Sin, grace under pressure
(First of a series)
The young aide was stunned when Jaime Cardinal Sin picked up the phone and called the Church-run Radio Veritas to broadcast an appeal on the night of Feb. 22, 1986.
“If any of you could be around at Camp Aguinaldo to show your solidarity and your support in this very crucial period when our two good friends have shown their idealism, I would be very happy,” the archbishop of Manila intoned. “Please come.”
It was around 8:30 p.m. when Sin called the Church-run radio station to tape his message to be broadcast to the nation, said Archbishop Socrates Villegas, then the cardinal’s personal secretary who was just four months into his priesthood, having been ordained in October.
Earlier in the afternoon, Sin received a call from Betty Go Belmonte of the Inquirer as he was preparing to leave his residence at Villa San Miguel in Mandaluyong City to go to the Loyola House of Studies in Ateneo.
Belmonte told Sin that Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Lt. Gen. Fidel Ramos were defecting from the Ferdinand Marcos regime.
“He said, ‘Keep me posted. I will go to Ateneo to ordain priests.’ He was very relaxed. And when I got in the car, he told me about it confidentially,” Villegas said in an interview. “But he was also cautious because he was not sure if it was one of those ploys of Marcos, because Enrile and Ramos were closely identified with Marcos.”
After the ordination, Sin visited a priest who had just undergone a heart bypass operation at Philippine Heart Center, then motored back to Villa San Miguel. They kept tab of the breakaway, after an aborted coup d’etat by the defense minister’s security force, listening to unfolding events reported on radio.
Enrile and a handful of his Uzi-toting men from the elite Reform the Armed Forces Movement had by then holed up at the defense ministry building in Camp Aguinaldo after the attempt to overthrow Marcos was discovered in the predawn hours and several putschists were arrested.
The cigar-chomping Ramos, who late in the day joined the breakaway, ensconced himself at the Philippine Constabulary headquarters, which he headed as vice chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, in Camp Crame, across Camp Aguinaldo, on the other side of Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, or Edsa, in Quezon City.
Still, the cardinal waited for developments, and had not made his move as night fell, Villegas said.
“Then he got a phone call from Cristina Ponce Enrile and she was asking for help. At that time, he was beginning to think that maybe this was real,” Villegas said.
After the conversation with the wife of the defense minister, Sin asked Villegas to call the contemplative nuns—the Poor Clares, the Carmelites and the Pink Sisters—to tell them to pray for a “very special intention” of the cardinal. “This is a spiritual battle,” Sin said.
“Please go to the chapels and stop whatever you’re doing,” Villegas told the nuns.
Joe Concepcion, head of a poll watchdog group during the fraud-marred snap election on Feb. 7, came to Villa San Miguel at around 8 p.m. as Villegas was making his round of calls to the nuns. Concepcion explained to Sin what was happening.
Sin repaired to his room, wrote his statement, proceeded to the chapel to pray and then telephoned the Church-run Radio Veritas for the airing of his appeal.
Villegas said that for days before and after the election, Sin had been meeting with a group of priests to seek advice on developments tearing the nation apart.
“He wanted to make sure that he would be able to provide the moral leadership in case of a crisis,” he said. “I think he did not trust his own judgment, that is why he kept on calling the advisers.”
Marcos, stricken with kidney problems, had called for the balloting amid widening protests demanding that he step aside after 20 years in power. The unrest was triggered by the assassination in 1983 of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. on his return from a three-year exile in the United States.
Fear of bloodbath
The opposition fielded Aquino’s widow, Corazon. She lost in the official count, and she then launched a civil disobedience campaign to protest the vote she claimed was stolen by Marcos. At the time of the Enrile-Ramos revolt, she was in Cebu City, addressing a crowd of tens of thousands.
“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 said.
“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,” he said.
Villegas said he did not share Sin’s position that there would be no violence.
“I was afraid. And we also got a phone call from the Holy See, seemingly questioning the pastoral soundness of the appeal. Perhaps the Holy See also saw that it was dangerous and that people could get killed. And he responded by saying, ‘Just wait for all of this to pass and I will travel myself to Rome to explain it.’”
“So he did, after the Misa ng Tagumpay ng Bayan at Camp Crame on Feb. 27. But when he got to Rome, all the ecclesiastics—the bishops, the cardinals—were all congratulating him for the peaceful resolution, and the Pope seemed very happy,” he said. “The Pope was from Poland and he knew the need for the Church to be socially and politically engaged.”
