LONG before Cardinal Tagle, Cardinal Rosales, Cardinal Sin, Cardinal Vidal and the rest of the Filipino cardinals -- there was a Kapampangan cardinal, Rufino Jiao Santos.
He became a cardinal in 1960, nine years before Julio Rosales of Samar (the second Filipino cardinal) and 16 years before Jaime Sin of Aklan (the third Filipino cardinal).
Rufino Santos was only 52 when he received the biretta (the cardinal’s red square cap), three years younger than Luis Tagle (who is 55) but four years older than Jaime Sin (who was only 48 when he became cardinal).
As the first Filipino and Southeast Asian to ever have the chance to elect a pope, or be elected pope himself, Rufino Santos was the crowning glory of more than 400 years of Catholicism in this part of the world.
Pope John XXIII, whose decision it was to make Santos a cardinal, told a delegation of Filipinos at the Vatican, “I understand that you had been impatient because you did not have a cardinal. Now your patience has been rewarded. Cardinal Santos wears a red cap now, and who knows -- a white one in the future.”
Three years later, Pope John XXIII was dead, and Cardinal Santos returned to the Vatican to participate in the conclave that eventually elected Giovanni Battista Montini, Archbishop of Milan, as Pope Paul VI.
It was the first and only conclave that Cardinal Santos attended, because Pope Paul VI outlived him (Cardinal Santos died in 1973, Pope Paul VI in 1978).
When we celebrated Cardinal Santos’ 100th birth anniversary in Guagua in 2008, Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, the Archbishop of Manila at the time, said it was only fitting that the country’s first Prince of the Church was a Kapampangan.
“It had to be Pampanga,” Cardinal Rosales said in his homily, referring to the well-known fidelity of Kapampangans to the Catholic Church dating back to 1571. In fact, Cardinal Santos’ hometown, Guagua, produced the country’s first priest (Francisco Baluyot, in 1698), first missionary (Alfonso Baluio, in 1703), and first seminarian (Agustin Baluyot, in 1705).
Rufino Santos was only 19 when he won a scholarship at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He earned his Doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD) at age 22, two years below the minimum (which was why he had to get a special dispensation from the Pope to be ordained).
His first assignment was as assistant parish priest of Imus, Cavite (the same parish where Cardinal Tagle was ordained priest in 1982 and bishop in 2001). Afterwards he became parish priest of Marilao, Bulacan. (Cavite, Bulacan and Pampanga were at the time still under the Archdiocese of Manila.)
At age 26, he was promoted to vice-chancellor (and later, treasurer and finance secretary) of the Archdiocese of Manila.
When World War II broke out, Rufino Santos stuck out his neck for his boss, the Archbishop of Manila (Michael O’Doherty), by saying it was he, and not O’Doherty, who had sent financial aid to the American-Filipino resistance movement.
As a result, the Japanese threw Santos into the dungeons of Fort Santiago (later transferred to Bilibid) where he was constantly beaten up like a common criminal. One day before his scheduled execution on February 5, 1945, the Allied Forces came and freed him.
After the war, he was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Manila, succeeding Cesar Ma. Guerrero, who had become the first bishop of the newly created Diocese of San Fernando, Pampanga.
He was nicknamed Bishop Santos, Jr. because a more senior bishop was also surnamed Santos (Pedro P. Santos, Archbishop of Nueva Caceres, who was also a Kapampangan from Porac and former parish priest of Angeles and co-founder of Holy Angel Academy).
Rufino Santos became Archbishop of Manila in 1953 following the death of the first Filipino archbishop of Manila, Gabriel Reyes, O’Doherty’s successor.
Like Pope Francis, Cardinal Santos made charity to the poor his top priority. During the banquet following his installation as Archbishop of Manila, he told his well-wishers, “One thing makes me unhappy tonight. While we are here feasting, I regret in the thought that many more members of this flock… are not with us to celebrate and break bread together.”
Also like Pope Francis, he impressed people with his humility and simple ways. For example, the day after his pet project, the Colegio Pontificio Filipino in Rome, opened, he stayed behind to help the seminarians clean up the place, even picking up the broom to sweep the floor himself.
His accomplishments as Archbishop of Manila include the establishment of the Catholic Charities (the precursor of Caritas Manila), a review board for motion pictures, radio and television (the precursor of the MTRCB), the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), Radio Veritas, and the reconstruction of the war-damaged Manila Cathedral (designed by a fellow Kapampangan, Fernando Ocampo).
His final years were marked by suffering and pain due to diabetes, brain tumor (the size of a tennis ball), and controversies (e.g., teaching of Rizal’s novels in schools, which he opposed; deathbed conversion of Gen. Aguinaldo from masonry to Catholicism, which he administered; and the ultra-liberal interpretation of Vatican II, which he opposed).
The winds of the First Quarter Storm also blew in his direction: students picketed his residence to demand that Church properties be sold to help the poor. He suffered extreme embarrassment when a would-be assassin nearly killed Pope Paul VI when he visited Manila in 1970, and when students with placards demanding Cardinal Santos’ resignation greeted the papal motorcade.
The same month of the pope’s visit, Typhoon Yoling devastated Manila, and only a few months later, the bombing of Plaza Miranda plunged the nation into chaos, leading to the declaration of martial law in 1972.
In June, 1973, Cardinal Santos suffered a stroke, from which he never recovered. He died on September 3, 1973. He was only 65, or 11 years younger than the present Pope. He was succeeded by Jaime Sin as Archbishop of Manila.
“Servant that he was, great man that he was, Cardinal Santos was misunderstood all the time,” Cardinal Rosales said. “Like a true prophet he was not accepted in his own hometown.”
Today, his forlorn statue stands behind a tricycle terminal in downtown Guagua, and the exact spot where he was born no longer bears any marker.