MANILA, Philippines – What if the President orders an attack? What if soldiers bomb the area? What if thousands die, and people blame the man who called them to EDSA?
The 25-year-old Father Socrates Villegas, private secretary of then Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, said he “was afraid.”
His boss, after all, did the unthinkable. Sin spoke on radio in the evening of February 22,1986, to urge people to support “our two good friends” in the military headquarters along the main highway EDSA.
Sin was referring to defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile and vice military chief Fidel V Ramos, who had defected from dictator Ferdinand Marcos after a fraudulent snap election.
Sin told his flock over the church-run Radio Veritas: “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.”
Villegas, however, warned the 57-year-old cardinal that Marcos “might attack the people, or the soldiers might bomb the area, and people might be killed.”
At that time, Villegas was a 4-month-old priest handpicked by Sin to become his secretary.
A stout figure more than twice Villegas' age, Sin just looked at his former sacristan and said, “No.”
“I did not know where it was coming from,” Villegas told Rappler, “but he said, ‘It will not happen.’”
True enough, in a way he never imagined, Sin’s appeal on Radio Veritas – along with other factors – sparked a bloodless revolution that toppled Marcos.
This year, the Philippines is marking the 30th anniversary of the peaceful EDSA People Power Revolution that ended on February 25, 1986.
In an hour-long interview with Rappler, Villegas recounted behind-the-scenes stories of People Power from Villa San Miguel, the Manila archbishop's residence that was also jokingly called the House of Sin.
'Something was brewing'
Villegas – now president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) – said it all began on February 22, 1986.
That day, the cardinal received a warning from the famous newspaper publisher Betty Go Belmonte.
Belmonte came to Villa San Miguel to warn Sin “that something was brewing.” She told the cardinal “to be ready about it.”
Keeping this in mind, Sin proceeded to the Loyola School of Theology in Quezon City to ordain Jesuits.
Sin returned to Villa San Miguel around dinner time.
By then, he had already heard on radio that Enrile and Ramos had broken away from Marcos.
Sin, however, “was very cautious and prudent because Enrile was notorious for staging situations to deodorize Marcos.”
Enrile, for one, revealed that his supposed ambush in September 1972 was staged. (Enrile would recant this statement in 2014.) Marcos used this ambush to justify placing the Philippines under martial law that same month.
Villegas said Sin “wanted to be sure” that the defection of Enrile and Ramos “is real.”
Later that night, the chairman of the National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), Jose “Joe” Concepcion Jr, went to Villa San Miguel.
Two weeks before this, Namfrel mobilized thousands of volunteers for the February 7 snap presidential elections pitting Marcos and Corazon Aquino, the housewife of slain freedom fighter Benigno Aquino Jr.
Namfrel’s quick count showed Aquino won the elections, but the Philippines’ poll body declared the dictator’s victory.
Eventually, according to Villegas, Concepcion “was also convinced” that the move of Enrile and Ramos “was a real defection.”
Heaven on red alert
Persuaded too that Enrile and Ramos really defected from Marcos, Sin retreated to his chapel in Villa San Miguel.
The cardinal prayed.
He also asked Villegas to call contemplative sisters – or nuns who spend more time in silent prayer – and request them to expose the Blessed Sacrament.
This is important because, for Catholics, praying before the Blessed Sacrament is one of the most intense forms of worship. Catholics believe that the Blessed Sacrament – a consecrated wafer or host enshrined in a vessel, called a monstrance – is the real body of Christ.
Sin’s instruction to the sisters, in other words, was like putting heaven on red alert.
Later, Sin also asked Villegas to call Radio Veritas. Then, from notes he scribbled on a scratch paper, he issued his historic appeal for people to protect “our two good friends” Enrile and Ramos.
Looking back, the 55-year-old Villegas said the “critical” word in Sin’s message was “friends.”
“When he called Enrile and Ramos ‘friends,’ I think people believed that they needed help,” Villegas said in an interview with Rappler.
