TBT: Remembering Jolo’s slain Bishop De Jesus
Let me indulge in a TBT (Throwback Thursday) piece: On Feb. 4, 1997, almost 22 years to the day of last Sunday’s bomb explosion in the Jolo cathedral while Mass was going on, the bishop of the Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo, Benjamin de Jesus, was shot and killed right in front of the same cathedral named after Our Lady of Mount Carmel. His murderers gave him several bullets that killed him instantly.
Last Sunday’s murder in the cathedral — to borrow the title of T.S. Eliot’s famous work — was not a first in Jolo, the capital of the province of Sulu. Hand grenades had been thrown into the cathedral at least seven times. Three Filipino Oblates have been martyred in the Jolo vicariate in the last 23 years.
I asked Oblate Fr. Eliseo Mercado if the bishop’s killers have been brought to justice. His reply: “Nope, as in all murders here… we bury our dead, we remember and move on.”
Though predominantly Muslim, Jolo is where various ethnic cultures and religious faiths meet and coexist. It is also where a bitter battle raged between government forces and the separatist Moro National Liberation Front in February 1974, the tragic event now referred to as The Burning of Jolo.
Not again! I gasped when I learned of the bomb explosion inside the Jolo cathedral, which was followed seconds later by another blast near the entrance. Then the number of casualties started coming in. (The latest: 21 dead, 112 wounded.)
Suddenly the murder of Bishop De Jesus in 1997 came to mind. I thought, who remembers?
It was front-page news then, as he was the first Filipino bishop to be murdered, and in his own vicariate at that. It was shocking then, but perhaps not too surprising now considering that President Duterte wants bishops critical of him killed.
I was assigned to do a feature story on the murdered bishop, a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), a congregation of priests founded in France by St. Eugene de Mazenod in the 1800s. I read up on OMI history.
The full feature story, “God’s commando in a faraway place” (Inquirer, 2/14/97), is included in my book “You Can’t Interview God: Church Women and Men in the News” (Anvil, 2013).
The Oblates arrived in the Philippines in 1939 with Jolo as their first base. I enjoyed reading the breathless, first-person accounts of the new arrivals in Jolo, written like they were straight out of the Wild West. Mindanao is OMI bailiwick.
Today, the Jolo cathedral is still run by the Oblates, who also run the Notre Dame universities in Mindanao where many Muslim and Christian Mindanaoans go for higher education. The Oblates have made great contributions not only in education, but also in Muslim-Christian dialogue.
Bishop De Jesus was himself involved in undertakings such as the Bishops-Ulama dialogues. He was sometimes referred to as “Imam of the Christians” and was, at one time, vice chair of the commission on interreligious dialogue of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.
He was not a dazzling, starlike character; he was gentle, humble. When faced with decisions, he often sought the advice of others and took time to weigh things. Recalled an Irish Oblate: “You want to tell him, come on, shoot the guy and be done with it!”
And yet, when he was first weighing his religious vocation as a high school student in Malabon, De Jesus wrote that his dream was “to go to a faraway place, to an isolated and dangerous area, to bring God to the people and the people to God. The mountains and the seas fascinated and attracted me. When I was assigned in Esperanza, Sultan Kudarat, Cotabato, it was a dream come true. Some barrios we could only reach on horseback.”
A military commandant in high school, he thought his training would serve him well if he joined the men who wore a black sash and a big cross, men who were often called “God’s commandos” because of their daring. Pope Pius XI called these men “specialists in most difficult missions,” as they were the first “to brave the howling winds of the North Pole to reach the tiny encampments of neglected Indians, Metis and Eskimos.”
Well, De Jesus got to be in that faraway “North Pole” of his dreams. He died in a manner least imagined, like the many killed and injured in last Sunday’s bomb explosions.
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