JEREMIAS MONTEMAYOR (REMEMBERING A PROPHET)


By RAUL Q. MONTEMAYOR  

His name was Jeremias U. Montemayor. He was christened after Jeremiah, the Old Testament prophet known for his lamentations. According to our grandmother, she named him so because, unlike other babies, he shed real tears at childbirth. Our father joked that he only turned out to be …. “at times, a minor prophet-prophesying minor events and causing only minor attention even when my prophecies turned out to be true!” he was being modest, of course.

 
In Christianity, a prophet is one inspired by through the Holy Spirit to deliver a message for specific purpose. And for half a century our father incessantly proclaimed the basic dignity of the small Filipino farmer and the peasant’s importance as backbone of the nation. With the help of Fr. Walter Hogan, S.J., and the Jesuits’ Institute of Social Order (ISO), he also sought to concretize the social teachings of the Catholic Church through the Federation of Free Farmers (FFF), which he founded in 1953.
 
Our father’s books, particularly, Ours to Share and Philippine Socio-Economic Problems, became the “bible” of many social activists. The significance of his efforts to promote Catholic social teachings was recognized even by the Vatican, which named him to the newly established Council of the Laity in 1968. It was there that he also became friends with Cardinal Karol Wojtyla who later became Pope John Paul II.
 
Together with other peasant organizations, many of which trace their roots to the FFF, the FFF has been instrumental in the enactment of practically all the relevant laws and regulations on agrarian reform since the time of MAgsaysay. The very existence of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) and the Landbank of the Philippines (LBP) was a direct result of their efforts. The FFF was a pionner in cooperatives. Its economic arm, the Federation of Free Farmers Cooperatives, Inc. (EFFCI), is one of the largest and most reputable agricultural cooperative federations in the country today.
 
When our father started the FFF, the Jesuits were among its earliest and most important supporters. In fact, they even allowed him to set up the FFF’s first national office at Ateneo’s Padre Faura campus in 1954. Indeed, they were a big influence on our faher. Being an ex-seminarian himself, one could even say that he was like an “unordained Jesuit!.” He took up his Bachelor of Arts (B.A) and law degrees at the Ateneo and described his education as simply “wonderful.” Especially satisfying to him was the combination of subjects that developed one’s faculties of man. There was, he recalled, “philosophy and logic to enlighten and guide the mind; and poetry and the arts to stimulate and develop the heart.” Then, he added, “Theology and religion were taught us, as superstructures upon our well-formed natural faculties, transcending but not contradicting these, and in fact, providing their strongest and most profound foundations-the articles of revelation and faith.”  He was an intellectual prodigy and graduated with the highest honors. He later became the first son of the Ateneo College of Law to be its own dean (1958-1967). The title fit him so perfectly that people from then on conferred it on him as if it was his actual name.
 
Yet, despite his great stature and intellect, he was never do-all savior who tried to solve the people’s problems all by himself. Instead, in times of adversity, he always tried to draw out the hidden strength of the farmers by depending on them. When big decisions needed to be made, he did not, like a seer, consult an oracle in the isolation of his own talents, but tried to summon all his powers of observation and intuition to determine their real aspirations and inclinations. In times of victory, he was quick to point out the strength, the generosity, and the virtues of the farmers and attracted everyone by focusing attention away from himself. “The true leader”, he wrote, “is not a star shining by its own light, isolated in the far heavens. Rather, he is a satellite-a satellite of his people-glowing not so much by his own light as by the light of his people. He cannot remain completely apart from there. He stays low enough to feel the tug of their problems and aspirations and thus remain in orbit, but high enough to inspire people to look up and endeavor to rise above themselves.
 
But perhaps his most enduring lesson to us was his humility. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “There go my people, I must follow them for I am their leader.” And follow them was what our father did in his entire prophetic life. Stories of the multitudes of farmers he met are filled with anecdotes of how he slept on the bare wooden floors of their nipa huts or under the trees, how he ate what they ate, how he sometimes even rode tricycles to their meetings, and how he never turned away anyone who wanted to talk to him in the barrios. Despite being ironically born to a landlord family, our father was, at heart, a small farmer. And he was happiest when he was among them. It was therefore truly symbolic that he died peacefully as he slept in a farmer’s nipa hut, resting after another one of his never-ending farmer-seminars, and only kilometers away from where he had founded the FFF, 50 years earlier.
 
Raul Montemayor (GS ’68, HS ’72, BS ME ’77) has been involved in the farmers’ sector for the past 30 years. The essay above was co-written by his brother, Antonio Montemayor.
 
Source: “Ateneans Inspiring Ateneans” 1859-2009 by Ateneo de Manila University Press.