To die at 27
June 7, 1981, was a really hot day. You would have said that summer had arrived ahead of itself. Or may be it was harvest-time. At the seminary of Colmenar Viejo, Madrid, Spain, things were in a festive mood: we were celebrating the perpetual profession of Mariano José Sedano.
Bobby had gone off with Fr. Ildefonso Murillo and the student Herminio García to El Boalo, a small mountain town entrusted to the pastoral care of the Claretians. They were supposed to be back for the profession ceremony, but they did not make it. What we could not understand then was that while one young man was offering his life for the sake of the gospel, another was completing his offering of almost twenty-seven years.
From 2:30 p.m. on, the events came in on us, so that there is not much point in trying to work out their chronology. Now I think I know what they mean by “limit situations.” Because certain experiences are so dense that they allow us to see life and death in all their depth. In such instances, when you do not know whether your brother belongs to the kingdom of the living or to that of the dead, you begin to intuit that, deep down, there is no absolute difference between them. They are almost the same. Death is not capable of radically interrupting of presence.
Aroung 4:00 p.m. we knew precisely what had happened. Ildefonso and Herminio had been rushed to a hospital. Bobby and the driver of the other care were dead. Two deaths in the time it takes to say “hello”.
Bobby, who loved life so much, he, whom we had just seen smiling a few hours before.
The night between the 7th and the 8th was an adventure. Communicating with the Philippines seemed impossible, Only after a long time, and then only indirectly, could we pass the news on. What would his family say – papa Felix and Mama Rosa? What could they say, so many thousands of kilometres away? Once again, faith would have to take sorrow into its arms. That day, the whole town of Ayala understood that they boy who had been serving Mass in the church since he was six years old, was now with them once and for all.
Months later, when I was asking for testimonies about his, someone wrote me: “All of the people of Ayala hope that his death might no be in vain.” And the young people, his friends, went even further: “The remembrance of you will be a constant inspiration to us and to all the young people who may feel challenged to fill your place.”
The burial took place on 9th. “It is good for you that I go” was the theme we chose for the celebration. At the time, after two intense days, hope was stronger that tears. Bobby’s death had unifying effect. It brought brothers and friends together. And there were flowers from three Filipino girls who were friends of Bobby’s. Flowers that came, at least symbolically, from the other side of the ocean and tried to build a bridge of feelings.
The evening ebbed away.
A testament of poverty
Other than the gift of his life, he left us very little: a diary written in a nervous and almost unintelligible hand, a tape of some of his songs, his white missionary’s cassock, his profession cross, a plant well attended to and…. a canary, all things of little cash value.
It occurred to me that I should ask them questions, enlist their aid to reconstruct Bobby’s life. They spoke. Things, when you contemplate them with affection, become transparent. We all wanted to know more about his life. Not just because his death had awakened us, but because even earlier we had sensed something genuine about his special path.
Now I am going to put those confidences into writing. Also those that have come from the Philippines, as well as other that other people had tucked away in their hearts. Thus, from the heart and somewhat hastily, these pages have come to be born. So you could not call this a critical life. I mean, it squares up to reality, but to reality read in a sympathetic key. It is not a life to swell some collection. Or even to be published. It is a life to be cherished and most of all to be told.
It is not a sentimental life, but it is provocative. And, if this adds any further explanation, it is a Claretian life. The life of one of us who found no opposition between saying his daily rosary and enjoying the music of Carole King. A life of one who could recognize himself in that line from the Autobiography: “I am by nature very compassionate”, and at the same time, could reproach himself for a tendency to be too demanding of others and of being impatient and subjective in his assessments.
To help anyone who reads these pages understand what they are really about, I ought to add one last clarification. They are written by someone who lived with Bobby during the last two years of his life and felt the impact of his death. Someone who has spent almost a couple of years meditating on his diary and retracing his steps, wherever that was possible. Someone, finally, who is the spokesman for a whole community. This measures its scope somewhat and remakes the story into a self involving reflection.
In a far-off corner of Ayala
Felix Espinosa Juaton (“Bobby”) was born in Ayala, a town on the outskirts of Zamboanga, in the southern Philippines. It was July 20, 1954.
Around that time the Filipino people, who had been independent since 1946, were involved in the great enterprise of national reconstruction. The last war had turned their land into a scene of confrontation between the American and Japanese forces. They were living through a new historical stage, after centuries of Spanish and North American colonialism.
If you take the map of the world, you should look toward the right and then down, to discover some wrinkled spots that stretch upward from the great mass of Australia. These are the little paradise of the Philippine Islands: a mosaic of some three hundred thousand square kilometres made up of seven thousand islands and islets.
