Bishop Antonio Y. Fortich


By Fr Niall O’Brien

We were sitting at the table in the sacristy of the cathedral waiting to go out and concelebrate with Msgr. Fortich. He was coming to the end of his period as Bishop of Bacolod and while I sat there somebody pushed in front of me a photocopy of an article, a short article, aimed against Msgr. Fortich. It claimed he was a communist. I said to my companion at the table, the bishop will be along in a couple of minutes, he’s not well, -- at that time he had phlebitis - let’s just not disturb his mind with this bit of invective. And I put it aside. But unfortunately my friend felt that the bishop should see it and he placed it in front of him when he arrived. We were sipping coffee, Msgr. read it silently then he put it down, thought for a moment and said aloud, “I have no problem with a world in which there are rich and poor; you have an automobile, I have a bicycle, so what? But I cannot accept that some people have to live by scavenging for food in the garbage cans of others.” He said this with such a tremor in his voice that I was very moved. I felt for a moment that I saw into the depth of his soul and what had motivated him during this last quarter of a century as Bishop of Bacolod.

In 1967 when Bishop Emmanuel Yap died, Fortich, as it were, swept into power as Bishop of Bacolod by the sheer will of the people. As soon as Msgr. Fortich became Bishop, on his very first day he said, The Bishop’s Palace will be called “the house of the people” and he immediately introduced a wide range of social amelioration projects. Here are some of them:

Bishop Fortich with Negros Nine at Cell number 7

  • The immediate implementation of land reform on Church Properties
  • The opening of the Social Action Centre under Fr. Luis Jalandoni
  • The purchase of an old sugar mill, transferring it, on a convoy of eighty trucks, to a remote mountain valley and the setting up of the Daconcogon Sugar, Rice and Corn Cooperative.
  • The starting of a legal aid program eventually under Atty. Frank Cruz with two lawyers free for the poor.
  • The allowing of Fr. Edgar Saguinsin and Fr. Hector Mauri to start the National Federation of Sugarcane Workers (NFSW)
  • The setting up of a scheme to liberate the sacadas with Bishop Cornelius De Wit of Antique on the neighboring island of Panay.

But probably the most important of all was that he convinced most of his own priests that service of the poor was essential to their ministry. And indeed he carried many of the hacenderos and businessmen with him infecting them with his enthusiasm and encouraging them to get involved. What a man! It was like as if in some other life he had kissed the Blarney Stone and used his bit of magic for all it was worth to convince his flock to follow him on the road of social transformation. As a result of these extraordinary activities he received the Magsaysay Award. It was with great pride that those of us who loved him went to Manila to support him when he received that prize. His secret was that he listened to lay people very carefully and genuinely allowed them to PARTICIPATE. The success of Daconcogon Mill was due in part to the fact that he himself kept a personal eye on finances. People knew that with him at the helm the money was safe. God grant that it will continue that way in Daconcogon.

His predecessor, the saintly Bishop Yap, was very conservative in the old fashioned way; Msgr. Fortich never criticized him but he did find ingenious ways around some of the extraordinary prohibitions which the bishop had introduced: I recall that Bishop Yap refused permission for a certain new church to be blessed; he then flew off to Manila leaving Fortich to face the irate donors and patrons of the new church. But Fortich telegraphed Yap in Manila: “request permission to bless tabernacle”! How could Bishop Yap refuse? And of course the patrons and sponsors did not notice the difference.

Bishop Fortich: Stop Militarization!

When Martial Law was declared Bishop Fortich was now in a difficult position. His diocese was alive and thriving and he felt it unwise to have an open confrontation with the Government which the Bishops agreed was the de facto government if not the de jure one. He needed government cooperation if his social projects were to work. At first he supported Marcos or at least, had an open mind at the beginning of Martial Law. But as time went on, it became very clear that the purpose of Martial Law was really to stop the ferment for social change that was taking place in the diocese of Bacolod and all over the Philippines. Development programs, yes, provided they cost nothing and that there was no sharing of the wealth. Many of Marcos’ own highly publicized development programs which involved billions of pesos ended up in not ever getting to the poor at all. Many of the priests now were sympathetic to the New People’s Army (NPA) and some of them actually joined the National Democratic Front which was the political face of the NPA. This was a dilemma to Msgr. Fortich. He strongly disagreed with these priests but in his usual way, he listened, and continued to plow ahead with his social projects. The sacada project was a noble failure. It never succeeded but strangely enough, it had quite a psychological impact on the land owners of Negros and I believe that the treatment of sacadas notably improved as a result. It is important to say that to this day we are still receiving sacadas over from the neighboring island of Panay and their condition is still at an inhumane level.

