SAN FRANCISCO — The question bugs me years after it was asked. At our United Nations office in Bangkok, the puzzled Malaysian economist tossed a newspaper clipping on my desk. “Eight centuries after his death, this man is still honored,” he said. “But even before we’re a year in our graves, you and I will be forgotten.. Why?”
He’d snipped a Herald Tribune column by George Will. Titled “Memories of a Wandering Fire.” It commented on the eight centennial of Francis Bernardone’s death.
Francis — who?
Francis of Assisi. The North Umbrian gave away a vast inheritance. Instead, he crafted an uncluttered lifestyle the world today calls “Franciscan simplicity.”
“Francis catalyzed the “Renaissance”, which is older than many European states. He saw that Faith “is not made more credible by arranging its institutional furniture”. The personality of this 43-year old friar sent thousands practicing evangelical poverty He was a “wandering fire,” G.K. Chesterton marveled.
Today, we seek “wandering fires”: men and women whose values “endure even after the sun goes out” Or do harsh times only rediscover them. “Is there anything new under the sun?” Ecclesiastes asks.
Never before did we have a population of 90 million plus. In 1940, there were 19 million Filipinos. By 2015, we could be 111.5 million, unless growth rates alter radically. That’s new.
The Asian Development Bank’s study. “Poverty in Asia,” reveals that people in “extreme poverty” (with incomes of P56 a day) are fewer. In 1990, out of every 100, there were 19 locked into penury . This dropped to 15 — before the current recession hit.. That’s the good news.
The bad news is: paupers increased due to population growth. On this demographic treadmill, disparities in wealth aggravate tensions, especially when alleviation programs falter. “The few who are rich exact what they want. And the many who are poor grant what they must.”
Consider consumption data. Our richest 10 per cent, in their mansions, with four-wheel drives and bodyguards, consume 31 centavos out of every peso, “Philippine Human Development Report 2009” reveals. In contrast, the poorest 10 per cent, often huddled in slums, must make do with three centavos. When a crisis hits, the poor pare that down to two centavos. The rich rearrange their menus.
“There are only two families in the world”, Miguel de Cervantes, author of “Don Quijote,” would muse. “The haves and the have-nots.”
In this skewed setting, cash makes for right. “Here, net worth equals self-worth,” a banker says. Bank balances and car models set the pecking order at dinner tables.
They call that “pecuniary decency”. And poverty becomes the original sin. Transporting gold to the grave is the end-all and be-all. Official position evolves into a tool for conserving perks of the elite.
Good Shepherd nun Christine Tan served and lived among Malate’s poor until her death. She told the Estradas to their faces: To corral sweepstakes funds and ambulances, for political ends, was wrong. Erap’s minions smeared this “wandering fire.”
Hundreds of ordinary citizens quietly share with the needy. They give of their time, funds, skills, from teaching to legal aid. They, too, are “wandering fires”.
In contrast, Erap’s Muslim Youth Foundation never had a single student.. It clones the Marcoses’ shell foundations in Leichtenstein foundations and other places. This shabby track record pales beside that of Charles Feeney.
He is a self-effacing New Jersey businessman in his 70s’s, writes New York Times Maureen Dowd, But Frenzy give away anonymously more than $610 million for “life’s wounded,” in Pope John Paul II’s phrase “
“Feeney’s checks have cleared,” Dowd writes. Yet, he takes the subway, flies economy, shops for his own groceries. Feeney “doesn’t own a house, car, or a Rolex.” (Remember our martial law “Rolex 12”? ).
“Feeney gives away a lot of his money because, as he puts it, “you can wear only one of shoes at a time,” Dowd adds. ( Silly, Imelda with her 1,080 pairs of shoes, would say,) Feeney “acts on the idea that our great pursuit of more stuff is silly. People need only what they need.”
“The use of property bears a social function,” the Constitution declares. The goods of this earth – from cash, food, water talents—are meant for all. ”A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” the Teacher from Galilee stressed. Does First Gentleman Mike Arroyo work by a different standard?
For 2009, our legislators helped themselves to over P8billion in pork barrel. “One liners” in the budget — items without plans — came up to 16 percent of the total budget of P1.42 trillion. Radical informs — from fairer tax laws to curbing of graft – is just not on the agenda. There are no “wandering fires.”
In his “Canticle to Brother Sun,” Francis wrote: ”All praise be to you, my Lord, through Sister Death, from whose embrace no mortal can escape.” All we need, at day’s end, is an urn or a grave.
Francis “was the rarest of radicals,” Columnist Will noted. “He never had the slightest sense of alienation from his setting,” Columnist Will noted. That may answer my Malaysian friend query.