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In Memoriam

Four days ago, the body of the greatest Cebuano composer started to inexorably decompose. On March 23, the writer with unparalleled mastery of the English language here in Cebu, finally wrote “Finis.” On the afternoon of last Friday, the playwright Budoy Bagumbayan wrote the last sentence of the last act of his own dramatic life.

If we are to give a title to what we are doing now, it could well be, “Mass on the Occasion of the Death of a Genius.” Indeed, [Msgr. Rodolfo “Rudy” Villanueva] was a genius who gave all of himself to God and the church and his death marks the end of an era.

Karl Barth, a theologian, once wrote of Friedrich Schleiermacher, a philosopher, “What goes to make a great man? He did not find a school but an era.” The same words could describe the greatness of Msgr. Rudy.

He simply did not find a school like a philosopher may have started a school of thought. Instead, we can attribute to Msgr. Rudy the beginnings of the modern era in Cebuano liturgical music. Prior to Msgr. Rudy, church music in Cebu was mostly Gregorian.

In seminary education, it was Msgr. Rudy who introduced to us the works of James Joyce, Graham Greene, Nick Joaquin, etc. Prior to Msgr. Rudy, seminarians’ choice of books was limited. And reading Dostoyevsky can only be done in secret.

I have a question addressed to the choir: Are you not afraid that if you do not hit the right note, Msgr. Rudy would rise and stop you from singing. I asked this question because, right at this moment, I have that feeling that if ever I commit an elementary grammatical mistake, like saying “one of the boys” Msgr. Rudy’s voice would shout from his coffin, “Boys” (with an exaggerated emphasis on the last letter).

Despite this fear, I accepted this invitation to deliver the homily as an expression of gratitude to Msgr. Rudy. You see, what I am today as a professor I owe much to Msgr. Rudy. It was he, together with Msgr. Felino Caballa requested Cardinal Vidal that I be assigned to the college seminary.

- Newsletter -

The initial reply of Cardinal Vidal was yes but only after a year since I still had to undergo mission work. But then it was later decided that the Archdiocese would forego mission work for a year because in 1988, there were only two of us ordinandi to the presbyterate, and the other one, already did mission work as a deacon.

Msgr. Rudy called me by phone. I replied, “I am indifferent.” He answered back, “Ayaw na nang indifferent diha. Gather everything that you need to survive and the fierra will come to fetch you.” Since then, I have never ceased being a teacher, having found teaching as a vocation within the larger priestly vocation. It can be said that Msgr. Rudy and Msgr. Caballa altered the trajectory of my life.

Because I idolized him, it meant a lot to me that he wanted me to be part of the faculty that he headed. And to think that, probably because his genius did not really overcome my musical idiocy, I was never a member of the choir, and I was not one of his barkadas when I was still his student. (Later, he told me that I lived in my own world which he could not penetrate.)

I like to think that he saw my potential as a teacher and that was the primary consideration. Being a genius, he was too intellectually secure to be bothered by other criteria, like similarities in lifestyle.

I hope I am not reading too much about his gestures of appreciation, but again, since he was a man I looked up to, any such gesture would bring me to the 7th heaven. Let me give some examples. Once, I gave him a volume of an academic journal that I edited and which has my own contribution to it.

I got the most pleasant surprise when, in a homily in a mass which I was concelebrating, he cited my article! Mabaw ra gyud ko ug kaligayahan. Perhaps knowing that I have written some book reviews, he once told me, “Mon, suwat ug review sa akong libro.” I passively told him that literature is not my expertise.

Once he told me that he was preparing an acceptance speech for a literary award. He told me that the main point of his speech would be that contemporary authors may have the necessary writing skills but what they lack was philosophical depth. “Have you written something about the importance of philosophy which can help me develop my point?” My elation was palpable, not because of the request for help but because of the person who requested it.

Let me go to what we can learn from him.

1. Give back to God the gifts that God has given us. Msgr. Rudy could have earned much treasure if he used his talents for more secular ends. He could have written commercial jingles. I don’t know much about the details but I think some companies asked him to compose some jingles. But ever the humorist, he said, “akong gibaliran kay basin ang tono unya pareho sa salmo responsorio.” In the Gospel reading today, the rich young man obeyed the commandments. But he was asked to do much more than just obedience to the commandments. And he honestly accepted that he was not prepared to give more. Msgr. Rudy, throughout his life, gave more, more and more. Msgr. Rudy enfleshes that principle in Jesuit spirituality which is capsulized in one word: magis. We are asked to be more and do more. The moment we have done something good, we continue to ask, what more good can be done. This is a never-ending process. He never enriched himself. That’s the irony of it: He who could have enriched himself lived his life in dependence on others because what was more important for him was to offer these talents for the glory of God whose rewards are not necessarily earthly. To cite another gospel story, the parable of the talents, Msgr. Rudy could be likened to the person who was given five talents. He doubled this number and returned all these to God. The third person could be like the rich young man in today’s Gospel. He followed the commandments but was not prepared to do more.

2. Oftentimes in life, questions are more important than the usual stale answers. I see this point in the way Msgr. Rudy would teach. The contrast between his methodology and the methodology of some professors who insist on memorizing static formulas was glaring. I wish I had enough time to develop this point using his stories as examples. Not having that time, I would focus on only one story. In “The Gift of Tongues,” there was the question of whether indeed the ability to understand different languages is a gift or a curse. At the end of the story, no answer is given. Isn’t this the method of Jesus himself when he taught parables? Parables are stories that are intended to stimulate us into deeper thought, and in the process, also deepen our relationship with God and our fellow creatures.

Will Msgr. Rudy now conducts the choirs of angels? I don’t know about that. I like to believe that he would teach those spiritual beings how to sing psalms in Cebuano! Cebuano music will now be felt in the reign of God.

Author’s Note: Today (June 1) is the 40th day since the passing away of the great Cebuano, Msgr. Rudy Villanueva. On this occasion, I am posting the homily I delivered during one of the eucharistic celebrations during the wake. This is also my contribution to the seminary newsletter. It is possible that the editor may make revisions once this is printed in the newsletter.

Fr. Ramon D. Echica is the Dean of Studies of the San Carlos Major Seminary. He obtained his doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Catholic University of Leuven (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) in 1998.

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