Thursday, May 31, 2012

Fiat justitia ruat coelum

So cliche, but as they say, it ain’t over until the fat lady sings. And so it came to pass that the guilty verdict (20-3) was finally declared and imposed on impeached Chief Justice Renato C. Corona. But there was no allegorical fat lady singing before the curtains fell and the lights went out. There was no mysterious singing “small lady” either that would upstage her. It was the blindfolded Lady Justice who sang loud and clear. Her song: “Fiat justitia ruat coelum.” Let justice be done though the heavens fall.
It was a solemn, operatic moment, if you ask me, with the senator-judges’ crimson velvet robes providing theatrical sheen and drama. Add the chorus of masa voices outside. So I just had to have my bottle of wine and pizza to-go. I chose Tribeca mushroom instead of Corona chicken salsa pizza (yes, that’s on the order menu). And—I couldn’t help turning it on—the slow, splendorous sound of “Casta Diva” (from the opera “Norma”) emanating from the awesome pipes of Maria Callas. Temper, oh Goddess, the hardening of your ardent spirits/ Temper your bold zeal/ Scatter peace across the earth/Thou make reign in the sky…
Ahh, what a comforting sound… Turn it on… and soar. It had been a messy five months down here.

Now it is time to pack up and go back to our everyday routine, but we carry loads of lessons to be pondered by us citizens, whether in public office or the private sector. Be honest, be transparent, possess only what rightfully belongs to you—not a peso or a square meter more. Fear God who is very forgiving but also fear the just laws put in place for all to follow, and fear the punitive outcomes if you deliberately break them. Listen to the inner voice that tells you what is right. When caught, own up and make reparations. Remember what you learned in kindergarten.

What does it profit a man if he amasses great wealth and gains power but in the end falls in disgrace and drags his family into the pit of dishonor? The afterlife is another story.

When confronted, guilty individuals almost always make paawa or palusot by calling attention to the pain and shame their families go through. As if their families are being punished when in fact it was they who brought the collateral damage upon their loved ones, pets included. So before you engage in something disgraceful, think of your family, the younger generation especially, who will carry shame in their middle names and surnames.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Force majeure or horse manure?

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

“Ano? Ano ba ’yan!” was a priest’s exclamation when I asked him what he thought of some Catholic bishops celebrating novena Masses at the Supreme Court, a sign of support for impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona. The priest had just come from out of town and was not aware of what was going on in the last stretch of the impeachment trial.

Another priest texted me to say that he would not want Masses used to counter the novena Masses in the Supreme Court. None of that sort, he said, let them be. But when a simple Mass for Justice and Truth—and nothing but—was organized, he readily participated and even delivered an earth-moving homily.

Last Tuesday, while impeachment trial watchers and protagonists were eagerly waiting to listen to the Chief Justice, people I know were at prayer, begging God for the truth to prevail. Many of them were nuns, many of them from the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary to which Sr. Flor Maria Basa belongs. Sister Flor Maria is a Basa heir who bravely came out to state her stand on the controversial Basa-Guidote Enterprises Inc., which has figured in the impeachment trial (Inquirer, May 5 and 6).

While the impeached Chief Justice had high-profile novena Masses celebrated by some Catholic bishops and reportedly got support from personages from the Iglesia ni Cristo, somewhere, away from the noisy impeachment crowd, Catholic lay people, religious and priests had a simple, low-profile mass at the Baclaran Church (Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish) last Tuesday morning. The well-attended Mass did not banner support for any side—not for the defense, not for the prosecution—but for the Truth with a capital T. No color-themes, no pro or anti banners. Just beseeching the Almighty for an intervention for the Truth.

One of the eight concelebrating priests, Redemptorist Fr. Ben Moraleda, articulated what truth meant at this crucial hour. “There is no such thing as one truth for the rich and one truth for the poor, one for bishops and one of the priests, religious and lay people. It is not an abstract thing up there in the clouds. You cannot pay for truth, you cannot turn truth into a white lie. Truth is absolute.” When truth is manipulated, he said, “we will not be bystanders.”
Well, afternoon came and the Chief Justice delivered a three-hour statement with nary an interruption, had an oversupply of leniency from the court, then nonchalantly and rudely walked out without waiting to be excused. Days before, presiding Senator-judge Juan Ponce Enrile had repeatedly assured the defense that there will be no bastusan and that the Chief Justice will receive utmost respect. Well, the accommodating Enrile undeservedly got spit, s*it and kaning baboy on his face. Force majeure or horse manure? The senator-judges who have been usually shrill and over-bearing on children of a lesser God suddenly developed locked jaws, as if they had developed tetanus.
Scripted or not, the Chief Justice’s act should be a shocking prelude to the unraveling of the true nature of the man on the dock and, hopefully, of the truth. Methinks it was scripted, else why would a defense lawyer shake the Chief Justice’s hand while the latter was walking toward the exit door, as if saying, sige, go na. Didn’t the defense realize the wrongness of it all?

