Caloocan Bishop Pablo David: Shepherd of his slaughtered sheep

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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Caloocan Bishop Pablo David: Shepherd of his slaughtered sheep
The Jesuit-trained bishop is an intellectual heavyweight who puts his boots on – sometimes literally – to defend the rights of the poor

MANILA, Philippines – Clutching his smartphone, the bishop scrolled up as he listened to a grandmother recount the death of her grandson, Carlo Buenaventura, at the hands of motorcycle-riding gunmen.

The grandmother approached Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David on July 2, a Sunday, right after a Mass where the bishop slammed vigilantes as “termites” and “new Judases.”  

The grandmother said Carlo’s friend, a man named Jason, was also killed days after her grandson’s death. 

David started asking questions about Jason. 

Wala sa listahan ko ‘yung Jason (Jason is not on my list),” David said, still scrolling up his phone. Apparently, the bishop has a list of victims of drug-related killings in his diocese that could rival records of the police. 

The scene spoke volumes of how David, leader of one of the Philippines’ poorest Catholic communities, is diligently documenting the deaths in President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-drug campaign. (Watch the actual scene in the video below)

David, incoming vice president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), is one of the most outspoken bishops on the killings in Duterte’s war on drugs. 

David finds himself in a unique position because his territory, the Diocese of Caloocan, is where many of these killings take place. 

It is also home to the Caloocan City police, accused of framing up and killing 17-year-old Kian Loyd delos Santos and 19-year-old Carl Angelo Arnaiz. These cases of alleged police abuse have fueled outrage against the drug war and Duterte himself. 

Tungkulin ko bilang munting obispo ng Caloocan ang pag-ingatan ang kawan na ipinagkatiwala sa akin ng Panginoon (It is my duty as the bishop of Caloocan to care for the flock entrusted to me by the Lord),” David said.

David’s words bring to mind a recent column by John Nery, one of the leading columnists on Philippine Catholicism, about the role of bishops in a time of rampant killings.

Nery wrote that “when the wolves are devouring the sheep, en masse, the shepherds need to stop the slaughter.”

“That becomes the shepherds’ only job,” Nery said. “And that is where we are now.”

Leading Bible scholar

Born in Betis, Guagua, Pampanga, the 58-year-old David is the right bishop in the right place at the right time. 

In the Catholic Church, David is known as an intellectual heavyweight who has his boots on – sometimes literally – to defend the rights of the poor. 

When he was 15, he entered the Jesuit-run San Jose Seminary based in the Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City. 

This is the same seminary that produced 3 of the Philippines’ 4 living cardinals, including Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle.

Later in life, he obtained a doctorate in theology from the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium. 

On July 10, 2006, he was ordained a bishop. He served as auxiliary bishop of San Fernando, Pampanga, until he was assigned to Caloocan.

The bishop, brother of sociologist Randy David, is now known as one of the Philippines’ leading Bible scholars. 

He is the same bishop who once criticized Senator Manny Pacquiao for using the Bible to justify the death penalty.

‘Sagip Sapang Balen’

While an intellectual, David does not sit in an ivory tower. He is also known for advancing the causes of the poor.

In May 2009, David led “hundreds of volunteers and supporters in a river clean-up drive” called “Sagip Sapang Balen” in Pampanga, according to Sagip Sapang Balen’s Facebook page.

On this Facebook page, various photos show David in boots, cargo pants, and simple shirts, doing the dirty work, such as planting trees.

IMMERSED IN SOCIETY. Then San Fernando Auxiliary Bishop Pablo Virgilio David attends the grand launching of the Sapang Balen rehabilitation program in Pampanga. File photo from Sagip Sapang Balen's Facebook page

One photo on the “Sagip” Facebook page – posted on October 31, 2015, two weeks after Pope Francis named him to Caloocan – had a caption praising David, also known by his nickname Ambo.

The photo, which showed David digging the soil, carried the following caption: “If there’s one thing Sagip will miss most from Bishop Ambo, it would be this kind of leadership. We are so blessed to have you as our shepherd.”

