Ambassador Henrietta (Tita) de Villa, chairperson of the National Coordinating Committee of the Second National Congress of the Clergy (NCC II) renders me great honor by inviting me to “share with our priests (my) testimony of personal relationship with the Lord as a public servant… (to show) that the life and ministry of the priest is inseparably linked to the life and vocation of the lay faithful.” To speak in this mammoth hall, the World Trade Center, before more than 5,000 ordained men of the Lord is an intimidating task. After all, I am used to listening to priests delivering their homilies, not to talking before them.
Life in the Supreme Court I served our Supreme Court for over 11 years until I retired as Chief Justice three years ago on December 7, 2006. Those 11 years were some of the most rewarding in my life. Life in the highest court of the land was quite demanding because justices are expected not only to be fair, objective and wise, but must also be perceived to be so by the public. Any unnecessary socializing or fellowship could be misunderstood as fraternizing, or worse as conspiring, with litigants or their relatives and friends.
I had to resign from most religious, civic and social organizations to which my wife and I belonged. However, I continued serving as a Special Minister of Holy Communion (SMHC) in my parish at Santuario de San Antonio, a ministry that I began to do 21 years ago in 1989. After I was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1995, I just continued serving as if nothing had changed.
However, when I was named Chief Justice several years later, our parish priest at that time, Fr. Antonio Rosales, spoke with me. He said that I was already one of the highest officials of our government, higher in rank than cabinet members, senators and congressmen. Would I still want to continue distributing the body and blood of our Lord, and if so, what special arrangements – like security, seating protocol, etc. – would I need?
I replied that I may be the highest judicial official of our country, but in Santuario de San Antonio, I was just an ordinary parishioner. And, if he would permit me, I wanted to continue as an SMHC without any extra arrangements or protocols. I added that I would see to it that my security personnel would be as inconspicuous as possible.
Many times, after Mass was celebrated, some parishioners would hand me folders and notes, pleading for favorable judgments for their cases that were languishing in the courts. An elderly old lady was extra aggressive. She said, “Chief Justice, I take communion from you every Sunday but you never seem to remember my petition against a big bank that is pending before the Supreme Court. Have pity on me. I am a poor widow. I pray for your favorable decision.”
I replied that she should not pray to me, much less use the Church premises to lobby for her case. Instead, she should pray to the Lord and trust in His might and providence. Since I too always pray before rendering my decisions, I was sure – I said – that our good Lord would enlighten me in rendering my judgment in her case. So much for lobbying in the Church!
Visit at the National Bilibid Prisons
Let me however say that one of my most unforgettable experiences, as a jurist in the service of God, was my visit at the National Penitentiary in Muntinlupa. Our Security Department advised against visiting this notorious home of criminals. They explained that our Supreme Court has sentenced most of the inmates and nobody could really predict what they would do when they meet us. However, I decided to accept the invitation after attending Holy Mass in which the Gospel reading was Matthew 25. If you will remember, this is about the Final Judgment and about our Lord asking whether His disciples visited Him when He was in prison. So, I told myself, better to risk the ire of the inmates than to risk the ire of the Lord!
And so, one sunny afternoon, I motored to Muntinlupa, as the first and, as far as I know, the only incumbent member of the highest court of the land to set foot at the National Bilibid Prisons. I was pleasantly surprised at the sheer size of the penitentiary. It comprised of several hectares of land planted with fruit trees and shrubs. True, there was the imposing high-walled and barbed-wired building, housing the maximum-security inmates. But there was too a vast track of land surrounding this concrete behemoth.
I was ushered to a make shift auditorium on the greeneries outside the forbidding building, where some 500 inmates were seated. When I arrived they thundered into applause while curiously gawking at their rare visitor. Their band played “Mabuhay” as I entered, and the Philippine National Anthem to begin the convocation.
A solemn invocation formally opened the program. I was genuinely entertained at the talent show they prepared, especially at a comedy skit about life in jail. Too, some 20 inmates gracefully swayed both folk dances and hip-hops. Accompanied by their band, they belted solo and choral songs mimicking Frank Sinatra, Joni James and Celine Dion.
At the end, they asked me to speak. I began by asking how many of them I have personally sentenced to life imprisonment or to death. At that time, the death penalty had not been abolished yet. About 30 of them sheepishly raised their hands to the whistle call of the rest. Then I courageously asked how many of them felt they had been wrongly sentenced. To my great relief, no one raised his or her hand. And so I began my extemporaneous message in earnest.
I spoke boldly of hope. In the beginning, the inmates who had long been languishing in jail for murder, robbery, rape, kidnapping and other serious offenses appeared indifferent. Anyway I continued, boldly saying that iron bars may restrict their movements and may subject them to ostracism and ridicule. Nonetheless, they should not hate the world and lose their faith.
I explained that almost everyone in the world is in some kind of prison. I said that many rich people are imprisoned by their greed. They worry about possible business reverses and the kidnapping of their children. Others are imprisoned by their incurable illnesses, like terminal cancer, that keep them in pain all day and all night. Some, like the insane and the feeble-minded, are imprisoned by their minds.
Iba’t iba po ang mga kulungan. Dito po sa Muntinlupa, rehas na bakal ang kulungan. Ang mas mahirap na kulungan ay ang kulungan ng kaisipan tulad ng mga luko-luko at kulang kulang; kulungan ng katawan tulad ng mga lumpo; at kulungan ng tiyak na kamatayan tulad ng mga may terminal cancer.
