August 31, 2021
On August 24, 1974, elements of the Philippine Military raided the Sacred Heart Novitiate of the Society of Jesus in Novaliches. Today, on the anniversary of the mass vigil held in protest to the action, the HRVVMC looks into the contexts and situation which led to the arbitrary detainment of several religious affiliates, including over 20 religious youth advocates and the head of the Philippine Jesuit Order. In such a lens, the event reflected the Marcos regime’s greater authoritarian intrusions into freedoms of speech and religious affairs. It would also signal to the church that the signs of the times posed no guarantee for neutrality – and called for a more active role in resisting the repression of the dictatorship.
The Church at the Start of Martial Law
The Catholic clergy in the Philippines was not united in their stance towards Marcos and the declaration of Martial Law in its opening years. Bishop Labayen noted that, at the time, some preferred to “watch, wait and see,” before supporting or condemning the Presidential Declaration. 46 of the 79 Bishops under the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) would choose to support it, only moderately criticizing it and only in relation to church-specific affairs. Only a small minority of 15 bishops – composed of younger members of the hierarchy who often worked in the frontier areas of the country – openly and frequently spoke out against government and military abuses.
Other church organizations were similarly disunified in their opinion towards the regime, albeit a selection of religious orders were viewed to be more progressive than others. The Jesuits in this respect were one such example. In its 32nd General Council, the order reaffirmed its commitment to the promotion of justice as something inseparable from their evangelizing mission. They would be involved in creating social welfare and justice support groups such as the Federation of Free Farmers, Federation of Free Workers, and Catholic Youth Action. It was in such commitment however that they would gain the suspicion of the regime – being accused by Marcos of attempting to incite revolt. First Lady Imelda Marcos would also state the same in a conversation with the CIA Director in 1970.
This “conservative” faction of the hierarchy would, for the most part, reflect the majority of the CBCP’s position. Most of their pastoral letters at the time did not focus on major problems which had been created under the regime. Its joint statement on evangelization and development, issued on 25 July 1973, accepted the goals of the new society, but it cautioned against their pursuance at the cost of dignity and freedom. In such aspects, the CBCP neither condemned nor endorsed martial law. At the least, it can be said that the majority of the bishops did not want to invoke Marcos’ antagonism.
Nonetheless, the militarization of the country under Martial Law resulted in heightened tensions between the state and religious sectors. Though generally in agreement on the desirability of helping the poor, church social action programs were often seen as in conflict with Marcos’ concerns for national security and political order. As a result, clergy and laypersons would often find themselves as suspected “subversives” and anti-government operatives. A minority of church officials, however, protested against this status quo, and, as such, a Church-Military Liaison Committee was formed in November 1973. Among the agreements within was that the military would prohibit the arrest of religious persons during raids on church establishments without prior coordination and in the company of a religious supervisor or their respective within.
The Novaliches Military Operation
Allegedly in search of Jose Maria Sison and Fr. Jose Nacu, a 150-man operation was drawn up to raid the premises of the Jesuit Sacred Heart Novitiate on August 24, 1974. Eyewitnesses reported that plainclothes agents had been present in the scene, dashing through the compound’s halls, “kicking-open doors, pointing guns at people (and) entering rooms without knocking.” The search warrant for the operation was only presented to the Novitiate superior after the fact of the raid’s commencement.
Fr. Benigno Alabanza Mayo, S.J., the Jesuit provincial superior, was arrested on his way to the Novitiate compound and brought to Camp Crame, where he was interrogated without legal counsel. With neither Sison nor Nacu having been found, the military arrested Fr. Jose Blanco, S.J., as an alleged leader of a subversive organization. 20 members of the Student Catholic Action organization, who were attending a seminar in the compound, were also arrested. 13 of these students would be reported to have been released by August 29.
The Philippine Daily Express reported that the Novaliches raid had been conducted in a peaceful and orderly manner under the supervision and with cooperation from the Novitiate superior and Catholic hierarchy. The press release received swift and sharp reactions from the Catholic Church – rebutted by both Mayo and Archbishop Jaime Sin, who had recently become Archbishop of Manila in 1974. Both also noted that Fr. Blanco and the detained students were being tried for subversion without charges having been filed.
Condemnation and Change
While the overall opinions of church factions did not change overnight, this event was a significant factor in pushing the issue forward – contributing significantly to the shifting of sectoral attitudes against the Regime’s increasingly authoritarian and unjustified actions.
The most immediate response to the raid was a condemnation issued by Archbishop Sin. His long-time private secretary, Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, said the cardinal challenged Marcos at a time when “people were afraid to talk.” Following the raid, he drafted a Pastoral Letter to be read in all the churches of the Archdiocese of Manila. Because some were supposedly afraid, it was said that Sin ordered in his letter that it had to be read in full and with nothing added or deleted.
From then on, Villegas recalled, relations between Sin and Marcos were more guarded. A Sunday prayer vigil on September 1, one week after the raid, was called by the Manila Archbishop in protest of the government’s actions. With around 5,000 persons in attendance, it was thought to have been the largest anti-martial law protest at that time. President Marcos had met twice with the Archbishop to attempt to call off the movement, but to no avail. At the vigil, Sin reviewed what had taken place – the arrests, a public airing of government charges of rebellion and subversion, and the claim that the Church hierarchy had cooperated. He repeated again that the Church was not consulted, continuing within his speech that, “as human beings, we have the right to expect that our dignity should be given due regard.”
Opposition voices continued to grow in the years that followed. By the time of the 1976 national referendum on the continuation of Martial Law, 12 bishops from the CBCP would openly question the Conference’s support of the vote on 28 August – claiming it to be in contradiction to a previous statement it had released titled “A Declaration for Human Dignity at the Polls” signed by 14 bishops. A massive boycott from religious sectors followed upon the national vote in October. Marcos would retaliate through deportations, raids, closure of radio stations and publications, as well as arrest and detention of lay workers. By January 1977, the CBCP body in general had shifted towards a more collected stance against the Martial Law regime. Sin himself, after becoming the youngest member of the Vatican College of Cardinals at the time, was elected the CBCP president, increasingly prompting more vocal stances on politics, economics and church concerns.
The Church would find itself in a larger role in the opposition movement. This would culminate with the streets of EDSA in February 1986, which ultimately deposed Marcos and ended his dictatorial regime. With respect to this, #WeRemember the courage and advocacy of such individuals who transposed beyond neutrality – towards sterner calls towards change and against injustice.