NUEVA ECIJA, Philippines – Unlike most funeral masses, the casket of Father Marcelito “Tito” Paez rested directly on the floor of the St Joseph Cathedral in Nueva Ecija.
On Monday, December 10, bishops who concelebrated the funeral mass for the slain activist priest wore red stoles over white gowns, unlike the purple ones priests usually wear for such occasions.
More than a hundred priests concelebrated the mass, including the new papal nuncio, Archbishop Gabriele Giordano Caccia, who brought with him the “silent, loving, and prayerful presence” of Pope Francis.
Fr Edwin Brago of the St Joseph Cathedral said the casket on the floor and the priests in red symbolized the slain priest’s humility and martyrdom.
“All priests should lay on the ground in their deaths to embody the humble lives they lived,” Brago said.
“Red [is worn], not because we are to rebel. Red, for our church, because it is the symbol of martyrdom,” he added.
The 72-year-old retired priest was slain on December 4 as he was driving home after facilitating the release of political prisoner Rommel Tucay in Cabanatuan City. Tucay, known to be an organizer of militant group Alyansa ng Magbubukid sa Gitnang Luson, was jailed earlier this year for illegal possession of firearms.
An activist priest, it was not the first time Paez got involved in such political activities. In his 32 years of service in the Diocese of San Jose City, the priest had always stood up for the human rights of the oppressed, especially in Central Luzon. At the time of his death, he was the coordinator of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines in Central Luzon.
This was perhaps why Paez looked so peaceful in his casket, San Jose City Bishop Roberto Mallari said in his homily during the funeral mass.
Paez, he said, was “ambushed and shot 9 times” by the unknown killers and yet his face did not bear any signs of anger.
“He does not look angry. He does not look like he suffered. He looks like he is at peace,” Mallari said.
Mallari remembered Paez as a cheerful priest who loved dancing and parties, but more importantly, as a priest who was killed while saving a life.
For Mallari, Paez was not simply an activist but a revolutionary.
“He offered his life not only as a priest but also as a comrade. He was a comrade for others – a hero, a martyr,” Bishop Mallari said.
Like a true hero, hundreds of sympathizers escorted Paez to his final resting place. The procession included nuns, priests, activists, and members of his family who walked under the scorching sun. (READ: Slain Nueva Ecija priest Tito Paez laid to rest)
Streamers calling for justice for his death were raised as the crowd chanted “Mabuhay si Fr Tito Paez.”
To bid their last goodbye to their colleague at the Sto Nino Cemetery, the priests sang “Bayan Ko” and “Pilipinas Kong Hahal.” Others sang along with them, some with raised clenched fists.
Louder prayers and protests
On December 10, International Human Rights Day – the eve of Paez’s burial – several militant and church groups gathered in Manila to appeal to the government to respect and defend human rights.
Organizations with different causes joined the protest with a common goal: end the killings.
Among the thousands who marched from the Andres Bonifacio Shrine to the iconic peace arch in Mendiola were priests and seminarians of St Vincent School of Theology in Tandang Sora.
Father King Gaza, who was part of the group, told Rappler that they were prompted to join the protest after hearing about Paez’s death.
“As people of the church, we want to be part of this to insist to end the killings, especially now that it has gone as far to one of our members,” Gaza said.
“We have questioned these killings since the beginning, but we must reiterate our protest against what Duterte is doing.”
Karapatan executive director Cristina Palabay also said the rally was dedicated to the slain priest and the other activists who have been killed in the past weeks.
Palabay also appealed to the institutional church, especially the Catholic Church, to join the protests against human rights abuses.
“The church must not only strengthen their prayers, they must also strengthen their protests,” Palabay said.
The National Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, also known as Baclaran Church, held its own protest against extrajudicial killings a day before Human Rights Day. (LOOK: Baclaran Church reminds faithful Jesus was an EJK victim too) – Rappler.com