IN THE garden of peace that Sr. Luz Emmanuel Soriano began more than 15 years ago on the hilly Antipolo campus of Assumption College, there is evil on four legs, a stray cat that has a nasty habit of preying on the birds in the eco-park, leaving the good sister not too pleased. But even the cat that she calls a “witch” cannot seem to darken the mood of the Assumption nun, not even when she sees it slinking behind some bushes on a morning when the sky has gone gray and is threatening to unload more than a bit of rain. She simply harrumphs, the pesky cat scampers away, and Sr. Luz is back to chirping happily about the eaglets in the park, and their caretaker named Darigold.
At 70, Sr. Luz is used to confronting more formidable foes and handling far more complicated problems. She has been school administrator in at least three Assumption campuses, for one thing, and she did start the Pacem eco-park, which includes mini museums devoted to butterflies, seashells, and bugs. Twenty years ago, she was also among the ubiquitous nuns at Edsa who led ordinary Filipinos in prayer after prayer, although she remembers that she was busy helping prepare and distribute sandwiches when the tanks began to close in on them.
One of the most popular images that came out of that People Power revolution was that of nuns clutching rosaries, standing in the way of massive tanks and grim-faced soldiers with rifles in their arms. Sr. Luz herself can only recall that when the tanks were “coming, coming” and President Ferdinand Marcos was thundering on the radio to “crush them,” the people massed at Edsa reacted in various ways, although no one seems to have thought of getting out of the tanks’ path.
“We were lined up in the street,” she recounts. “We were kneeling, some were standing up, we were saying the rosary. And I closed my eyes and said, ‘This is it, when I open my eyes I’ll be in heaven.’”
But no one on Edsa wound up as roadkill that day, a “miracle” that Sr. Luz attributes largely to “our Lady of Peace.” More secular observers say having nuns on the frontline was a brilliant move, since the sight of the religious women resplendent in their habits proved enough for even the most hardened soldiers to stop and defy their commander in chief’s orders.
That tactic was nothing new as it had been used in labor strikes and protest rallies, actions frowned upon by the Marcos government, which usually responded with violence. The latter was why nuns who took part in protests would instinctively rush to the frontline once the police or the military appeared — they were a shield against those who would do the protesters harm.
Most times, the approach worked. Sometimes it didn’t, and the police and soldiers would beat up or hose down nuns along with the protesters. Some nuns even found themselves behind bars, among them Sr. Mariani Dimaranan, although she became a political detainee after a military raid of her convent yielded materials belonging to her that were considered subversive. The late Franciscan sister spent three months in detention, an experience that led her to join (and later head) the Task Force Detainees, which had been formed by the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines to document abuses by the military and the police, and protect the rights of detainees.
SELF-SACRIFICE, of course, is a given with nuns, who offer their lives to the service of God. This service can take many forms, depending on the thrust of their congregations and, at times, their own personal temperament. But since helping ensure social justice is among the ways of illuminating the glory of God, it was perhaps inevitable that martial law would provoke more than a few nuns to begin thinking outside the box for ways to ease the impact of living under an oppressive regime. In 1984, the nun as a political activist would even be immortalized in film, with popular actress Vilma Santos starring in the movie “Sister Stella L.”
Aside from Sr. Mariani, among the more visible and vocal sisters during that time were Sr. Mary John Mananzan, Sr. Soledad Perpiñan, and Sr. Christine Tan, who were all Benedictine nuns. Sr. Sol would start the databank IBON Facts and Figures, which provided more reliable and relevant statistics than those churned out by the Marcos government, in 1978. Earlier, Sr. Sol, Sr. Mary John, and other nuns had also formed Friends of the Workers, which among other things tapped convents for sisters to help out in picket lines.
Filipino-Australian academic Mina Roces notes that other nuns who were particularly active included those from the convents of the Good Shepherd and the Assumption-which may surprise some people who know the former primarily as a source of delectable jams and the latter for running schools for the daughters of the rich and powerful. Before they were shipped off overseas, Marcos’s own daughters, Imee and Irene, were studying in Assumption Herran.
Born to political families, Corazon Cojuangco and Gloria Macapagal had also studied at Assumption, albeit years apart. Both became president through people power.
