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The Safari of Fr James O’Brien

Recently launched at the Ateneo de Naga James O’Brien Library is a book titled, “A Jesuit Safari: Essays and Interviews on James O’Brien, SJ.” 

    The editors are Emmanuel Quintos Velasco, Aries Belza Espinosa, and Noel Romero del Prado, all Ateneo de Manila High School graduates and former students of the late Fr. James O’Brien, SJ. Fr. O’Brien was known as Fr. OB to his students.

 I was immediately struck by the dominant colors of the cover: blue and gold. I found them quite symbolic. Blue and Gold is the name of the Ateneo de Naga magazine that Fr. OB moderated during his stay at the Ateneo de Naga.  I may be reading into this too much, but to me it is an acknowledgment by the Manila-based editors that Fr. OB was known and loved more in Naga than in Manila. Otherwise, they would have used the Ateneo de Manila colors, which are white and blue.

               The book is easy to read. Many of the writers are former high school students from the Ateneo de Naga University and Ateneo de Manila University. They are not professional writers.  But they write from the heart. Thus, there is no dull moment in their stories. As del Prado said during the book launch, one can feel the love of the writers for the man who changed their lives forever.

               Many people may assume that the book was written to make quick bucks to support the Tulong Dunong Scholarship Program that Fr. OB started at the Ateneo de Manila to support poor but deserving public school students.  But as Espinosa explained during the program, the book was written “to bring to life our memories of the man who was more Bikolano than many BIkolanos, who loved Bikol more than his family.”

               Indeed, memories have the power to bring back the past. This 200-page book, with articles from more than fifty writers, will enthrall the readers with nostalgic trips down memory lane. Their subject is Fr. OB’s life as a priest, a teacher, a basketball coach, a counselor, an advocate for the poor, a friend, and a man for others.

               As one reads, the stories become real, as if Fr. OB were alive. His memories, as if by magic, begin to have a life of their own. As one may expect, one discovers new insights about the man unknown to many.

               The book is a hodgepodge of many recollections. Some parts of the book are funny.

               Mike Smiley, a former Ateneo de Naga basketball star, reminisced how Fr. OB, not a born singer, would often ask him to sing Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley, one of Fr. OB’s favorite songs. He did not like Smiley to sing Eternally, a love song. He would say, “Stop singing that song or you will be sorry, eternally.”

               Jimmy Veneracion, one of Fr. OB’s friends, remembered how one high school student who was cut from the basketball varsity tryouts approached Fr. OB and asked the coach why he did not like him. Fr. OB answered, “It’s not that I don’t like you. It’s the way you walk I don’t like!”

               Veronica Tarabi, who was given a college scholarship by Fr. OB at the Ateneo de Manila, narrated how the latter would prefer to call her “Baby,” her old nickname, instead of her new nickname “Veroche.” Fr. OB explained, “The Pope made a rule – not to use Veroche, just Baby.”

               Ernie Verdadero recalled how he was once caught by Fr. OB writing a sonnet in the padre’s economics class at the Ateneo de Naga. Irritated, Fr. OB told Verdadero, “You will never get rich.” “But, father, I thought you loved poetry,” Verdadero reasoned out. “I love poetry, but not during Economics,” said Fr. OB.

When Fr. OB was already confined at the hospital, Bro. James Dunne, SJ, asked him why he was always smiling all the time. His reply was, “You know, I have two choices: Either I cry, or I laugh. I opt to laugh.”

At times the mood of the book is serious.

Fr. OB once told Sarge Lacuesta, a member of the Ateneo de Manila High School Batch 1988 and now a multi-awarded writer,  “Aww , purify your motives, Sarge,” after the latter made a heart-wrenching confession.

Angel Aquino, an award-winning actress and a Tulong Dunong (TD) scholar, got the padre’s ire when she decided to enroll at the University of the Philippines. Wrote Aquino: He asked me why I wanted to go to UP. I told him I wanted to open my world to new ideas. He felt UP was too radical, and he was concerned that there was no religion or theology in UP. I told him that I planned to join a catholic group in UP. But Fr. OB was not convinced. He kept silent, and after a few minutes, before we ended our conversation, he said, “Angel, I’m very sorry, but I hope that from now on, you will not go to the TD reunions anymore.”

Greg Abonal, a former Ateneo de Naga student, shared how on his first day of teaching at the Ateneo, Fr. OB warned him, “Gregorio, never love your students. It hurts when they go.” Abonal concluded that Fr. OB must have been hurt a million times.

In his death bed, Fr. OB’s concern was not himself but others. Mercy de Guia, the first girl to become a Tulong Dunong scholar from high school to college, wrote that Fr. OB continued to exercise his priestly duties and pray for others. She said, “He knew all my heartaches. He was aware that I was having some issues with my father at that time. He sought to ease my pain, while he himself was suffering greatly.”

At the end of the book, the editors included some letters of Fr. OB to some of his students and friends that would give the readers an inside look into how he felt with what he was going through. Reading these letters led me to a deeper appreciation of the priest’s commitment and love not only for the Bikolanos, but for everyone. He was really a man not only for Bikolanos, but for others.

I commend the editors of the book for their efforts to give Fr. OB, twenty years after his death in 1994, the recognition that he well deserves. But above all, I commend them for making the memories of Fr. OB alive in the hearts of many.

The book is a living testament to what Filipino writer F. Sionil Jose once wrote, “Memory holds us in thrall; we cling to it often with profound nostalgia because it defines us, explains not just our past but why we have become what we are.” 

(The book is available at the Ateneo de Naga University library. Other inquiries can be coursed through the Tulong Dunong Foundation Inc. @0905-2448824, or by email: