Why I Am Who I Am Now

Keynote address delivered by Chief Justice Artemio V. Panganiban (ret.) during the 200th foundation day celebration of the Canossian Sisters held on May 24, 2007 at the Canossian Academy in Lipa City.

May I thank Sister Estela Cordero, FdCC, for her kind invitation for me to be your keynote speaker during the celebration of your congregation’s 200th foundation day. In her letter of invitation, Sister Estela asked me to talk for 45 minutes (plus a 15-minute open forum) on “Why I am who I am now.” She said the audience will be “around 460 persons.” I thought the topic was so forbidding (it reminded me of Moses’ encounter with the great “I am.”) and the audience so intimidating (composed of the most perceptive nuns and discerning educators) that I decided not to write back, in the hope that she would forget it. But she could not be dissuaded by my strategy of silence which, incidentally, I found effective with my wife.

One day last March, she came unannounced to my house to insist on her invitation. What indeed could I have done after such persistence? Nothing at all, except to say “Amen.” Now that I have been sufficiently intimidated to motor to Lipa and to appear before you, let me tell you two stories. The first is fictional, but the second is real and true.

Good News, Bad News

First, the fiction. Long ago in the Middle Ages, there lived in a small European village a farmer, his wife and their 20-year-old son. Using their horse, the farmer and his son tilled the fields.

One day, the horse ran away to the mountains. The villagers went to the farmer and said, “Bad news for you. Your only means of livelihood is gone. You have no more horse to help you till your field.” The farmer answered, “Good news, bad news, who knows? I will just keep trying my best and God will do the rest.”

A few days later, the horse came back with ten other wild horses. The villagers again visited the farmer and exclaimed, “Good news for you; now you have 11 horses, the most number in our village.” The farmer responded, “Good news, bad news, who knows? I will just keep on doing my best and God will do the rest.”

Three days later, the farmer’s son mounted one of the wild horses to tame it. Unfortunately, he was thrown off and he broke his left leg. Again, the villagers went to the farmer saying, “Bad news for you, your only son is now lame; he cannot help you in your farm.” Again, the farmer replied, “Good news, bad news, who knows? I will just keep on doing my best and God will do the rest.”

Then, the kingdom went to war. The King conscripted all the able-bodied men in the village, except of course the son of our farmer. Unfortunately, the Kingdom lost the war and all the young men in the village were killed. The villagers went again to our hero. “Good news for you; you’re the only one in the village with a son to succeed you. Bad news for all of us; we do not have any successors for our farms.” The farmer responded, “Good news, bad news, who knows? I will just keep on trying my best and God will do the rest.”

Do Your Best, and God Will Do the Rest

As I told you, this first story is fictional, one that was spun by a fertile imagination that sought to explain the mysteries of life and the vagaries of the future. Like the poor farmer, I too have had my share of bad news and good news. Like him, I have also done my best and let God do the rest. But unlike the farmer’s story, mine is true and real.

I was born poor. My father was a mere high school graduate, while my mother made it only through primary school. I was the youngest of four children. Aside from his four children, my father had to support his seven siblings, two brothers and five sisters; my grandfather (his own father) died when they were all very young. In order to support all of us — his seven siblings and his four children — my father did not finish his schooling. He ended up working as a rank-and-file government employee.

In those days, right after World War II, times were tough. I had to hawk newspapers, sell cigarettes, and shine shoes on the streets of Sampaloc, Manila. In the evening, I would sleep on the sidewalks, where I waited for the early morning hour when the newspapers of the day would come in for delivery. At the time, we sold newspapers by running and shouting in the streets: “Manila Times, Manila Chronicle, Manila Bulletin, Philippine Herald.” (Now, newsboys have bicycles, even motorbikes, to ease their selling woes.)

Many times, as I lay awake on the cold pavement waiting for the break of dawn, I had to fight back tears and feelings of self-pity. I would think of my schoolmates as they slept on their beds, simply resting and letting the hours pass until it was time to wake up for school. But I had to work at an early age to be able to go to school.

