Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

RH bill needlessly dividing our people; Sagittarius Mines, Inc. leaves no stone unturned on environment issues


In addition to the six or so senators seriously committed to vote against the RH bill, reports say two more, namely, Senators Panfilo Lacson and Sergio Osmena III, have indicated they might go against it too---if it would appear that certain “morning after” pills currently banned as inducing abortion would be allowed by the RH bill if approved into law. This is the problem with the RH bill---there are many aspects that don’t tell us the entire truth and this includes the nature of those pills from abroad. A lot of people with authoritative credentials have written that some of those birth control pills do induce abortion and there’s much to be desired in the proposed bill, as far as honesty and candor are concerned.


This brings me to the salient point I raised with my friend, Manila Rep. Sandy Ocampo at a recent media party at impresario Beth Tagle’s QC home. Sandy told me she’s joining a few lady legislators who call themselves “Soul Sisters,” who are pushing the RH bill. I told her there is no need to push this bill as both sides of the issue are free to push their own agenda, such as making condoms available to those who want those devices. I argued that NGOs that advocate birth control methods have been propagating those and continue doing so even without the bill, whereas the Church and certain NGOs are pushing for natural family planning (NFP) methods. 
One group that's effective in pushing its own brand of NFP is that of Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of the Cagayan de Oro Archdiocese. Recently I was invited to a NFP seminar by this group, conducted by Mitos Rivera formerly of the DOH, and I found it easy to comprehend with the use of colored beads that separate the "safe" from the "unsafe" days. I understand that the poorer sectors take to this method because it's free from abortifacients which can be expensive and dangerous to women's health.


I lament that the RH bill is needlessly dividing our people and those who DO NOT believe in it, such as myself, are ready to do everything we can to convince believers that there is absolutely no need for such a bill. Pushing one’s advocacy either way is part and parcel of our democratic setting, but it's a far cry from legislating a bill that, for instance, reduces the delicate subject of sex education in the same category as math, science and other subjects in school, starting from Grade 5, when, as the University of Asia & the Pacific stated in its official statement, this teaching should be done "from the intimacy of family relationships and reverence for life."

Moreover, legislating widespread use of condoms among the people is deleterious to morals and values especially of the youth, as it encourages them to take sex even more lightly than they already do---when the right thing is to teach them the responsibilities of sex in the context of marriage and family life. Of course times have changed and indeed sex is now regarded so lightly, but it is ENTIRELY DIFFERENT when the law says go ahead but just use condoms that you can pick up at any barangay health center. 


I wish to cite here the view of Rep. Florencio “Bem” Noel who has taken the opposite side from his wife, Rep. Josephine Lacson-Noel on the RH bill (she's with “Soul Sisters”). Bem Noel, the chair of the House accounts committee, sees clearly that population control is not merely a question of scattering condoms and abortion-inducing pills with abandon, but of putting correct economics in place. Bem has stressed that poverty and overpopulation, which the RH bill seeks to address, could only be solved if government focused on development in the countryside, prioritizing livelihood, so that there will be enough jobs even for big families.

Right he is. In fact this blogger has long maintained that if married couples are busy with lucrative livelihood to raise their families with, they don’t need the state to dictate to  them how to manage the size of their families. The family size would automatically become manageable because the marital act becomes a cornerstone of raising a family, alongside livelihood.


As I stated earlier, I flew to General Santos City last Tuesday with other media to attend the province-wide dialogue last Friday on the mining permit for the Tampakan Copper-Gold project in South Cotabato that's being applied for by the giant multinational consortium Sagittarius Mines, Inc. (SMI). South Cotabato’s first-term Governor Arturo “Dodo” Pingoy, Jr., a medical doctor and former provincial vice-governor and then three term representative of his province, stressed that he called for the dialogue in order to properly ventilate the various issues involved in this mining project, and hear out both the pros, represented by SMI and a lot of the indigenous peoples, and those opposing it, led by Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez of the Diocese of Marbel and some members of the provincial board.

 Manila media were quite impressed to find the huge cultural center in Koronadal filled to the rafters, with the crowds staying way past lunch-time (lunch consisted of packs of steamed rice with just a little adobo-type viand) to hear out the complex issues.


It’s easy to be overwhelmed by SMI even without the arguments that its local and foreign consultants crafted from years of study. SMI is PH-based and its 40 percent controlling equity is a joint venture between the internationally operating Xstrata Copper and IndoPhil Resources, while its 60 percent non-controlling equity shareholders are the Tampakan Mining Corp. and SouthCot Mining Corp., also known as the Tampakan Group of Companies, which are Filipino companies.

