HIGHLIGHTS

  • Father REUTER directed his first stage play in 1941 and wrote scripts for the “Commonweal Hour,” a popular Catholic radio program.
  • He made his mark in dramatics. He was an exacting director who subjected young thespians to his passion for achieving perfection by hard work.
  • Under Martial Law, Father REUTER struggled to keep Catholic radio stations alive and raised his voice in a small weekly magazine.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes his “employing his gifts as writer, theatrical director, and broadcaster, but most of all as teacher, to make the performing arts and mass media a vital force for good in the Philippines.”

 CITATION

In Asia today the mass media exercises a powerful influence, informing the public and shaping its attitudes. And increasingly so. Yet, when monopolized by government or vested interests, media’s power is easily used for propaganda purposes. In open societies it is often squandered in trivial entertainments. Father JAMES BERTRAM REUTER JR, S.J., swims against the tide.

As a young American religious scholastic assigned to the Philippines, Father REUTER directed his first stage play in 1941 and wrote scripts for the “Commonweal Hour,” a popular Catholic radio program. Imprisoned during the war, he wrote songs and skits to rally fellow internees. Following ordination in the United States in 1946, and a course in broadcasting, he returned to the Philippines. At the Jesuit academies Ateneo de Naga and, from 1952, Ateneo de Manila, he immersed himself in a whirlwind life of teaching, coaching, and supervising everything from the school newspaper to the glee club.

He made his mark in dramatics. Year after year his Ateneo Players? augmented from Manila’s Catholic schools for girls staged memorable plays and gala musicals. He was an exacting director who subjected young thespians to his passion for achieving perfection by hard work. They yielded and learned. Some launched successful careers in professional broadcasting and theater. But for most, Father REUTER’s amateur theatricals were really a school for life. To many he became a lifelong mentor and friend.

In time Father REUTER became the church’s all-around media man?a priest whose parish encompassed stage and studio, airwaves and press. He introduced Catholic programming to Philippine television and helped set up Radio Veritas. He wrote, adapted, directed, and produced radio, television, and stage plays. These bore lessons of Christian faith, social responsibility, and personal morality to Philippine audiences and exemplified his crusade for high standards, substance, and ethics in media.

Under Martial Law, Father REUTER struggled to keep Catholic radio stations alive and raised his voice in a small weekly magazine. But like his earlier newspaper column and television programs, this, too, was muzzled. Arrested and tried by the government, he was released under an uncertain amnesty. In the presidential polls of 1986, REUTER’s fellow Catholic broadcasters challenged election fraud by helping orchestrate a nationwide independent vote count. During the ensuing “People Power Revolution,” he moved behind the scenes to keep a radio voice on the air. Prominent among those from media who put their lives on the line to inform and mobilize the public were his former students and players.

Father REUTER once described the early Jesuits as “great-souled men with powerful minds and strong wills.” Hard-driving yet compassionate, REUTER is described this way himself, not least by his erstwhile student actors and stage hands whose lives he touched permanently by insisting from them their very best.

In electing FR. JAMES BERTRAM REUTER JR., S.J., to receive the 1989 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts, the Board of Trustees recognizes his employing his gifts as writer, theatrical director, and broadcaster, but most of all as teacher, to make the performing arts and mass media a vital force for good in the Philippines.

 RESPONSE

I think this award is coming to me because in my lifetime the Catholic Church has changed. For centuries the Church worked in three ways: through the parish, the school, and charitable institutions. It spoke to the people from the pulpit, the teacher’s desk, in hospitals, in orphan asylums, in homes for unwed mothers, and in the feeding kitchen. But in my lifetime the Church has discovered that if we continue working through these channels alone, we will reach only 15 percent of the people. If we work through the media?radio, television, press, and film?our outreach potential is 100 percent.

For example, there is no person in Asia who cannot get to a transistor radio. Indeed, for millions it is their only window on the world. In Infanta, guezon’ there is a cultural minority called the Dumagats. They are men who go barefoot and their only clothing is a G-string. One day during the rainy season a Dumagat warrior was seen coming down a muddy mountain trail, barefoot, clad in only his G-string, but carrying an umbrella! The umbrella, it turned out, was not for himself, he had no need of it, but for the transistor radio that he was holding to his ear!

