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Faith, time — and Dr. Rizal

/ 12:13 AM June 19, 2017

There was more to Dr. Jose Rizal than martyrdom and women.

We remember him, he is a constant presence, because of his ultimate sacrifice. Accused wrongly by the Spanish colonial
authorities of leading the Philippine Revolution that had been inspired by his writings, he walked calmly to his death; he
had rejected the help of revolutionaries who offered to rescue him, and his own brother Paciano had told them they should not attempt to liberate him from prison, for they were sure to lose lives in the undertaking. He accepted his fate — and
became an emerging nation’s preeminent martyr.


His death anniversary became our first, and remains our oldest-observed, holiday.

We also know him, in popular culture, as a man who squired the ladies, a serial boyfriend. Even his fellow Filipino exiles in Europe, including other heroes like Marcelo del Pilar, teased him in writing and in person about his many romantic entanglements. (In reality, many of these were polite, if intense, friendships — “Platonic,” as educated Filipinos would say today.) The same exiles would commiserate with him when he received word that his great love Leonor Rivera was engaged. A lover for a national hero: This is an aspect of Rizal’s that engages, even flatters, the popular imagination.


But the generation who worked with him in creating a country out of a colony knew him, first and last, as a man of patriotic purpose. This highly accomplished achiever was always about “national, general progress.” Every now and then he would confide to his friends that if he had a choice he would rather live the life of an artist or a teacher; but he became a political novelist, he turned himself into the most famous polemicist against Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines, he joined the separatist movement, because the times called for it.

He wrote his great friend Ferdinand Blumentritt: “Our youth should not devote themselves to love or to the static speculative sciences as do the youth of fortunate nations. All of us have to sacrifice something on the altar of politics though we might not wish to do so.” In Rizal’s view, public purpose always outweighed private preference. “That is understood by our friends who publish our newspaper in Madrid. They are creole young men of Spanish descent, Chinese half-breeds, and Malayans; but we call ourselves only Filipinos.”

The newspaper wasn’t La Solidaridad; that symbol and spearhead of the Filipinos’ campaign in Spain to force reforms in the Philippines was still a couple of years in the future. But the motive behind Soli was the same motive that earlier drove those who called themselves Filipinos to publish “España en Filipinas”—it was understood that sacrifices needed to be made, on the altar of politics.

If Rizal had a bedrock faith, it was this sense of national purpose: a creed based on the inevitability and necessity of progress, a code of conduct based on equality and freedom (values he prized in Europe, his “adopted country,” which were withheld from his unfortunate nation), not least a congregation made up of “honorable men.”

He walked to his death in what is now Rizal Park with a strong sense that time was on his side. His own name was both proof and prophecy.

In 1872, he had to adopt his father’s second name to avoid the consequences of his brother’s closeness to Fr. Jose Burgos, in the aftermath of the Cavite Mutiny. That year, he enrolled at Ateneo as a Rizal, not a Mercado. In the 1880s, he assumed the leadership of the Filipinos in Spain, he wrote his great novels, he corresponded with eminent scientists in Europe, as a Rizal, not a Mercado. He even signed his letters home, to the Mercado family, as Rizal. But, in one of history’s twists, it happened: After he became the most prominent target of the Spanish colonial government’s harassment campaign, and when the authorities began persecuting members of the family, his family bravely changed their name, too, from Mercado to Rizal.

Over time, the faith of Rizal, whose 156th birth anniversary we mark today, becomes real when, as he wrote Del Pilar, we prove that “we are superior to our misfortune.”


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