Will the Chief Justice be back for direct and cross examination? Is flight or invoking illness the better option? Lawyer and former Sen. Rene A.V. Saguisag said: “Kahit sa ano mang tupada, pag natyope ang manok ninyo, at ayaw nang lumaban, at lumipad, talo.” (In any cockfight, when your cock gets it, refuses to fight and flies away, you lose.)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Long-term access solutions for cancer patients

What access do/can cancer patients, survivors and conquerors have to long-term health care? What can they expect from government agencies, health maintenance organizations (HMOs), health care providers and health practitioners? What access solutions are in place and what are not?

These issues were tackled at the recent “Oncology Future Trends Forum,” a high-level discussion on developing long-term access solutions for Filipino cancer patients/survivors/conquerors. At the workshop were top officials from the Department of Health, Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth), Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, HMO representatives, oncologists, patient advocacy groups, journalists and senior Novartis (a pharmaceutical company) managers from the Asia-Pacific region. Dr. Kenneth Hartigan-Go, executive director of the Asian Institute of Management’s Zuellig Center for Asian Business Transformation, was the forum facilitator. Hartigan-Go was a great information source for the media when he was still with the University of the Philippines and the Bureau of Food and Drug Administration (now Food and Drugs Administration).

The workshop should provide rays of hope for those still battling the life-threatening disease and those staying healthy after the battle. A key objective was to understand public and private health care funding and policies as well as the needs of the stakeholders and the factors that influence their decision-making process. What are to be considered health care priorities and how do they apply to the treatment of patients?
One of the speakers, Dr. Eduardo P. Banzon, president and CEO of PhilHealth, provided a compassionate view of what many cancer-stricken Filipinos undergo because of “chronic health inequity.” He asked: “How many times have we heard horror stories of patients choosing to succumb to cancer because they cannot afford treatment?”
Banzon said that PhilHealth believes in a “comprehensive, customer-oriented approach.” Financial risk protection (FRP), he said, covers four bases. It should provide the opportunity to claim benefits. It should ensure access to facilities where health care is paid for. It provides significant financial support. It realizes higher availment and utilization. He cited Thailand and Mexico, model countries in pushing universal health care.

Banzon was quite gung-ho about designing and rolling out a benefit package for what he called catastrophic illnesses (cancer, among them) that would give patients a reasonable choice, provide quality care and services and make PhilHealth give a support value of 100 percent for sponsored members and at least 50 to 75 percent for non-sponsored PhilHealth members. These will be sourced from reserves of P3 billion and eventually to be funded through increased premiums.

Yes, increased premiums. You want more, you pay a little more. Banzon brought out a scheme not too easy to understand. He explained that “primarily sponsored members” would enjoy no-balance billing or zero co-payment, while cases previously treated as charity cases would be subsidized. The great promise is that “no one gets left behind.” That the package will eventually be available to all, but “with a corresponding co-payment scheme depending on income class.”

I must say that the actuarial jargon and the figures could be mind-boggling, but I could sense from the discussions a clear desire to help the ailing, particularly the ailing poor. Aristides Merida Jr. of Insight Tech Systems Management Corp. spoke on “Healthcare Financing Infrastructure for Cancer Care.” He said that “the rich get the most for the least payment, while the poorest get the least for the highest payment.” Quite intriguing, but when he explained how, you’d see why. The rich have financial risk protection packages to draw from and hardly pay for anything. The poor have only their empty pockets. Picture how the moneyed make more money, while the poor get mired in debt.

And when will all those words become reality? A simple question that begs for a yes answer: Could late-stage cancer prevention—through early detection—be covered by HMOs and PhilHealth? A yes is a win-win answer.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Corona in-laws speak up

‘Why were we not asked to bid for BGEI?

When some members of the family of the late Mario Basa discussed whether they should come out of the shadows and speak about what they knew then and knew now about Basa-Guidote Enterprises Inc. (BGEI) assets, someone from the younger generation piped in with the saying: “Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.”

The BGEI assets are the subject of scrutiny at the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona.

One of the things the Basa family didn’t know then was that Carla Corona-Castillo, a daughter of Corona, now owns BGEI.

