“We give her back to You, with grateful but breaking hearts”
By Catalino Arevalo, SJ
(Homily at the Funeral Mass for former President Cory Aquino, Manila Cathedral, August 5, 2009)
IF I may, I will first ask pardon for what might be an unseemly introduction. In the last days of President Cory’s illness, when it seemed inevitable that the end would come, the assignment to give this homily was given to me by Kris Aquino. She reminded me that many times and publicly, her mother had said she was asking me to preach at her funeral Mass. Always I told her I was years older, and would go ahead of her, but she would just smile at this. Those who knew Tita Cory knew that when she had made up her mind, she had made up her mind.
What then is my task this morning? I know for certain that if liturgical rules were not what they are, she would have asked Congressman Ted Locsin to be here in my place. No one has it in him to speak as fittingly of Cory Aquino in the manner and measure of tribute she uniquely deserves, no one else as he. Asked in an interview, she said that the address before the two Houses of Congress at Washington she considered perhaps the supreme shining moment of her life. We know who helped her with those words with which she conquered America. These last few days, too, every gifted writer in the press and other media has written on her person and political history, analyzed almost every side of her life and achievement as our own “icon of democracy”. More powerfully even, images of her and of Edsa Uno have filled hour after hour of TV time. Really, what else is left to be said?
SO, Tita Cory, you’ll forgive me if I don’t even try to give a shadow of the great oration that should be given here this morning. Let me instead try to say some things the people who persevered for hours on end in the serried lines at Ortigas or here in Intramuros can (I hope) more easily follow. This is a lowly tribute at one with “the old sneakers and clothes made tighter by age, soaked by water and much worse for wear” of the men, women and children who braved the rain and the sun because they wanted to tell you, even for a brief and hurried moment, how much they love you. You truly “now belong among the immortals”. But these words are for those mortals who with bruised hearts have lost “the mother of a people”. Maybe less elegantly than the seminarian said to me Monday, they would like to say also: “She was the only true queen our people have ever had, and she was queen because we knew she truly held our hearts in the greatness and the gentleness of her own.”
One of my teachers used to tell us that if we really wanted to know and understand a position held, we would have to learn it from someone fully committed to it. Just as only one who genuinely loves a person, really knows him or her also. So to begin with, I turned to three real “experts on Cory”; to ask them where for them the true greatness of Cory Aquino lay. My first source thought it was in her selflessness, seen above all in her love of country-surely above self; yes, even above family. Her self-giving, then, for us; what she had received, all became gift for us. The second, thought it was in her faith her greatness lay, in her total trust in God which was also her greatest strength. And the third said it was in her courage and the unshakable loyalty that went with it. It was a strength others could lean on; it never wavered; it never broke….Cory’s selflessness and self-giving; her faith (the Holy Father just called it “unwavering”); her courage, her strength. May I use this short list to frame what I will say?
O, let me name my experts now, if I may. They were three, all of them women close to her: Maria Elena Aquino Cruz, whom we know as Ballsy, Maria Aurora Aquino Abellada, Pinky to her friends; and Victoria Elisa Aquino Dee, Viel to the family. Kris and Noynoy are the public figures; they can speak for themselves. I hope they will forgive me that I did not ask.
First, then, her generous selflessness. For us this morning what is surely most to the point is her love of country. When her final illness was upon her already, she said-most recently at the Greenmeadows chapel (her last public words, I think)-that she was offering her suffering, first to God, then for our people. I heard that grandson Jiggy asked her why first for country and people, and she said that always the priority line-up was God, our country and our people, and then family. On radio, the other night, the commentator asked an old woman in line why she stood hours in the rain to get into La Salle. “Ito lang ang maibibigay ko po sa kanya, bilang pasasalamat.” “Bakit, ano ba ang ibinigay ni Cory sa inyo?” “Di po ba ang buhay nya? Ang buong sarili nya? At di po ba ang pag-asa? Kaya mahal na mahal po namin siya.” Early on, on TV, they ran many times the clip from a last interview. She says, “I thank God, and then all of you, for making me a Filipino, for making me one of you. I cherish this as one of the truly great gifts I have received.” A few weeks from her death, she could say that; without put-on or the least insincerity. “I thank you, for making me one of you.”
Her selflessness, her self-gift. Pope Benedict likes to say that the God whom Jesus Christ revealed to us, is Father. A Father who is wholly self-gift; the God “whose nature is to give Himself”-to give Himself to us, in His Son. And, the Pope says, that is what is the meaning of Jesus and the life of Jesus, and, by discipleship, what the Christian’s life is meant to be. We Christians, too, we must give ourselves away in the self-giving of love.