He had quite a balancing act to do. On the one hand some of his priests had clearly close connections with the NPA and on the other he was trying to run a diocese in which he had always been close friends with the land owners. Not just friends, he went out of his way to personally marry them & baptize their children. His room was always open to them. But there was a turning point for him when the scales fell from his eyes. We priests had been saying to him for a long time that the military showed one face to him -- pinstriped, educated-in-military-academy, clean shaven, wide-eyed sincerity -- and another face in the mountains where villages were burned down and people were being tortured and death squads were allowed loose to do what they wanted to do. This is not the place for me to go over and retell the stories of the torture of Vilma Riopay and hundreds of others. These are well documented though we did not know the full story till Alfred McCoy wrote his controversial expose in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Well, the turning point for Msgr. Fortich came when he was persuaded to arbitrate at a land problem in Bago City. The people knowing that Msgr. Fortich would be there to plead their cause, came willingly together but when the meeting was over, police outside arrested the people – men, women and children. Fortich was livid. He had been lied too. His name was used as a means of bringing the people there. They had been promised safe passage and encouraged to speak up. He felt betrayed, and I suppose, he felt slightly ashamed in front of the people who had trusted him. He was never the same afterwards. So when it came to the famous ‘cause celebre’ of his period as bishop, the murder by the NPA of the mayor of Kabankalan, Pablito Sola and when some of us priests were accused of plotting and executing that murder, he took our side openly and attended almost 50 sessions of the court case. Earlier on he had blotted his copy book in Marcos’ eyes by being one of the fearless bishops to sign a protest against Martial Law. He had backed down for a while after that. But now he was convinced that Martial Law was devastatingly destructive of social and human life in the Philippines. Indeed to this day, we have not recovered from the heritage of Martial Law and some of its main pillars are still in government.

Bishop Fortich surrenders Fr Gore at Kabankalan jail

You would be completely wrong if you saw Fortich as a rip roaring radical. He was a man who kept his balance. For him, sacramental life of the Church was very important. He rarely gave out to the priests or wagged his finger. But I recall on one occasion, at our monthly meeting, him standing up at the end and saying: “it’s great to be talking about these social issues and feel you’re part of the national struggle. But if someone is sick in your parish, are you there to attend them?” The Nuncio, Msgr. Torpigliani, had no time for Msgr. Fortich because he stood up to him. In fact, the Nuncio took the side of President Marcos, one way or another and even tried to block the Philippine Bishops’ historic letter condemning Marcos and calling for non-violent resistance. And when it came time for Bishop Fortich to retire, he rushed that retirement with undue haste asking Archbishop Piamonte to come across from Jaro to remind him to put in his letter of resignation. And that’s where Msgr. Fortich’s greatness showed: the humility with which he accepted that public wound.

Fortich never accumulated money. Can I repeat that? He never accumulated money. He did have a beautiful house in Sum-ag, which he gave to the diocese to be used as a retreat center and which is still being used for Cursillos to this day. He retired to the spartan old priests’ home and lived quietly there, attending his plants. But as he himself said, “There is no retirement from work for the poor.” He continued to carefully support and look after Daconcogon Mill project and to be open to so many other projects for the poor which he did quietly. He was not a man for gallivanting around the world. He rarely left the diocese for abroad in his whole period as bishop. And if he went to Manila, he was usually back the next day. One day when he came back from Iloilo in a small bi-plane in a storm, I said to him: were you not afraid Msgr.? No, he said, the storm di`n’t worry me, what did worry me was that most of the dashboard instruments were held together with rubber bands and scotch tape.

He was the elder statesman of the Bishops of the Philippines, revered by all for his wisdom. I suppose, what really has made him loved especially in Bacolod was his enduring personal relationships with so many people for whom he always had time. Frankly, I just don’t know how he did it; I need to escape. His door was always open and hundreds of people will tell you a story of how he fixed up their marriage, or helped them with problems with their children, or even with other complicated family problems and always with that lovely smile which we will all miss so much.

Of course, there were many times when he felt deeply hurt, apart from the occasion of his retirement. It hurt when priests left the priesthood, he used to say that priesthood is a gift and you should never return a gift. But then they were welcomed back to visit him and their children called him, ’lolo bishop’. Sometimes a priest would leave and join the NPA and forget to say goodbye; that did hurt.

After he retired he could not but be aware of scandals even among the clergy. He was a realist and knew that the fact that a priest was involved in social justice was no protection against temptation. In fact, social action work opens the door to foreign funding and that can easily be abused. That hurts. But he himself was never associated with scandal at anytime in his life. Yes, he had a battle with alcohol, we all knew that. He shared it with us, we discussed it with him and it wasn’t his fault. Hacenderos would come in and visit him always carrying a bottle and in Philippine hospitality there was no way you could refuse. However, there came a time when he knew he must stop and I had to smile when he would come up to visit us in Daconcogon for a board meeting and people would arrive carrying bottles, slamming them down on the table and saying, “this is Johnny Walker Black’’ or whatever but his secretary would quietly say “well I have Msgr.’s own whisky here,” and produce a bottle of what looked to be like special whisky just for the bishop. But the secretary, the bishop and I knew that it was cold tea. Oh, there was one scandal in your life Bishop. You were a scandal because you as a bishop, at a time before others were thinking in these ways, took the side of the poor even though it really meant curtailing your own future and losing a chance of preferment which, since you belong to the human race, must have been a sacrifice.

