Does the name Eugenio Batista Gastón ring a bell? I wish it would.
If you visit the second floor of the administration building at Belen Jesuit, there is a large wall with a series of portraits titled “The Wall of Martyrs.” It is an initiative by the Belen Alumni Association to recognize the considerably large number of Belen alumni who in one way or another have given their lives valiantly for their faith, their country, and their fellow man.
The collection of pictures and the stories behind the faces are pretty impressive. Some of our Belen brothers died fighting for Cuba’s independence in the late 19th century, while others died fighting the oppressive regimes of Batista and later Fidel Castro. There is one framed document that refers to the 57 Belen Jesuit priests, brothers, and employees who, between 1880 and 1890, volunteered to be inoculated by the mosquito that was thought to cause Yellow Fever, a tropical disease that had claimed the lives of millions of individuals. Because of their sacrifice, researcher Dr. Carlos Finlay was able to develop the serum that eradicated the deadly disease. Of the 57 Belen volunteers, three of them, all Jesuit priests, died.
And then there is Eugenio Batista Gastón.
A graduate from the Belen class of 1960, this young man decided to enter the Society of Jesus right out of high school. Eugenio was always known to be a very religious and generous person, so it didn’t surprise many that he decided to become a priest. While as a student at Belen, he would spend countless hours with his classmates serving the poor in remote villages spread throughout the Cuban countryside. After taking vows in Havana, Cuba, he was sent to study at the Jesuit seminary in Los Teques, Venezuela.
One afternoon, a fire broke out in the fields not far from the seminary, trapping several farmers. While many of the villagers ran as fast as they could to safety, Eugenio ran towards the fire. Without concern for his personal safety, he leaped through the flames and began to pull the poor farmers out, one by one. His clothes charred, his eyes red and burning because of the smoke, he ran back one last time to save a young novice who had been trapped in the blaze. After pulling him out, Eugenio collapsed to the ground, and died. He was 22 years old.
What could have possibly motivated this young man to run to the fire?
Abraham Maslow, the famous American psychologist, studied the human psyche and wrote extensively that the most basic of all human instincts is self-preservation. It is the reason why we eat, sleep, establish relationships, procreate, and seek safety above all things. That makes sense; the natural instinct of any living being, not only man, is to avoid danger. But that wasn’t Eugenio’s reaction; Eugenio ran to the fire.
In April of this year, an article was posted on Linked-In titled, “10 Leadership Lessons I Learned Living on a Nuclear Submarine.” It was written by Jon Rennie, President and CEO of Peak Demand Inc., a company the produces materials for utility companies around the world. Rennie’s first job out of college was working on a nuclear sub, the USS Tennessee. He spent 540 days underwater at a time for five years and each time was accompanied by 150 other sailors. He writes that one of the first things you learn when working on a nuclear sub is to run to the fire. The reason is, if you don’t put out the fire quickly, everyone is at risk.
In other words, what Rennie explains is that every individual is responsible for the other; the needs of the other outweigh your own. Rennie states that the life lesson this has taught him, which has served him well in life, is that you have to attack problems quickly and not to ignore them, because ignoring them can cost the lives of many.
This is why Eugenio ran to the fire. His many years of Jesuit training at Belen, his moral convictions as a man of deep-rooted faith and his countless hours of serving the poor, helped transform his basic instinct of self-preservation into an instinct of preservation-of-the-other.
Gentlemen, learn a lesson from our extraordinary Belen brother.
The fact is that if we take the many years of Jesuit training that you have received at Belen Jesuit, the countless hours of masses, retreats, prayers, and lessons and use them for the sake of simply preserving your own life without regard for the lives of others, then your formation has failed. Seven years at Belen should have laid the groundwork for a life that motivates you to tackle problems, not avoid them; to run to the fire, not away from it.
