Monthly Archives: February 2008

Column: Why Neri refuses to talk

Published on February 19, 2008

I took the liberty of re-editing this particular column, having written it yesterday afternoon in a rush.

I will hazard one guess why Romulo Neri has continued to decline to “cross over” (in Sen. Panfilo Lacson’s evocative phrase) to the other side: Lacson is there, waiting for him. Sen. Jamby Madrigal, too.

In what Neri called “a gentleman’s agreement,” the three decided to hold a secret meeting, together with a few others, last December. To do what? In Neri’s press briefing in Malacañang Monday, he said it was to discuss the state of the political economy. If true, the timing is most curious, considering that the effort to compel Neri to testify anew at the Senate was by that time well underway.

Neri’s close friend, Rodolfo Noel “Jun” Lozada Jr., told the Senate a different version: The meeting was his idea, and was meant to allow Neri to touch base with the two opposition senators. He spoke, quite unexpectedly, about Neri’s poor financial prospects, in the event the former socioeconomic planning secretary told the Senate the rest of whatever it is he knows about the controversial ZTE national broadband network contract. The meeting, Lozada said, was meant also to float the idea of collecting “patriotic money” — that is, funds for Neri in case he was kicked out of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s inner circle. (Memo to Lozada: You would have been better off using another, less jarring euphemism for the money, say a Clintonesque “legal fund”.)

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Lozada’s credibility: The (Jesuit) homily at the (Christian Brothers) Mass

I was not able to attend today’s "Mass for Jun Lozada and family," at La Salle Greenhills; I was back at work, after almost a week in sick bay. But I did get a (corrected) copy of the "clear and effective" homily (Torn & Frayed’s first-to-market review, at least among the 70 blogs whose feeds I subscribe to). The homilist, by the way, was Manoling Francisco, SJ (the musical genius who wrote "Hindi Kita Malilimutan" when he was 13 and in first year high).

I tweaked this post’s title a bit.

RECLAIMING OUR HUMANITY

On this Second Sunday of Lent, during which we are asked to reflect on the
Transfiguration of Jesus Christ, I wish to touch on three themes that have
to do with our moral transformation as a people:  first, Ascertaining
Credibility; second, Rediscovering our Humanity; and third, Witnessing to
the Truth.  In so doing, I hope to invite all of you to reflect more deeply
on how we, as a nation, might respond to the present political crisis in
which our identity and ethos, our convictions and integrity, in fact, who we
are as a people, are at stake.

I.  ASCERTAINING CREDIBILITY

Jun, as Sen. Miriam Santiago has grilled you to ascertain your credibility
(or was it to undermine your credibility?), allow me to raise some important
questions to consider in the very process of discerning your credibility.
Allow me to do so by drawing on my own counseling experience.

Very often, a young rape victim initially suppresses his or her awful and
painful story, indeed wills to forget it, in the hope that by forgetting, he
or she can pretend it never happened.   But very often, too, there comes a
point when concealing the truth becomes unbearable, and the desperate
attempts to supposedly preserve life and sanity become increasingly
untenable.

At this point the victim of abuse decides to seek help.  But even after
having taken this step, the victim, devastated and confused, will tell his
or her story with much hesitation and trepidation.  It should be easy to
imagine why. In telling the truth, one risks casting shame on himself or
herself, subjecting oneself to intense scrutiny and skepticism, and
jeopardizing one’s safety and those of his or her loved ones, especially
when one dares to go up against an older or more powerful person.

Similarly, it is easy to imagine why Jun would initially refuse to challenge
the might of Malacanang.   Who in his or her right mind would accuse
Malacanang of crimes against our people and implicate the First Family in a
sordid tale of greed and corruption, knowing that by doing so, one endangers
one’s life and the lives of his or her loved ones? We are, after all, living
in dangerous times, where the government has not hesitated to use everything
in its power to keep itself in power, where it has yet to explain and solve
the numerous cases of extra-judicial killings.

But Jun is in his right mind.  His story rings true especially in the face
of the perils that he has had to face.  And by his courage, Jun has also
shown that it is not only that he is in his right mind; his heart is also in
the right place.

Hence, my personal verdict: Jun, I believe that you are a credible witness.
And if hundreds have gathered here this morning, it is probably because they
also believe in you.  Mga kapatid, naniniwala ba kayo kay Jun Lozada?
Naniniwala ba kayo sa kanyang testimonya?  Kung gayon, palakpakan po natin
ang Probinsyanong Intsik, si Mr. Jun Lozada.

