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.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Loyola School of Theology president Fr. Joe Quilongquilong simply sought to let God’s grace work on Rome-based artist Tomas Concepcion, by cultivating his friendship over years despite Tom’s diatribes vs. the Church. In the end, the Good Shepherd found His stray sheep.

Fr. Jose V.C. Quilongquilong,  S.J.,
President of Loyola School of Theology and Rector of Loyola House of Studies
I’m sure many of you readers want to feel good this rainy Saturday night and are raring for stories that will warm your hearts---instead of the fare of endless scams about pork barrel and the conflict in Mindanao that have incessantly been featured in mainstream media. Allow me then to recall an elegant and eloquent event last July 5, 2013 at the Loyola School of Theology (LST).  

It was the installation of our family friend, Rev. Fr. Jose V.C. Quilongquilong, S.J., a native of Medellin, Cebu, as 9th president of LST (inaugurated in 1965), who has also held the concurrent position since 2011 of rector of Loyola House of Studies in the Ateneo de Manila campus.

But lest you readers become fearful that this blog is all about abstract and soaring theology, let me tell you that there’ll be a story to tug at your heartstrings---a conversion to grace where Fr. Joe was instrumental and which, to my mind, embodies the gospel values far more than a stack of theology books can;  It's a true and inspiring narrative of evangelization and mercy which is also a favorite message of Pope Francis.


The LST, billed as “A Jesuit, Filipino and Asian Ecclesiastical Faculty of Theology,” is a major institution involved in the formation of close to 400 students from 20 countries not only in Asia but as far as Europe, Africa and Latin America, and---more importantly--- in the molding of priests here and in Asia.

Because of this raison d’etre, the appointment of LST’s president, duly endorsed by the Superior General of the Society of Jesus to the Vatican, has to be approved by Rome. On May 15, 2013, the feast of “St. Isidore of Madrid, the Farmer,” Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome signed the nearly 50-year old Fr. Quilongquilong’s appointment to LST’s presidency for three years.

Fr. Joe entered the Society of Jesus in May 1983 and made his final vows at the Church of the Gesu in Rome in December 2009. He obtained his Doctorate in Sacred Theology (Spirituality), summa cum laude, from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 2011 where previously he won his Licentiate in the same field, also summa cum laude, in 2001.


Last July 5’s LST ceremony was a twin celebration. First the academic convocation that announced Fr. Joe’s appointment by Jesuit Provincial Antonio F. Moreno, and the turnover of the medallion of office from outgoing prexy Fr. Jose Mario Francisco to Fr. Joe, who delivered his inaugural address in his flowing black office robes, with the LST’s impressive faculty in full attendance in their cap and gown.

Then followed a mass with the community and its guests, with Archbishop of Cebu and outgoing CBCP president Jose Palma as main celebrant, and Archbishop of Manila Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle as homilist. In impressive attendance were no less than 40 bishops who had just finished their annual CBCP conference and carried the best wishes of their colleagues for Fr. Joe.

The reason for Quilongquilong’s popularity may lie in Cebu Archbishop and CBCP President Jose Palma's description of him as the “most diocesan of all the Jesuits” (indeed, included among Fr. Joe’s myriad friends are a good number of Opus Dei priests).


Cardinal Tagle, with his God-given talent for beautifully integrating his homilies according to a given theme, seized on the gospel for that First Friday:  Christ the Good Shepherd who abandons his 99 good sheep in search of one stray sheep---“the central mystery of the God of Love who lays down his life for his sheep.” Tagle admonished Quilongquilong to ensure that all of LST’s tracks would lead to the same objective---“Who is this Love? What does it mean to be loved by this God, the heart of a Shepherd 'wounded' by Love?”

Tagle then teased Fr. Joe about being kind not only to LST students who are doing good, but also to those who “are failing and snoring in class,” warning that this would require “a different kind of love---the Heart of Jesus.” Fr. Joe promised to be kind to the slow ones.   

On the other hand, Archbishop Palma invoked the “Holy Spirit of Wisdom” so that the whole human culture will be steeped in the Gospel. He reminded the attendees that the first-ever Jesuit Pope, Francis (now on his 200th day in office) carries in his Pectoral Cross the image of the Good Shepherd.


