The following homily was delivered by Fr. Aristotle Dy, SJ on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, 14 September 2016 at Mary the Queen Parish.
We have just heard the readings for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, which the Church marks today. I asked that we use these readings for the funeral Mass of Fr. Tritz because I believe they have something to tell us about the spirituality that animated the Jesuit and priestly vocation of Fr. Tritz.
Doing the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is a fundamental experience for all Jesuits. Like so many generations of Jesuits before and after him, Fr. Tritz spent much time praying these exercises, which include a distinct devotion to the cross of Christ. Meditating on personal sinfulness, the retreatant is invited to ask, “What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I do for Christ?” As the retreatant prays over the life of Jesus, there is an invitation to growing union with Jesus as he undergoes his Passion and is crucified. In a letter to friends on the occasion of his golden jubilee as a Jesuit, Fr. Tritz shared that his novice master succeeded in “putting him in direct contact with Christ” and that it was “an unforgettable experience.”
Fr. Tritz became a Jesuit at the age of 19 and underwent the foundational experience of the Spiritual Exercises as a novice. After three years of basic formation, his prior request to go to China was granted and he arrived there at the age of 22, continuing his Jesuit formation that included four years of handling sports and discipline at Tsinku University in Tianjin. He had a long period of formation, probably due to the need to study Mandarin and the ongoing Sino-Japanese War that raged from 1937 to 1945. Fr. Tritz was ordained when he was 33 at Xujiahui Cathedral in Shanghai in June 1947, fourteen years after he entered the Society.
According to tradition, our Lord Jesus was crucified at the age of 33, but for Fr. Tritz it was the age when he began his priestly ministry, which is a crucifixion only in the sense of dying to oneself daily. The details of his life are well-known—tertianship in France, arrival in the Philippines in 1950, Minister and resident at Chabanel Hall, chaplaincy and teaching at Araneta University, UE, and FEU; graduate studies in psychology, then teaching at the Ateneo de Manila; chaplaincy at St. Joseph’s Hospital, then the Hospital of the Infant Jesus, where he lived from 1979 to his death last Saturday; and of course, the work that is most identified with him, ERDA.
In the early 1970s, alarmed by the high dropout rate in public schools, Fr. Tritz and his good friend Betty Reyes started by supporting six students at Juan Luna Elementary School. The kids were given school supplies and uniforms so their families would have no reason to stop their schooling. In 1974, ERDA was formally established and began supporting 200 children. To date, more than 800,000 children have benefited from the work of ERDA.
In 1994, long before K-12 and long before the government incorporated technical and vocational training as an option in high school education, Fr Tritz boldly established a 5-year technical high school in Pandacan, borrowing land from PNB, asking DMCI to construct the buildings, and marshaling so many individuals and groups to sponsor the students and cover operational expenses. Today, ERDA Tech is known as the Fr. Pierre Tritz Institute, an honor bestowed on him by the ERDA Board to mark his 100th birthday two years ago. To date, the school has had 1,628 graduates, many of them now gainfully employed in technical industries. Many of them returned to the school yesterday to pay their last respects to Fr. Tritz.
To preserve the legacy of Fr. Tritz, Xavier School took over management of ERDA Tech in 2009. The ERDA Board was also reorganized to oversee the other works of the ERDA Group. At that time, Fr. Tritz was 95 years old, and the Fr. Provincial then, Fr. Danny Huang, turned to his alma mater with a challenge to serve the poor directly by ensuring the future of ERDA. Fr Johnny Go accepted the challenge on behalf of the Xavier community.
Now, seven years later, as Xavier School marks its own milestone of 60 years, Fr. Pierre Tritz Institute-ERDA Tech is poised to take off as a bigger and better Technical High School. Last Friday, as Fr. Tritz began his final journey on this earth, the board of the First Philippines Industrial Park of the Lopez Family approved a donation of five hectares so that the school can move to Sto. Tomas, Batangas, beside the industrial park so that our students can more easily undergo on the job training and be employed right after high school. This bold initiative is an effort to attain the vision of Fr Tritz. We were all set to sign the Memorandum of Agreement on September 19, Fr. Tritz’s 102nd birthday, and we will now have to do it without his physical presence.