Jun, we hope that by our presence here, you may find some consolation.  Pope
Benedict XVI writes that "con-solatio" or consolation means "being with the
other in his or her solitude, so that it ceases to be solitude."  Jun, be
assured that your solitude is no longer isolation as we profess our
solidarity with you.  Hindi ka nag-iisa.  We are committed to stay the
course and to do our best to protect you and your family and the truth you
have proclaimed.

II.   REDISCOVERING OUR HUMANITY

What makes Jun a credible witness to us?

I think Jun is credible not simply by virtue of his being an eyewitness to
the unmitigated greed of some of our public officials. Perhaps more
importantly, Jun is credible because he has witnessed to us what it means to
be truly human.

Which leads me to my second theme:  What does it mean to be human?  How
might we rediscover our humanity?

Allow me to quote Pope Benedict XVI, who in his latest encyclical, Spe
Salvi, has written:   "the capacity to accept suffering for the sake of
goodness, truth and justice is an essential criterion of humanity, because
if my own well-being and safety are ultimately more important than truth and
justice, then the power of the stronger prevails, then violence and untruth
reign supreme.  Truth and justice must stand above my comfort and physical
well-being, or else my life becomes a lie. . . For this . we need
witnesses-martyrs ..  We need them if we are to prefer goodness to comfort,
even in the little choices we face each day."

Our Holy Father concludes, "the capacity to suffer for the sake of the truth
is the measure of humanity."

Isn’t this the reason we emulate our martyrs: Jose Rizal, Gomburza, Evelio
Javier, Macli-ing Dulag, Cesar Climaco and Ninoy Aquino?  They have borne
witness for us what it means to be truly human-to be able to suffer for the
sake of others and for the sake of the truth.

I remember Tita Cory recalling a conversation she had with Tito Ninoy while
they were in exile in Boston.  Cory asked Ninoy what he thought might happen
to him once he set foot in Manila.  Ninoy said there were three
possibilities: one, that he would be rearrested and detained once more in
Fort Bonifacio; two, that he would be held under house arrest; and three,
that he would be assassinated.

      "Then why go home?" Cory asked.

      To which Ninoy answered:  "Because I cannot allow myself to die a
senseless death, such as being run over by a taxi cab in New York.  I have
to go home and convince Ferdinand Marcos to set our people free."

Witnessing to one’s deepest convictions, notwithstanding the consequences,
is the measure of our humanity.  Proclaiming the truth to others, whatever
the cost, is the mark of authentic humanity.

Jun, we know you have feared for your life and continue to do so.  But in
transcending your fears for yourself and your family, you have reclaimed
your humanity.  And your courage and humility, despite harassment and
calumniation by government forces, embolden us to retrieve and reclaim our
humanity tarnished by our cowardice and complicity with sin in the world.
You have inspired us to be true to ourselves and to submit to and serve the
truth that transcends all of us.

III.  WITNESSING TO THE TRUTH

This leads us to our third and last theme: witnessing to the truth.  In his
encyclical,  Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII exhorts that it is the
fundamental duty of the government to uphold the truth: "A political society
is to be considered well-ordered, beneficial and in keeping with human
dignity if it grounded on truth."   Moreover, the encyclical explains that
unless a society is anchored on the truth, there can be no authentic
justice, charity and freedom.

Every government is therefore obliged to serve the truth if it is to truly
serve the people.  Its moral credibility and authority over a people is
based on the extent of its defense of and submission to the truth.  Insofar
as a government is remiss in upholding the truth, insofar as a government
actively suppresses the truth, it loses its authority vested upon it by the
people.

At this juncture, allow me to raise a delicate question: At what point does
an administration lose its moral authority over its constituents?

First, a clear tipping point is the surfacing of hard evidence signifying
undeniable complicity of certain government officials in corruption and
injustice, evidence that can be substantiated in court.

Hence, during the Marcos Regime, the manipulation of Snap Election results
as attested to by the tabulators who walked out of the PICC was clear
evidence of the administration’s disregard for and manipulation of the
collective will of the people in order to remain in power..

During the Erap Administration, the testimony of Clarissa Ocampo, claiming
that Pres. Erap had falsified Equitable Bank documents by signing as Jose
Velarde, was the smoking gun that triggered the rage of our people.

Allow me to respond to the same question by pursue an alternative track of
argument: an administration loses it moral authority over its people when it
fails in its fundamental duty to uphold the truth, when it is constituted by
an ethos of falsehood.  When a pattern of negligence in investigating the
truth, suppressing the truth and harassing those who proclaim the truth is
reasonably established, then a government, in principle, loses its right to
rule over and represent the people.