Fr. Joe’s inaugural address recalled the “mystical experience” of St. Ignatius beside the river Cardoner in Manresa, Spain, where he stayed for 10 months in March 1522 to mid-February 1523, while recuperating from wounds sustained in war, and how this “mystical experience became the turning point in Ignatius’ spiritual life.” He also dissected the spiritual and cultural values to which LST adheres as a major instrument of the Church in PH and Asia, vowing fidelity to the teachings of the bishops.

But to my mind, nothing illustrates Fr. Joe’s fidelity to gospel values better than his personal crusade for years to win back to Christ a stray soul. I am witness to this.


Our common friend, the late famed Filipino painter-sculptor Tomas Concepcion (a Maranao-an on his mother’s side and younger brother of late PCGG Commissioner Mary Concepcion Bautista, as well as a Presidential Merit Medal awardee by President GMA), based in Rome for over 40 years, had alienated himself from the Church. He lived a bohemian life in his salad days, acting bit roles in Italian films, and though he lived five minutes from the Vatican walls, Tom hadn't been inside San Pietro in years .

In fact, when my husband and I would visit with him in Rome and in his estate in Tarquinia, north of Rome, from time to time, he would spew out acid criticisms of Italian politicians as well as Cardinals, bishops, etc.---except for Pope John Paul II for whom somehow he never lost his regard (Tom was commissioned to carve a life-size statue of JPII that’s now in Guam).

During the 11 years that Fr. Joe Quilongquilong spent in Rome (five years at the Collegio Bellarmino as a full-time student at the Pontifical Gregorian University and six years at the Jesuit Curia, its headquarters in Rome, working directly under the Father General as regional secretary for Asia-Pacific) he became fast friends with Tom. 

From time to time on weekends, the artist would invite Fr. Joe over to lunch in Rome or in Tarquinia where Tom would ramble on, dishing out his usual cynicism toward the Church.


But over the years, after infinite bottles of connoisseur Italian wine to wash down Tom’s delicious pastas, Fr. Joe never lost his patience with his friend. Amid Tom's boring diatribes he also kept on talking about God and His Love. On Tom’s birthday he would celebrate mass in Tarquinia.

A few weeks before Fr. Joe was to finally return to Manila in late 2011, Tom asked him over to Tarquinia for a strange mission: to bless a rather tall, pregnant-looking statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary with a wide square base that he had sculpted, which stood in the garden.

Tom explained to his astounded friend that when he dies he wants his ashes interred in that base beneath Mother Mary. Fr. Joe then began reading the prayers for blessing and suddenly Tom broke out into torrents of tears, utterly disconsolate. He wept for a long while.


I surmise that Tom’s whole life passed in front of him at that moment, and he felt truly sorry for his bitterness toward the Church. At some point he told Fr. Joe that “the Blessed Mother must have loved me all this time.”

In October 2011 my son Conrad, two family friends, Prof. Nena Cruz and Bobby Miralles, and I had a chance to visit with Tom in Tarquinia and he proudly showed us that statue of Mary. But he didn’t tell us of his plan for it.

After Fr. Joe arrived in Manila from Rome later that year, he found a book that Tom had gifted him years back that he had forgotten to even unwrap. It was a copy of Tom’s memoirs, probably published in 2003, titled “Lo Straniero---memorie fra dolce vita e politica.”  This writer had encouraged him to write those memoirs and I even did initial editing.

With the book was an autographed note dated April 4, 2004, that said, “To Fr. Joe---my most understanding guide to a most understanding God.”  It was obvious from those words that all those years the Good Shepherd had been slowly guiding His stray sheep back to the Corral.   

About the middle of 2012, Fr. Joe learned that Tom had died of a heart attack. His ashes are interred in Mama Mary's statue.

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  1. Padre Joe è stato sepre un buon pastore per tutti. For those who know and meet him in person regardless of nationality were blessed for in him we found the "Alter Xtus" who's good, so tender, loving and kind. Thanks Fr. Joe for being part of our lives. So grateful pud diay sa mga songs for San Pedro Kalungsud nga imong gipadala.

    Congratulations, More Power and God Bless all.

  2. Glad you like the story, Janine Cuenca. I found the occasion to tell that story about the religious encounter between Fr. Joe and our mutual friend Tomas Concepcion after Fr. Joe was installed as LST President. It's a story that needed an occasion to be told, in our secular world where relatively few would be interested in that kind of narration. I enjoyed writing about it because my husband and I and our son Buddy knew Tom pretty well and we loved him dearly. We felt so sad at his sudden passing.