Legaspi and the laity in politics
It wasn’t a personal accomplishment, but I consider it a singularly fortunate turn of events that my college days at the University of Santo Tomas were spent under the leadership of the first Filipino rector, Rev. Fr. Leonardo Z. Legaspi, O.P. He would leave the UST campus some years later to take up the post of archbishop of Caceres (Naga and environs) and also served as president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) from 1988 to 1991, and led the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines in 1991.
When I first heard the news of Archbishop Legaspi’s passing due to lung cancer, the image that arose in my mind was a photo taken during his installation as UST “Rector Magnificus” and published in the student newspaper, The Varsitarian. I’ve forgotten the name of the “V” photographer who took it, but it was a “shot for the ages.” It showed then Father Legaspi in the center, amid a guard of honor, the shot taken while the camera was zooming in, a dynamic image of the stalwart Dominican surrounded by fuzzy images of student cadets.
He was indeed a formidable presence, standing tall and imposing during formal receptions and events which I covered as a student reporter. But up close and personal, Father Legaspi was a complete contrast, quick with a quip and usually doubled up with laughter. At the time, Dominicans, especially those who hailed from Spain, were publicly viewed as not-so-distant descendants of the friars lampooned by Rizal in his writings. Father Legaspi stood out, not just because of his physical presence, but also because he was invariably friendly and casual, even with student journalists.
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It could not have been easy for him. He was appointed rector of the “Royal and Pontifical University” only in 1970, after the Dominican community in the Philippines was divided into the “Philippine province” and the “Santissimo Rosario” (Most Holy Rosary) province composed of Spanish Dominicans.
What was it like for him dealing with the colonial vestiges of a university that had educated Filipino heroes and presidents (and many politicians, educators and leaders of their fields) but at the same time retained the historical baggage of association with a colonial power and ultraconservative religious?
Some years before I entered the UST campus, men and women students were still required to walk in segregated paths and stairways leading to their classrooms. This rule was discarded eventually, but I still remember a teacher turning away a male classmate from our class because he had dared showed up in an undershirt (sando). Now I behold female college students commuting and attending school in ultra-short shorts, spaghetti strap shirts and flip-flops, looking like they had just tumbled out of bed. The boys are no better, clad in either loose “puruntong” shorts or tattered denim pants and faded tees. But I digress…
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I lost touch with our former rector when, in 1984, he was appointed archbishop of Caceres, one of the oldest archdioceses in the country, after serving initially as an auxiliary bishop of Manila. He retired as bishop emeritus in 2012.
His stint as CBCP president was significant since it coincided with one of the most tumultuous periods in church history, from 1988 to 1991, in the immediate post-Edsa era, when the Church was straddling the transition from the Marcos dictatorship to an age of democracy. Before he assumed the post of CBCP head, the Church enjoyed the height of its power and credibility, with Jaime Cardinal Sin leading the anti-Marcos protests, supporting the candidacy of Cory Aquino, and sparking the “People Power” revolt that drove the Marcoses to exile.
It would have been tempting for Church leaders in the exuberant post-Edsa era to take advantage of this surge in popularity to dictate policy and gain more power. And indeed, in matters like reproductive health, it held much sway.
But in an address given in 2007, on “the role of bishops as leaders in addressing crisis in governance,” Archbishop Legaspi supported Pope Benedict XVI’s contention that “a just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church.”
In the Philippine context, said Legaspi, while the Pope reminded the faithful that the Church “must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice,” the task of transforming and “evangelizing” the political arena was already being taken up by “a fledgling political party… a group of lay (people) who can enter the world of politics, reform it from within and work for the establishment of the Kingdom of God.”
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He was referring to Ang Kapatiran, a political party that fields candidates in national elections and seeks not so much advantages in the traditional political sense, but to transform the context in which politics and power are pursued.
Obviously an avid supporter, Legaspi said of Ang Kapatiran that its “distinguishing mark” is the “emphasis on the party and its platform rather than on personalities and their sponsors.”
Of course, the performance of Ang Kapatiran in the last few elections where it has taken part has fallen far short of spectacular. But it has slowly gained the support, or admiration, of political watchers and movers-and-shakers. Maybe with time it will mature into a party that relies not just on ideals and the “romance” of politics, but also runs on organizational savvy, street smarts and less rigid ideological (or is it religious?) positions.
Anyway, this is a tribute to Archbishop Legaspi who saw with clarity the proper role of the Church in society: as a catalyst for positive change, a teacher of good and moral citizenship, and a supporter of well-intentioned causes.
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