ZAMBOANGA CITY (02 May) — On May 3, this week, the Catholic community Basilan Province and Zamboanga City and the Claretian missionary congregation throughout the world will commemorate the 11th martyrdom anniversary of Fr. Rhoel Gallardo. On that day in the year 2000, Fr. Gallardo was found dead from three bullet wounds, in the aftermath of a military rescue operation in the forest of the province. Also found dead with him were three other teachers of Claret School of Tumahubong, of which he was the director and parish priest of the small Christian village located in the remote town of Sumisip, Basilan. Abu Sayyaf bandits had kidnapped them and 52 others, including many children, earlier on March 20, and held them hostage in the outlaws’ lair located atop a high mountain.
Fr. Gallardo was 34 years old when he died. His priestly life started when as a college student taking up a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in a school in Baguio City he was one day visited by a Claretian priest and invited to join the religious order. The young man from Zambales province promptly accepted the fateful call of Christ and His saints, surely chief among them the congregation’s founder, St. Anthony Mary Claret.
Fr. Gallardo completed his major seminary studies at the Claretian Formation Center in Manila, then hurdled his novitiate and served his early priesthood in Zamboanga and Basilan.
A few years later, he volunteered to serve as parish priest of Tumahubong, considered as one of the most dangerous Claretian postings in the world. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.” Fr. Gallardo, as it were, had taken the final step towards the martyrdom that God had reserved for him.
But Fr. Gallardo himself was not a unique and lonely case. He was only one among the many religious and diocesan priests who serve in conflict- and war-torn Mindanao. They struggle daily on behalf of God and for the people they serve against the apocalyptic horsemen of cultural and religious discrimination, poverty, ignorance and environmental massacre.
Fr. Gallardo was posthumously described by one of his fellow Claretian priests as “naïve”. As such, he was what evangelist St. Paul called a “fool for Christ”, indeed like his other religious men and women in troubled Mindanao. Many of them, like Fr. Gallardo, have been victims of kidnapping and death in the past decades, like St. Paul himself and the other early Christian disciples were under Roman rule.
In fact, just like Christ himself. Like Christ, Fr., Gallardo was tortured by his captors, his fingernails pulled out one by one according to those who survived the ordeal, because he insisted on praying the Holy Rosary every 6:00 in the evening and for inquiring about the whereabouts and safety of his fellow hostages. Like the Roman soldiers, the Abu Sayyafs made a mockery of his faith.
Those who knew Fr. Gallardo well also said that he loved to make corny jokes. Eleven years after dying at a young age, the world remembers him with love and awe – and this remembrance is Fr. Gallardo’s “corniest joke” on those who make a mockery of God and His faithful ones.