Flor Maria “Flory” Basa-Montalvan took the saying as a sign to go ahead. Still, doubts remained. “Then [on Thursday] night,” she told the Inquirer, “my late aunt, Sr. Concepcion Basa of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM), appeared to me in a dream. She was smiling.”

The dream was very vivid, she said, and it gave her courage to call the Inquirer so that her branch of the Basa-Guidote family, despite fear and trepidation, could say its piece, for whatever purpose it may serve.

“Something inside me was saying that I should help bring out the truth,” Flory said.

At one time, Flory said, members of the media managed to enter a gated subdivision in Quezon City and camped out in front of the family home where her mother, Cecilia Henson-Basa, lives, but they all shied away from media interviews.

Flory is the third of the nine children of Mario Basa and his wife Cecilia. She was named after her aunt, Sr. Flor Maria Basa, FMM. Mario is one of the five children of Jose Ma. Basa II and Rosario Guidote and among the heirs of the Basa-Guidote estate.

Flory is the first cousin of Corona’s wife Cristina, whose role in BGEI and in handling its assets is being scrutinized in the impeachment trial because of its relevance to the Chief Justice’s statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN).

Flory is also the first cousin of Ana Basa, daughter of another Basa, the late Jose Ma. Basa III. Ana flew in from the United States in March to talk about her family’s sad experience with her cousin Cristina. (See “We were oppressed by the Coronas” and “We’re talking only now due to revelations in trial” by Cynthia Balana, Inquirer, March 6 and 7, respectively.)

The only living original Basa heir, Sister Flor Maria, has supported the claims of her niece Ana. The spunky 90-year-old nun was the main subject of a two-part series (by this writer, in the Inquirer, May 5 and 6).

The original Basa-Guidote heirs are Sister Concepcion, Mario (Flory Montalvan’s father), Asuncion Basa-Roco (Cristina Corona’s mother), Sister Flor Maria and Jose Ma. III (Ana Basa’s father).

Long ago, idyllic setting

“We used to live in one compound on Lepanto Street,” Flory recalled her growing-up years with her cousins. “We would all ride in one car to school.” Cristina was among them.

That long-ago, ideal and idyllic setting and togetherness are no more, not only because everybody had grown up and now live lives of their own, but because of issues concerning family properties that, several Basas allege, have been wrested away in one fell swoop and are now in the possession of a person married to power.

It is now public knowledge that Cristina (one of the eight children of Asuncion Basa and Vicente Roco) figures prominently in the impeachment trial because of BGEI assets that have been invoked as among the sources of the Coronas’ declared and undeclared net worth. It is a labyrinthine trail that continues to baffle and befuddle.

When the impeachment trial resumed on May 7 after a recess of more than one month, Corona’s defense and witnesses were hard put explaining the trail.

Flory and her eight siblings have been closely following the impeachment trial in which their first cousin Cristina has been implicated. What does Flory want to say now? What has her own family been through?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Conversations with Sr. Flor Maria Basa FMM

I wrote this column piece in advance. By the time this piece comes out I would just have emerged from a retreat in a Trappist abbey on an island somewhere. I am presuming that my series on Sr. Flor Maria Basa FMM came out in the Inquirer a few days ago when the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona resumed after a break of more than one month. (It did come out on May 5 and 6.)

The Franciscan nun has said her piece in that series but she had said more in our conversations than what could be written. I had to respect her wishes to exclude some things she had said in order to prevent persons in her family from getting hurt. But she told a fellow nun, it is not only the Basa family. There is something bigger that is at stake.

When Sister Flor made statements to a television network for the first time two months ago, she did not mean to hurt or destroy. She just wanted to confirm what she deemed was correct and not allow untruths to prevail.

Thrust recently into public consciousness because of her family ties to some protagonists in the impeachment trial of CJ Corona, and because of the pronouncements she made to uphold a party in a family problem concerning inheritance that could have a bearing on the ongoing trial, Sister Flor has become fair game for the paparazzi.

If not for my long-time close association with some members of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM), I would not have been able to interview Sister Flor. I had written in the past stories that featured the FMM and how they blazed trails among the last and the least. Sister Flor’s sudden TV interview would have been enough and she would have refused to speak again. For what else was there to say again, this time, in print?

But journalists never have enough. It was not enough that she said what she knew about the Basa-Guidote Enterprises Inc. (BGEI), which her family owned, and which the Coronas claim was the source of a bank cash deposit in question. If it was, why did the rest of the Basa family, Sister Flor among them, not know about it? And why was it not included in the statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN)? But that is for the impeachment court to scrutinize and made a judgment on.

