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Newsmakers

James the Evangelist

PEOPLE - Joanne Rae M. Ramirez - The Philippine Star

‘I have never regretted one day of the 69 years I have spent here. If I had my life to live all over again… I would not change a thing! I would not change a thing.’  — James B. Reuter S.J., 2008

We do not choose the land of our birth, but most of us can choose the land of our life. And death.

Fr. James B. Reuter S.J., who died last Dec. 31, chose the Philippines. When he died at age 96 in a Parañaque hospital, it had been almost 74 years since he first set foot on these shores.

James Reuter was born in the US, and he often said in his lifetime that from the time he was seven years old and a second grader, he knew he wanted to be a missionary.

After graduating from high school, he decided to join a novitiate of the Society of Jesus in New York. The mission assigned to the novitiate, of all places, was the Philippines! After four years in the novitiate, Reuter volunteered to go to the Philippines and prayed that he would be one of the three young Jesuits sent annually there — even if the Philippines was a faraway land to most New Yorkers.

Portrait of a young Reuter by Celia Diaz-Laurel.

“But when the list of those appointed was posted on the bulletin board,” Reuter, wrote in 2008 in his book Mama Mary and Her Children (True Stories of Real People), “I was on the list, but I was the last name — the eighth.” He was just among the five alternates to the first three, and the last choice among the five.

“Under normal conditions, this meant that I did not have a chance. All eight men were young, in perfect health, mentally balanced, and all of them had the right motives,” he wrote further. It seemed that his Jesuit superiors felt the Philippines was not the right place for young Jim Reuter.

“So I prayed, with all my heart, to the Blessed Virgin Mary — to send me to the Philippines,” Reuter revealed. His mother supported his decision. His father, who wanted him to go to West Point and did not want him to become a Jesuit, “had absolutely no use for the Philippines.”

But the young Reuter explained his calling to his father and the latter relented. So father, mother and son prayed that somehow, the last boy on the list would move up.

“And lo and behold!” Reuter wrote. “Of the seven men ahead of me on that list of appointees, six were unable to make it. They came off the list, one by one, for extraordinary reasons… and I wound up second on the list. I came to the Philippines. I have been here ever since — 69 years.”

That was five years ago. On the day he breathed his last, Reuter was in the Philippines for about 74 years.

“I have never regretted one day of the 69 years I have spent here. If I had my life to live all over again… I would not change a thing! I would not change a thing.”

***

A personalized bookmark sent by Fr. Reuter to Marivic Puyat Limcaoco, an Assumption girl, during her retreat in 1979.

Reuter shaped many lives and brought out the best in hundreds of thousands of Filipinos whom he taught, coached, mentored, gave counsel to — from Ateneans to La Sallians, from Assumption girls to Paulinians, and many more. He was a fearless critic of the excesses of the Marcos regime. During martial law, one of his closest relatives in the US died but he chose not to attend the relative’s funeral because he felt that if he left, the Philippine government would not allow him to return. And the Philippines was his mission, his calling, from the very start.

A communications expert, Reuter spearheaded the establishment of 49 Catholic radio stations all over the Philippines.  According to his book, Reuter believed “that you can teach the Word of God on the stage over the footlights, on TV screens, and over the radio more effectively, more realistically, than from the pulpit.”

He also wrote a widely read column in The Philippine STAR called, “At 3:00 A.M.”

I knew Father Reuter because he gave life-altering retreats to all seniors of the Assumption Convent High School for decades. He conducted his last Assumption retreat in the early 2000s.

Fr. Reuter with some members of Assumption Batch ‘79 during their velada: (First row, from left) Gina Yaptangco, Lou Reyes, Chloe Uy, Sandy Moran and class adviser Lirio Mapa; (second row, from left) Yvette Orbeta, Lian Baniqued, the author, Tina Nakpil, Dola Arguelles, Marga Gregorio and Andie Recto; (third row, from left) Anay Zalamea, Gia Nakpil, Bea Clark and Katharina Tolentino.

He conducted the retreats at the Assumption house in Baguio, where we would be in seclusion for about three days and two nights. Aside from his talks on spirituality, he gave us advice, very strict advice, on how to be women who would be treasured by others — whether it was a future husband, a future boss, a future colleague. He made us feel special, privileged, chosen.

He impressed upon us that we should translate that privilege and that grace into a person Our Maker would be proud of and our fellowmen would be glad to know of.

He also gave us girls advice on how to conduct ourselves with the opposite sex. “When you go dancing with a boy,” he admonished, “make sure you leave space for the Holy Spirit to pass between you.” 

Father Reuter heard our confession and counseled us one-on-one on anything that we needed to be enlightened on.

Father Reuter made me feel then I was his favorite, and I am sure he gave that feeling to all of us. As a farewell present, he gave us encouraging, personalized messages in a bookmark that I am afraid I have lost.

After the retreat, he would hike down Kennon Road as his “sacrifice” for us, and just meet us down in Pangasinan.

Whenever I would see him after that and introduce myself as an Assumption girl, his eyes would light up and he would plant his trademark “lolo” kiss on both my cheeks. He knew, somehow he knew, that this was one girl he gave a retreat to once upon a time.

Father, I hope I didn’t let you down, and that the purpose in life I forged in Baguio remains unwavering.

***

Father Reuter celebrated Mass when my class had its silver jubilee and velada. He wasn’t as robust as he used to be, but he was still very sharp and eloquent.

He took one look at us and said, “When you left the Assumption high school, you were already beautiful. But the way you all look now, if not for your Assumption education, you would have been dangerous.”

***

In an interview with PeopleAsia magazine, which chose him as one of its “People of the Year” in 2008, he told writer Jose Paolo dela Cruz, “The priesthood is my greatest achievement.  To be able to win souls for heaven is the thing I have always wanted to do.”

Farewell, Father Reuter. Thank you for choosing the Philippines… and staying.

 

(You may e-mail me at [email protected].)

 

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