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  By Michael Kelly, SJ  
     
  THE sun broke through as we rolled into the remote town where Bishop Francisco Claver wanted to meet parishioners and their priest. It was August 1981, the height of the Ferdinand Marcos Martial Law regime that was to go on for another five years.

Cisco asked me the night before if I would like to accompany him the next day to this isolated parish in his mountain diocese in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao. There had been some trouble in the previous couple of weeks and he wanted to support the people and their priest.

A bone-jarring three-hour drive along unmade roads in his four-wheel drive later, we arrived, got out and knocked on the parish priest's door. The 34-year-old pastor emerged in shorts and thongs from a wooden hut with a dirt floor, pleased to see his bishop but looking timid and anxious.

After donning a T-shirt, the pastor took us immediately to the nearby church -- an open-air barn of a building typical of the variety in the Philippines. On the way, he told us how two more bodies were found floating down the river yesterday, bringing the number in the last fortnight to 12, murder victims of either or both the local land holders and planters or the Communist New People's Army.

We enter the church to find hundreds of people, some of whom had been in the church overnight, huddled in silence -- uncharacteristic for Filipinos. The introductions began, the atmosphere thawed, engagement followed and after what seemed to me like hours -- it was probably no more than an hour -- Mass began, the singing started and some joy and confidence returned.

To a naive and seminarised Australian, this was gobsmacking stuff. For Cisco Claver, it was his regular ministry. He had been bishop of Malaybalay for 12 years already though he was still not far past 50.

Jesuit Bishop Francisco Claver

His diocese had been set up as a Jesuit mission territory in the 1950s. As soon as the number of diocesan priests outnumbered the Jesuits in the diocese, he handed it over to a secular priest to run. But that wasn't for another four years.

These experiences and his unusual instincts for people were what marked Cisco -- he engaged and listened to people; he cared more about the Church than Vatican formulas. He was very Filipino -- he always thought and spoke of "we" (who he belonged to); he was quick witted and, in a dry way, always fun.

But he was different from many Filipinos -- he was an outsider, coming from a tribal group from a mountainous region of the main island in the Philippines -- Luzon. His family only became Christians just before he was born and hundreds of years after the Spanish arrived.

As an outsider, he was instinctively suspicious of the "main group" or the "mainstream," whether the campaign left whose deceit and manipulation he despised or the wealthy elite whose conceit and ruthless disregard for the common folk he derided.

He made plenty of enemies in politics and the Church. One of his arch opponents was the papal nuncio, Archbishop Torpigliani, whose lamentable effect in the Philippines lasted for over 20 years.

A close friend of Imelda Marcos, the nuncio was delighted to receive Cisco's resignation from Malaybalay after 15 years as its bishop so a diocesan priest could succeed him. Little did the nuncio know what he had done.

Drawing on Gandhi

Cisco moved back to Manila to live at the Jesuits' university there and work at the newly founded Institute for Church and Society. There, he began writing, advising and commenting on issues of Church and state and the enduring injustices and divisions in Philippine society under the corrupt Marcos regime.

Drawing on Gandhi and others, a particular emphasis in his work was non-violent resistance to injustices and the power of peaceful demonstration.

Cometh the moment, cometh the man. As the Marcos regime wobbled to its end along with its leader's health, there were unconcealed attempts by former allies like Juan Ponce Enrile to take over and continue to rule by decree. It was 1986, demonstrations were happening regularly and the prospect of change loomed -- for good or much worse.

Enter Cardinal Sin, with his famous pastoral that brought literally millions onto the streets. EDSA happened and People Power prevailed. A peaceful change from a corrupt regime was underway and it started with the cardinal’s letter, written for him by Cisco Claver where his lasting commitment to methods of peaceful change brought a result all hoped for but few expected.

After the tumult of the 1980s, Cisco returned to running a diocese – this time one close to his heart among his own tribal group, their first priest and bishop.

They are what we might call stone masons: they build houses and fences from rock rather than the makings common in the Philippines -- bamboo and grass. All his life and in whatever Jesuit Community he lived, even when he studied theology at Woodstock, USA, in the 1950s, Cisco's hobby and exercise was building fences, ones that would last.

What more apt image of him as a priest, Filipino, tribal, Jesuit and bishop?

Strong local Churches

It was his deepest conviction and the subject of his last book published earlier this year that the best fence for the Church was to build strong local Churches. If the Vatican had difficulties with Cisco, as they did in the 1980s, he had difficulties with it.

I remember him telling me once how frustrated he was at the slow progress being made on the dispensation of a priest we both knew in his Malaybalay diocese. "They let us bishops train and decide to ordain priests, but not dispense them when we know the circumstances far better."

He told the relevant Vatican office that if the priest was not dispensed within a certain time frame, he would do it himself. The priest was quickly laicized.

For all his physical, moral and intellectual strength, it was Cisco's gracious and gentle humility that left the deepest impression on me over the four decades I knew him -- from his first trip to Australia after the last ground-breaking Synod of Bishops in 1971 when he stayed with the Community at the theologate in Melbourne.

An almost natural gift, it seemed, Cisco's humility expressed itself in his simplicity despite the monumental contribution he made to his country’s history. It kept him close to his own people, to the people he served throughout his life and quite evidently to God.

He may well be the last of the great post-Vatican II leaders of the Church in Asia. If you told him, Cisco wouldn't know who you were talking about.
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Father Michael Kelly SJ has been executive director of UCA News since Jan. 1, 2009. He has worked in radio and TV production since 1982 and as a journalist in Australia and Asia for various publications, religious and secular.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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