Column: Father Ed’s excellent adventure

Published on August 7, 2007

In the last couple of weeks, speculation on the 2010 race has centered on two presumptive rivals, each one closely identified with a traditional political party. I caught a glimpse, however, of the results of a very recent nationwide survey, still under embargo, and — how do we say this? — the frontrunner status of the two rivals is not reflected in the results.

The polling organization showed its survey respondents a list of six prospective candidates, and then asked, “Who would you vote for, if the elections were held today and these personalities were in the running?”

Of course, it is far too early to place bets on 2010, but it certainly seems like the moneyed rivals (and the real frontrunners on the list) have their work cut out for them. Image-building, party-building, alliance-building — that’s a whole lot of infrastructure investing.

* * *

Education Secretary Jesli Lapus has three advanced degrees, but he will be the first to say he’s no snob. He agrees that a “mismatch” exists between what our schools produce and what the market needs. “There’s a fixation for a college diploma,” he told Inquirer editors and reporters last Thursday, a fixation not shared, he said, by developed economies like Japan and Germany. In those countries, “tech-voc” graduates are treated with great respect. The National Career Assessment Examination, Lapus said, is one attempt to force high school seniors (and their parents) to take stock. The second exam takes place on Aug. 28, but implementation is still optional. “I will ask somebody [in Congress] to file a bill that will make it mandatory [in the future],” he said.

* * *

No one disputes the import of Fr. Ed Panlilio’s victory as governor of Pampanga province — except perhaps the priest-turned-politician himself. In several hours of conversation the other week (over late lunch, then during a roundtable interview, and then in small groups at the end of the day), he never alluded to the meaning of his improbable victory, or to the symbolic importance of winning over two entrenched politicians with deep-rooted power bases, or to any of the various interpretations that have been foisted on his election. The most I heard him say on the dynamics that led to his victory was an aside: “One of the crucial factors in Pampanga politics at this time is an active civil society,” he said. But this mention of an “awakened” citizenry occurred during a discussion of what can be done in the future, not what was done in the recent past.

This is, of course, unpolitical behavior. I do not share that instinctive distaste for politicians common to many middle-class Filipinos, or share the view, held by many Catholic voters, that politics is necessarily dirty. If we leave politics to the unscrupulous, well, we get politics without scruples. But it is true that many politicians find it essential to measure themselves constantly, to weigh their importance in the scheme of things; this is, shall we say, an occupational hazard.

* * *

If “Among Ed” [Elder Brother Ed], as he is known to almost everyone in Pampanga, has an occupation other than being a priest, in the order of Melchizedek, it is that of NGO worker. He has worked in the Catholic Church’s social apostolate for so long his habits of mind are eminently participative.

I thought his response to one volunteer’s suggestion, raised during the roundtable, was characteristic. “In concrete, what are you thinking of?” he prodded the volunteer.

At another time, he gave a two-sentence homily on ownership: “Sa amin kasi, importante ang owning process — pag inangkin ng tao, that’s the key.”

Even his analogies were down-to-earth. Asked what he thought of an election protest that seemed to have been mysteriously expedited, he replied: “Ang sasakyan po, pag puno ang gasolina, mabilis talagang tumakbo.”

* * *

When I entered Larry Cruz’s magnificent retreat in Magalang, Pampanga, where the roundtable was being held, I expected to meet a diffident priest, perhaps full of spiritual but rather impractical advice, perhaps apologetic about assuming a role that years of Catholic teaching have taught us belong rightfully to the laity. Instead I found a man living his vocation.

“One can say that three preeminent qualities are decisive for the politician,” Max Weber famously wrote, “passion, a feeling of responsibility, and a sense of proportion.” Among Ed struck me as bearing all three qualities, but especially the last.

When he was asked if he had any regrets, his response was spontaneous: “Walang pagsisisi. It’s very exciting, it’s a happy job.”

At another time, he explained exactly why: “Maraming puwedeng gawin.” As a reformer, he couldn’t ask for more.

* * *

Unexpectedly, the governor reminded me of Richard Gordon, especially during the first years of the Subic takeover. They sustain, and are sustained by, the absolute commitment of top-quality volunteers, the cream of the proverbial crop.

“Most of us did not know each other till joining Among’s ‘confidence team,’” one of them emailed me. “However, we all have the same level of commitment to the team and to the job at hand — which is, to help Among Ed improve systems and basically clean up the mess.”

* * *

Jim Libiran’s film “Tribu” is an intense, claustrophobic, powerful look at an evolving gangland culture in Tondo. Awarded Best Feature-Length Film at last month’s Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival, it is worth every peso you put in the box office, and then some.


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