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.

God-maneuvered too is the fact that Sister Flor, who had quietly lived out her religious vocation for more than 60 years, would suddenly be in the public eye during this special year, the centennial year of FMM presence in the Philippines. The FMM is seeing the divine workings in the congregation in this part of the world and, of course, in Sister Flor’s speaking truth to power—at this time.

The FMM is one of the many Franciscan congregations inspired by the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi who renounced wealth and embraced poverty. The FMM was founded in 1877 in India by a Frenchwoman, Mother Mary of the Passion (now a “Blessed” and, it is hoped, on her way to canonization) who envisioned an international institute of contemplative-active missionaries. With almost 7,000 sisters of 80 nationalities serving in 75 countries, in six continents, the FMM is one of the biggest women’s congregations in the world.

Serving in the Philippines are 161 FMM sisters, mostly Filipinos; 34 Filipino FMMs are missioned in 16 countries. The FMMs serve in many fronts and frontiers—indigenous communities, hospitals, schools, catechetical and spiritual formation, urban poor, rural poor, farmers, workers, children of patients with leprosy.

Their centennial prayer begins with, “Lord, teach us truth and charity…” To that, Sister Flor told me, she has added justice.