Culture: Calungsod, the new saint of the margins

by Louie Jon A. Sanchez

Photograph courtesy of CBCPnews.comI attended a gathering of young people organized by the Diocese of Novaliches at the Good Shepherd Cathedral, Fairview, Quezon City last Oct. 21, 2012, the day of the canonization of the second Filipino saint, youth and migrant proto-martyr Pedro Calungsod of the Visayas. The gathering, dubbed “Calungsod Youth Day,” was a day-long string of celebrations of what the hierarchy today considers the newest saint’s public, the Filipino youth from ages 13 to 31 (at least according to the National Youth Commission), of this predominantly Roman Catholic country. After all, Calungsod, who at age 17 died in the hands of pagan tribesmen in what is known today as the Marianas Islands, truly represents this population, many of whom I’ve seen dancing and leaping for joy during a “worship” jamming session immediately after the speech choir contest where I sat as judge. To say that the party in that covered court rocked is an understatement. The energy in the gym reveals the changing paradigms of society today. In a span of ten to fifteen years, the youth has clearly transformed into an involved populace, mainly because of social media. This new saint, whose canonization surely trended in the blogosphere as the big day at the Vatican approached, surely contributed to deepening young people’s changing attitude about themselves, perhaps first as Catholics, and eventually, as Filipinos in the modern world. Truth be told, however, Calungsod and the postscripts to his saintly life might one day become just a myth we—young and old—have all to subscribed to, like Manny Pacquiao’s, and the other global Filipino heroes—real and reel—who represented the country in more ways than way, and whose acclaim had made us feel good about ourselves, notwithstanding Third World wretchedness and all. The word represent, I must pose, should be seen not only as denotative of being the symbol to the world, but also connotative of our long absence, our very marginality in world affairs (the critic Isagani Cruz describes our criticism as the “other other”). The presence being reintroduced here has a history, something that many people like the youth in that rally might more often than not overlook. Yes, it deals with the place of Catholicism in our society, then and now. However, that history largely has something to do with the way we had projected ourselves as citizens of the global world ever since.

What moved me to rethink about the “representational” aspect of the festivities was the speech choir I judged (known to many as “sabayang pagbigkas,” where a certain piece is being rendered orally, usually complete with costumes and the necessary “choreography” and movements). The organizers picked the song “Kuya Pedro” a recently released single the lyrics of which was written by Jamie Rivera, esteemed “inspirational” singer. I heard the song being played in a news cast, and it felt not in the least churchy—while it celebrated “Kuya Pedro” and his good works of helping others and loving God, it evoked very telling parts of the Calungsod myth which is very much revolutionary, considering the widespread conservatism in the Roman Catholic Church, especially in recent issues such as the Reproductive Health Bill. As a “huwaran ng kabataan” (model to the youth), Calungsod is described in the lyrics as “larawan ng katapangan,/kaibigang tunay na nag-alay ng buhay” (an exemplar of courage,/a true friend who offered his life). The song for Calungsod was really flat and not as powerful as, say, the theme for the 1995 World Youth Day, which in a powerful and simple melody moved people to “tell the world of His love/ the greatest love the world has known,” in a world where many “walk astray” and need to be brought “home.” It however redirects our attention to what we have forgotten all along about the way we spell sainthood in this sad republic. The first Filipino saint, Lorenzo Ruiz, the family man-turned-accidental martyr in Nagazaki, was allegedly evading apprehension from authorities for a murder case. If it were true, the end seemed to have justified the means, and unto us, a saint was given. Most of all, a hero who wished to die a thousand deaths for the faith was finally remembered as the bells were tolled for te deums back in Manila. Lorenzo Ruiz, before a saint, was a hero because he re-presented the Filipino in the dangerous missions of Christianization, which is by the way, the other name of colonialism. His exemplary courage was worth emulating, and when he died by being hung upside down a pit on Sept. 27, 1637, some 100 years after the Spain planted the cross on Philippine soil, the story of his martyrdom would resound in the stories of several other martires—heroes actually—who later on defied the colonial government at the cost of their lives. Our conceptualization of the hero is rather hagiographical rather than historical, if we are only to review our history, especially histories from below. Calungsod, who followed Ruiz’s heroic footsteps on April 2, 1672, comes from below, from the margins, so to speak because of his being a humble sakristan to the other martyr of the story, the Jesuit Diego Luis de San Vitores.

It is perhaps providential that in these times, I am revaluating for an upcoming conference, an important work in Philippine Studies, Pasyon and Revolution by Reynaldo C. Ileto. Published in 1979, a year before I was born, it resituated the then prevailing study of history to a “history from below,” a history that sought to give voice to the silenced in the long-standing Westernized historiographical practice. The basic premise is of course the reinvention of the understanding of Philippine revolution and the popular counter-hegemonic movements; the work led Ileto to closely read the popular Pasyon and other archival documents that shed light on how the common folk understood the enlightenment concepts of “freedom” and even heroism. For Ileto, the Pasyon of Christ had formed social consciousness, and the Holy Week pabasa it turns out had been a feast of “misprisions,” a “misreading” after all. When the Spaniards replaced the pagan myths with the Pasyon, they wanted the people to inculcate total surrender to the powers that be. When the likes of the infamous Hermano Pule of the Cofradia de San Jose, and much later on, Andres Bonifacio, surfaced, there was no turning back the clock. The “folk appropriations” of the arals (lessons) of the Pasyon taught the indio the “sacred ideals” of goodness, enlightenment, and brotherhood. When we read that Calunsod had “all the chances to escape (the persecution) because he was very agile, but he did not want to leave Padre Diego alone,” skirting the “darting spears with remarkable dexterity,” we see the qualities of preparedness to die for one’s faith and pakikiramay, working in the narrative. Isn’t this part of the Calungsod hagiography also very reminiscent of the travails of the millenarian movements studied by Ileto?: “Those who personally knew Pedro believed that he would have defeated his fierce aggressors and would have freed both himself and Padre Diego if only he had some weapon because he was a valiant boy; but Padre Diego never allowed his companions to carry arms because they were missionaries of peace. Finally, Pedro got hit by a spear at the chest and he fell to the ground.” In iconography, of course, Calungsod is carrying the Doctrina Christiana, and not the Pasyon. At least, not yet. But the very foundations of the Pasyon were all outlined in that catechetical book, considered to be the very first publication in the Philippines. His martyrdom of course, symbolized by the palm leaf on his chest, is the Pasyon itself, the synecdoche of the entrance of Jesus in Jerusalem, where hosannahs transformed into condemnation in a matter of days. In hindsight, it seems that these Filipino saints founded our sense of martyrdom, of heroism.