By many different tokens, Philippine society is one of contrasts. Oriental by its geographical and historical setting. Occidental by the constant foreign influences it has undergone. A land of great natural wealth and an unjust distribution of its benefits. One of the educationally most advance Asian nations, with a high percentage of Catholic inhabitants. A weak democracy, and a community that is reeling under the impact of its population explosion.
Ayala is in the southwest, on the great island of Mindanao. Bobby was born in sight of the sea, and something of its immensity always clung to his soul. He was the fourth of a family of six children.
In that decade of the 50’s, everyone had to work, because there was not enough to make ends meet. In this hardworking environment but never fevered as in our great industrial cities, he learned to find joy in well-made things. Later, with the passage of time, some people would call him a perfectionist.
There, too, he learned to talk to God, although he did not know it. That is how these primordial things are always learned. They are born in the warmth of a home and determine the rest of a person’s life. At four years of age, he learned to say the rosary and, at six, how to serve Mass for Fr. Eugenio Pérez, a Claretian. Every day before going to school, he arrived punctually to serve Mass.
What was Bobby like as a child? The people of his neighbourhood remember his as a happy boy, neat and even elegant. In his studies he was number one, although not out of competitiveness. When he played, he played with a passion. He played all the games that children play, including “saying Mass”. With all the touching seriousness of a child who pretends he is “consecrating” water and biscuits. And he had a good voice. For four years in a row they chose his to play the role of the Angel in the Christmas pageant.
The first decision
In 1967, Bobby entered high school. He was thirteen, and had experienced all the problems and dreams that seem to sprout like magic at that age. He even thought fleetingly of joining seminary and becoming a real priest, but it would have cost him too much to tear himself away from his own.
“His own” also included the sea and the sort of provincial air that distinguished his town and townsfolk. They say that Zamboangueños have a touch of class in their blood. He decided to study at the Ateneo de Zamboanga, a religious school run by the Jesuits. Every day he had to travel those sixteen kilometres from his house to the city center.
There are not many recollections about this time. It would have been good to be able to tell about it in his own words, but he was not accustomed to talking about himself. He lived, and began opening his eyes to what would later be an obsession with him. He knew then what poverty was. On occasions, street beggars would make him cry, the same in Zamboanga as they would late, in Manila, Rome and Madrid.
He helped around home as much as he could. For a while he took in laundry for the Peace Corps Volunteers who worked in the area. Afterwards, when they left, he and his mother sold fruit in a little stand. His parents were never far from him. Even when he was thousand of kilometres away from them, he felt their presence near him.
Four years went on this way until he finished high school. They were not a mere parenthesis for him. In the report he made for his perpetual profession, he showed that he understood that “God’s call to take part in the mission of his Son, came through insignificant happenings.”
Then came the moment of his first decision. It was a relatively dear one for Bobby. The fact that he was born in this little corner of the Philippines, and not in the heart of Buenos Aires or Chicago, contributed to his becoming a man who was sensitive to everything, and not another one of those little, one dimensional monsters. There are certain persons who have received from God the gift of unity and synthesis. When you get close to them, you know right away what they want and what they are feeling. They are not dramatic or Hamlet-like types. Peace wells up and overflows from within them.
Bobby was like that, ever in the midst of his conflicts. It never occurred to his imagination to think of being a banker or a director general or a millionaire. I mean, he never wanted to study how to become the best of all. He wanted to be a doctor, in order to provide free help to the needy. His parents encouraged him in this, but things followed another course.
It was at the beach. Why is it that the call of the first disciples has a sea tang about it? Some Claretians had organized a picnic lunch in the open air. They invited Bobby. And there, someone played the role of a prophet. In the history of every vocation, there is always someone bold enough to act as God’s spokesman. Whoever he was, he asked him why he did not become a priest instead of a doctor, and told him that it was worth the trouble, and that they were counting on him. All the things, in fact, that people say when they are caught up in communicating their own joy.
Bobby said yes. He agreed. No need to think it over. Later on, Fr. Emilio Pablo, his friend and later his formation director wrote some words that were engraved in his memory: “If I enter, it will be with the intention of never turning back.” Bobby knew the gospel, and he understood that a disciple of Jesus is not like the young man who becomes an apprentice mechanic and can wait calmly for his paycheck at the end of the week.
But if a priest, why a Claretian? You might say that it was one of fate’s little ironies. His whole life as a student had been spent with the Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans. Yet he chose Claret.
