This funeral homily was delivered in Xavier School for Fr. Ismael Zuloaga SJ on 11 October 2011.
It’s not going to be easy to talk about the life of Fr. Ismael Zuloaga. The reason is: He didn’t just have one life; he had several. To those who knew of him–and especially to those of us who knew him personally, Fr Zuloaga was—there’s no other way of putting it—“larger than life.” By every possible account, his life was equivalent to much more than one; his works and accomplishments were really worth several lifetimes.
For many of our Xavier students present here, Fr. Zuloaga might have just been this elderly Jesuit you occasionally saw on campus, who also happened to be the Chairman of our Board of Trustees. Some of you may be aware that he was the longest-serving Director of Xavier School, dedicating twenty years of his life leading the school from 1965 to 1985 and in the process defining the Xavier brand of education early on in our history. Along with the late Fr. Jeans Desautels, Fr Zuloaga can rightly be considered a co-founder of Xavier.
Now, for us who belong to the earlier generations of Xaverians, he was and will always be Xavier School.
The very first time I met Fr. Zuloaga, it was back in 1970, and I was a new student in grade 3. He was addressing the student body right here in this very place when this was still the old Grade School gym, talking about “men for others” and using all those Latin words like magis and Luceat Lux.
For us students—and I suspect, to our teachers as well—he was, by every standard, a virtual god. We were in awe of him, even terrified of him. It didn’t help that in all my years as a student here in grade school and high school, I never got the chance to have an actual conversation with him. Despite the personal distance, however, Fr. Zuloaga was omnipresent: It just felt like he was everywhere! And come to think of it, when I look back at my own life, that’s exactly how he has continued to be in my life: omnipresent. He always somehow managed to show up and be there.
When I graduated from college in 1983, Fr. Zulo, as we’ve come to call him, welcomed me and the first large group of alumni who returned here to teach for a year or two—among them, Charlie Yu, Baldous Lee, Beewee Perez, Rudy Ang, and Gary Garcia. For us, it was such a privilege to see Xavier School this time from the other end of the classroom, and to learn first hand what Fr. Zulo’s style of leadership was like. His secret? He led! He would listen—at least most of the time—but he was not afraid to take the lead. As the School Director, he was appropriately and effectively directive—and as I say this, I can’t help but recognize how his leadership has so deeply influenced many of us.
True, he had an opinion about everything—and usually a strong one—and he always, always spoke his mind. But his opinion was mostly right anyway. One close associate observed that as long as Fr. Zuloaga considered an idea good, he would find every possible way to defend it! Any dissenting opinion would be met with his vintage Fr. Zuloaga look, which his good friend and successor in his work for the Asia Pacific, Fr. Mark Raper, has described as “inscrutable, penetrating, and quizzical”—all at the same time. “Was that a smile, a question, or a comment?” Fr. Raper often wondered and never got his answer.
Fr. Zulo had the gift of stripping away the non-essentials. He refused to be distracted by them because he recognized what lay at the heart of every matter, and insisted on cutting to the chase. This insight into things was what kept him always ahead of his time. Long before any talk of Jesuit-lay collaboration—and against the prevailing opinion at the time, Fr. Zuloaga appointed Mrs. Jenny Huang Go as Principal of Xavier School back in the 70s, the very first lay—and woman—Principal of any Jesuit school in the world!
But don’t me wrong. This no-nonsense leadership style so characteristic of Fr. Zulo was tempered and sweetened by what can best be described as his Chinese tact and diplomacy—or if you will, his Oriental savoir faire. Like Matteo Ricci, that great Jesuit missionary to China, he understood the fundamental and universal importance of personal relationships in any work and in any continent. Perhaps more Chinese than even many of us Xaverians, Fr. Zuloaga did not hesitate to employ the subtle art of 人際關係, and this served him so well especially during his stint as the President of the Jesuit Conference for East Asia and Oceania. His assistant for many years, Fr. Riyo Mursanto, an Indonesian Jesuit, had a name for Fr. Zulo’s brand of management: “Management by heart.”
Back in 1990, my Jesuit Superior sent me to Taipei for two years of media training. When I arrived at the top floor of the Jesuit production studio building, who should I find there grinning from ear to ear to welcome me to my new community, but my former Director from Xavier School? He was doing a lot of traveling then for his work in the region, and happened to be visiting the Jesuits in Taiwan when I arrived. At the welcome dinner for me that evening at a neighborhood pizza parlor, Fr. Zulo exchanged jokes with our brother Jesuits in fluent, free-flowing Mandarin as this wide-eyed tongue-tied Xavier graduate watched in awe and total silence.
