‘Long-awaited shepherd’: Priests of Manila pin hopes on new archbishop

It seemed no day was more appropriate for the announcement of the new archbishop of Manila than March 25.

After all, it was the Feast of the Annunciation, when Catholics commemorate Mary’s “yes” to her new role as Mother of God. The bells of the Manila Cathedral tolled immediately after the local church received the news, piercing the silence of a city gripped in fear.

That day’s headlines – the worsening pandemic and heightening tension between the church and state – were also a preview of the challenges that will greet the humble Cardinal Jose Advincula when he assumes the seat of the country’s most influential cleric.

Advincula, 69, is set to be installed as the 33rd Manila archbishop on June 24, the Feast of Saint John the Baptist, nearly a month after receiving his red hat, a symbol worn by cardinals, on May 28.

INSTALLATION. Cardinal Jose Advincula, outgoing archbishop of Capiz, is set to be installed as archbishop of Manila on June 24, 2021.

Colegio dela Purisima Concepcion

Plucked from the quiet Archdiocese of Capiz, the new Manila archbishop will wield influence beyond almost 3 million Catholics in his territory. As leader of the Church in the nation’s capital, Advincula will also set the tone on the Church’s engagement with state and society – a consequential task as the election of Rodrigo Duterte’s successor draws near.

Surprise

A few minutes before the appointment’s official announcement, Bishop Broderick Pabillo, who serves as the archdiocese’s temporary head, called an emergency meeting with the clergy to inform them of the news.

Father Earl Valdez, a newly ordained priest previously assigned at Santa Clara de Montefalco Parish in Pasay City, said he had “mixed feelings” when he first heard of it.

“When we were told, hindi ko alam pero parang blinender mo ‘yung (it’s like you mixed in a blender) surprised and not surprised,” said Valdez, who was ordained as priest by Pabillo on March 19, and is now assigned as one of the parochial vicars of Quiapo Church.

For those closely watching the appointment, Advincula’s name barely made it to church watchers’ lists of those whom Pope Francis may appoint. Just in November 2020, Pope Francis appointed Advincula as Capiz’s first cardinal, a move widely seen as a nod to the peripheries, or places away from centers of influence.

“It’s surprising that after being made cardinal as to remain in Capiz, here we are in such a time that he will be transferred and appointed to Manila,” Valdez said. 

Father Flavie Villanueva, a Catholic priest who ministers to Manila’s poor and homeless at Saint Arnold Janssen Kalinga Center in Santa Cruz, also admitted he was “surprised” by the pick.

Perhaps the shepherd that we have been awaiting has arrived.

Father Flavie Villanueva

He said that there was hope that the new archbishop will be a strong voice against injustice, and a “shepherd” who can “rally around” the clergy and laity to take a more active role in society.

“He might not be an Ambo, he might not be a Pabillo, he might not even be a Soc Villegas,” Villanueva said, referring to more prominent bishops Pablo Virgilio David of Caloocan, Pabillo of Manila, and Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, protégé of the influential former Manila archbishop Cardinal Jaime Sin. 

All three bishops are vocal critics of the Duterte government’s war on drugs. Before Advincula’s appointment, they were seen as possible successors to Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, who was appointed to the Roman Curia to work closer with the Pope in his governance of the global Catholic Church.

Valdez said Lipa Archbishop Gilbert Garcera and bishops of other Metro Manila dioceses were also considered in the running. 

“Their names have been floating around so it’s a surprise that Cardinal Joe will be the one here in Manila,” Valdez said.

But reading more about Advincula’s stand on human rights and his work reaching out to the remote communities of Capiz, Villanueva sees a unique hope in the new archbishop. “When the Pope appointed him as shepherd to the peripheries, it brings so much consolation and hope that perhaps the shepherd that we have been awaiting has arrived,” he said.

Those who know Advincula have described him as a “listening” archbishop, ever ready to sit down with the religious and the laity. His motto as bishop is “Audiam,” translated as “I will listen.”

For Villanueva, he hopes that Advincula can continue this for Manila’s most vulnerable and become “a shepherd who journeys with his wounded sheep.”

“I hope that the listening would be translated into action,” Villanueva said.

Looking for a shepherd

Aside from working with Manila’s poor and homeless, Villanueva also heads Project Paghilom, a livelihood program for widows of those who died in extrajudicial killings from the Duterte administration’s war on drugs. 

His work made him an outspoken advocate against the killings, and a target of the state. 

In 2019, the Philippine National Police charged Villanueva, Father Albert Alejo of the Society of Jesus, and activist priest Father Robert Reyes with “conspiracy to commit sedition” over a video series alleging that Duterte’s son is involved in the illegal drug trade. All three priests had denied the accusation.

Also charged were bishops David, Villegas, Honesto Ongtioco of Cubao, and Teodoro Bacani of Novaliches. 

That time, Villanueva, a priest of the Society of the Divine Word, along with the two priests felt their leaders in the Church could have done more back then. 

I think the moral compass and the moral authority of the church ought to be heard at this time.

Father Flavie Villanueva

“We were looking, searching for a shepherd to console our fears, to strengthen us amidst the threat, and a shepherd who would walk with us as we also take care of the wounded,” Villanueva recalled.

Overall, Villanueva described the Church as a “conservative” institution, and “even somewhat delayed in their pronouncements, in their call to action” with regard to social issues. But for the priest, the times call for bolder action. 

