Message at the Concordia College’s 150th Founding Anniversary
Doña Margarita Roxas de Ayala Auditorium,
Concordia College, Paco, Manila
Thank you very much. Kindly take your seats.
Sr. Elenita Soriano, School President, and the rest of the members of the Board of Trustees; Sr. Nicetas Favorito, Daughter of Charity, Sister Servant; members of the Vincentian Mission Team; our sisters, the DC (Daughters of Charity) sisters; Concordia College lay mission partners; alumni; parents; students of the DC schools who are here with us today; honored guests; ladies and gentlemen: Magandang umaga sa inyong lahat! [Audience: Magandang umaga po!]
Let me begin my message to all of you today with a story about a young girl named Lucy—siguro nabasa ng iba sa inyo, Chronicles of Narnia. Lucy was about the age of some of you here when she found herself one day in a very strange, very cold world. In this world, she made friends with a faun, two beavers, and other animals who spoke to her and her three siblings about their greatest fear: the evil White Witch who has enchanted Narnia so that it is always winter there, but never Christmas.
The White Witch wanted power so much that she was willing to enslave anyone and kill for it, especially the small animals who could not stand up to her. She used magic to turn anyone who displeased her into stone and she had a huge army to do her evil work.
It was a scary time for Lucy and her three siblings, just as some of you might feel today, perhaps, in our world full of grown-up problems and issues. But with the help of a lion named Aslan, who was full of goodness and who sacrificed his life to save one of Lucy’s brothers, they fought the White Witch and won.
In Narnia, Lucy found her inner courage in standing up to someone who was way more powerful than her. She found her voice in her defense of those who were scared and overwhelmed. She developed a sense of empathy and compassion for them and an unshakeable commitment to do the right thing no matter what the cost. So my dear students and friends, always remember this: young people like you can teach the world a lot of things.
The world these days can feel a lot like Narnia. It can seem cold and uncertain, scary and hopeless. But let us never forget that our teachers, our parents, and many others around us, nurture our minds, hearts, and spirit, so that we can bring our own light into the world, filling it with courage, joy, and compassion. All they are, and all they do, they dedicate towards building a better future for each one of you.
Concordia College has always been a sanctuary for young girls—and now, also young boys—a safe space carved out 150 years ago in 1868, where students can develop not just academic skills, but also the character needed to bring light, courage, joy, and compassion into the world. What I love about this school is that your classrooms are not just places of learning for Math, Science or Language, but also places of learning about integrity, excellence, empathy, servant-leadership, and selfless service. These are values that are needed to develop great leaders, especially in these extraordinary times.
And let me tell you something very personal about empathy. I was a graduate of an all-girls Catholic school in my hometown in Naga, Universidad de Sta. Isabel. Naku, nandiyan pala si Sister, iyong aking boss! Hindi kita nakita, Sister, kanina. You know, when I was teaching in USI, si Sister iyong aking Mother Superior, kaya boss ko siya. Universidad de Sta. Isabel is a sister school of Concordia College. Three generations kaming nag-aral: my mom, kaming magkakapatid,and my children. My mom is now 82, but she still teaches at the USI Graduate School. It was there where I first learned the value of caring for those who needed help. I can still remember the sign in every classroom that says—naaalala ito ni Sister, I’m sure, kasi nakikita ito sa lahat ng classrooms ng USI: “The charity of Christ urges us.” I can also remember our regular visits to communities where we would have feeding programs, where we would take care of the poor, the old and the sickly, and serve those who needed help.
We also had an auditorium like this, kaya I was telling Sr. Leny kanina, sabi ko, “Sister, it feels like I’m in USI, kasi nasa auditorium ako, tapos mga DC sisters ang nasa harap.“ The auditorium, we used for plays—that was where we staged plays and where students were required to participate. But when I was around the age of most of you, I was a very shy girl who always dreaded the spotlight. I have a younger sister. My younger sister would land the main roles, while I would be manning the curtains or writing scripts—anything that did not involve performing on stage. I was that shy. I never ran for the student council and never imagined delivering speeches like this before a huge crowd. And never in my wildest imagination did I dream of entering politics.
