THE death of well-loved priest Fr. Tito Paez of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines from the bullets of brutal assassins in Nueva Ecija obviously sprung into action by Duterte’s declaration of war versus the left after the failure of the peace talks should not be forgotten nor ignored. I believe that when a new generation of Filipinos will look back on the notorious but brief rule of the man from the South many years into the future, they will look at the martyrdom of Fr. Tito as a watershed of sorts.
They will have the benefit of hindsight decades onwards and they will see that the popular but brutal regime of the folkish dictator began to slowly unravel and lose legitimacy when his madness for order and absolute power eventually victimized a man of the cloth who have taken sides with the poor and oppressed.
Last December 4, 2017, Fr. Tito responded to a request of a political detainee just released from prison for assistance. The family feared that he could be in danger once he stepped out behind bars given the climate of impunity prevailing in the country. It was a well-founded fear as motorcycle riding men were seen tailing Fr. Tito’s vehicle when the priest picked them up.
Thinking of the safety of everyone, online accounts reveal that the priest arranged for the transfer of the released political prisoner and his family to another vehicle in the parking lot of a parish. The plan was to use his vehicle as a decoy in order for the political prisoner and his family to lose the threat.
His fears were proven true when the same motorcycle riding men again followed Fr. Tito’s vehicle and on an appointed portion of the street overtook and then fired nine bullets at the passenger side. The attack was meant to kill the just released political prisoner if he was still riding the tinted vehicle. However, two of these bullets mortally wounded the priest. Witnesses report that Fr. Tito was able to shout to his assassins, “I am priest!” but they still fired their shots anyway.
Those were the last words of the “martyr” as the CBCP statement condemning his death correctly asserts. The declaration that he was a member of the ministry of Christ as the assassins peppered his vehicle with bullets was a poignant and powerful final act. In those final and pained three words, the priest was able to give his last homily. And he leaves us with powerful lessons about faith, discernment, and sacrifice.
If he only had the opportunity to explain his convictions beyond the seconds it took for the bullets to take away his life, he might probably put it this way: “Yes, I am a priest and have devoted my life to follow in the footsteps of Christ! For me this meant, following in His ministry for the poor and the oppressed. If someone were to come to me for shelter and protection, following the compassion that Christ showed others, I would do so unhesitatingly and with great conviction even if this meant putting my own life in danger. Yes, I am priest and my faith in God’s justness and righteousness is no match to the fear I may have over bullets and leaving this mortal life violently. I am a priest that means that I do not have the luxury to vacillate between whose ministry I should serve. Christ was clear on whose side he was on. In the balance of forces, He stood as I may stand and fall on the side of the poor and oppressed, even those who may have learned to fight back!”
Fr. Tito’s last homily should be an inspiration for the religious and non-religious. All throughout, his service to the poor had been the hallmark of his life. To die for a brother in shared solidarity for our common causes in the hands of a murderous State was his final Christian act worthy of our emulation.
We are not lacking for silent but inspiring acts of heroism as a people. Fr. Tito’s life and death is evidence of this. It is just sickening that this murderous State under Duterte, who has opened up a new frontier of death targeting members of legal progressive organizations, will have easy pickings among many who are ready to martyr themselves for the same righteous reasons as Fr. Tito did.