05312024.Web.Banner Fr Mars P Tan SJ

My dear youth leaders and alumni of the Phil Youth Leadership Program, students from MSU, USTP, and XU; Host Families and Friends, Northern Illinois University PYLP Team, US Embassy officials, and Xavier University team; PYLP Micro-Grant Team Members and Partners, Families, School Administrators, Teachers and Youth Organization Advisers, friends good morning, Maayong buntag sa tanan! 

First of all, I would like to congratulate the Mindanao youth leaders, on your coming together on the follow-on summit of the program, for completing the PYLP program, and completing your projects, finally!  The previous months that led you here were difficult because of the Covid pandemic that restricted your movements and activities like training and project implementations. But I heard that you were still able to push through with those programs and activities virtually or limited F2F. I know the young leaders are always creative and adaptive to the changing times brought about by this pandemic.

I have a confession to make, when I said yes to the invitation of Ma’am Marvz, I realized I didn’t have much time to do research and prepare a sophisticated speech for a distinguished audience like you. So I said, why not try something personal, my own story? Stories can be powerful to transcend cultural gaps and political divides. Personally, both topics, youth and care for common home, are close to my heart because both are included in the UAPs of the SJs. So, I won’t give you concrete suggestions on how to do peacebuilding and caring for our common home. It’s up to you on how to do it concretely in your localities under the guidance of your advisers. Mine is just to share with you signposts, as it were, to serve as your guides as young leaders now as these have guided me in my younger years.

Let me begin. Being young is a blessing because young people have so much hope, energy, ideals, dynamism, and creativity. You should count those as God’s blessings and be grateful for them. That is why we need avenues for you to release and you’re your youthful power and energy into productive uses. When I was a college student in Ateneo de Davao, I was in several student organizations. I was an active officer in some of them on top of my heavy academic loads. But there was no problem. I had the energy and joy in every activity I did in the school, apostolate communities, and city. Later I realized one lesson, you need to have a focus, and your focus is driven by what you want to do with your life ultimately. Having many activities is good, but having a unifying ideal or vision is much better because you begin to see the direction of where you want to spend most of your energy, talent, and capabilities. 

At 20 years old, after graduation from college, my vision was clear, I wanted to help more poor people with the knowledge and skills I learned from Ateneo. It was clear to me also that I would do it as a teacher; at that time, I thought it was the only work I was prepared to do. So I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Philippines as a high school teacher in Compostela Valley, Davao Oriental. I was assigned in the forested mountains of Compostela to teach the children of workers and farmers. I learned to love teaching, care for my students, cook my meals, wash my clothes, fetch water in the spring, cross rivers, hike long distances, and pray harder. Why? There were always threats that the NPAs would attack our place or the military would come to conduct “zoning.” That was in the late 80s and at the height of military and NPA activities in the rural areas. After two years of teaching and being with the local people, I remained happy in my work. But I had another realization, the problem of poverty anywhere in the country was so massive and complex. To continue the mission, one should not be alone or get swallowed by the problem and by your pride. Still, I saw the vision as noble, so I decided to continue the mission, this time hopeful to a group of people who would share the work with me towards the vision. I left Davao and went to Manila to join the Jesuits. At the start of my college studies in Ateneo de Davao, I was already attracted to the Jesuits and their motto, “men and women for others.” Somehow, that encapsulated what I wanted to be to realize the vision.

I entered the Jesuits at age 23 and went through long years of seminary formation for a total of 12 years. I came out of the seminary much older, got ordained, and was assigned as the assistant parish priest in Bukidnon, one year in Pangantukan, and two years in Cabanglasan. I spent three years of simple happy life there, living and working with ordinary hard-working people and learning many things from them, from devotion to the Mass to drinking tuba. Parish work is enjoyable because you get invited to all fiestas and celebrations, and the priest always gets the best parts of the roasted pig and the whole chicken. But it’s also challenging because you hear all their problems, those of their families and the communities. One common problem they had that affected me, and I carried its effect in me for a long time, was the deforestation of their mountains. There I saw how determined local people were to protect their land and their forest when they (men, women, and children) barricaded the highways of Malaybalay for several days and nights. In protecting their forests, some were threatened and hurt, but they stood their ground, relying on their strength as a community and in God. I think I was struck by that show of heroism of local people to protect and care for our common home. I thought I was the one teaching them. Still, in the end, people taught me to take seriously the mission to protect our forests, rivers, underground water, and mountains because they supported the living system and the life of every living being including ours.

After three years of parish mission work, I left Bukidnon and returned to Manila, determined to continue caring for our common home. That same year, I enrolled at the UP Diliman to start a new vocation within my priestly vocation – environmental science. ES is the science that studies the entirety of the natural environment to protect, conserve, and rehabilitate it. After my ES studies in the Philippines and abroad, I had focused considerable time and energy on several environmental works and engagements until the time I received another mission in the university. 

Dear young leaders as you proceed to become US government alumni, students, and youth mentors, let me summarize my sharing with you this morning:

  1. It’s good to engage in various projects and activities for the community because you have the energy and positive outlook but learn to focus on something that matters most to you. That something should be larger than yourself to become your guide and your vision in life. Peace for Mindanao. Care for the earth.
  1. In working on anything to address community issues, do not work alone; learn how to work as a team among friends just like what you have been doing. Better to expand groupings to involve others and then collaborate and network with others. Not always easy to work in a team, but we are more effective and powerful if we are many acting as one.
  2. Our best teacher is our experience. The project completed and implemented is a success. The other potential success is your learning from the experience of working and completing the project. What you will do with that learning will define you more as a young leader.
  3. Always use your talents, skills, capabilities, and youthful energy to work on the issues at hand. Ask yourself and your friends, what can we contribute to making the upcoming elections clean and fair, what can we do more to alleviate the poverty of many people, and what else can we do to help protect and conserve our limited natural resources here in Mindanao? 

Lastly, my congratulations and thanks to the United States Department of State and Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA); the Center of Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University [Dr. Judy Ledgerwood (the current CSEAS Director) and Dr. Eric Jones (former CSEAS Acting Director); Prof. Rhodalyne Gallo-Crail (NIU PYLP Program Director)]; The United States Embassy in the Philippines; the parents and families of the 32 young leaders; various local government units, agencies, schools and organizations, host families and friends. May God bless you and sustain you and your efforts to guide and help our youth leaders of Mindanao. Thank you.

Fr Mars P. Tan SJ

Sept 25, 2021