(Editor’s note: Below are remarks delivered by former senator Francisco Tatad, on the occasion of his 80th birthday celebration in Quezon City last week.) 

A couple of weeks ago, my six-year-old twin grand daughters Emma Louise and Nicola Anne told me, “Lolo, we’re going to give you a surprise on your birthday!” “What might that be?” I wondered. “It won’t be a surprise anymore if we told you,” they said. “But you’ve just told me,” I said. “All we said was, we’re going to give you a surprise, but we did not tell you what the surprise is going to be.” Smart kids, I thought, potential materials for the presidency.

Well, I suppose, this get-together on the feast-day of St. Francis of Assisi is the first surprise. The second surprise is the gala performance we have just witnessed on stage.

I thank my wife, my seven children, my 11 grandchildren, and two godchildren, for putting this together, and I thank all of you, my dear friends, for honoring us with your presence. Most especially I thank Archbishop Emeritus Paciano Aniceto of Pampanga, Archbishop Emeritus Fernando Capalla of Davao, Fr. Seelan of Sta. Maria della Strada, Fr. Jun Mercado of OMI, Fr. D.J. of the Congregation of Jesus and Mary, Fr. Iwao Ikegami of Verbum Dei, and Fr. Peter Lavin of Alagad ni Maria for con-celebrating the Holy Mass, without which this would be no celebration at all.

Above all I thank our Lord, through our Blessed Mother, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Josemaria Escriva, St. John Paul 2nd, St. Paul VI and all the saints, for the gift of life, good health and good humor—and the gift of family and friends—through 80 years of ceaseless struggle. I thank our Lord especially for my beloved parents, my brothers and sisters of happy memory whose love sustained me amid so much privation and suffering. Let us all remember now all our relatives and friends who have died or are sick and in need of healing and prayer.

Since I left the Senate in 2001, I have tried to limit my public appearances to necrological services for friends who have gone before us, and to conferences on human life, the family and marriage in various parts of the world. As a private citizen I am constantly reminded that I have already done all my talking in my previous life. But I am told that if I said nothing on this my 80th birthday, the next time I’d be asked to speak would be when I get to be a hundred years old.

I had intended to simplify things by putting in your hands a copy of my memoirs, which I had been working on for a little while now, but the finished product failed to arrive on time. I have completed “The Last Holocaust,” a dystopian novel on the sexual revolution, but that too will have to wait a little while longer.

At 80, I look at the distance I have traveled, and ask myseIf what things would I have done differently were I to begin all over again—as a writer, as a politician, and, most importantly, as a man. In Catanduanes, where I was born, I had to cross seven mountains every weekend to attend third year high school in the next town, and finally I had to board a ship to Manila without a paid ticket in search of a nonexistent future. It was a leap into the dark, into the great unknown, but strange as it may seem, I would not exchange that experience for anything else.

In Manila, I took all sorts of jobs to support my bare existence. I wanted to be a writer, and by dint of hard work, I was able to crash into the UST Faculty of Philosophy and Letters. On my second year, I wrote a short story in class and whimsically sent it to Asia Magazine in Hong Kong, edited by the well-known Filipino writer and editor Johnny Gatbonton. To my great surprise the magazine used my class work, and I got US $150 by return mail, which gave me the unwarranted feeling that I had just written “Gone with the Wind.”

I became literary editor of the UST Varsitarian for two consecutive terms, without having to apply for it. But an attempt by students to stage a symposium on Blessed Cardinal Henry Newman’s “Idea of a University,” with some of us students as speakers, put an abrupt end to my university education. This was corrected years later when the University, founded in 1611, made me its Most Distinguished Alumnus during one of its grand anniversary celebrations. But it did force me into active journalism, at the cost of my literary career.

I spent my first three years at Agence France Presse, then moved to the Manila Daily Bulletin as the youngest diplomatic reporter-columnist in town. In 1969 President Marcos invited me for breakfast in Malacañang, and six months later, drafted me into the Cabinet at the ripe old age of 29, to serve as press secretary, spokesman, information minister and speech writer for the next ten years. I became the youngest Cabinet minister in history, with the distinction of announcing the proclamation of martial law on Sept. 23, 1972. My new job enabled me to marry my beautiful wife, the joyfully faultless Fenny Cantero, whom I had decided to marry the very moment I saw her face.