Tampakan Copper-Gold, located approximately 40 kms. north of progressive GenSan, is found within the boundaries of  South Cotabato, Sarangani, Sultan Kudarat and Davao del Sur, in Regions XI and XII, and represents one of the world's largest---some say it's the largest---undeveloped copper-gold deposits in the world. The Tampakan project is a 2.4 billion metric ton deposit---13.5 million m.t. of copper and 15.8 million ounces of gold at a 0.3 percent cut-off grade.


The Tampakan project, if approved, is expected to have an operating life span of 17 years, and evidently, the effects and repercussions of an operation of this magnitude will be staggering for Ph economy. As the GM for Operations and External Relations, Mark Williams, told media, the project investment, if approved, will be 3.4 times the size of the entire Philippine mining industry and bigger than the Malampaya multinational oil and gas exploration project off the coast of Palawan, which is currently the country’s biggest foreign investment. In fact, if it's a go, Tampakan will be the biggest single foreign direct investment in the country. Construction of infrastructure requirements alone would  cost US$5.9 billion in the next two years, employing 10,000 people; and if fully operational it will involve some 2,000 personnel.

Projected income tax earnings for Ph government at the end of SMI’s 17-year operation would be about P133 billion, or an additional 1 percent to Ph's GDP per annum, while excise tax at 2 percent of gross output is computed at P28 billion. On the other hand, real estate tax and business tax to the local community in Regions XI and XII are placed at P42.7 billion, while royalties to the indigenous communities and barangays inside the project is estimated at P40 billion.


So huge is this SMI project that the whole world is watching the developments here between the giant multinational and the national and local governments, and various stakeholders, including 10 tribes from the Indigenous Peoples, the Church and the populace of the four provinces---who will all factor into the decision to approve or disapprove it. Under the Mining Code of 1995, the national government could outweigh the objections of certain local sectors, but it’s also easy to see that the national government would put a lot of weight on local concerns. The government doubtless realizes, however, that as talk in financial circles abroad goes, should it be a no-go for SMI, other foreign firms would be gravely discouraged to come into Ph.

(Next: Tampakan project through the eye of the environmental needle, and humanitarian concerns)

for comments and / or suggestions
pls email:

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Ombudsman and heads of COA, CHR, CSC and Comelec protest Palace’s “hostage” of their budgets; “Harana 2”in need of ‘ninongs’ and ‘ninangs’ for students attending its concerts

General Santos City---With media colleagues I flew into this southern city yesterday on PAL’s first flight. We immediately sailed into huge crowds along the roads that had been waiting for their beloved city-mate, Miss Universe Third Runner-up Shamcey Supsup who was arriving that morning from Manila, after her brief meeting with the President at the Ninoy Aquino Airport and a triumphant ticker-tape parade in Makati City the other day. Her mom was aboard the PAL flight with us, but Shamcey, in a fetching bare-shouldered electric-blue gown, arrived in GenSan in a gleaming white jet owned by the Araneta Group, and the crowds, including uniformed elementary and high school kids, who had been baking in the increasingly hot sun., went wild. She was met by her father who seemed quite embarrassed by all the attention his family has been getting lately. The beauty queen was ushered to a four-poster gilded float for a city motorcade that ended in the downtown auditorium where the crowds could gawk at their second world-class pride (after Manny Pacquiao).

Ah, beauty---all the world loves a beauty queen indeed and the popular talk here  (and in the rest of the country) was that if she didn’t bag the Miss Universe crown because of geo-political considerations (the world title had to be given to Angola kuno as a consolation for that African country 's  turbulent history), Shamcey should at least have been first runner-up because her beauty and talents really stood out. Or at the very least, said everyone here, she should have been second runner-up as she definitely was more beautiful than Miss Brazil; but then, they all conceded that  that third slot was a hometown decision in Sao Paolo.
Over the past few days since the Miss Universe Pageant closed I have been listening to commentaries beginning with those in my household staff, which didn't seem to depart from those around the country. Everyone seemed smitten by the beauty of the fetching lass with the wide engaging smile and dark tantalizing eyes from the land of the gigantic tunas. For a few days, Pinoys forgot their joblessness, the traffic, politicians' squabbles and OFW woes.


