(Editor: This lecture was given June 18, 2011 at the Newberry Library in Chicago by Ramon G. Lopez, M.D., a great-grand nephew of Dr. Jose Rizal through the Paciano and Narcisa branches of the Rizal family tree. His father is Edmundo Rizal Lopez, grandson of General Paciano and Severina Decena, and of Narcisa Rizal and Antonino Lopez. Two separate branches of the Rizal tree bore his father’s parents: Emiliana Rizal from General Paciano, and Antonio Lopez from Narcisa Rizal. His father’s parents were first cousins. He is a fourth generation Rizal kin.)
In this sesquicentennial birthday commemoration of our national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, I have decided to revisit with you my personal viewpoint regarding the controversial issue of the alleged retraction of his political and religious beliefs as he neared his death and martyrdom. This is a topic that always seems to come up whenever I am honored with an invitation to speak.
It has been 150 years since the birth of our national hero. It is almost 115 years since he was executed by firing squad. Still, the alleged recantation of his life’s work and beliefs as espoused by his accusers and detractors festers like an open wound, challenging and holding hostage the purity of his legacy. The question for us of course is, “Why the continued interest?” Is it perhaps because history gives us a “clouded” answer regarding this matter? Is it perhaps because when we read the works of the so-called “authoritative” sources on our martyred hero, a third of them passionately declare that he did not recant his moral, political, and ecclesiastical beliefs? That the next third vigorously say he did, and the remaining third have not an opinion, or are still searching for facts to bolster a belief?
There are those who would be “fence-sitters”, for they themselves are unsure on the true facts of history. And then there are also those who would parse their words and had said that if Dr. Jose Rizal did abjure, “it was not a surrender of intellect, only a renewal of the heart.” As the venerable late Philippine Senator Camilo Osias had declared:
“This mooted question should be calmly analyzed and weighed in the light of the character of Dr. Jose Rizal. Either Rizal did or did not retract. The burden of proof is upon those who insist that he did. And they must come forward with a documentary or other evidence that is irrefutable and convincing. Until that evidence that is incontrovertible and overwhelming is produced, free men and thinking men cannot accept Rizal’s retraction as a fact…. Now, if he retracted and yet was executed on that fatal December 30th, the crime of his murderers becomes doubly heinous!”
For now, even my 98-year old esteemed and endeared Tita Soni Lopez-Bantug who wrote the book, Lolo Jose – An Intimate Portrait of Rizal and Indio Bravo had admitted to the family, “At the time I wrote the books, I decided to leave the issue of the ‘Retraction’ to the judgment of the readers, but afterwards regretted doing so.” She said, “Personally, I never at all believed that he had made a retraction.”
Likewise, is it not ironic that during the 377 years in which the Philippines was under Spanish colonization, the pervasive regime was then that of an intimately conjugal administration by the religious and secular? And not too long ago in 1956 when a fist fight broke out in the halls of the Philippine Congress as they debated the passage of Senator Claro M. Recto’s “Rizal Bill”, with the protagonists being the State (i.e. the Philippine government) versus essentially, the Philippine Catholic Church, which then had declared that 170 passages in the Noli Me Tangere and 50 passages in the El Filibusterismo were offensive to the Catholic faith? Thus, it was declared then by the Philippine Catholic Church that the faithful were banned from reading, retaining, or distributing these works which were considered heretical, and that doing so would bring the wrath of the pain of sin and bring forth canonical sanctions, meaning that of excommunication! Finally however, after much painful wrangling, Republic Act 1425—“The Rizal Bill”—was finally passed for the Filipino people on June 12, 1956.
If this controversy now puts some of us in a state of “suspended animation”, I would like to say that negativity in the form of disinterest and nonchalance on an important issue that is part of our heritage is to disinherit ourselves, our children, and our children’s children from our Filipino identity. For as British writer and philosopher, G.K. Chesterton, had said, “Education is the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.”
On this 115th year anniversary of Dr. Jose Rizal’s supreme sacrifice, I would like to revisit with you the issue of whether he had indeed made a retraction of his political and religious beliefs prior to his execution. I would then like to share with you my personal and biased opinions. However, let me first give you a microcosm of the historiographic, religious, and geopolitical world the Philippines was on in that epoch.
At first light in the morning of March 17, 1521, at the time when a Portuguese sailor by the name of Fernao de Megalhes (whom we know as Ferdinand Magellan) saw the shores and mountains of what is now known as Samar, there was not a “Filipinas” as we now know it to be. There was not a “Filipino” as we can see and describe now. There was only the diversity of people such as the Ivatans of Batanes, the Itnegs of Apayao, the Ilokanos, Tagalogs, and Pampanggos, the Hiligaynons of Negros, the Maranaws of Lanao, the Tibolis of Cotabato, and many other indigenous and disparate groups who lived in proximity or in distance with one another.
Roughly, there were around 500,000 inhabitants in the conglomerate of those 7,000 islands. They were docile and hard-working. They were already making trade with the Chinese, Japanese, and their Muslim Sumatran neighbors long before the arrival of their European colonizers in 1521. Theirs was an evolving culture, though already established were societal functions such as the different social classes, customary and written laws, a code of conduct, tribal, judicial, and trial processes, and a system of punishment and retribution.
