Fr. Leon Santiago, S.J.: A good shepherd

I remember the very first time I met Fr. Leon.  I was still in first year high school when after school dismissal one day, I was as usual waiting in Mary the Queen for my sister to come out of Immaculate Conception Academy (ICA).  Suddenly out of nowhere appeared this Spanish priest who beamed at me, and in his thick Spanish accent, invited me along with a classmate, a Filipino Chinese Catholic Youth (FCCY) member, into his office for a chat.

Fr. Leon sat us down and began talking passionately about all sorts of things.  The only thing I remember from that conversation was that I didn’t understand a word he said.

Yet despite that, for some mysterious reason, I understood Fr. Leon!  Those of us here who knew our dear Fr. Leon know what I’m talking about.  The late Fr. Rafael Cortina and Santos Mena used to rib him about the unique way he mixed his English with Spanish and Chinese.  When you think about it, Fr. Leon didn’t really need words.  More than words, it was his voice, his smile, his person, his presence in our lives that touched us and shaped us.  The Gospel reading for today talks about the sheep hearing the Shepherd’s voice–and recognizing it.  We who were close to Fr. Leon know what this means.

I heard a lot of stories about Fr. Leon when I was studying in Xavier, but since I wasn’t an FCCY member, my encounters with him were quite limited.  A couple of decades later, however, as a Jesuit, I found myself as the unlikely Superior of the Jesuit community of Xavier School and Mary the Queen.  This provided me with lots more opportunities to get to know Fr. Leon up close.

Fr. Leon was always a positive presence in the community:  His love for life was infectious.  Always grateful for whatever food was on the table and whatever companions he found himself at table with, he made the most of every situation to be happy and to make others happy.  His concern for the Chinese families, especially the Xaverians and the ICANs he knew, was inspiring.  His zeal for the mission kept him bold and innovative despite his advanced age.  The first time I substituted for him at his Sunday noon Mass in Mary the Queen, I was surprised to find myself suddenly surrounded by candle-bearing children during the consecration who raised their candles in unison with my raising of the host and the chalice.  Only Fr. Leon could conceive of a Mass with children consecrating candles just to make it more meaningful for them!

As he grew older, Fr. Leon also got weaker, and we, his brother Jesuits, were increasingly worried about his health.  Knowing that this could be a sensitive issue, I sought the best opportunity to bring up this matter with him and spoke to him quite about the possibility of getting a full-time caregiver.  I knew he wasn’t accustomed to this and might resist the suggestion, but to my surprise, he agreed without hesitation–but not without first proudly showing me a whistle he wore around his neck. When I asked him what it was for, he said it was for him to call for help in case he fell and couldn’t get up.

Fr. Leon suffered a couple of falls after that, the whistle and the caregiver notwithstanding, but thank God they were minor falls. After a few months, however, he surprised me by telling me–quite simply–that it was time for him to transfer to the Jesuit Infirmary.   Now, make no mistake about it:  This was surely no easy decision for Fr. Leon because he was so close to the families that we’re serving in this area.  Most people need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the hospital or infirmary, but not Fr. Leon.  He thought about it, prayed over it, and just like that, made the decision to ask for the transfer.

Of course thanks to Fr. Leon, the Jesuit Infirmary on the Ateneo campus was never the same again.  Rumors have it that much to the dismay of their Superior there, Fr. Leon not only rearranged the furniture, but also redesigned the lives of his Jesuit companions.  He organized community activities, played music during their liturgies, and even rented movies every week and knocked on every Infirmary door to invite the other Jesuits to watch his movies with him.  But that’s Fr. Leon:  Always grateful to the Lord wherever he was and always trying to make the most of what he had.

But I think what best captures Fr. Leon for me is a story from my sister about something that happened during his twelve o’clock Sunday Mass.  One of Fr. Leon’s famous liturgical innovations was that during the Exchange of Peace, he would leave the sanctuary and go down the aisle all the way to the back of the church just to greet people and shake their hands.  Now, this ordinarily already consumed a lot of time, but in this particular Mass, my sister, who was sitting near the front, felt it was taking even longer than usual for Fr. Leon to return to the altar.  After a while, it dawned on her–as well as all the other parishioners–that Fr. Leon had actually completely marched out of the church and gone straight to his office, thinking that the Mass was already over!  One of the Eucharistic Ministers had to run to the parish office to request Fr. Leon to come back to church to resume his unfinished Mass.  According to my sister, in no time, Fr. Leon reappeared inside the church, and much to the amusement of the congregation, he proudly walked down the aisle back to the altar, totally unfazed, still beaming and waving at the people as though he had never left the church at all.

And so dear friends, if we think we’ve seen the last of Fr. Leon, think again.  True, he may no longer be with us the way we used to, and we can surely imagine him rearranging the furniture in heaven and turning it upside down.  But knowing Fr. Leon, he will be far from absent in our lives.  If he has guided us before, more than ever, now that he is united completely to Jesus, our Divine Shepherd, he will continue to guide us and watch over us.  And so, let us pray for our beloved Fr. Leon–for the repose of the soul of this great Jesuit missionary–but also let us pray to him that we might all continue to recognize and follow the voice of the Shepherd.  Amen.

– Fr. Johnny Go, SJ
This homily was delivered on the evening of 24 April 2010 at the wake of Fr. Santiago Leon, SJ, at the Andechaga Hall of Mary the Queen Parish.