Regarding negligence: Do the unresolved cases, such as the failed automation
of the national elections, the fertilizer scam, the extra-judicial killings,
and the "Hello, Garci" scandal, constitute negligence on the part of the GMA
Administration to probe and ferret out the truth?

Regarding covering-up the truth:  Does the abduction of Jun Lozada and the
twisting and manipulation of his narrative by Malacanang’s minions
constitute concealment of the truth?  Was the padlocking of the office of
Asst. Gov’t Counsel Gonzales who testified before the Senate regarding the
North Rail project anomaly an instance of covering-up the truth?

Regarding the suppression of the truth: Does the issuance and implementation
of E.O. 464, which prevents government officials from testifying in Senate
hearings without Malacanang’s permission, constitute suppression of the
truth?  Was the prevention of AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Senga and six other
officers from testifying before the Senate with regard the "Hello, Garci"
scandal tantamount to a suppression of the truth?  Was disallowing Brig.
Gen. Quevedo, Lt. Col Capuyan and Lt. Col. Sumayo from appearing before the
Lower House an instance of hindering the truth from surfacing?

And regarding harassment of those who proclaim the truth: Are the abduction
of Jun Lozada and the decision to court-marshal Gen. Gudani and Col. Balutan
for disregarding Malacanang’s order not to testify before the Senate
examples of punishing those who come forth to tell the truth?

            By conflating one’s responses to all these questions does one
arrive not at hard evidence showing culpability on the part of some
government officials, but a gestalt, an image which nonetheless demands our
assessment and judgment.  I invite all of you then to consider these two
methods of evaluating and judging the moral credibility of any government,
the moral credibility of our present government.

            Allow me to end with a few words about an Ignatian virtue,
familiaritas cum Deo. To become familiar with God involves the illumination
of the intellect, coming to know who God is and what God wills. But it also
involves the conversion of the affect, the reconfiguration of the heart.
Becoming familiar with God entails transforming and conforming my thinking,
my feeling and my doing in accordance to the Lord’s, which can only be the
work of grace.

            Familiarity with God thus entails rejoicing in what God
delights-the truth; abhorring what God detests-falsehood; being pained by
what breaks the heart of God-the persecution of truth-seekers.  Familiarity
with God means sharing the passion of God for the truth and the pathos of
God whenever the truth and the bearers of truth are overcome by the forces
of the lie.

            On this Second Sunday of Lent, as we contemplate the
transfiguration of Jesus Christ on Mount Horeb, we pray that our hearts and
minds be so transfigured and so conformed to the mind, heart and will of the
Jesus, our way, our life, and our truth.

            May the Lord bless and protect you, Jun, and your family.  May
the Lord bless and guide us all into the way of truth.  Amen.

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Column: How NOT to read Lozada’s testimony

It is 8:22 pm as I write this, and the Senate hearing is on its 10th hour and shows no sign of slowing. Let me upload my column for tomorrow, just for the heck of it. It can be read, I suppose, as a cautionary word against a partisan rush to judgment.

To be published February 12, 2008

In the end, Rodolfo Noel Lozada Jr. chose the more difficult path. We dishonor his sacrifice — however reluctantly he may have made it — if we imagine him saying what we want him to say.

I am not sure, for example, whether we got the story right about the ZTE broadband deal’s possible impact on a low-cost housing project for the military and police. Under questioning by Sen. Panfilo Lacson in last Friday’s hearing, Lozada said the following: “Alam ko natanggal ang housing [I know that the housing project was removed].” He also said: “It’s a matter of fact [that] in the original list of projects there is a housing project but in the subsequent list involving the $1.1-billion package from China, the housing and Angat [Water Dam] projects were missing.”

Sounds categorical, but in fact Lozada did not directly state, and did not even offer to prove, that funds for the housing project had been diverted to the controversial national broadband network. Comb through the reports of the Senate hearing last Friday, and the most we get from Lozada is speculation. “Isa ho yata yon sa nasagasaan [It’s probably one of those affected],” he said.

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The Making of Jun Lozada

I suppose Jun Lozada, the Senate’s latest witness on the ZTE scandal, has always been who he is; his decision to come out with what he knows at great risk to himself and his family must have been prefigured by something he did, or something he learned, when he was still young.

But in the public eye, his image remains unsettled. If we can use the Inquirer editorials as a gauge of public opinion, we can say that, in a mere week, Lozada has evolved from being an almost-fugitive, an unwilling witness and the subject of an unfortunately necessary arrest warrant; to a victim of remorseless forces and brutal circumstances, an official kidnapping even; to a courageous witness bearing believable testimony.

Today, when he faces the Senate, he will have a chance to define himself even more sharply before the public.

