A test of will for Philippine church leaders

There seems to be no end to the tirades against priests and bishops, especially critics of the govt's war against narcotics
A test of will for Philippine church leaders

Members of church rights group Gomburza hold a march in Manila on Dec. 8 to dramatize calls for justice for victims of drug-related killings in the Philippines. (Photo by Jire Carreon) 

It was a test of will and determination to be witnesses of the Gospel despite the attacks, and even threats to the lives, of Philippine church leaders, both Catholics and Protestants.

The year 2018 witnessed members of the clergy being vilified for being corrupt, for being child abusers, and even for having alleged links with drug syndicates and communists.

There was no end to the tirades against priests and bishops, especially those who have become vocal critics of the government's war against illegal drugs.

President Rodrigo Duterte even labeled some Catholic bishops "useless fools" who deserved to be killed for criticizing his administration's policies, especially against narcotics.

What worried church leaders was the president's violent war on drugs, which killed, according to official figures, 5,050 people between July 2016 and the end of November this year.

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The figure is way below the estimates of human rights groups and activists who claimed that there were about 20,000 undocumented killings of suspected drug dealers and users.

One bishop, Arturo Bastes of Sorsogon, called the president a "sick and a megalomaniac" and a "murderous madman."

The president countered by telling Catholics to stop going to church and to build their own prayer rooms in their homes as he described the church as the "most hypocritical institution."

Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo of Manila said the Philippines has become a "pitiful" country for having "a president who does not perform and is unable to take criticism."

Some sectors of the church blamed "hate speech" from the president for attacks on some members of the clergy.

In April this year, unknown gunmen killed 37-year-old Father Mark Ventura, who was known to be an environmental advocate working with tribal communities.

On June 10, Father Richmond Villaflor Nilo was added to the growing casualty list when he was shot dead while putting on his alb before celebrating Mass.

A fourth priest, Father Rey Urmeneta of Saint Michael the Archangel parish in Calamba City, survived an attack by two gunmen.

The killings and attacks on church leaders have become part of what activists described as a continued "culture of impunity" in the country.

While there were reactions and strongly worded statements from some bishops, most church leaders seemed to opt for silence.

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila warned against "abuse of power" as he kicked off the Philippines' traditional nine-day early morning Masses to usher in Christmas this month.

He reminded Catholics against "bullying" and the use of "power to coerce others" in what many viewed as a very tame response to Duterte's repeated verbal attacks on church leaders.

The presidential palace issued a statement reacting to Cardinal Tagle's homily, saying that the beloved prelate of Manila was not referring to the president.

"'Those in power' would also apply to those in the church. You use the pulpit for bullying people, then it's the same," said the president's spokesman.

It was still a year of living dangerously, especially for those accused of having links with drug syndicates, those who were tagged as having connections with the communist movement, and poor innocent civilians caught in the midst of Duterte's war.

Still, Duterte's populist rhetoric, including his use of foul language, seemed to endear himself with the public. 

The results of a survey conducted in September showed that 70 percent of adults said they were satisfied with the president's performance while only 16 percent were dissatisfied. This was despite 83 percent of the people surveyed feeling Duterte's comments in which he called God "stupid" were vulgar.

How can a country that claims to be predominantly Catholic, with a population that does not approve of capital punishment and artificial contraception, let Duterte get away with all the crimes he has allegedly committed?

Either the president is doing something Filipinos actually want deep in their hearts — kill suspected drug addicts and massacre alleged communists — or they have been so cowed that they have chosen to wallow in silence.

As for our church leaders, we are reminded of the story of Peter when he fled crucifixion in Rome. The apostle met Jesus on the road. The Lord asked Peter, "Quo vadis?" a Latin phrase meaning, "Where are you marching?"

Jesus reportedly replied, "Romam eo iterum crucifigi" (I am going to Rome to be crucified again). It gave Peter the courage to return to the city, where he was martyred by being crucified upside-down.

Will our church leaders pass the test?

Jose Torres Jr. is a ucanews.com reporter based in Manila.

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