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A Historical Perspective: The Martyrdom of GOMBURZA

“We need to participate for the common good… good Catholics immerse themselves in politics by offering the best of themselves so that the leader can govern.” Pope Francis, 9/16/2013

Two weeks ago, I asked one of my siblings in Naga City if there was any planned celebration in the city for the 150th year since the martyrdom of the three Catholic priests that formed the acronym GOMBURZA? Her response was “who?” When I explained who the priests were, she said that nobody really pays attention anymore to these important historical people. Even for Dr. Jose Rizal, the national hero, she said that most Filipinos would rather go to the mall to enjoy the holiday.

It’s a real shame, but despite government efforts to promote them with various activities and rituals, these dynamics no longer evoke a popular sense of belonging to such important dates and people of the past. Their relevance hardly connects anymore. In the case of the martyred priests, one would think that the Catholic Church would be at the forefront promoting such important milestones particularly for the reasons why they were killed.

Filipino priests Francisco Gomes, Jose Burgos and Jacinto Zamora (GOMBURZA) were executed with a garrote while blindfolded and seated on a scaffold at Bagumbayan (now Luneta Park) on February 17, 1872. They were meted the death penalty for their alleged participation in the 1872 Cavite Mutiny. The mutiny occurred January 20. The priests were arrested, tried, convicted, and executed all in less than a month.

Gomes was the first to be executed. He was a 73 years old mestizo, college educated in Catholic schools (Letran and Santo Tomas) and was the head priest in Bacoor. Next was Jacinto Zamora, 37 years old and also college educated in the same schools as Gomes. He was working on his canon law doctorate He was previously assigned in several parishes in Metro Manila. Last was Burgos, the youngest at 35 and well-accomplished among the three with doctorate degrees in theology and canon law.

Contextually, these priests were executed at a time when there was racial tension between the local secular priests and the friars and members of the religious orders who disdained the prospect of working for an Indio. They also killed them because they could. The friars were at the height of their power and Filipinos were indifferent. The powerful message then was that the “Indios” only deserved to wear the see-through barongs and not worthy to hide their brown skin with opaque albeit colorful vestments reserved for European priests.

In truth, the unhampered abuses during the Spanish colonial times flourished because the church and state acted as one. And so, when 300 or so secular priests in Manila walked in the rain for their penitential “Alay Lakad” on February 17, 2022 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of GOMBURZA, it offends the memory of the martyred priests because the priests used it to magnify their partisan preference in the upcoming Philippine presidential elections.

Some priests unabashedly wore pink masks to show their true colors as to the presidential candidate they were supporting. Leading the march where priests holding a banner depicting the martyrs and their message “Maka-Diyos kaya Makabayan” (Pro-God, Pro-Philippines) to help voters discern who among the candidates embody and promote the values of the Catholic Church. But, there was no mistaking who the beneficiary of their message was – VP Leni Robredo, even if couched in such language.

His Eminence Jose Cardinal Advincula, Archbishop of Manila, was right that “True heroism is borne of holiness and true holiness issues into service for justice,” as a tribute to the fallen priests. Heroic virtue in the case of the three martyred priests, is the main importance that the Philippine Catholic leadership ought to advocate for beatification and sainthood of GOMBURZA.

The manner of their martyrdom is akin to that of Jesus who freely welcomed death for the world’s salvation. Their love and shedding blood for their priesthood and service to the Filipinos were the sweetest marks that brought them to the threshold of the charity of martyrdom. They died proudly wearing their badge of honor, their uniforms that reflect the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

However, to conflate it with “Maka-Diyos kaya Makabayan” in the context of the election with a particular candidate in mind, is wrong. Individually, priests can be social and have a right and a duty to participate in society while seeking together the common good and well-being of all.

The march would have been great had they not injected themselves into the partisan political divide. Their business is saving the soul, not arousing nationalism. GOMBURZA never admitted that they were part of the mutiny much less inspire them as alleged. Although their martyrdom became symbolic of the Philippine Revolution, still the martyred priests fought for their equal share of saving the Filipino soul from eternal damnation.

Actually, the march is just one example of the clergy’s partisan politics. Wearing pink ribbons on their vestments or soutane, wearing pink or pastel vestments, using the pulpit or sharing space with politicians affiliated with a particular candidate is a common refrain not just at the lower level but even bishops who would celebrate mass for a particular candidate.

If the Filipino clergy wants to contextualize the GOMBURZA martyrdom and wade into social reform, they should focus on the central problem in the Philippines today – the injustice and oppression of the social order. They can also borrow a page from Pope Francis to redefine capitalism as a force for good. The very candidate many of the Filipino clergy is supporting are financed and supported by the very oligarchs and wealthy Filipinos whose “greed worsens the poverty of others.”

Here’s a headline ON September 9, 2021: “Filipino billionaires’ wealth shoots up by 30% DURING THE PANDEMIC!” In 2019, the Philippines had 15 dollar billionaires compared to 3 in 1986. Back then, the three Philippine billionaires were the “poorest” among Asian billionaires. Seven of 15 (47%) billionaires NOW are either Chinese or of Chinese-descent and rank high in the Forbes List of Billionaires.

A Social Weather Station (SWS) survey published last year showed that 73% of Filipinos believe that religion is very important while 15% said religion is not at all important. The number actually dropped by 10% when compared to a similar survey from two years before. Clearly, the pandemic has frustrated the faithful and affected their livelihood. What is more worrisome is the finding in a 2020 survey that only 46% attend religious services weekly (66% in 1991), 34% monthly, and 27% occasionally.

But the answer is not campaigning for a candidate. Priests can wade into political issues without getting political. Pope Francis is a classic example.

Granted that the relationship between Church and State have suffered during the Duterte presidency, including cursing the Pope for the traffic jam in Manila, still “Maka-Diyos kaya Makabayan” logic, while morally supported by Church social teaching, still it violates the inviolable separation of the State and Church.


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