03 January 2013

'He communicated best as priest.' Fr James B. Reuter SJ dies in Manila at 96

It's not every day that the death of a priest is marked by an editorial in a country's leading newspaper. But yesterday, 2 January, the Philippine Daily Inquirer carried one, Great soul, about an American Jesuit who had come here in 1938 as a scholastic and, with the exception of two or three years after World War II, spent the rest of his life here, Fr James B. Reuter SJ. He died peacefully on 31 December.

Father Jim was from Elizabeth, New Jersey, and was of German stock on his father's side and Irish on his mother's, a good combination of which he was proud. He was a pioneer in the use of the mass media in the Philippines in the service of the Gospel - radio, TV, the stage. I don't know if he ever got into IT but he had been quite sick for the last three or four years.

In either 1974 or 1974, when I was chaplain in the college department of Immaculate Conception College, Ozamiz City, then run by the Columban Sisters and now La Salle University, I invited him to give a workshop on radio drama to the members of the radio club I had started. I had a number of programmes on DXDD, the station of the Diocese of Ozamiz that had been started by a Columban priest, Fr Charles Nolan.

The first thing that surprised me when I met him at the airport was that he was wearing his cassock. That had been the universal dress of priests in the Philippines until the late 1960s. He was one of the few to continue the practice. The last time I met him, maybe four years ago at a Catholic Mass Media Awards ceremony, he was in a wheelchair. 

We spent the whole of each of the five days of the workshop in Ozamiz in the studios of DXDD and we learned by doing, under the direction of Father Jim. He had brought along five of his own 30-minute plays. As far as I recall, he directed three of the five plays and supervised two of us while we directed the last two. It was hard work but great fun. And we enjoyed listening to ourselves when the station broadcast our work.

During the Martial Law years Father Jim produced a four-page newsletter called The Communicator, which was widely distributed by the Catholic Church. It was published either weekly or monthly, I can't quite remember. He also encouraged rural communities to to write the news on blackboards. Almost everyone had access to radio but the media were controlled and news heavily censored or simply suppressed.

Eventually the authorities caught up with Father Reuter. Lai S. Reyes tells the story in the Philippine Star, the Manila daily for which Father Jim wrote a column, At 3AM, until 2009. Her article, In the Name of the Father - James Reuter SJ, was published on 28 July 2010.

The Communicator, The Hero
Unknown to the younger generation, Fr. Jim also played an important role in restoring our democracy. Through his Sunday radio program, The Commonweal Hour, and his magazine, The Communicator, Fr. Jim exposed the wrongdoings of the late dictator, President Ferdinand Marcos.
“There was one story I wrote, which blew his top. It was about the shoemaker in Manila who got killed because he didn’t give up the land (which he owned) that the government wanted,” Fr. Jim recalls.
The shoemaker’s story displeased the former president.
“As a dictator, Marcos thought he could do anything he pleased because he could easily get away with it. At that time, it was a crime to say or do anything hostile to the actions of Marcos,” Fr. Jim notes. The shoemaker was an ordinary man, but he eventually became a symbol of freedom.
The Xavier House in Sta. Ana, Manila, which served as Fr. Jim’s home and office, was raided by the military during Martial Law. They confiscated all the copies of The Communicator and eventually put the priest on house arrest.
Fr. Jim went on trial for eight days at Camp Crame, but the man behind his arrest got nervous and was afraid that the incident would be exposed to the international press. In no time, President Marcos gave Fr. Jim “amnesty.”
“They had 76 accusations against me. Amnesty means all the crimes you’ve been accused of have been forgotten by the defendant. But for Marcos, it meant otherwise. They told me that I was guilty, but they were not going to punish me yet. However, if I did something that would displease the dictator, they would put me in jail or deport me, or worst, shoot me,” recalls Fr. Jim.
That incident didn’t dampen Fr. Jim’s spirit. In fact, it further fueled his desire to fight back and put an end to the evil deeds of the oppressor. That day came when People Power broke out on EDSA in 1986.
“It was such a sweet victory not only for me but especially the Filipino people. My heart belongs to the Philippines. In fact, I’m more of a Filipino than an American. I even applied for a Filipino citizenship, but I was denied on grounds of being an ‘undesirable alien,’” he says with a laugh.
The long wait is over. In 2006, Fr. Jim was granted an honorary Filipino citizenship by the House of Representatives and the Senate. 

Father Reuter called his column, which he wrote for twenty years, At 3AM because that was the time he wrote it. He was unconventional in another way too. Most westerners in the Philippines take a siesta after lunch, which is usually at 12, but Father Jim used to come to the Columban house in Manila and swim in our pool at that time. He did this into his 80s.

Ma. Ceres P. Doyo of the Philippine Daily Inquirer recalls an interview in 1989 with Father Reuter in her weekly Human Face column today, Conversation with Fr. James Reuter SJ. She notes: 

Being the head of the Catholic Church’s National Office of Mass Media is only one of the many jobs of Father Reuter. But this office is the hub and heart of what the Jesuit padre is into. He writes, he directs plays, gives retreats and spiritual guidance. He is also an organizer, a mover. The youth is his forte.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial yesterday ended with these words:

Reuter’s pivotal role in Philippine history was prepared for in part by the high price he had to pay: He was imprisoned by the Japanese during World War II, and he was silenced, arrested, tried then quietly released during the Marcos dictatorship.
To the thousands who came to work with Reuter, it was perhaps as a teaching priest, a shaper of conscience and character, that they knew him best. In a generous tribute occasioned by Reuter’s 90th birthday in 2006, Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, the archbishop of Manila at that time, zeroed in on this particular gift.
“However, his finest hours as a communicator [are] when he is with people: with the many young people [who] went under his spiritual direction through retreats and recollections, the many nuns [whom] he directed and counseled, the many couples he guided, the many priests he walked with, the many poor he visited and assisted, the many bishops he served, the ordinary men and women who confessed to him, attended the Masses he presided, received his comfort and blessings. He communicated best as priest.”
On reflection, we can now see that the Reuter legacy was not so much the act of communicating (he excelled in many media), but the content of his communication (he had one constant message). Or to be more precise, and recalling the earliest Judeo-Christian traditions, his word was his work. It was all of a piece.
Two years ago, he paid his adopted countrymen the highest compliment: “When I first came here, I thought I was bringing God to the Philippines. But what I discovered was [the Filipinos] brought God to me.”
One little detail remains in my memory from the Ozamiz workshop. Irving Berlin's Blue Skies was to be sung by a young man to his girlfriend in one of the radio plays. However, none of the students knew the song, which I took to be a favourite of Father Jim, so we replaced it with a Filipino love song. When he went home to the USA a the end of the War he probably saw Bing Crosby sing Blue Skies in the 1946 movie of the same name.

For me as a priest it is a blessing to have known Father Jim, even briefly, and to know how faithfully and zealously he lived as a Jesuit priest among the Filipino people whom he loved. And what a lovely tribute by Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, then Archbishop of Manila, on the occasion of Father Jim's 90th birthday: He communicated best as priest. May he rest in peace.

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