Late in May, the Catholic Church beatified the martyred Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Will similar recognition come someday to Mindanao?
That’s where missionaries Tulio Favali and Fausto Tentorio were likewise murdered. The two were members of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (Pime). “Why do you wish to be a priest, even though priests are being killed?” someone once asked Favali. His reply: “So that they will have more priests to kill.”
Established in 1850 in Italy, the Pime is now in 17 countries, including the Philippines. Its roster includes 18 martyrs and one canonized saint.
As in El Salvador, paramilitary operatives of counterinsurgency groups in Mindanao have tarred popular movements for change as “subversive.” Their agents smeared Pime missionaries—whispering about the Communist Party of the Philippines’ praise for Father Tentorio, for example.
Pope Benedict XVI met these smears head on. He asked Giuseppe Pinto, then the Vatican’s apostolic nuncio in Manila, to convey his message to Filipinos. Tentorio was “a good priest, a fervent believer,” the Pope wrote. “For many years, he served the people of the Philippines in a courageous and indefatigable way.”
Benedict’s statement was published in the Vatican’s official daily, L’Osservatore Romano.
Who slammed the replay button?
For years, opponents within the Vatican blocked the cause of Blessed Oscar Romero. “But with the presence of Pope Francis, a sensible Latino who knows Latin America, the process was revived,” then finally pushed through, writes Bernardo Barranco, the president of the Center of Religious Studies, an institute in Mexico City. “It acknowledged a figure of the Church who has been denied for decades.”
Romero was shot while saying Mass by a junta gunman. A “truth commission” later concluded that former army major Roberto d’Aubuisson ordered the killing. He was never tried. Impunity enabled him to establish the conservative Arena party, which governed El Salvador until 2009. He is now in the opposition.
“For a whole generation of Christians in Latin America, Romero’s murder demonstrated the barbarity of military dictatorships,” writes Barranco. Romero morphed from a timid bishop to an outspoken prelate after El Salvador goons gunned down a Jesuit priest who defended the poor.
In the Philippines, it has been four years now since the murder of Tentorio (or “Father Pops”).
Last October, a caravan disembarked in Arakan, North Cotabato. The caravan members heard Mass concelebrated by 15 priests. The theme of the liturgy was Pope Francis’ call: “Go. Do not be afraid. Serve the people.”
They recalled that after arriving in Kidapawan, Father Pops stayed in the village of Kabacan to learn the local languages.
He trekked to far-flung villages to reach the neglected tribals and farmers. And he taught them how “to unite into organizations where they developed a new kind of education that empowered them to struggle for their rights.”
Lawyer Gregorio Andolana documented “some investors racing to exploit the natural resources of Arakan.” He pinpointed the corrupt politicians who feared that the organized farmers and tribals would no longer sell their votes.
These politicians considered priests like Tentorio and Favali as subversive. For some, this was sufficient motive for an extrajudicial killing.
After many appeals to the President, a new special investigating team for unsolved cases is now conducting an in-depth review of Tentorio’s killing. We want to see results, says Fr. Peter Geremia of the Pime.
Filipinos will find the Romero case instructive. After years in which the process was stalled, Pope Francis’ beatification decision was “a surprise and a thrill for everyone,” said Simeon Reyes, a spokesperson for the Catholic Church in El Salvador.
“There were always priests who were not in agreement with him,” said Gaspar Romero, the slain bishop’s brother. “But the Vatican has recognized him as a man of faith, a man who spoke for the neediest, defending the poor from injustices, and who was killed for it.”
Romero’s case for sainthood became bogged down in Church politics, recalls Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who guided the beatification cause through the process.
Over the years, Romero’s opponents argued that he was too politically controversial and a follower of “liberation theology,” a movement within the Church focused on fighting injustice and inequality.
“A mountain of paper, unfortunately, weighed down” Romero’s case. Will that be the case in Mindanao?
Pope Francis bypassed senior prelates to pick the second Filipino cardinal from Mindanao, Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato.
The violence that Romero encountered, including the killing of his fellow priests, “radicalized [him] and made him aware that the repression had no limits, that they would attack anyone equally, including the Church,” said Jose Jorge Siman, a friend for many years.
A prayer, wrongly attributed to Romero, says it is also for martyred missionaries Favali and Tentorio:
“The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work….
“Nothing we do is complete, which is saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us… We plant the seeds that one day will grow….
“We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that… We may never see the end results… We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”
Juan L. Mercado was a communication officer for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Bangkok. Thereafter, he was posted in FAO headquarters in Rome, Italy, as attaché de cabinet. He wrote for the Inquirer as a regular columnist from February 2004 until December 2014.
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