MANILA, Philippines – Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas ended his term as president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) on Thursday, November 30, after heading the body for 4 years.
Villegas is set to be replaced by Davao Archbishop Romulo Valles starting Friday, December 1, after Valles was elected July 8. (READ: Incoming CBCP head views self as Duterte's 'friend-sinner')
Known by his nickname Soc, the Lingayen-Dagupan archbishop served as CBCP president for two terms of two years each. He was first elected in 2013, then was reelected in 2015.
It was during Villegas' term that Pope Francis visited the Philippines in January 2015 – the first papal visit to the Philippines in 20 years.
"Your love for the Filipino people is stronger than all typhoons. Your love is typhoon-proof," Villegas said in a message to the pontiff in the Philippines. "Holy Father, you are our sunshine. Pope Francis, we love you."
Villegas, in his capacity as archbishop and with his clout as CBCP president, also pushed for reforms within the Catholic Church.
In January 2015, he warned priests against clericalism and materialism, saying, "It is a scandal for a priest to die a rich man."
Within his own archdiocese, he also rejected "fixed rates of offerings for the celebration of Masses, for confirmations, for funerals, for weddings and other sacramentals." He said, "We are only temporary stewards, not chief executive officers. Our goal is ministry, not revenue upgrade." (READ: Full text of Archbishop Villegas' letter to priests)
Hitting Aquino admin over DAP
In the national scene, Villegas also spared no one from criticism, from Benigno Aquino III to Rodrigo Duterte.
Villegas, who is associated with the Aquino family, led the CBCP in speaking out on key issues during the Aquino administration.
In July 2014, the Villegas-led CBCP challenged the Aquino administration to investigate corrupt officials within its own ranks, after the Supreme Court declared the Aquino administration's Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) as unconstitutional.
Villegas called on the Commission on Audit and the Office of the Ombudsman "to tell the nation where the DAP funds went."
Villegas also warned against "selective justice" as 3 opposition senators faced criminal charges over the pork barrel controversy.
Then, in September 2015, the CBCP also dared the Aquino administration to investigate the killings of Lumad or indigenous peoples in Mindanao despite the alleged culprits' links with government.
In December 2015, the CBCP under Villegas slammed Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, then a presidential candidate, for cursing Pope Francis.
The CBCP did this in a statement titled "Mayor Duterte?" – one of the few times that the bishops' conference issued a statement against a specific public official.
Slamming killings under Duterte
Later, when Duterte became president, Villegas became one of the bishops most critical of Duterte's war on drugs.
In February this year, the CBCP denounced the "reign of terror" in poor communities as Duterte's drug war kills thousands.
Villegas has led other initiatives in his capacity as individual archbishop.
On November 5, Villegas led a Mass and procession along EDSA, the site of the 1986 People Power Revolution, to denounce the killings in Duterte's war on drugs.
Up to 5,500 people trooped to EDSA on that day called "Lord, Heal Our Land" Sunday, according to estimates from the Philippine National Police.
Villegas warned in his homily on "Lord, Heal Our Land" Sunday, "May sumpang parusa ang bayang pumapatay sa sariling kababayan." (A curse awaits a nation that kills its own people.)
'He was beholden to none'
Villegas did not issue any statement when he ended his term as CBCP president on Thursday, but a number of Catholics paid tribute to him on Facebook.
Father Ranhilio Aquino, dean of the San Beda Graduate School of Law, posted his upcoming column about Villegas for the Manila Standard.
Aquino described Villegas as "the president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines who did not hesitate to maintain bold positions and to express them with clarity, who was pilloried, maligned, and shamed."
"Why then is he so frequently bashed? It can only be largely because he touched raw nerves by speaking out on such issues as extrajudicial killings, human rights, and the moral obligations of government," Aquino said.
"Only the jaundiced will find partisanship in those acts. He was beholden to none; but he was not going to be silenced, because his consecration was sacred to him: Unxit me evangelizare… He has anointed me to announce, to preach," he added.
Anton Ocampo wrote in a public Facebook post: "Thank you, Archbishop Soc, for standing up for what is right in the eyes of God. Thank you for teaching us how to be brave and be obedient to God, even if the majority prefers to do what is wrong."
Ocampo also said, "Thank you for being a voice in the wilderness, just like Saint John the Baptist."
In another public Facebook post, Father Ritz Darwin Resuello thanked Villegas "for his untiring and selfless service" as CBCP president for the past 4 years.
Resuello said: "We thank him for his love and dedication to our Church and to our country. His term ends today, but surely his pastoral endeavors will not." – Rappler.com
Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.