Remembering Bishop Claver and the Bukidnon of his time

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/03 July) — Emma Asok, an active member of the Catholic Women’s League in the early 1980s was on the verge of tears upon hearing the news on the church-run DXDB AM station that Francisco Claver, Bukidnon’s first Catholic Bishop, died on July 1.

She heard the news a day after Claver’s passing.

Asok, now 73, recalls Claver as a very encouraging minister who was committed to the evangelization of the local church. She said she remembered him as a courageous leader of the people during Martial Law.

People like her remember the Bukidnon of their time upon hearing the news of the bishop’s death. He was a pro-poor, pro-people bishop, she said.

Claver, who was Bukidnon bishop from 1969 to 1984, died of pulmonary embolism on July 2 after months of illness. He was 81.

The Diocese of Malaybalay planned services around the province to honor Claver. Fr. Bobby Cena, diocesan chancellor said they are holding vigil services on July 6 and simultaneous masses on the day of his burial, July 7, in Bukidnon’s 45 parishes.

Instead of holding a meeting on June 7, the priests will hold it on June 6 right after a monthly recollection so at least 10 of them could attend burial services in Manila.

Fr. Jojo Sumastre, one of those who will be attending the burial, recalls the “pro-poor” bishop who approved his ordination to priesthood.

“He was reserved and preferred to listen to his priests and the parishioners but when it comes to human rights violations and oppression of the poor, he was a staunch and most vocal critic,” he said.

The Society of Jesus, in a communiqué to the Diocese, described him as an “outspoken, clear-minded opponent of the evils of martial law, a stance that won him much respect both here and abroad.”

During Martial Law, when others preferred to be silent, Claver spoke strongly against Ferdinand Marcos and his military ilk.

In the Bukidnon under Martial Law, the most prevalent issue was military abuses like illegal arrests and other forms of harassment
against the poor, Sumastre, now parish priest of Lady of All Nations Parish in Gango, Libona town recalled.

“During those times, the poor could find refuge in Bishop Cisco. He used the pulpit, the print media, and the radio to condemn the violations and admonish the abusers.”

Sumastre, who spent one year of pastoral work in Claver’s office before being ordained a priest in 1983, said political prisoners and the poor subjected to abuses by the landed elite found the Bishop as an ally.

In his pro-poor stance, Claver kept his distance from the rich. Even Bukidnon Gov. Carlos Fortich, whose family owned huge landholdings in the province, did not escape the bishop’s rebuke, he added.

“He would organize dialogues for the poor to be able to meet with Gov. Fortich in times of complaints on certain issues, largely on land…When he speaks, government officials like Fortich and the military would listen,” Sumastre said.

Claver became known too for his pastoral letters, which were printed in the Church’s newsletter, the Ang Bandilyo sa Bukidnon. His rebuke of authorities for violations were printed in the newsletter circulated in all parishes around the province.

Pepito Maguale Sr., publisher of Central Mindanao Newswatch, remembers Claver as “radical” compared to other bishops.

“He was extremely critical of Marcos. He did not spare Gov. Fortich,” Maguale, who was then the provincial public information officer, said.

“He kept the government watched,” he added.

On issues confronting the parishioners, Claver would gather the clergy and listen to their opinions, Sumastre said.

Many would remember him as a “man of few words” despite his being an outspoken critic of Marcos. But this was because he spent more time listening, Sumastre said.

But he admitted that Claver was straightforward and he expected others to tell him of their concerns directly.

Fr. Danilo Paciente, a parish priest at the time of the bishop’s administration, described him as “a deep thinker, a prolific writer, and staunch advocate of social justice.”

“He was really the kind who wanted the Gospel teachings on social justice put in place in Bukidnon,” Sumastre said.

He said it was during his time that Marcos padlocked DXBB (old name of DXDB) and the Ang Bandilyo newsletter for their calls for social justice against the Marcos dictatorship.

In November 18, 1976 the military raided DXBB, took away all the broadcast equipment and left the station padlocked on orders from then defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile. In January 22, 1977 the military raided the Ang Bandilyo, took away its printing equipment.  But they filed no cases against its workers.

During Martial Law, the church-run media was accused of being subversive.

Claver continued reporting about the abuses of the military through his pastoral letters printed just like the Bandilyo.

He strongly supported the Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) bringing the Catholic Church to the grassroots.

Cena said that up to now the BECs serve as the foundation for the transformation of communities to Christ.

Sumastre said among the most endearing traits of the bishop was his closeness to the indigenous people.

In the late 1960s, before his ordination as bishop, Claver went on mission to Bukidnon in line with his anthropological research in mission parishes. He was the first to go on a mission to the Manobos in San Fernando.

The bishop, he said, was known for the concept of focusing on the similarities of the Catholic faith to the beliefs of the natives.

He wanted the Manobos to get to know God by using copies of the Bible translated to Manobo by the researchers at the Summer Institute of Linguistics, which is run by a non-Catholic group.

“At that time, he didn’t mind that it’s (translated Bible) from other faiths. It was important that the Manobos would be closer to Magbabaya (God),” Sumastre said.

“As an Igorot, the bishop didn’t have a hard time connecting with the Lumads,” the priest said. (Walter I. Balane/MindaNews)