Archbishop Fernando Capalla: A legacy of dialogue | Inquirer News
IN MEMORIAM

Archbishop Fernando Capalla: A legacy of dialogue

/ 05:02 AM January 14, 2024

Archbishop Fernando Capalla: A legacy of dialogue

Archbishop Fernando Capalla (Photo from the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines)

ILIGAN CITY, Lanao del Norte, Philippines — When then Col. Alexander Noble’s short-lived Mindanao revolt engulfed Cagayan de Oro City on Oct. 5, 1990, rebel soldiers attempted to expand their control here, taking positions at the city plaza and near the Catholic cathedral.

To thwart their further expansion, soldiers loyal to then President Corazon Aquino took control of the Tubod Bridge, even planting bombs underneath it, ready to be detonated if rebel soldiers threatened to cross.

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The standoff disrupted the flow of people and goods across the bridge. Amid the tense situation, then Bishop Fernando Capalla successfully negotiated with the soldiers and police to allow civilians to cross the bridge unharmed so they can go on with their activities set for that day.

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Capalla, who died at 89 on Jan. 6 as Davao archbishop emeritus, is widely remembered for being a pillar of dialogue in Mindanao, unwavering in his faith that an honest-to-goodness conversation is the bedrock of understanding among peoples of varying persuasions.

Davao Archbishop Romullo Valles cited this legacy of Capalla, a native of Leon, Iloilo, who became a priest in 1961 of the Archdiocese of Jaro from where he was plucked out by Pope Paul VI to become auxiliary bishop of Davao in 1975. He had stayed in Mindanao until his retirement in 2012, using his gift of dialogue to bear on the seemingly intractable social and political animosities in the country’s southern region.

Capalla will be laid to rest at Dormitium de San Pedro on Monday, following a funeral Mass at 10 a.m. at the San Pedro Cathedral in Davao City.

Throughout Capalla’s 51 years in the Catholic priesthood, more than 17 years were spent as prelate of Iligan where he was thrust into the work of interreligious dialogue.

Established in 1971 under the leadership of Bishop Bienvenido Tudtud, the Iligan prelature was subdivided in 1976 to give birth to the prelature of Marawi which the Vatican intended not for the proselytization of Maranaos but to minister to the small Christian population there and, most importantly, to “provide a reconciling presence among the Muslims.”

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Even after he retired from the priestly ministry, Davao Archbishop Emeritus Fernando Capalla (seated, center) remained active in activities of the Bishop-Ulama Conference, such as in this gathering of multisectoral leaders in 2018.

ACTIVE ENGAGEMENT | Even after he retired from the priestly ministry, Davao Archbishop Emeritus Fernando Capalla (seated, center) remained active in the activities of the Bishop-Ulama Conference, such as this gathering of multisectoral leaders in 2018. (Photo courtesy of the Bishop-Ulama Conference)

Fostering peace

Tudtud chose to head the Marawi prelature, creating an opening for a new prelate for Iligan, a post filled by Capalla, known as “Nanding” to peers and close friends.

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Capalla became Iligan’s first bishop when the prelature was elevated into a diocese in 1982. With the death of Tudtud in a plane crash in June 1987.

Capalla was appointed by Pope John Paul II as apostolic administrator of the Marawi prelature, until he was assigned back to Davao in 1994.

In 1987, Capalla played a key role in helping bring communist and Moro rebels into talks for their respective negotiated political settlements with the government. He even brought together the Army commander in Lanao del Norte, a top regional communist cadre and a Moro National Liberation Front commander to attend a peace rally in Iligan City that year.

Ricardo Jorge Caluen, a former faculty of the Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology, recalled in a social media post that Capalla acted as “guarantor” for communist rebel leaders who were granted safe conduct passes, even providing them accommodation in the parish convent to help ensure their security, so they can participate in political dialogues.

Together with Muslim religious leader Mahid Mutilan and Protestant Bishop Hilario Gomez Jr., Capalla organized in 1996 the Bishops-Ulama Forum, later renamed Bishops-Ulama Conference (BUC), to further deepen existing efforts at interreligious dialogue as well as heighten the advocacy for peace in Mindanao.

BUC became an outspoken champion for the forging of a political settlement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front which had waged decades of secessionist rebellion.

But beyond the formalities of a deal to end the war, BUC had sought greater understanding among the region’s peoples who come from diverse cultural and faith backgrounds as the solid foundation for peace. This is why Capalla described BUC’s work as “the missing link in the Mindanao peace process.”