In this pre-Spanish native society, the Tagalogs had already held belief in one supreme-being they called Bathala. There were other deities too, such as Apolaki, the Pangasinan god of war, Lalahon, the Visayan goddess of harvest, and Kidur, the Ifugao god of thunder. Women’s position in society was respected. They could own and inherit property. To show respect, men walked behind them when in their company. There existed the arts, a system of writing, oral and written literature, and a thriving economic life. From the canon-making of Panday Pira, to the artistry of the Pintados of the Visayas, there was hunting, fishing, and agriculture (which was the main industry). The country as a whole was abundant in untapped natural resources. Dr. Jose Rizal had recognized these attributes and assets of his people in its pre-colonial past.
With his admiration and belief in the scholarship of Antonio de Morga who wrote “Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas” in 1609, and at the same time comparing that work with the early Spanish chronicles of Pigafetta, Placencia, Chirino, and a few others, he found that de Morga’s treatise was more sympathetic to the Indios. Dr. Jose Rizal wanted annotations to de Morga’s work to be made by an Indio, and from the viewpoint of an Indio. He wanted to present the story of a thriving and vibrant pre-Hispanic Philippines through the eyes of an Indio, and from the heart of an Indio! For Dr. Jose Rizal believed that pride and knowledge in one’s past is crucial in the formation of a united and singular national identity. He was proud to be a Filipino, and wanted to be identified as a Filipino.
“Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité!”
Rizal was a man fatefully made for and unique for his time. A true Filipino by heart and sentiment, he was cognizant of the socio-political and religious upheavals that were of Europe at that time. He had intimately shared his vision for his “Filipinas” with his friend and confidante, Professor Ferdinand Blumentritt. As a man of deep intellect and of many accomplishments, he appreciated the works of Voltaire and Hugo, was enlightened by the philosophy of Kant, the Humanism of Erasmus, the Reformation of Luther, and the forthrightness of Freemasonry. He had had lively dialogues with del Pilar and Pastells, his life illuminated by the piety of Thomas a’Kempis’ “Imitatio Christi”, and above all, he dreamt the dreams of a free Philippines as enunciated by the tenets of the French Revolution, that of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité!”
As we peer through the pages of history, there were events that stood out. In the 377 years of Spanish colonization, cleric and civil governance of the Philippines was done by peninsular Spain through Mexico by way of the galleon trade route. This went on for 222 years with Mexico acting as the administrative appendage of Madrid. The Philippines then was a colony of a colony, managed and mismanaged in a second-hand fashion as a Spanish possession, through the galleons which made no more than one to two stops in the Islands per year. The Filipino people were isolated, ministered only by the medieval practices of the cabal of an increasingly abusive and renitent segment of the Catholic clergy and a subservient civil government. There was no concept of separation of Church and State, a problem writ extreme.
As we recognize the many contributions then of the Spanish and secular government to the developing maturity of a stagnant Filipino society, European life and culture was also undergoing an evolution. The monastics were invaluable in preserving Classical ideals, literature, and art during that period when Europe had slid into the early Middle Ages, or the Dark Ages. The Catholic Church too had entered its “Dark Ages”, a religious revolt that had been simmering since the early days of the Papacy… a Papacy that had absolute theocratic power over all aspects of the Catholic Church. With the use of threats of excommunication, of interdiction, and anathema, it could dethrone and enthrone emperors and kings, and the Papacy did so!
As history tells us, theirs were grievous offences and impieties such as those of debauchery, persecutions, and concupiscence, those of bribery, simony, and selling of indulgences and benefices, and those of forgeries… forgery, such as the allegedly-forged documents of the “Donation of Constantine I, the Great”, which made the Catholic Church accumulate immense wealth and lands throughout the western world. Theirs were the onus of schisms, papacies against papacies of the East and West, and the ignoble series of Papal Inquisitions that tormented and exterminated countless lives from Europe and up to the colonies of the Imperial nation.
“Holy Office of the Inquisition”
Unique to the penumbra of Philippine history was the start of the Spanish Roman Catholic Inquisition in 1478, as approved by Pope Sixtus IV, and vigorously carried out by the ruling Ferdinand II of Aragon, and Isabella I of Castille. This Inquisition was under the control and directives of the favored Dominican and Franciscan religious Orders, with Dominican Friar Tomas de Torquemada as the first Inquisitor General. His was a reign of terror, especially so against the Jews and the Moors. The still existing and functional “Holy Office of the Inquisition” is now known with a new sanitized name as the “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”, which is based in Rome. This was the backdrop against which Philippine history was then set. This was the stage in which the oeuvre and life of Dr. Jose Rizal passionately drifted. He was a man whose will and heart were steeled in the pursuit of an emancipated Filipinas. He was indeed a moth to his flame!
With sacrifices from his family he had gone to Europe to enlighten, be enlightened, and to wake up the dormant patriotic passions of his countrymen. Though given many opportunities in his short lifetime to turn a blind eye to his country’s travails, he did not. He could have chosen to not write the Noli and Fili, but he did. He could have given up his faith and become a Protestant, living a comfortable life with Nelly Boustead in Europe, but he did not. He could have disappeared from the confines of Dapitan, of Hong Kong, and Singapore, but he did not! He could have recanted all of his writings, teachings, and beliefs, but he did not… not even to save his own life!
As we see this dignified, composed man dressed in a black suit, walking to face his martyrdom, as we hear the drum roll bleat out its cadence of death, and as we see from afar the sunrise just beyond the mountains of Cavite and Bataan, the moment of sublime sacrifice is at hand…
“Consummatum est!” A volley of fire!
(Please see Part II)