Since the Filipino Claretians did not have their own seminary at the time, he spent his college years (1971-1975) at the Franciscan Seminary of Our Lady of the Angels. He left Zamboanga forever, for Quezon City, the modern town being built to become the capital of the State, and which already formed part of greater Manila.
These were years of formation in which studies alternated with apostolate. Something Franciscan must have rubbed off on him. Perhaps it was that deep aesthetic sense that added a particularly attractive facet to his oriental temperament. Perhaps it was his simplicity or his smile, two calling cards that few people could overlook.
In 1974, something happened that he would never forget. A special confirmation of his missionary enthusiasm. He brought about the conversion of five Muslim students to Catholicism. He preferred to say that he had accompanied five brothers on the road of faith.
During vacations, he used to return to Ayala, to soak in the sea and provincial air. Then he was a young man again. He spoke English fluently, loved music and sports, and returned the head of some Zamboangueña girl. From this time we can probably date that touch of the picaresque that Bobby often let fall in a look, a play on word, a gesture, or an omission.
Then came the years of his novitiate and his courses in theology at the University of St. Thomas in Manila. They were intense years. Since 1972, the Philippines had been living under martial law imposed by President Marcos, Manila was growing out of bonds. It was becoming a symbol of the modern polis. Luxury and misery rubbed elbows.
Those were years when the horizon of Ayala was broadened. In Manila, you were in tune with the world. You knew right away when Nixon stepped down or Franco died. They were also the years in which he began to distinguish essence from existence. When he met Rahner and Bultmann in books. When he discovered that Jesus called his Father Abba. He learned the hits of Cat Stevens and the Bee Gees by heart. He saw that the world could not go on the way it was going, and that the dialectic of “me over you” has nothing in common with the gospel of Jesus. And he promised himself that he could not be indifferent in the face of people who suffer.
His missionary vocation became so closely tied to these unrests that they were fused together. He was, above all, a missionary. Something of an old fashioned missionary, if you like: one of those who take it seriously from the outset because they believe that some things can not be bought on the instalment plan. At the beginning of 1979, he could not have imagined the strange way his wishes would be fulfilled.
During Mass that morning of August 16, 1979, he could not keep his mind on what he was doing. He was thinking of the movie he had seen the night before, and besides, his left knee was hurting. As he left, Ronnie Babac told him that Fr. Carmelo Astiz had something to say to him. He ate breakfast slowly, trying to stall fro time and figure what it might be about. Afterwards he decided to face it fearlessly.
- “Yes, come in!”
- “Ronnie told me you wanted to see me.”
Fr. Carmelo was with Fr. Emilio Pablo and Fr. Alberto Rossa, the formation team of the seminary. They exchanged glances for a moment. Bobby was suspicious. They read aloud a letter that had come from Rome. He had been chosen to participate in the General Chapter as an invited student. He hesitated for a few seconds, made a rapid calculation of the consequences, and said yes.
What did he feel at that time? How did a proposal of that breadth sit with him? We can now answer these questions with some measure of objectivity. His diary begins with an account of that conversation. It was a decisive moment. He intuited the significance of the event. And he did not attempt to hide his enthusiasm: “This gives us a chance to share our hopes and experiences from a Filipino point of view.” He could not have asked for much more.
That day he set about getting his travel documents in order. Fr. Emilio went with him. Two days later, on the heels of the first proposal, came the second:
- “And what about travelling on to Spain to finish your theology there?”
This time it was not so easy to answer immediately. It was an ambitious project, but…
He had no desire to go so far away. He would have preferred to stay in the Philippines, in contact with his people. Thus far, he had felt his missionary vocation as tied to his own land. He could not see the good of taking up his staff, buying a pair of sandals, and setting out like Abraham through God’s many lands.
He took a whole day before he answered. He understood that his excessive attachment to his own might be “a sentimental inclination or a vague sensation of rationalism.” Then he gathered up his courage. After all, the time had finally come for a missionary to Europe: “From the Claretian point of view, given the role of the Claretians in this moment in history, I can see that I have to take the risk and make a leap, I consider it a collective and community commitment to serve as a bridge between our Spanish older brothers and the Filipino generation that is coming into its own.”
Spontaneously, the vocation to be bridge and a bridge-builder had sprung up within him. And he expressed it in terms of a program. He was aware of the tensions that this generation gap had created in the Filipino community, and he was ready to become a bond of unity. The answer came to him even more clearly in prayer: “Go and I will be with you.”
He had come to the second decisive option in his life. For nothing in the world –as he had once said on the beach– did he want to turn back. Reserved at the outset, like a good Oriental, he was resolute once he had grasped the scope of what he had to do.