Purely Secular Education for Me

During those times, there was no faith to comfort me. Although born a Catholic, I did not know my religion. My parents themselves were not steeped in their faith, so they could not teach me much. I did not have the opportunity to attend catechism classes either, as I had enrolled at Candaba Elementary School (in Pampanga) during the war years, later at the Juan Luna Elementary School and Mapa High School (both in Manila) – all public schools. In short, I had a purely secular education.

After high school, I wanted to take up chemical engineering. In fact, my high school yearbook stated that my ambition was “to be a chemical engineer.” But my father insisted that I became a lawyer. “Pilosopo ka kasi. Matigas ang ulo,” he was wont to say. “At saka, kinokopya mo lang ang mga kapatid mo.[1] Magsimula ka nang pansarili.” During our time, our father’s word was law and could not be broken. So, to a law career I reluctantly veered my sight.

My high school classmates and I used to go to the University of the Philippines campus in Diliman, Quezon City. Before the UP Oblation, we promised one another that we would study hard so we would be accepted in UP. As an honor student in a class of over 1,000 graduates of Mapa High, I was given a scholarship for my pre-law at UP. My father, however, could not afford the then 15-centavo bus fare to Diliman, Quezon City. He advised me to enrol either at the University of Santo Tomas or at the Far Eastern University, both of which were walking distance from our small rented apartment in Cataluña Street, Sampaloc, Manila.

I applied first at UST. There, I was interviewed by an old Dominican priest who posed three questions to me as a prerequisite to an entrance scholarship. “How many Gods are there?” he asked. “One,” I readily replied. “How many persons are there in one God?” He followed up. “Three,” I answered. Then, came the final question, “Name them.” Believe it or not, reverend sisters, ladies and gentlemen, I did not know the correct answer. So, I sheepishly whispered, “Jesus, Mary, Joseph.”

Yes, I failed the test miserably. Disheartened, I enrolled at FEU. No questions were asked. But I studied diligently even while I continued to support my pre-law and law studies by peddling textbooks to my classmates and selling bibles to my professors.

After passing the bar examinations and upon the recommendation of my dean, Dr. Jovito R. Salonga, I was given a scholarship for a master’s degree in law at Yale University. But I could not afford the plane fare to the United States. I applied for a Smith Mundt travel grant at the U.S. Embassy, but was turned down. Without any money to finance my trip, I had to forego graduate education at Yale. At the time, I felt the world closing in on me. I felt frustrated and defeated.

Poverty and Hard Work

My initial frustrations and difficulties in life turned out, though, to be blessings in disguise. Now I realize that my series of bad news eventually turned out to be good news, after all.

First, having been poor made me realize the value of hard work and the importance of a good college education. By persevering in my studies in high school, I was able to get scholarships for college. And in college, I continued to prioritize my studies despite my numerous extracurricular activities. Thus, I finished my Bachelor of Laws cum laude. My strict regimen of balancing academic and extra-curricular activities also prepared me for the painstaking bar examinations in 1960, in which I placed No. 6, despite getting sick and being hospitalized during the first week of the tests.

Second, I learned to dream big and then work hard to attain those dreams. Right through the times when I was selling newspapers, I told myself that one day I would become the president of the Manila Times, the most popular newspapers at that time. As fate would have it, some decades later, I became president of the Philippine Daily Inquirer — the most widely circulated broadsheet in the country today.

Third, my inability to travel to Yale inspired me to put up my very own travel agency. Since organizing Baron Travel Corporation in 1967, traveling has never been a problem again for me, my wife, or my children. By now, all of us have seen the best sights and experienced most of the wonders of the ancient and e-age worlds.

My dream of obtaining a master’s degree in an Ivy League university has also been realized through, and by, my five children. Permit me to say that all of them have finished graduate studies in pedigreed U.S. universities — their schools of choice — including Harvard, Stanford, University of California, University of Chicago, University of Michigan and Boston University. [2]

FEU: A Turning Point in My Life

Fourth, going to FEU proved to be one of the best turns of my entire life. There, I learned the value of academic excellence, earned a well-rounded education, acquired leadership skills, and had my first encounters with my God.