Through my good friend F. Sionil Jose, novelist, president of PEN International Philippine Chapter, and later national artist for literature, I met a number of world literary figures in Manila, Seoul, and Hamburg—Nobel laureates Gunter Grass, Yasunari Kawabata, Heinrich Boll, American writers John Updike and John Cheever, some notable Korean and Indian writers, in some PEN meetings. I dined with British writers David Carver, Kathleen Nott and Peter Elstob in Manila, and escorted the Russian poet Yvgeny Yevtushenko and our own Jose Garcia Villa to a gala dinner in Malacañang.

In 1978, I was elected to the Batasan. In 1980, I resigned from the Cabinet, and joined the parliamentary opposition. In 1984, I lost my Batasan seat in a highly eventful election. In 1987, I ran for the Senate and was tear-gassed at EDSA for protesting the palpably questionable returns. I returned to journalism by writing columns for Business Day and Philippine Daily Globe, and op-ed pieces for the International Herald Tribune in Paris, the Wall Street Journal in New York, the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong. Then I put out Philippines Newsday, which the American historian Lou Gleek called “the best newspaper in the country bar none.”

In 1992, I won my first Senate seat on a shoestring budget. In 1995, I got reelected with an impressive mandate, still on a shoestring. For most of the next six years, I ran the Senate floor as majority leader through five changes in the Senate presidency. The Senate press called me “the Moral Conscience of the Senate,” suggesting that of the 24 senators, 23 wanted to become president, I alone wanted to become Pope. During this time my wife and I became regular participants in the World Meeting of Families with the Holy Father, the multi-denominational World Congress of Families in the US and Europe, and members of the International Right to Life Federation and the World Youth Alliance in the US.

In 1998, I teamed up with Miriam Defensor Santiago in a vain effort to stop Erap Estrada from becoming president. But Erap proved unstoppable, and Miriam and I ended helping him instead. In 2001, I was the last senator left standing—insisting that Erap be convicted by the Senate if guilty, but not removed in a coup d’etat.

When GMA organized her Cabinet, my photo appeared on the front page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer as the likely successor to Domingo Siazon, Jr., the secretary of foreign affairs. But I said I was the wrong person for the job.

Throughout Noynoy Aquino’s presidency to Duterte’s, I articulated the National Transformation Council’s vision of non-violent revolutionary change. However my writings about President Duterte resulted in the cancellation of my thrice weekly front-page newspaper column. I now write a column online, at PressOne.PH, and host a weekly news forum at Annabel’s QC every Saturday morning.

I have fought many battles and lost a lot. But I take solace in the words of a wise Indian friend who says there are battles we win today and lose tomorrow, and battles we lose today and win tomorrow. Whether as a journalist, a politician, or a man, my unswerving loyalty has always been to the truth and to first principles.

I have no enemies as such. As a Christian, I believe I have no right to have any enemies except perhaps the devil and the damned. I also have no hates and fears: the only thing I truly hate and fear is sin. I know of no offense against me which I have not forgiven, nor any offense I have committed for which I have not begged for forgiveness or done penance.

Without God’s grace, I might have perished as a child during a storm in Catanduanes, or in any of my near-death experiences through the years. But perhaps our Lord has allowed me to live this long to see if I could find the true meaning of my earthly existence by serving the least of my brethren in the ordinary circumstances of my daily life.

He probably wanted to see if I could be faithful, not so much in the big things of this world as in the littlest things. He probably wanted to see if I could be trusted to reject the temptations He himself rejected in the desert, and love and serve God unconditionally, above all things, with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my strength, and with all its costs and consequences.

I hope and pray I have not been a total disappointment, and that in the richness of his love and mercy Our Father who art in Heaven will forgive me all my trespasses and transgressions. I love you all very dearly, and I wish you all the gift of peace.