As for the business that brought us to GenSan, we're here to attend the multi-sectoral forum this Friday by South Cotabato Governor Arturo "Dodo" Pingoy, with longtime Bishops Dinualdo Gutierrez and Jimmy Afable, attending, on the hot issue of mining. I was only too happy to come here, for I have long maintained that our country is one of the richest in the world in minerals and these should be PROPERLY and RESPONSIBLY utilized to free our people from the bondage of poverty. A lot of this wealth is concentrated in four provinces of Regions XI and XII , namely, Sarangani, South Cotabato, Davao del Sur and Sultan Kudarat, and at the center of the forum here would be the giant multinational Sagittarius Mines, Inc.(SMI) ---which is currently applying for crucial documents to be able to operate here, including three Environmental Compliance Certificates (ECC).

As media I'd be delighted to listen to the various sides: Bishop Gutierrez (whose mind is reportedly closed to the idea of mining here), the SMI people themselves as well as the various communities that could be affected, such as the ten indigenous tribes here. I shall be reporting in this blog and over dzRH on crucial points to be raised in this forum in Koronadal, South Cotabato.


Political figures and media commentators continue to be preoccupied with the Palace’s continuous hold on the P101.5 billion in unspent funds that should rightly belong to the judiciary and independent constitutional bodies---now termed the Miscellaneous Personnel Benefits Fund (MPBF). Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Sen. Joker Arroyo had earlier rang alarm bells over the Palace’s "hijacking" of these unspent appropriations for unfilled positions in all three branches of government into the MPBF. The  senators termed this move clearly unconstitutional and aimed at Palace control of agencies intended by the Constitution to enjoy full fiscal autonomy, so that they could be truly independent in their functions. 

Enrile, in fact, lambasted the Palace "hijack" move in such strong terms that I can foresee an attempt in coming weeks to  oust him from the Senate's helm if he continues to prove intractable. But given his stature and his unrivaled experience in government, I think JPE should lead the “Be Not Afraid” movement. For if he is ousted from his post by perhaps the super-ambitious Franklin Drilon, JPE could fall right into the lap of the people for defending the fiscal autonomy of the judiciary, the Ombudsman and the Commissions on Audit, Elections, Civil Service and Human Rights.

At the recent plenary debates in the House, Senior Deputy Minority Leader Danilo Suarez of Quezon asserted that should these questionable violations of the fiscal autonomy of these constitutional bodies and the judiciary persist, he is prepared to raise this issue to  the Supreme Court. If this happens, I can almost predict another memorable “encounter” between the SC and the Palace, as the Court itself is under the gun now.  Suarez’s move would be a good test case of a crucial constitutional issue.

To add more drama to this sore issue, Standard columnist Gary Olivar, who had served as Deputy Press Secretary in former President Arroyo’s time, wrote last Tuesday that the five heads of the above-mentioned constitutional bodies recently complained in writing to Budget Secretary Butch Abad “about government’s ‘taking hostage’ of their respective budget funds, which they claimed was a violation of their fiscal autonomy.” Olivar  stressed that except for one  agency (the Civil Service Commission) all the other agency heads were appointed by P-Noy, but now they are all complaining of this terrible violation.  It's that bad.


I strongly recommend to you readers that you indulge yourself in a beautiful concert called “Ang Bagong Harana” or as the singers fondly call it, “Harana 2,” to be staged by the Philippine Opera Company (POC) on Sept. 29 and 30, 2011, at 8 pm. and on Oct. 1, at 3:30 pm. and 8 pm. at the Carlos P.  Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza in Makati City. I had invited guests to the first Harana Concert two years ago, and I must tell you that it was just beautiful  and both Pinoys and foreigners who saw it were delighted. Harana 2 promises to outdo Harana 1, as it brings more  opera and theater talents, composers and arrangers under the direction of Floy Quintos, and features our best-loved contemporary love songs and folk music from various regions, in full  native costumes and choreography.  As “Harana 2” puts it, this is a “musical journey every Filipino should take.”

By the way, POC's lovely and indefatigable prexy, soprano Karla Gutierrez, is asking for “Ninongs” and “Ninangs” who can help underwrite the subsidy for discounted students' tickets to “Harana 2” concerts. A P10,000 donation from each “Ninang” and “Ninong” will help 50 students attend a concert for only P150 per head, as the Ninang or Ninong will subsidize the P200 for each student ticket costing P350. This is a most worthy donation, for I have always maintained that our students, especially from the public schools, should be  given every chance to attend these cultural shows, so that they grow up familiar with our very own music. Please help out, you Ninangs and Ninongs.

Call POC at 881-7168 or Karla at 0917 5272 880, or TicketWorld at 891 9999, or log on to www.philippineoperacompany.com, or Like Harana on Facebook.