During my law course, I was blessed with committed and conscientious professors who were very strict and demanding. At the top of the list was Dean Jovito R. Salonga, who — despite being a non-Catholic — became my role model in my chosen career. Through my esteemed guru, I had the privilege to receive not only UP-style education, but Harvard and Yale techniques as well. He shared with us what he learned in those three schools where he had finished his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. Indeed, I am grateful to him for his legal expertise; but more than that, for his moral courage, high-mindedness and love of country.

Search for God

Above the core values of truth, integrity, excellence and courage that I imbibed, the final and most important matter I learned was my Catholic faith. While FEU prides itself in being nonsectarian, it was during my FEU days when I met persons who, little by little, initially fed my soul that was in search of faith and of my God.

Fr. Michael Nolan, the FEU chaplain then, under whose watch the FEU chapel was built, took a personal interest in me and in what I did. So he recruited me into the FEU Student Catholic Action and taught me the rudiments of Catholicism.

Fr. James Sheehy, another Columban priest, insisted that a good Catholic must not only be personally pure, but also lead others to purity; in short, be a Christ to others. Those teachings were enough for me to make further efforts to learn and experience my faith. My initial contact with religion in FEU impelled me to search for God more deeply and passionately all my life.

Later on, particularly in the mid-1980’s, I became a renewed Catholic when Leni and I joined Bukas Loob sa Diyos (BLD). Some of our most memorable days as husband and wife were spent with this charismatic movement — particularly when we shared our married life during our marriage encounters, and when we made attempts at spirituality as speakers during Life in the Spirit Seminars. I read over a hundred books and commentaries on the Bible and on Catholicism, and heard private tutors on religion.

Even if I was educated in public and nonsectarian schools, and even if I did not know my Catholic faith completely, God has been kind to me. He has enabled me to meet great Catholic lay leaders like Ambassador Tita de Villa and outstanding men of the cloth like Jaime Cardinal Sin, Ricardo Cardinal Vidal, Bishop Socrates Villegas, and Msgr. Gerardo O. Santos. All of them led me to Catholic lay leadership. I was invited to be a delegate to the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines in 1991. Though unworthy, I was later appointed by Pope John Paul II as the only Filipino member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity for the 1996-200 term.
Thus, this ignorant poor boy who did not even know the three persons of the Holy Trinity became, as a pure gift from the Almighty, an adviser of the Holy Father as a member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity based in the Vatican.

Finding My Partner in Life

The environment in FEU also inculcated in me a hunger for leadership. Its owners and administrators encouraged and supported student leadership. Hence, it came as a surprise to my high school classmates that I would metamorphose from an introverted, shy and timid lad, to be president of the FEU Central Student Organization (FEUCSO) during my sophomore year — the youngest then to be so elected; and later to become co-founder and president of the National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP), the largest student movement in our country.

Through the NUSP, I was able to interact with convent-bred students of elitist schools. St. Scholastica’s College was represented in the NUSP by a lovely, sweet, thoughtful and intelligent lady, Ms Elenita A. Carpio, who after a fabled courtship (but that’s another story worth retelling at another time) agreed to be my wife and lifelong partner.

Supreme Court Dream

The good-news-bad-news twists and turns of my life are evident not only in my struggles against deprivations, my secular education, my marriage and my search for faith, but also in my journey to the Supreme Court.

I had offers to join the government early in my career.[3] On different occasions, then Executive Secretary Rafael Salas invited me either to be a technical assistant in Malacañang or to be a judge. I declined those invitations because the compensation of public officials was (and is still) not enough to see my family through. I wanted my children to finish their studies without the financial woes of my own youth.

But many years later when all of my children had received their graduate degrees in the 1990s, I became available for public service. And just as soon, Providence opened a window for me.

