Carlos Abesamis: The Jesuit

Greg S. Castilla has a Ph.D. in multicultural education from the University of Washington. He currently supervises the Children’s Academy of the Department of Health and Social Services in Seattle. This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, December 3, 2007 edition, pages S1/4 and S1/5.

Fr. Carlos Abesamis, a friend for many years, is suffering from cancer and is currently confined at the Jesuit infirmary at the Loyola Heights in Quezon City.  He has touched so many people, including me, not only with his friendship, but also with his commitment to social justice.  From far away Seattle, this article is written as a tribute to a man who, in his sickness, continues to “fight the good fight.”

Fr. Carlos H. Abesamis, S.J. and I have something in common in addition to having known a core of progressive Religious of the Good Shepherd nuns in the 1970s.  We were both appalled by the imposition of Martial Law in 1972 and were overwhelmed by our enthusiasm for new ways of serving the people in times of political repression. He was at that time a theology professor at the Loyola School of Theology, and I was a young Jesuit scholastic. Etched in our heart and soul was the Jesuits’ marching order to be “men for others.”

Known to many by his moniker, Abe, he was not like the colorful ex-priest Ed de la Torre who instantly, and almost magically, became the idol of young, idealistic religious men and women when he joined the underground national democratic movement.  Abe was different.  He was not the epitome of the dashing, charismatic leader.  He thrived in his quiet ways by patiently explaining to someone like me the need to critically analyze society and the role that the Church and the Jesuits should play.

He has been a great mentor to me ever since I met him.  He was partly responsible for my own political awakening.  I was with him at the historic January 26, 1970 demonstration in front of Congress when hell broke loose and a phalanx of truncheon-wielding policemen attacked a crowd of some 50,000 demonstrators.  I’ve been amazed by the way he puts into action his commitment to social justice.  Whether he is conducting a seminar for Church-affiliated groups or leading a discussion on the national situation (“nat-sit”), he can take the problems apart, analyze them, and offer a solution that defies the stereotypical activist with a ready answer. One week spent with Abe is equivalent to a week of intense discussion. He can be political without compromising his faith.

Abe is highly intelligent and he conveys that intelligence with confidence. It became quickly evident to us who watched him in action that he was not only passionate about his ideas, but he was also sincere and honest. I was drawn to him because he was simple, yet profound; critical, yet compassionate.

A visionary in his own way, it was Abe who started the concept of a “floating seminary” in the 1970s. The idea was for the seminarians to live outside the seminary and to immerse themselves among the people to understand their conditions better.  They would then meet regularly to pray and reflect on their experiences, in addition to attending formal classes.  Deemed too radical at that time, the experiment lacked organizational support and died naturally.

Although Abe understood the need for reforms not only in Philippine society, but also in the Society of Jesus and in the Church, he never compromised his Jesuit identity.  The guy really loves the Company of Ignatius that he has dedicated his life to. I bet my life he will die a Jesuit in excellent standing. Yet, when we were both residing at the Loyola House, I heard stories of fellow Jesuits criticizing Abe’s advocacy for social justice.  There were some who suspected that he was too sympathetic to the national democrats (natdem) and could be a destabilizing force among the Jesuits who seemed to be more tolerant of the social democratic (socdem) ideals.  I remember an American Jesuit opining that Abe, who is a trained Scripture scholar, taught everything in a scripture class except the Bible, implying that Abe spent his time conscienticizing or politicalizing the class instead.

Abe is solid on what matters to him the most.  Despite what his fellow Companeros think about him, he has continued to approach his work with a determinedly cautious conviction.  As a Filipino theologian and a committed advocate for social justice, he theologizes not from the perspective of the Western view of reality but from the perspective of the Filipinos.  In one of his books, A Third Look at Jesus, he makes the Bible lay-friendly and poor-friendly that it pricks the conscience of any Christian who doubts the liberating message of Christ.  Writes Jose de Mesa from the East Asian Pastoral Institute, Fr. Abesamis is a scholar who “shows concretely the importance and relevance of a perspective chosen out of a particular commitment to the poor without diminishing the imperative of biblical scholarship.”

One of Abe’s main contributions to the development of a biblically based Filipino theology is his attempt in all his writings to discover the original and authentic message of the Bible and how it should be applied to the concrete conditions of the Filipinos, especially the poor.

Because of his past participation in many political activities and his closeness to many activists, there is an aspect in his life that remains an enigma at least to some people: the extent of his involvement in the nationalist democratic struggle.  Given that the movement he once tried to understand has now undergone a serious split, the question that should probably be asked is: where is Abe within the broader Philippine Left? My opinion is he’s probably out there somewhere.  Where there is injustice, Abe will be there.

What is important is that throughout his ministry, he has never wavered in his commitment to serve the poor and the oppressed as a professor, as a scholar, as a writer, as an advocate for social change and as a true follower of St. Ignatius de Loyola. Great men are great lovers, and Abe is no exception.

That’s Abe – he is never afraid to love, no matter what the cost is.

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