Justice and love on Valentine’s Day

MANILA, Philippines—Awed and mesmerized. That’s how I felt as I addressed the recent Second National Congress of the Clergy. I am used to hearing priests deliver homilies, but not to talking before 5,500 cardinals, archbishops, bishops and priests. I was asked to relate the juristic duty of dispensing justice to the priestly work of spreading God’s love. The priests who asked for copies of my sharing may access it at cjpanganiban.ph. However, to celebrate Valentine’s Day (and Chinese New Year), I have written this summary:

Visit the prisons. I served our Supreme Court for over 11 years until I retired as chief justice three years ago. One of my most unforgettable experiences as a jurist was my visit to the national penitentiary in Muntinlupa. Our Security Department advised against the visit; the inmates could become unruly; after all, I sent many of them to jail.

However, I decided to go, after attending Holy Mass in which the Gospel reading was Matthew 25. This Gospel was about our Lord asking whether His disciples visited Him when He was in prison. So I told myself, better to risk the ire of the inmates than to incur the ire of the Lord!

I was pleasantly surprised at the sheer size of the penitentiary. It comprised of several hectares of land planted with fruit trees and shrubs. True, there was the imposing white building housing the maximum-security inmates. But there too was a vast tract of land around this concrete behemoth.

I was ushered to a makeshift auditorium on the greeneries outside the forbidding building, where some 500 inmates were seated. When I arrived they thundered into applause while their band played “Mabuhay” and the Philippine National Anthem. I was genuinely entertained with their talent show, especially the comedy skit about life in jail, as well as their folk dances, hip-hops and solo numbers mimicking Frank Sinatra, Joni James and Celine Dion.

Hope in prison. In my address to the inmates, I spoke boldly of hope, saying that iron bars may restrict their movements and may subject them to ostracism and ridicule. Nonetheless, they should not hate the world and lose their faith.

Almost everyone is in some kind of prison. Many rich people are imprisoned by their greed. They worry about protecting their wealth. Others are restricted by incurable illnesses, like terminal cancer, that keep them in pain all day and all night. Some, like the mentally ill and the feeble-minded, are imprisoned by their minds.

Yes, those held behind bars have hope because one day they would have finished serving their sentences and would be freed. In fact, with good behavior, their sentences could be commuted or pardoned. But those imprisoned by greed or by their lame bodies could be condemned to pain and suffering all their lives.

As I was leaving, an inmate asked in Filipino (translated liberally into English): “Isn’t it true that all the commandments of the Lord can be summed up in one sentence, Love God and love your fellow beings? Why then did you have to imprison me? Contrast this with the way our Church treats sinners. After confessing my sins, the priest merely counseled me, then asked me to pray the rosary and forgave me. In the name of love, why can’t you just follow my confessor’s example? Isn’t love inconsistent with the punishment you imposed on me?”

As I motored back home, these questions kept me thinking. Isn’t our Lord a God of love first and foremost? Why then should I, a mere mortal follower of Jesus Christ, take pride in my work of imposing penalties? Is my career of dispensing justice contradictory to the Lord’s commandment of love?

My search for an answer led me back to Matthew 25. Here, the Lord was judging his people. Those who did not give food to the hungry, did not give drink to the thirsty, did not clothe the naked, did not visit the sick and the imprisoned, He condemned to “eternal punishment” and those who did, He brought to “eternal life.” Yes, the Lord too was making choices because he was the Lord of justice just as He was also the Lord of love.

A young lady’s tale. To make my sharing on justice and love easy to remember, I ended with an anecdote. A policeman brought a young lady to a judge. “Young lady,” barked His Honor, “this officer tells me you were blazing at 100 kilometers per hour on Ayala Avenue. What can you say about that?”

“Your Honor,” replied the lady, “The policeman is correct. I violated the law. I am deeply sorry. I promise to reform myself. It will not happen again. Please forgive me.”

The judge banged his gavel and ruled, “I fine you P500 for violating the law.” Then, he removed his robe, went to the cashier, pulled out his wallet and paid the fine of P500. Why did he do that? Because the young, repentant lady who promised to reform her life was his daughter.

The judge had to follow the law and punish the traffic violator. He had to let justice be done though the heavens may fall. But because he loved his daughter, he paid the fine with his own money.

And so it is with our Father in heaven. He is both the Lord of justice and the Lord of love. Because His people sinned and transgressed His law, He had to render justice and punish them. But because they are His children whom He loved dearly, He sent His only Son to redeem them and save them from their follies, out of His own grace and volition, not out of their worthiness or good deeds. Our Father in heaven is both the Lord of justice and the Lord of love. So must His priests in His Church. So must His magistrates in His service.

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