President Fidel V. Ramos and I had known each other since 1983, the year when we both entered the Rotary Club of Manila. He was then the chief of the Philippine Constabulary; I, a practicing lawyer. We became friends.

Meeting with President Ramos

On June 17, 1992, after the election of President Ramos had been assured, he invited me to a meeting in his private office in Pasay Road, Makati City. For over an hour, we discussed, one-on-one, the efficacy of the rule of law in our society, the role of the courts, and the expectations of the people from their newly-elected president. Finally, he offered me a seat in his Cabinet as justice secretary.

I immediately declined his invitation, saying that I had neither campaigned for him nor supported his candidacy. I said that I had voted for my mentor, Senator Jovito R. Salonga, during the presidential elections of 1992. But he was insistent. According to him, he wanted a Cabinet that was representative of the entire population, not just of those who voted for him. He said that he was confident I would serve well, because he had witnessed how I had conducted myself as the president of our Rotary Club and as national vice-chairperson of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV).

Because I had reservations about accepting a political position, President Ramos instead made me an offer to join the Supreme Court. That alternative I readily accepted because it was not political. But it took three more harrowing years before I became a member of the highest court of the land. Let me share these with you.

From 1992 to 1994, seven vacancies were created in the Supreme Court due to the retirement of the incumbents. In each of these vacancies, my name was submitted to the Judicial and Bar Council for screening. TheJBC is the government agency tasked by our Constitution to screen and recommend judicial appointments to the President.

JBC Frustrations

But in all seven times, I failed the screening. Many objections were raised against me, like the alleged insufficiency of my professional competence and my alleged sins and wrongdoings. At one time, a former client suddenly surfaced at the JBC to complain about my supposed mishandling of a case that happened 25 years ago. And after I was able to explain the charges against me, I was bypassed anyway, because appellate justices were given priority over practising lawyers. It was pointed out that I might be qualified, but there were others who were even more qualified than me.

In other words, those past three years of screening were one long story of frustrations and defeats. Many times, I would sob and ask the Lord: “How long oh God, must I bear these frustrations and embarrassment of being rejected? Why must I suffer for charges and accusations that are absolutely baseless? I have repented my sins and reformed my life; why do You still allow me to be chastised?”

In all these frustrations and in spite of the hard questions I hounded the Lord with, I never lost faith in His wisdom and providence. I always took comfort in Romans 8:28:

“God makes all things work together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.”

In January 1995, after having been bypassed seven times and convinced that our God did not want me to be in the Supreme Court, I humbled myself and bowed to what I thought was God’s will for me. My spirit was shattered and my heart bled, but I uplifted my ambition to the Lord with a solemn prayer:

“Take oh Lord, all that I am, all that I will ever be.
Take my personal ambition, my liberty, my career.
Do what You will with them and I will follow whatever
You want me to do.”

In July of the same year, another vacancy in the Court occurred. A close friend who was then a member of the high court asked me, “Why don’t you try again? Don’t pass up the opportunity, because the next vacancy will be in late 1997 already.” At first, I did not take my friend’s suggestion seriously because I had already given up on my ambition.

However, about 1:00 a.m. of Saturday, July 29, 1995, I woke up and could not sleep. My friend’s words kept bothering me, kept reverberating in my ears. So, I decided to pray for over two hours. I told the Lord that I had already surrendered my quest to Him, that I had already given up. Why was I still bothered? I fell asleep about 4:00 a.m., waiting for a sign from the Lord. None came that night.

But the following morning, He spoke loud and clear to me. Let me explain.

Discerning the Lords Will

Reverend sisters, ladies and gentlemen, it is my faith that God speaks to us through the Bible. Though written some two thousand years ago, the Scriptures are still sources of God’s personal messages. For Jesus Christ is the same today, yesterday and forever. I believe that if we read or listen intently and prayerfully, in full faith and confidence, God will speak to us personally as we are struck by a verse or a chapter in the Good Book that comes alive and answers our questions.