BUC had dialogue platforms with grassroots communities and leaders, the academe through peace education seminars, indigenous peoples, the youth, among families that start off with BUC members, and the security sector, especially the military and police.

“The bottom line of peace through ecumenical dialogue is human friendship,” Capalla told a crowd gathered at the Ateneo de Davao University (AdDU) in 2012 during his retirement.

In an interesting twist, Archbishop Capalla (right) joined members of the Philippine Constitution Association in questioning before the Supreme Court the constitutionality of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro in 2015.

LEGAL CHALLENGE | In an interesting twist, Archbishop Capalla (right) joined members of the Philippine Constitution Association in questioning before the Supreme Court the constitutionality of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro in 2015. (INQUIRER FILE PHOTO)

Spoke up for justice

Capalla brought this advocacy for Mindanao peace to the larger arena when he was president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) from 2003 to 2005.

Apart from his knack for dialogue, the soft-spoken Capalla was outspoken about issues of justice and human rights, recalled Caluen, criticizing military abuses during martial law.

Capalla also stood up against the strong-handed manner of then-Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign against illicit drugs and criminality.

A pastoral letter titled “Thou Shall Not Kill” that he issued on Nov. 21, 2001, called out the local government and other agencies for “tolerat(ing) criminal groups like the Davao Death Squad to kill” saying it is “an admission of failure in the fulfillment of its obligation to prevent crime and its recurrence.”

“The so-called death squads are violating both civil and moral laws and therefore are criminals themselves. We call on our government and its law enforcement agencies to stop them from making Davao City a ‘wild, wild, West’ where the only law is the law of the gun,” the pastoral letter read.

He noted then that the “beautiful City of Davao … is being disfigured by the increasing incidence of salvagings and killings of young people even those who are merely suspects in drug pushing.”

When Duterte became president, Capalla worried that the Davao experience had become a national template to fight crime.

Outpouring of tributes

“In the face of adversity, Archbishop Nanding stood as a steadfast advocate for justice, speaking out against inequality and championing the cause of the marginalized. His tireless efforts to promote peace in Mindanao and address the root causes of conflict have left an enduring legacy, one that will continue to inspire generations to come,” said lawyer Romeo Cabarde, coordinator of the Ateneo Public Interest and Legal Advocacy Center.

“He was passionately committed toward bridging understanding, unity and cooperation between Christians and Muslims, and in helping bring long lasting peace in Mindanao. He is one of the pillars of interfaith dialogue for understanding and unity in the Philippines. His passing is a sad news to all,” said Sultan Maguid Maruhom, coconvener of the Interfaith Solidarity for Peace in Pagadian City.

“Archbishop Capalla was an extraordinary leader of the Catholic church who advocated for peace, justice and unity in our society. His immense contributions to the CBCP, as well as his significant involvement in the country’s peace processes, shall forever remain in the hearts and minds of our people,” said Presidential Peace Adviser Carlito Galvez Jr.

“He gave hope, bridged divisions and espoused compassion in his teachings, reminding us all of the transformative power of peacebuilding,” Galvez added.

“It is my desire that all of us continue to remember the legacy of Archbishop Capalla and continue the mission of dialogue and peace with courage and determination,” said Italian missionary priest Sebastiano D’Ambra, founder of the Silsilah Dialogue Movement and former executive secretary of the CBCP Episcopal Commission on Interreligious Dialogue.

AdDU in 2012 organized a tribute ceremony for Capalla as he bowed out of the priestly ministry.

“When we were considering how we might honor our outgoing Archbishop of Davao, we thought the most appropriate manner would be to pay tribute to God in a manner that was dear to his heart. That is how this celebration of interfaith prayer was organized, in tribute to God for having gifted not only the Catholic community, but also the Muslim, the lumad (indigenous peoples)x and the Protestant Christian communities with this extraordinary man whose faith in his God was so strong, he became a witness to the light of God’s power and truth in the diversity of other believers’ faiths,” explained Fr. Joel Tabora, who was AdDU president at the time.

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“His faith in God was so strong, he sought understanding where there was anger and rancor, he labored for peace where there was violence and war,” Tabora said.

—WITH REPORTS FROM LEAH D. AGONOY AND RICHEL V. UMEL
TAGS: Fernando Capalla

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