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The beginning of the end?

I agree, Jun Lozada did the honorable thing. And his testimony in the Senate tomorrow will prove damaging to the Arroyo administration. But the beginning of the end? It worries me when even people like Bertie Lim of the Makati Business Club think in this wise; of course it is possible that that long-hoped-for confluence of events, the long-awaited alignment of the political planets, will now happen, and soon. But for someone like me who believes that the most important short-term political task is to ensure that the 2010 elections take place, the revival of the ZTE scandal may turn out to be a fatal distraction.

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Column: The bishops, between center and periphery

Published on February 5, 2008

The Catholic bishops’ latest pastoral statement held no surprises; indeed, it said things that needed to be said. And yet this loyal son of the Church, who eagerly awaited the statement’s release, must confess to a deep sense of disappointment.

I feel let down, not because of what the statement did not say (it did not, for example, call the Arroyo administration to account for any specific allegation — but that was to be expected); I was disappointed because of how it said the things it did say.

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Frank-er, Rich-er

The formidable Frank Rich, the former drama critic who now writes political analyses with a riveting sense of drama, seems to have recovered from last week’s outburst. A week after venting his disgust with the Clintonian tactics used in South Carolina (in some parts, his column sounded raw, unprocessed), Rich regained his balance and addressed, Hamlet-like, the ghost at the ramparts.

John F. Kennedy, that is.

J. F. K. had few policy prescriptions beyond Democratic boilerplate (a higher minimum wage, “comprehensive housing legislation”). As his speechwriter Richard Goodwin recalled in his riveting 1988 memoir “Remembering America,” Kennedy’s main task was to prove his political viability. He had to persuade his party that he was not a wealthy dilettante and not “too young, too inexperienced and, above all, too Catholic” to be president.

How did the fairy-tale prince from Camelot vanquish a field of heavyweights led by the longtime liberal warrior Hubert Humphrey? It wasn’t ideas. It certainly wasn’t experience. It wasn’t even the charisma that Kennedy would show off in that fall’s televised duels with Richard Nixon.

Looking back almost 30 years later, Mr. Goodwin summed it up this way: “He had to touch the secret fears and ambivalent longings of the American heart, divine and speak to the desires of a swiftly changing nation — his message grounded on his own intuition of some vague and spreading desire for national renewal.”

In other words, Kennedy needed two things. He needed poetry, and he needed a country with some desire, however vague, for change.

Mr. Goodwin and his fellow speechwriter Ted Sorensen helped with the poetry. Still, the placid America of 1960 was not obviously in the market for change. The outgoing president, Ike, was the most popular incumbent since F. D. R. The suburban boom was as glossy as it is now depicted in the television show “Mad Men.” The Red Panic of the McCarthy years was in temporary remission.

But Kennedy’s intuition was right. America’s boundless self-confidence was being rattled by (as yet) low-grade fevers: the surprise Soviet technological triumph of Sputnik; anti-American riots in even friendly non-Communist countries; the arrest of Martin Luther King Jr. at an all-white restaurant in Atlanta; the inexorable national shift from manufacturing to white-collar jobs. Kennedy bet his campaign on, as he put it, “the single assumption that the American people are uneasy at the present drift in our national course” and “that they have the will and strength to start the United States moving again.”

For all the Barack Obama-J. F. K. comparisons, whether legitimate or over-the-top, what has often been forgotten is that Mr. Obama’s weaknesses resemble Kennedy’s at least as much as his strengths. But to compensate for those shortcomings, he gets an extra benefit that J. F. K. lacked in 1960. There’s nothing vague about the public’s desire for national renewal in 2008, with a reviled incumbent in the White House and only 19 percent of the population finding the country on the right track, according to the last Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll. America is screaming for change.

Still a pro-Obama cover, but without the anti-Clinton static.

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Kodak moment

Almost three days late, but what the heck.

It was with a great sense of relief that I watched, on CNN, the Clinton-Obama debate at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles last Thursday (Friday, Manila time). I happen to be one of those who think that George W. Bush’s calamitous presidency means that the Republicans lose their turn at the White House — on the fundamental principle that democracy allows its citizens to “throw the rascals out.”

The contentious contest for South Carolina caused a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth, because it seemed that the strong campaigns both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were running could fatally divide the Democratic party.

But in LA, both Hillary and Barack pulled back from the brink. In part, that must have been because the 24 primaries on Super Tuesday constitute what is effectively a national election, and the negativity of retail politics does not travel well. But in part, Barack and Hillary were on their best behavior because they must have sensed, in the middle of their South Carolina dogfight, that they had lost sight of the prize.

