A priest in politics

Rev. Fr. Eddie T. Panlilio is the parish priest of Betis, the small devoutly Catholic town in Pampanga made famous by its carpenters and wood artisans. At his regular Mass last Wednesday, he told his parishioners of his decision, reached after long reflection, to take a leave from his priestly duties in order to run for governor of the province. His superior, Archbishop Paciano B. Aniceto, who has strongly opposed his plan, is expected to suspend him.  It might have been the last time this man of the cloth is saying the Mass.

“Among Ed,” as he is fondly called, is noted for his eloquence as a preacher.  But the poor of Pampanga know him better as the tireless director of the Social Action Center of Pampanga (SACOP) who put a face to the Church’s presence among the communities displaced by lahar in the 1990s.  Today he is recognized as the visionary behind the province’s most successful micro-lending program for the poor.

Father Panlilio defends his controversial decision to pursue a political role as a logical continuation of his ministry for the poor, whom he sees as having been exploited and neglected for too long by successive administrations of corrupt and uncaring politicians.  This is a necessary move, he says, taken at an extraordinary moment in the life of the province.

What that means exactly is clear to everyone who has observed Pampanga politics.  Two well-funded politicians are contesting the governorship – the incumbent 29-year-old Mark Lapid, who inherited the position from his father Sen. Lito Lapid, and provincial board member and former Lubao mayor Lilia “Baby” Pineda, the gracious spouse of the reputed jueteng lord Bong Pineda.  Both are staunch supporters of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who traces her roots to Lubao. Lapid is running under Lakas-NUCD, and Pineda under Kampi.

Despite repeated official declarations against this illegal numbers game, jueteng continues to flourish in almost every region of the country.  The Central Luzon jueteng network, which Bong Pineda allegedly controls, is also reputed to be the biggest and richest.  The Catholic Church has long been waging a vigorous campaign against jueteng because it regards this game as aggravating the condition of the poor and promoting corruption.  Jueteng often supplies the crucial funds that decide the outcome of closely-contested local elections.

It is not difficult to explain why the authorities are unable to stop jueteng.  This local lottery game is very much an integral component of the country’s politics and governance system.  Jueteng proceeds are known to be generously shared with officials from the local government, the police, and the military.  Some members of the clergy have also been reported as among the willing recipients of cash gifts from jueteng operators on special occasions like Christmas and birthdays.  From the testimony at a congressional hearing of the erstwhile political operator Michelangelo Zuce, one gets a picture of how jueteng money was extensively used to buy provincial election officials in the 2004 presidential election.  The name of Baby Pineda, a close and trusted ally of Ms Arroyo, figured prominently in these investigations, although in the end nothing was proved.

Deadly mudflows hit Pampanga in the mid-90s, burying entire communities.  But the same destructive lahar is now being mined as precious construction material, as if in recompense for the loss and injury it had inflicted.  The wealth from lahar, however, appears to have gone to private pockets.  It is reported that there is a scandalous under-declaration at the provincial level of the amount of sand that has been quarried.  This is visible from the large discrepancy between the provincial data and the records kept by the various municipal governments where the quarrying sites are located. Charges have been filed against Governor Lapid for failing to properly collect the province’s just share from lahar quarrying.  But, such accusations, made during an election season, may not prosper, even if all of Pampanga cries.

This is the “extraordinary” situation that Father Panlilio says he finds himself in. He feels summoned to run – contrary to the Catholic Church’s own understanding of the clergy’s proper role in the world – as a “moral alternative” to the two Goliaths from jueteng and lahar. The best and brightest of Pampanga’s citizens have stepped back from this contest, deterred by its expected costs.

As a son of Pampanga myself, I feel bad that I could not relieve Father Panlilio of the burden he had taken upon himself.  Until the last minute, he was urging me to run.  But I told him I did not know the situation of our province enough to presume that I could be its leader. Moreover, I reminded him that each one of us has a vocation, and that mine is not the political life.  I could sense his disappointment.

The other day, accompanied by a throng of supporters from various civic groups, Father Panlilio walked the short stretch from the San Fernando Cathedral to the Commission on Elections to file his certificate of candidacy.  I am told that the night before, my brother, Bishop Pablo David, auxiliary bishop of Pampanga, tried to dissuade him for the last time from crossing the line, but to no avail.  Betis has lost a devoted parish priest, the Church has lost a fine preacher.  I hope Pampanga realizes it has gained a worthy leader.


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