Homily for the Funeral Mass of Fr. Jorge P. Hofilena, S.J.

– Fr. Asandas Balchand, SJ
Homily for the Funeral Mass of Fr. Jorge P. Hofilena, S.J.
Oratory of St Ignatius, Loyola House of Studies, 6 January 2012

Fr. Jorge Hofilena, SJ

Fr. Jorge Hofilena, SJ

Fr. Jorge P. Hofilena, SJ was the tenth of 15 children born to Roque Hofilena and Angeles Puentevella. Fr. Jorge  was 82 years old when he died last January 2 and would have been 83 next month, on February 22. He always insisted that George Washington was named after him. I knew him fairly well for less than 10 years of his 82—six years in Cagayan de Oro Clty, from 2001 to 2007, and the last two and a half years at the Jesuit Residence Infirmary. He was always called George until he came to the Infirmary when he wanted to be called Jorge. I will refer to him as George.

Two months ago when I looked at the biodata of Fr. Guido Arguelles who died last Oct 30, I noticed that he had been assigned to a good number of places doing pastoral work. In the case of Fr. George Hofilena, after completing the customary Jesuit formation and studies and aside from 4 years at the Ateneo de Manila Grade School  and 3 years doing special studies in the U.S., he spent most of his time—35 years—at Xavier University, until he was brought to the Infirmary at JR four years ago.    When I recall his life in Cagayan, I see three images in my mind. First, I see George on an old, weak motorbike dashing out of the campus. The motorbike could hold only half of his large body, with a fourth of it sticking out on each side. He was called “Fr. Tambok” and when asked “How are you?” he would answer, “I am fat.” He would ride this motorbike on the way to one of his apostolates or assignments—to the Xavier University Grade School, or to one of the many public schools he had to visit to observe, train, and guide the College of Education interns who were doing practice teaching. He told me how exhausting it was to go to over twenty schools and observe over 100 classrooms, some of them in distant places.

Fr.  George’s major work in Cagayan de Oro, aside from teaching in the College of Education, was being Principal in the Grade School for about 18 years. Mrs. Flery Nery,  who would later also be Principal,  says that he was also “the CLE coordinator, the English coordinator, the School Chaplain, the school driver, the yearbook editor, and so on. Masaya… hands on talaga.”

Armed with am MA in Education from Loyola University in Los Angeles, Fr.  George started a new style of education in the Grade School—“open education.” He wanted the students to enjoy their studies, with greater  flexibility in the  structures. He wanted the students to be freer, to do what they wanted, to learn to love learning. He felt that each student was unique and should be allowed to develop his abilities at his own pace and according to his interest. Fr. Terry Barcelon, S.J. says that the students loved this approach, didn’t want  holidays,  and wanted to be in school, enjoying themselves. A beneficiary of this system emailed me yesterday and was here last night. He said: “whether it be patintero, marbles, tops and spider fights, he gave us the freedom to be what we were: boys.  You could see in his face the joy in letting us do what boys do. Letting boys just be boys.” A number of the teachers were happy with this arrangement but some strong parents  and Jesuits were not.

And so Fr. George had to move out and satisfy himself with teaching in the College and Graduate School.

A second picture I have in the back of my mind is that of Fr. George in the dining room. When you entered the Jesuit dining room  for dinner, Fr. George would be seated at the first table with his friends. He was the life of the community.  If he wasn’t telling stories, the others would be asking him questions or ribbing him or sharing news with him.  He was fun to be with. He loved ice cream and cassava cake from the College Canteen. He would eat quickly, and then he would suddenly stand up and leave. He would rush up to the TV room on the second floor, get hold of the TV remote control,  open to his favorite channel and watch basketball games. There was a first come-first served practice in the community,  and Fr.  George would hold on to the remote control until it was time to leave. Once an older Jesuit asked to watch the Pope’s Mass. Fr. George reluctantly switched the channel, but after a few minutes complained that the program was boring. He could watch basketball the whole evening and enjoy it.

Basketball was his great  passion. He spent many hours training the young players from the Grade School for the SBP—the Small Basketeers of the Philippines, and he bragged that his team was the undefeated champion in northern Mindanao for 13 consecutive years. When his team beat the Ateneo de Davao squad in Cebu at the Jesuit Athletic Meet, he was overjoyed fo a month.  He took total care of the boys, knowing them and their families, supervising their studies and their moral formation. In February 2006, on his 77th birthday, the parents of the kids organized games and celebrations for two days. Little did they know that it would be his last birthday in Cagayan de Oro.

Fr. George came to Manila because the doctor in Cagayan noticed increasing signs of dementia and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Tests in Manila confirmed this and the decision was made to have him stay at the Jesuit Residence infirmary so that he would have enough time to get adjusted to new surroundings. This must have been painful for him,  as it was for some in the Jesuit community in Cagayan de Oro who wanted him back.

At the JR Infirmary I saw Fr.  George in three situations.  I saw him sitting by the nurses station or in the Infirmary dining room, eating or playing scrabble and later domino. He always wanted to win. I am told that at times he would cheat a little to win and the caregivers would let him. If he lost, he would be unhappy and ask for a rematch. Seated at the nurses station, he would often ask for  bananas.   Saging, saging, saging. In his early stay in the infirmary, he wanted mangoes. Later this was changed to bananas, because he was diabetic. He would grab the bananas and eat them as fast as he could and ask for more.

A second image I have is that of Fr.  George walking outside the Jesuit Residence and then asking people if they had a car. He wanted to go on rides,  and at times the infirmary driver would give him a spin around the campus. As his Alzheimer’s disease became worse, he walked more slowly with small, unsteady steps, guided by the caregiver. When I saw him walking this way exactly a week ago, I told myself that he would not be able to walk for long.

The third image I have is that of Fr. George lying in bed completely covered with his blanket or sheet. In his room, he preferred darkness, even when the lights were out. He would cover his whole body with a sheet and show his face only when spoken to. Many times he was tired and did not want to talk, or he would utter sounds that could not be understood. The only things he remembered were his name, his age, and where he came from, Silay.

One thing I found remarkable about him was that he wanted to go to Mass and communion. He would repeatedly ask the time of the Mass and how much longer he would wait. In the chapel he would follow the parts of the Mass and at communion, he would immediately stand up and go to the altar to receive communion. At time he had to be held back to wait for his turn.

Ms. Flery Nery  says that he had a great devotion to Jesus  and to Mary,  “Sobra– to the max. He has great faith in prayers to our Lady.”

Every now and then I see posters on campus of Jesuits outstanding for their abilities and achievements. Fr George has no posters for him here at Loyola Heights. But, knowing Cagayan, I can assure you that there are many posters with high tributes in the hearts of many in Cagayan de Oro. This is just a part of an email from a former XU Grade School teacher:   “Fr.Jorge was an inspiration to my career. He touched not only my life but of my family, too. He was a darling to us.”  And from a top administrator in the Grade School:  “Working with Fr. Jorge for the last 18 years was a treasure.  He was a father to me, too.”  From Carl Chavez in California:
“I want you to know that his life has touched many people’s lives as it has mine. Please know that he was and is very much loved, supported, and remembered as living larger than life.” There are many more tributes on Facebook and many more will come.

Today, we thank the Lord for the many lives and hearts Fr. George touched in his 82 years on earth, especially during his 35 years in Cagayan de Oro.  May his life and example inspire many to follow him in generous service to the Lord.

About Quirino M. Sugon Jr
Theoretical Physicist in Manila Observatory

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