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The Spanish friar,
beyond the propaganda

LIKE many Filipinos I harbor negative stereotype images of friars in general and Spanish friars in particular. Padre Damaso, Fray Botod and Padre Salvi are quite real to me even if they are fictional characters created by Jose Rizal and Graciano Lopez Jaena in the late 19th century. While these literary characters (caricatures?) are based on real people, they seldom resemble the few Spanish and Filipino friars I have known personally. Contrary to popular belief, Augustinians, Dominicans and Franciscans today are not generally fat, corrupt, sexually depraved, materialistic, scheming or Spaniards. How come few of us even attempt to rethink our dated ideas of friars?

Then as now there were friars who broke rules of poverty and obedience. There have been lapses in chastity. All the abuses attributed to the friars in the late 19th century were probably true, but in isolated cases. Yet, there is a tendency to generalize. If the Spanish friars were so bad, why was there a need for them to be written about in the propaganda movement? Wouldn't their deeds be well known if they were as vile as we are led to believe? If Spanish friars were as bad as they are supposed to be, how could they walk freely in the Philippines, sometimes in places where the friar was the only Spaniard in town? Even the Spanish colonial government that did not always see eye to eye with the Church, treated the friars as a necessary evil. For example, one official was quoted as saying, "It is more important for the preservation of the colony to send 200 religious than 2,000 bayonets."

This is not a pro-friar column, I just feel that the friars are just one of many things in our history that need revision due to experience and research. Strictly speaking, a friar is a member of certain religious orders of men. In the colonial Philippines we had Augustinians (including Augustinian Recollects), Dominicans and Franciscans. Jesuits are NOT friars. Neither are monks of a contemplative or semi-contemplative kind: Benedictines, Cistercians, Carthusians, etc. Textbooks make the distinction between a "regular" and a "secular" priest. The former is a member of a religious order, bound to a religious "rule" of life (regula in Latin, regla in Spanish), the latter is not bound by a rule. Today this definition is further diluted because in common usage secular means something that is neither religious, regular or even ecclesiastical. These fine distinctions are not made in the anti-friar propaganda of the late 19th century leading to a clouded vision today.

In 1898 there were an estimated 1,180 regulars in the Philippines, about 439 (depending on the source used) were prisoners of the Malolos government. Twenty-five of these 439 died in captivity. In the light of the total Spanish prisoners held by the Aguinaldo government, that is barely 5 percent yet the friar prisoners are most prominent and, depending on who was in charge of them, were treated in extremes -- too good such that some lay prisoners gave themselves a tonsure to get good treatment, on the other hand there were isolated cases of verbal abuse, torture and even execution.

Even in captivity friars were treated differently. Telesforo Canseco, reacting to the move for the expulsion of the friars in San Francisco de Malabon (now General Trias), quotes someone as saying "Cung umalis and mga pareng Castila, sinong matitirang pari? Ang mga Tagalog? Cung ganoon ay caramihan natin ay maguiguing judio (If the Spanish priests leave, who will be left? Tagalogs? That being the case, many people will become Jews)." Naturally, Canseco is biased, but what do we make of the letters exchanged between Aguinaldo and Fray Tomas Espejo, a Dominican in Pateros? Aguinaldo in a reply to Fray Tomas dated Jan. 8, 1897, that is nine days after Jose Rizal's execution, says among other things:

". . . Every time I remember your great goodness of heart, I have raised my eyes to God and I have always said that if all the Spaniards were like you, there would never have been or ever would be an insurrection. It should be clear, Reverend Father, that this option has been caused in me by the repeated abuses, insults and machinations of your compatriots who desire to do us harm. If this had not been the case there would have been no rebellion."

I am rather surprised to read the above words by Aguinaldo, but it made me go over the literature again and rethink my position. The problem with friars is that they were Spanish and thus integral to Spanish colonization. Racism has a lot to do with the way we see friars today and its roots go way back to the 18th century in a failed attempt to turn over the Philippine parishes from the Spanish regulars to hastily trained Filipino seculars. Accepting that the friars were Spaniards first and religious second, makes us understand why many of them resisted the Filipinos' legitimate call for reforms and eventual separation from Spain.

To know is to understand. Now that I have outgrown the anti-friar propaganda of Rizal, Del Pilar, Lopez-Jaena et al. and visited colonial churches around the country, I am beginning to separate fact from fiction. To understand the Spanish friar is to see Philippine history and ourselves in a different light.

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