Antonio Gabriel La Viña .
IN front of the social upheaval and conflicts amid us, I am actually excited and hopeful. There is no better time to be a lawyer than today. There is no better time to be a Mindanawon lawyer than the present.
The theme of your commencement exercise is “Sending Apostles for the New Evangelization.” The New Evangelization calls each of us to deepen our faith, believe in the Gospel message and go forth to proclaim the Gospel. The focus of the New Evangelization calls all of us to be evangelized and then go forth to evangelize. In a special way, the New Evangelization is focused on ‘re-proposing’ the Gospel to those who have experienced a crisis of faith. Pope Benedict XVI called for the re-proposing of the Gospel “to those regions awaiting the first evangelization and to those regions where the roots of Christianity are deep but who have experienced a serious crisis of faith due to secularization.”
The Great Commission is how this is described: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.” Say yes to the call of our Lord! More than anything you do or achieve, including material and professional success, your fidelity to this call is the sure guarantee of your personal happiness.
You are those apostles. You might not be priests. You might not even be Catholic or Christian. But you are called to this new evangelization as young workers for justice, peace and human rights.
You are also called to be witness of God’s love through your personal relationships and your families. I urge you to take the advice of Barbara Bush, who lived life fully and happily: “At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent.”
I was 16 years old, a senior in Xavier University High School, when war erupted in Mindanao and my hometown Cagayan de Oro was flooded with refugees from nearby Lanao provinces fleeing the hostilities battles between the Moro National Liberation Front and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. I became active in our school’s relief efforts for those refugees, a job which included ministering to the sick and burying the dead, mostly children. Since then, I have told myself that war is wrong and never justified, and that I will do my best to work for peace.
That same year, I also got exposed to many social ills of the country, land, labor and environmental issues for example, the latter because of the proposal to build the Phivedec industrial park in Villanueva, Misamis Oriental. Thanks to a Jesuit scholastic the late Alex Benedicto, I also got conscientized about martial law and the Marcos dictatorship. Clearly, even then, I knew that working for peace was intimately related with working for justice.
Consistent with these early insights I became first a social activist fighting the Marcos regime to a human rights and environmental lawyer representing indigenous peoples and local communities in many of the great forest, land, and environmental battles in the last thirty years. When I became an environment undersecretary in 1996, I discovered I was a good consensus-builder (negotiator and mediator) and assisted in the final stages of the negotiations between the Moro National Liberation Front and the Ramos government in 1996. Later, in 2009-2010, during the Arroyo administration, I became a member of the government peace panel in the negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, helping get the peace process back on track after the fiasco resulting from the Supreme Court declaring the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain unconstitutional.
During the Ramos administration, I also helped our peace panel, led by Ambassador Howard Dee, negotiating with the NDFP. More recently, I was part of a University of the Philippines team, headed by Dr. Edna Co, that has been assisting the Philippine panel in the same negotiations.
While active in all of these, I did get married and raised three sons who are your age. One thing I can say about my life is that, no matter my commitments, I did and do spend time with my wife and children. And in the last five years, I have been coming back and forth to Cagayan Oro, my hometown, to teach in Xavier University College of Law as a way of giving back to Mindanao but also to spend time with my 88-year-old mother.
Going back to the work on peace, I have come to believe, from these more than four decades of experience, that peace based on justice is possible, that mercy and reconciliation must accompany accountability, that the work never ends and must be constantly renewed, that intellectual discourse and ideas are critical for that renewal to happen, and that hope is always the final word in the work for peace.
For those who ask how long will we have to wait for peace and justice to descend permanently in our land, the soaring words of Martin Luther King assure and comfort:
“How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you shall reap what you sow. How long? Not long. Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne, Yet that scaffold sways the future, And, behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, Keeping watch above his own.
“How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
And if I may add, it bends towards the Resurrection.
You will suffer of course if you are consistent with the mission you are called too. But you in this college know very well the heart of the Holy Cross. By His Holy Cross, Jesus redeems the world. In this season of Easter, we are reminded that death has no sting, it is Christ that is victorious.
I end with the words of an early Black Saturday homily of St. Epiphanius of Cyprus who imagines what the Lord tells Adam as he fetches the first man from hell to bring him to heaven. “Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.”
Yes, the Kingdom of heaven is waiting for you.
But first pass the bar exams! And then go be excellent and compassionate lawyers. Do right not just for the present, but for the future, not just for yourselves but for all of us. In spite of many reasons to despair, choose to hope. Proclaim the truth, love and serve others and our country. Be a good husband or wife and raise your family well if that is your calling. All bad things pass, the good prevails. Dream and build a better Philippines and world.
(This is the fifth and last part of “Interregnum, Calling, and Resurrection: What is at stake today for young Mindanawon Lawyers,” the commencement address delivered by Prof. Antonio Gabriel M. La Viña at the Cor Jesus College Law School in Digos City, Davao del Sur on April 24, 2018. La Viña is former dean and currently professor at Ateneo School of Government, as well as Constitutional Law professor of Xavier University, University of the Philippines College of Law, Polytechnic University of the Philippines College of Law, De La Salle University College of Law, San Beda Graduate School of Law, Lyceum College of Law and Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila Graduate School of Law.)