For comments/reactions, please email:

Sunday, September 18, 2011

SC’s TRO on ARMM latest encounter between Palace and SC; ERDA’s Fr. Pierre Tritz celebrates 97th birthday and going strong

That the Supreme Court, voting 8-4, issued last week a TRO against the President’s appointment of OICs in the ARMM region came as no surprise to me. I had followed the two long hearings the SC conducted on the challenge to RA 10153, the law passed by Congress seeking to postpone the August 2011 elections in ARMM and to synchronize them with the 2013 national and local elections. While the Court did not rule outright on RA 10153’s constitutionality, it stopped President Aquino from appointing OICs in place of elected ARMM officials ending their term this Sept. 30.

The TRO came after the Office of the President had advertised extensively for interested parties to apply for the various elected regional and local positions in ARMM and its five provinces. Had the TRO not been issued, the OP would have indeed appointed those OICs. But now the SC says that until the legal issues are resolved by the Court, the elected officials stay put.  

The TRO is being read as the latest encounter in the running battle between the two branches of government  since P-Noy’s assumption.Very much a part of that battle is the Palace's decision to withhold the unspent budget of the judiciary for judicial appointments. Under the Constitution the judiciary is guaranteed full fiscal autonomy; hence this fiscal tightening by the Palace is being viewed quite darkly by sensible senators such as Juan Ponce Enrile and Joker Arroyo, as well as by constitutionalists. 


The Star headlined recently that Comelec feels that the ARMM elections are “in limbo” because of this TRO. I’m tempted to ask at this point: but who created that "limbo" situation in the first place? Wasn't it the Palace, which pressured its allies in Congress push for postponement of the ARMM elections even without going through the requisites of amendments to the Organic Act that had created ARMM in the early '90s? Those unfulfilled requisites were: a vote of 2/3 of both chambers voting separately (the House vote was 60 votes away from 2/3), and a plebiscite in ARMM to approve or disapprove that  amendment.


In the two extensive hearings on RA 10153, most of the SC justices were openly sympathetic to the arguments of opposing parties, namely, former UP Law Dean Pacifico Agabin, House Minority Leader Edcel Lagman and former Sen. Nene Pimentel, on these  missing requisites. Thus, to me and doubtless to many others who sat through those hearings, what proved surprising---more than the TRO---was that Justices Antonio Carpio and Ma. Lourdes Sereno would be among the four who voted against the TRO.

I especially thought Carpio was vehemently against RA 10153 as he pointedly lectured Solicitor-General Joel Cadiz that it directly disregarded the ARMM people’s autonomy, as enshrined in the Organic Act for ARMM, or RA 6734, as amended by RA 7054. Yet Carpio voted against stopping P-Noy from appointing OICs to what he  himself felt was the “least defensible option”---postponing the ARMM elections without the legal requisites.


In legal and political circles, the popular conclusion is that the Liberal Party is behind postponement of the ARMM elections, so that it could install Palace-appointed OICs who would allow the party to better control the outcome of the 2013 and 2016 elections for its presumptive candidate, Trade Secretary Mar Roxas. It's no coincidence that those who challenged RA 10153 were Lakas minority leader Edcel Lagman and Nene Pimentel of PDP-Laban. The latter supposedly remains allied with P-Noy but its top honcho , VP Jejomar Binay, has just announced his "intention to become 'A ' President."

The speculation now is that with the LP pushing for Roxas for 2016, his top legal adviser, former Defense Chief Avelino “Nonong” Cruz, may have asked his former law partner in “The Firm,” Justice Carpio, to vote against the SC’s TRO despite his strong stand against the perceived abuse of ARMM autonomy by RA 10153.


Tomorrow, Sept. 19, Fr. Pierre Tritz, S.J., founder and President of ERDA Foundation, celebrates his 97th birthday with a 6:30 am. mass at the Hospital of the Infant Jesus in Laon-Laan St., Sampaloc, Manila, where he has been chaplain for a long time now (to save on living quarters rental). The ERDA family, led by its board chair, Fr. Johnny Go, President of Xavier School in Greenhills, celebrated Tritz’s birthday last Friday, where the birthday boy, still ramrod-straight and ruddy-cheeked, enjoyed reminding all that he continues to be perhaps the oldest living Jesuit in the world; but if that doesn’t hold true, he says he’s certainly the 'oldest working' Jesuit in the Philippines, if not in the world. Tritz also pointed out with a sparkle in his eyes that renowned Magsaysay Awardee James B. Reuter is five years his junior in this most exclusive club of Jesuits above 90.

At the party I chatted with the Infant Jesus Hospital’s founder, Dr. Rolando Songco, who continues to look after Fr. Tritz. Songco, himself 86 and still tirelessly attending to patients, said that except for an occasional memory drift, Tritz remains healthy and strong.