The most spectacular media contribution of the Church in recent years was EDSA?the Philippine revolution that took its name from the street, Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, on which the lines between the government and the people were drawn. On St. Valentine’s Day, 14 February 1986, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines said, loud and clear through the media, to the Philippines and to the world, that the recent Philippine presidential elections were a fraud; that the government had no valid moral basis. The true will of the people, the Church said, should be followed?but without violence. In these words the bishops offered a blueprint for the EDSA Revolution.

The revolution was the first in the history of the world to be “run” by radio. Even when government forces smashed the transmitters of Radio Veritas, the Church’s station (the Federation of Catholic Broadcasters) carried on with Radyo Bandido (Outlaw Radio), and June Keithley, the voice of the Catholic broadcasters, was called by General Ramos, “the commander in chief of the people’s army.”

It was an accident of history?or the grace of God?that the Church was in position with equipment, organization, and courageous men, women, boys, and girls. I just had the remarkable good fortune?or, again was it the grace of God?to be part of it.

The award says “Journalism.” I think that refers mainly to my little weekly newspaper, The Communicator. The Communicator was “honored” earlier when eleven vehicles swept into the courtyard of Xavier House where I live. The vehicles were filled with soldiers and armalites and led by six majors and colonels! The military confiscated all the copies of The Communicator, closed the press where it was printed, padlocked my office, and placed armed guards in front of my house for two years!

The award also says “Literature.” I think that refers to the plays that I have done on some figures in the Catholic Church?for example, Mateo Ricci, the first great missionary to China; Mother Ignacia, who founded the Religious of the Virgin Mary; Lorenzo Ruiz, the first Filipino to be canonized; Camillus de Lellis, the Gentle Warrior, whose religious order gave rise to the Red Cross; and Francis Xavier, the great Jesuit, the strongest of them all. And also for the plays that I have done for the underprivileged: Jenina, for the children of the streets; The Dolls That Nobody Wanted, for the handicapped; and The Night Before Christmas, for the children who have never been born.

The award adds, “especially teaching.” It is true that I have been teaching all my life. But most of it has been outside the classroom: on the stage, in the auditorium, in the sound studio, on the floor of the television barn, in the bus, in the plane, in the plaza.

On the cover of the brochure that describes the award is printed: “in recognition of greatness of spirit shown in service to the people.” This seems to me to be a deep, religious statement. Service means love, and love is the heart of the gospel. Love consists in giving and sharing all that one has and all that one is with the one you love. If you say “I love God, but I cannot stand him,” pointing to a man over there, you lie. You cannot love God, whom you do not see, if you do not love your neighbor, whom you see. Greatness of spirit is seen in service to others; that is the heart of the gospel.

I am very grateful to the Board of Trustees for this award and to all of you for coming this evening. I only want to add that when I die, I wish I could be judged by all the beautiful things that have been said during this award presentation!

 BIOGRAPHY

In the early twentieth century, Elizabeth, New Jersey just south of New York City was a place where Irish and German families of the second and third generations lived side-by-side and intermarried. JAMES BERTRAM REUTER was a product of this community where, as a youth, he knew his German great-grandfather (Reuter) and his Irish great-grandfather (Roberts), both immigrants “from the old country.” Both branches of the family were already German-Irish by the time REUTER himself was born on 21 May 1916 to James R. Reuter, a young truck driver, and Marguerite C. Hangarter, his seventeen-year-old wife. He was the first of their five children.

The environment of REUTER’s childhood was thoroughly Catholic. He was born in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, run by the Sisters of Charity, and raised in St. Mary’s Parish. Although the older Reuters were not overly pious, the children were raised as good Catholics who regularly attended mass, confessed their sins, and said the rosary. On top of the family piano stood a photograph of his father’s cousin Velma, who had entered the Little Sisters of the Poor. Young REUTER was an altar boy at St. Mary’s Church and attended only Catholic schools.

He first became aware of missionaries at St. Mary’s Grammar School, and by age seven, when he was in grade two, he had already announced to his family that he planned to be a missionary someday. He made this claim so often during his grammar-school days that his father, losing patience, told him to stop: he was too young to know what he was talking about. (Later, when REUTER was preparing for the priesthood, he discovered that quite a few of his fellow seminarians had also foreseen their vocations at about the same age.) A more definitive influence on REUTER’s choice for the priesthood was St. Peter’s Preparatory School, which he attended in nearby Jersey City. The sisters of St. Mary’s warned him that St. Peter’s was rather worn and unpleasantly located behind a soap factory but, they also told him, it had the best teachers in the world.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)