The following morning, Sunday, July 30, 1995, I served as a Special Minister of Holy Communion in our parish. As was my habit, with my eyes closed and with the ascending Jesus in my mental vision, I intently listened to our parish priest as he read the Gospel for the day. I was struck by the following verses that he read from Luke 11:1-11:

“Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find,
knock and the door shall be opened to you.
For whoever asks, receives; whoever seeks, finds;
whoever knocks is admitted.”

I had cold perspiration and goose pimples as I gasped, “My Lord, are you asking me to persist in my quest?” But I was not satisfied. I said to God in my prayer, “Lord, I may just be deluding myself, hearing things I want to hear. Please give me another sign to confirm this message.”

The Lord’s confirmation came after one week in the same church as the same priest was reciting the Gospel reading. That Sunday, August 6, the reading was on the transfiguration of our Lord Jesus according to Luke 9:28-36. It states that as our Lord was transfigured,

“a cloud came and overshadowed them and the
disciples grew fearful…Then from the clouds came
a voice which said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen One.
Listen to Him.’”

Listen to him. These three words struck me. And once again my heart pounded madly as cold sweat oozed out from all over my body. I became sure of what the Lord wanted me to do. After all, was it not the Lord Jesus who said the week before, “Ask and you shall receive; seek and you shall find; knock and the door shall be opened to you?” And now our Heavenly Father commanded me, “Listen to Him.” So, I followed Him and submitted my name once again for screening.

I felt so sure of the Lord’s two messages that I shared them with my family and close friends. On August 9, Wednesday, Leni and I were prayer leaders during a prayer meeting of our charismatic community, Bukas Loob sa Diyos, held at the St. James School in Paranaque. During that solemn occasion, I spoke boldly of God’s two messages for me, even at the risk of being ridiculed should my discernment turn out to be false. I declared my determination to pursue God’s will in my career by quoting a favorite Jesuit saying:

“I will work as if everything depended on me.
and I will pray as if everything depended on God.”

This did not mean though that my trials were over. I had to undergo more of them. But I clung to God’s word and never lost faith in His promise. Let me continue my story.

Victory at Last

During the meeting of the JBC on September 13, there was a serious attempt to vote me out from the list. I would have been excluded right then, had it not been for one member, who I believe was guided by our Blessed Mother. He pleaded, “I think we should let Panganiban’s name stay in the list in the meantime. We are meeting next week anyway, and if you still insist on deleting it, so be it.”

This member told me two days later on, that unless a miracle happened, I would surely be eliminated from the list. So I prayed again, and exclaimed that human forces however exalted and powerful, could not prevail against His will.

And true enough, during the JBC meeting one week thereafter on September 20, 1995 no one, by some mysterious reason, objected to my name’s inclusion in the recommended list. For the first time in three years, I passed the screening. A miracle!

Thereafter, a list of five JBC recommendees, including me, was sent to the President of the Philippines. After being informed that I was finally in the JBC list, President Fidel V. Ramos, who knew of my difficulties in the Council nomination, called and asked me pointblank, “How did you do it?” “Do what sir,” I asked back. “How did you get the JBC to nominate you. How did you do it?” he repeated.

“Well, sir. I did not do it. The Lord did it. Hallelujah!” I exultantly replied.

The President made good his promise to me. And my career in the highest court of the land began, after I had given up on it.

It is my faith that it was God who made my appointment possible, In my book Justice and Faith published in 1997, I wrote that because I owed my office only to Him,

“all my actions and all my decisions will
all be in accordance with His commandments
and His Gospel. I hold office by God’s grace
and I pledge to serve Him and our people with
fortitude, integrity, competence and prudence.”

The Chief Justiceship

God’s blessing, however, did not end there. As one of the senior members of the Court, I was included in late 2005 in the JBC’s short list of three nominees to succeed Chief Justice Hilario G. Davide Jr. After an exciting one month of prayer, I was chosen by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to be the 21st Chief Justice of the Philippines. Unlike in my experience with President Ramos, I had no occasion to speak with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo prior to my appointment.[4] But as in the past, I considered my Chief Justiceship as a gift from our Lord to be used only pursuant to His Will.