From the 22nd to the 24th he was in Ayala, bidding his family farewell. It was a surprise that ended in a fiesta and a celebration. It was like taking oxygen before starting his flight. To say goodbye to papa and mama, and to Etbino and Gil and Rodelio and Rosalia and Nelia. And to Erlinda and Elias. To ask a blessing. To go back for one look at the everlasting sea and feel a fisherman’s vocation that could not be put off. To play with the little one and promise to help his financially so that he could study, in the future, as he had done.
The trip to Ayala, was liturgy. It was, besides, a vital necessity. Bobby needed to confide in everyone, to tell all persons and all things the point to which would one day blossom there had come. This personal confession and the response it received were moments of a dialogue that could not be set aside. No one suspected then that it was to be a farewell forever.
The presence of Asia at the XIX General Chapter
On the 25th he was back in Manila. He celebrated the Eucharist with the whole community and amid tears, he offered his last words of support for a brother in trouble. The last hours passed, sometimes quickly, sometimes interminably. By 7:30 in the evening the Philippines was just a small blur from the window of an airplane. Flight 864 on KLM was a desert between two homelands: one beloved, the other unknown. In the airport he had received Fr. Emilio’s blessing, and left it all “in the hands of God.” Now he was all alone, before the half-opened door of the future.
During the flight, he talked with some of the passengers: one of them thought he was a diplomat, on learning that he was going to Rome for a congress. One hour’s wait at Bangkok, to switch planes for Athens. He tried to find out whether 20th century Greeks spoke the same as in the New Testament. He managed to recognize a word and was moved by it. A DC-9 of Alitaia took him directly to Rome after many hours of ploughing through the skies.
Rome is a sort of introduction to Europe. Once you have seen Rome, you have a better understanding of other things on this small continent. Rome is, to put it somewhat exaggeratedly, a course you have to pass. Unlike other cities of ant-hills and solid steel, Rome is welcoming and ready to unfold its centuries old history.
Bobby felt at home from the very outset. From his window in room 92 of the building where the General Chapter was to be held, he could see a sea of roofs and many spots of trees. Europe! What had he come here to accomplish?
Soon the Father General confirmed something he already knew: his assignment to Spain. But his, to tell the truth, faded into the background when the Chapter began in earnest. This was the central experience, the nucleus of all contrasts. Above all, there was a strange sensation of being among the great. He, a last minute Claretian, was rubbing elbows with people who, from the standpoint of the young vineyard of the Philippines, must have seemed like patriarchs of Claretianism.
He was there while constitutions and preferential options were under discussion. He spent many hours meditating on the autobiography of Claret and translating documents in the technical office. There were free periods to take in a bit of Italy. He though St. Peter’s was fantastic and grand. “I have dreamt many times of coming to this place, but to see it, to touch it!” He also caught a glimpse of Assisi, Florence, Pompei, Montecassino and Naples. He admired them all, but he still thought that nothing could equal the sea at Ayala.
His real center of attention was trained on the chapter hall: the mission of the Claretian today. How is a person to be a Claretian, without losing the values of the past, and without betraying the hopes of the present? How is one to be a Filipino Claretian? Had he not come to Europe to bring these two realities together and then be a bridge between them? Had he not perhaps been able to contribute a new degree on the horizon –a small but new one– to the old Claretians?
Those who shared those days with him, remember him with sympathy. Who knows if he was not a by-product of the 19th General Chapter. There were documents. He gave them life and then passed on without a sound. One life, made for the mission that existentially discloses the effort of fidelity that we are all bent upon. Sparing in words and rich in action. A happy counterpoint to an excess of projects and a still too timid commitment.
Four wheels to Spain
The visit with Pope John Paul II brought his stay in Rome to a close. There is, besides, still a photo capturing the embrace of two white cassocks. Nothing more. There was too much emotion to put into words.
On Sunday, October l4th, at 5:15 in the morning he took to the road on his journey to Spain. Spain, thought about from the vantage point of four wheels, must have seemed somewhat vague and indefinite. From there the first colonists had arrived in the Philippines in the l6th century. And from there they kept arriving for more than three hundred years. From there had come the Christian faith. There, Anthony Mary Claret had been born, as had many of those who established the Congregation on Philippine soil. From there camee the language his grandparents spoke, and which, little by little, was becoming less difficult. Cervantes and Picasso were Spanish. So were paella a la valenciana and Flamenco. But he was neither a tourist nor a vagabond. He was coming from the other side of the bridge.