Martyrdom, in a revolutionary sense, is the path to life eternal, bliss, and kalayaan, according to Ileto. After Lorenzo de Manila and Pedro de Cebu, it may be said that martyrdom has transcended its hagiographical meaning becoming the ultimate expression of love of country, especially towards the years of the revolution, and the rise of the “Founding Fathers” of the republic. Jose Rizal of course became the poster boy of heroism. Reading Ileto however revalues the contributions of Bonifacio the Supremo, whose utilization of the Pasyon spirit through the highly guarded initiation rituals and his writings of the Katipunan turned him, though short-lived, into a “Hari ng mga Tagalog” (King of the Tagalogs). His leadership meanwhile may be read as animated not only by the heroic loob but also by the selfless brotherhood inspired by Christ himself. The Katipunan as brotherhood has perpetrated exactly this, the heroism of dying for one’s friends, in the name of independencia. The inclusion of the martyr figures in the Philippine Catholic world completes the examination of the revolutionary myth—it may be told now that our concept of heroism was not only founded on the lives of the heroes, then and now, but also of our saints who first introduced the concept of laying one’s life for a higher purpose. The youth of today seem to understand this important holy work by the likes of Calungsod; in the same song we took up in this essay, they call the saint “Kuya Pedro” rather intimately, in beseeching him to teach them about love of God, which to our revolutionaries also meant love of the Mother Country. To express resonance with the youthful saint’s heroism and courage, they include him in their own katipunans, and during the festivities, take pictures beside his life-size statue, as if they were his friends. The manangs of the olden Church would have cringed from the sight of it, but sainthood, like many things, must really be more fun in the Philippines. It’s not recuerdos de patay but rather recuerdos de buhay they all want to capture, a record of a life they all wish to live—a life of holiness and with a clear sense of purpose, and yes, most of all, heroism. In this country, we subvert the Brechtian judgment about countries needing heroes: to a fault, the idea of the nation was made possible through the stories of people who fought for it. Looking at Lorenzo and Pedro’s however brings a more prophetic vision: that of the diasporic nation, represented today by the quintessential overseas Filipino worker. We consider the OFW today as modern day hero, by being the martir who sacrifices life and limb for the betterment of the family back home. Lorenzo and Pedro’s remarkable migrant missionary experiences already foretold what was to come for the Philippines as a nation. The infamous Hong Kong columnist Chip Tsao once called us a “nation of servants”, but service, figurative and otherwise had created saints in many of us, so many it could easily outnumber the islands of this archipelago.

The kodakan that took place during the programs of the Diocese of Novaliches, for me, shows how heroism in the Philippines is more praxis than theory, more concrete than abstract, more real than ever. And that, I suppose, is something good. The icon is not merely symbolic of values, not just a monument, but a real figure of vibrant and purposeful living in an age where so much meaning is being deferred and held in contempt. It must not be forgotten however that the celebrations, no matter how festive, do not erase the fact that the need for heroism or sainthood also implies the lack of it in Philippine society at large. We subscribe to Pacquiao’s glories because his exploits inside the ring represent our daily pasyon. But Pacquiao’s heroism, like that of others, is merely a product of “celebritification” and top-to-bottom commercialism, which really provide only a temporary balm for the country’s ills. A second Filipino saint coming into our midst is indeed a great spiritual event, but it also calls for a renewal of understanding of the heroic concept which transcends the boundaries of religion and regional culture. Calungsod as the newest hero-martyr figure compels us to review our culture of popularity, and how it impedes on national progress. With another national election underway, and the same sets of faces or surnames wooing the voting public, Calungsod’s social meaning must be read as revisionary: it seeks to bring us back to how we as a country perceived righteousness at very important junctures of history. The righteous, for Calungsod, and the rest of the revolutionary figures after him, are heroes, and these heroes went through a purification of the loob in a process of seeking the path of freedom before becoming beacons of light in the land of darkness. The “founding” heroes truly understood what it was to serve the nacion. The real test is perhaps to measure our values with that of our heroes, like the mythic Ruiz and Calungsod, and even perhaps, Emilio Jacinto, who once said that, “a life that is not dedicated to a noble cause is like a tree without a shade or a poisonous weed.” Calungsod as the new saint of the margins—representing the youth, the migrant, and the Visayas—brings us back the spirit of the revolution, a spirit we have not tapped for a long while in taking this supposed path to righteousness. I refuse to yield that this canonization is merely a spiritual event in an era of globalization and moral crisis—it also is a national breakthrough at a time of political and social reforms. It tells us one thing among many: we need to recover the values of our heroes because they are the exemplars.

First published in the Philippines Graphic.  Photograph courtesy of


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