To me Francis was first a friend and a brother-Oblate. Becoming a Bishop, and Archbishop, and Cardinal, he continued to be simply a friend whom I could chat and banter with.
This was so when we first met as scholastics in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1963. We had just finished our third year of Theology. He in Ottawa and I, in Washington, D.C. What struck me about him were his sharp piercing eyes that looked at me as though I was the only person in the room with him. Those eyes were the windows of his mind and heart. He had a keen penetrating mind, whose grasp of culture, philosophy and theology, even as a scholastic, would later unfold onto the public stage.
About Francis I once told this story to Chicago Catholic faithful gathered at the First Archdiocesan Festival of the Catholic Faith.
I told them about the deep humanity of their shepherd. It was summer in Washington, D.C., the eve of the final examinations at the Catholic University of America. Francis was doing a Master’s in Philosophy. I was into European Diplomatic History. The other Oblate scholastics had gone up to their rooms to study. Francis and I stayed behind to watch the Miss Universe Contest on TV. It was a long, drawn-out event. I wanted to watch till the end because the Philippine beauty candidate was a semifinalist. He also wanted to stay for the final result. At the end we both went to sleep around midnight without studying for the finals. Miss Universe first, summer studies second. But not really, for I am certain that he got grades of A for his Philosophy subjects that summer.
He was genuinely a brilliant philosopher and an outstanding theologian, an intellectual of the first degree.
At the canonization of our Founder, St. Eugene de Mazenod, Fr. Marcello ZAGO, the Superior General, organized a brief symposium for Oblate Bishops from around the world. He asked me to present a brief view of the Church in Asia.
To present the vision of Church in Asia I pointed out the rich mosaic of Asian cultures, Asia as the cradle of ancient religions, and the massive poverty of the Asian continent. Given this pastoral context, the vision of the Church in Asia, I said, was evangelization by way of a triple dialogue – inculturation or dialogue with cultures, inter-religious dialogue or dialogue between Asia’s major religious and philosophical traditions, and integral human liberation or dialogue with the poor peoples of Asia. Francis approached me during coffee break and told me, to my total surprise, that it was the first time he understood why dialogue was so imperative in Asia. In jest I told him, “Ah so after all these years you finally learned something from me!”
But, indeed, his was a scintillating intellect, ever in search of truth. And that truth was first of all the truth of God, of God’s mission, our mission.
He was the Vicar General of the Congregation when he visited the Philippines. I listened to a conference that he gave the scholastics in Manila. For me, the conference was a doorway to a better understanding of St. Eugene’s “missionary daring” and “evangelizing the poor.” It was also a key to his missionary heart that, in the midst of formidable challenges to mission in Southern Philippines, was full of optimism, of faith and trust in Jesus. The depth of his conviction was most certainly the fruit of personal prayer before the Lord.
The last time I met Francis was when I visited him last year. He was in relatively better health as he conducted the Chicago priests’ assembly. He asked me to speak to the priests. I spoke briefly about the work for peace in the Archdiocese of Cotabato. But I noticed how difficult it was for him to walk even for a short distance. He spoke then quite casually about the doctor’s prognosis that his days were numbered. I realized that we might not see each other again.
Today I heard that the Lord had finally called Francis to his bosom. I started my homily at the priestly ordination of six Jesuits at the Ateneo de Manila with Francis in mind. I said that while I would speak about Jesus the eternal High Priest, I also had in mind an icon of Jesus the Good Shepherd, a great priest, a missionary Oblate, a Cardinal, a friend, who was at home in the great urban centres of the world as well as in the poor rural missionary peripheries of South America, Africa, and Asia. As I mentioned the name of Francis, I had to pause to control my voice.
Francis, my dear friend, my brother Oblate, even as we pray for you, commend us to the Lord, to our Blessed Mother, and to your namesake, St. Eugene.