Leila de Lima

Why De Lima defied security advice, chose Manaoag as her first stop

Jairo Bolledo, Lian Buan, Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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Why De Lima defied security advice, chose Manaoag as her first stop

DEVOTEE. Former senator Leila de Lima prays before the miraculous image of Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan on November 14, 2023, her first full day out of detention.

Office of Leila de Lima

A crying former senator Leila de Lima, known for a fierce persona, ‘practically begged and pleaded’ before her lawyers: ‘No, no, I can never, ever break my promise to Mama Mary’

PANGASINAN, Philippines – Don’t go, her lawyers insisted.

Sabi ko, Manay, hindi tayo naghirap nang ilang taon, lalo na ikaw, para lang maging tanga at paglabas natin eh mababaril lang tayo,” said lawyer Teddy Rigoroso, her fellow Bicolano and distant relative. (I told her, friend, we did not suffer for many years, especially you, just to be careless now and to be shot once we go out.)

To visit Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan, however, was the firm request of former senator Leila de Lima after she walked free from nearly seven years in detention on Monday, November 13. Her lawyers, paranoid for her security, had tried to convince her otherwise up to the last minute.

They humored De Lima to visit instead the patroness of her native Bicol – Our Lady of Peñafrancia in Naga City, Camarines Sur – when she comes home. “Mama Mary din naman ‘yun (She’s also Mama Mary after all),” her lawyers appealed to her in jest.

Sabi niya, ‘Kung mapapatay ako, mapapatay ako, isina-Diyos ko na.’ Do’n na ‘ko bumigay. Umiyak siya eh. Sabi ko sige na nga,” Rigoroso said. (She said, “If I am killed, then I am killed. I am leaving it up to God.” That’s when I gave in. She cried. I said all right.)

De Lima pushed through with her trip to the 322-year-old Minor Basilica of Our Lady of Manaoag on Tuesday, November 14, after spending her first night out of jail at Novotel Manila Araneta City, a hotel in Cubao, Quezon City.

Wearing a striped blouse and her trademark scarf, De Lima started the day on Tuesday by greeting journalists who waited for her in front of the hotel. She gave a cheerful nod, smiled, and waved at every person who called her name – a far cry from the days when police, escorting her to court, would force her to bow her head and block her from the view of journalists shouting “Senator, senator!” from a distance.

Guarded by over five men, De Lima boarded her vehicle on Tuesday, while another car containing her companions sought to prevent other vehicles from getting closer.

After a two-hour-and-45-minute drive from Metro Manila, De Lima reached the iconic shrine of Pangasinan. As her vehicle entered the parish’s patio, several locals and churchgoers waited to meet her. 

De Lima walked toward the church with few interruptions from parishioners who greeted her and held her hands. In return, she chatted with each of them while thanking them for the support.

Inside the church, De Lima knelt in front of the Virgin Mary’s image holding the child Jesus. She spent a good 15 minutes praying in the shrine called the “pilgrim center of the North.”

The priest who welcomed her in the shrine prayed over De Lima before she headed back to Manila.

‘To fulfill my promise’

De Lima, 64, a former human rights chief and former justice secretary, explained that she is a devotee of Our Lady of Manaoag. 

“So I am here – as to fulfill my promise,” she told journalists outside the Manaoag Shrine.

Adult, Female, Person
‘THANK YOU.’ Former senator Leila de Lima fulfills her promise to visit the Manaoag Shrine once she is released from detention.

Confirming Rigoroso’s account, De Lima said she “was being dissuaded” from going to Manaoag “for security reasons.” “Pero iniyakan ko sila (But I cried to them). I practically begged and pleaded,” said the former justice chief known for her fierce, tough-talking image. “Sabi ko (I said), no, no, I can never, ever break my promise to Mama Mary.”

Our Lady of Manaoag is the title of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who – according to local tradition – appeared to a farmer on a treetop in Manaoag, Pangasinan, a town in northern Philippines. The story goes that Mary wanted a church built in Manaoag where devotees could run for her motherly help in the future. This church is now known as the Manaoag Shrine.

Devotees believe that praying before the image of Our Lady of Manaoag, whom devotees call “Apo Baket,” can lead to many types of miracles – healing from illness, passing exams, finding new jobs, and in De Lima’s case, walking free from nearly seven years in jail. 

