Preaching the Gospel in Dangerous Times: The Shrine Under Martial Law

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This September 21, we will mark the 46th anniversary of the infamous declaration of martial law by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos imposed martial law on the nation from 1972 to 1981. With martial law, curfews were imposed, civil law, civil rights, habeas corpus were suspended, and military law or military justice were applied and extended to civilians. Many private establishments particularly media companies critical of the government were closed, and politician critics and activists were arrested. Under martial law there were widespread excesses and human rights abuses.

At the height of martial law, the Baclaran shrine became a symbol of resilience to the injustices and oppression of Marcos dictatorship and a beacon of hope for the thousands of devotees who struggled and pursued freedom and liberty amidst dangerous times.

Despite the nationwide curfew during the whole martial law period, the shrine was open to the devotees 24/7. The shrine never closed its doors to thousands of devotees and continued to celebrate the sacraments, conduct novenas and minister to both spiritual and material needs of devotees.

In the midst of the political and social upheavals of martial law years, the shrine stood in solidarity with those seeking justice and equality. The social turmoil gradually propelled Redemptorist to get involved with issues of human rights, justice and peace. Redemptorist missionaries stood in protest together with civil and people’s organizations against increasing militarization, rampant human rights violations, crony capitalism, widening gap between the rich and the poor, land reform, repression of workers, and others. The missionaries integrated these social issues in their mission and ministry at the shrine. These issues significantly influenced the method and content of preaching at the shrine and the conduct of parish mission in Manila and Tagalog provinces.

Because of involvement with justice and peace issues, the shrine became well-known as a shrine of activism and social involvement. As Filipino sociologist Manuel Victor Sapitula commented, “The Perpetual Help shrine’s emphasis on ‘engaged devotionalism’ sets it apart from other places of pilgrimage in the country.” [1] The shrine became very vocal about issues and advocacy towards transformation in Philippine church and society. Redemptorist were not just administering sacraments but also preaching about burning issues of the day in the light of the gospel. Gradually, the thrust of the shrine was not just devotional and spiritual but social and missional as well. These activities and the strong preaching on justice and peace, however, subjected Baclaran church to a continuous surveillance by the Marcos Intelligence forces. There was not a few times that the shrine received warnings and death threats over the phone.

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The last years of martial law saw the shrine playing a pivotal role in the eventual downfall of Marcos dictatorship.

When the main opposition leader, Ninoy Aquino, returning from exile in 1983, was assassinated at the Manila International Airport, it was to Baclaran that his family and welcoming party went to pray. A spokesman addressed the Sunday congregation asking for prayers for Ninoy and for the country he said was worth dying for. That tragic event rudely awakened the middle class from its complacency and timidity, ushering in an era of unprecedented activism.

An ingenious expressions of dissent that was used against the Marcos regime after the Ninoy assassination was jogging. On Sundays, a group, led by Ninoy’s brother Butch and their sympathizers, would jog from Rizal Park along Roxas Boulevard and end up in Baclaran for the 9 a.m. Mass.

When Redemptorist Father Rudy Romano was kidnapped in Cebu on July 11, 1985 amidst strong suspicion of military perpetrators, Baclaran Church gave his case all out support, even dedicating in his memory, a hall–Romano Hall, a street marker and a monument (together with other desaparecidos or missing persons during the Marcos regime).

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When Marcos called a “snap election” and Ninoy’s widow, Cory, was persuaded to run against him, things began to heat up to boiling point. During the counting of the ballots, some computer technicians began to notice how the official figures on the tally board kept showing a widening Marcos lead, even as the citizen’s NAMFREL count was showing the very opposite. Sensing a highly sophisticated scam manipulating the results, 35 of the technicians found the courage to walk out, dealing a major blow to the credibility of the whole electoral process. Not surprisingly, the Marcos people attacked the walk¬out as “staged” for the benefit of the foreign press. One cited the fact that the group that walked out proceeded to Baclaran where they were interviewed by the press, “when we all know that the Redemptorist church is a haven for the opposition.”

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What happened was that someone from the crowd shouted out the suggestion for them to proceed to Baclaran. When they arrived at the shrine, Redemptorist Fr. Frat Warren, happened to notice the group outside in the grounds. When he heard what they had done, he brought them into the convento in an act of humanitarian sympathy, to shield them from inquisitive reporters. He prepared a bit of supper for them and provided them with mats and sheets so they could spend the night in what used to be the community oratory on the second floor. They stayed there through the wee hours of the morning until it was thought safe enough for them to transfer elsewhere.