And so, from one night through the following morning, began a new stage that can be reconstructed with some precision. His diary went on putting his days, weeks and months into words. Words like these: “I have seen snow for the first time in my life”; “Today a letter came from papa and mama”; “I’ve taken my first exam in Spain.” Little steps that kept shaping his new situation.
He arrived at Colmenar Viejo on October 17, 1979. He found a community and an imposing heap of granite awaiting him. His first days were spent doing all those little things one has to do on arriving in a new country: legal requirements, introductions, visits immediately followed by missionary commitments. Four days after his arrival, he spoke in the seminary church on mission. The intensity of his gestures made up to what he lacked in his Spanish. He wanted to tell the people that the gospel proclamation is a task for everyone, and that he, with his “Chinese” face, was there to bring that message to the old Christian Church.
During the first days of November, he visited the Catalonian scenes of Claret’s activities: Barcelona, Sallent, Vic. When he saw Claret’s tiny body in Vic, he must have remembered the words of Pius XII on the day of Claret’s canonization: “Small in stature, but giant in spirit.” How was it possible that a man like that could have put so many people, himself included, in motion? Because the gift God had given him was not just for himsef. It was a community gift, greater than one century or one continent.
Here, in Vic, lay the body of our Founder. This was the historic center of a great family, but its vital center had spread out to many places. Was not the Philippines part of this center? Was it not about time for this young community to take its place in the family? And how was it going to take that place without having a good knowledge of the family’s past? His stay in Spain looked to him like a unique opportunity.
When you run into some people in the morning and they always have a smile on their face, it is hard to guess what little dramas may be going on inside them. There were plenty of difficult moments during those first few months. There was the difficulty of starting all over again, like being born again. For him, the climate was strange, the food was strange, the kind of studies, the language, the customs –even the sky– were all strange. Some might play the martyr or take advantage of all the exemptions granted by the “statute of newness.” Or they might just keep on looking bravely ahead.
That was Bobby’s style.
Sometimes his effort ended in a prayer: “Lord, help me to get to understand my brothers from over here. Make me open to their way of thinking. I hope I’ll be able to speak Spanish as soon as possible”.
He does not say: “Lord, please, let them receive me warmly.” He says: ‘‘Lord make me open.” That is: “Let me go out of myself, make me ready for dialogue, give me that strength not to be an Abraham who pitches his tent at the first oasis, but instead one who makes it to his goal.” This is not something a person can do without taking a good dose of suffering. For a temperament as sensitive as his, all those hard words and different life-styles must have been hard:
“Make me open to their way of thinking, Lord.”
On weekends, he visited the places where our formation community does its ministry. He could learn how parishes, youth groups, children’s Masses, etc. work. Afterwards, he would sum up his impressions in laconic notes. And he always ended them by praising God. He was not too quick in passing judgment or opting for radical changes. That was a time of extraordinary silence.
Before Christmas he made the spiritual exercises with the community. He thanked the Father for “this possibility of close contact with life.” That reality above all –life– was his monomania. It was a word that allowed him to express the essential. To live: not to let a single one of God’s calls to humanity go unheeded. Not to put anything between brackets. Those were tranquil days, a chance to make a serene evaluation of the last few months.
After Christmas came the experience of the l4th Provincial Chapter of Castile, and first-semester exams. He lived on the edge of some community tensions, but he never took part in them. He was looking for a place of synthesis between himself and others, a place that would allow them to present their different positions and overcome their problems. He understood that this place was to be found in the very core of the vocation we have all received. He knew that, faced with the lesser differences that divide us, someone had to underline our essential unity. And he said so: “It’s really a gift that we have been able to find a place where we can share the dreams that well up from a source that no one can totally explain.”
During this time he tried to be a bond of unity by refusing to play the advocate for any faction. It was a subterranean labor that bore fruit, and a left-handed strategy that passed unobserved by the majority. He spoke of reconciliation and directed any judgment upon himself. On February 21st, he sketched his spiritual self- portrait in a half dozen phrases. He accused himself of a lack of objectivity in appreciating others, of a fear of speaking out, and of a certain amount of personalism and impatience. Ne was grateful for what he considered to be positive values: serenity, openness to God and his brothers, sensitivity to justice, and optimism toward life. He summed up all his restlessness in a poem he wrote in Spanish. In it, he sees himself as a pilgrim who goes around asking things questions “on a cold and quiet morning.” At the end, in somewhat sluggish but suggestive lines, he intuits their answers:
“Amid these experiences,
the questions to the countryside,
I lifted up my head and saw a precious picture
floating above the dry, stiff mountain,
covered with fine, pure snow.
And now, Lord, at this table,
in a family celebration,
You answer my questions about life.
