He was only four months into the priesthood working as the personal secretary of Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin when he heard the portly prelate make a telephone call to Church-run Radio Veritas the night the Edsa People Power Revolution broke out.
Sin then proceeded to read a statement he had written for broadcast calling on the faithful to mass on Edsa to protect then Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and then Lt. Gen. Fidel Ramos who had holed up at Camps Aguinaldo and Crame after an aborted coup attempt on Feb. 22, 1986.
Socrates B. Villegas, who was ordained priest by Sin in October 1985 and immediately took him under his wing, said he and a group of priests had been discussing various scenarios during those troubled times sparked by the assassination in August 1983 of opposition leader Benigno Aquino, whose widow was leading a civil disobedience campaign after charging that she was cheated by dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the snap elections two weeks earlier.
“It was very uncertain, because if things turned out differently and Marcos won, so to speak, and then there was bloodshed, history was going to judge Cardinal Sin as responsible for putting his flock in danger. I saw the consequences three steps ahead,” Villegas, now the archbishop of Dagupan and Lingayen, told me in an interview in February.
“As for him, he was so sure it was not going to happen. I was discussing with him. I was debating with him. I was so shocked when he called Radio Veritas.”
That the revolution was generally peaceful was attributed to the massing of millions led by priests and nuns armed only with rosaries and flowers facing tanks and soldiers in full combat gear sent to Edsa by Marcos.
The ailing dictator was airlifted into exile in Hawaii on the fourth day of the revolt, as howling mobs stormed the Palace. In his place was installed Aquino’s widow, Corazon. Relations had never been closer since between the government and the Church.
‘Litany of storms’
It is a whole different story in the second Aquino administration, now midway through its six-year term.
Villegas, who was elected at the weekend as president of the 100-strong Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), has his work cut out for him.
In January, the CBCP issued a pastoral statement outlining a “litany of storms” besetting the nation. It was regarded as the strongest indictment of the state since Cardinal Sin became primate of the Philippine Church two years after the declaration of martial law in 1972. Longhaired priests, advancing the Theology of Liberation embraced by clerics in Latin America, were in the forefront of the struggle then against the Marcos regime.
The statement slammed “the promotion of a culture of death and promiscuity”; divorce, which it said was “resulting in more breakups of families and the dysfunctional growth of children”; the use of condom, aggravating HIV-AIDs infection, and school sex education, bringing more promiscuity and teenage pregnancy; the widening practice of political dynasties; the unwillingness of the administration to undertake agrarian reform.
It also attacked the controversial reproductive health (RH) law, whose constitutionality is being questioned in the Supreme Court, and called strongly on the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to address concerns on the conduct of the May 13 automated elections.
The prelates criticized “continuing corruption and abuse of power by public officials due to lack of information, or still worse, the possible hiding of information from the public.”
“It is ironic that the government that prides itself on treading the daang matuwid fears the right of information (freedom of information) bill because of possible discovery of wrongdoing by public officials. Why are they afraid to entrust the citizens with the truth of their government?”
In the interview in February, the 52-year-old Villegas told me that the relationship between the Church and President Aquino was “far from ideal.”
“I think we could do more for the people if the relationship is a bit more warm and more open and probably even more trusting,” he said, harking back to the Cory Aquino years.
“I hope it is clear to the people that it is not because the Church enjoys wielding power,” he said. “It is really for the moral, spiritual fiber of Filipinos in order to retain very clearly our Catholic identity in Asia,” said the prelate, who was Cardinal Sin’s personal secretary until his promotion to archbishop in 2004, the youngest to be so elevated. Sin died the following year.
“We are raising our voices because Catholic values are being compromised,” Villegas said. “And the Catholic people are being given a hard time to live up to their Catholic beliefs and convictions.”
The soft-spoken bishop said the Church was doing its utmost to deal with myriad social problems.
“Candidly, I am not expecting much from the government. It’s because, for example, when we called attention to the failure in the equitable distribution of land to the farmers, they came so strongly on the defensive. The same thing happened when we raised questions about the Comelec, instead of assuring us that the anxiety would be attended to.”
Last year, amid the contentious debates on the RH bill, Villegas said that he and Bishop Gabriel Reyes, who also had served as Cardinal Sin’s personal secretary, asked for an audience with President Aquino.
“He accommodated us. We told him we are friends of your mother. We are your quiet supporters. In your situation, you will have people whispering nice things to you. But we are your friends. We want to say things you don’t want to hear because we want you to avoid mistakes. So we explained ourselves and he was very grateful. In the case of Tita Cory, we didn’t have to explain ourselves, because she always looked at us as friendly critics.”