I have the privilege of working with Fr. Tritz at ERDA since the mid-70s, after I was innocently invited to a lugawan to raise funds for its scholarship program for poorest of the poor schoolchildren by my friend from UPSCA days, Susan Sulit. Since then I---like many other ERDA volunteers---have been hooked by the enigmatic personality of this French-born, naturalized-Filipino priest (who was administered the citizenship oath by Ferdinand Marcos, together with 20 other foreign-born Jesuits in 1974) and the cause he has espoused all these decades---the education of poor Filipino street-children.

In the late 40’s, after China was overrun by the Communists, Tritz, along with other missionaries who had worked there for years, had to flee; after some months in the US he was shipped by the Jesuit Order to the Philippines while it shopped for another Asian assignment for him. He got stuck and while teaching psychology at the Ateneo and the Araneta University he began looking into the then---as now---dismal statistics on school drop-outs here, caused by grinding poverty and social factors. 


Fr. Johnny Go of Xavier School

In 1974 he put up ERDA Foundation which yearly supports close to 30,000 schoolchildren in various levels--- preventing them from becoming drop-out stats. In the early ‘90s, anticipating the country’s need for young people trained in industrial skills, Tritz contemplated setting up a high school that would combine academic studies with technical-vocational training that would help prepare the poorest students for immediate employment after high school. Thus was born the five-year ERDA Technical-Vocational High School (ERDA Tech) in Pandacan (way ahead of today’s K-12 program) where yearly, over 600 students are trained, all free of tuition, in skills such as electrical, automotive, baking and drafting.

In recent years, the entry of the brilliant and dynamic Fr. Johnny Go as ERDA chair has facilitated the infusion of talent, resources and direction from the elite Jesuit-run Xavier School in Greenhills to the Pandacan school. The interaction has been rewarding and enriching--- Xavier personnel Jane Natividad and Mark Magsalin have joined ERDA-Tech as its principal and assistant principal, respectively, while a number of Xavier faculty do volunteer teaching in English, Math, etc. at Pandacan. 

On the other hand, the Xavier Parents’ Auxiliary helps look after the needs of ERDA Tech students, especially since they found out, for instance, that some students from very poor families couldn’t attend school together as they have to rotate use of only one pair of shoes; or a good number would have fainting spells in mid-morning because they go to school without breakfast.


It all started with the selflessness of a ramrod-straight priest with his French aquiline nose and big heart, an awardee of the French Legion of Honor medal. If you folks want to help Tritz’s students win a ticket to tomorrow’s bright future, invest in an ERDA scholarship---it costs only P30,000 for the entire year. I have profiles of the ten poorest and can email them to you. Or you can call ERDA Tech today at tel. 564-1857, or the office of Fr. Tritz, tel. 732-3198.

For comments/reactions, please email:

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Pilgrim’s Progress, according to Fr. Bienvenido Nebres

Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, S.J.

Earlier I wrote about the changing of the guard at the Ateneo University last Thursday, Sept. 8, as Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, a Ph.D. in mathematics and its president for 18 years, the longest tenure in its 152 years, turned over the mace to Fr. Jose Ramon Villarin, an astronomical scientist and its youngest president at age 51. Fr. Nebres continues to be involved in higher education and linking up the Ateneo U with the public school system through the Ateneo Center for Educational Development.


But there’s another story just as fascinating about Fr. Nebres and that’s the 37-day pilgrimage he made to Santiago de Compostela, the revered traditional pilgrimage site in northwestern Spain, that he began right after his university term. His solo "peregrinacion" took him on foot through sun and rain, heat and cold, over flatlands, mountains (some as steep as his 700 meters straight-up climb  over 6 kms., after having walked 24 kms. already in the last stage!) and down spectacular valleys that are at times quite slippery, forests as well as isolated trails---a total walk of 800 kms. from June 1 to July 7, 2011.


What was truly remarkable about Nebres' pilgrimage was that he had turned 71 years old last March, so that such a long arduous journey that involved walking anywhere from 22 kms. up to over 30 kms. DAILY, except for the one day of rest he allowed himself each week, was really physically punishing. Yet he managed not only to get to the finish line, the magnificent Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, but he was able to either attend mass daily in various churches and chapels along the route, or even concelebrate it, and attend benedictions and pilgrims' rosary recitations as well. 