Every day you read the papers, watch the news, or listen to the radio and realize that the world we live in is on fire. Terrorism, poverty, war, drugs, abortion, corporate greed… these are all fires that have scorched the earth for a long time and continue to do so. Racism has once again reared more publicly its ugly head, reminding us that it still smolders in the very fabric of our society. Ideologies around the world continue to use fear and intimidation to singe the basic human rights of citizens for the sake of economic prosperity or political dominance.
Fortunately, the world has been blessed with thousands of brave men and women who have run to the fire and have fought it by living exemplary lives that have not only brought to light this unfortunate reality, but have battled it with extraordinary acts of love, kindness, and compassion.
Does it all sound too dramatic, too far-fetched, too foreign to our fairly quaint and tranquil reality in Miami, Florida? Why don’t you ask the Castillo family? Just last week, in Caracas, Venezuela, a recent graduate from the Colegio San Ignacio, Miguel Castillo, was standing arm in arm with his fellow high school classmates protesting the deplorable and dehumanizing conditions brought about to his native land by the oppressive communist government of Nicolás Maduro, and was violently shot to death. Miguel was doing nothing more than putting into practice the lessons he learned from the Jesuits. Lessons that insisted that a man of faith, a man who lives the values of Jesus Christ, is called to action, to stand for truth and justice, to run to the fire and not away from it. Just last week, Miguel was alive, only ten years removed from his high school graduation, and today he is dead, a martyr for his country and his people.
No gentlemen, this is all too real.
The truth is that you never know when the circumstance you live will call you to be a man and stand for the truth. You never know when the situation arises in your life when you are called to run to the fire, armed only with a strong sense of duty and a firm commitment to the truth, and to sacrifice your own well-being for the sake of others. This is no small task, but you are graduates of no small school, seeped in no small tradition, enriched by no small spirituality.
As the words of Jesus assure us in today’s gospel, do not be afraid. Do not be afraid about how you will speak… let your actions speak for themselves. Do not be afraid about what you will say… let your example say what needs to be said. Do not be afraid of those who in the world can do you harm, for Jesus assures you that every hair on your head is counted. Jesus insists that not a single sparrow falls from the sky without your Father’s knowledge and you are worth more to Him than many sparrows. Our loving Creator, who called you forth from your mother’s womb and breathed into your nostrils the spirit of life, truth and love, will always be with you.
I have been a priest now for 17 years and because of my ministry I have had to console many people who have suffered great tragedy. A father whose son took his own life, a mother whose daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor, a young woman whose fiancé died one week before their wedding. What do you say? How do you help put out that fire? There is only one way. Speak to them about the hope of the resurrection. Ease their pain with the joy of the Risen Christ. I assure you, in moments like these, there is no doctor, no counselor, no lawyer, no wealthy entrepreneur who can offer words of consolation unless they are the words of faith, the words of Jesus Christ.
My brothers, as president of Belen Jesuit and as a fellow alumnus I encourage you to run to the fire, not away from it. What you have learned in the dark chapel of Our Lady, speak in the light. What you have heard whispered by your teachers and counselors, proclaim from the rooftops. Run to the fire armed with the truths that you have learned at Belen. These are lessons you learned from Jesuits, faculty, and from a rich tradition whose sole mission has been to form you and shape you into men of the gospel values.
Run to the fire and work to resolve the challenging problems that plague our world, darken men’s spirits, and anguish humanity. As doctors, run to the fire to cure the sick. As lawyers, run to the fire to defend the helpless. As entrepreneurs, run to the fire to create jobs, build homes, and eradicate poverty. Run to the fire and help save those who are most vulnerable, those who are weakest, those who have no voice.
Trust me, this may sound like a monumental task, but it is possible if you live the gospel of Jesus Christ. Belen echoes the words of Jesus. We send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. So, let the lessons you learned in your many classes make you shrewd as serpents and the values you learned from every mass and prayer make you simple as doves. This is how you rage into the fire that awaits you.
In the words of the great Jewish sage and scholar Hillel the Elder, “if not you, then who? If not now, then when?”