Ang mga kapansanang ito ay higit mahirap harapin. Walang gamut para sa kulang kulang at sa cancer. Samantalang ang mga nasa loob ng rehas na bakal ay mayroon laging pag-asa, sapagkat may taning ang kanilang kulungan. At maari pang mabawasan ang sentencia sa pagpapakita ng mabuting asal at pagreporma.
A Question of Love
Yes, those imprisoned behind bars have hope because one day they would serve their sentences and would be freed. In fact, with good behavior, their sentences could be commuted or pardoned. But those imprisoned by greed or by their minds or by their lame bodies could be condemned to pain and suffering all their lives.
As I ended my speech, the make shift hall was filled with cheers and applause. I was happy because I thought I gave the inmates something to aspire for and to live for. As I was leaving, some of the prisoners walked with me, giving me hand-written letters on yellow paper, pleading for recommendations for their pardon.
One introduced himself as a life termer and asked, “Alam ko po na kayo ay isang mabuting mahistrado at mabuti ding Katoliko. Matanong ko lang po. Hindi ba ang mga kautusan ng ating Panginoon as maaring maisaad sa iisang kataga, at iyan ay ang pagmamahal sa Diyos at pagmamahal sa kapwa. Kung ganoon po, bakit kinailangan pang sinentensiyahan ako at ikulong habang buhay. Noong nangumpisal po ako ng aking mga kasalanan, pinatawad agad ako ng pari pagkatapos ako pagdasalin ng rosario. Bakit po hindi na lamang po ninyo ako pinangaralan at binigyan ng isa pang pagkakataon sa buhay?”It was twilight already and I was eager to go home, but I had to stop and think deeply about this question. To repeat in English, the inmate asked, “Isn’t it true that all the commandments of the Lord can be summed up in one sentence, Love God and love your fellow beings? Why then did you have to consign me to prison and to punish me for my transgressions? Contrast this with the way our Church treats sinners. After confessing my sins, the priest merely counseled me, then asked me to pray the rosary and forgave me. In the name of love, why can’t you just follow my confessor’s example? Why did you not just teach me the right path and give me the chance to live a new life? Why did you have to jail me for life? Isn’t love inconsistent with the punishment imposed on me?”
Separating the Goats from the Sheep
Indeed, this question from this unseemly source, from a Muntinlupa life termer who was convicted of syndicated estafa, kept me thinking about my judicial career. Isn’t our Lord a God of love first and foremost? Why then should I, a mere mortal follower of Jesus Christ, take pride in my work of imposing penalties to be able to render justice? Is my career of dispensing justice contradictory to the Lord’s commandment of love?
My search for an answer led me back to Matthew 25. Here, the Lord was judging his people, separating the sheep from the goats, placing “the sheep on his right’ and “the goats on his left.” Those who did not give food to the hungry, did not give drink to the thirsty, did not clothe the naked, did not visit the sick and the imprisoned, He condemned to “eternal punishment” and those who did, He brought to “eternal life.” Yes, the Lord too was making choices because he was the Lord of justice just as He is likewise the Lord of love
As I further reflected, I came to the conclusion that just as there are human and physical laws, there are also spiritual laws. Just as there are consequences for the violations of human and physical laws, there are penalties for the violation of God’s laws. For example, civil laws protect the sanctity of contracts, and a party who breaks them can be held liable for damages. In the same manner, one who injures another violates criminal laws and is jailed as a consequence. So too, a violation of the laws of physics impels consequences; hence, when one jumps out of a window, one falls to the ground in accordance with the law of gravity.
By the same token, spiritual laws operate on our spirit whether we like it or not. When we transgress the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes, our spirit suffers the necessary consequences by being damned to eternity. Just as there are reparations for violations of human and physical laws, there is also salvation from our sins, by repentance, restitution and reformation.
Indeed, both the criminal and the sinner must repent, must restitute and must reform. Both the judge and the priest must guide the criminal and the sinner towards these three “Rs” of salvation in civil and spiritual life. To do all these three “Rs” may not be possible by the lonesome effort of the criminal and the sinner because both are limited, mortal and imperfect. They both need our Lord Jesus Christ to be saved.
Epilogue: A Young Lady’s Tale
Let me now end this sharing with an anecdote to drive home my point. A policeman brought a young lady to a judge and charged her with speeding along Ayala Avenue in Makati.
“Young lady,” barked the magistrate, “this officer tells me you were blazing at 80 kilometers per hour on Ayala Avenue. What can you say about that?”
“Your Honor,” replied the accused softly, “The policeman is correct. I violated the law. I am deeply sorry. I promise to reform myself. It will not happen again. Please forgive me.”
The judge banged his gavel and ruled, “I fine you 500 pesos for violating the law.” Then, he descended from the rostrum, removed his robe, went to the cashier, pulled out his wallet and paid the fine of 500 pesos. Why did he do that? Because the young, repentant lady who promised to reform her life and who did not have money to pay the fine was his daughter.
The judge had to follow the law and punish the traffic violator. He had to let justice be done though the heavens may fall. But because he loved his daughter, he sacrificed his own money and paid the fine.
And so it is with our Father in heaven. He is both the Lord of justice and the Lord of love. Because His people sinned and transgressed His law, He had to render justice and punish them. But because they are His children whom He loved dearly, He sent His only Son to redeem them and save them from their follies, out of His own grace and volition, not out of their worthiness or good deeds. Our Father in heaven is both the Lord of justice and the Lord of love. So must His priests in His church. So must His magistrates in His service.
Maraming salamat po.