SCA Introduced Me to Christ

Article written by retired Chief Justice ARTEMIO V. PANGANIBAN for the book, “Our Story, A Collection of Personal Memories of SCANs,” published in late 2011 by Edna Z. Manlapaz, Imelda M. Nicolas and Teresita C. Villacorta

In my Valedictory Address as Chief Justice held at the Supreme Court Session Hall on December 6, 2006, I paid tribute to all the good people who had helped transform my life.

Introduction to Our
Lord Jesus Christ

I think I was especially emotional when I said, “Maraming salamat po to the shepherds of my faith and spiritual mentors. Towering above them are Fr. Michael Nolan – now in the Great Beyond – who, as chaplain of Far Eastern University (and as archdiocesan director of the Student Catholic Action) in the 1950s, introduced me to our Lord; to Fr. James Sheehy, his successor (now the parish priest of Labrador, Pangasinan) who eventually baptized all of my five children…”

That I credited Fr. Nolan and SCA with introducing me to our Lord Jesus Christ at a late stage in my life when I was already in college needs some explanation. This explanation must begin with a look back to my childhood.

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 us, his four children, my father had to support also his seven siblings, two brothers and five sisters, because 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. I studied in public schools – – at Candaba Elementary School (in Pampanga) during the war years, later at the Juan Luna Elementary School and Mapa High School (both in Manila). In short, I had a purely secular education.

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 enroll 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. Looking back, he was correct because he died while I was still in pre-law and thus could not support my law studies.

I applied first at UST. There, an old Dominican priest interviewed and 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, I did not know the correct answer. So, I sheepishly whispered, “Jesus, Mary, Joseph.”

FEU: A Turning
Point in My Life

Yes, I failed the test miserably. Disheartened, I enrolled at FEU, which did not require any religious test. However, going to this university proved to be one of the best turns of my entire life. While FEU prided 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. Nolan, 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 must 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.

Fr. Nolan supported my extra-curricular activities. With his guidance, I became the youngest and first sophomore student to be elected President of the FEU Central Student Organization. From there, he egged me on to organize (along with student leaders from the other leading schools like UP, San Beda, and St. Theresa’s,) the National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP). FEU, under my leadership, bolted the then existing national student organizations, like the Conference Delegates Association of the Philippines (CONDA) and the Student Councils Association of the Philippines (SCAP), which were suspected to be communist fronts.

To strengthen NUSP, Fr. Nolan helped me convince the exclusive Catholic schools like Ateneo, La Salle, Maryknoll (now Miriam), Holy Spirit, St. Scholastica’s, UST, University of San Carlos, University of San Agustin and others to come out of their sheltered cocoons and to join the NUSP. The SCA in Manila worked fervently to help us in our recruitment of new leaders. The rest is history. NUSP became the biggest student organization of the country up to the present, all because of the inspiration and assistance of Student Catholic Action.

At that time, the student movement was in ferment. The extreme left was led by Jose Ma. Sison and Satur Ocampo. At that time too, Luis Taruc, the leader of the rebels in Central Luzon, was my father’s friend. He noticed my student activities and wrote me several encouraging letters from his hiding place in the boondocks. I was most fortunate that when I was elected President of the FEU Central Student Organization, Fr. Nolan was already my spiritual adviser. Otherwise, given my reformist streak, I could have joined the extremist groups and who knows where I would be now.

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.

From an Ignoramus
to a Papal Adviser

Later on, in the mid-1980’s, I became a renewed Catholic when Leni (that’s her nickname) 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 Sonny (and Bai) de los Reyes (now deceased), 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. This was called to implement the reforms of Vatican II in the Philippines. It was the first time in the 2,000-year history of our Church that lay people were invited to join the law making process of the Church.

I was later appointed by Pope John Paul II as the only Filipino member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity for the 1996-2000 term. Thus, this ignorant poor boy who did not even know the three persons of the Holy Trinity became an adviser of the Holy Father as a member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity based in the Vatican. I consider this a pure gift from the Almighty

Thanks to Fr. Nolan, the SCA and a few other persons and institutions, I treaded the straight and narrow path. My natural reformist streak was canalized in legal, non-violent and peaceful methods of transforming society. As I contemplate my life and move toward its sunset, I thank our Almighty God for keeping me within His grace. Despite my ups and downs as a student, lawyer, civic leader, lay worker, jurist and businessman, there is always one constancy in my life’s journey: the presence, care and providence of our Lord 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!

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