 In fact, at the end of his pilgrimage Nebres was fit enough to fly to the UK to be commencement speaker at the Liverpool Hope University and receive an honorary doctorate degree from it. At last week’s investiture for his successor, Nebres, looking quite trim and tanned, raved about being able to see some very old and beautiful churches, with parts dating from the 9th century, along the pilgrim route.
Liverpool Hope University


I am familiar with the Compostela pilgrimage route as my husband, daughter Christine and I had followed it in a reverse manner in August, 1999---but by car. We drove along the coast of Portugal and arrived at Santiago de Compostela in time to attend the famous noon mass at the imposing Cathedral, and witness the unforgettable ritual of the swinging of the world’s greatest dispenser of incense, the botafumeiro, across the immense length of the transept. 

From Santiago we took the coastal route in northern Spain, passing by historic cities such as Burgos (birthplace of its national hero, El Cid Campeador) and Leon with their magnificent Spanish-Gothic cathedrals, and Pamplona of the running of the bulls fame (and Ernest Hemingway’s setting for one of his novels) in Navarra, and down the Pyrenees to Lourdes, the shrine of Our Lady. From Lourdes we worked our way up the Pyrenees again and headed to Madrid via Logrono, Zaragoza, etc.. Along the way we met many people travelling on foot in their brown pilgrim’s garb and sandals, with the typical hat, wooden staff and scallop-shaped shell symbol  that doubles up as water scoop in mountain streams.


St. James the Moor-slayer
I had been reading about Santiago de Compostela over the years as part of my unadulterated love for Europe and had always wanted to visit it. Over the mist of centuries the popular belief is that its great cathedral houses the remains of the Apostle St. James, often referred to as "St. James the Greater," who was the brother of St. John the Apostle and the first bishop of Jerusalem.  According to legend, St. James' remains were transported to Spain by his disciples after his beheading in Jerusalem, but over time he was forgotten until his tomb was discovered in the early 800s. 

In later centuries of battles with the Moors, Santiago was credited with a lot of victories for Spain, so that he came to be known as "Santiago Matamoro" (St. James the Moor-Slayer). This prompted the beginning of pilgrimages along the ancient camino and the resulting commerce caused Santiago de Compostela to grow in prestige and importance from the 1100s.

In centuries of internecine wars among Spanish lords, the pilgrimage to Santiago suffered a decline. But it has seen a revival in recent times---a mixture of religious piety and fervor, history, fun and challenge and adventure. For pilgrims the high point is the mass at the Cathedral, followed by the visit behind the high altar to kiss the bronze statue of Santiago and venerate his remains beneath it.


King Ferdinand & Queen Isabela of Spain
In 1999 we toured this ancient city and were totally enthralled by its great baroque cathedral especially at night, when it’s bathed in purple and gold, and the hospital next door that Los Reyes Catolicos, Ferdinand and Isabela, had built supposedly with some of the loot from Granada, to shelter the poor and infirmed. In recent times it was converted into a beautiful but pricey "parador," as they call Spain's historic sites converted into government-run hotels. But all those travels through northern Spain we did by car, whereas Fr. Nebres went on foot.

He started from the opposite side, the French town of St. Jean Pied de Port, the traditional meeting place at the foot of the Pyrenees for pilgrims from all over Europe, who cross that great mountain range along the “Camino Frances” and on to the Spanish Camino. Thanks to his enormous self-discipline, Nebres was able to chronicle his daily progress in his Ipod and send it nightly from the pensions or Jesuit houses where he’d stay, to Rona Valenzuela, his former assistant in the Ateneo. She would then forward them to two other former staffers, Joy Fernandez and Vina Relucio, to put into proper shape and post to avid followers of his blog. 


To be able to undertake such a rigorous schedule Fr. Nebres obviously had to be super-fit; but as his friends point out, he has been jogging for at least 40 years in whatever city he’d find himself in---Quezon City or Beijing, Shanghai, Rome, etc.  To prepare for this pilgrimage he did time on Mt. Sto. Tomas in Baguio and became a familiar jogging figure around the Ateneo campus, where on rainy days he’d jog on the second floor of the Moro Lorenzo Sports Complex. As Vina told me, Nebres himself planned the trip and did all the coordination with Jesuit houses in that part of Spain where he would stay for the night, as well as with pensions and hotels along the Camino. So organized was he that his Ipod contained his whole breviary and mass readings for the whole year.

As he had to walk from 22 to 32 kms. daily, he had to minimize the baggage he carried to 4 kilos, which includes his  water supply and the bocadillo (sandwich), so as not to aggravate the osteoarthritis in his neck (he would send his  other personal effects, including his  Ipod, to his next stops through an efficient local transport company). He wore out two extra pairs of shoes and by the time he returned to Manila he was 10 lbs. lighter and his belt two notches deeper.