Who is Sister Flor? I wanted to know her personally, listen to her vocation story and her recollections of the past. And why not? Persons who gain 15 minutes of fame for bad or good reasons get media moments, so why not her?

Sister Flor, at 90, stumped me. As I had written in the series, Sister Flor shuns public attention, but circumstances—divine providence, she calls it—pushed her into rocky terrain. She is far from being discombobulated, disoriented or confused, as critics might want her portrayed. Her steps may be slow but not the flow of her words, her memory is as sharp as a middle-lifer, her reasoning clear, her handwriting elegant, her reflections confounding, and her humor endearing. She still translates French documents into English.

She does not wear distance glasses, she does not use a hearing aid, she does not need a cane. A recently discovered ailment does not faze her. She pores over newspapers and watches the impeachment trial on TV. She is not your typical nonagenarian.

Like her illustrious forebears who influenced the course of Philippine history, she too now finds herself, albeit unwittingly, in the cusp of the unprecedented, in the confluence of events that might have a bearing on how this country could rise or fall flat on its face. Sister Flor is the granddaughter of Filipino patriot, Jose Maria Basa. (In Iloilo City, a major street named after him is referred to as Calle Real.)

I was in constant touch with Sister Flor while I was writing the series. She wanted to make sure that I got her story right. After her Holy Week retreat she called me several times to say that she was surer than ever about our interview and that would be the last for public consumption. She shared with me the letters of support from total strangers who have been egging her to come forward and say what she knows.

“I am offering myself as a victim-soul,” she told me, “for justice, for the country.” She always spoke about divine providence, how the visit of her US-based niece Ana and the media interviews that followed were indeed God-maneuvered.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Basa-Guidote heir speaks truth to power

Philippine Daily Inquirer/SPECIAL REPORT/Ma. Ceres P. Doyo                                                                 

Last month US-based Ana Basa flew to the Philippines after learning that the only surviving sibling of her father, her Tita Flory (Sr. Flor Maria) has a life-threatening ailment. The nun is one of the original incorporators of the Basa-Guidote Enterprises Inc. (BGEI).

Like her illustrious forebears who influenced the course of Philippine history, Sr. Flor Maria now finds herself, albeit unwittingly, in the cusp of the unprecedented, in the confluence of events that might have a bearing on how this country could rise or fall flat on its face. Sr. Flor Maria Basa of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM) is the granddaughter of Filipino patriot, Jose Maria Basa.

Thrust recently into public consciousness because of her family ties to the protagonists in the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Chief (CJ) Justice Renato C. Corona and because of the pronouncements she made to uphold her niece Ana Basa in the family problem concerning inheritance that could have a bearing on the ongoing trial, Sr. Flor Maria has become fair game for the paparazzi.

Here is a nun who had quietly lived her religious vocation for 65 years suddenly coming out, with guns blazing so to speak, to shoot down what she believes is not the truth.

Speaking truth to power, one might call it.

Oppressive tactics

When Ana arrived here, the impeachment trial was well underway. The bank accounts and other assets of the impeached Chief Justice were being laid bare by the prosecution. Witnesses were being examined and cross-examined. It was then that Ana learned, straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak, that the alleged source of Corona’s funds in his Philippine Savings Bank accounts were BGEI funds, that Corona’s wife Cristina was merely holding the money in trust. Ergo, the money did not have to be in his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN). One of the charges leveled against Corona had to do with his incomplete SALN.

Ana grabbed the opportunity to share her version of a long-festering family problem that had to do with BGEI and Cristina’s control of it.

To Inquirer reporter Cynthia D. Balana, Ana first bared in detail what she claimed were oppressive tactics by the Coronas to leave the rest of the Basa-Guidote heirs out of BGEI.

Sr. Flor Maria’s name again came up. What did she know? Being the only surviving original BGEI incorporator, Sr. Flor Maria was privy to her niece Ana’s allegations.

With TV-radio host Ted Failon in tow, Ana went to see her Tita Flory who readily shared what she knew. The nun made the news.

Backs niece’s story

Sr. Flor Maria (Flory to her next of kin) became hot news last March after her interview with the Inquirer which was followed by a taped interview with Failon.

In the interview, she gave credence to the statements of Ana, who said in so many words that the Coronas (spouses Cristina Basa-Corona and the impeached Chief Justice) had taken over the BGEI without so much as a by-your-leave.

Ana’s father Jose Ma. Basa III, Cristina Corona’s mother Asuncion Basa-Roco, Sr. Concepcion FMM and Mario—all deceased—and Sr. Flor Maria were siblings.

