Why the Catholic Church should apologize to Rizal’s mother
Coming so swiftly on the heels of Christmas and the Slaughter of the Innocents, the annual Rizal Day holiday on Dec. 30 usually passes fleetingly by as just another blessed day off, before we all plunge merrily into the noisy revelries and inebriations of New Year’s Eve.
(In the late 20th Century, some of the well-known speakers on Rizal Day began those festivities a little early, perhaps even before or during their oratories!)
This year promises to be a little different, as events of a century ago come up for commemoration—namely the burial of Jose Rizal by Filipinos and Americans at the Luneta on Dec. 30, 1912—fully 16 years after his execution by firing squad near the same spot in 1896.
Headed by President Benigno S. Aquino III, this year’s Rizal Day event at the Luneta features a full-dress reenactment and commemoration, by the Knights of Rizal and the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons, of the 1912 transfer of Rizal’s remains in an urn, from the custody of his family in their house in Binondo into the hands of the public for a wake at the Ayuntamiento in Intramuros, then burial at the Luneta.
There is an historic photograph taken in the City of Manila on Rizal Day 1912, showing the urn with the bones of Jose Rizal borne on a military caisson drawn by six black horses, and flanked by an honor guard of the Knights of Rizal (with caps and striped sashes) and white-clad members of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons. The location of this 1912 event is now the Plaza Binondo de San Lorenzo Ruiz.
How the twists and turns of history produced amazing moments in time, frozen in these historic photographs, is poignantly told by Asuncion Lopez Bantug, granddaughter of Sisa, the sister of Rizal, in her classic biography “Lolo Jose: An Intimate Portrait of Rizal” (Manila: Intramuros Administration, 1982). It turns out to be an intimate portrait also of the mother of Jose Rizal, Doña Teodora Realonda Alonso Rizal (1827-1911) and of his entire family.
She describes the events following the execution of Jose Rizal on Dec. 30, 1896, how his mother was denied custody of his remains, how he was denied a Catholic Church burial on consecrated ground and how he was secretly buried at Paco Park in an unmarked grave.
As Bantug wrote: “The previous evening (Dec. 29, 1896), Doña Teodora had gone from one official to another, begging to be given her son’s body after the execution. None was moved by her pleas—except for the mayor of Manila, Don Manuel Luengo, who acted on his own to grant her wish. She and Don Francisco spent the morning of the execution secluded in the house of my Lola Sisa, with whom they had been staying, on and off, since their eviction from Calamba. Lola Sisa had ordered a coffin for her brother and it was sent in a hearse to the Luneta as soon as word came that all was over.
“What was my Lola Sisa’s consternation to learn that the body was gone—and nobody able, or willing, to tell her where it had been taken. She hurried to the city cemetery at Paang Bundok (where, in a farewell note, my Lolo Jose had expressed a wish to be buried), but no body had been taken there. She made the rounds of the suburban graveyards, but in none had there been a burial that morning. Other members of the family were going from one authority to another, begging to be told where the body had been buried, but were met only with silence and a shrug.
“But my Lola Sisa refused to give up. She continued her round of the graveyards—and was finally rewarded. At the Paco Cemetery, the old city graveyard no longer in use, she noticed Mayor Manuel Luengo and some army officers inspecting a grave. When they left, Lola Sisa hurried to the site. It was a freshly dug grave and could only be that of her brother. She went to the sexton and persuaded him to mark the grave with the small marble slab she carried. The marble slab, designed by family friend Doroteo Ongjungco, was inscribed with three letters, RPJ—my Lolo Jose’s initials in reverse. The family feared that a more explicit tombstone might prompt the authorities to remove the body and hide it elsewhere, to prevent any public veneration of the Rizal grave. It is said that a guard was placed at the Paco Cemetery to discourage snoopers.”
The Rizal family did not gain custody of his remains until the end of the Spanish colonial regime at the hands of Commodore Dewey in 1898. Rizal’s bones were exhumed from the cold oblivion of Paco in the wake of the Mock Battle of Manila Bay.
“Two years later, in the turmoil that followed the American occupation of Manila, his family seized the chance to recover my Lolo Jose’s body unhindered by Church or State,” wrote Bantug. “Spain had fallen in the Philippines; American troops took over in Manila on Aug. 13, 1898. Four days later, on Aug. 17, my Lola Sisa, accompanied by her daughter Angelica, sculptor Romualdo Teodoro de Jesus, Higino Francisco and Doroteo Ongjungco, went to the Paco Cemetery and had the grave dug up.
