Looking Back

Early Filipino ‘popes’ resisted colonial rule

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When Benedict XVI left his pallium on the glass casket that contained the remains of Celestine V four years ago, he was paying homage to a saint who resigned after five months as pope in 1294 and spent the remainder of his life praying, reading, and binding books. Now we are told that early in life Benedict XVI dreamed of becoming director of the Vatican Library. He moves into the papal summer retreat after he steps down, and one would hope that his successor will be thoughtful enough to find the Pope emeritus a comfortable apartment with access to the library.

While the faithful and patriotic amongst us are wishing that Luis Cardinal Tagle will get elected as the first Filipino pope, they should realize that we have not one but many Filipino “popes” before, all of them in the margins, or what the eminent Filipino historian calls the “underside of Philippine history.”

The most famous among them was Dionisio Magbuelas aka Dionisio Papa y Barlucia, or “Papa Isio” for short. He was the head of a group of babaylanes in Negros who not only rejected the authority of the pope in Rome but also took both title and authority upon himself to become, at least to his followers, “Papa Isio.” He was involved in the Philippine Revolution of 1896, and during battles his men would cry “Viva Rizal!” or “Viva Filipinas Libre!” or “Kamatayon sa Kastila!” (Death to the Spaniards). He went on to fight in the Filipino-American War and was one of the last to surrender to the enemy on Aug. 6, 1907. This date is significantly later than the surrender of Miguel Malvar, but Papa Isio is sidelined in history. After a trial for rebellion, his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He died in Bilibid in 1911.

From my notes on Vic Hurley’s 1938 book “Jungle Patrol: The Story of the Philippine Constabulary,” it seems there were other “popes” all over the country who gave the Spanish and Americans a hard time. To complicate matters, there were even four people in jail who claimed to be the “Virgin Mary.”

Hurley devoted a chapter to these men and details the career of Felipe Salvador of northern Luzon, a colonel in Aguinaldo’s army, who did not surrender to the Americans and kept the resistance going. Hurley described Salvador as a deserter from the revolution who ended up as a bandit. As head of the Santa Iglesia (Holy Church), Salvador “preached socialism, practiced polygamy, and promised that land and other desirables would be distributed among his followers when the government was overthrown. He preached that there would come a great fire, a rain of gold and jewels would fall upon the faithful. He said that a wooden club would turn into a rifle if used bravely enough—but that lack of faith would leave it still a wooden club.”

Aside from a penchant for long hair, Salvador had an appetite for young and pretty women. He was based in Arayat and was considered a “pope” by his followers. His surname also had a familiar ring to it: “Salvador” is the Spanish word for “savior.”

In Leyte, another group was called “Dios-Dios” (God-God) and the “pope” was a certain Faustino Ablena who was based in the mountains near Ormoc. He was 55 years old when he was killed in an encounter with the Philippine Constabulary. Actually, Ablena was more than a “pope” because he signed himself “Señor Jesus y Maria.” Aside from Ablena in Leyte, there was a “Papa Pablo” in Samar, a “Papa Fernandez” in Laguna and a “King” from Pampanga!

Ruperto Rios of Tayabas was the most interesting in Hurley’s list. Not content with being “pope,” this man established a “new Jerusalem” on Mount San Cristobal and later imposed on himself the grand titles of “Viceroy of the Philippine Archipelago” and “Deliverer of the Philippines.” Of course, he took upon himself the highest title possible—“Son of God.” Rios had a fascinating bag of tricks that included a box marked “Independencia.” It was believed that when Rios opened the box “Independencia” would fly out like a genie released from the lamp and free everyone from labor, jail, taxes, and, last but not least, the Philippine Constabulary.

Hurley wrote his book seven decades ago, and while much of the material seems strange to many, it can also be quite contemporary when you think of people today who peddle magic handkerchiefs or cure-all oil and ointment, or get followers to open umbrellas upside down to gather blessings from the heavens. In previous times, such cults or cultic behavior would have been described as “kolorum,” which came from the Latin translation of a text in biblical Greek “from century to century,” rendered as “in saecula saeculorum” to express eternity (though this is often translated as “for ever and ever”). Today, when Filipinos say “colorum” they mean an illegal bus, jeep, or taxi.

These “popes” and their followers were derided in the Spanish and American sources as “pobres e ignorantes” (poor and ignorant rabble), but Filipino historians rereading the texts see beyond the kolorum to forms of resistance to colonial rule. Early Filipino “popes” should be taken from the dustbin of history and their lives and deeds studied in school to give them their proper places in our collective memory.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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