Crowns of flowers, thorns for Sr. Flor Maria Basa

90 but not infirm

The Inquirer spent a whole day with Sr. Flor Maria recently. She was anything but infirm or feeble. Yes, cancer somewhere in her body was recently discovered, but Sr. Flor Maria carries herself better than her younger sisters at the FMM retirement and wellness home. Before the medical diagnosis, she was assigned in various places in the Philippines.

Sr. Flor Maria, who turned 90 last December, has always made it known with great humor that she has her burial garb ready, that she takes it with her wherever she is assigned. Not the casual skirt and blouse she wears every day, but the full white habit with the turtle neck. When the time comes, her resting place will be at the grassy Tagaytay ridge with the splendorous view of Taal lake and volcano, in that hallowed place where mist turns to dew.

Heirs puzzled

With the Basa-Guidote siblings dead (except Sr. Flor Maria), their surviving spouses and children are now supposed to be BGEI shareholders. How Cristina ended up holding the reins and how funds ended up in her husband’s bank accounts was something Ana and other Basa-Guidote heirs could not understand.

Questions beg for answers. Are the funds in the PSB accounts really BGEI funds as Corona’s counsels argue they are? If so, why were the other Basa-Guidote heirs in the dark about these funds? But if they are not BGEI funds, where did they come from? The high-caliber defense bristled with energy to defend the accused by saying Corona merely borrowed from those funds. And where is the board resolution for the loan?

During her interview with the Inquirer, the nun describes her ailment as a blessing in disguise and Ana’s visit as “perfect timing.” She says that were it not for her health condition, Ana might not have come to visit. Indeed, upon arrival, Ana serendipitously found a perfect storm, namely, the impeachment trial that put the Coronas on the defensive. This was a time of reckoning.

To Ana’s revelations, Sr. Flor Maria adds that she had more than sensed some maneuverings on the part of Cristina. She recalls, “In 1999 people were telling me, ginigiba na ang Bustillos.” (The property on Bustillos St. is being demolished.) That property was sold to the City of Manila for P34.7 million in 2001, former Manila Mayor Joselito Atienza told the impeachment court. Cristina Roco-Corona received the payment and put it in her bank account.

(Sr. Flor Maria requested that several paragraphs in this article that have to do with an alleged attempt to seize control of BGEI that she had witnessed be deleted to prevent family members from feeling hurt. -CPD)

‘Notice to the public’ ad

Things came to a head in 1995 when Jose Ma. III placed in two national newspapers paid announcements with Cristina’s photo and name in bold letters. The “notice to the public” said, “Notice is hereby given to the public that on 15 July 1995, BASA-GUIDOTE ENTERPRISES INC. THROUGH ITS STATUS QUO Board of Directions (based on the 1986 General Information Sheet), has officially WITHDRAWN whatever authority that was given to CRISTINA ROCO-CORONA by her father, Vicente Roco (the president of the corporation, who passed away on 07 March 1993). Please be warned that Basa-Guidote Enterprises Inc. shall not recognize any transaction made by Ms Corona for and in its behalf.

“The issuance of this notice does not mean, however, that the corporation has recognized the validity of Ms Corona’s past representation that she was authorized to act in behalf of Basa-Guidote Enterprises Inc. Ms Corona’s picture appears above for the public’s guidance. By: Basa-Guidote Enterprises Inc. Felix Carlos Vicentillo, Assistant Secretary.”

Estafa case, libel suit

Jose Ma. III also filed an estafa case against Cristina who was collecting the BGEI rentals.

Incensed, Cristina filed a libel suit against Jose Ma. III, Sr. Flor Maria, Cecilia Basa (wife of the late Mario Basa) and Betsy Basa-Tenchavez (a daughter of Mario Basa). (Sr. Concepcion died in 1995.) The three women coaccused hired the services of Yorac Arroyo Chua Caedo Law Office. (Jose Ma. III who was the principal accused in this case had his own lawyers.)

Yorac’s glare

Sr. Flor Maria remembers defense lawyer William Chua remarking that they would have rough sailing because Cristina’s husband, Renato Corona, was holding a high position in MalacaƱang. The feisty Haydee Yorac flashed her famous glare and said, “What is our law office for?” And so the lawyers fought it out in court and got the three women acquitted in 2004. “Sometimes Corona would be there,” Sr. Flor Maria remembers. “William (Chua) was already ill at that time but he showed up when the decision was to be handed down. When I turned around, there he was, standing behind me, with a mask on his face.” Chua had made sure the courtroom would be packed with nuns. He died not long after.

