asked to be open because the Spirit of God works in ways that surprise us. We always say in the Synod, it is the Spirit of God that is the protagonist of the Synod. The Spirit of God converts us. Without conversion, the synodal renewal we all dream of will not happen. The Spirit of God is alive every day in the events of our lives, in the events that are happening in the world. We are called to be open.

The second insight is THE POOR FORMS US. I went to the marker recently, and I was buying fish. There was this poor, old lady bringing two packs of cassava and she was selling them for 15 pesos per pack. I usually give money without taking the product so she can earn even more. She was disturbed because I was giving her twenty and said, “I cannot accept this. You have to accept this (cassava) so that I can accept this (the payment). I cannot do that because if I do, my legs will swell and I will not be able to walk.” For a time, I was silent. I did not know what she meant. Then she repeated, “If I receive this money without you taking what I am selling, my legs will swell and I will not be able to walk.” I realized later that it is a value, it is a wisdom that she was living by. I realized that she was teaching me what dignity means. She was telling me her deep values are not for exchange, are not for sale. She worked, I think she planted the cassava herself in her garden because they were very small. She said perhaps “my work, my labor has value, and do not cheapen it with your donation.” The dignity of the poor! I never heard that before: I cannot walk if I accept your donation. Her dignity taught me what the Synod means when it talked about the dignity of the baptized; that each one created by God is very valuable, and has a story to tell, and has a life to live. And we are called to honor it.

In the Synod, you see very different people. In one of our sessions, someone came in and saw who his seatmate was saying, “I cannot sit with him, I cannot eat with him, I cannot be photographed with him.” These two belong to two different opinions. One is pro-LGBTQ+ while the other one was against. In the whole Synod, and even now, as the Philippines prepare its national report, we also did a lot of discernment on these different and controversial issues: about people living in irregular unions, the LGBTQ communities, sexual identity, the moral ethics of AI, etc…Somebody said in one of the discernment groups, “I hope one day we will not be looked at as problems and issues. I hope one day we will be looked at as human persons with a story and a voice.”

I always hear Church leaders say, the faith of the poor or marginalized is very devotional. They need to be catechized in a deeper way. I do not know what they mean by deeper catechesis – more hours of lectures that explain the faith? I also hear this referring to the poor: they are sacramentalized but not evangelized. I wonder what they mean by that. I believe that the Synod is asking us to recognize the dignity of all but especially of the poorest.

Chapter 4 of the synthesis report states that becoming a synodal Church means walking together with the One who is the Way. Therefore, the synodal Church needs to put those experiencing poverty at the center of all aspects of life. The experience of encounter, sharing a common life, and serving those living in poverty and on the margins should be an integral part of all formation paths.

The third and final insight I wish to share is that ENGAGEMENT FORMS US. This is related to the first two insights: daily life forms us, and the poor and the marginalized form us. Chapter 14 of the synthesis report states that formation is a lived service, an engagement together with others. Sometimes we feel formation is something we attend, but it is something that we engage in. Our team, Bukal ng Tipan helps many dioceses in organizing Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs). In the Archdiocese of Jaro, we were helping organize BECs in the northern coastal areas when Typhoon Yolanda, the strongest typhoon to hit the globe, struck in 2013. The coastal areas, especially the outlying islands, were devastated.

A particular BEC in Isla Naburot lost everything—the chapel, their bancas, the barangay hall, homes—everything was destroyed. They had no food and nothing to cook with. In the BEC meeting, we asked the question, “Where do we start now?” This question formed me and continues to form me: Where do you start when you have lost everything?

Their answer was documented in magazines and studies that followed the story of this successful community noted their resilience. They said, “We have lost our houses, but not our families. We have lost our barangay hall, but not our community spirit. We have lost our chapel, but not our faith.” After the initial organizing of that community post-storm, one of the first things they did was vulnerability mapping. This involved the whole community—young and old, village leaders, the local government unit, and NGOs. They analyzed the map of the island to identify vulnerability points, reflecting on what happened with Yolanda. They realized there had been many smaller ‘Yolandas’ before the big one and that they were responsible for their own recovery.

Engaging with them in their story of rising up has been a formative experience which I will never forget. This experience has formed me over my 40 years in community organizing. When asked what they needed, they didn’t say houses; they said banca (boats) so they could fish, eat, sell, and start rebuilding their homes after earning some income. It takes 20,000 pesos to make a banca, and afterwards they said they wanted to return 40% of the money donated to them. Again, the dignity of the poor! I saw that community emerged again as triumphant. It was a beautiful way of being formed.

So, one final story: I was engaging with a group of young people I did not know, asking them to make their choices. Red for “No,” Green for “Yes,” and Yellow for “Not Sure.” So I asked them to vote on the following: first, newspapers say that young people are formed by the social media and not by their families or parents. They all raised the green color. Second, I was told that young people think of virtual reality as real, and they prefer virtual reality to face to face encounter. They raised the green color again. Third, if you would like to break-up with your boyfriend or girlfriend, would you do it virtually or face to face? They said “face to face.” Fourth, when you want to make a decision, would you do it virtually or face to face? They said “face to face.” This engagement with young people invited me to find out what is happening with them and help me learn.

A final quote on synodal formation: Formation is to be done jointly. Formation together. The entire people of God is a co-responsible subject of formation, and that those in formation ministry should be able to integrate into the wisdom of the whole community. With this synodal process and this idea of engagement as formation, I realize what the sensus fidelium really mean, the sense of faith of the people. When I was first appointed to be a voting member of the Synod, I was honored because people come to me and say “You are the voice of lay people, the voice of women.” I realize I have a very small voice, representing a small percentage of lay people. My life has always been comfortable. Majority of the Filipinos are poor. I can never represent them.

I remember a mother of four kids telling me “Kung Nanay ka, lalaban ka sa buhay. If you are a mother, you will do everything to help your children survive.” Everytime they had no money, she would ask “Saan kamay ng Diyos ko hahagilapin ang pera?” – believing that it is the hand of God that provides.

I also read about your very own (NAME?), the daughter of a jeepney driver who graduated valedictorian in 2021 (not sure). I realized how many months did they not have money for food, education, for sickness. How much faith is needed to be able to survive such a life! I realize I will never have that kind of faith. I only have the faith of someone who lives a comfortable life. And if I do not engage with the collective faith-wisdom of the people of God, then my own sense of faith will be thin and limited, not substantial. Believing that the Spirit of God works and has gifted all of us with the sense of faith, I understood why the synodal process wants to engage all, especially the poor and the marginalized, in discernment and decision-making; to listen to their voices because discernment in decision making glorifies the One who gave us all the charisms. For the first time, I understood the meaning of sensus fidelium, which has a prophetic authority when we are together, from the bishop to the last of the faithful, in seeking to know what God wills. It made me realize how important engagement is especially in terms of gathering the collective wisdom of the people of God.

So, dear graduates, this is called the Commencement Exercise because, after today, we commence a new phase of formation. Carry in your hearts that daily life will form you and surprise you. Always be open to the Spirit who walks with us, like Jesus with the disciples on the road to Emmaus. The poor form us. If you want to know God and be converted to God’s ways, remember that the poor are closest to the heart of God. Knowing them, engaging with them, and being formed by them, as the synodal Church teaches, is a very special way of growing in the faith. Engagement and experience truly form us. Together, with faith in the Spirit of God, we will know where God is leading us at this time in our lives.

Congratulations again, and thank you very much for this time.

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