Speech for the Ateneo de Manila Law School graduation, 15 April 2012.
by Fr. Jet Villarin, SJ

I have three points to this speech that is really a three-part injunction: (a) be true to yourself; be constantly true, (b) keep your life taut; stand tight between earth and sky, and (c) do the greater thing, do the excellence out of love. (Be true, be tight, be more.)

The first point: be true. I asked Fr Art Ferrer SJ last night if it would be okay to crack a joke about lawyers. He said by all means, lawyers can laugh at themselves. So here goes the joke I told our table at dinner last night.

Three lawyers and three engineers were about to board a train on their way to a conference. As they were lining up to buy their tickets, the lawyers bought three tickets each for themselves, while the engineers bought only one. Baffled, the lawyers asked the engineers why they got only one. Watch, the engineers told the lawyers. In the train, when ticket inspection time came, the three engineers crammed themselves into the CR to hide. When the ticket inspector knocked on the CR door to ask “ticket please,” out came a hand through the door to give the ticket. The lawyers saw all this and were impressed. On the way back, after the conference, the lawyers and engineers were again boarding the same train. This time, the lawyers bought just one ticket. (They are after all fast learners.) But the engineers bought none. Baffled once more, they asked the engineers, why none this time? Watch, the engineers said again. When ticket inspection time came, all three lawyers went for the CR. One engineer then knocked on the CR door to ask, “ticket please.”

It is not often that you can pull a fast one on lawyers. Usually they’re the ones who are trained to pull out all the stops for you to get by or get on the train.

You are bright enough to game the system. You will be tempted but I hope you won’t pull a fast one on this country, on the truth, and on your very self. In other words, don’t envy the engineers; pay your tickets.

In the baccalaureate mass for the Loyola School graduates of 2012, I said:

Tapatan ninyo ang inyong sarili, tulad ng pagtatatapat sa katotohanan (sa meron) na inyong natutunan dito sa loob ng Ateneo. Huwag kayong tumigil sa katatatanong, sa kauungkat sa ugat ng lahat-lahat. Huwag kayong susuko kung padapa-dapa at pabugso-bugso at tigib ng kabiguan ang pagpapakatao, pagpapakatotoo. Huwag kayong mawalan ng loob kung maraming plastic sa mundo. Sampalin ninyo ang inyong mukha kung nililinlang ninyo ang inyong sarili. Maraming manloloko sa mundo. Dadagdagan niyo pa kung lolokohin niyo ang inyong sarili. Sa lahat-lahat, sa tuwina, maging tapat, maging totoo. Pray, Mary, to keep us constantly true.

The second point: Don’t keep the tension out; keep your life taut; keep it tight. Stand between the earth and sky.

I am glad you didn’t have me as homilist for the baccalaureate mass yesterday. My homily would have been pretty much the same as the speech I am delivering today. The reason is you cannot really separate the priest from the president, just as you must not separate the Ateneo (or the Atenean) from the lawyer in you. Priest-president. Ateneo-lawyer, wife-mother-professional, (husband-father-golfer). These hyphenated realities suggest tension. It is good to be tense, to be taut, to be pulled by polar forces in our lives.

Some of these polar (or seemingly polar) realities are: work and family, action and prayer, the immediate and long term, trees and forest, corporate interest and common good, true and false, right and wrong, what is seen and unseen.

Thus for example, I can imagine how your legal lives (like those of engineers) can depend so much on the evidence, on what is seen. How do you reconcile such an evidentiary profession with things that are not readily visible but nonetheless real and true?

Or take the polarity of justice-charity, punishment-mercy. When I gave a recollection to some young lawyers many years ago, I had a hard time convincing them about God’s love being unconditional, a priori, and full of mercy. Are lawyers not lovers? Are you not used to unrequited love? Are you so convinced of parity and equity that you cannot believe that love is more than reciprocity, that such love (though uneven) is possible? In a homily on forgiveness and tough love, I wrote:

The lawyers and judges and all those obsessed with a shallow sense of clarity, equity and righteousness will ask: what’s the point of justice in the face of forgiving love? When you turn the other cheek, are you not turning a blind eye to the crime and the criminal as well? This kind of soft love is not even good parenting strategy, at least if you are to believe the tiger mom. It breaks open the prison gates to more disorder and anarchy. It is not good public policy to institutionalize kindness before fairness.

Pope Benedict dealt with this conundrum in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate by simply saying that the two (i.e. justice and charity) are not mutually exclusive. Thus, “on the one hand, charity demands justice: recognition and respect for the legitimate rights of individuals and peoples. It strives to build the earthly city according to law and justice. On the other hand, charity transcends justice and completes it in the logic of giving and forgiving. The earthly city is promoted not merely by relationships of rights and duties, but to an even greater and more fundamental extent by relationships of gratuitousness, mercy and communion.”

Benedict here is saying that the earthly city is built not only on parity, but on gratuity as well. And if I may add to the Pope, I believe that charity not only completes justice, but also compels or motivates it. You are just because you love. You are fair not only because of some lofty, ethical principle but also because of the compassion and concern you bear for others.

Admittedly, these polarities (seen-unseen, justice-charity) can tear you apart. How do you resolve these dichotomies without being bipolar or schizophrenic in the end? To be honest, I have no answer. I can only cite my brother Jesuit who is also an engineer who is able to see peace in a car engine (of all things). His point is that peace (Christ’s peace really) does not mean there is no tension. Peace happens even in tension. Open the hood of a great car and the humming you hear from the engine suggests, well, peacefulness. Somewhere in that engine, explosions are firing away, gears and belts moving fast, held tight by tension. But there is peace, composure, and coolness in spite of and because of the tension.