Libel case pending

As Ana had said in her two-part interview with Inquirer reporter Balana, the libel case against her father is still hovering over their heads. It is possible, a lawyer who knows something about that libel case, that if Jose Basa III was found guilty of libel, Cristina might have been awarded damages and she could have helped herself to her uncle’s shares.

Nun still an incorporator

Is Sr. Flor Maria still a co-owner of BGEI and therefore entitled to her share of assets? “When Peping (Jose Ma. III) was still alive, he bought my shares, Sr. Concepcion’s and the others’,” the nun recounts. Sr. Flor Maria says that Peping did this because their mother Rosario had wished that her inheritance from her deceased parents should remain with her children and would not be sold away outside the family.

“This property supported us after Papa died at the age of 47. So Peping offered to buy it at the appraised price. Each of us received P2 million. What I know is that he did not give Cristina because she had been collecting BGEI income.”

This treasured family property is what Cristina sold to the City of Manila when Atienza was the mayor of Manila.

An Inquirer source, a lawyer, said that Jose Ma. III’s “buying out” other BGEI shareholders must have been a private arrangement between siblings because the last time she looked at Securities and Exchange Commission records was not long ago, Sr. Flor Maria was still an incorporator.

‘I have forgiven’

As to members of religious orders who have vows, they do not lose their legal claim to their shares in their families’ fortunes. An FMM sister explains: “Members of contemplative religious orders usually pronounce solemn vows and make a total renunciation. We, the FMM, make simple vows. Our policy on the sisters’ property is this: Before we make our final vows we write a will indicating the beneficiary of whatever inheritance we are entitled to. The beneficiary could either be the congregation or any member of our family—or both. Some sisters give a part to the congregation and a part to a member of her family.”

Suffice it to say that both Sr. Flor Maria and the late Sr. Concepcion had decided on their beneficiaries.

And so it was that after decades of missionary work, the spunky 90-year-old nun was living a quiet prayerful life and translating French documents into English when there was a knock on her door. Sr. Flor Maria had to say her piece. She was not raring for a fight. “I have forgiven,” she declares. She merely supported what Ana had said, but what she said was more than enough. Will she be subpoenaed to testify?

Victim-soul for justice

“I am doing this (interview) as a victim-soul for justice,” she declares, “as a victim for souls and the church.” In spiritual parlance, making oneself a victim-soul is a form of sacrificial offering so that good may prevail.

Sr. Flor Maria at 90 is only two years older than the impeachment court’s presiding senator-judge, the now highly rated (in surveys) Juan Ponce Enrile. “Please mention that I have a good review of his performance,” she says wistfully. With a mind as sharp as a razor, Sr. Flor Maria might yet have the last word.

“When we were children,” she muses, “Mama used to tell us, ‘No hay mal que por bien no venga.’” (This is also a line from a 2002 Gloria Estefan pop song.) The literal English translation of this double negative—“There’s nothing bad from which a good doesn’t come”—is as unwieldy and confounding as the issues plaguing this nation that is groaning for redemption. Turned on its head, the saying simply means “Good things can come out of bad situations.”

It is not quite sunset. In the afternoon haze, Sr. Flor Maria walks unassisted past the garden and to the convent chapel after the interview, but not before jotting some inspiring lines in this journalist’s notebook. In her elegant handwriting, she ends, “…for the greater glory of the Triune God. Sr. Flor Maria Basa fmm, March 25, 2012.” #

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Crowns of flowers, thorns for Sr. Flor Maira Basa

                                                    (First of two parts)

Thrust recently into public consciousness because of her family ties to protagonists in the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato C. Corona and because of the pronouncements she had made to uphold a party in the skirmish, Sr. Flor Maria Basa of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM) has become a much sought-after figure by the paparazzi.

Here is a nun who has quietly lived her religious vocation for 65 years suddenly coming out, with guns blazing so to speak, to shoot down what she believes is not the truth. Speaking truth to power, one might call it.

Sharp memory

Sister Flor Maria (Flory to her next of kin) shuns public attention, but circumstances—divine providence, she calls it—pushed her into unfamiliar terrain. Ah, but she is far from being discombobulated, disoriented or confused—as some critics might want her portrayed. Her steps may be slow but not the flow of her words. Her memory is as sharp as a middle-lifer, her reasoning sharp, her handwriting elegant, her reflections confounding and her humor endearing.
THE NUN’S STORY. Sr. Flor Maria Basa, FMM, at her convent’s chapel in Cavite with a reproduction of the Cross of San Damiano in stained glass in the background. The question is, will she be summoned to the witness stand? Photo by MA. CERES P. DOYO

She does not wear distance glasses, she does not use a hearing aid, she does not need a cane. A recently discovered ailment does not faze her. She is ready for flight. She pores over newspapers and watches the impeachment trial on TV. When the Inquirer came one Sunday morning for a scheduled interview, she had already read the day’s banner story and spoke about it. She is not your typical nonagenarian.