“The body was found to have been buried directly into the earth, without a coffin. Nevertheless, the clothes were still recognizable, though whatever my Lolo Jose had hidden in his shoes had long rotted away. A vertebra showing a bullet wound was kept in a glass and silver cup in Lola’s house.
“The remains were taken to my Lola Sisa’s house, where Higino Francisco and Romualdo Teodoro de Jesus themselves reverently washed the bones. They were later placed in an ivory urn carved by De Jesus. This urn was venerated in frequent public ceremonies during the 1900s, when Rizal began to be honored as the National Hero of the Philippines.”
And so in the repose of his family’s bosom, in his mother’s everlasting solicitude, Rizal’s bones lay for 14 more years. Unbeknownst to them and shortly thereafter, Americans such William Howard Taft (the first Civil Governor under American Occupation) and Henry A. Cooper (Dem., Wisconsin) had discovered Rizal for themselves through his writings, while wrestling with the thorny question of what America ought to do for, about, or with the Philippines.
In 1901, the United States Philippine Commission issued Decree No. 243 authorizing a suitable monument for Jose Rizal, with funds for its construction to be raised by public subscription. A worldwide design contest for the future Rizal Monument elicited work from the crème-de-la-crème.
The proclaimed winning design, which was a fantasy in Italian Carrara marble by Carlo Nicoli (“Al Martir de Bagumbayan”) was, however, never built. The simpler second place winner, “Motto Stella” by Swiss artist Richard Kissling, is what we find in the Luneta today.
Bantug described the culmination of a monument building process that apparently outlived Doña Teodora by 1912.
“In 1912, the foundations were laid for a monument at the Luneta that would also serve as the final tomb for the hero’s mortal remains. On Dec. 29, 1912, the urn containing the remains was borne in solemn procession from the family’s house to the Ayuntamiento, that fine Marble Hall that had been a symbol of Spanish sovereignty in the Philippines. [Teodora Alonso was laid in state in the same location the previous year.] In the salon of the Ayuntamiento, the urn was enshrined on a magnificent catafalque surrounded by innumerable floral wreaths, offerings of the nation. Throughout that night, the Knights of Rizal and other patriotic groups as well as the public kept vigil round the catafalque.”
“Next morning, Dec. 30, 1912—16th anniversary of the martyrdom—the urn was borne to the Luneta on an artillery caisson drawn by six horses. Thousands joined the procession and thousands more lined the streets.
“At the Luneta, the obsequies were led by acting Governor-General Newton W. Gilbert and the two ranking statesmen of the Philippine Assembly, Sergio Osmeña and Mariano Ponce, the latter one of Rizal’s dearest friends. Then the urn was deposited in the center of the base over which would rise the monument…
“The monument they accomplished has become a national landmark, the most visible tribute of the nation to its greatest son.
“But neither of his parents lived to see his monument.”
Rizal’s father, Francisco, died in Manila in 1898. His mother, Doña Teodora, died in August 1911 just a year and a half before Rizal’s burial at the Luneta on Dec. 30, 1912, the event whose centenary we commemorate today. She had lain in state in the very same Ayuntamiento the year before Rizal was buried at the Luneta.
Wronged and harmed
In the year 2000, the good Pope John Paul II offered apologies on behalf of the Vatican to all who had been wronged or harmed in history by the Catholic Church, notably to Galileo Galilei for the events of over three centuries ago involving his predecessor Urban VIII and the whole question of the Earth being the Center of the Universe.
He called on all the prelates of the Catholic Church in various countries to follow his example in making such historic apologies for wrongs that need acknowledging.
I think the Philippine Catholic Church does owe such an apology to Rizal’s mother for their inhumane treatment of him, even as a convicted demiurge of the Philippine Revolution, in denying her custody of his remains. The Philippine Church has not heeded the call of Pope John Paul II in any matter within their realm. They must think that, unlike him, the infallibility gives them impeccability.
It was cruel and unjust to deny Doña Teodora such a pitiable request after the State and Church had united in executing him and satisfying their blood lust against the insurrectos through him.
I appeal for historic apologies to her and not for Jose Rizal (who’d neither want nor need it). Or else the Church should suffer forever the present exclusion from Philippine history that has continued unabated since 1912, when final funeral rites for the national hero before final interment at the Luneta were given to the Masons, and denied to the Catholic Church.
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