Just in time too.

The New York Times has a wonderful interactive graphic that surely redefines what graphic means: it has a video of the debate, with the transcript running parallel.

CNN has an overview of the debate, with sharp quotes from its political analyst Bill Schneider. (Question: Isn’t the practice of quoting one of your own journalists as a source rather incestuous?)

The second paragraph of the story sums it up neatly:

The exchange was in sharp contrast to previous debates because of the absence of political sniping, yet was one of the most substantive policy discussions yet in the race for the nomination.

About midway through the wrap-up, the debate’s unusual tone was described in more detail.

Thursday’s debate differed from the last time the two took to a stage together — at a contentious January 21 debate in South Carolina in which the front-runners peppered each other with sharp attacks.

In contrast, on Thursday the two smiled, laughed at each other’s jokes and repeatedly complimented the other when they agreed.

I don’t read Bob Herbert much, but the New York Times columnist wrote a post-debate analysis that reflected something that had occurred to me.

Early on, after cheering the “grown-ups” who had shown up at the debate, Herbert quotes Tom Paine’s biographer:

In his biography of Tom Paine, John Keane referred to a pamphlet that Paine had written near the end of his life and said:

“Paine here touched on a quintessential feature of modern republican democracy: it is superior to all other types of government not because it guarantees consensus or even ‘good’ decisions, but because it enables citizens to reconsider their judgments about the quality and unintended consequences of those decisions.

“Republican democracies enable citizens to think twice and to say no, even to policies to which they once consented.”

The same thought is echoed at the end of the column, when Herbert references a (more elegant) quote from James Madison:

For all its flaws, the system forged in the 18th century is working remarkably well in the 21st. James Madison may never have heard of CNN or Google, but the people who walked through a cold rain to vote in South Carolina, and those who trudged through the snow in Iowa and New Hampshire, and the millions who will vote on Super Tuesday can still hear him:

“If there be a principle that ought not to be questioned within the United States, it is that every man has a right to abolish an old government and establish a new one.”

In other words, it is the citizen’s right to throw the rascals out!

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Moon and Mao

Moon_mao_2

Someday (someday soon, I hope) I hope to come back to this favorite image (one of several) from the other week’s East West Center media conference in Bangkok. This photo requires an extended comment, but for now let me just note that (a) Cristina Moon is the moving force behind “The Olympic Dream of Burma,” a concerted effort to remind the Olympic community (and starting on August 8 that subset should considerably overlap with the world’s population) about the suffering of the Burmese people, and (b) Isaac Mao (a familiar Web presence, in part because he is often cited by favorite bloggers Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca McKinnon) is one of China’s leading digital enablers, helping shape the Chinese blog. Two of the most impressive achievers in the conference, in one photo. (As usual, please click on the image to enlarge it.)

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How Nick got his groove back

Tingog.com has regained its voice.

Willy, me, and now Nick. Must be something in the water.

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Column: In praise of electioneering

Published January 29, 2008

Last week in Bangkok I had the chance to sit in on a thrilling discussion on North Korea by three journalists with extensive experience in covering the world’s last Stalinist state. Mike Chinoy, formerly of CNN and now Edgerton Fellow on Korean Security at the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles, gave a comprehensive quote-rich overview of the current diplomatic impasse, but it was Takabumi Suzuoki of Nihon Keizai Shimbun who ended up with the sound bite of the day.

“We cannot expect a happy ending from the North Korea issue, I think,” Suzuoki said of the country he has covered, on and off, for over three decades. He was responding to a question, at that Bangkok discussion, about post-Kim Jong Il scenarios.

Lee Joo-hee of the Korea Herald, who has followed the six-party talks for the last few years, shared the Japanese veteran’s pessimism. “I don’t even want to think about post-Kim scenarios,” she confessed with a smile. “I think it [his departure from the scene] will be chaotic.”

Only Chinoy, who ought to know a thing or two about the fall of dictators, was sanguine about North Korea’s prospects. Referring to speculation that the North Korean system would collapse after the death of founder Kim Il Sung, he noted that in fact “the system didn’t collapse.” He added: “It didn’t hold true then and doesn’t hold true now.” Chinoy’s book on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, “Meltdown,” will be published in August.

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The new Black Pope

Through the Jesuit web portal, I was able to follow the election of the new Father General of the Jesuit order, Fr. Adolfo Nicolas. In the first few days, the content of this particular sub-site on the 35th General Congregation was all about the election; I learned, for example, that Fr. Ben Nebres, president of the Ateneo de Manila University, was among those selected to draft a report on the state of the Society (as Jesuits who speak in English call their religious congregation).