“Oh, is that so?” is her calm reaction when told about unflattering text messages about her. And where should these come from? she asks, as if begging the obvious.

Will Sister Flor Maria be summoned to the witness stand? That remains to be seen. FMM provincial superior, Sr. Josefina Fernando, assures the public that the FMM keeps abreast of developments in the trial.

To make light of it, if your honors please, Sister Flor Maria might stump the court with bursts of, esto, Spanish or French that would spice up her English and Filipino. Levity aside, this nun had been formed in the old school, she minds her Ps and Qs and is not prone to making flighty utterances. “I grew up in that era when children were seen and not heard,” she chuckles.

Truth and charity

“Teach us truth and charity.” These are the last lines of the invocation recited daily these past three years by the FMM who are celebrating their century of presence in the Philippines this year.

Ninety-year-old Sr. Flor Maria Basa, FMM, takes this prayer to heart and strives to live it. To the prayer, she lately added one more virtue to beg for—justice. That the world may be steeped in it. This she prays in this final season of her missionary life.

Sister Flor Maria was born in Sampaloc, Manila, on Dec. 6, 1921, to Jose Maria Basa and Rosario Guidote. Shortly after her birth, the family moved to a house on Lepanto Street (not far from the controversial Basa-Guidote property that is the subject of arguments in the impeachment trial).

Sister Flor Maria’s grandfather, Jose Ma. Basa, her father’s namesake, was a renowned Filipino patriot who, along with national hero Jose Rizal, fought Spanish rule. Many streets have been named after him. He was exiled to the Marianas Islands for many years but later was able to move to British-ruled Hong Kong where Sister Flor Maria’s father was born. Sister Flor Maria can talk lengthily about historical vignettes related to her grandfather’s odyssey and struggle for Philippine independence from colonial rule.

How Sister Flor Maria’s parents met, wooed and wed was a love story in itself. The nun relishes telling the story. At that time, her father held a good position at Compania Maritima. Sister Flor Maria is the fourth of five children. Her siblings, now all deceased, are Sister Concepcion, FMM, Mario, Asuncion (nicknamed Monina) and Jose Ma. III (Peping). Born on the feast of St. Nicholas, Sister Flor Maria recalls being sometimes teased and called Colasa. “My mother named me after a character in a Spanish novel she had read,” she explains, and because her mother loved flowers and the Virgin Mary.

Death in Barcelona

Sister Flor Maria’s father died when she was 9 years old. “He was only 47,” she recalls sadly. “He was brought to Spain for treatment and we were all there with him. He was supposed to go to a Madrid hospital but he died in Barcelona.” Sister Flor Maria remembers the long sea voyage to and from Spain and the pain of loss the family endured.

Her husband gone, Rosario raised all five children by herself. Sister Flor Maria remembers coming down with typhoid fever and how her widowed mother sought treatments for her. “Mama made me drink freshly squeezed sugar cane juice and that helped me get well,” she says, marveling at it now. There were difficult times but the Basas were not exactly penniless.

Sister Flor Maria and her sisters attended St. Theresa’s College, run at that time by Belgian nuns, while the boys went to Ateneo de Manila. She also studied at Loreto Parochial School, Holy Ghost College (“For Fine Arts, to please Mama”) and later, briefly at the University of Santo Tomas. Her eldest sister, Concepcion, went to the University of the Philippines where she took music lessons under the famous Francisco Santiago. She later went to Spain to study.

The call

Even in childhood, Sister Flor Maria recalls, she already felt drawn to the spiritual life. “I had my first communion in Grade 2,” she narrates. It could have been earlier but her father advised her to wait because he thought she was too young to understand. Looking back, Sister Flor Maria considers that quite revealing and appreciates her father’s wisdom. “That was despite the fact that maybe he still had antifriar sentiments.”

It was during her first holy communion that the young Flor Maria felt the call. “I can never forget Jesus calling me for Himself.” After that, she says, she would often find herself running to the school chapel to be with her beloved. As a young adult, she had her share of admirers but she knew in her heart that she was meant for something else. “The Blessed Sacrament magnetized me. I wanted intimacy with Jesus.”