When you stand between earth and sky, you will be pulled down and up. The moment you let go, tension will disappear. And you will disappear. Either way, you get buried in the muck or you fly with the angels in the clouds. Since the gravitational pull downward is universal, since you will always be pulled down toward earth, the presence of tension is therefore good. It is a sign that heaven still matters to you, and that you matter to heaven. So then, keep your life taut, the tension just right. Stand tight between earth and sky.

The third point: do the greater thing, do the excellence for the right reason, the right person, the right inspiration.

When you pass and/or top the bar, this will open more doors for you. You may even become rich (that’s not bad per se; I will come to beg you for donations). You will win many cases out there. But that’s not what this Jesuit school (or even your life) is all about. If this school did nothing to disturb the world, did nothing to disturb you, if this school were not all about producing game-changers and transforming our world for the better (and that includes converting your very own heart, its ambition and desires), then all these Jesuit lives (including mine) would have been in vain.

What does it mean to disturb the world, to change the game, to transform the world for the better? It can mean working on at least two things, two s’s: one, structures; two, your very self.

First, structures. Structures are rooted in the substrate of laws, policies, protocols, systems, cultures, and mindsets that govern the many ways we relate to one another in community. You do not have to be an engineer to see how bad structures can hurt people. Bad structures feed conflict, inequity, and poverty.

If you are to serve the law, be bold enough to dismantle those structures that disable us from being fair and truthful and good to one another. This demands boldness because you, we all of us here, have profited from these structures. Changing them will hurt us too. Supplant these by innovating and creating good structures that connect us to one another in truth and justice, charity and peace.

Changing structures demands higher order, systemic thinking and action. What you possess (your mind, wealth, connections) and what you have learned at the Ateneo capacitate you to do this higher order thinking and action. Catch yourself then when you are doing arithmetic when you should be doing calculus. Most can count 1 to 10, not everyone can do fractions (by the way, can lawyers do fractions?). Many can solve linear problems, not everyone can handle multi-variate complexity.

For all the traveling I’ve done in my life, I have long known that Filipinos (aside from our musicality and faith) have hearts that are good and noble, and minds that are witty and sharp. We do well outside this archipelago. We remain beggars here because we have not done much to change the systemic ambience that keeps us divided and poor. We are poor because we have been led poorly and we have allowed ourselves to be led poorly.

Which brings me to the second “s”, our very self. Transforming the world is not just about dismantling and creating social structures. It means converting your heart as well, converting it to lead and love well and do the greater thing.

Fr Luis Candelaria SJ says that the enemy of talented people such as your selves, the enemy of people who can do many things is not the bad. The enemy is the good. There are many good things to do in this world. We can be distracted by the many good things we can do. But what we ought to do is not the good; what we should do is the greater thing, the magis, el mas, the more.

Magis can be a selfish thing. It is sometimes translated into excellence. But magis is more than excellence in your craft. When perverted, magis degrades into nothing more than narcissism, yabang. But that is not what magis is all about.

To convert our hearts to true magis in the spirit of Ignatian generosity and magnanimity is to constantly keep before us the end and reason for doing the greater thing. What and who is the excellence for? What and who is passing and topping the bar for? What and who is the power and wealth for? What and who is your life for?

In other words, to convert our selves is to learn to do the greater thing for the right reason, the right person, the right inspiration. Do the greater thing out of love.

Admittedly, ab initio, the greater thing done out of love is not something readily definable. You will fight and even sue one another on what the greater thing is all about. That happens partly out of differences in principle, partly out of variations in the way we love and in the ambit of that love. Love after all is borne in human flesh; it waxes and wanes, renews and wears out. In all this then, conversion of self begins with getting real about love, naming the mix of motives and desires, the little deceptions and sincerities that come into play when you do whatever it is you believe to be the greater thing.

In closing then, when you find yourselves someday before St Peter and the pearly gates, and St Peter asks you for your ticket, don’t go for the CR, don’t look to the engineers to get a free ride into heaven. Give St Peter your Ateneo diploma and tell him that this is more than a piece of paper, that this certifies three things you’ve tried to do with your life. Tell him in all sincerity that (a) you strove to be true to yourself, to be constantly true, (b) that you tried to keep your life taut; that you stood straight, even as you were stretched between earth and sky and (c), that you did the greater thing, that you did the excellence out of love. If that doesn’t work, then tell St Peter that if Fr Bernas can get into heaven, a fortiori, why can’t you.

My dear graduates, you are of the Ateneo. Ateneo-lawyer-lux in Domino. Be bold enough to change what is false and unjust and uncharitable about the world. Be strong enough to withstand the tension, the pull of earth and sky. Be humble enough to do the greater thing, even as it means changing your heart to be truthful and free. Congratulations.


Fr. Jet is a Filipino Jesuit priest and scientist, who just finished his term as the university president of Ateneo de Manila University. He received the National Outstanding Young Scientist award in 2000, and the Outstanding Book Award for “Disturbing Climate” in 2002. He is also an active member of several local and international environment and climate committees, such as the United Nations’ Consultative Group of Experts for Developing Countries, and the Inter-Agency Committee on Climate Change, among others.

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