Over 14,000 Filipinos have become victims of extrajudicial killings since the beginning of Duterte’s reign. In recent times, the targets have not only been the poor – mostly suspected of being drug users and pushers -- but also those tagged as leftists and enemies of the state. Human rights activists have constantly been threatened. What is alarming is that religious leaders have also been added to the hit list as shown in the recent killings of a Protestant pastor and a Catholic priest – Fr. Tito Paez - a 72-year old priest of the diocese of San Jose, Nueva Ecija.
So, priests have once again become targets of the death squads. This is reminiscent of the Marcos dictatorial era. We can still remember Frs. Godofredo Alingal, Zacarias Agatep, Rudy Romano, Tulio Favale. Around the same period, in countries under dictatorial regimes like El Salvador, priests were also victims of extrajudicial killings. Among them were Fr. Rutilio Grande, the six Jesuit priests led by Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria, and Archbishop Oscar Romero.
Romero’s beatification as a martyr is Rome’s recognition of a martyrdom that is a consequence of fulfilling the prophetic mission -- of denouncing social evil and the culture of death, of injustice, oppression, violence, etc. and announcing the Gospel of love, peace, justice and liberation.
Under the present Duterte Regime, with its authoritarian and repressive character, lack of respect for human rights and due process, and enmity towards the Church, Fr. Tito Paez might not be the last priest-victim of EJK.
Of course, priests need not fear the death squads if they live a one-sided, one-dimensional model of ministry. There is nothing to fear if they simply say Mass and administer the sacraments, if they preach platitudes and remain blind, deaf and silent in the midst of evil – while majority of the people live miserable lives, victims poverty, injustice, violation of human rights. During this Year of the Clergy and Consecrated Persons, we priests are being reminded and challenged to live our priestly vocation to the full – to a heroic degree, and avoid mediocrity.
We need to go beyond the cultic model of priesthood and live according to the broader and integral model of the ordained ministry as promoted by Vatican II and PCP II.
This means avoiding being in-ward looking and living luxurious lifestyle and operating on a maintenance mode. This requires leaving our comfort zones, and go out to the peripheries – among the poor, the marginalized and alienated from the Church. This requires pastoral and missionary dynamism.
We are called to be renewed servant-leaders -- good shepherds -- forming and leading truly genuine Christian communities in our parishes and Basic Ecclesial Communities – communities that live in communion and actively participate in mission.
We are called to be prophets that denounce evil in all its form and announce the Good News of salvation and liberation, of peace and justice, of life and human dignity and human rights. We are called to be the conscience of society, calling people to conversion, and enabling our communities to be truly prophetic.
We are called to act and mobilize our communities to make the kingdom of God a reality. This means enabling our communities to become agents of social transformation, that works for liberation and total human development, peace and justice, and that defends the environment.a
We are called to embrace evangelical poverty, make an option for the poor and the enable the poor to actively participate in the Church’s life and mission.
As priests, we are called not just to preside in and celebrate the Eucharist but also live the Eucharist in our day to day life – a life of communion with God and our flock, a life of prayer and thanksgiving, a life of total self-giving and self-sacrifice.
“Do this in memory of me.” Our priesthood is expressed not just in our celebration but also in giving up our life in martyrdom – following the example of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Martyrdom is the consequence of a prophetic ministry and the supreme expression of priesthood and of being a servant-leader and good shepherd.
This is how Fr. Tito Paez lived and this is how he died. As priests, not all of us will be required to give up our life in martyrdom – that is a grace not given to all. But what matters most is how we live our priestly life and ministry to the full.