Father Bernas, the constitutionalist who now writes for the Inquirer every Monday, devoted his column this week to Father Nico (as the new Father General used to be called, especially by Jesuits in the Loyola Heights campus, where he spent, what was it, a total of nine years). He quotes at length from a profile of Father Nico written by Father Danny Huang, the Philippine provincial superior.

I got a copy of that moving portrait too. Here it is:

OUR NEW GENERAL: Adolfo Nicolas, S.J.

The day after the election of Fr. Adolfo Nicolas as Superior General of the Society of Jesus, many of us here in Rome find ourselves deeply grateful for the guidance of the Spirit. We believe in faith that it was the Spirit who led us to choose Fr. Nico–as we fondly call him in our part of the world–as the 29th successor to St. Ignatius. This past week, the newspapers in Italy had come out with lists of possible generabili. It is surely significant that Fr. Nicolas was never mentioned!

A Man of God

Fr. Nico embodies for many of us the primary quality St. Ignatius stipulates as desirable in the man who is to become General: that he be a man “closely united with God our Lord.” “Tell me,” an elector from Europe asked me soon after Nico’s election, “have we elected a saint?” Whatever the answer to that question, many have noticed and wondered at the serenity and joy that Nico radiates. There is a wholeness, a centeredness, a freedom about him that point to spiritual depth.

Yesterday, we walked up the stairs of the Curia to the Aula where Nico would later be elected General. He asked me if I had slept well; I answered that I had, more or less. I asked him, in turn, if he had slept well, both of us knowing, as had become clear on the last day of murmurationes, that he was a strong possibility among the electors. He simply smiled his Nico smile, and said, “Yes. I slept very well. There is always hope.” The genuine peacefulness with which he communicated this, in the face of such daunting possibilities, moved me deeply.

Yesterday afternoon, after the election, I visited him in his new quarters, the famous rooms of the General in the Curia. He said that, at lunch, he had asked Fr. Kolvenbach when this—that is, the reality of becoming General– would hit him. Fr. Kolvenbach had answered: “Tonight.” This morning, I was surprised to find Nico (that is, Fr. General) knocking on my door, to give me the gift of the chain he had used to hang his GC 35 ID on, since he no longer needed it. I inquired about how he slept last night. He answered with his familiar smile: “Very peacefully.”

A Friend in the Lord

“A joyous man, warm, energetic, and with whom one feels so close!” These words of Fr. Louis Gendron, the Provincial of China, summarize well a second gift Fr. Nico brings to his new office. Fr. Ben Nebres, President of the Ateneo de Manila University and elector for the Philippine Province, speaks in the same vein: “When I think of him, the feelings that come are of affection and friendship. Fr. Nico is many things, but he is above all a companion and a friend. He brings the gift of friendship and encouragement of Blessed Peter Faber. He is a leader who will walk with us and who will invite us to find together, in conversation and prayer, the way that the Lord wants us to follow in our time.”

Nor is this sentiment limited to Jesuits. In his letter of congratulations to Fr. Nicolas, Fr. Gabriel Je, the Delegate of the Korean Provincial in Cambodia, describes the delighted response of a lay missionary from Hongkong working with the Jesuits in Phnom Penh. She had met and been favorably impressed by Fr. Nico when he had visited Cambodia last year. On hearing of his election as General, she spontaneously exclaimed: “There is hope for the Jesuits!”

This warm, welcoming humanity of our new Fr. General—“I feel refreshed after talking with him,” one elector from India told me—is a quality that eminently fulfills the second qualification St. Ignatius mentions in his description of the ideal General: “Charity . . . should particularly shine forth from him, and in a special way toward the members of the Society; likewise a genuine humility which will make him highly beloved . . .”

Numerous gifts of person and experience

To lead the Society as General clearly requires many other gifts. “He ought to be endowed with great intelligence and judgment,” Ignatius writes. “Learning,” “prudence,” “experience,” are among the necessary qualifications for governance that St. Ignatius adds to his list.

Fr. Nico, the “wise man from the East,” as some are already calling him, is richly blessed with such gifts that are both personal and the fruit of his broad experience of many cultures and governance on many levels. “Nowhere was it written that we wanted someone from the Orient,” Fr. Gendron observes. “But for the third time in a row, the Society has elected a missionary, like Fr. Kolvenbach and Fr. Arrupe, a Westerner who has spent most of his Jesuit life in the Orient.” There is something providential, surely, in this pattern.