LEADING THE WAY. Then San Fernando Auxiliary Bishop Pablo Virgilio David joins a tree-planting activity, as seen in this photo posted by his flock in Pampanga in October 2015. File photo from Sagip Sapang Balen's Facebook page

This bishop explained his philosophy in a speech at the 4th Philippine Conference on New Evangelization (PCNE) in July this year.

At the PCNE, David warned of “parochiality in the negative sense of the word,” when Catholics only act “churchy churchy, in the pejorative sense.”

“My God, if our only concept of mission in the Church ay magpagpag ng alikabok sa loob ng simbahan at magsuot ng kulay blue (is to brush off the dust in church and to wear blue) and to wave the flag of your mandated organization, then we have really become very parochial,” David said.

He stressed social involvement as part of mission.

“We do not think that our involvement in environmental protection and conservation is part of the mission of the Church. We do not think that protecting the lives of people who are in danger, when people are being killed left and right by these ruthless and heartless death squads,” he pointed out.

“If I get involved in that,” he said, “you think I’m being political? Would you take offense if your bishop speaks up for life in defense of people?”

‘The Lord has a plan to put him there’

Many Catholics now admire David for speaking out against the killings.

Tony La Viña, former dean of the Ateneo School of Government, also a devout Catholic, said of David in a Facebook post: “A courageous pastor protecting his flock from ravenous wolves, a saint if you asked me.”

In a phone interview with Rappler, La Viña said: “When you’re a shepherd, and your sheep is being hunted down, especially the weakest of your sheep is being hunted down, the pastor needs to stand up. And I think that’s what the people of Caloocan have gotten.”

La Viña also said that “there must be a plan” behind David’s installation as Caloocan bishop.

At the time he was installed on January 2, 2016, the Philippines had not known that more than 14,000 Filipinos would die in police operations and vigilante-style killings during the next administration.

In the first place, it was not sure back then that Duterte would win.

La Viña said David could have been assigned to “safer” dioceses, but “why was he put in Caloocan?”

PASTOR'S COURAGE. Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David is 'a courageous pastor protecting his flock from ravenous wolves,' former Ateneo School of Government dean Tony La Viña says. File photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

“The Lord has a plan to put him there,” La Viña said. “There is for me a clear sign, a clear plan, to protect the flock.”

Models: Oscar Romero, Maximilian Kolbe

With the challenges he is facing nowadays, David said he draws strength from heroes of the Catholic faith.

Asked about his role models, David mentioned Catholic martyrs Saint Maximilian Kolbe and Blessed Oscar Romero. 

Kolbe was a Polish Catholic priest arrested by the Nazis in the 1940s. He died on August 14, 1941, after he voluntarily took the place of a father who was chosen to die in a starvation bunker.

Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, was shot dead on March 24, 1980, during Mass in a hospital as El Salvador was plunged into a civil war.

“They dared really to offer their lives. They didn’t mind about their personal security,” David explained in an interview with Rappler.

The bishop said he also admires Pope Francis, who challenges Catholics to bring the Gospel to the “peripheries.” 

But what about his personal safety?

David said, “Well, siguro kung takot ako para sa aking buhay, hindi na lang ako naging pari o nag-obispo (Well, if I fear for my life, I shouldn’t have been a priest or bishop).”

The bishop of Caloocan explained: “Witnessing to the Gospel, witnessing to the truth, is something that can cost you your life. That’s part of the hazards.”

“When these things come, the Lord will probably say, ‘I beg your pardon. I didn’t promise you a rose garden.'”

David said he is also kept “really strong” by his motto as a bishop – “kenosis,” which means “a total emptying of self so that Christ can live in us.”

David said: “I’m always aware that the priesthood is like that – it’s to represent the real priest, to represent the real shepherd. I’m not the shepherd. I’m not the leader of the Church.”

“Christ is the leader of the Church, so it’s like I’m only assigned, an instrument, of the one true shepherd and priest of the Church. That’s Jesus Christ.” –

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior multimedia reporter covering religion for Rappler. He also teaches journalism at the University of Santo Tomas. For story ideas or feedback, email