Below is Fr. Rene’s speech for the awarding ceremony in Ateneo:
Let me begin by thanking the Ateneo de Manila University, Loyola Schools, for this distinct recognition: an Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Humanities. I am not naming persons or offices responsible for this honor as that would make my thanks unconscionably long; you know who you are. My thanks!
I cherish this recognition becomes it comes from my peers, my family or one of the families of which I am proud to belong, namely: my natural family, my Jesuit family and the Ateneo. I am proud to be a dark blue Atenean, that is, I trace my roots to the Ateneo Grade School.
I belong to the original ADM-GS kids (pupils they were called then) who transferred from Padre Faura to Loyola Heights in January 1955, when the Loyola campus was a cogonal, a treeless rock of cogon and the playground of summer ipo-ipo. That period of transition in 1955 marks the beginning of an addiction that after seven decades I have yet to shake off. Now don’t get me wrong and report me to PDEA so that I end up as a lifeless corpse in some ditch. The addiction I am talking about is to reading.
Reading fed my intense curiosity may desire to know. Instinctively, I had kept alive what Michael Gelb, author of How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci, says is a “principle and foundation” of Da Vincian thinking—CURIOSITÁ. And curiositá has been one of the constants in my life.
But reading did not satisfy the desire to know because as I read I had more questions and this is the reason why I fell into research, writing, and publishing. To answer questions that I faced. I am the first beneficiary of my inroads into unchartered territories of the mind and the heart. If others have found utility in my journey and what I found, I am most grateful.
The addiction to reading began with a Jesuitic plan when I was in Grade One. In preparation for transfer, the Jesuits had a bright idea that to get library books from Padre Faura to Loyola Heights the most economical way was to rely on “people power” or more accurately “student slave labor.” So the library announced that students could check out as many books as they wanted for the Christmas holidays as long as they returned them to the new library in Loyola in January. I came home happy with about a dozen books, among them Thomas Burgess’ The Adventures of Peter Cottontail, inspired by the better-known Adventures of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. I spent Christmas reading those books and got hooked on Peter Rabbit. By the time I was in second grade, I had read all volumes of Peter Cottontail then graduated to reading the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series.
I learned speed reading in high school. By the end of high school I had read all the books in the library, some 2000 or so volumes, I think. I also discovered that I think in pictures and words come later. I remember reading about mitochondrial structures in the human cell for one of the paths I was contemplating was natural science. But science would eventually need math, which I wasn’t good at. I got my lowest high school mark in algebra, “48” under Mr. Teresito Laygo. That closed that path!
My experience of the classroom from GS all the way to theology at LHS was indifferent. Frankly, I was bored in many of my classes. I was so bored in theology that I drew the panorama of Marikina Valley, seen from the LHS classrooms, not once but twice — maybe more. And in exquisite detail that would stun an Andrew Wyeth. I kept awake by sketching classmates and professors and making forgeries of ancient manuscripts, which were passed around in my New Testament classes as the Qumran scrolls.
But in the LHS libraries, I was alive and awake.
For a paper for Jack Schumacher’s Church history class, I read the 51-volume anthology of Martin Luther’s writings in English translation and for another paper, I read all of Teresa of Avila’s works in Spanish and in the English translation of Allison Peers. In theology, I began what was to be my first published book, a critical edition of the Pasyong Mahal, published by the Ateneo Press (1988). For that, I scoured through the Rizal Library, UP Library and the National Library’s Filipiniana sections and the archives of the Archdiocese of Manila (RCAM), then housed in San Carlos Seminary. Its archivist was the late Sr. Rita Ferraris, RVM, an esteemed co-worker in the world of archives, who introduced me to paleography.
I learned one thing at the Ateneo: this campus of some 80 hectares is a storehouse of data, information, and knowledge, not limited to the classroom but more outside of it—in the libraries, research centers, special collections and archives, and now in Areté. And in events, conferences, talks, workshops. And not to forget the living repositories of teachers, professors, faculty and, yes, staff and professionals.
But beyond knowledge and its accumulation, I have met in the Ateneo persons who are truth seekers for this is the end goal of curiositá. To know the truth. These exemplars have stood for the truth, despite the consequences. In the 24/7, 365 days connectivity of our wired and networked world, the viral (that insidious avatar of the popular, characterized by speed and consequently half-baked rash judgments) has become the standard of truth. Rant has upturned reason and hits replaced harmony with reality. The semblance has replaced substance, the virtual, the real. Our world that is increasingly unable to distinguish between true and fake news, alternative and politically motivated readings of history, a victim of narrow-mindedness rather than open-mindedness, the quickness to condemn rather than readiness to debate, which is a hallmark of the humanistic tradition. I am especially inspired by those who respond to rants through social media, with civility, serenity, and equanimity that can only be called a “class act.”
So where am I now? Today, I have a reading partner, Nono Alfonso, my colleague in Jescom. Both he and I aim to read a book a month, a habit, it is said, of successful executives. Books outside our comfort zones. My latest reads have nothing to do with humanities. I read Hans, Ola and Anna Rosling’s Factfulness and Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s Everybody lies Big data, new data, and what the Internet can tell us about who we really are. I recommended reading Bruce Lipton’s Biology of Belief. Lipton is a neurobiologist and geneticist who has discovered epigenetic genes, the so-called junk genes that are switched on by environmental triggers. I have yet to read Sean B. Carroll, The Serengeti Rules: The quest to discover how life works and why it matters and Niall Ferguson, The square and the tower: Networks and power, from the Freemasons to Facebook.
As for my own research and writing projects, I do have a book currently with a publisher, The Philippines by design. I am still looking for a publisher for Modern churches of the Philippines. And as the archivist of the Jesuit Philippine Province I am now editing the Positio (position paper) on Fr. Francesco Palliola, a 17th century Italian Jesuit, for the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, whose style sheet will make anyone writing a dissertation weep, all detailed in a Vatican publication, Le Cause dei Santi.
When I finally retire from teaching and if I can raise the funds for it, as the archivist of the Philippine Jesuits, I am planning an online Jesuit Archive publication, Encyclopedia of the Jesuits in the Philippines. My experience in working with the two editions of the CCP Encyclopedia of Art (1994 and 2017) has given me confidence that I will be equal the task. I already have the broad outline and began working on the first volume of Jesuit biographies.
The past has been an adventure and I like to thank the Ateneo for it.
Finally, to the young, especially to our art awardees, my takeaway advice is to be curious. Love learning for its own sake. Read a lot, online or in the old fashioned analog way of the printed book. I still get intoxicated with the smell of paper and fresh ink. Be truth seekers as you already are beauty seekers — beauty that alluring face of truth.
But also sleep well, eat heartily and be lazy—once in a while. And please don’t let schooling destroy your education. And a son of Ignatius, I say to God be the glory.