They are killing us and our country has become a killing field.
With these words, a group of priests led by Archbishop Socrates “Soc” Villegas denounced the murder of Fr. Richmond Nilo in Nueva Ecija — the third priest slain since last December — saying the assassins could have been “emboldened” by President Rodrigo Duterte’s verbal attacks against the clergy.
“They are killing our flock. They are killing us, the shepherds. They are killing our faith. They are cursing our Church. They are killing God again as they did [on] Calvary,” said Villegas and 11 other priests, including Bishop-elect Jose Elmer Mangalinao of Bayombong, Nueva Vizcaya.
Their statement came in the form of a pastoral letter to be read on Sunday throughout the Archdiocese of Lingayen and Dagupan in Pangasinan province.
“Let us implore the grace of God to touch the heart of the President of the Philippines to stop the verbal persecution of the Catholic Church because such attacks can unwittingly embolden more crimes against priests,” the pastoral message said.
Following criticisms of his brutal antidrug campaign by some members of the clergy, the President openly criticized the Catholic Church in the country, saying it was the “most hypocritical institution” in the country and describing priests as womanizers and corrupt.
In a separate statement on Tuesday, Independence Day, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the Archbishop of Manila, said the country was not truly independent amid rampant killings.
“There is fake independence if justice is being played with. I repeat: Destroying life is against the will of God. Killings are not a solution to personal or social problems,” Tagle said.
He cited the killings of many Filipinos, including overseas Filipino worker Henry Acorda, who was killed in Slovakia, and Father Nilo.
“I hope no one will come next. We weep for them, for their families and the society. We seek justice for them,” Tagle said.
Police said two men shot Nilo, 44, through a window of Nuestra Senora de la Nieve Chapel as he was about to celebrate Mass on Sunday in Zaragoza town, Nueva Ecija province, making him the third priest killed in the last six months.
On Dec. 4, 2017, Fr. Marcelito “Tito” Paez, 72, was shot dead by motorcycle-riding men while he was driving his car in Jaen town, also in Nueva Ecija.
On April 29, Fr. Mark Anthony Ventura, 37, was gunned down after saying Mass in Gattaran town, Cagayan province.
Like blind fanatics
The pastoral letter said Nilo’s killers were like the blind fanatic knights of England’s King Henry II who wanted to please the monarch by butchering Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket in the 12th century.
Henry II, however, became penitent and offered penance. The murderers then were disgraced, unlike today when “the murderers are commended and the king is undisturbed,” the statement said.
The priests also lamented that killings have become a “solution” and “answer” to problems and were being “encouraged.”
“They kill in the streets. They kill inside homes. They kill in tricycles and jeeps. They kill in plazas. They kill in the malls. They kill in the chapels. The nation is a killing field. They kill everywhere. They are happy to kill,” the pastoral letter said in apparent reference also to killings in the war on drugs.
Addressing the flock, the pastoral letter said: “We are not afraid. We trust in the Lord. We are ready to battle for God’s honor. They want to bury us priests. But they forget that we priests are seeds. When you bury us, we will grow more and flourish,” the letter said.
“There is a special place in hell for killers. There is a worse place for those who kill priests,” it added.
Day of Reparation
The Archdiocese of Lingayen and Dagupan declared June 18, the ninth day of Nilo’s death, as a Day of Reparation when parish priests should expose the Blessed Sacrament and church bells should ring for 15 minutes starting at 6 p.m. to commemorate the time he was killed.
In Zaragoza, police said Nilo had helped farmers in a land dispute and had been protecting rape victims.
Nilo had also posted remarks and joined discussions on social media about Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) and had been preparing to engage the INC in a public debate in August, Chief Supt. Amador Corpus, Central Luzon police director, said on Tuesday.
Long strips of black cloth were hung at the church gates and the fence around the Vincentian Catholic Academy in Zaragoza.
“Although I said it was an isolated case, it would be addressed seriously by the police,” said Philippine National Police Director General Oscar Albayalde.
Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate said Albayalde was playing down the killing of priests in the country, saying his statement that the most recent fatal attack was just “isolated” was “really inexcusable, even revolting.”
Zarate said Albayalde instead should concentrate on finding and arresting the suspects—including possible rogue policemen—who could be responsible for the killings and the deaths of thousands of others. —WITH REPORTS FROM TINA G. SANTOS, GABRIEL CARDINOZA, ALLAN NAWAL AND ARMAND GALANG
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.