New CBCP head in Sin’s footsteps

Paterno Esmaquel II
Like his mentor, the late Jaime Cardinal Sin, incoming CBCP president Socrates Villegas vows 'critical collaboration' with the government

LIKE HIS MENTOR. Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas is elected CBCP president like his mentor, the late Jaime Cardinal Sin. File photos by AFP/Jay Directo (Villegas) and Robyn Beck (Sin)

MANILA, Philippines – Once a newly ordained, 25-year-old personal secretary to the late Jaime Cardinal Sin, Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas will soon wield the clout that his mentor once did.

Starting December, Villegas, now 52, will head the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), a group Sin led during the martial law years of the Marcos regime.

Like Sin, the incoming CBCP president vows “critical collaboration” with the government, despite his ties with the family of President Benigno Aquino III.

“Even as early as the Marcos years, the position of the bishops had been very clear: it was always critical collaboration. There were times when it was more critical than collaborative; there were times when it was more collaborative than critical. But it is always critical collaboration, and our main concern is always the welfare of the people, the common good,” Villegas said in a press conference Monday, July 8.

Villegas, for instance, has sharply criticized the government over the Reproductive Health (RH) law. It was Aquino – the son of Sin’s ally, the late Corazon Aquino – who signed the law in a historic move.

“Contraception corrupts the soul,” Villegas said in 2012.

To fight the RH law, he said the Church will also a hold a Mass on Tuesday, July 9, when the Supreme Court hears oral arguments over the law.

Explaining the Church’s role in politics, Villegas said on Monday: “When the rights of men and women are endangered, when human dignity is being violated, when the family is being attacked, when the poor are suffering unjustly, when the children are being risked and being abused, you can expect the Church to speak up.”

He said this is part of the Church’s mission, as he echoed Pope Francis who said the Church shouldn’t “become a pitiful NGO.”

SIN'S PROTEGE. A young Socrates Villegas serves as personal secretary to the late Jaime Cardinal Sin. File photo from CBCP

“The Church is not a lobby group. The Church is not an NGO. The mission of the Church is truly spiritual. So if we get involved in bills like the Reproductive Health, which is now a law, it is because our spiritual mission mandates us to do that,” Villegas said.

Prayer before rallies

Is Villegas open to calling for rallies as his mentor did?

The incoming CBCP president didn’t categorically answer this question, but said:  “We act according to the situation.”

“Even Cardinal Sin, I know, did not plan rallies,” he recounted. “Every call for a rally – and I can tell you, as an insider of Villa San Miguel – every call for a rally came from the chapel of the cardinal’s house.”

Villegas explained: “In other words, he never called on the people without first kneeling down for minutes, for hours, even for days before the Blessed Sacrament, and then he would decide and say, ‘Let’s go out to the streets.’”

He said Sin, too, didn’t call for rallies without having talked to the politicians involved. Villegas said he saw this in the case of Marcos and, 15 years later, former President Joseph Estrada who was deposed through the second People Power Revolution, which Sin also led.

Villegas said: “Before the rallies against former President Estrada, before the rallies against former President Marcos, Cardinal Sin always at least called on the phone, or talked personally and said, ‘Look, this is not right. Let’s discuss this. Let’s seek the common ground.’”

“And if the other party is quite stubborn, that is when he applied the principle of increased passion, increased attention on the matter,” Villegas said.

'CRITICAL COLLABORATION.' Newly elected CBCP president Socrates Villegas says he will adopt 'critical collaboration' with the government – a stance adopted by Sin as well. Photo by Arcel Cometa

The Church, he said, has always been “conscience troublemakers.” “We want to trouble consciences so that every conscience listens to the voice of God.” – Rappler.com

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Paterno Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.