He swam the shark-infested waters of northern Palawan for fun, survived hunger in a Japanese concentration camp during World War II, and then defied a dictator by bearing witness to the truth during the dark days of martial law.
For all of these and much more, legendary Jesuit Fr. James B. Reuter was given a standing ovation at the funeral Mass for him at the Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City on Saturday morning.
“At the foundation of Fr. Jim’s inexhaustible energy was a deep and simple faith, simple in the sense of the beatitude ‘Blessed are the pure of hearts for they will see God,” said Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, SJ, a noted educator and former Ateneo president.
“Underlying his energy and drive was always faith, a faith that was at once very keen and simple in its unwavering assurance that God will always be there and would always take care,” Nebres said.
The Mass was celebrated by Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle. Also present were Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), and six other bishops.
“We know that he is among the great people who were instrumental in the CBCP,” Palma said.
Cubao Bishop Honesto Ongtioco said Reuter’s death was a “big loss” not just to the Church but also to the country.
“What I saw in him was his passion for his calling. He was called to be a great communicator and he helped a lot in the development of the media in the Philippines,” Ongtioco said.
“He was called an icon because at that time when there was still no Internet and other technology we now enjoy, in his own way he promoted the communication of truth,” he said.
“He was a great communicator directing and writing plays and molding the minds and hearts of students to instill the value and communicate with passion what is real and what is genuine,” he said.
Others who attended the Mass at the Church of the Gesu were former Sen. Heherson Alvarez, TV journalist Mike Enriquez, actress Boots Anson-Roa, former Akbayan party-list Rep. Risa Hontiveros, former Ambassador Howard Dee and Zeneida Quezon Avanceña, the daughter of the late President Manuel L. Quezon.
Nebres, who gave the homily, said he was “awed” when he first met Reuter, popularly known as “Fr. Jim,” after joining the Jesuits as a novice in 1956.
“I watched him doing laps in the 25-meter pool of the novitiate. What I cannot forget was when he started swimming under water. He would go to one end of the pool and he would not surface until he got to the other end,” Nebres said.
“He would do this about 10 to 15 times. I was just awed,” he said.
When Nebres and other novices visited the leprosarium in Culion in northern Palawan, he learned that Reuter would “swim from one island to the other.”
“They sent a boat to follow him to make sure he was safe. He did not know that those were shark-infested waters,” Nebres said.
Nebres said Reuter “in the prime of his life” also jogged regularly at the Sta. Ana race track in Manila “at around 3 to 4 a.m.”
“[O]ne time, he came home with a big gash on his forehead and blood all over his pants. He had run into a tricycle in the dark. ‘I’m OK,’ he said, and so we asked, ‘Yes, but how is the tricycle?’” Nebres said.
Nebres said Reuter also had to survive on four ounces of rice a day when he was imprisoned by the Japanese in Los Baños, Laguna, during World War II.
Hunger a blessing
“The real suffering was hunger. They were given two ounces of rice in the morning [and] two ounces of rice in the afternoon. That was all,” Nebres said.
“He said that the only wishes he had at the time were ‘breakfast, lunch, and dinner, breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” he said.
But Nebres also noted that Reuter’s accounts of those harrowing years, from 1944 to 1945, were “full of optimism and humor.”
“Looking back on those years of hunger and deprivation, he later wrote that he was rather sorry for his brother Jesuits in Fordham (University in New York City) for not appreciating breakfast, lunch and dinner because they were never hungry,” Nebres said.
“[He] realized that the blessing is not having a lot of meals. The blessing, he said, is hunger. Because when you are hungry, everything tastes [delicious],” he added.
Nebres said Reuter’s years of teaching at the Ateneo de Naga and the Ateneo de Manila, from 1948 to 1960, were the “golden Reuter years.”
Reuter molded many “Reuter babies,” as he was the moderator of drama, athletics, debates in college while teaching Latin, English and religion, Nebres said.
Many of Reuter’s students also remembered him for the religious retreats he conducted.
“He says ‘I received such touching letters. I am humbled by these letters because the one who makes the impact on their lives is never the priest but it is Christ our Lord,’” Nebres said.
“Whenever I hear confession, I know the one confessing is reaching out to God. The priest is only the bridge, but it is consoling to know that a priest could be a bridge between a soul and God. I pray every day to be worthy of the good people whom God sends to me,” Nebres said, quoting Reuter.
Nebres recounted how Reuter was instrumental in the development of the church media in the Philippines, particularly the Church’s radio stations.
“It is because of his faith, together with his foresight in building the Federation of Catholic Broadcasters of the Philippines, that we owe much of the dominant communications role of the Church in the 1986 snap election and in the success of the (1986) Edsa (People Power) Revolution,” Nebres said.
“Throughout martial law, Fr. Jim kept the fire burning through his … youthful and powerful articles against martial law. The radio network of the federation remained the one independent source of news during those years of media control,” Nebres said.
Helping the poor
Later, Nebres said, Reuter focused on helping the poor, writing plays about the plight of sexually abused children.
Sr. Eva Fidela Maamo, SPC, said her congregation set up the Foundation of Our Lady of Peace Mission Inc. to help the “total human development” of poor and tribal communities in the country.
“We have trained 229 barefoot doctors and we have set up centers in 15 squatter areas plus some of the tribal communities,” Maamo said.
“We have been working together for more than 30 years but we have kept this quiet,” she added.
After the Mass the congregation rose and applauded as Reuter’s coffin was taken out of the church.
Reuter was buried at the Sacred Heart Novitiate Jesuit Cemetery in Novaliches, Quezon City.