After his retirement, he took up work for peace and was a great inspiration behind the now historic Peace Zone in Cantomanyug in Candoni. This Peace Zone didn’t just fall out of the sky. Twenty years earlier, with the donation from the Torres Family, Bishop Fortich had set up a model community farm in that place. It was no surprise when in that very spot the first peace zone in the Philippines arose. It was a decision by the local people that no military and no armed men from either side of the struggle could come into their area. It was a symbolic action, a cry in the darkness, calling for someone to do something about the endless killings. Fortich drove into the mountains for the inauguration of this peace zone. We were all there with him. Proud of him that even in his old age he’d make such a journey. While we were there in the Convento, a Huey helicopter arrived, blades screaming and firing up dust and dirt and disgorged a whole crowd of soldiers in fatigues with machine guns. I must admit that I felt very hostile towards them as they poured up into the Convento. I could see the dismay on the face of Fr. Rolex Nueva, the parish priest. What was going to happen to our inauguration? I was stunned with what happened next. Msgr. Fortich had brought sandwiches and eggs, and soft drinks for his companions but he ordered me to share them with the military. As I handed them out, much against my will, I could not resist the temptation of saying, ‘’baka kulang pa ang inyong itlog.’’ They laughed and some how I began to smile again and I realized that the Bishop knew something about active nonviolence which refuses to see the ‘contra’ as enemy and insists on appealing to their conscience. An action worthy of Gandhi which helped to diffuse a very tense situation. Eventually, we got into our jeep and made our way out to the remote hamlet of Cantomanyug. Unfortunately, a band of soldiers barred our way and wouldn’t let us through, and not only that, what appeared to me to be a rent-a-crowd was gathered with a bullhorn. A man with dark purple glasses and balaclava stood above the others shouting us down and particularly at Msgr. Fortich. He accused him of being a violent man and so many other accusations. Looking over and seeing the old bishop standing there, way up in the hills as we were, when he could have been relaxing quietly at home, my heart went out to him. Here he was being insulted and one of the worst things that this strange figure in the balaclava and dark glasses had to say was that Bishop Fortich was an oppressor of the poor. A lot of his other jargon and cant seemed to be taken from some sort of fundamentalist sect. The Bishop stood there quietly with head bowed. A man who had been awarded the Magsaysay Award, acclaimed throughout the Philippines for his indefatigable work for the poor, here he was being insulted and shouted at by ignorant paid hacks.

Finally, we decided to say mass there in the barrio and not continue to Sitio Cantomanyug. Indeed, we couldn’t have continued if we wanted to because of the line of soldiers blocking our way. We began the mass, Bishop Fortich and maybe forty priests and loads of ordinary people; the shouting continued but as the mass progressed the shouting died down and to our amazement gradually the crowd swelled. Many people slipped past the military cordon and joined us. By the time of the consecration, a solemn silence fell over that entire crowd. I’ll never forget it. I looked over as Fr. Rolex Nueva, the parish priest, his head was down and his hands were shielding his face, but from the angle I was standing, I could see underneath his hands, that tears were streaming in an unchecked flow down his face. He was saddened that people should be so badly led, so deceived, and taught to attack, humiliate, ridicule the only man in the whole island of Negros who has really tried to do something for them. At the end of the mass, a woman from Cantomanyug, from the peace zone, stepped forward. She was holding a baby, she took the microphone, and she asked and pleaded for peace. The scene was so beautiful. It reminded me of Our Lady and the Child Jesus coming into the world to bring us peace. That’s just one of the many dramatic scenes from the life of Bishop Antonio Fortich. A man, who gave up his future for the present; and decided once and for all that the Church is not a Church unless it is the mother of the poor. Someday when peace has come to the mountains of Negros and land reform to the low lands, Bishop Fortich will be remembered for the great human being that he was and I would love to see a beautiful statue of him standing over our plaza in Bacolod, reminding us of a man who brought our Church home to the poor.

* * * * *

This article was written by Columban Fr. Niall O’Brien who has worked in the Diocese of Negros for almost 40 years and has known Bishop Fortich all that time. Fr. O’Brien is the author of the best selling book “Revolution from the Heart,” and a book dedicated personally to Msgr. Fortich called “Island of Tears, Island of Hope.” Fr Niall died in Pizza, Italy on April 23, 2004 after a short illness.

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