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How the church gave my father back to me

Dad was instinctively Catholic. He had scant catechism as a child. But while other boys played at being soldiers, he played at being a priest. He might have become one had he gone to a Catholic school.

Instead he sent his children to Catholic schools, and improved his own Catholic education by joining the Knights of Columbus and the Christian Family Movement (CFM).

But my brother Allan and I learned a different Catholicism from that which Dad had imbibed as a child, and from that which he was learning at our parish. Vatican II had given Catholics permission to immerse themselves in social problems to an extent unthinkable when Dad was growing up. Those who did so were questioning social hierarchies that the pre-Conciliar Church had taken as divinely ordained. Sometimes they questioned the Catholic hierarchy.

Nowhere was this questioning more aggressive than among religious orders and the schools they ran. The Sisters of the Immacule Coeur Marie (ICM), to whom Dad had entrusted my education, and the Jesuits, to whom he had entrusted Allan’s, were very aggressive. When President Ferdinand Marcos suspended the writ of habeas corpus in 1971, the ICM sisters sent us off to demonstrate—at least, those who got parental permission. I did not, so I stayed in school for a teach-in.

At Allan’s school, the Ateneo de Manila University, students demanded the implementation of Vatican II reforms and protested the princely lifestyle of Rufino Cardinal Santos. Jesuit scholastics built barricades with militant farmers and jeepney drivers.

Meanwhile, my parents’ friends petitioned for the transfer out of our parish of a priest who taught their children that good Catholics could go to rallies.

In 1972, martial law widened the gap between Catholic Right and Left. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), which by turns had lauded and lamented the Catholic Left’s activism, announced wary support for the new régime. Dad followed their lead.

But some bishops dissented from the official CBCP stance. They encouraged the Catholic Left—those who did not go underground—to work with the regime’s victims, learning from them and teaching them how to undermine it.

Allan and I were not natural activists, but in college we joined Student Catholic Action (SCA)—he at the University of the Philippines, I at that infamous school in Loyola Heights where Jesuits taught us to read Liberation Theology. From UPSCA, AtSCA and Liberation Theology we learned that the dictatorship was immoral. My father held the old view that secular authority was awarded by God and obedience to it was a moral obligation. At family suppers, conversations turned blistering.

But the Catholic Left was gaining ground with the bishops. The régime was harassing, abducting and killing Church personnel. Its deceits grew shameless.

In 1978, UPSCAns, AtSCAns, Jesuits and other churchy types were arrested denouncing fraudulent elections. Jaime Cardinal Sin wrote an open letter calling for an investigation of fraud charges. The CBCP endorsed his letter in their own open letter, expressing the bishops’ “consensus that, in many places in the country, there was ample evidence of fraud and deceit …” The bishops called on everyone to “join hands to fight the injustice that was committed against us during the last election.”

Some Catholics, a few bishops included, thought one way to fight the injustice was by refusing to vote: a crime under the régime’s laws. In 1981 Allan and I committed our first act of civil disobedience. Dad voted without us. Afterwards he sulked in his bedroom, trying to nap off his fury. Over supper he radiated disapproval.

Then in 1983, Benigno S. Aquino Jr. was murdered. At the funeral Mass, Cardinal Sin delivered a stinging homily against the régime. I joined protest groups and grew strident at family suppers. Dad was silent.

But following the bishops’ lead, he joined the National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel). Namfrel was non-partisan, but by seeking to protect the vote it already opposed Marcos.

In 1986, our whole family voted. Then I went with Dad on his Namfrel rounds, at last the dutiful daughter.

Predictably, the elections were stolen. Unpredictably, the CBCP declared the régime to have “no moral basis,” and implicitly endorsed a campaign of civil disobedience to bring it to its senses. More unpredictably, Dad asked me to talk to his CFM unit about the bishops’ statement, and about civil disobedience. As my naïve idealism faced the kind skepticism of his friends, Dad beamed.

Totally unpredictably, the Edsa uprising and Sin’s call to support it gave all of us, including the kind skeptics, a glorious opportunity for civil disobedience.

My family took turns at Edsa. I was there in daylight. Dad did the night shift. Allan, a doctor, was on 24-hour duty, providing medical aid for the insurrectionists. Mom accompanied his wife Bel, heavy with their first child, to seek him out, and made sandwiches to feed the multitude.

The morning of the third day, a rumor swept the crowds that Marcos had fled the country. Dad staggered home and knocked on my bedroom door. When I opened it, he seized me in a tight embrace, weeping for joy.

The rumor was false—but not for long. Marcos left the next day. We had won: the Filipino people, the Church, Dad and I.

When Dad died in 2000, he was chairman of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting, a Catholic apostolate of the laity for safeguarding elections. I was proud of him. He knew it.

My Dad gave me the Church. The Church gave him back to me.

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