The charismatic Pope John Paul II had sparked the Solidarity Movement during a visit to his native Poland in the late 1970s that led to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.
But on that night on the first day of the People Power Revolution, Edsa was eerily quiet.
I was then a reporter of the New York-based United Press International, covering Cory Aquino’s civil disobedience campaign in Cebu. I managed to return on the last Philippine Airlines flight to Manila, before the regime shut down airports across the archipelago, and headed straight to Camp Aguinaldo.
The guard at the Santolan gate let me in and I walked on the still grounds to the defense ministry. It was bedlam inside the building, which was crammed with reporters running around like headless chickens, waiting for bombs to fall.
Villegas, who is now archbishop of Lingayen and Dagupan, could not sleep that night.
“I was monitoring the whole time. At 2 a.m. Marcos said he was very angry and he was accusing Cardinal Sin, Joe Concepcion, Cory Aquino, Ramos and Enrile of inciting people to rebellion and they are going to get the full force of the law,” he said.
“So I woke him up and told him about it. And he said, ‘What shall we do.’ I said, ‘Well, we just continue what we’re supposed to do.’”
That night, Sin also got a call from an intermediary offering to talk to Gen. Fabian Ver, the Armed Forces chief of staff and head of the presidential guards, in a meeting at Nichols Air Base to calm down tension, Villegas said.
“I told him that’s a military camp … we might be held hostage there and things could turn out differently,” Villegas said. “So, he said, ‘I will not take calls anymore.’”
The cardinal never went to Edsa during the ensuing days as hundreds of thousands, led by priests and nuns, responded to Sin’s plea and thronged the highway, blocking the path of Marcos’ soldiers poised to attack the camps, offering them prayers and flowers.
“His conviction was, our duty is to pray. And really, I have never seen him pray as much as he did during those days,” Villegas said.
Sin became archbishop of Manila in 1974, two years after the declaration of martial law. The seventh of 16 children in a family of Chinese descent from New Washington in Aklan province, he assumed the post of what is regarded as the Catholic Church’s Philippine primate without a university degree, having been educated in seminaries.
He did not speak Tagalog. He had a sharp wit and was given to making fun of his name, exploding in gales of laughter as he did so. He called Villa San Miguel “the house of sin.”
A time of great ferment
Sin had not yet warmed his seat when helicopter-borne troops mounted a raid on the Sacred Heart Novitiate in suburban Novaliches, and arrested two Jesuit priests—Fathers Jose Blanco and Benigno Mayo.
The archbishop issued a pastoral letter condemning the arrests and summoned a prayer vigil at the steps of Manila Cathedral in Intramuros, attended by some 5,000 people, in the biggest demonstration then against the martial law regime.
It was a time of great ferment as priests and nuns embraced the theology of liberation in many parts of the Third World. In Latin America, long-haired clerics with rosaries on one hand and Kalashnikovs on the other joined Marxist guerrillas battling right-wing regimes.
“We wanted to be socially involved,” said Edicio de la Torre, 69, then a priest who founded the radical group Christians for National Liberation. Jailed twice, he served a total of almost 10 years before he was freed, along with nearly all the top communist leaders captured by the Marcos regime, when Corazon Aquino was swept to power after Edsa.
A theology teacher, De la Torre saw one of his students, Fr. Nilo Valerio, killed in combat and later decapitated. He said he knew a few dozen clerics who took up arms against Marcos, but that at least a thousand priests, nuns and pastors went underground as noncombatants in the insurgency.
Caught in the riptide, Sin issued his policy of “critical collaboration” with Marcos—a move that alienated some of the prelates. Among them was the scholarly Bishop Francisco Claver from Bontoc, Mountain Province, who told me in several interviews he could not understand how the Church could collaborate with a regime without moral bearings.
Sin died in 2005 at the age of 76, a year after he retired.
Today, the Church that helped install Corazon Aquino is at loggerheads with her son, the current President.
Last month, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines issued a scathing pastoral statement, outlining a “litany of storms” buffeting the land: the promotion of a culture of death and promiscuity, the continuing corruption and abuse of power, the widening practice of political dynasties, concerns on the forthcoming automated election, a “deepening culture of impunity” and the unabated suffering of the poor.
It was the strongest statement issued by the prelates against the government since the four-day Edsa People Power Revolution 27 years ago.
(Next: Salvador Laurel: The forgotten patriot)
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