Nebres’ account of his pilgrimage makes charming reading as it detailed not only regional cuisines (such as an adobo-like cooking of the pulpo or octopus) but also the spirit of oneness of pilgrims from all over the world, many of them young people, or young couples pushing baby prams on ancient isolated trails. Most of the pilgrims were determined to get their credenciales that certified that they had reached the end-goal (Santiago de Compostela) as attested by the sello (stamp) at every stop. His entries spoke of that welcome breather in some roadside bar---the precious cafĂ© con leche to drive away sleepiness, or a cold soft drink for a parched throat---and the "menu del peregrino" that all of them looked forward to in the pensiones as the long days wore on into nights.

Sta. Teresa De Avila
Nebres' daily accounts give thumbnail descriptions of the quaint places he crossed, such as Burgos, where Sta. Teresa de Avila founded her last Carmelite monastery before she died, and Terradillos de los Templarios, the half-way mark at 387.5 km.; and some spectacular sceneries and the legends that went with them. 

Emperor Charlemagne
His mention of Roncesvalles stirred memories of readings of my youth. That was the valley in the Pyrenees where Roland, nephew of Emperor  Charlemagne, met his death valiantly  defending the narrow pass from Saracen invaders, while awaiting reinforcements from his uncle who could hear---quite helplessly---the boy's plaintive plea for help from his horn as it wafted over the mountains. Roland's gallant last stand was the subject of the epic 12th century poem dear to every French pupil’s heart---the "Song of Roland" (“Chanson de Roland”).

I couldn’t put down Fr. Nebres’ account once I got started.  My one regret was that my husband, Christine and I should have walked the pilgrim’s way instead of driving in 1999.

For reactions/comments, pls. email:

Saturday, September 10, 2011

“We have to help our country love itself again”---says new Ateneo president, Fr. Jett Villarin

Fr. Jose Ramon Villarin S.J.

Last Thursday, Sept. 8, Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I attended the investiture of Fr. Jose Ramon “Jett” Villarin, S.J. as the 30th President of the Ateneo  University. My family has been in the Ateneo for at least three generations now, and I myself had worked in the Ateneo College of Law as assistant to its late Regent, Fr. Pacifico  Ortiz, where I also had the privilege of interacting with then Ateneo President Francisco Araneta (Fr. Ortiz eventually also became President of the university). So the investiture of the new president was a must for me.

Fr. Bienvenido Nebres
Last Thursday was momentous as it was a changing of the guard. The lanky, ascetic-looking Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, 71, who had served as President for 18 critical years in the nation’s history (“far too long,” he quipped to Cecile Alvarez and me in our dzRH interview many months ago) was turning over the university mace to a short boyish-looking scientist  20 years his junior, who enjoys playing the piano and his guitar to relax.


Henry Lee Irwin Theater

A rite of passage always heightens expectancy, especially in the case of the recent investiture at the Ateneo, which saw the end of the longest-running presidential tenure in its 152 -year history, and the coming in of perhaps the youngest president at least in contemporary times. One felt the excitement among the academic cap-and-gowned community assembled at the Henry Lee Irwin Auditorium as well as in the students gathered at the Ateneo Gym, watching from giant TV screen. 

Fr. Jose Cecilio Magadia
The festivities began the evening before with an elegant concert by various campus choral groups at the Church of the Gesu (where, among others, one of my favorite songs, “Light of a Million Mornings,” was beautifully rendered by the Ateneo Glee Club). Thursday began with the solemn mass of thanksgiving, ushered in by the impressive processional of all the Loyola Jesuits led by Provincial Superior Jose Cecilio Magadia, followed by the investiture ceremony and dinner. 


It was also the first time that the President of the Republic had graced an Ateneo investiture, administering the oath of office in Filipino to the incoming school prexy. Perhaps in the excitement of the moment Villarin, garbed in the black and yellow robe of his Ph.D alma mater, Georgia Institute of  Technology in Atlanta, forgot to acknowledge the presence of Chief Justice Renato Corona seated on stage with P-Noy and school dignitaries; but the CJ took it gracefully, smiling at the jokes the new Ateneo exec cracked.

The invitation to P-Noy was no accident, as he was one year behind (AB Economics ’81) Villarin’s BS '80 class in the Ateneo, and they are said to be good friends. When I learned this, I found myself hoping that Villarin would capitalize on this friendship and help put together even an informal think-tank (or what he calls “strategic thinkers”) for the President, who obviously could use brain infusion into his circle of advisers.


Checking out the biographies of Villarin and and his predecessor, one easily concludes the generation gap; but actually their lives intersected quite closely. Both are scientists and the fact that they succeeded each other augurs well for a much-needed impetus to the sciences here.