Thanks for your love,
your faithfulness and trust.
I give you my life, my faith, my hope.”
The answer he sought was not one forged in the recesses of a solitary conscience. The answer came swathed in drapes and flowers, with a taste of wine and presence. It had its epiphany in a “family celebration.” The immense joy of feeling well in a community, and his constant reflection on life preside over his time from here on out.
His tensions began to find an outlet and his Spanish was beginning to be more fluent. This brought him some relief. His life was hardly different from that of his other brothers. Now he was just one among the many, and he could participate actively in the apostolate.
During Holy Week, ho was able to take a close look at the religiosity of the people of a small town in the province of Zamora. He prayed the rosary with them and joined processions much like those in Ayala. He played the guitar, danced, and celebrated the Resurrection at full tilt. Now that he felt at home, and did not have to submit every experience to review, he summed it all up in a sort of sigh of relief: “What a meaningful Holy Week among the simple people of Sesnández!” And he put on his agenda the addresses of some friends who were born there, in the warmth of the paschal mystery.
Within the walls of Yuste: the third decision
The strong, peak experience came a month later. It took place among the walls, the monks and the trees at the monastery of Yuste, in the north of that land of conquistadores that is called Extremadura. These were the spiritual exercises before his perpetual profession.
The place was unique. From the first moment, he was enchanted with this old, Hieronymite monastery. Not for its grandeur and antiquity, but “for its atmosphere of silence and contemplation.” He soon learned that Charles V had died here in 1556, the same Charles who fathered that other king after whom his Islands —the Philippines— were named. And, without planning it that way, Yuste became a symbol of his bridge-building mission between two cultures and two generations of Claretians. “I ask you, Lord, to open my heart so that it can discern, through your Spirit, this life that I am new living. It is all yours, I know. Guide me, inspire me always, so that my life may be dedicated to the service of the mission you have entrusted to me.”
That 30th of April, the monks ended Compline with an antiphon to the Virgin. Bobby, back in his cell, prolonged it in writing: “Mary, dear Mother, more than anything else, thanks for this opportunity. I hardly know how to express what I feel, in view of all the surprises your Son Jesus has been granting me. I believe you must be happy about it. May these days be a good preparation for our perpetual profession.”
The day ran on with spiritual intensity. Many things became more luminous. He understood, for example, the meaning of the monastic life. The monks were not out “to dominate the world, but to offer humanity a service of solidarity.” He meditated on the Constitutions and examined all the ideas that came to him without prior warning: his pastoral work in the Philippines, formative plans for the seminary, even the advisability of taking another course in pastoral theology.
Suddenly, hall way through the Salve Regina, he understood the need for heightening one’s spiritual formation. And then, as the bell rang, he would think of the importance of sports and the constructive use of free time. Finally, when it was all becoming an indecipherable scrawl, he decided to cut it short and round it out with: “May God, by means of his Spirit, inspire me and purify me, so that I may be a sacrament of the living presence and mission of Christ in the style of Claret.”
To live our life is something important; living is “flying beyond the horizon of our limitations, breathing another air.” It has to do with “a spiritual experience that we can define as an encounter with Someone great and kind, who loves us with profound happiness and with the innocence of a child.”
“Someone great and kind” is a formula that translates, a thousand times better, that one formula of mysterium tremendum et fascinans used by philosophers of religion. Someone who loves us “like an innocent child.” Whatever happened to the grandfather-God and the chief of the heavenly armies?
Then comes faith. Bobby says that we can call it an “encounter of love.” Some lines further down the page he says that “love is an experience of faith that transcends the dimensions of time and space.”
Yuste had still more clarities in store, beneath the leaden sky that presided over it during those five days of retreat. As he watched the flight of birds he grasped something that few have understood: the difference between a bird and a human being. Jesus explained it in marketing terms. He spoke of different prices and qualities. You could buy five sparrows for two farthings, but human beings “are of more value than many sparrows’ (Lk 12:6-7).
Bobby explained the problem in different terms: “I am full of limitations: I don’t have wings to fly with. I am hungry and thirsty. But, at the same time, I can love and I can struggle. I am what I am: a man, yes, but a man who has been justified for glory and happiness.” Not being a bird does have its disadvantages. Being a man has the enormous disadvantage of being able to choose. To be the human being that we are, for happiness, is an affirmation of the gift of God amid success or failure: “It’s taken me a long time, but at last I’ve found the treasure I was looking for.”