“Ang buhay po nya at sarili. Kaya po mahal na mahal namin sya.” In the last days, when finally and reluctantly still she admitted she had much pain, I kept thinking that only a couple of weeks before, for the first time publicly, she said that she was offering it up first of all for us.
Second, her faith
Second, her faith. Pinky says, it was her mother’s greatest strength; it was what was deepest in her. Her faith was her bedrock, and it was, bedrock. Frederick Buechner the ordained minister and novelist likes to say that through his lifetime, he’s had many doubts, even deep doubt, daily doubts. “But I have never really looked down into the deep abyss and seen only nothing. Somehow I have known, that underneath all the shadows and the darkness, there are the everlasting arms.” I think Cory’s faith was like that, not in the multiplicity of doubts (even if, in a life so filled with trial, there surely were doubts too), but in the certainty of the everlasting arms. More than once she told me, “Every time life painted me into a corner, with seemingly no escape, I always turned to Him in trust. I knew He would never abandon us if we trusted in Him. And you know, somehow, He found a way out for us.” And so Pinky says, “Mom was always calm even in the most trying times. She trusted God would always be there for us, She was our source of strength. She made this world seem so much safer and less cruel for us. And now that our source of strength is gone, we have to make our faith something more like hers. But we know in our hearts that in every storm she will watch over us from heaven.”
Devotion to Mary
Within this faith was her devotion to Mary, the place Our Lady of Fatima and the rosary held in her life. All we can say on this, this morning is that Our Lady truly had a special, living presence in her life: Mary was, for Cory, true mother and incomparable friend; as we say in the hymn-vita, dulcedo et spes: life, sweetness and hope. No, Mary was not the center of her faith, but its air, its atmosphere; and the rosary, her lifeline through every trial and crisis. In the long harsh months of her illness, Sister Lucia’s beads almost never left her hands. She was holding them, as last Saturday was dawning and her years of exile were at last done, when we know her Lady “showed unto her, the blessed fruit of her womb.”
Lastly, her courage, her strength. Her children tell us that their father was only able to do what he wanted to do, because her loyalty and her support for his purposes was total, so she practically raised them up as a single parent. Ninoy himself wrote, again and again, that he endured imprisonment and persecution, leaning so much on her courage and love. And after his death, when she could have withdrawn in a way “safely” to her own life with her children at last, she stayed on her feet and fought on in the years that followed, through the snap elections and what went before and after them, through her presidency and the seven coup attempts which tried to bring her down. Even after she had given up her rule, could she not have said “enough”, and we would all have understood? But with not the least desire for position or power again, whenever she thought the spaces of freedom and the true good of our land were threatened, she went back to the streets of struggle again.
Once again she led us out of the apathy we so readily fall into; once again she called us out of our comfort zones to the roads of sacrifice.
Purity of heart
Here, even hesitantly, may I add one trait, one virtue, to those her daughters have named? One day Cardinal Stephen Kim of South Korea asked if he might visit her. Through Ballsy, she said yes. It was a day Malaca?ang was “closed”; they were making up the roster of members of the forthcoming Constitutional Convention. Someone from the palace staff ordered us turned away when we came; it was Ballsy who rescued us. Stephen Kim, hero and saint to his own people-perhaps, along with Cardinal Sin, one the two greatest Asian Catholic prelates of our time-spent some 45 minutes talking with her. When we were on our way back, he said, “I know why the Lord has entrusted her with power, at this most difficult time…It is because she is pure of heart. She has no desire for power; even now it is with reluctance she takes it on. And she has done this only because she wants to do whatever she can for your people.” He said, “She truly moves me by the purity of her spirit. God has given a great gift to your people.”
With this purity of heart, in the scheme of the Christian Gospel, there is joined another reality which really, only the saints understand. It is suffering. How often (it is really often; over and over through the years) she spoke of suffering as part of her life. Much contemporary spirituality speaks of suffering almost as the epitome of all evil. But in fact for all the saints, it is a mystery they themselves do not really understand nor really explain, Yet they accept it quietly, simply as part of their lives in Christ. There is only one painting she ever gave me. Kris said then, when her mom gave it to me, that it was her mom’s favorite. The painting carries 1998 as its date; Cory named it “Crosses and roses.” There are seven crosses for the seven months and seven weeks of her beloved Ninoy’s imprisonment, and for the seven attempted coups during her presidency, and many roses, multicolored roses all around them. At the back of the painting, in her own hand, she wrote a haiku of her own: “Crosses and roses/ make my life more meaningful./ I cannot complain.” Often she spoke of her “quota of suffering.” When she spoke of her last illness, she said: “I thought I had filled up my quota of suffering, but it seems there is no quota. I look at Jesus, who was wholly sinless: how much suffering he had to bear for our sake.” And in her last public talk (it was at Greenmeadows chapel), the first time she spoke of her own pain: “I have not asked for it, but if it is meant to be part of my life still, so be it. I will not complain.” “I try to join it with Jesus’s pain and offering. For what it’s worth, I am offering it up for our people.” Friends here present, I tell you honestly I hesitated before going into this, this morning. But without it, part of the real Cory Aquino would be kept from view. Quite simply, this was integral to the love she bore for her people.
