Last Tuesday, Feb. 26, I had the unusual privilege of accepting the Ka Pepe Diokno Award on behalf of my brother, Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio S. David. Unusual, because he had previously confirmed his attendance at this important event. I meant to be there, but only as a guest.
We were together just the day before at a lunch hosted by our family for this year’s recipients of scholarships funded by the Virgin of the Poor Educational Foundation, a nonprofit he sustains from the honoraria he receives as a lecturer and retreat master. Ambo gave us no inkling of what he was going through. Apparently, the death threats, which he started getting by text two weeks earlier, continued. A professional gunman was reportedly released from jail expressly to kill him. This was supposed to happen after Feb. 24.
So deep is Ambo’s faith that he is not one to easily succumb to terror. Not even in the midst of daily ambushes staged in broad daylight by motorcycle-riding masked gunmen. But he would never for a moment endanger the lives of those who usually accompany him to his appointments. Something or someone must have told him not to take the latest threats lightly. At midnight before the day of the awards, I got a cryptic message from him saying he had not gone home to Caloocan. He wondered if I could represent him at the Diokno awards.
Though he has been a consistent and vocal critic of Mr. Duterte’s violent war on drugs, Ambo has never attacked him as a person nor wished him dead. Unlike the President, he has always been high-minded and careful in his language. This has to do with his character, his upbringing, and his education.
Ambo is the 10th of the 13 children of Pedro David and Bienvenida Siongco. He turned 60 yesterday. He was born on March 2, the same birthday as my father, a lawyer who served for many years as a devoted fiscal in Manila. Sixty is an unspoken watershed in our family. My father died two months short of his 60th birthday. Forced by illness to retire the year before his death, he spent his final months labeling and putting together our family photos in neat albums. He wrote a long sentimental letter addressed to all of us, which he left with Ambo, telling him to read it only after he was gone.
My mother, who outlived my father by 18 years, celebrated the day Ambo was ordained as a priest. For her, this was her greatest achievement as a parent. Nothing brought her more joy in her later years than to have her priest-son pray over her. She died cradled in his arms, as they recited old prayers in Kapampangan together. When it was time for the hospital staff to take her, I touched Ambo’s arm to let him know. Filled with grief, he looked up and asked if he could just have a bit more time with her.
My mother reserved her fondest wishes for Ambo. As a seminarian, he got involved in the social activism that swept the Church at the height of martial law. His involvement with the antidictatorship movement brought him to far-flung barangays in our province. Knowing how the countryside had become heavily militarized, my mother begged him to return to Manila and finish his theology. Her apprehensions were put to rest only after his archbishop sent him abroad for further studies.
Ambo dutifully immersed himself in his biblical studies, specializing in hermeneutics and the Old Testament. He spent a year in the École Biblique in Jerusalem, and five years at the Flemish campus of the University of Leuven in Belgium, where he wrote a doctoral dissertation on the Book of Daniel. His studies required him to learn different languages — Greek, Aramaic, French, Flemish, German, Italian, and Spanish — in addition to Latin and English. He is, of course, fluent in Kapampangan and Filipino. He was awarded his degree with the highest honors.
On his return, I was amazed to learn that his training included a lot of philosophy, literature, and sociology, a fact that made our conversations gratifying. His views had become more philosophically grounded, his habits distinctly monastic. He gave me the Scriptures in Kapampangan and Tagalog and asked me to revel in the richness of our language. I lent him books by Nietzsche, Rorty, Foucault, Habermas, Marx, and Luhmann, all nonbelievers who had influenced my thinking. We became teacher and student to one another, switching roles over a meal once a week.
The national situation has been an abiding topic of our regular conversations. People would, however, be grossly mistaken to think that he merely echoes the way I think about political issues. Ambo’s views about politics and social problems, and the way he acts upon them, are grounded in his profound understanding of the meaning of Christianity as a religion and as a philosophy of life. He has a far more intimate grasp of the complex reality surrounding the drug problem than any academic or government official I know. He is committed to what he must do as a shepherd of his flock, and, most certainly, he will not allow any death threat to deter him from voicing what he calls “our stubborn and relentless plea” to stop the killings.