Now, after I had retired from the judiciary, comes the question of Sister Estela, Why am I who I am now? My short answer is: Please ask the Lord and Mother Mary. I am merely their servant. They made me who I was, and who I am now. In the same vein, many people have asked me how I found the courage to lead our Supreme Court in deciding landmark decisions, such as those that struck down several issuances of the President who appointed me; namely, Executive Order 464, the so-called Calibrated Preemptive Policy, Proclamation 1017 and, most especially the people’s initiative to amend the Constitution. My answer is the same since I started as a member of the Court in 1995: I hold my office by God’s grace; I act only in accordance with the Lord’s will; I make my decisions only after consultation with the Mother of God and only after much reflection, discernment and prayer.

To God Be the Glory

As I end my life story, let the choicest gratitude and praise be unto God Almighty who, despite my occasional shortcomings and failures, has been ever faithful to me in all my 70 years of temporary sojourn here on earth. He has never failed to grant me all that is good and beautiful in His own way, in His own time.

When I was new in the Supreme Court in 1995, I composed a prayer that I would like to recite here:

“The Lord is my Shepherd. There is nothing I shall want. He has given me more than I deserve-a happy home, a healthy body, accomplished children over whom I no longer worry, a stable career, a chance to serve our people, an opportunity to be remembered longer than my own life. Other than fulfilling my role in the Court, I have no more earth-bound ambition. I live my life with only one consuming passion: on that inevitable day when I will finally knock at the pearly gates, my Lord and Master will open the door, spread his arms and say: “Well done on your earthly sojourn. You have passed the test. Welcome home to my everlasting Kingdom!”

From the time I composed that prayer in 1995 up to the present, I look back poignantly at my trials and triumphs, victories and defeats, frustrations and exaltations; and, in all of them, I always find my faithful God.

Indeed, I have journeyed from being a poor newsboy in the backstreets of Sampaloc to being president of the most widely read newspaper in our country; from an ignorant Catholic to a member of the highest lay council of the Catholic Church; from a frustrated applicant for graduate studies to father of five wonderful children who each achieved my impossible dream of finishing in a pedigreed US university; from an aspiring chemical engineer to a reluctant lawyer and, finally, to the highest magistrate of our country.

As I contemplate my life and move toward its sunset, I know that God has woven my many pains and gains into a magnificent tapestry showing His mystical presence. Truly, there is one constancy in my life: the presence, care and providence of my one Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

To Him, I dedicate all that I have been, all that I am, and all that I will ever be. To God be the glory!


[1] My eldest sister became a chemist. She finished high school from Far Eastern University as valedictorian and Bachelor of Science in Chemistry, summa cum laude, from the University of Sto. Tomas (UST). My brother Nardo finished electrical engineering at FEATI. He placed first when he took the board examination. Both now live with their families in Vancouver, Canada.

[2] Our eldest, Maria Elena Panganiban-Yaptangco, finished MBA (Master in Business Administration) at the University of California in 1986; Maria Jocelyn Panganiban-Hannett, MBA at the University of Chicago in 1990; Maria Theresa Panganiban-Mañalac, MBA at the University of Michigan in 1992; Maria Evelyn Panganiban-Reagan, MA in Economics at Boston University in 1994 and MPP (Master in Public Policy) at Harvard in 1996. Our only son, Jose Artemio III, finished Master in Music in Munich in 1991; MS in Operations Research at Stanford in 1993; MS in Engineering Economic Systems, also at Stanford, in 1994. He later pursued his Ph.D., still at Stanford, and graduated in 1999. While pursuing his doctorate, he was given a teaching assistantship and did not need any financial assistance from his parents for his studies.

[3] On another occasion, I shall relate my story of ups and downs in business – how God opens windows when doors are closed.

[4] To the credit of both Presidents Ramos and Arroyo, they have not asked any favor in return for appointing me. Neither have I given them any.↩

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