It was the Sunday right after the Filipino people’s traditional visit to their beloved dead in the cemeteries along with their additional remembrance of those killed extra-judicially in the government’s bloody centerpiece war on drugs as implored by different religious sects in the country. And the day was awash with gentle sunshine after more than a month of heavy rains in the afternoons. In a dominantly Catholic country, the devout could easily say these were the signs the heavens favored a church call for the “Heal Our Land” mass cum procession by the eminent Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) on November 5. Euphemism aside, the more optimistic went further to conjure that the heavens approved of escalating mass actions against the scandal-wrought, protocol-defying rule of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.
The activity couldn’t help but evoke the historic four-day People Power revolution in EDSA in 1986 that toppled a 14-year dictatorship by Ferdinand Marcos and restored democracy installing Corazon Aquino, widow of his slain nemesis (Ninoy), as president. A prominent religious figure (Jaime Cardinal Sin) made the call then and the long-seething citizenry trooped to the area of the metropolis’ main highway between two military camps, with only Mama Mary and the nuns offering shields. This time, Archbishop Socrates Villegas, also the CBCP president, kicked off a 33-day healing calendar where a 40-day “stop the killings” crusade ended. Now the tickle in the imagination: Is another People Power in the offing?
At the mass in the Edsa Shrine built at the corner of EDSA and Ortigas Avenue to honor that historic event, the popular Bishop Soc delivered a strongly worded and emotional homily in Pilipino and English that alluded to the bloody extra-judicial killings of drug suspects (mostly poor), short of naming the mastermind. In fact, he called on all – government officials, civil servants, church shepherds, the faithful especially the insensitive and silent – to stop it. With caution, he invokes the victims instead, “The plea to stop the killings is the wail of more than ten thousand countrymen who were gunned down because they were alleged to be fighting back. It is also the cry of the parents, children, and spouses left behind. Enough. If we don’t stop the killings, there’s a curse and punishment to the country, as expressed by Our Lady at Fatima,” Archbishop Villegas hammered in the native tongue.
Repent, he repeatedly admonished all sectors, for the healing to begin. “Let’s return to God. We got lost, and we chose darkness over light. Why do we clap over the killings? We chose violence over peace. Lying over truth. Laughing at obscenities. Silence instead of getting involved.”
“This is not the Philippines. This is not the Filipino.” Maybe, this is already one of the statements he issued to turn back the people to their character.
The ensuing procession from the church to the People Power monument a kilometer away on a police-demarcated lane of the highway was marked by a chanting of Hail Mary and Salve Regina and the recitation of the rosary as the tall statue of the Our Lady of Fatima was carried overhead. Clearly, this was a solemn event, not a political and fiery one, although CBCP’s co-organizer is Tindig Pilipinas (Stand up, Philippines), whose founders include stalwarts in protests against not only Dictator Marcos but also against later presidents accused of plunder (Estrada and Arroyo). No patriotic anthems till when we left at 6 pm, no parade of vitriolic placards, no firebrand speeches, at the most entertaining musical potshots at the nation’s state of affairs. Yet, there around a stage to the side of the monument, the headcount by the organizers ballooned to 20,000, the biggest crowd-drawer among the mass actions to date in the 16-month Duterte presidency. Among the mix of priests and nuns and students, millennials and Edsa veterans, dressed-down villagers and urban poor, politicians and NGOs, spotted were outspoken oppositionists led by Senator Antonio Trillanes, two low-profile Aquino women (daughters to President Cory and sisters to President Noynoy), “walking priest” street marcher Fr. Robert Reyes, martial law detainee Etta Rosales, rally regular singer-composer Jim Paredes, families of EJK victims, and now-familiar faces in mass gatherings. Yes, the vice-president (Leni Robredo) was also there in the church, the next woman who may benefit the most, constitutionally, should a people power succeed.
The Sunday church initiative, without the fireworks, certainly hinted of a build-up of disgust over both the profane rhetoric of the roughshod president (invectives even against world leaders, also misogynistic remarks) and his governance style (EJK and protection for its bloodthirsty policemen, among a litany of brazen acts). The time to be more prayerful seemed right, with the perceived escalating authoritarianism, unfiltered threats to independent institutions, stifling of dissent and criticism, trampling of democracy, non-resistance to China’s encroachment in Philippine waters, upholding of low morality, and encouragement of impunity. Fiercest Duterte critic, Sen. Trillanes, likewise deferred to the gathering’s solemn tone and merely advised during an ambush interview, “Let’s re-calibrate our moral compass.” A Prayer Power event, no doubt.
Some social media warriors lament that, with the impressive show of numbers in the November 5 gathering, not to mention the intensifying sentiment, there was a missed opportunity for people power that could unseat the president before he declares martial law or the revolutionary government he’s been dangling for months. The hothead activists were disappointed that the Church remained restrained, hiding in the cloak of prayer.
There’s no forever for government and politicians, the homily reminds, assuring both power holders and possible power tilters. Can the Filipino’s proverbial patience wait out the term’s end? Will repentance and healing happen across the board? Or is the November 5 prayer power a precursor of people power. Another wind in the country that has proudly contributed the template for a non-violent method of deposing its tormenting leader?
This article is written by Erlie Lopez. She is a citizen of the Philippines, a long-time Public Relations strategist and writer, a founder of a PR agency with Asia-Pacific ties, an avid observer of socio-political developments in her country, and a supporter of peace and environment advocacies and initiatives.