Looking Back

Rizal: the boy and the adult

/ 01:22 AM September 16, 2016


Students forced by law to read Jose Rizal’s novels develop a warped image of friars from a caricature masterfully painted for us by the propagandists of the late 19th century, namely Rizal, Marcelo H. del Pilar, and Graciano Lopez-Jaena, who are all revered today as national heroes. Textbook editions of the “Noli” rarely provide notes that will help readers distinguish friars from other religious orders. Jesuits, for example, are not friars, like the four mendicant orders of men: Augustinians (including Augustinian Recollects), Carmelites, Dominicans, and Franciscans. Monks are members of a religious community of men, usually of a contemplative or semicontemplative kind: Benedictines, Cistercians (including Trappists), Carthusians, etc.


These fine distinctions between religious not made by the propagandists lead to some confusion in usage and understanding today. When I learned about secularization and Gomburza, “secular” meant a priest who does not follow a Rule (in Latin, Regla), unlike “regulars” who do. Had I known, I would not have confused regla with a woman’s monthly period, and would not have snickered when I first heard of the venerated image of the Virgen de la Regla of Cebu (Virgin of the Rule). To complicate matters, the word “secular” can also refer to something that is neither religious, regular, nor even remotely ecclesiastical.

Going over old notebooks recently, I saw data from 1898 that estimated 1,180 regulars in the Philippines. As many as 439 (depending on the source) were prisoners of the Malolos government; of this number, 25 died in captivity. The 439 priests were barely 5 percent of the total number of Spanish prisoners held by the Aguinaldo government, yet they got a lot of attention. Depending on who was in charge of them, the religious were treated in extremes: either too well, such that some lay prisoners shaved the top of their heads in imitation of a tonsure in order to get better treatment and food, or there were isolated cases of torture, hunger, starvation, and even execution.


Race has a lot to do with the way we see friars of the past, with everything rooted in a failed attempt in the 18th century to turn over the Philippine parishes from the Spanish regulars to the hastily ordained Filipino seculars. In revisiting the stereotype image of friars, we must remember that they were almost all Spanish or European. Would the propagandists have been as virulent if these friars were Filipinos?

Being patriotic Spaniards, the friars naturally resisted the legitimate call for reforms that, unheeded, led to the Revolution and the Philippines’ eventual separation from Spain. The friars inculcated in Filipinos a devotion not just to the Church but also to Spain. In their zeal they pointed out subversives (real or imagined) to the authorities. Most infamous was the Augustinian Mariano Gil, who snitched on the Katipunan in 1896. It is not surprising then that some friars were present during the interrogation of suspected subversives, and that some took up arms against Filipinos during the Revolution. The friars influenced colonial policy, such that their hand was seen in the appointment of governors-general and other colonial authorities. In the eyes of the propagandists, Spain meant both the colonial government and the Church.

When thinking of the friars, we should remember that most of the Spaniards in 1898 were concentrated in Manila or Intramuros, and its suburbs. Over three centuries, the friars set up the settlements that became the barrios, towns, cities, and provinces we have today. When we look at Spanish colonial churches, we should ascertain if these were erected on slave or forced labor. How can one friar force a community to build a church? And if the friars were all bad, why were they tolerated for so long?

Friars were a necessary evil in the colonial system, and even if church and state did not always see eye to eye, one source sums it up thus: “It is more important for the preservation of the colony to send 200 religious rather than 2,000 bayonets.”

Why did some towns protect their parish priests from the excesses of the Revolution? A pro-friar source, Telesforo Canseco, documents the reaction against the expulsion of the friars in San Francisco de Malabon (now General Trias, Cavite) by quoting someone who said: “Cung umalis ang mga pareng Castila, sinong matitirang pari? Ang mga Tagalog? Cung ganoon ang caramihan natin ay maguiguing Judio!”(If the Spanish priests leave, who will be left? The Tagalogs? In that case, many of us will become Jews.)

Reflecting on the two statuettes by Rizal—that of the Sacred Heart and that of the corrupt friar—led me to dig up my notes in 1898 as a way to revisit the way friars have been negatively represented in textbooks of Philippine history and literature. K-to-12 reforms require a lot of revision in taught history, and this is not confined to the Marcos period but goes all the way back to the American, Japanese, and Spanish eras—perhaps even to what we know about Philippine prehistory.

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A slip in my last column: I misidentified P. Salvi as a Dominican rather than as a Franciscan like P. Damaso. The Dominican in the novel is P. Sibyla. It puzzles me that Rizal painted the Franciscans as the kontrabida in the “Noli” instead of the Dominicans, against whom his family was embroiled in an agrarian dispute.

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TAGS: Graciano Lopez Jaena, Jose Rizal, marcelo h. del pilar, Noli Me Tangere, Religious orders
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