Aside from its popularity among devotees, the Manaoag Shrine is one of the most significant Catholic churches worldwide.

The shrine, which the Dominicans started to build in 1701, was declared a minor basilica by Pope Francis on October 11, 2014. Such declaration means that the church is important and that the Pope is granting special blessings, including plenary indulgences (remission of punishment for sins that had been forgiven), to its visitors as long as certain conditions are met.

To illustrate the lofty stature of basilicas in the Catholic Church, there are only around 1,886 minor basilicas worldwide, including 21 from the Philippines, as of 2021 – surpassed in majesty only by the four major basilicas in Rome, including Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.

Manaoag, however, was a curious choice for De Lima’s first stop – because Catholics in this archipelago of 7,641 islands tend to be regionalistic, often with a competitive spirit, even in matters of faith.

De Lima hails from the Bicol region where the patroness is Mary under another title: Our Lady of Peñafrancia, whose 313-year-old image is housed in a church in Naga City.

While the Our Lady of Peñafrancia is also housed in a minor basilica, it was to Our Lady of Manaoag that De Lima – a native of Iriga City, Camarines Sur – had a closer affinity especially while in jail.

By coincidence, the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of Manaoag also falls within the jurisdiction of one of De Lima’s closest supporters, Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas.

‘I cannot control my tears,’ says archbishop as De Lima walks free

‘I cannot control my tears,’ says archbishop as De Lima walks free

De Lima explained that even before her incarceration, she had been a frequent visitor to the Manaoag Shrine. She used to visit the shrine around twice a month, every other Sunday, starting around 2012 or 2013 when she was then-president Benigno Aquino III’s justice secretary, until she was arrested on February 24, 2017, over drug-related charges allegedly fabricated by the Duterte government. 

In her Camp Crame detention facility, De Lima said: “I had an image there of Our Lady of Manaoag. I always tell her, ‘Mama Mary, tulungan ‘nyo po ako makalaya. Paglabas na paglabas ko po, promise, bibisitahin ko po kayo sa shrine ‘nyo. Kasi miss ko na po kayo (Mama Mary, help me gain freedom. Once I walk free, I promise to visit you in your shrine. Because I miss you).’”

Like Ninoy and Ka Pepe

When asked where she drew her strength from during her almost seven years in detention, De Lima raised her left arm and, with an open fist, gestured toward the heavens.

“From the Almighty God,” she said. “My faith was deepened.”

Why De Lima defied security advice, chose Manaoag as her first stop

De Lima, who often wrote about God in letters from her detention facility, found solace in her faith and kept her Bible and rosary as constant companions. 

On October 9, 2022, it was when De Lima was praying the rosary between 5:30 and 6 am – her morning ritual – when a hostage-taker held her at knifepoint in a dark cell. After she survived this incident, Villegas said Mass for the former senator inside her hospital room. The archbishop also said Mass for her on August 26 this year, ahead of her 64th birthday on August 27.

De Lima’s experience reflected the lives of other political prisoners throughout history, who spoke of deepening their faith in God while spending time in jail. 

When he was incarcerated during the Marcos dictatorship in the 1970s, opposition senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. questioned his faith in God, then concluded that “there must be a God because then, all of this suffering will be useless.” The statesman Jose “Ka Pepe” Diokno, also in jail during the Marcos years, reminded his 13-year-old son Chel in a 1974 letter to “be true to yourself and to your God.” 

On Tuesday, speaking about her source of fortitude, De Lima continued: “And then from the love and support and compassion of my friends. My family has always been there. Hindi po nila ako nakalimutan. Humugot po ako ng lakas sa kanila.” (They did not forget me. I drew strength from them.)

As for the man who allegedly ordered that she be jailed, De Lima’s message in a press conference on Monday also stemmed from faith: “God forgive him and God bless him.”

Not one to run out of words, the former senator said she had more to say about Duterte – but she wanted to be gracious and not too political in this time of joy.

“God forgive him and God bless him,” De Lima repeated, in the solid, determined tone of a warrior who has returned. “He knows what he did to me.” – Rappler.com

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Jairo Bolledo

Jairo Bolledo is a multimedia reporter at Rappler covering justice, police, and crime.
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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.
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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering 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 pat.esmaquel@rappler.com