Jesuit Roque Ferriols turns 90, touches lives of youth

Six years ago, our batch of editors from The Guidon, the official student newspaper of the Ateneo de Manila University, wanted to publish in our final edition something different.

We wanted grand, elegant, never-before-heard words of wisdom in our pages.

For someone to quote, we thought of the Jesuit priest Fr Roque Ferriols, then 84 – the legendary professor who pioneered philosophy in Filipino, and whom the respected Fr Horacio de la Costa reportedly called “the only true genius” among Philippine Jesuits.

Our fellow Guidon editor, Ryan Chua, interviewed Ferriols: What piece of advice can you give the youth?

His answer struck us because it was simple but true. It was the kind of philosophy he brought to our classroom – not simply words but actions, not purely mental workouts but acts of love.

Ferriols wrote after the Guidon interview: “Kung matanda na ang tao, hindi niya alam kung ano ang pinakamahalagang payo na maibibigay niya. Kung sasabihin ko, 'Magpakabait ka,' baka isipin ninyong nagbibiro ako. Pero sa totoo lang, iyon ang mahalaga sa lahat – kung naiintindihan natin.”

(If a person is old, he doesn't know the most important piece of advice he can give. If I say, “Be good,” you might think I am joking. But to tell you the truth, that is the most important of all – if we understand it.) 

Kung matanda ka malapit ka nang tawagin ng Diyos,” he added. “Naiisip ko na lahat ay nakabitin sa kanyang awa at mananalig ka sa kanya. Pagsisikapan mong magpakabait.”

(If you are old, you are about to be called by God. I think everything depends on His mercy, and so you will keep your faith in Him. You will strive to be good.)

The words of Ferriols – who marks his 90th birthday Saturday, August 16 – bore the weight of half a century of teaching philosophy. That was until 2013, when Ferriols, who has Parkinson's disease, quit after a cataract surgery.

(Below is Ferriols' handwritten note for The Guidon in 2008.)

NUGGET OF WISDOM. Fr Roque Ferriols, SJ, makes this handwritten note for graduating Ateneo students in 2008. File photo courtesy of Henson Wongaiham

NUGGET OF WISDOM. Fr Roque Ferriols, SJ, makes this handwritten note for graduating Ateneo students in 2008.

File photo courtesy of Henson Wongaiham

Philosophy: To see for a purpose

Having attended his classes from 2006 to 2007, I will always remember him for lessons as simple as “magpakabait” (be good).

He always told us, “Tumingin” (Look). Speaking to students always restless on the Internet, he stressed an attentive look at people, places, and events that reveal themselves. He reminded us not to alter but to respect the truth as we honestly see it. For me it always meant minimizing biases and accepting others.

He opened our eyes to the“kalooban,” the core of every individual. It is a universe in itself, he said. Do we truly know our family and friends? And do we also know ourselves beyond the surface?

The goal of all these, as I understood him, is pakikipagkapwa-tao, relating to other people. Ferriols believes philosophy is useless if it is all words; philosophy is something we do. It is listening to a friend. It is asking a beggar's name. It is saying “thank you” to a waiter – while smiling and looking him in the eyes, not simply because it is proper etiquette. It is seeing God in all the people we meet.

From him I learned that philosophy is to see, and for a purpose – to serve God through our neighbor.

The man 'who goes for broke'

And we learn this best not only in the classroom, but from the person of Ferriols.

Fr Arnel Aquino, in a homily attributed to him, described Ferriols as a man “who goes for broke.”

He recalled seeing Ferriols in 2009, “literally inching his way to class, his destination for that day.” Aquino said, “By the way he walked, you wondered not only if he’d make it to class on time. You also wondered if he would even make it at all....But most of all, you wondered, 'Why?'”

Ferriols should be enjoying his retirement, Aquino said, “after a job well done all of his life.” What more can he wish for? He even once taught a man who became a cardinal – Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle.

Aquino said: “But the truth of the matter is: here is a priest, a man, a creature of God who goes for broke, and keeps going for broke....Fr Ferriols makes us wonder if there is something in our lives that we have done out of powerful love for God, that we go for broke over it – despite being mocked for it and being asked why.”

When I visited Ferriols last July, I also asked him why. Why did he persist in teaching philosophy? In the first place, he had little interest in the subject and actually wanted to teach biology. But to teach philosophy was his assignment, he said. He emphasized obedience.

Looking back, why does he think God willed that he should teach philosophy? Ferriols replied in jest, “Hindi sinabi sa akin ng Diyos kung bakit.” (God didn't tell me why.)

MINDS MOLDED. Students of Fr Roque Ferriols, SJ, visit him during his 83rd birthday in August 2007. File photo by Henson Wongaiham

MINDS MOLDED. Students of Fr Roque Ferriols, SJ, visit him during his 83rd birthday in August 2007.

File photo by Henson Wongaiham

Marami akong palagay,” Ferriols continued, “pero ang importante ay 'yun ang iniutos sa akin ng Diyos at na sinusubukan kong tupdin ang kanyang utos. At 'yung sinabi ni Mother Teresa: God does not look for success. God looks for fidelity.”

(I have many guesses, but what's important is that God instructed me to do it, and I'm trying to do His will. As Mother Teresa said: God does not look for success. God looks for fidelity.) – Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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