The work of the ERDA Foundation in public schools continues. After strategic planning these last two years, four geographical areas have been identified for greater focus, and the range of services have also been streamlined so that educational assistance remains as the anchor of ERDA’s work.
To many Jesuits, Fr. Tritz is the lone ranger who worked with his personal network to serve the poor directly. He has lived outside the Jesuit community for more than four decades, though always given a home here at Xavier School, where his companions in the China mission always welcomed him. He is not personally known by most Jesuits, but his reputation looms large in our consciousness, a towering figure because while we talk about going to the frontiers, to the peripheries of society in order to serve the last, the least, and the lost, Fr Tritz has been quietly living and serving in the peripheries for the last five decades.
At his 60th anniversary as a Jesuit in 1993, he said, “I am thankful to my superiors for giving me complete freedom to devote myself entirely to the services of our children and leprosy patients. The bond that unites Jesuits is often misunderstood. We are sometimes called a kind of Mafia, an occult and dangerous society of some Machiavellian organization. That is not true! The bond that unites us is a spiritual bond. A bond that is developed during the Spiritual Exercises which make us conscious of our vocation as companions of Christ as our name indicates. This companionship is made to strengthen us like soldiers who know that victory will depend on mutual solidarity and backing of the whole army.”
Thus did Fr. Tritz value his link to the Jesuits despite living and working on his own. It is this great capacity of Fr. Tritz to love the poor and work for them, knowing that his brother Jesuits are always behind him, that has had a great impact on me personally. I first met him around 1999 in Cebu where I was a regent. He had some business there and was staying in the Jesuit community. He was already in his mid-80s. One night, he arrived and happened to see me in the corridor. He asked me to help him in his room because he had difficulty bending down. He actually asked me to remove his socks and shoes. What a lesson in humility, I thought to myself. There was no formal introduction and exchange of pleasantries. It was late at night, he was tired and needed help, so I stepped up for the job. Who could have known that one day I would inherit his mission as President of the ERDA Group? When I began this work alongside my duties at Xavier, Fr. Tritz was already in declining health and we could not have extended conversations. And yet he is to me a living reminder of the Christian and Jesuit vocation to take care of those left behind by society. What we often talk and write about, Fr. Tritz has modeled in his life.
Isn’t it ironic that the one who has lived and served outside ordinary Jesuit structures is also one who has lived out our Jesuit mission in an extraordinary way? The governments of the Philippines, France, and Germany, and various associations and universities, have honored him. Many regard him as the Mother Teresa of the Philippines, and now he has joined her in heaven so soon after she was canonized by the Church. Not a few believe that someday Fr. Tritz will enter that roster too.
As we commend him to God today, I suggest that we think of him each time we sign ourselves with the cross. As we praise and invoke the Blessed Trinity, let us recall what we have done for Christ, what we are doing, and what we ought to do for Him.
In the first reading (Numbers 21:8-9), the Israelites are plagued by fiery serpents as a kind of punishment for their infidelity. They repent, and the Lord instructs Moses to set a bronze serpent on a pole, and thereafter any person who is bitten by the fiery serpents could look at the bronze serpent and be healed. The snake then became a symbol of healing. In the Gospel (John 3:14), it is written: As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. The bronze serpent of Moses foreshadows the crucified Christ.
For us Christians, the cross is not a symbol of death but rather of victory over death. The story of Jesus does not end there but in his resurrection. Every time we look upon a cross, we see a God who loved us enough to become one of us, to suffer and die as one of us, bringing all of our sinfulness and redeeming these on the cross.
I think this explains why we Jesuits are so devoted to Jesus, taking his name and holding him always close to our hearts. In the final hours of Fr. Tritz, I brought him a holding cross which he gripped until he peacefully returned to God. May we, all of us, always hold on to Jesus because indeed in life, as in death, we are the Lord’s.
Thank you, Fr. Pierre Tritz, of the Society of Jesus. Missionary to China and the Philippines. Friend and Lover of the Poor. Bridge Builder for God’s Kingdom.
Let us end our reflection by together making the sign of the cross, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.