Nebres holds a master's and  Ph.D in Mathematics both from Stanford University (getting his doctorate in record year and a half) and Villarin a master’s in Physics from the Jesuit-run Marquette University in Wisconsin (“known for Jesuits engaged in science”) and a Ph.D in Atmospheric Sciences from Georgia Tech, in addition to his bachelor’s degree in sacred theology from the Loyola School of Theology, summa cum laude. The presidency of the Jesuit-run Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro also proved to be the immediate springboard to the Ateneo de Manila's helm for both.

Fr. Nebres chalks up among his numerous accomplishments his being a founder of the “Consortium” of leading universities in Manila to develop Ph.D. programs in math, physics and chemistry, with the view to developing here a critical mass of scientists in these areas. Evidently, as Ateneo College Dean he had already spotted the young  Villarin who in 1980 graduated with a BS in Physics, magna cum laude and class valedictorian. Thus later, as Jesuit Provincial Superior, Nebres turned down the request of the latter, by then a newly-ordained Jesuit, to be assigned to Mindanao with his brother scholastics out on regency. Instead the Superior gave him a physics book and said, ‘You go to Marquette University and study.” “Had I not gone there,” the new Ateneo prexy mused, “I would have lost my interest in science.”


The new President's investiture speech listed three “strategic concerns” of the Ateneo as a Jesuit, Catholic and Filipino university: namely, its identity and mission, nation-building, and environment and development, or as he put it, "God's creation." His scientific background studded his speech with environmental images of the nation, e.g., referring to it as “a garden that has been given to us in trust," so that “we cannot leave this garden, the way it is now, to our children.”

Villarin emphasized, among other things, the need to realize that the use of non-renewable resources for fuel development "has begun to tax the carrying and replenishment capacity of certain crucial reservoirs or lifelines of the earth," and he called on the academic community to help dramatize this crisis. But his environmental wish-list also detailed practical concerns for society: e.g., “we need to plant forests, not trees,” and “we need more parks, not more parking.”


Villarin has been involved in allied concerns on global warming since his foreign student days, winning several awards here and abroad for his work. For instance, his work on greenhouse gas emissions resulted in his becoming part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize together with Al Gore. Hopefully his presidency of the Ateneo would help focus more sharply the local academic community's attention on the devastating effects of this global menace---enough to prod our LGUs to act with more alarm and urgency.  

But I like most his remark, “We have to help our country love itself again.”


Villarin’s election to the helm of the country’s leading private university also comes at a most crucial time---when our top four universities (the others being the UP, De la Salle University and UST) fell in ranking among the world’s top universities for 2011-12, according to the London-based Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), a company specializing in education and study abroad. UP fell 18 points, from 314th last year to 332nd this year, while Ateneo registered an even bigger plunge of 53 points, from 307th last year to 360th.  De la Salle University and UST scored even more dismally, with DLSU dropping from the 451-500 bracket to the 551-600 bracket and UST from the 551-600 bracket last year, to be stricken off the top 600-list this year.


It hurts that as our leading universities have fallen from academic grace in the QS ratings, a number of universities from Asia such as in Hongkong, Singapore, Tokyo, Kobe, Seoul and one or two from China landed among the TOP 50, alongside European and American schools (topnotcher for the second straight year is the University of Cambridge in the UK, followed by Harvard, Massachussetts Institute of Technology and Yale in the US, and Oxford in UK).

The deterioration in higher education---as well as in education in general---is attributed to the decreasing support from government, as evidenced by sharp cuts in the budget of the UP (from P6.9 billion in 2010 to P5.53 this year---or P1.39 billion less), and the 112 state colleges and universities (from P23.8 billion last year to P23.4 billion this year---or P400 million less). TESDA, the critical vocational training ground for the less privileged, also saw its budget slashed even bigger.

Rep. Angelo Palmones
As AGHAM party-list Rep. Angelo Palmones notes in our dzRH program (to be aired tomorrow night, Sunday, Sept. 11 at 8 pm.), it should not surprise anyone that our universities have fallen in the QS ratings, as there has been little government support for them. Palmones stresses that thanks for the rallies staged by UP students and state colleges and universities, their budgets were restored to a certain degree, but he also lamented that a measly P9 billion or 0.01 percent share in the GDP is allocated to scientific research, including those of Pag-Asa. On the other hand, the administration wants to increase the conditional cash transfer (CCT) funding to P39 billion for next year, despite DSWD's failure to properly monitor the funds and defective listings of beneficiaries. 

For reactions/comments, pls. email: