[EDITORIAL]: #AnimatED: Drenched in God’s blood

Thirteen Filipino priests have been killed in 44 years – from the time tyrant Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972 to the time former president Benigno Aquino III ended his term in 2016. Under President Rodrigo Duterte, who is entering only his 3rd year in office, 3 priests have already been shot dead in a span of 6 months. 

If this is not a cause for outrage and alarm, then the 5th largest Christian country on earth (as of 2010) cannot claim any ascendancy.

The administration and the police would like us to believe these are isolated incidents.

One of the priests even apparently had an affair, President Duterte retorted, as if having dalliances justified murder and as if he didn’t know that if that were so, practically the entire Philippine officialdom would be wiped out, starting from his office and those of his skirt-chasing Cabinet secretaries.

Two of the slain priests served in Nueva Ecija, one of the remaining bases of the communist New People’s Army (NPA), which uses the terrain there to move guerrillas to and from Cagayan in the northern tip and the Cordillera region upwards. (READ: Slain priest Richmond Nilo buried in Nueva Ecija)

The other priest who was killed, Father Mark Ventura, was based in Cagayan.

It is relevant to state this fact, lest we be lulled into treating these killings outside the historical context of why priests have been killed in this country.

They are killed because they work and live with the poor. They are at the frontlines of the real battle that Filipinos living outside gated communities fight every day: the battle against hunger, the battle against abuse of power, and the battle for government attention.

Philippine presidents before Duterte knew and acknowledged this, although grudgingly in the case of some.

This is why they have always drawn the line when it came to dealing with the Catholic Church and its members. They know that while the Catholic Church’s medieval thinking has helped bloat our population, its clergy do real work on the ground to fill in the gaps left by corrupt politicians, an inefficient bureaucracy, and our perennially irresponsible elite.

Retired priest Father Tito Paez, 72 years old (the oldest priest to be killed in recent Philippine history), was shot dead in December 2017 while he was driving in the town of San Leonardo, Nueva Ecija, a few hours after he facilitated the release of a political prisoner in the province. (READ: Father Tito Paez: 'A comrade for others')

Father Richmond Nilo, 43, a passionate theologian who celebrated Masses in the remotest villages and practiced sign language, was killed as he was about to say Mass, his blood splattered on the chapel floor, just below the crucifix and a statue of the Virgin Mary. (READ: Father Nilo: Nueva Ecija's hardworking defender of the Catholic Church)

Just as brazen was the death of Father Mark Ventura, who was shot as he was blessing children and talking to choir members after saying Mass at a chapel in Gattaran, Cagayan, last April. He was 37. 

Why in the world do these things happen? Who murders priests right in the home of God? 

Even the dreaded Manero brothers, who belonged to a notorious paramilitary group during the Marcos years, aimed at their target – the much loved Italian missionary Tulio Favali – on the streets, far from church premises.

The only bishop to have been killed in this country, the late Bishop Benjamin de Jesus, was shot in 1997 a few meters away from the Catholic cathedral in Jolo, Sulu. 

It’s as if the killers kept just a slice of decency in their hearts – and respect for their skills – to exclude the altar from their list of crime scenes. 

After all, a priest out on the street can be a difficult target, while a priest in the home of God is most vulnerable and defenseless, that he becomes easy prey even for a bumbling gun-for-hire.

What has changed in our society to cause such cold-bloodedness?

Hate, the kind that emanates no less from the altar of power in Malacañang. And impunity, which is its intended consequence.

From this altar, the President has blasted the Church for its hypocrisy and blabbering clergy; for its being “full of shit;” and for its criticism of his drug war even as its members (who are no saints, just human beings) keep skeletons in their closet.

His hateful words lump the clergy with his war booties – the dregs of humanity who are the drug users and dealers; the oligarchic and unpatriotic Filipinos in the news media; and that "son-of-a-bitch" dismissed chief justice.

The President’s persistent verbal attacks against the Church, even after these killings, leave us with only one thought: that beyond his insensitivity, he is out to silence an institution that has now become his fierce critic. 

Because it cannot be impeached or shut down, the Church and its clergy are being demonized and scared to death by the sheer language of the country’s most powerful man. 

The Church hierarchy, in particular the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), learned the hard way that extrajudicial killings – which were initially met with cold silence by the conservative bishops – do not spare the men of God.

They should raise hell and tell their lost shepherd to stop polluting the air with hate, which is the first necessary emotion for crime to happen and persist.

And they should do this outside their altars – to show they mean business.

Who knows, they may yet convince the rest of us that – despite their frailties – they continue to be a force to reckon with in the face of tyranny. – Rappler.com