It was my late husband, Jesse, who was always in the spotlight. He was the politician in the family, while I was content with my roles behind the scenes. Incidentally I taught in USI for 10 years, and my husband also did. Napagod siya sa kakasundo sa akin, nagturo na lang siya. [laughter] For my part, I served as a human rights lawyer who defended those who were in the margins—the farmers, the fisherfolk, the urban poor, the indigenous peoples, women and children, among others. Instead of waiting for them in our offices like most lawyers did, we were the ones who went to them. We traveled to far-flung communities, trekked mountains, slept in open-air huts and boats when there was no other place for us to stay the night. We would translate laws and ordinances into the local dialect so that the poor and the voiceless will be in a better position to fight for their rights. What we did was called alternative lawyering.
It was through this kind of lawyering where I learned that selfless service was grounded on empathy and not just on sympathy. Empathy went deeper. It allowed us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and look at the world through their eyes. It moved us to go beyond our own comfort zones and find solutions to their most pressing problems.
Lawyering for the poor was a very difficult job, but it was where I truly found my purpose. And when you find your purpose, despite the countless challenges that come your way, will you not give your best in everything that you do? When you understand that your actions may mean that someone either eats a meal or goes hungry, wouldn’t you want to give all that you can?
I believe great leaders are those that serve excellently because they are driven by purpose and empathy. Since I assumed the Vice Presidency in 2016 and began Angat Buhay, the Office of the Vice President’s program against poverty, I have met many persons who are examples of great leadership.
One of them is Serge Aclan, founder of a youth organization called Project Gifted. Serge was a medical student, and he dreamed of teaching less fortunate kids how to play the violin. So Serge and his friends came up with Project Gifted and recruited young people to help and inspire others to develop their own talents.
When we made a call for youth organizations to pitch their projects for the Angat Buhay Youth Summit, Serge took the chance. At the Summit, Serge proposed the creation of the Lipa City Youth Orchestra, not just to make beautiful music, but more importantly to help children with drug and mental health problems through music therapy.
Project Gifted was awarded as the best out of 50 proposals. After that, we brought Serge to a youth congress in Hanyang University in South Korea to make another pitch, this time competing against other projects from all over Asia. And he won a special award. Because of his group’s successful pitch, the group received additional funding for its project for the Lipa youth. And one year after the group won, the Lipa City Youth Orchestra has already completed one recital and they are now playing in selected communities this Christmas.
Young leaders have a different way of changing the world. You do things better and faster and with more heart. You are more creative and definitely more fun. But you can only do this if, like Lucy, you find the courage to speak your own words, aim for your greatest dreams, and focus your life on helping others with integrity, empathy, and compassion.
Remember that life will always have sad and painful surprises. We, your parents, teachers, and friends, cannot shield you completely from them, but here’s a secret that I will share with you: Our load becomes infinitely easier and lighter when we carry the burden of others. I know it defies logic, because when we carry the weight for others, then it should add to the ones we already have. But the truth is, when we are focused on easing the suffering of others, we forget our own troubles and the brokenness of our hearts get healed.
This is something that is very personal to me. I’m sure you are well aware, I have often been on the receiving end of fake news, bullying, and harsh criticisms that sometimes make fun of my being a woman. Some people ask me how I deal with all of it. I always say that when you see the suffering of our people and the urgency of their needs, wouldn’t you rather focus on serving them? Fighting against something is vastly different from fighting for something. And we find ourselves stronger and hopeful when we are fighting for those who are the least among us.
All of us are called to serve our people and we can do it in a thousand, unique ways. We are where we are so that we can be equipped and molded to become leaders who are driven by empathy and excellence, and rooted on integrity. We don’t even have to be the President or the Vice President to make a difference. We can be a teacher, a parent, or a student, or someone like Lucy, who just wants to help others.
Years from now, when it is your time to take our place, my prayer is that you will always choose to go where you are most needed. That you will remember the voiceless and the powerless. St. Vincent de Paul said you will only find God when you reach out to the poor and the downtrodden. In the same way, I hope that just like Christ, we will all be inspired to serve our people with great passion and purpose. This is the only way we can truly bring light and hope in these dark and trying times.
To the sisters, the teachers, and the staff of Concordia College, we look forward to partnering with you in uplifting the lives of the Filipino people. Together, let us continue to inspire our girls and boys to become the best that they can be and to make their lives more meaningful by serving the last, the least, and the lost.
Thank you very much, and happy 150th anniversary to Concordia College! [applause]