At first, she thought she might be called to a contemplative life and end up with the Pink Sisters (Sisters Servants of Perpetual Adoration). “But there was another call,” she confides. She learned that the FMM had a contemplative side to them and spent time in prayerful adoration. “What appealed to me was this was not going to be just the Lord and me, but I will bring the Lord to the people and the people back to the Lord, in adoration.” She was attracted to the Franciscan simplicity and the life centered on the scriptures and the Blessed Sacrament.

And so she decided on the FMM. With her eldest sister in the convent abroad and her other sister Asuncion married, she wondered what it would be like to leave her mother. There were twists and turns on her way to the convent. How she finally entered the novitiate (then located on Legarda Street) with only the clothes on her back was a story in itself. The day after her entrance, the entire brood came to see her wearing an old hand-me-down postulant’s garb that got ripped in the joyful frenzy. The year was 1947.

Bold nuns

Sister Flor Maria’s eldest sister Concepcion (then called Sr. Divino Amor) had joined the FMM ahead of her and was sent to Rome for formation. With World War II raging in Europe, Sr. Divino Amor and other sisters from countries under the Allied Forces were sent to the United States for safety. She was later assigned to follow up war damages compensation for the destruction wrought by US bombings in the Philippines.

A first cousin, Sr. Caridad Guidote (aunt of artist-activist Cecile Guidote-Alvarez), had also joined the FMM. (Sister Caring, as she was called, became a known anti-martial law activist and intellectual who, after her studies in Paris, lived in exile in the United States for several years until Philippine democracy was restored. Her dissertation in French was considered subversive and could not be published at that time.)

When she received her religious habit as a novice, Sister Flor Maria was given the religious name Sr. Blanca Azucena. (Like many missionary nuns, the two Basa sisters would revert to their baptismal names in the late 1960s after Vatican II.) She then continued her formation at the new FMM novitiate in Tagaytay City. The clean air and cool climate did wonders to her weak lungs. The war over in 1945, it was “peace time” once again and the FMM sisters were back in their respective assignments. (Several foreign sisters had been interned by the Japanese in concentration camp during the war.)

Like duck to water

Sister Flor Maria made her first vows in 1948 and her final vows in 1953. According to Sr. Maria Asuncion Borromeo, FMM, retreat and vocation directress, FMM sisters making their first vows are crowned with flowers and on pronouncing their final vows, receive a crown of thorns which they take with them wherever they are missioned. Religious life in the 1950s, unlike now, was very strict. “One never questioned,” Sister Flor Maria recalls. And some biblical imperatives—humility and poverty, among them—were practiced to the letter.

The FMM is among the many Franciscan congregations inspired by the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi who renounced wealth and embraced poverty. Because of his love for nature, Pope John Paul II declared him patron saint of the environment in 1982. The FMM was founded in 1877 in India by a Frenchwoman, Mother Mary of the Passion (now a “Blessed” and, hopefully, on her way to canonization) who envisioned an international institute of contemplative-active missionaries. The FMM consider their “cradle” the first foundation in Ootacamund in India. (This writer was a guest there many years ago.) With almost 7,000 sisters of 80 nationalities serving in 75 countries, in six continents, the FMM is presently one of the biggest women’s congregations in the world.

Twelve FMM of different nationalities sailed from France and set foot in the Philippines on Dec. 10, 1912. Fast forward to 2012: serving in 16 communities in the Philippines are 161 FMM sisters, mostly Filipinos; 34 Filipino FMM are missioned in 16 countries. The FMM sisters serve in many fronts and frontiers—indigenous communities, hospitals, schools, catechetical and spiritual formation, the urban poor, rural poor, farmers, workers and children of patients with leprosy. Close to a hundred FMM in the Philippines have gone to their eternal reward.

Sister Flor Maria took to the Franciscan life like duck to water. Leaving the convent never entered her mind. “I always said that where I am sent, that is where Jesus is waiting,” she reflects. “There is a saying that if a garment was made for you, it will fit you.”

A ‘bouche-trou’

She had worked in many places in the Philippines. One of her longest stints—10 years—was in Jerusalem where she took care of children of displaced Arab families and managed a spiritual center for pilgrims. “I was the only Filipino in our international community,” the nun says, “and I often had to speak French.” During breaks, she was sent to Rome for courses in spirituality, spiritual direction and discernment.

“Whenever there was a need somewhere, I would be pulled out and sent over,” Sister Flor Maria says with a smile. She was, as the nuns would say in French, a bouche-trou, panakip-butas or a stop-gap. She was a missionary to the core, who walked in the steps of the bold and daring FMM foundress who braved the wilds of India and whom Sister Flor Maria fondly calls in French, Maman Passion.

The Franciscan way of life was, for her, the only way.

(To be continued)