This homily was delivered at the Funeral Mass of Fr. Emerito Salustiano (“Salty”) de la Rama, SJ on 9 May 2021 at the Church of the Gesu, Ateneo de Manila University.
I first met Fr. Salty over thirty years ago when we found ourselves in Cebu to attend a newly ordained Jesuit’s Thanksgiving Mass. We were all getting ready to enter the Jesuit novitiate that summer, and I was feeling a little nervous because I didn’t know any of my soon-to-be fellow novices, with whom I would spend two of my initial–and I’m told—crucial years in the Society.
But that day I met Salty, dressed unassumingly in an untucked immaculately white polo shirt, I somehow got an assurance that I would belong. As we know, he really had this gift for making people feel at home. And that first day we met, he made me feel immediately at ease with his reserved and quiet ways.
Yes, you heard me right. I actually thought he was reserved and quiet—a first impression that was, of course, pretty much short-lived because if you know Fr. Salty, you know he was anything but reserved and quiet.
So I was wrong about that, but I was right about the other thing: Salty always made me feel at ease in his company and through him, in this Company of Jesus.
Soon enough it became clear that Salty would be the center of our community life in the novitiate –a role he continued to play through the years in all the communities that he lived in. He certainly played that role consistently for our batch. He always took the initiative to organize batch activities—often involving his family led by Tita Ping and Tito Horace, who virtually adopted us, his batchmates, and fed us every chance they got all these years.
On our second year in the novitiate, our Novice Master, Fr. Matt Sanchez, took us on a field trip to Mount Makiling, which even the non-mountain climbers like myself had to scale. I remember on our descent, there was a particularly slippery slope, and I hesitated because I didn’t have the right kind of shoes. Salty–who was all geared up for the climb –looked back and signaled to me that he would wait and extend a hand. So I went for it, but as it turned out, I slipped and crashed right into Salty, causing both of us to take a tumble.
When I think about it, that’s the kind of friend that Fr. Salty has been to me and to so many all these years—the kind whom you could count on to be waiting there to catch you when you fall.
A quick look at Fr. Salty’s CV makes one thing crystal clear: In his over twenty years as a priest, he had received the most diverse assignments. I think it’s because whatever mission he was offered, he embraced wholeheartedly in true Jesuit fashion–no matter how big or small.
Right after our ordination, he was sent to the mountains of Bukidnon right, where he served the lumads of Cabanglasan. When his cousins visited him, they were surprised to see this de buena familia kid navigating long and treacherous mountain paths just to celebrate Mass in the far-flung chapels—often dressed like he was part Indiana Jones and part Crocodile Dundee.
For about ten years after that, Fr. Salty was assigned to Iloilo, where he collaborated closely with his good friend, Fr. Manny Uy, at our parish and school there. Whatever role was offered him there, he cheerfully accepted with the availability expected of every Jesuit, but fulfilled with a passion quite peculiar to Salty. As a result, he ended up wearing every conceivable hat in the decade he was there: He was Assistant Parish Priest, School Chaplain, Grade School Principal, Acting Parish Priest, and in his last three years there, President of Ateneo de Iloilo-Sta. Maria Catholic School.
And finally, after a brief stint in PGH and Sacred Heart Novitiate, he found himself back here on the Ateneo de Manila campus–a homecoming for this true blue Atenean. He spent these last three years as Head Master of the Ateneo Grade School, where he was, as expected, beloved by both students and teachers.
For what’s not to love? Fr. Salty would hug the kids that he greeted every morning, and he would laugh–and even dance–with the faculty. And to everyone’s delight, he–at least once–broke liturgical protocol and capped his Mass by marching over to the congregation armed with a water gun, to spray the kids and the teachers with God’s holy water.
Fr. Salty was incredibly down-to-earth and endearingly irreverent. You could count on him anytime to name any elephant in any room–announced in that characteristically loud voice that only he had the charm to get away with. But once that initial awkward moment passed–and by God’s grace, it somehow always did–you’d realize that Fr. Salty also just succeeded in breaking the ice and made it just a little bit easier for everyone to engage in those difficult but necessary conversations. He was charming and disarming that way—even if an Associate Principal of his in the Grade School confessed that she often worried about what he would blurt out next in their meetings.
