Public Philosophers

I must confess immediately that I know nothing about Saint Hannibal Maria Di Francia, except that he is the Apostle of the Prayer for Vocations and the Father of the Orphans and the Poor. Forgive me, but I also know next to nothing about the Rogationists of the Heart of Jesus, except that you were kind enough to invite me to this important occasion, when quite a number of young persons will move from one stage of life to another, and also kind enough to pick me up from my home and, hopefully, if you turn the other cheek and listen to my speech in charity, take me back home.

Similarly, I have to confess that I know nothing about Venerable Father Joseph Frassinetti, except that he founded the Sons of Holy Mary Immaculate and, like most venerables and saints that lived part of their lives outside the cloister, had his heart set on helping the youth, the sick, and the poor. I know very little about very little, but I do know that our new Pope, Pope Francis, has set the tone for the renewal of the Catholic Church by taking on the name of the saint whose prayer, to me, is the best prayer ever written by a human being, next only to the one composed by Jesus of Nazareth, of course, but He was not exactly a regular human being.

I was told that your theme for the academic year that is now ending is “Forming Philosophers at the Service of Vocations in the Church.” That is quite a mouthful, and I am already sure, even before I try, that I will not do justice to it. You have had a whole year to think about it, and I have had only a few days. That is a bit unfair, don’t you think? But, of course, thought is not measured in hours and days, as you have learned from Henri Bergson and, to take a more recent philosopher, Martin Heidegger. The duration of a few days may or may not be equal to the duration of your years of studying for your degree of Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy. Nevertheless, since I have to seize the moment, carpe diem, Bergson or Heidegger notwithstanding, I shall try to keep you awake for the next fifteen or so minutes.

Since Plato – or was it Aristotle? – said that all things good, true, and beautiful come in threes, I want to talk about three things.

First, I want to talk about philosophers.

Then, I want to talk about vocations.

Then, if you will allow a non-cleric and non-theologian to do it, I want to talk about the Church.

At least, even if I fail, I shall have mentioned three of the nouns in your theme. Philosophers. Vocations. Church.

When I was myself taking up philosophy – and that was admittedly a lot of years ago – I was always asking the question, What is philosophy? All the answers I read or was given never satisfied me, until one teacher, a Jesuit, probably out of exasperation rather than from his lesson plans, said, Philosophy is what philosophers do. Strangely enough, that quieted me down, and I have never asked the question since.

What, then, do philosophers do? In real life, probably everything that non-philosophers do – eat, drink, sleep, go to the bathroom, that sort of thing. In their professional life, probably also everything that all professionals do, which is to talk to their fellow professionals, to read papers by their fellow professionals, to go to meetings and conferences to meet their fellow professionals, to have Facebook pages with friends who are all professionals in philosophy.

What is wrong with that? That is not wrong, after all, when we talk about, say, medical doctors. Medical doctors do have to talk to each other. They do have to read medical journals and to attend medical conferences. They do have to have friends, on Facebook and in real life, who, like them, work in hospitals and save patients and charge a lot of money.

As a writer, I certainly go to a lot of writers’ conferences, I have a lot of friends who are writers, I read what other writers write. I love being in the company of writers.

I don’t think, however, that philosophers can afford to talk only to themselves.

I say this because I know what the world out there is like. It is a world without philosophy. It is a world without an anchor, a world without a center, a world without meaning. Everywhere, not only in our own country, people are talking about movie stars breaking up with their former loved ones, people going to war against other people, people asking people to put them in office, people doing or avoiding violence, people using other people, people in general not really connecting with other people.

That is not the world as imagined by any philosopher, except, well, perhaps the solipsists. But, in general, that is not what philosophers wish the world would be. The world needs the imagination of philosophers, because only philosophers, only philosophy, can save our world.

Sadly, the word philosophy today means something very different from what you graduates studied in school. Go to Amazon.com and search for the word philosophy.

Believe it or not, these are what you will find:

  • Philosophy Purity Made Simple One-Step Facial Cleanser
  • Philosophy Hope in a Jar Daily Moisturizer, All Skin Types
  • Philosophy Miracle Worker Anti-Aging Moisturizer
  • Philosophy When Hope is Not Enough Serum
  • Philosophy Microdelivery Exfoliating Wash
  • Philosophy Help Me Retinol Night Treatment
  • Philosophy Take A Deep Breath Oil-Free Energizing Oxygen Gel Cream Moisturizer
  • Philosophy the Cookbook Gift Set

If you search only for books rather than beauty products, the book that tops the list is Superheroes: The Best of Philosophy and Pop Culture.

Why are we talking about whether the President shows any emotion when talking about his sister and her estranged husband? Why are we talking about whether soldiers massacred on an island have anything to do with a royal army invading a sovereign country? Why are we talking about whether a mobile phone has a better camera than a camera? Why are we talking about anything at all, in fact?

We cannot answer any question that begins with the word Why without philosophy. Between the rarely-quoted view of Socrates that “an unexamined life is not worth living” and the often-quoted line from Spiderman that “with great power comes great responsibility” is an incredibly wide chasm ranging from deep insight to flippant sound byte. Unless philosophers speak up, unless philosophers become what today are called “public intellectuals,” the human race will continue its headlong rush to – forgive the word – stupidity. The physics term entropy, which means of course a gradual decline into disorder, applies not only to energy, but also to the world’s intelligence. The longer the human race stays on earth, the sillier we become.

