Shepherd ‘who smelled like his sheep’
He was a priest who “smelled like his sheep,” meaning that he chose to live with and among the faithful, sharing every problem, hardship, joy and celebration such that he was indistinguishable from his “sheep” and began to smell like them.
What a lovely, touching way to describe a shepherd, a priest who mingled among the community and refused to let his stature—given the traditional respect accorded to members of the clergy—distance him from his humble neighbors.
I can thus imagine that the folks of Gattaran, Cagayan—along with the rest of the Archdiocese of Cagayan—are deep in mourning over the death of young priest Fr. Mark Anthony Ventura at 37.
Father Ventura was concluding Mass last Sunday and was in the middle of blessing the children and talking to the choir in a gymnasium when a gunman alighted from a motorcycle and, still wearing his helmet, approached the priest and shot him in the head and chest, in front of the children.
There is a photo of the priest sprawled on the gym floor, clad in his white soutane while his blood pooled beneath him. It is heartbreaking, especially when paired with a photo of him in the bloom of health, smiling and handsome.
“We condemn in the strongest terms this brutal and cowardly act,” Tuguegarao (Cagayan) Archbishop Sergio Utleg said in a statement.
The prelate also appealed to the police “to act swiftly in going after the perpetrators of this crime and to bring them to justice.” He then pointedly said that “there have been too many murders already done with impunity by assassins riding in tandem. May this be the last.”
Archbishop Utleg was alluding not just to the killings (by the thousands, in some estimates) of suspected drug users and pushers but also to the shooting of a retired priest, Fr. Marcelito “Tito” Paez, a human rights advocate. In December last year gunmen shot at Father Paez’s vehicle in Jaen, Nueva Ecija. According to some accounts, he had just fetched from the detention center and brought home a released political detainee; on the way back to his own home, his car was shot at. Witnesses said Father Paez was clearly the target as the bullet holes were all on the front passenger’s door.
Was Father Paez really targeted by the assailants, or could it have been a case of mistaken identity, with the ex-detainee being the real target?
Father Ventura, on the other hand, was known for his antimining advocacy and his championing of the poor and exploited. Observers note that “he probably made enemies by default for caring about the marginalized.” Was his outspoken opposition to black sand mining in Cagayan and support for the plight of indigenous peoples the reason for his cruel slaying?
Reacting to the latest clergy killing, Archbishop Romulo Valles of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines issued a letter in which he condemned “this evil act” and appealed to authorities “to act swiftly in going after the perpetrators of this crime and bring them to justice.”
A missionary, commenting on the killings not just of the two priests but also of other Christian missionaries and the arrest and expulsion of Sister Patricia Fox, said these “are fueling fear… We are under pressure. It seems [we’re] back to the days of President Marcos’ dictatorship.”
Two commentators, writing in The Modern Tokyo Times, observe that “in recent times Roman Catholic priests are more likely to be killed within the mainly Catholic world.” They mention the 21 men of the cloth killed in Mexico since 2012, as well as the assassinations of Fathers Paez and Ventura.
“Overall, the blood of Roman Catholic priests is flowing in Mexico and the Philippines,” they say. “Despite this, many cases remain unsolved based on the failure of the rule of law in both these nations. Equally, the strings being played by drug cartels in Mexico and wealthy businesspeople in the Philippines who are opposed to priests helping the marginalized is playing a role. In other words, money is buying silence and is helping the killers escape justice.”
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