Assumption nuns, however, have always made it a point to adopt a downtrodden community wherever they establish schools (their congregation believes in achieving social reform through education) or convents. At the same time, they have always tried to make sure their students would become, as Sr. Luz puts it, “sisters of the poor.”
In the tableau of good vs. evil that was Edsa 1, those two worlds of the Assumption nuns came together. The purple-clad sisters based in Metro Manila, most of whom went as soon as they could to Edsa, called on their alumnae from the exclusive Makati enclaves, as well as on people they had helped in an impoverished community of Malibay, in Pasay, where they did outreach work and ran a social action center. At Edsa, Sr. Luz says, one saw “rich people from Forbes working together side by side, all for the same cause, with people from slum areas.”
“That was really something, you know,” she says. “It was a beautiful experience of sharing and solidarity.”
“A spiritual experience also,” she adds. “Because I believe it was faith — faith in the Filipino and faith that God was there and with us. That is why we were able to have a revolution, but a peaceful one, we didn’t have to kill one another.”
IT WAS because she was determined to see change happen peacefully that Sr. Luz, then the president of Assumption San Lorenzo, participated in the nighttime meetings that led to the founding of National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel). “I was never involved in any political movement,” she says. She had also refrained from voting during martial law. “We knew the elections were rigged, we knew even before the elections who was going to win. So what for? But (then) we said, can we just continue that way or can we do something to bring about change in a peaceful way?”
Thus, when the late Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin made the call to the faithful to go to Edsa, Sr. Luz and many Assumption teachers and student volunteers were just around the corner, at the St. Benilde gym of La Salle Greenhills, which had been turned into Namfrel’s headquarters. She says it was only natural for nuns like her to be at Edsa because “we had to lead our people.”
In the end, Edsa 1 catapulted Assumption alumna Corazon Cojuangco Aquino into the Palace. It became her administration’s practice to take careful consideration of the views of the religious, so much so that among those appointed to the 1986 Constitutional Commission were Bishop Ted Bacani, Fr. Joaquin Bernas, S.J., and Sr. Christine Tan. (Fr. Bernas, though, also happened to be an expert in constitutional law while Sr. Christine was supposed to represent the interests of the urban poor.)
Subsequent governments, however, would not be as accommodating of suggestions from priests and nuns — that is, until another Assumption alumna, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, became president. But then the religious didn’t really need a go-signal from earth-bound authorities to speak their minds; if before they hadn’t been intimidated by the likes of Marcos, their tongues were loosened all the more by democracy. Sr. Christine would even denounce the Aquino government while it was still in power, calling it “elitist and corrupt, and failing to meet the country’s basic needs.”
Today whether as part of their congregations or as heads or representatives of secular NGOs, nuns continue to speak out. Yet it seems whatever clout they have with authorities remains most evident in rallies and protests, their presence still causing police or soldiers to pause and try to avoid the use of force.
A PhD in educational administration, Sr. Luz for her part remains a true believer in the ability of education — and faith — to help bring about positive changes. But she concedes there is only so much that schools can do. “There’s that free will in each one (of us),” she points out. “You can all have the same education, in the end you are still responsible for your life.”
“We have consolations, we have some disappointments,” she admits. But she also says that if only Filipinos learned to develop a stronger sense of nationalism, then perhaps our country would be in better shape. “We always rally when there’s a need,” she observes, but adds, “I don’t think we love our country enough.”
“We all have to do our share, do whatever we can to serve our country,” says Sr. Luz. So although she already had a relatively full plate as executive director of the Pacem eco-park, treasurer of the Citizens’ National Network Against Poverty and Corruption, president of the Philippine Council for Peace and Global Education, and board member of at least three foundations, she still accepted a seat in the Consultative Commission formed by the Arroyo government to give the 1987 constitution a second look.
The commission has proposed a shift to a parliamentary form of government, or what some ambitious but unpopular politicians have been pushing for years. But Sr. Luz thinks there’s no harm in trying it out. Sitting in the coffee shop overlooking the garden, where the rain is keeping the witch of a cat away from the birds, she argues, “There’s nothing that will prevent us from going back to the old system (if it doesn’t work out). But we will never have anything better unless we try.” — Cecile C.A. Balgos