Perpetual profession: “carried forward”
What he lived through in those days, spilled over into the future. On May 25th, 1980, he celebrated his perpetual profession as a Claretian. With him were Fr. Fernando Campo (his formator in Spain) and Fr. Carmelo Astiz (his formation director in the Philippines). Once again, an instance of symbols and bridges.
From then on, he hardly wrote anything. He had said almost all ho had to say in Yuste. Moments of clairvoyance were not lavished on him. He sums up his days like a telegram, now and then adding a “Thanks,” or a “Praise the Lord,” like compliments that condense what would have needed many words.
During the summer vacation, he took part in a short course on “Orientation and Deepening in Prayer.” Afterwards, he visited several places and families, offering them his Filipino presence and leaving them all delighted with the little Chinese from Colmenar. It was a complex experience. On the one hand, there was the dialogue between Christian faith and oriental spirituality, which helped him understand that every religious renewal always starts from the Spirit. On the other, there was the realization that, “thanks to the call,” Claretian fraternity was something that went beyond the limits of our communities.
The summer passed and he began the 1980-81 school year, his last stage in Spain. For this passage, he left us no diary as a navigation guide. Only some scattered notes, reconstructed letters and many memories in the minds of those who lived with him. It was a period that was more open to the outer world. Participation in a missionary vigil with some five-hundred young people from Saragosa inaugurated this missionary period. To them he revealed a couple of issues that were burning inside him: the need for prayer and the urgency of proclaiming the
Gospel: “The Potter knows what he is doing.”
A month later, the counterpoint would come. The retreat with forty boys from Colegio Claret in Madrid did not work. Their schemes failed, and they had to head home like the men on the road to Emmaus: disheartened, as it He had not showed up. This dialectic of light and shadow would mark the successive months ahead. Satisfaction during Fr. Viñas’ retreat to the community the first week of December. Concern for some news coming from the Philippines, news he could not understand. He did not give in to sterile criticisms, but recognized that “we are truly poor, but we believe.” He had time to study and time to remember the people who died in the earthquakes in Italy. He also had time to compose songs. One of them, which was later included in
a recording project of the community, has a title that reminds us of his obsession: “What s life?” It summed up what he had always said: that life is not measured by what one possesses, and that, in the face of Mystery, words get in the way.
Some weekends he would take advantage of the opportunity to visit different Claretian communities of Castile, according to the special plan for those taking their last year of theology. As time passed, these visits diminished as study time increased. Once, he began to think that this interest might be becoming obsessive, so he asked Mary to purify his intentions. It was not so much an obsession, really, as it was an oriental-style sense of responsibility.
After HoIy Week, his calendar seemed to be filled with red-letter days: June l8th, ordination to the diaconate; June 26th exams for the baccalaureate in theology; JuIy 2nd, return flight to the Philippines. It was a race against time, a battle on several fronts. There were times devoted to preparing for the diaconate and others, closer to the end, for studying the 45 theses for the final exam. Besides this, there were many unprogrammed moments consecrated to the future: the Philippines was growing closer, the embrace of his loved ones, the sea at Ayala, his ordination, the poor, the seminary.
Nevertheless, there was still one unscheduled day: June 7, 1981. That day was one that God had decided to reserve for himself, and He had marked it in red on His own calendar: Bobby’s homecoming to the house of the Father, Bobby’s birth to the New Life.
I have found the treasure
We have told this story of someone who was in love with life, by starting with his death, as if in this way it would be simpler for us to understand the trajectory of that life. But in the end, we begin to understand that the number of years is beyond our control, although we can say a word or two about their intensity. What is really at stake here is the kind of response that is made to the love we receive from God. Between the year zero of life until its dose, “the time of vocation” unfolds.
Bobby wanted to be a doctor and ended up being simply a man. He discovered this after his Christian faith matured and after he became a Claretian. It teak time, but at last, as he himself says:
“I found the treasure.” He did this through a very special experience of Mary, whom he could never do without, although time modified the manner and intensity of that experience: “Mary, my mother, to the extent that I’ve grown less sentimental, my trust in you has matured. I thank you for that.”
To be thankful for this or that, for the big things as well as for the smallest gestures. To be thankful, even, far sorrow. He used to say that gratitude is born only in those persons who have experienced life, “that orchestra of creation, that rainbow born of light and pure water.” He used to say, too, that “gratitude readies a man for simplicity,” And, if life was a continual question for him, then gratitude was his most spontaneous answer. Even when solitude and shadows were his only travelling companions.
His was not one of those lives written in a straight line, but what could he feel but gratitude, after 27 years of mercy? Very likely, other more radical crises would have been waiting for him down the road, threats of meaninglessness. Death anticipated all imaginable trials and kept watch over how much had been given on such a short walk.
