April 3, 2021 (8:05 PM)

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NEW APPOINTMENT. Fr. Jessel Gerard “JBoy” Gonzales started his new post as Director of the Ignatian Spirituality and Formation Office (ISFO), April 1. Graphic by Jeni Anne Rosario

Note: Some names changed to protect their identities

Then-11th grader “Diane” was shocked while attending a university mass in the Ateneo de Davao University (AdDU) two years ago.

“‘Atheist students should go to University of the Philippines instead of Ateneo’,” she recalled Fr. Jessel Gerard “JBoy” Gonzales say in his homily during their Senior High School (SHS) orientation at the Jacinto campus.

AdDU’s social media accounts last March 17 announced University President Fr. Joel Tabora, SJ’s appointment of Gonzales as the next Director of Ignatian Spirituality and Formation Office (ISFO) effective April 1.

But along with congratulatory comments on Facebook came criticisms on Twitter as some students recalled his “insensitive” remarks on atheists, controversial tweets, and how Muslims were “attending” Catholic masses back then.

Gonzales now holds two formation posts in AdDU, remaining as the Assistant Director for Formation of SHS, a position he held since 2016.

Diane is a Catholic, but because of the SHS Assistant Director’s remarks, she felt students who have different beliefs felt “unwelcomed” in AdDU, a school she regarded supports cultural-sensitivity.

“I think that this is very unbecoming of a spiritual leader. His mindset makes him seem uncredible for the position he had just recently appointed as,” said Diane, who is now a first-year student in another school, in an interview via Twitter and Messenger.

Cultural-sensitivity is in AdDU SHS’s ‘6C’s Thrusts’—six ‘significant’ and ‘helpful’ values for the formation of SHS learners—along with Christ-Centeredness, Compassion, Conscience, Commitment, and Competence.

“What if one student belongs to a cultural group that has different beliefs? I think that his actions had contradicted the principles and values of the school. Let’s say that those are just his opinions and personal beliefs, but don’t you think those opinions and beliefs should not be imposed on anyone let alone on the whole student body?” she added.

In an email interview with Atenews, Gonzales said while he has friends who are diverse in religion, gender and ethnicity, AdDU’s Vision and Mission states that the university’s existence is ‘faith-based’.

“God/Jesus is at its center, on whom the Catholic Church and the Jesuits (we priests) are rooted. So, programs in AdDU are all within the vision of the Catholic faith, including interreligious dialogue,” he said.

This is not the first time the Jesuit priest and Kape’t Pandesal host was criticized for his remarks. In November last year, Gonzales drew flak online after tweeting “No one is forcing you to stay #InLoveAndLife” at the height of #AdDUStrike, where students vented their frustrations on Twitter last semester for the rescheduling of final exams to an earlier date.

He later followed it with a tweet that said, in part: “Hahahahaha! Akong pipigil sa iyo kapag hindi ka nag-stay! #AyokoKoNaPagusapanLovelife”. (I will hold you back if you will not stay!)

Muslims ‘attending’ Catholic masses in the past

Nur Guimba, a graduate of the first batch of AdDU SHS, reacted to the appointment in a tweet: “As a Muslim, there were times I’m offended by his remarks about religious beliefs and I don’t see the essence of making us attend Catholic masses.”

In an online interview via Twitter, Guimba said in the past if there were no venue for Muslims, they would have no choice but to join the mass.

“Rita”, Guimba’s batchmate, concurred, “Lagot kaayo to bai kay need man gud gihapon musulod for 7:30 AM ba na attendance so dugay jud mi magtanga sa likod maminaw sa mass”. (It was infuriating because we still needed to come to class 7:30 AM for attendance so we would just sit and wait at the back and hear the mass.)

“Mao na gapalate nalang mi or di naman kaya tung uban kay mulingkod nalang jud sa ilang section bahala apil na sa mass,” she said. (We would just come to class late on purpose or other Muslim students will just join their section attending the mass.)

Rita said she is unsure if someone complained about it at that time.

In response to allegations of prejudice against non-Catholics, Gonzales said the SHS formation program has different worship celebrations for Catholic mass, Muslim worship and Non-Catholics, ocurring monthly and daily, with each group now securing a space in the Bangkal campus.

He added in retreats, recollections or any spiritual gathering, each student’s food restrictions are noted so no one will feel left out.

In a Catholic school, Gonzales added, having a worship opportunity for other religions is not an obligation as also non-Catholic schools “do not accommodate Catholic worship or provide a space for us.”

“This is therefore out of AdDU’s generosity and understanding,” he said.

“Simply put, you don’t expect the owner of the house to adjust to you; you adjust to them if you are to enter their property. Whatever is offered is from their generosity. A life lesson,” he added.

Ordained a priest at 32, Gonzales became the Associate Principal for Formation of the Ateneo High School in Manila in 2011. He has served as the Chaplain of University of the Philippines-Diliman for four years and became Assistant Prison Chaplain in Philippine Jesuit Prison Service in Muntinlupa National Penitentiary in 2010.

A Philosophy graduate of Xavier University, Ateneo de Cagayan, he earned his Master’s Degree in Pastoral Ministry – Magna cum laude at the Ateneo de Manila University in 2010.

In a memo, Tabora said the appointment was done “after an intense discernment process of the ISFO Community which occasioned my own careful discernment”.

Niel Capidos, ISFO Program Development Officer, said as he has known him, Gonzales is non-discriminatory in general, “basin naa lang siya gina emphasize na point mao nang ing-ato iya na-ingon” (“perhaps he is emphasizing a point that is why he had said [his remarks on atheists] that way.”)

The ISFO officer said Gonzales’ expertise is training the youth towards “holistic and encompassing transformative leadership” which transcends religions, although some Ignatian values will be emphasized.

Essentially, Ignatian Principles are theistic, Capidos said, but it can be argued that atheists can relate to some of them.

“St. Ignatius’ emphasis on human freedom and human development.. anchored on human dignity.. that’s universal,” he told Atenews in an interview via Messenger.

Atenews has tried to reach out to AdDU SHS Director Ricardo Enriquez for his comments but he has yet to respond as of posting time.

Meanwhile, Gonzales said he will continue the “unparalleled” work done by former ISFO Director Mr. Elvi Tamayo, and will come up with his own plans after he understands the responsibilities of the office.

“The ISFO’s spiritual formation continues as we all have been doing, but with more presence online. The AdDU Mission and Vision states that we are a JESUIT institution, that is why our way of proceeding (or doing things) is the way of St. Ignatius, called Ignatian Spirituality,” he said.

“This is what makes AdDU, Ateneo; we, Jesuits, have been sharing our way of doing and seeing things. So, nothing has changed,” he added.

“Betty”, a student who had worked closely with Gonzales, described him as “very approachable” for he often gives life advice. While she thought his remarks were insensitive, she remained hopeful.

“It reeked hypocrisy since he often preaches about the university’s diversity. But setting aside those, I think he’s quite a progressive priest because he openly accepted the LGBTQ+ community. He could be better,” she said in an interview via Messenger.

“I can say Fr. JBoy would be a good (ISFO) director.”



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