Thanks to her children
AT this point, may I, following the lead Mr. Rapa Lopa has given, just speak a word of thanks to President Cory’s children, who shared so much of her service and her sacrifice. They have almost never had their father and mother for themselves. For so many years, they have been asked to share Ninoy and Cory with all of us. And because of the blood and the spirit their parents have passed on to them, they too gave with generosity and grace the sacrifices we demanded of them. Ballsy and Pinky, Viel and Kris, your husbands and your children, and Senator Noynoy, may we thank you this morning from all our hearts, and may we offer also the gratitude of the hearts of a people now forever in your debt.
I have used up all my time, some of you will say, and I have not even approached the essential: her political life, that she was our nation’s unique icon of democracy, that Cory Aquino who is know throughout the world; was TIME magazine’s 1986’s woman of the year; she who led the ending of the dictatorship that had ruined our nation, the bearer of liberation, of freedom, and of hope for a prostrate people.
So, by your leave, may I add one item, along this line at last. In October 1995, Milano’s Catholic University, conferred on her the doctorate honoris causa in the political sciences (incidentally, only her twenty-third honorary degree). This was only the fifth time this particular one had been given since the university’s inception: the first time to an Asian, the first ever to a woman. She wanted, at the end of her lectio magistralis, to spell out, perhaps for the first time with some explicitness and completeness, her personal political creed. She listed seven basic beliefs which, regarding political life , she said she tried to live by. Then she spoke of one more, “one more I may not omit.” Perhaps the paragraph which followed is worth citing here, even without comment, because it has something to say to our present hour.
(We cite her words now.) “I believe that the vocation of politics must be accepted by those who take up the service of leadership as a vocation in its noblest meaning: it demands all of life. For the life of one who would lead his or her people-in our time as never before-such a life must strive for coherence with the vision aspired to, or else that vision itself and its realization are already betrayed. That vision must itself be present, in some authentic way, in those who seek to realize it: present, in the witness of their example; present, in a purity of heart vis-?-vis the exercise and usages of power; present, in an ultimate fidelity to principle, in a dedication that is ready to count the cost in terms of ‘nothing less than everything.’ It is Cardinal Newman, I believe, who said that in this world, we do good only in the measure that we pay for it in the currency of our own lives. For us Christians, there is always the image of Jesus, and the price his service demanded of him. And for me there has been, as a constant reminder, the sacrifice my husband offered, and the word that it has spoken, to me and my people.” (Cory Aquino, end of citation)
With all this said, I am done. Ma’am, tapos na po ang assignment ko. It has been so hard to do what you asked. But I comfort myself that these so many words really do not matter. What counts in the end is really-what all this week has been; these past few days’ outpouring of our people’s gratitude and love; what will come after all this today; what we will do, in the times ahead, in fidelity to your gift. I received a text last night from a man of some age and with some history behind him. “She made me proud again, to be Filipino.” Maybe that says it all. Cardinal Sin used to put it somewhat differently. “What a gift God has given our people, in giving Cory Aquino to us.” The nobility and courage of your spirit, the generosity of your heart, the grace and graciousness that accompanied you always. They called it “Cory magic”-but it was the truth, and the purity and beauty, clear and radiant within you, that we saw. And the hope that arose from that. And when the crosses came to you and you did not refuse to bear them, more to be one with your Christ and one with your people and their pain. “Blessed are the pure of heart; for they shall see God.”
Thank You Father in heaven, for your gift to us of Cory Aquino. Thank You that she passed once this way through our lives with the grace You gave her to share with us. If we give her back to you, we do it with hearts of thanksgiving, but now, oh, with breaking hearts also, because of the greatness and beauty of the gift which she was for us, the likes of which, perhaps, we shall not know again. Salamat po, Tita Cory, mahal na mahal po namin kayo.