I challenge you, graduates of philosophy, to enlighten the world, to speak to us non-philosophers, to tell us what’s what. As you move out of this campus, move out also of your intellectual campus, join the dialogues going on outside the world of philosophy. Teach the world lessons it will never forget. But never, ever forget philosophy. You have to go out into the world to share the insights you have learned from philosophy, but you should never be just another Facebook friend. Always be, to take the words of our Lord in vain, not of this world.

I now want to talk about vocations.

You have been called, or at least many of you have been called. Do your best to be chosen, not just called, but remember that you are not doing the choosing. God is. As Cardinal Tagle likes to say, do not consider yourself privileged. God’s choosing you has nothing to do with how good you think you are. As you all have learned in school, God chooses as He pleases. Saul did absolutely nothing to deserve becoming Paul. Neither did the fishermen who were just onlookers but became apostles. I am sure you can cite dozens, hundreds more names of saints who were sinners like all of us, with no claim to heavenly fame. But God works in mysterious ways and the biggest mystery of all, as far as you are concerned today and as far as you will be concerned for the rest of your life, is why in heaven’s name did He call you and why in heaven’s name will he choose you.

Sometimes, I will already warn you, you will be disheartened. It will seem like you are alone or that your fellow religious are alone, in trying to bring the world closer to its creator. The laborers are indeed few, but do not forget that with only twelve men, one of whom even broke away, Jesus was able to change the entire world. There are so many of you. Surely, you can change this little country of ours, if not the world. That is your vocation. That is the vocation that you want others to hear. You are called and, if God wills, will be chosen, to continue the work of saving our world.

Third, I want to talk about the Church. I don’t mean just the hierarchy. I mean the Church that is the people of God. That means not just those few lucky enough to be called and chosen, not just those wearing robes, not just those in the – excuse me – CBCP. I mean the millions of Filipinos both in the country and abroad. I mean the billions of human beings on earth, dead or alive or about to be born. We are all created by God, and as the Bible says, everything God created was good, is good.

The world spends a lot of time talking about what is not good about the Church. We hardly ever talk about what is good about it. Use what you have learned in philosophy to combat this tendency, which I personally regard as evil, to see the trees and not the forest, to throw away a dozen eggs because one happens to be bad, to think only of our own time and not of eternity, to see, as Saint Augustine put it, the little hole in the sand and not look up to see the ocean.

One Jesuit priest – I talk about the Jesuits because our Pope is a Jesuit – one Jesuit priest once told me, “Do not confuse the Catholic Church with Catholics.” Or something like that. We have had bad popes; of course, we have. We have had bad bishops and priests and nuns; of course, we have. We have had bad lay Catholics, Catholics who steal millions from other people, Catholics who oppress their househelp, Catholics who do not pay taxes, Catholics who corrupt, Catholics who have more than one spouse, Catholics who never pay attention to the poor, the sick, the homeless, the imprisoned. We have had Catholics who do all these things but go to Mass every Sunday, sometimes even every day. I do not point one finger without having four fingers pointing back to me. I am one of these Catholics. I can see the beam in my own eyes while I talk about the specks in yours.

But I am not the Catholic Church. These Catholics are not the Catholic Church. Priests, nuns, bishops, even the Pope is not the Catholic Church. We are talking about the Church that Jesus founded, and He was very explicit about who are in this Church. Remember that Jesus already  spelled out for us the one and only one criterion by which we would be judged on Judgement Day. Did we feed Him when He was hungry? Did we give Him a drink when He was thirsty? Did we invite Him into our homes when He was a stranger needing shelter? Did we give Him clothes when He was naked? Did we visit Him when He was sick? Did we visit Him when He was in prison?

The hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned – in short, the poor – they are the Church. They are, to use President Aquino’s term, our Boss, the Boss of all who serve the Church. That is why we are called servants, because our masters, our bosses, are the poor. But always, we should not forget that we all have, rich and poor alike, college graduates and out of school youth alike, old and young alike, have only one real Boss, the one with a capital B, the one we all serve by serving the least of His brethren.

As philosophers, you must serve the Church through philosophy. You must use the knowledge and wisdom that you have gained to help the Church do what it is supposed to do, which is to feed the hungry and so on.

I have talked about philosophy and why you should be public intellectuals. I have talked about vocations and why you should be ready to be chosen if God suddenly chooses you. I have talked about the Church and why we need to take very seriously the admonition of Pope Francis to be a poor Church for the poor. Before I end, I want to give you graduates, and your parents, your teachers, and the other ladies and gentlemen present here today, something very fundamental to our being Catholics and, in fact, to our being human beings.

We have to thank God. Be thankful. As St. Ignatius always said, and his influence will be heavily felt in the years to come now that his own soldier has become pope, contemplate what God has done. As the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, “Glory be to God for dappled things.” Or as the non-Catholic, non-cleric, female, secular author Alice Walker puts it in the book and the movie, The Color Purple, “I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.”

Look around at your classmates. Look at your teachers. Look at your parents. Look at your school. Look at our country. Look at the environment. Look at the world. Look at the Church. You are looking at God’s creation, God’s masterpiece, the product of God’s love. It pisses God off when He took all the trouble to create all of us and we don’t realize and acknowledge how good all of us are, all of us who are made in His image and likeness. Thank God every moment of your life. Thank Him for helping you succeed. Thank Him for giving you the chance to help others succeed.

God bless us all. Thank you.

(Delivered as the Commencement Address at the Rogationist Seminary College, Paranaque City, 24 March 2013)

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