Fr. Zulo was the quintessential global citizen long before it was a catchphrase. He loved the people he served anywhere—in the Philippines, in China, in Cambodia, in East Timor, and in Myanmar. As a young Jesuit, he was assigned to teach in a seminary in Dili, where one of his students later became the Prime Minister and the President of East Timor, Xanana Gusmao. Through the Jesuit Service of Cambodia, Fr. Zuloaga built a strong spirit of teamwork among Jesuits, religious sisters, and lay, including the handicapped, to serve a people traumatized by war and violence. In Myanmar, Fr. Zulo built such good rapport with the local bishops that they decided to invite the Jesuits to return. In a country still ruled by a military junta, Fr. Zulo worked quietly with the Jesuits, managed to start a novitiate in Taunggyi, and a candidacy house and an English school in Yangon.
Like Francis Xavier, however, China was for Fr. Zulo the “priority of priorities.” Through his work as head of the China Office, he employed every possible means and twisted every possible arm to raise the funds necessary to finance thousands of Chinese seminarians, religious sisters, and priests who flew over to Manila for their religious formation and education. Just to obtain the needed visas for these students, Fr. Zulo occasionally tapped into his vast network of Chinese-Filipino friends and conveniently supplied these religious with instant relatives. Through the years his operation had become so successful that his brother Jesuits often ribbed Fr. Zulo for being the resident Jesuit expert in human trafficking.
At a time when a suspicious China was still dragging its feet in opening up to the world, Fr. Zuloaga managed to sneak the Jesuits back to the mainland—into Peking University no less. Together with the American Jesuit Fr. Ron Anton, Fr. Zulo organized a consortium of Jesuit business schools in 1998 to collaborate on offering the Beijing International MBA at 北大. When it came time to hand over the program to local administrators, they started a new venture to ensure the continued presence of Jesuits in China: The Beijing Center (or TBC), envisioned to be a place for international scholarship on China that brought in students and professors from all over the world.
It was during his term as the President of the Jesuit Conference that our paths crossed again in 1997. I was appointed Executive Director of Jesuit Communications Foundation, and to my delight, I found myself sharing the Sonolux Building with him on the Ateneo de Manila campus: The JesCom offices on the first two floors, and the Jesuit Conference on the third.
Since we were neighbors, it was pretty convenient for me to go up the third floor once in a while just to have a chat with him or to consult him. Fr. Zulo was very generous with his time and his advice. He knew that JesCom at that time sorely needed funding, and he gave me nothing less than full support–wholeheartedly endorsing my funding proposals and happily sharing his contacts with me. By the time I left my post in JesCom four years later to move to Xavier, Fr. Zulo and I had become fast friends.
I had a lot of opportunity to get acquainted with another side of Fr. Zulo those four years–the side of him that was beyond Xavier School. I saw how groundbreaking and pioneering his work was in the Asia Pacific region at a time when so many changes were happening so rapidly in the different countries. Yet he always made time for this Xavier boy. One of his secretaries told me during the wake that every time I phoned Fr. Zulo for any kind of request, he would immediately summon them to work on it even before I showed up on their floor.
One quality of Fr. Zulo that made the deepest impression on was his capacity to remain unfazed in the most nerve-wracking of moments. I saw this when I worked with him at the World Youth Day in Manila in 1995. Through astute political maneuverings and good personal relationships, Fr. Zulo managed to get a delegation of Catholics to attend the official Vatican-sponsored event–a first since the Communist take-over and a major breakthrough. The only condition given was that it remain a strictly spiritual and non-political affair—i.e., no official display of flag of the PROC or Taiwan.
But on the final Mass of the World Youth Day, as the Gospel was being read, a parade of flags waded through the thick crowd and proceeded to the altar. Among them—to the horror of the Mainland Chinese delegates—was the flag of Taiwan. The Chinese Mainland delegates had no choice but to walk out in the middle of the Mass, wading through the crowd of an estimated five million.
When I reported this to Fr. Zulo, he noted my distress, nodded, and said, “Let’s see how we can fix this.” Just like that.
I saw that same quality one year later when the young Jesuit missionary Richie Fernando died in a grenade accident in Banteay Prieb in Cambodia. When Fr. Zulo received the news from Sr. Denise Coghlan, Richie’s Director of Work, he stopped and prayed for a while, then calmly picked up the phone to call Richie’s mother, made sure she was home with her husband, before–in the gentlest of manner–breaking the tragic news to her.
