religious groups in the Philippines

[Judgment Call] Is Rappler an ‘enabler’ of Catholic ‘copycats’?

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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[Judgment Call] Is Rappler an ‘enabler’ of Catholic ‘copycats’?

Alejandro Edoria/Rappler

'We, journalists, need to teach the public (and ourselves!) to embrace diversity. In the process, we get to tell better stories and forge stronger communities.'

“Ano ba ’yan, Rappler… Aglipay na naman??” (What the heck, Rappler… Aglipay again??)

An irritated Facebook user posted this comment at 7:10 pm on Black Saturday, March 30, on Rappler’s Facebook page. He was replying to our photos of a Virgin Mary statue in San Jose, Batangas, which was said to exude fragrant oil. While the statue was Catholic, the man linked it to our coverage of “Aglipay,” a homegrown Filipino church formally known as Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI). 

I shook my head and responded after two minutes. (I know, I know, I should have waited a bit longer. But oh well.)

I replied: “Si Paterno Esmaquel po ito ng Rappler. Wala pong masama sa pag-feature ng Aglipay. Pero para sa kaalaman ninyo kung hindi po kayo nagbabasa, sa Katoliko po ang estatwa na ito. Nasa caption din po na involved ang Vatican. Salamat.”

(This is Paterno Esmaquel of Rappler. There is nothing bad about featuring the Aglipay. But for your information if you are not reading, this statue belongs to Catholics. The caption also states that the Vatican is involved. Thank you.)

The man shot back: “Sana alam mo din sana na sarcastic ang comment ko.” (I hope you also knew that my comment was sarcastic.)

In his reply, the commenter said our “weeklong feature of Aglipay’s Holy Week activities” is disrespectful toward Catholics. He accused IFI of copying Catholic traditions, and said he hopes religion has its own version of copyright laws. It was like he was shouting at Rappler: “Enabler kayo ng COPYCATS.” (You are enablers of COPYCATS.)

I answered back, “I wish you a blessed Holy Week full of peace in your heart.” He immediately replied, “I wish Rappler delicadeza and journalism ethics.” 

Breathe in, breathe out. I turned off my laptop and off I went to Easter Vigil Mass.

Looking back three weeks later, I think that we got this kind of unique reaction to our Holy Week coverage because we also did things differently this year. At the start of Holy Week, instead of covering the usual Catholic parishes, I decided to join the Palm Sunday rituals of the IFI, also called the Aglipay Church.

The IFI is a church that broke away from Roman Catholicism in 1902 to protest against abusive friars. Its first supreme bishop was Gregorio Aglipay, a former Catholic priest from Batac, Ilocos Norte. The IFI, however, brought with it Catholic doctrines and practices, except for aspects like priestly celibacy. In fact, they have had a female bishop and a trans woman deacon.

The IFI is also known for its activist roots. IFI bishops, for instance, were among those red-tagged during the Duterte administration. When I attended their Palm Sunday liturgy, I was surprised by how the Mass ended: the bishop waved the Philippine flag, and the congregation sang “Lupang Hinirang”!

Many of these things are new to the general audience, right? 

This was one of the reasons why we gave special attention to the IFI last Holy Week, even as we continued to cover the traditions of Catholics.

More than novelty, however, we wanted diversity. One of the downsides of having a big Catholic majority – eight out of 10 Filipinos belong to the Catholic Church – is that many things become homogeneous. We assume “everyone” is Catholic anyway, so we neglect other religions in mainstream media. But if we are to progress as a people, things cannot stay this way.

Religion can either be the most powerful source of hope or the most virulent trigger of hatred. When does religion cause violence? When it breeds an “us versus them” mentality among adherents. It’s the reason why terrorists kill in the name of divine beings: We are holy and they are not, we are clean and they are dirty. Or my religion is true, yours is false.

Terrorism, of course, is an extreme case, but we see this “us versus them” mentality in little acts of violence in our day-to-day lives. When we scoff at people who hold different beliefs, stereotype them, regard them as stupid, and think of them as second-class citizens, we are playing the game of “us versus them.” 

It is our duty, as journalists, to help stop this “us versus them” culture that is breaking societies apart. Our role has become even more important at a time when social media platforms are gaming – and actually profiting from – this human tendency to create our “personalized” little worlds, shunning the plurality of arguments, opinions, and beliefs in the public sphere. 

We, journalists, need to teach the public (and ourselves!) to embrace diversity.

In the process, we get to tell better stories and forge stronger communities. We also learn to answer the most important question in journalism and in life: Why? In my journalism classes, my students know it is the question that spells the difference between passing and failing: Why does this story matter? It’s the same thing in life: Why do we do the things we do?

At the end of our Holy Week coverage, the answer to my “why” came from another post on Rappler’s Facebook page. It was also Black Saturday, but seven hours before the “Aglipay na naman??” comment from the irritated Facebook user.

That Saturday morning, we reposted on Rappler’s page our Palm Sunday story on the IFI. I commented on that Facebook post and tagged the IFI priest whom I interviewed for the story. I said in my comment, “Salamat po uli, Monsignor Renato Silvestre Jr.!” (Thank you again, Monsignor Renato Silvestre Jr.!)

His response melted my heart, I was almost in tears.

Silvestre replied, “Maraming salamat, kapatid, sa pagkakataon na ibinigay mo sa amin.” (Thank you, brother, for the chance you gave us.)

On Palm Sunday, I saw myself as a journalist doing his job, period. But in the eyes of the good monsignor, I was not only reporting, I was giving them a chance, an opportunity. I could only reply, “Salamat po sa pagkakataon na ma-cover kayo! Hanggang sa susunod po uli!” (Thank you for the chance to cover you! Till next time!)

So many other religious groups – so many other communities on the world’s peripheries – are waiting for journalists to visit them, hear them out, and tell their stories.

It is part of our duty – our calling – as journalists to do them justice. –

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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