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Did heaven send Aquino a message?

MANILA, Philippines – The leader “rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes.” Then he ordered each person to fast and “turn from his evil way.”

In his booming voice, one of the Philippine president's spokesmen delivered these words on Wednesday, February 25, as the country's leader faces his worst political crisis.

What Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr said, however, was not a Palace statement. It was part of the first reading during a Mass on Wednesday, February 25, to mark the EDSA People Power Revolution anniversary.

It was also not selected intentionally for Wednesday's event. This passage from the Book of Jonah was read in Catholic churches worldwide on Wednesday. Incidentally, it was the 29th anniversary of the Philippines' peaceful uprising that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos. 

Still, this reading – which involved a leader who repented from sin and ordered his followers to do the same thing – amused a number of people as it suits the Philippines under President Benigno Aquino III. (READ: EDSA amid crisis: Aquino slams 'desperate' critics)

In his homily, Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle nailed the reading's message for the Philippines. 

Speaking to dozens gathered in a chapel, Tagle said a grace like the People Power Revolution in 1986 comes with “tremendous responsibilities.” 

He also urged the churchgoers – who include Aquino, whose maternal uncle is among those pressuring him to quit – to fix the disagreements in their own families.

In his parting words, Tagle called for “humility in admitting one's sin.”

His message came as government critics hold Aquino accountable for the police operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, which killed 44 members of an elite police force, 18 Muslim rebels, and at least 3 civilians on January 25, exactly a month ago. 

Grace is not 'magic'

The first reading at Wednesday's Mass was about the prophet Jonah, and his message to the city of Nineveh: “40 days more and Nineveh will be destroyed.”

This piece of news reached the king of Nineveh, who then declared a fast and ordered every person repent. “Who knows, God may relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath so we shall not perish?”

“When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them. He did not carry it out,” the Book of Jonah said.

From this reading, Tagle said in his homily: “It’s very clear that even if God is already quite hurt by the sinfulness of human beings, the desire of God is to save rather than to destroy.”

Tagle said this “offer of salvation” requires people to “awaken” a sense of responsibility: “What will we do to every grace or blessing that we get?”

He cited as an example the People Power Revolution, also known as the EDSA Revolution – named after the Philippines' main highway, EDSA, where Filipinos camped out to oust Marcos. “Instead of allowing the Filipino people to get destroyed or to destroy each other, God offers salvation.”

The cardinal, however, cautioned Filipinos against thinking that this grace is like “magic.” He said it's not as if Filipinos can think, “Hay salamat, wala na akong gagawin! (Oh, thank you, I don't have to do anything!)"

Ay hindi ganoon ang biyaya. Ang biyaya ay laging responsibilidad (Grace is not like that. Grace is always a responsibility)."

FAMILY FEUD. President Benigno Aquino III also faces protests led by various groups and individuals u2013 including his uncle, Jose 'Peping' Cojuangco (front, center) u2013 telling him to quit.

Photo by Ben Nabong/Rappler

'Enemy in the family'

His second point was about dealing with enemies.

The Manila archbishop explained that Nineveh in the Bible was considered “enemy territory.” He said this is why Jonah, the prophet, hesitated to go there. “But later on, Jonah, the reluctant prophet, was surprised, for the enemies that he feared suddenly turned to God. Let us reflect on that: Enemies.”

He said: “Sino ba ang kaaway n'yo? Sino ‘yung nakakatakot lapitan? Baka nasa pamilya n'yo pa ang kaaway (Who's your enemy? Who are you afraid to approach? Your enemy might be in your own family)."

The crowd laughed when Tagle said this.

Whether Tagle intended to refer to it or not, Aquino's uncle Jose “Peping” Cojuangco on Sunday, February 22, led protestors at the EDSA Shrine to call on his nephew to quit. 

Hearing the churchgoers' laughter, Tagle said: “Bakit kayo nagtatawanan? Parang ang dami-dami yatang may kaaway? At iyon ang nakakalungkot, 'di ba ho?” (Why are you all laughing? It seems you have so many enemies. And that's what's sad, isn't it?)

“The path to peace is finding a neighbor, a brother, a sister. When I don’t see anyone anymore as an enemy, I don’t have to fight. I don’t have to wage any fight. Why will you fight a brother or a sister?”

Now 'standing on different sides'

The cardinal recalled that “during the first glorious EDSA, the Filipino showed the world our deep capacity to see a brother, a sister, a neighbor in anyone.”

Tagle delivered this message before an audience that included Aquino and an ally of his mother, Vice President Jejomar Binay, who now leads the opposition.

Missing from Wednesday's EDSA festivities was a key figure in the revolution, then Philippine Constabulary chief Fidel V Ramos, who skipped the events for the first time in 29 years. Ramos, also a former Philippine president, would attend a book launch later on Wednesday and criticize Mrs Aquino's only son.

“Probably we started standing on different sides of the divide, thinking that on the other side is an enemy. But part of the grace of EDSA 1 was the capacity to transcend that, and we saw only brother, sister, Filipino. What a grace, what a responsibility,” Tagle said. 

In his third and final point, the cardinal stressed the need for “conversion.”

He said: “For the Ninevites, conversion happened when they listened; and they humbly admitted: 'Yes, maybe the Lord is right. There is really something that we need to change.'”

“And when they called for a fast – prayer with fasting, fasting as an act of repentance, an act of conquering whatever was rebellious in them – then God was pleased. God saw the Ninevites were not enemies to his sons and daughters; and the destruction did not happen.”

Referring to the EDSA Revolution, the Manila archbishop said: “Yes, what a grace but what a responsibility. We embrace the grace again and let us together embrace the responsibility. Let us all look at each other as brothers and sisters. We are friends. We are all Filipinos.” 

Was the Philippines listening? –

Paterno R. 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