All his years as a Jesuit, Fr. Zuloaga was always boss and superior, someone accustomed to navigating in multiple universes. Which is why we can only imagine how tough and painful it must have been when in the latter years of his life, his own mortality forced Fr. Zulo, now in his 80s, to slow down and watch his world gradually shrink. In 2004, as he was ending his term as President of the Jesuit Conference, I suggested to him to consider the idea of coming back to join us in Xavier. Not surprisingly, he convinced his Provincial to give him this assignment. But mind you, even if he began slowing down, he remained no less provocative and no less productive. He led us in our celebration of Xavier School’s Golden Jubilee in 2006. He galvanized our community in opening our new campus, Xavier School Nuvali, just last June—all the time providing the voice of wisdom for our school community. Like an unrelenting prophet, he pushed us—again and again—to open wider the doors of Xavier to many more scholars—a dream he hoped would be fulfilled especially in Nuvali.
In more recent years, things predictably began to take their perceptible toll on Fr. Zulo. Three times every week for the past seven years he was restricted for a whole morning to his dialysis sessions—a regular and tedious medical treatment that he so badly needed but also so heavily exhausted him. In typical Zuloaga fashion, however, he constantly tried to make light of them, referring to his mornings at the dialysis clinic as much-needed spiritual recollections.
Early this year, his doctors advised him to undergo a delicate procedure for his failing heart valve. After a process of discernment, Fr. Zulo decided to ask our Provincial for permission to go through with it. Many, including his close friends, expressed serious concern over its probable risks. Maybe it should be foregone, we suggested to him. Perhaps he need not fight so hard to live, we advised him. But Fr. Zulo had made up his mind, and we know what that means. With his Superior’s permission, he bravely underwent the procedure.
All went well: His valve was successfully replaced, and even his doctors were amazed at how the artificial one functioned so well. But as it turned out, while his heart was strong, the rest of him fell short. These last months Fr. Zulo couldn’t swallow or even speak. It was an exceptionally difficult season in his life considering that all his life he had been such a doer and such a leader, someone who was so used to doing things on his own, but now had no choice but to rely on others for the simplest of chores, and basically had to contend with the gradual loss of control over his body and occasionally over his faculties.
But the unexpected expected happened. Last week, thanks to the care of those around him, to grueling hours of therapy, lots of prayers, and sheer will power, Fr. Zulo’s condition miraculously started to improve. He began to respond to others and to speak. He even began to complain. When his good friend Jan asked him if he wanted to be wheeled down to the office, he said yes immediately, and it sounded almost like a command! We exchanged glances and could have sworn that Fr. Zulo was back.
But we had spoken too soon.
Early morning last Monday, I woke up and saw several missed calls on my phone. Then I saw one straightforward text message from our Prefect of Health, Fr. Guy Guibelondo. One look at it and I was soon in a cab on my way to the dialysis center, where Fr. Zulo had died. He was already gone when I got there. According to his caregivers, even before the start of any procedure, Fr. Zulo simply raised his eyes, turned pale, and expired. Just like that.
When news of his death spread, not a few wondered if going through the procedure had been a mistake. Maybe Fr. Zulo had been too stubborn? Why not let go? Why refuse to rest? I didn’t understand it myself, but a few hours after he had died, I chanced upon the song “No Better Rest.” The song is based on a letter written by St. Francis Xavier, and one line goes like this:
“There is no better rest in this restless world than to hear and do God’s word.”
I think it was then that I understood: This reluctance to let go, this almost stubborn insistence to live—it was the Francis Xavier in him. It was the spirit of that restless missionary who had dreamed of going to China till his last breath and who, despite his failing health in Shangchuan Island and against the advice of those around him, insisted stubbornly on waiting for the boat that would take him across the sea to the mainland.
Fr. Zulo, like your Francis Xavier, you died waiting for that last boat, and like his boat, it never came. But also just like that great missionary, when the Lord called, you went quickly and obediently.
These last years, I’ve been accompanying my contemporaries and friends as they dealt with the phenomenon of aging and dying parents. Not an easy thing. Compared to my contemporaries, I thought, at least I was being spared. I had already lost my parents, after all, so in a strange sort of way, I was almost grateful that I no longer needed to go through all that again and I could focus on being there for them. Aren’t I lucky, I thought, that I no longer need to deal with all that pain and grief?
But I was wrong. Something happened when I wasn’t looking: God gave me another father.
Thank you, Zulo, for being my father, for always showing up and somehow always managing to be there. Thank you for supporting me all this time, for believing in me and considering me a good idea worth fighting for; for loving me unconditionally, but also for constantly challenging me and even giving me a kick whenever I needed it.
And on behalf of all your beloved Xaverians and every single member of the Xavier family, thank you for being our father. Thank you for teaching us how to dream impossible and foolish dreams. Thank you for making us see what it means to be fully alive and in your very words, to let our light shine.
We will surely miss you. Till we meet again!
Presentation slides: Thanks to Karol Yee
Video: Thanks to Xavier School’s NExT Team
Pictures: Thanks to Zsa Zsa Yu, Anthony Coloma SJ, Martin Gomez, etc.