Villegas said that after Sin made this announcement, Villa San Miguel became “a nerve center for the Church.”
There, Sin met with bishops and moral theologians, asking them: “In case something happens, what shall we do? In case this turns violent, what shall we support?”
The church leaders decided that in case of an “unfavorable” turn of events, “the Church would have to stand against violence, and out and help the possible victims of violence.”
'Marcos wanted Sin arrested'
But it wasn’t only the safety of the public at stake.
On February 23, 1986, Sin learned that Marcos wanted to have him arrested along with other critics of government.
Villegas said they saw documents showing that Sin, among others, “were to be arrested” and secretly brought to Carballo Island, located between the Port of Manila and Corregidor.
The archbishop described it as a “really isolated, God-forsaken island” of rocks.
Having known plans to arrest the cardinal, Villegas asked his boss, “Do you want to go to a safehouse?”
Sin answered, “No.”
Villegas told Rappler: “What he meant is, ‘I’m not even thinking about that, because the people will need me, and the people will come here, because they know I am here. I cannot abandon the people at this time. If they arrest me, they arrest me; but I cannot hide at this time.’”
Villegas said the arrest didn’t happen because the Marcos administration was “taken over by events.” He said, “Marcos really lost control of it.”
(Villegas said Sin visited Carballo Island after the EDSA Revolution. The cardinal said in jest, “This would have been our future house!” Asked by Rappler if he was supposed to be arrested along with Sin, Villegas laughed: “I don’t know if the prisoner is entitled to a secretary!”)
The moment Marcos fled
Later, on February 24, 1986, it “was wait and see” in Villa San Miguel.
Villegas said that was the day when Ramos made his famous “jump” because people thought Marcos had already fled the Philippines. “That was a false alarm.”
Then came D-Day.
On February 25, 1986, Aquino took her oath of office even as Marcos did the same thing.
Later that day, Marcos left the Philippines as the dictator, in the words of the New York Times, was “facing pressure from all sides to step down.”
“The whole time,” Villegas said, Sin was in Villa San Miguel.
Like thousands of Filipinos, Sin learned that Marcos fled the country only on TV. Villegas recalled watching this historic moment in the cardinal’s room.
Sin didn’t jump. Neither did he laugh or cry.
Villegas explained that “old-school” priests “hardly show emotions.” He said they’re more likely to just say, “Thanks be to God, so happy,” and then return to prayer.
Referring to Sin, Villegas said: “He didn't leave the house. He didn't go to EDSA. He didn't go to Malacañang. He just went to the chapel and prayed again.”
“We should pray,” Sin told his secretary.
At the same time, Sin remembered the contemplative sisters whom he asked to pray before the Blessed Sacrament.
“Tomorrow,” Sin told Villegas, “you bring ice cream to the sisters.”
EDSA 'not a human plan'
Thirty years later, Villegas laughs about the ice cream – which, as Sin instructed, he sent to the convents the next day. Now the archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan, he also remains in awe about the “hand of God” during EDSA.
For one, Villegas said it was “practical” to believe – as he did – that Marcos would attack the Filipinos in EDSA.
“That was the practical side, e. This man had faith. He had no explanation for believing, but he just had faith that God will not allow that to happen. God did not allow it to happen,” Villegas said.
Still, Villegas said, Sin never imagined the EDSA Revolution will happen.
“Wala namang nakaisip ng EDSA Revolution,” Villegas said. (No one thought of the EDSA Revolution.”
“People did not expect that it would turn out that way. I'm sure Enrile and Ramos didn't expect that Masses would be celebrated at EDSA, and nuns would be putting flowers on the muzzles of the guns. I am sure they did not think about that,” said Villegas.
The cardinal’s protegé said: “When you look back at what happened – with all the analysis of the military, with all the planning of moral theologians, with all the planning of the politicians – things turned out differently because there was an invisible hand of God guiding the event day by day.”
“There is no logical explanation.” – 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 email@example.com.