Fr. Nico, European in origin and training, yet with such breathtakingly broad cultural exposure, and indeed exercising leadership for over forty years in various parts of Asia, brings with him crucial perspectives and sensibilities at a time when the Society of Jesus finds itself in major demographic transitions.
As a professional theologian of depth and creativity, he is also well equipped to help articulate for the Society faithful yet fresh and inspiring visions of our mission and religious life today. His years as Director (and at present, Chair) of the East Asian Pastoral Institute in Manila involve a rich experience of respectful and fruitful cooperation with the hierarchies and local Church leaders of many continents. Moreover, because he worked for several years in the pastoral care of vulnerable Filipino and Asian migrant workers in Tokyo, he brings to his office a special care for the poor, whom the Church and the Society of Jesus call Jesuits to have a preferential love for. At the same time, because he has labored for many decades in the increasingly secular milieu of Japan, he also has a profound sensitivity to the challenges of unbelief and religious indifference that are the context and challenge of many parts of the developed world. Finally, as one who has been Provincial of Japan and President of the Conference of Provincials of East Asia and Oceania, as well as former Major Superior of our Jesuit missions in Cambodia, East Timor and Myanmar, Nico is no stranger to the requirements of governance and administration, and brings this rich administrative and leadership experience with him into his new office.

Young at 71

Yesterday, with a glint of mischievous humor in his eyes, Fr. Nico told me that he had never experienced so many Jesuits asking him with such concern about his health. This is, of course, entirely natural. Ignatius realistically lists sufficient “physical strength demanded by his charge,” as the final qualification of the General. And Nico is 71—72 by April.

His age was, frankly, a concern. But interestingly, it became clear to many of us that chronological years were not the most reliable measure of age where Nico was concerned. Paradoxically, one of the oldest among us was also one of the most youthful in energy and spirit. “He has the mind of a young man,” someone told me in admiration. “I have never walked with anyone who walked so fast. I have to tell him to slow down when I walk with him,” a Latin American Jesuit told me.

But perhaps it is best to let the young speak. Since the announcement of his election, the seventy or so scholastics in the Arrupe International Residence in Manila have been excitedly gathering to share stories and experiences of the General who, until yesterday, was their Major Superior. Scholastics, mostly in their twenties, from East Timor, Myanmar, China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand have expressed their delight in and appreciation of the choice of the Congregation. Isaias Caldas, a junior from East Timor, wrote to his Regional Superior, Fr. John Mace, thus: “Personally I am excited and overjoyed because this General is someone whom I know personally, a General who always passes by in front of AIR after his lunch in EAPI, a General who once told us during one of his exhortations to the community to make our religious struggles become “big,” [broad in apostolic horizons] not limited only to our worries about prayer and chastity, a General who wants us to think now about what we can do in the future, a General who wishes us to be very good at one thing for, if that is so, we would be very useful in our ministry later, a General who has good humor and is friendly to us scholastics, a General who encourages me to read more and watch good movies like a good Jesuit.”

“Because we are poor, God is our only strength.”

Yesterday morning, in the Aula, when it became clear that Adolfo Nicolas had been chosen, and when he finally left his place among the electors to stand and then kneel in our midst to make his profession of faith, I found myself, to my embarrassment, unable to control my tears. I felt such pity for Nico, as we placed the enormous burden of the governance of the Society on him, and also such gratitude to him, too, for his willingness to accept this office for the sake of the Society. As I wept, I found myself repeatedly praying a single sentence: “Lord, help Nico.”

Today, however, I am more at peace, mostly because I see that the General is at peace too. This evening, Fr. General led us in a Mass of Thanksgiving at the Church of the Gesù. His homily (in Italian interspersed with a few “Italianized” Spanish words!) was deep and moving, radiant with “Evangelical simplicity,” one European Jesuit told me, “without a single excess word.” He reflected on the Servant of Yahweh in the book of Isaiah. Where does this humble servant get his strength to serve? To answer this question, Nico shared an experience he had during his ministry to migrant workers in Japan. A woman, a Filipina, overwhelmed by her many problems, confessed to her friend her confusion and near despair. Her friend, also a Filipina migrant worker, simply said to her: “Let us go to Church. Because we are poor, God is our only strength.” Once again, when I heard these last words, I felt tears rush to my eyes, because it seemed to me that Fr. General had borrowed the words of this poor, vulnerable, faith-filled woman to speak of himself.

“Because we are poor, God is our only strength.” It is surely appropriate, that as we pray in gratitude to God for the gift of our new General, we pray too for him. May God be Nico’s only strength, as he leads us, in wisdom, courage and compassion, in the Society’s service of “God alone and the Church, his spouse, under the Roman Pontiff,” ad majorem Dei gloriam.

