Singleness of mission

I first knew Fr. Robert Suchan SJ when he was the university librarian of Ateneo de Manila University when I was a college student from 1976-80. He was a lion of a librarian, roaming around his book kingdom, the Rizal Library (which he had built and raised funds for from Ford Foundation and other donors), shutting down noisy conversations—starting with a glare, escalating to a gentle shhhh, and ending with a loud SHHH or even an angry “Get out!”  He would drive out loiterers and sleepers from the library. Nobody could flirt or fool around when Fr. Suchan was around, as he made sure we respected the library for what it was—a place of reading and study.

As Fr. Mars Tan SJ, currently the Rector of Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro, described Fr. Bob during the funeral mass homily as looking “quite serious, unfriendly, and unsmiling, as if trying to give the impression to everyone that something had to be enforced at all times and at all costs.” Fr. Bob, according to Fr. Mars, “was more of that traditional Jesuit mold—strict and humorless.”

I could not imagine that such a fierce man could ever become my friend.

And then Fr. Bob was sent to Xavier University (XU) in the early 1980s where I was a Jesuit volunteer and a philosophy teacher. To my surprise, he was such a nice man, so cool actually. He had that book collection project, the Philippine Library Materials Project which he started with another great Cagayan de Oro Jesuit Fr. Rafael Borromeo SJ and lay people like Mr. Rogelio B. Mallillin, Fr. Bob’s successor at the Rizal Library. Fr. Bob would go home to the USA to collect donated books from everywhere and then bring them to Mindanao for distribution to the libraries in our island. He gave me access to the warehouse and allowed me to take almost any book I wanted. The one thing he told me not to take were philosophy encyclopedias and philosophy anthologies as seminaries wanted those. But original texts he allowed me to get. That’s how I built my philosophy and theology library of primary texts of Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx, Sartre and the like. I am actually going to donate most of that library now to a seminary. I will do so in the name of Fr. Bob.

Beyond the books, Fr. Suchan and I became friends and ate a lot of meals together in Cagayan de Oro. His nephew visited him one time and stayed in our house so Fr. Bob also met my parents and dined with us during that time. Indeed, Fr. Bob was fun to be with. So it does not come to a surprise to me that at 80 years old, Fr. Bob had the guts to ride the Dahilayan Zipline in Bukidnon at a speed of 90 kph and at 40 to 70 feet above the ground. Fr. Mars thinks Fr. Bob’s record as the oldest zipliner has remained unbroken up to now.

It was the conversations with Fr. Bob that fascinated me most. Fr. Bob was then reinventing himself from being a librarian to be a theology teacher and so the conversations were enriching and provoking. He was conservative as I was liberal but that didn’t matter; we not only had fun debating but I would like to think we actually learned from each other. Even during that time, Fr. Bob always felt strongly and was zealous about the Catholic teaching on contraception. In fact, one of my last conversations with him was when he mildly and lovingly scolded me about the moderate tone of my writings, which had been posted in the XU Jesuit residence, on the reproductive health act where I sought a balanced approach to the contentious issues. He shook his head at me but embraced me just the same.

More than being a librarian and a theology teacher, many of us got to know Fr. Suchan as a priest. I went to mass many times with him as a presider. Like many others in the city of golden friendship, Fr. Bob became a favorite confessor; stern and scrupulous as he was, Fr. Bob was always loving. Indeed, he was also known to be extremely generous and charitable, unable to say no to those in need. The lion of the library was in fact also a shepherd that took care of his flock.

Fr. Asandas Balchand SJ, who worked with Fr. Bob in ADMU and XU and who is now in charge of the Jesuit Infirmary where the late Jesuit has been a resident for the last two years, recounted in one of the wake masses the last day in the life of this Jesuit:

“For several days last week Bob could not sleep at night. This forced him to sleep during the day. Last Saturday afternoon [August 22] he stayed in bed and said he wanted to make a phone call. The nurse gave him the telephone but unplugged the cord and saw him talking standing, sitting and lying down. At around 5:40 p.m., the CCTV recorded that Bob, still with the phone in his hand and lying down fully clothed, gasped and peacefully went to his eternal rest. When the nurse went to his room a few minutes later to bring him to the chapel for the 6 p.m. Mass, his blood pressure and pulse were zero and the ECG reading was flat. Instead of receiving communion in the chapel, he had decided to be in communion directly with the Lord, in the presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was August 22, feast of the Queenship of Mary. Bob was very devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary. He would spend much time in front of her statue in the chapel.”

It must have been our Father that called Fr. Bob that afternoon, telling him it was time to go. And as he always did, with the singleness of mission that Jesuit Provincial Fr. Tony Moreno SJ said was the enduring virtue in the 91 years this Jesuit lived, Fr. Bob obeyed.

I love you, Fr. Bob. You will not be forgotten. Thank you for your witnessing that God is love and there are always second and third and infinite chances.


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