05312024.Web.Banner Fr Mars P Tan SJ

Homily: Toward the New Normal: Opening to Newness
Xavier University Retreat Closing Mass, June 9, 2021

Several years back, when I was a young Jesuit doing my Juniorate studies (with Fr Gaby), our English professor, the late Fr Alfeo Nudas asked us to read and study a poem, a sonnet, “God’s Grandeur”. According to the poem, the world is charged with the grandeur of God, meaning that he is ever-present in his creation. Everywhere we look, we ought to be able to see signs of this. However, oftentimes we fail to see God in his creation because we treat a piece of an object, a sad event, or a space of green grass as nothing but something dead, for our own use and for exploitation. Despite this, however, nature "is never spent." This means that, even if we exploit nature and continue to ignore God’s constant presence around us, the uniqueness of each created thing—its inner nature—will always still be there, living beneath the surface. The poet states “there, lives the dearest freshness deep down things," waiting to be discovered by us

This we can relate to one Ignatian value, we are familiar with, "Finding God in all Things". No surprise because the poet who wrote God’s Grandeur was a Jesuit, considered one of the greatest poets of the Victorian era, Gerard Manley Hopkins.

The spiritual truth that God is found in all things gives us the ray of hope even in our most difficult times. This hope is anchored on the love of God for us that is persistent through time and trials. In the first reading, this is how God accompanied Israel like a child out of Egypt and took care of them with His enduring love.

Similarly, Finding God in all things suggests that there is a newness that can be found in every event, in every person no matter how “spent” or “wasted” he is or it is. Our retreat’s theme “Toward the New Normal: Opening to Newness” places this spiritual truth in the context of the pandemic, where we are right now, and the new normal, where we will be afterward, hopefully. And similar to the Ignatian value, it strongly directs the retreatants, we, to be open to newness, the “dearest freshness deep down things, deep down the pains and suffering we endure.

Our retreat points giver, Fr Lito Ocon, talked about the suffering of humanity because of Covid, and this he personally experienced as a chaplain of the PGH. He narrated to us real stories of people he encountered, rich and poor alike, who suffered tremendously the impacts of Covid on their health, their relationships, their finances, and their education. I saw Fr Lito and some of you shed tears upon hearing the sad stories. We do not have to go very far, here in our own province, our city, the university community, and our families, we’ve experienced the pains and aches of others, our own loved ones affected by the pandemic. Our suffering and loneliness can be multiplied a hundred times and even a thousand times when we now look at the sufferings of the entire world, the child becoming an orphan at an instant, the entire family confined in the hospital, the Covid patients lying half-dead on the streets, the daughter begging for her sick mother to get medical care, the never-ending transport of dead bodies to the gravesites, etc.

I am sure many of us may not have had similar experiences of those kinds of sufferings but all of us in one way or another have suffered or are suffering from this Covid pandemic. I will stop expounding how much we have suffered for I know more are still to come. Almost every day, I receive a text report from Doc Guitarte about another member(s) of our community infected with the Covid virus. I feel helpless but not completely because I can still pray for each of them.

What is the challenge for us, retreatants? Do we find newness during pandemic and after? Is there freshness deep down the layers of dead bodies and of sick people piled up due to the Covid virus? It’s hard to answer yes, but we have to believe with the strength of our faith in God to say, yes there is and yes God is there, present in our sufferings.

Pope Francis reminds us that the “pandemic can be a place of conversion” It is up to us to decide how we want to emerge out of this pandemic, a new person or the same one of the pre-pandemic? A better person or a worse one? Conversion is always a free response to the call of God, no one can force us to change ourselves. However, we know that for some people, the worst experience like the Covid pandemic has brought out the best in them. What will become of our medical frontliners after the pandemic? I am hoping some if not all of them may grow to become more self-giving and hopeful in every trial in life. How about our students? I hope they will become more enduring and resilient after the pandemic. How about us? What will become of us? It’s up to us how we define ourselves in the new normal.

This year we celebrate the Ignatian year (2021-22; a commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the conversion of St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits), so let me say a few things about St Ignatius of Loyola related to our Retreat theme. St Ignatius’s conversion happened after a humiliating defeat in the hands of the French troops, the excruciating pain on the leg struck with a cannonball, the loneliness during recuperation, and the mental anguish caused by spiritual darkness. His cannonball experience led him to a new life of love and service to the new King, Jesus Christ, and no longer the earthly king. He discovered the dearest freshness deep down his defeat, sickness, pain, loneliness, anxiety, and fear in his past life. St Ignatius is a model of openness to newness after his defeat and failure in Pamplona.

The conversion of Ignatius offers us three points that may help us in our journey to newness:

  1. We should be in touch with ourselves and our deepest desires. We can do this only when we get the habit of quieting down, reflecting, pondering, meditating, and prayer. Without these exercises, we remain on the surface and seeing only actions and raw emotions instead of their deeper meanings in our lives. We may have journeyed far into many places but how far have gone into ourselves?
  1. We should not be afraid to confront doubts, fears, anxieties, and other interior movements. Stirrings within ourselves suggest uneasiness with the present life and may open to a possibility of new development in one’s life. A life with no inner motions and actions is what we usually like, no drama, no changes but it also misses new possibilities for a new beginning. Conversion always begins with the past being challenged and finally replaced with the new one. We all have our present call in life now (basically, what we will do with our lives) but it might be challenged by a greater call. Let us be open to it like Ignatius did.
  1. Openness must be followed with a deliberate decision to pursue the greater call. This involves a readiness to leave the past or parts of it and to get involved in situations of risk and uncertainty. We do not just dream about newness but decide to pursue it. Ignatius did not remain daydreaming on his sickbed but rose up to set out for Jerusalem as a humble pilgrim though he knew it was an uncertain journey.

Today, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. This solemnity reminds us to love Jesus in return. Every time we see a picture of the Sacred Heart, we are called to reciprocate His undying love for us. The best way to love Him in return is to be open to the newness of life despite and in spite of the pandemic, to be open, and to respond to His new and greater call for each of us.