The Philippine church's role in social transformation

Church leaders are again using their influence to speak out against dark times
The Philippine church's role in social transformation

A seminarian lights a candle during a prayer rally for peace in Manila on the eve of the anniversary of the 1986 People Power revolution on Feb. 22. (Photo by Angie de Silva)

The execution of three Filipino priests — Fathers Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora — on Feb. 17, 1872, has become part of Philippine history. The priests earned the ire of Spanish authorities for inciting people to protest against abusive Spanish friars and for their campaign for equal rights among the clergy.

The executions were one of the darkest periods of the progressive, better still, revolutionary segment of the Philippine Catholic Church and were triggered by a rebellion of 200 Filipino troops and workers in the province of Cavite. Albeit crushed, the mutiny was magnified to justify the persecution of Filipinos clamoring for reforms.

A century later, after Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972, the political landscape in the Philippines was characterized by the growing poverty of people and the resulting unrest due to the curtailment of fundamental freedoms and violations of basic human rights.

Against this backdrop emerged a new generation of revolutionary Church people, not only among Catholics but among Christian Churches.

On Feb. 17, 1972, the Christians for National Liberation, a national democratic underground mass organization, was established. Led by its founding chairman, former Divine Word missionary priest Edicio de la Torre, the group was formed as a response to the "signs of the times." 

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The group's founding members courageously declared their participation in the raging revolutionary movement amid the repression that victimized the little ones of God’s flock — farmers, workers, students, and slum dwellers. The new group gathered around a monument of the three slain priests whose execution became a prelude to the 1896 Philippine revolution. 

The revolutionary response of the churches paid a very high price. Among those who paid for the "theology of struggle" with their lives were a number of Catholic priests, such as Nilo Valerio, Carlos Tayag, Rudy Romano, and Edgar Kangleon. Several others were arrested and detained, including Edicio de la Torre. Soldiers raided convents and religious houses, including the home of the late Archbishop Antonio Fortich of Bacolod.

But as the Gospel according to John says, "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."

When opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. was killed in 1983, people started to rise, resulting in what was later known as the peaceful "People Power Revolution" from Feb. 22-25, 1986.

The influential voice of Manila’s charismatic Cardinal Jaime Sin brought a huge number of men and women-of-the cloth onto the streets of Manila.

Marching for three days hand in hand with the people, priests, nuns, and seminarians used Bibles, crosses, and rosaries, to defy soldiers armed with truncheons, teargas and guns. The Catholic Church became a major actor in the revolution, attracting the participation of the so-called "middle class" to the streets. 

Could have there been a "People Power Revolution" without the participation of Catholic Church leaders? Had Cardinal Sin not called on Catholics to put a stop to the two decades of tyranny, Marcos could have perpetuated himself in power beyond his 21 years of plunder and human rights violations.

As the country marked the 31st anniversary of the revolution and as the Philippines is marred by thousands of drug-related killings, a national soul-searching is called for. As if the number of killings is not enough, members of the Philippine Congress are calling for the restoration of the death penalty to legalize killings.

Catholic Church leaders have already spoken. "It is this Divine gift of life, sublime and unsurpassable, that the death penalty takes away. It is the breath of life, the gift of the Creator, that every judicial execution snatches and cuts short," read a statement by the country's Catholic bishops.

In opting for the "Church of the Poor," the Philippine Catholic Church has responded to the moral imperatives stated in the church's social teachings. Amidst the darkness of the situation, it is heartening that the country's church leaders are again using their influence to stop the killings and prevent the re-imposition of the death penalty. The priests who were executed by the Spaniards were victims of capital punishment. A century and a half later, Filipinos should have already learned from that irreversible mistake.

Mary Aileen Bacalso is secretary-general of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances. For her commitment to the cause of the disappeared, the government of Argentina awarded her the Emilio Mignone International Human Rights Prize in 2013.

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