Many of Bobby’s qualities came to him like a gift wrapped in his temperament. He had been opening them slowly, the silence where thought and prayer to the Father take place. He was in love with this sacrament of silence. It was his own special desert:
“Silence, where are you?
I’ve lost you once or twice.
I’ve been looking for you some time, now.
Where will I find you?
Oh, I know you’re here, there, everywhere,
But you are really beyond time and space.
I lost you for a moment,
but you’vee come back.
Beyond a doubt, you’re precious!”
In silence, his inner dialogue and questions matured: “When you stop for a minute and ask yourself about the kind of life you’re leading, you have to ask yourself how genuine is your fidelity to the vocation you’ve been given, a vocation to that mission of peace and justice that true evangelical communion is preparing you for.”
To what extent is our fidelity to vocation authentic? It is a radical question that cannot be answered by a mere abstraction. It was put to him as a community concern, and he answered it with an affirmation:
“We want to live authentically.
This Is the reason we’ve come together,
but this authenticity comes to be only
when we live in brotherhood, peace and justice,
which are really nothing more
than our dynamic experience of Christ.”
The richness of the interior life is at the basis of authenticity. Prayer is the dynamism of those who believe. He had heard it said and he had experienced it. He took it seriously, to the point of setting aside special times for it, so that laziness or routine would not always end up having the last word in such a life-and-death matter.
He prayed artlessly. For him God was not some mysterious force that emerged in recollection as a result of his personal concentration. For him, God is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And then, Mary and Anthony Mary Claret are God’s witnesses. That is the order repeated over and over in the written prayers of his dialogue. Not many words. Just brief phrases that condense the intensity of a moment and gather together the concerns of all.
Everything at the service of mission
Like something inevitable: the sense of mission. For him, this was not just a professional function of the Claratians. He did not consecrate himself to mission the way he might have consecrated himself, to say, oceanography. For him, it was the very nerve of his calling. When he wanted to explain what it was all about, he used to repeat, almost literally, the words of numbers 3 and 4 of the Constitutions: “To follow Christ in a communion of life and proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.”
His interest in formation was set in this same context. He knew that this was going to be his task among the Filipino community. He was conscious of its importance, to the point that he lived all the experiences he was going through, in a formative key. Thus, the present and the future kept questioning and answering one another.
His personal report for perpetual profession summed up these longings: “I really hope”, he writes, “that everything I’m going to say will be able to reflect how I have responded, personally and ecclesially, to the call God has gifted me with. The call to live in the radical life-style of the obedient, poor and chaste Jesus, in this Congregation of Sons of the Heart of Mary, so as to be faithful to the charism that sacramentalizes the saving mission of the Church.”
A little later, he adds: “In the first place, I am grateful for my family and for the community where I have lived. Not because they were totally holy and religious, but because of their simplicity of life, and because of the air of happiness they breathed in the midst of problems. They have made it possible for me to experience the human side of life, and at the same time, to become aware of the call of God.” Afterwards, he reconstructs in bold strokes the biography of his vocation, pointing out his crises and dreams, thanking many people, offering himself, finally, to the special mission he had received: that of being a bridge.
That mission could not be carried out completely. But the missionary already existed. Bobby lived his whole formative stage as a missionary. He lived it with a certain air of a sailor accustomed to the tasks of navigation. He knew how to scan the horizon, without letting any detail escape his eye. He believed that prayer was necessary, but he thought the same of dialogue, sport, manual labor, study and music. He liked to hum Carole King’s “You’ve got a friend.” He sang it in a religious key, making it a prayer to God the friend, to the Love that can make itself present in the midst of the everyday trivialities of life, “when you’re feeling down and troubled and you need some loving care”.
A lot more could be said about this Filipino brother of ours with his long dark mane, sparkling eyes and perennial smile. Someone will say it on another occasion. And they will remember his scrambled grammar, his thousand daily anecdotes and other items of his inner treasure. I have just wanted to revive the memory of his life, convinced that it possesses a power to communicate enthusiasm. Something like the conviction and generosity that come after a dialogue among friends when, in the context of shared words and gestures, you discover that God has spoken, and that it is worth your while to be his witness. It is a joy that is a lot like that first apostolic moment when you hear your vocation.
Felix Juaton Espinosa — Bobby, to everyone else but the civil registrar — confesses at the top of his lungs that he has lived. From the other side of death, he tells us, his friends, that “life is an extraordinary prayer that wells up from the fountains of our inner being,” and that, despite all our titanic efforts to the contrary, life’s “meaning rests only in Him.”