Daniel Patrick Huang, S.J.
20 January 2008

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Column: ‘Asean massage parlor’

Published on January 22, 2008

BANGKOK — Surin Pitsuwan, the new ASEAN secretary-general, is an academic and a diplomat, but it may be for his skills as a politician that he was chosen to lead the regional grouping’s permanent secretariat. The Ph.D. from Harvard and former foreign minister of Thailand was elected to parliament nine times in the last 20-odd years. Now, as ASEAN’s fourth secretary-general, he has the opportunity to lead the association into a new era of community-building.

First things first. “They would like a stronger secretariat,” he said at a journalists’ forum in Bangkok on Sunday. He was referring to ASEAN’s 10 heads of government, and their expansive idea of his job description. It is true, he said, that he is the first politician to assume the Jakarta-based post.

“What would be the difference in the running of that nerve center [in Jakarta]?” He answered his own question: “I will do what politicians do best: energize, create a sense of belonging.” And promote a sense of the possible.

He drew a vivid picture of what he said will become “a network secretariat” during his term, “reaching out, roping in and working with” anyone who understands the role ASEAN can play in Asia.

But while Surin talks a good game (he is quite eloquent when it comes to vision-setting), the reality is that much of the agenda he will face in his five-year term (it ends in 2012) has already been set.

Case in point: His first official trip as secretary-general was a ministerial meeting in Naypyidaw, the capital-in-the-making of Burma (Myanmar). Despite all the talk of community-building, brutal, repressive Burma remains ASEAN’s odd man out. One truth of politics: There is a limit to everything, even constructive engagement.

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A failure of punditry

In two consecutive columns (see the opening sections here and here), I brought up the New Hampshire Democratic primary, which first seemed to break Barack Obama’s way, overwhelmingly. The point I raised about a “failure of punditry” applies especially to the journalists who covered the Obama phenomenon — an idea discussed to death in many post-primary analyses, but which was best expressed, I think, in Ryan Lizza’s post-mortem on Hillary Clinton’s stunning win, in last week’s issue of the New Yorker.

The money quote:

In hindsight, the media may have become so caught up in the sense of destiny that enveloped Obama’s campaign after Iowa that it misinterpreted every sign of a Clinton rebound as one of further decline.

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Column: Estrada’s memory game

Published on January 15, 2008

Like many other readers, I look forward to reading columnist Mahar Mangahas on the failure of all nine final pre-election polls in the New Hampshire primary to signal Hillary Clinton’s close victory. In the meantime, I will content myself with the best setting-forth-of-the-problem I have read: Gary Langer’s lengthy analysis written three days after the vote. (It can be found here.)

But while Langer, ABC’s director of polling, dispassionately describes “the state of play” that led to possibly the most egregious failure of polling since John Major’s non-defeat in 1992, I cannot help but think that there was a failure of punditry too. Barack Obama’s overwhelming victory in Iowa, and the long lines and overflow crowds that greeted him in New Hampshire, swept the American commentariat in a history-is-turning tide. (To be sure, even Obama got swept up in the euphoria of exuberant rallies, something Claro M. Recto, if he were alive today, could have warned him against.) But the exuberance, irrational or otherwise, also swamped the skeptical faculties of reporters and columnists alike.

I thought I had hedged my bets carefully enough in my last column, which began thus: “By tonight we should have a good idea whether the latest polls had gotten it right, or were skewed by temporary enthusiasm over Barack Obama’s historic win in Iowa.” The rest of my don’t-count-any-Clinton-out comment was a warning about Hillary hanging on to fight a war of attrition. But a faithful reader from the United States congratulated me for writing about the Obama phenomenon. Perhaps the skepticism I thought I had used was too muted as to be inaudible.

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Column: Restraining the executive

Published on January 8, 2008

By Tuesday night we should have a good idea whether the latest polls had gotten it right, or were skewed by temporary enthusiasm over Barack Obama’s historic win in Iowa. One day before the New Hampshire primary, several polls showed at least a 10-point Obama lead over Hillary Clinton, long the favorite in the state.

A back-to-back win by Obama would be enormous — but it would not hand the freshman senator the Democratic nomination outright. Clinton is too invested, and too well-funded, to slink away. She also does not need to look far for inspiration. Her own husband lost both Iowa and New Hampshire in 1992, but went on to win the presidency.

Once upon a time, Hillary may have thought the primaries would be a coronation. Instead, they have turned into a war of attrition. It doesn’t look like even Super Duper Tuesday (Feb. 5, when 24 states, including California, will hold caucuses or primaries) will bring the war to a crashing end.

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