[OPINION] Pablo Virgilio David: The shepherd of Caloocan

Tony La Viña
[OPINION] Pablo Virgilio David: The shepherd of Caloocan
We need Church leaders who will describe rightly what we are facing: a death of conscience by those who justify the killings



President Duterte unleashed his most recent tirade against the Catholic Church by accusing Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of stealing Church donations and using them for his own personal use. He has even accused Bishop David of being into drugs and threatened to cut off his head.

To Duterte’s attacks, Bishop David gave a most Christian response when he simply shrugged off the allegations and attributed Duterte’s attacks to a very sick man who does not know what he is talking about. The bishop was alluding to persistent rumors that the President is suffering from various ailments.

“My parents never taught me to steal,” David said in a Facebook post. He earlier asked the public to pray for Duterte for he is a “very sick man” after the President called saints “gago” (fools) and “lasenggo” (drunkards). And this was after telling Filipinos to emulate them on All Saints’ Day.

Those who know Bishop David will just laugh off the absurdity of the President’s verbal attacks. Bishop David, affectionately called Bishop Ambo, who hails from Guagua Pampanga, is a simple man of God.

His ascent in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church (spanning several decades) – from an ordinary priest of Pampanga to Bishop of Caloocan, has never been tainted by any scandal, much less by any accusations of stealing. That is why his appointment as bishop of Caloocan, which has some of the poorest communities in Metro Manila, was welcomed enthusiastically by its residents.

On a personal note, I have known Bishop David for 40 years, since 1978 when I saw the light and shifted to Philosophy in college. He was two years ahead of me in Ateneo de Manila and I did not meet him personally then, but he was always looked up to for his brilliance as a predivinity student and then as a philosophy teacher. In more recent years and months, we have bumped into each other to share the same platforms for common advocacies.

I must confess how awed I am by this bishop – his simplicity, integrity, devotion and love for the poor, and holiness. The priests, religious and people of Pampanga whom he served for decades and his flock now in Caloocan (including government officials, military officers, and police brass) would say this too and would find the Duterte attacks strange and utterly without basis.

Dangerous accusations

But these words of the President are extremely dangerous. Many persons the President has called these names have ended up dead. And so, I have to say that it is entirely possible for us one day to wake up to, or see news in our cell phones that scream: Bishop David has been killed!

Normally, in situations like this, I would counsel the threatened person to leave the country, to let things cool off. But I will not do that in this case.

The truth is that we need Bishop David to be with us here in the Philippines. His flock in Caloocan needs him.

We need Bishop David, who, thankfully, is the Vice President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, to continue to speak truth to power. We need this Shepherd of Caloocan to be fierce in defending the rights of his sheep being slaughtered in the war against illegal drugs.

Bishop David once described his diocese of Caloocan as killing fields, vigorously denouncing the extrajudicial murders. “The fight against illegal drugs must indeed be relentless, but the killings – either by the police or by masked vigilantes – must be stopped! This will remain as our stubborn and relentless plea.”

We need Church leaders who will describe rightly what we are facing: a death of conscience by those who justify the killings. We need leaders brave enough to call vigilantes what they are: “termites and Judases.”

In the midst of this seeming normalization of violence, Bishop Ambo never tires repeating the mantra of non-violent response: “Let us never allow ourselves to be motivated by anger or hatred, resentment, revenge, or the instinct to retaliate or return evil for evil. Let us believe in the innate nobility of the human spirit. Let us not give evil the pleasure of having the last say, by always putting on check our tendency to hit back when we are hurt. Let us not allow the enemy to mold us into his own image and likeness.”

‘Stop the killings’

Bishop David has earned the ire of the President and is now a target because the good bishop refuses to take things passively, fearlessly calling a spade a spade and calling out the public to take action against the permeating evil.

We cannot accept these senseless killings sitting down simply because some of us think that it is good for society. By any standard, extrajudicial killings are wrong, even if it means killing criminals. In Bishop David’s own words: “Our desperate plea is only this: For God’s sake, stop the killings; start the healing!”

More importantly, Bishop David provides a better alternative to the vision of Duterte’s unwinnable war on how to fight the scourge of illegal drugs in our country. According to David, addiction to drugs is a disease, a serious illness that must be dealt not with bullets, but with rehabilitation.

He refutes claims that criminals can no longer be reformed and should not be given second chances: “If we were to hold that as true, that will be as good as giving up one of the most important principles of our faith as Christians that we all live only by grace and mercy of a forgiving God . . . Who are we to condemn, if our own God refuses to condemn us? Who of us do not sometimes stray from the right paths? Who of us does not commit mistakes? Who of us does not get sick – not just physically but sometimes also mentally and spiritually?”

A known biblical scholar, Bishop Ambo not only defends his flock through his incisive intellect but personally attends to the concerns of the victims’ families, diligently documenting the deaths of the hapless victims. This speaks volumes of his leadership style.

He is not content to ensconce himself in the bishop’s residence overseeing his diocese by way of remote control but is willing to sully his hands attending to the needs of his flock. That is why he has made Caloocan a place of mission stations, bringing the Church from the traditional parishes into the neighborhoods of the poor where most of the killings are happening.

For Bishop David, the killing of priests, whom he likened to martyrs, is not something to be afraid of. “They show us how valuable priesthood is. It is willing to stand up amidst persecution.” 

Impelled by a strong sense of mission, Bishop David is resolute in defending his flock. “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.)

In one of the gospels this week, anticipating the season of Advent, Jesus Christ speaks of shepherds like Bishop David: “You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”

Bishop David is not hated by all, probably not by many. But there are powerful people that do hate him because he loves the poor and defends them, because he loves the Lord and the people of God with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his mind.

The shepherd of Caloocan talks the talk and walks the walk, unmindful of his own personal safety amidst a murderous environment. I am afraid he is walking to martyrdom. But if martyrdom is the plan of God for him, no one can stop that from happening. But we can accompany him. I will. – Rappler.com

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