Padre Roque’s wise and holy life

If you are looking for a meaningful gift to give to friends and loved ones this Christmas, I recommend a wonderful book by Fr. Roque Ferriols SJ—“Glimpses into my beginnings.” The original version of this autobiographical book, published by the Ateneo University Press, is in Filipino and entitled “Sulyap sa aking pinanggalingan,” with the English version translated by Dr. Soledad Reyes and both versions edited by Dr. Leovino Garcia.

Padre Roque—92 years old, 75 years a Jesuit, 62 years a priest, more than 50 years a philosophy teacher—is the most brilliant Filipino I have ever met. He ranks up there with Jose Rizal and another Jesuit Fr. Horacio de la Costa in his mastery of languages, depth of insight of our culture and what makes us Filipino, and elegance in writing. As his classmate Fr. Catalino Arevalo SJ, also a towering Jesuit intellectual and theologian, quoted Fr. De La Costa during the book launch: “Roque Ferriols is the only true genius we have among the Philippine Jesuits.”

On a personal note, Padre Roque taught me two philosophy courses: one on Ancient-Medieval Philosophy, the other on Soren Kierkegaard. My mind and heart were forever changed by the experience of being in a Ferriols classroom.

It was not just that Padre Roque enabled me to go back to the time of the first Greek philosophers, the Pre-Socratics, to share in their first experience of abstraction. It was not just that Padre Roque helped me put on the eyes and heart of a Socrates and an Augustine searching for the truth that matters. It was not just being given an insight to the agony —the fear and trembling—and faith of the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard. Above all, Padre Roque taught me and many others how to think, how to ask questions, how to wonder, ultimately to search for God that leads us to the discovery that it is God who searches for us. I will always be grateful for that.

I was also fortunate in that I taught philosophy at the Ateneo de Manila for nearly a decade in the 1980s. As his co-teacher, I was able to have many conversations with Padre Roque and learned even more from him. It was during those years that he also became more prolific in writing as he discovered the wonders of word processing and the personal computer.

I cannot think of a better example of the teacher and writer that I wanted and want to be than Padre Roque. I cannot think of a better life, lived fully in wisdom and holiness than that of this priest and Jesuit. The dedication of this book manifests this: “I wish to dedicate this book to all my friends, but to give honor to the Three Persons in One Loving God, I will mention three of my friends.” Padre Roque then dedicates the book to a childhood friend Gusting who taught him “how to catch dragonflies in the meadows of Sampaloc,” to Jonathan who gave him “a book with blank pages” on which he could write the ideas that gave clarity to his reflection, and finally Genesis, who gave him “the courage to begin writing this book” on Feb. 29, 2012 (this was the birthday of Genesis, “whose name means beginning”).

Below are excerpts from the book—which is on the first four years of Padre Roque’s life as a Jesuit, the setting of which was the beginning of World War II, the Japanese invasion, and the battle in Manila. I share them here to entice all my readers to read and buy this book.

Padre Roque, writing about his first night as a novice of the Society of Jesus: “My first night in the Society of Jesus came. I could not sleep. I heard a noise that I could not figure out. The morning after, I woke up in a new place, the novitiate, surrounded by rows and rows of pine trees, and heard the whistling of the wind cutting through the rows of pine trees. This was the music of life: at times, full of happiness, on other occasions, sad and mournful; at times, laughing, with joy, on other occasions, tearing up with sorrow. This was like my life in the Society of Jesus, this was life for anyone, anywhere.”

Padre Roque describes the first day of the war, which coincided with Christmas:

At daytime, we saw how lovely Novaliches was in the Yuletide season. The sky was intensely blue and the poinsettia leaves were crimson red. But at noon, the Japanese planes burst out of the horizon. They sounded like the buzzing of the bees. And they flew over the house on their way to Manila. A little later, we heard the thud of bombs falling over the city.

The superiors thought of devising a camouflage to protect the house, and so we produced “paint” by combining the red clay of Novaliches and water. Some painted the exterior of the house, while others cut off branches and used them to cover the roof. The idea was to spare the building from the bombs. I was not sure if it helped any.

The Japanese forces had landed in Luzon, and we thought mistakenly, that Fil-American troops could put up a fight and stop them. But we proceeded, undeterred, with our preparations for Christmas . . . Rorate coeli desuper . . . noli timere . . . drop down dew, ye heavens . . . do not be afraid. This was our first ever Christmas with the Society of Jesus and no one could make us give up our hopeful anticipation.”

Another passage from the book describing Christmas midnight mass, the last day of the novices in Novaliches before they evacuated to Manila:

“Before midnight we awakened to the sound of Christmas carols. This was what the secondi (a second year novice) meant when he said that angels would sing at midnight. The bell rang as the group sang “Fall on your knees.” We rose from bed, knelt down, and kissed the floor, and stretched out our arms. We put on our clothes and proceeded to the chapel. It was pitch dark because lights were out during the war. But we felt the presence of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the Infant Jesus whose shining light we could feel in the darkness. We sang Flos de riodice dat and ended with the rousing Adeste Fidelis . . .”

In my next column, I will share Padre Roque’s stories of Manila during the war and at liberation. I will also share some of the original text in Filipino.

I recommend both versions to readers; in fact if one proficient in both languages, it is a delight to read this book in Filipino and English, one after the other, and even side by side. During the launch, Fr. Arevalo SJ mentioned how Dr. Reyes said she shed tears as she was translating Padre Roque’s text. I must confess that I too cried, overwhelmed by wonder and a sense of grace, as I read both the original and English versions.


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