After Marcos endeavored to nullify Cory’s victory, the Bishops issued their now famous pastoral letter declaring the elections so “unparalleled in the fraudulence of their conduct,” that there was “no moral basis” (on Marcos’ part) for continuing to govern. Cardinal Sin chose to air the official hierarchy’s stand during the 6 PM Mass at Baclaran. Cory, who was present, began to address the crowd, but a gun threat caused the people to make a hasty exit.

Then came the brutal assassination of the former governor of Antique, Evelio Javier, whose remains were brought to Manila for burial. From the Manila Domestic Airport,. the remains were brought to Baclaran Church where a concelebrated mass was immediately said. This was followed by an all-night vigil and another mass the following day, attended by Cory. The huge crowd accompanied his remains on foot from Baclaran all the way to Ateneo, Evelio’s alma mater, a distance of some 20 kilometers. He had been an idealistic Atenean who went back to his native province to try to reform the political system. He had succeeded as far as getting elected governor, a feat in itself considering the rough and dangerous game that was the politics of those days. In the end, the system got him and murdered him. Thousands viewed Evelio’s remains and saluted him as a martyr for the cause of justice, thus helping to galvanize opposition to the perpetuation of Marcos’ rule.

All these events were significant build-up events to the now famous EDSA people’s power revolution which led to the Marcoses fleeing the country.

The aspirations of the people during martial law is reflected today in the wall art of the western wall of the shrine’s compound. Images from the history of struggle of the Filipino people especially during martial law are expressed in painting, mosaic and sculpture on the wall. These images are interspersed with images of creation and caring for mother earth. Pope Francis’ encyclical on the care for creation, the images of brother sun and sister moon provide a backdrop for many of the art works in the wall.

Wall-Art (2)

At a corner of the shrine lawn fronting Roxas Boulevard, is a monument called Bantayog ng Desaparecido (Memorial for the Disappeared) in memory of Fr. Rudy Romano and many other missing persons during the Marcos regime. The Bantayog lists the names of Fr. Rudy and hundreds of other missing people etched in granite panels. Unveiled in September 2004, the memorial is the refurbished “Flame of Courage Monument,” designed and created by sculptor Lito Mondejar. It features a mother carrying a torch, which symbolizes the courage of those left behind and continuing the struggle for justice. For families and friends of the disappeared, the Bantayog stands as a common ground for remembrance. The families come here every year in November 1 because they have no tomb to visit on All Souls’ Day.

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At the entrance of the shrine on Redemptorist Road, there is a marker embedded into the wall that records the visit of Cardinal Thomas O’Fiaich, Primate of Ireland, who came to show his solidarity with Fr. Rudy Romano’s case on Dec. 5, 1986.

The aspirations of the people during martial law years also influenced the revision of the novena in 1973. Some of the petitions in the 1973 novena reflected these aspirations:

“That we may work for the just distribution of this world’s goods,

Loving Mother, pray for us.”

Promotion of justice and peace was incorporated into the petitions of the novena.

That there will be genuine and lasting peace in the world,

Loving Mother pray for us.

That we may proclaim the dignity of work by doing our own work conscientiously,

Loving Mother pray for us.

The novena encouraged devotees to work towards justice and peace.

Help us to grow daily in genuine love of God and neighbor so that justice and peace may happily reign in the entire family of mankind. Amen.

[W]e earnestly ask you, our Mother
to help us comfort the sick and the dying
give hope to the poor and unemployed
heal the broken-hearted
teach justice to their oppressors
and bring back to God all those who have offended Him.[2]

novena2Indeed, Baclaran shrine served as a counter-symbol to the domination and oppression and a glimmer of hope amidst the dark period of the martial law era. Karl Gaspar beautifully sums up this image of the shrine as a counter-symbol,

Baclaran serves as a counter symbol, as a beacon of light, as a parola [lighthouse] by the shores of Manila Bay for the weary travelers out there in the pitch darkness of night. Because in this church-shrine which lies at the crossroads of people’s pains and struggles, but also their hopes and joys; which is open 24 hours a day from Monday to Sunday, through sunshine and rain, earthquakes and typhoons, dictatorships and people power; allows the devotees to sit still under the gaze of a loving Mother who bridges them to the God of small people, the anak-dalita [wretched children], the most abandoned. Here the poor came home to the bosom of God who does make possible plentiful Redemption.[3]

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[1] Manuel Victor Sapitula, Marian Piety and Modernity, 89.

[2] Perpetual Help Novena, Baclaran, 1973.

[3] Karl Gaspar, “Embracing the Mother’s Perpetual Compassion: The Specific Place of OMPH Icon-Novena in the Philippines’ Varied Marian Devotions,” Our Mother of Perpetual Help Icon and the Philippines: Multidisciplinary Perspectives to a Perpetual Help Spirituality (Manila: Institute for Spirituality in Asia, 2017), 87.

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