obituary

Bacolod Diocese loses 2 Church stalwarts during fight against dictatorship

Inday Espina-Varona

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Bacolod Diocese loses 2 Church stalwarts during fight against dictatorship

REST IN PEACE. Monsignor Felix Pasquin and Fr. Romeo Empestan.

Images adapted from ADSUM Diocese of Bacolod Facebook page

Fr. Romeo Empestan and Monsignor Felix Pasquin are of the generation that the late Bacolod Bishop Antonio Fortich nurtured and led in campaigns against human rights violations and oppressive economic conditions in Negros Island

BACOLOD CITY, Philippines – The Diocese of Bacolod City on Sunday, January 7, said it lost two stalwarts of the Church from the time of the two-decade Marcos dictatorship. 

Based on the diocese’s official notices on its Facebook Page, Fr. Romeo Empestan and Monsignor Felix Pasquin died at the same time, 9:02 am.

Both priests were of the generation that the late Bacolod Bishop Antonio Fortich nurtured and led in campaigns against human rights violations and oppressive economic conditions in Negros Island, then called the “social volcano” for the social and political conflicts rooted on the chasm between the lives of the few rich haciendero clans and the sugar workers.

Empestan, a pioneer of the Basic Christian Communities (BCC), served as coordinator of the diocese’s Pastoral Center, was very close to Fortich.

Pasquin served as Vicar General and social communications head of the diocese and rector of the San Sebastian Cathedral.

Minister to the poor

The fiery, sometimes brusque Empestan was at the forefront of the activist Church during the dark days of the first Marcos era and the wild, wooly years marking the supposed return to democracy, which rural folk in Negros barely felt.

Empestan’s positions meant he ministered to landless farmers in isolated hamlets of Negros Occidental, then mostly under one diocese. He also aided besieged sugar workers on the frontlines of strikes and protests.

He was perpetually red-tagged but that never stopped him.

Empestan was a writer and an archivist who published in 2017 a memoir, The Struggles of the People and the Church of the Poor in Negros from the 70s to 90s.

Among the stories he recounted in spare but powerful language were the defiance of BBC peasant women, barefoot as they physically blocked tractors and military escorts sent to demolish their village homes in 1980.
The aftermath led to the kidnapping and murder of two BCC leaders in Tan-awan Village, Kabankalan, which heralded increasing attacks against members and leaders of the local BCCs.

In 2012, Empestan was appointed spiritual director of the diocese’s Sacred Heart Seminary.

In 2013, he was among four Fotrich protégés who wrote, Vir Fortis, a centenary tribute for a mentor who earned the tag “Commander Tony” for his activist stance on social issues.

He also had his gentle side and was known as a gardener and grower of local herbs.

Urbane activist

The young Pasquin was Fortich’s go-to, together with the late Monsignor Victorino Rivas, to tap the more well-heeled faithful for aid to sugar workers, or to mediate during conflicts.

He was vicar general in 2013 when the diocese, then under Bacolod Bishop Vicente Navarra made the controversial decision to hang “Team Patay” banners to influence Catholics not to vote for reproductive health advocates. 

That placed him on the opposite side of the fence from many friends who had marched with him on human rights issues. Privately, like other clergy, he sighed over Church opposition to reproductive and LGBTQ rights, but was implacable against those who pushed the death penalty.

Pasquin later became parish priest of Our Lady of Candles. He continued to join protests against attacks on press freedom and the Duterte government’s killing of ABS-CBN’s franchise.

“So the people will be aware of this situation, which is not good…we want to unite in prayers to stop what the government is doing so freedom and democracy will thrive,” he said. 

In 2022, Rappler’s Voices from the Regions spoke to him to show that People Power did not start nor stop with EDSA. He also discussed the Church’s role in nurturing democratic forces and playing shepherd to abused communities.

Bacolod Diocese loses 2 Church stalwarts during fight against dictatorship

– Rappler.com

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