Fr. Salty had this habit of sharing his homilies–as some of us Jesuits do–sometimes ahead of time to solicit suggestions, others afterwards for feedback. The thing with Salty though was that he would recite his homilies to me verbatim–with feelings and complete with all the dramatic pauses! After hearing the entirety of many of his homilies, I think it is all too clear how much he valued being a pastor.
My best memories of Fr. Salty were actually created in New York. When I retired from Xavier School, I was given a few months for some kind of sabbatical before my doctoral studies, and my Provincial then, Fr. Tony Moreno, very graciously agreed to let me spend a couple of months in New York. At the time, Fr. Salty had just completed his tertianship in Portland, and was doing his masters in Pastoral Ministry in Fordham, so I moved into the convent where he lived just a couple of blocks from the Fordham campus, where thanks to Salty, I enjoyed three rent-free months.
We spent a lot of time together just talking and taking walks in the neighborhood in the Bronx. He introduced me to his friends at the corner Italian deli on Arthur Street, who would give him their leftover bread from the day and which Salty would dutifully deliver to his Pinoy graduates friends because he knew they were a little hard up. Most of all, we did what we always did together–laugh out loud at each other, at the world, and at ourselves.
But there was something different about Salty in New York. There was a new maturity and wisdom about him. He was calmer, more accepting, more comfortable in his own skin. Perhaps his tertianship experience had allowed him to come to even better terms with himself. And as a result, he had grown more confident. Even his homilies–which he still recited to me word for word–were so much better because they were so much more authentic. I guess you could say that Fr. Salty had found his voice.
Maybe after all these years as a Jesuit, he had finally figured out the answers to some of those questions from that 60s song “Alfie” — a song that he had always regarded as his vocation song.
“What’s it all about?” the song invites us to ask. “Is it just for the moment we live?… Are we meant to take more than we give? Or are we meant to be kind?”
One afternoon in New York, I was feeling particularly down, and Fr. Salty encouraged me by—of all things—quoting a George Benson song. “Never Give Up on a Good Thing,” he told me, emphasizing every word . It was so much like him to use something like that to remind me of what was most essential in our Jesuit vocation.
By the way, just the other day, that song played on my phone as I was biking on campus. I had to stop because of course, I remembered Fr. Salty and the road ahead began to blur.
To be honest, I can’t imagine Jesuit life without Fr. Salty. He has been with me and our batchmates on this journey all these years. To many of us, he was the faithful companion and fun friend that everyone needs.
So, here’s me saying “Thank you, Salty!” for being there from the very beginning especially in those moments when we most needed a true friend. Thank you for always being ready to catch our fall. And thank you for inspiring us with your constant Jesuit availability where no mission was ever too small or too big for you.
But most of all, thank you for being the crazy Jesuit who kept me sane all these years, and for being the faithful friend who made sure to keep me a Jesuit.
Over the last few years, Fr. Salty would tell me privately–in all humility and in that matter-of-factly tone of his–that he really just considered himself “small fry” in the Society, that he was no big catch, that he was no VIP–and that he was perfectly fine with that.
Salty, I just want to tell you now, as I’ve so often told you before, just how wrong you’ve been .
For how should one measure the worth of a man anyway?
Since you’ve gone, there’s been an overwhelming outpouring of love and stories of how you’ve been too kind, too generous, too loving. Just look at the number of lives you’ve touched because of your life–and the number of hearts you’ve broken because of your death. Through your life and death, my friend, you’ve reminded us all of what’s truly essential:
Yes, you may not have ruled the world–and you did not care for that anyway–but as our Lord has promised, it’s the likes of you who inherit the earth.
God bless you, my friend.
Here is a video that the author made as his tribute and therapy.
Song: “Fire and Rain” (James Taylor)
Here is the video of our laying Fr. Salty to his final resting place among his brother Jesuits in Sacred Heart Novitiate.
Song: “Alfie” (EBTG)