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Looking Back

Exile and excommunication

When insult, expletive, and threat dribble out of the President’s foul mouth, Palace minions expect the public to grin and bear it. Four years on, people don’t find this funny anymore. But when they push back, even slightly, laws enacted for their benefit and protection are weaponized against the people. When prayer was invoked against the passage of the anti-terrorism law, the Auxiliary Bishop of Manila was reminded of the “separation of church and state.” His quick reply was “We are also citizens.”

Today’s news reminded me of the 17th century, when the government used exile and the Church responded with excommunication.

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On May 9, 1636, Spanish governor general Sebastián Hurtado de Corcuera ordered the arrest order of Hernando Paez Guerrero, Archbishop of Manila, and his banishment to Mariveles. Major religious superiors advised the bishop to uphold ecclesiastical immunity by resisting arrest even if it led to death. Nanlaban in that context would be glorified as martyrdom. If Intramuros were a chessboard, the black pieces would represent the governor, and the white the bishop who refused to yield. Knights, rooks and pawns moved, and the Manila Cathedral and Arzobispado were surrounded by soldiers who maintained a respectful distance. While the bishop had no soldiers, he had a weapon that trumped anything in the governor’s arsenal: the Blessed Sacrament. A monstrance was brought to the Arzobispado from the Franciscan church in solemn procession, complete with canopy, candles, and incense, unimpeded by the soldiers on blockade. The bishop received the Blessed Sacrament in full regalia, brought it to his throne, and with glove and cope held the monstrance aloft, and defied arrest.

By evening, Corcuera had grown impatient and turned up at the Arzobispado, where he was met at the door by a pair of clerics who began reading the decree placing him under censure. Soldiers were then ordered to interrupt the declaration by blowing out the candles around the clerics with their hats. Leaving the dazed clerics in darkness, the governor barged into the throne room and found the bishop brandishing the monstrance at him, as one would to drive back a vampire. Around the bishop were the major religious superiors, with the conspicuous absence of the Jesuits. They refused his rude order to return to their churches because, aside from moral and spiritual support, they physically held up the bishop’s arms that had grown weary from keeping the monstrance aloft. Annoyed by this stalemate, the governor ordered the soldiers to arrest the bishop the minute he released the monstrance. Sources said the bishop’s eyes “were turned into two fountains of tears when he reflected on this desecration.”

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To speed things up, the governor then ordered the soldiers to forcibly eject the religious from the hall. Nobody moved. Soldiers had to be cursed and beaten to comply, and eventually they did so by apologizing to each religious first, muttering the 17th-century version of “trabaho lang po ito” before dragging them out one by one. Naturally, in the nanlaban scuffle, the crystal lunette that held the Blessed Sacrament dropped from the monstrance to the floor and broke. Everything stopped. Everyone gasped, but lightning did not strike anyone dead. An alert Franciscan then rushed in with a strap and attached the monstrance to the bishop. A nearby soldier could have prevented the hand of the bishop from picking up the fallen sacrament, but, with his sword drawn out, the soldier decided to fall on it instead. Regarding this detail, we have two versions of the story: Religious chroniclers claim the blade bent, miraculously leaving the devout soldier unscathed; the lay account says otherwise.

By dawn of May 10, 1636, having abstained from food and drink for more than a day, the bishop asked for some water. The governor refused. A Franciscan, after checking the strap that secured the monstrance, pressed a wet piece of cloth on the bishop’s parched lips. At five in the morning the siege ended. The Blessed Sacrament was returned to the Franciscan church and, shedding off his pontifical regalia, the bishop was led on foot, escorted by 50 soldiers, to the Pasig River, where a boat waited to take him to exile in Mariveles.

Historical material can sometimes sound stranger than fiction.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, excommunication, exile, Hernando Paez Guerrero, Looking Back, Philippine history, Sebastián Hurtado de Corcuera, separation of church and state
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