Gumising na kayo, hindi ‘to pulitika. Hindi ito usaping pamumulitika, ito ay usaping simbahan. Dahil ang simbahan ay nakapaloob sa bayan, at ang bayan ay nakapaloob sa simbahan. Kapag minumura ang Diyos, kapag ipinapahayag ng namumuno na Patayin ‘nyo, kapag hinahadlangan ang pagpapakain, at winawaldas ang kaban ng bayan, I think the moral compass and the moral authority of the church ought to be heard at this time,” Villanueva said.

(Wake up, this is not about politicking. Because this is a church matter as well. Because the church is embedded in the nation, and the nation is embedded in the church. If they curse God, if our leader says ‘Kill,’ if they make it hard to feed people, and they plunder the nation’s coffers, I think the moral compass and the moral authority of the church ought to be heard at this time.)

“He cannot be eaten up by the status quo,” Villanueva added. 

While the charge against Reyes and the other bishops had been dropped, a similar charge was filed against Villanueva and Alejo in January. When asked how the new archbishop could help targeted church people like him, Villanueva alluded to Advincula’s penchant for listening.

“The country has been so wounded – 30,000 as per our calculation of the number of people who were victimized by EJK,” Villanueva said. “Nangangailangan sila ng pastol dahil pinatay ang kanilang asawa. Nangangailangan ng pastol na hindi man magbibigay ng salapi, pero mapakinggan lang at magpaabot ng mensahe na tumatangis ang Diyos kasama nyo.”

(They need a pastor because their spouses were killed. They need a pastor who, even if he won’t give them money, will listen to them and tell them the message that God weeps with you.)

“That is a beautiful protection already for me who is being persecuted by the state,” he added.

Mediators

While Villanueva believes the Church should speak out more, Valdez, the new priest, sees their role as “mediators” in a time when the public has “been greatly divided by political lines.”

Kailangan nakikipagtulungan tayo sa mga kinatawan ng pamahalaan.

Father Earl Valdez

“I think that’s an important term now, to become a mediator, not just, sometimes, puro na lang kontra, kontra (it’s all about opposing). Bishop Pabillo would always say that in every opposition that we have, laging may laman ‘yan na cooperation (it always comes with cooperation),” Valdez said.

Valdez believes that the Church has an important prophetic role in being critical, this has to be balanced by listening and action.

“If you expect the church to be highly critical, it’s only part of it. Kailangan nakikipagtulungan tayo sa mga kinatawan ng pamahalaan (We need to collaborate with representatives of government) who also envision the common good. Binabalanse natin palagi (We are always balancing this),” Valdez said.

He cited how the Church was in the frontlines helping the most vulnerable during the pandemic by engaging the government and the private sector, which sees them as a trusted beneficiary for their donations. 

“The common criticism is that we’re not strong enough with our words. But I believe, and we shall see this, our actions, our initiatives, and our movements need to be spoken of a lot today,” he said.

Advincula would also have to find a way to feel the pulse of almost three million Catholics he serves in the cities of Manila, Mandaluyong, Makati, Pasay, and San Juan. 

Valdez hopes that the laity can be given more spaces of involvement in the Church, since Valdez notes that those wanting to enter the priesthood “have declined significantly over the past 20 years.” 

And given Manila’s diversity as a metropolis, Valdez says he expects the new archbishop to have “the capacity to navigate through different people, and to speak on different things to respond to different ways of living,” just as his predecessors did.

Because of this, Valdez hopes that Advincula can help form “circles of discernment and discussion” where people from different walks of life can be given a space to speak and understand each other’s experiences.

“One possible explanation is that we don’t talk to each other anymore. We don’t live our common lives anymore,” Valdez said.

Role in elections

With the 2022 elections drawing near, some await how the Church will engage in the political sphere. 

While Cardinal Sin might have been crucial in ousting Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and giving Joseph Estrada’s ouster in 2001 a moral dimension, its direct influence in determining the outcome of later elections has been negligible compared to denominations such as the Iglesia ni Cristo, which practices bloc voting.

For Valdez, he sees that sharp, political sermons on the pulpit may lose their power and turn off people if not coupled with action and solidarity on the ground, 

Pero, at some point, maiisip mo rin ‘no, minsan nare-reduce na rin tayo to substantially, nawawala na rin ‘yung impact niya dahil it has been overused, nawawalan ng backing ng pakikiisa,” Valdez said. (But at some point, you might also think, sometimes we are being reduced substantially, its impact has become diminished because it has been overused, without the backing of solidarity.)

But for Villanueva, he believes that this time, the Church cannot sit on the sidelines. “The Church has a prophetic role to play, especially in the national elections,” he said.

“We cannot be bystanders, especially with the powers, with the status quo right now. The church cannot afford, just as the nation cannot afford, another incompetent leadership with China on our soil, and with the influence of China in this leadership, we cannot afford this,” he said.

And so, how should the Church act? At first, Villanueva sticks to what the Church has always done.

“Not to endorse particular names, but to endorse a particular criteria to follow, to strongly, and even before that, it would be wise to present a context, a scenario, to read the sign of the times and tell this to the people: This is where we are at with this present government, are we going to allow ourselves to suffer the same fate in the coming years?”

But eventually, Villanueva toys with what he admits is a “long-shot” idea.

“I hope that he would present the sign of the times, followed by a strong pronouncement of the criteria for the candidates to bet on. And if it so be, so be it, then he should also support the opposition whose slate is competent, God-fearing slate that we all know of.”

Whatever happens, Villanueva looks to the new archbishop with much hope.

“We’re hopeful. I would like to believe that he might, as I said, not be a Sin or a Tagle, but if he can listen, and is called to be a shepherd, then we have a Christ in our midst.” – Rappler.com