Bishop Benjamín de Jesús
Vicar Apostolic of Jolo, Philippines
Bishop Benjamín de Jesús, OMI
Born: 25th July 1940
Perpetual Vows: 31th May 1964
Priesthood: 29th December 1967
Ordination as Bishop: 6th January 1992
Died: 4th February 1997
Reflection on the 2nd Death Anniversary of Bishop Ben
Delivered to multi-sectoral audience in Jolo during the 2nd anniversaryof Bishop Ben’s martyrdom.
I was in Cotabato during that fateful morning of February 4, 1997 when Father Mon Bernabe, OMI, then the superior of the De Mazenod Seminary in Cotabato City, told me that Bishop Ben was shot dead in Jolo. My initial reaction was, “That’s impossible.” Not that I did not believe Father Mon. I guess it was a reaction from someone who did not want to believe. No, I refused to believe.
But that unbelief was confronted by the ultimate truth when later, I myself heard the breaking news over radio station DXMS, “Bishop Ben was shot dead by still unidentified armed men in front of the cathedral at around 9:45 this morning.” I simply broke down upon hearing the news.
Two years since the death of Bishop Ben, I still find myself sometimes wondering and asking God why he had to die that way and why him who had known no enemies. Why him who had who had devoted so much of his life serving, loving and caring the people of Jolo – Badjaos, Muslims and Christians alike?
I was newly ordained deacon in 1987 when I first set foot on the soil of Jolo. At that time, Bishop Ben, who was Padel Bin to many, was in charge of the housing project of the Vicariate. He was so dedicated in his work that oftentimes he would miss our community-supper, as he would come in late from work. On several occasions, he would eat alone by himself at the dining table while the rest of the community were already playing card games, our traditional recreation in the evening at the bishop’s house.
When I was assigned in Bongao, he would come and visit us regularly. He would always bring pasalubong to his priests and sisters – durian, lansones, mangosteen, etc. He would insist on joining me in my mass in the BEC every time he was around. He wanted to meet his flock at the grassroots to listen to their stories.
Bishop Ben delivers long homilies. Often times repetitious. He always talks of the same themes all the time. Harmony. Understanding. Brotherhood. Peace. Love. Nothing new. Always old recycled themes. Perhaps because he thinks the situation of Jolo had not changed anyway even as the years went by.
Really. We were together for nine years until he became a bishop. But I did not remember any word of wisdom that he said. Yes, he did not leave any profound words of wisdom or saying that we could ponder on and reflect upon unlike many great leaders. I guess because his wisdom did not lie in his words but in his actions, in his simplicity and gentleness, with the way he would relate with the ordinary man and woman on the streets and at the coffee shops, with the Badjaos at the jambatan (pier) while he sings with them the famous song Baleleng.
Some of us Oblates and religious did not really conform with the way he administered the Vicariate. He was poor in management so some of us complained. He lacked vision and was doing many small things instead of attending the most important affairs of the Vicariate. Like he himself would fetch in-coming visitors from the airport of jambatan, a job he could easily delegate to the driver. Or he would personally deliver letter of invitations to people, again, something that could be done by any of the staff in the office.
Then, we all found out during the wake, with the spontaneous outpouring of affection showered on him by people from different walks of life, that he was probably the only one real among us. He touched the lives of countless of people in Jolo not by his wisdom, nor by his words, nor by his skills but by the simple gesture of goodness which he had consistently shown to people until his death.
Sometime in 1995, the religious gathered at the Carmelite Monastery to look at the situation of Jolo. We were asked by the facilitator to create a mental image of the prevailing condition in Jolo at that time. What I saw was blood upon the rose. I explained to the group that I saw blood upon the rose and that it was like the island of Jolo, beautiful like a rose, but drenched with human blood. This blood will become a source for the nourishment of the rose. But it means, many will still be sacrificed as sacrificial offering. And it’s only then that people will finally be awakened from their complacency that a new day will dawn in Jolo.
I did not know that it would happen one day in the person of Bishop Ben. He joined the nameless civilians who have become sacrificial offering. His death sparked the flame of fire in the hearts of people seeking justice for individuals and their families caught in the vicious cycle of violence and lighting up hope of peace for the people of Jolo.
Two weeks before the bishop died, a devoted woman came to tell me of her vision. This frail woman goes to church everyday and wipes the face of the blessed mother before she leaves the church. She said, “Father, I have seen a vision.” I said. “What was it?” She said, “I’ve seen throngs of people in the clouds and they were carrying lighted candles. They surrounded someone who was dressed in white robe.” Then, the lady asked innocently, “What does that vision mean, Father?”
Honestly, I did not know what it was meant but I wanted to be polite with her and so I explained that perhaps what she saw in her vision was the Last Day of Judgment as told in the book of Revelations and depicted by artists in some of those medieval paintings. I did not know whether the woman was satisfied with my explanation. When she left, I literally forgot everything about that encounter.
But during the wake Bishop Ben at the Carmelite Monastery, that same woman approached me again and said, “Father, do you remember the vision I told you about”? I was temporarily suspended. I looked at her and said, “Yes, I remember.”
If indeed it was God’s will that Bishop Ben would die, then, I believe it was not without purpose. Our quest for justice is not so much for the death of Bishop Ben as for the countless innocent civilians whose cry for justice reaches to heaven. Bishop Ben’s death has moved many peace advocates throughout the country to work even more for peace to reign in this country. His dream of a harmonious relationship among Muslims and Christians has inspired the hearts of a new wave of dialoguers in the Zamboanga peninsula, Marawi, Iligan and Cotabato. Bishop Ben’s martyrdom became a symbol of dialogue and peace.
As for myself, I left Jolo on June 7, 1997. I know I was not effective anymore as a missionary and as pastor of the cathedral. I hated the murderers of Bishop Ben. I left with so much resentment and bitterness in my heart. I reported to my new assignment in Pikit, Cotabato on June 9. I told the Lord, “Lord, I have had enough of violence in Jolo. Thank you for sending me to this place to find myself again.”
I remember that during the last three years as a shepherd of the Christian community in Jolo, every year was marred by violence. On my first year, several kilos of explosives were planted at the door of the sacristy. On my second year, there was an attempt to burn the cathedral by setting the main door on fire. On my third year, the bishop was murdered.
I was comfortable in Pikit away from the maddening climate of violence in Jolo. Until, on June 19, 1997, twelve days after I arrived, the war broke out between government troops and MILF forces in camp Rajahmuda in Pikit. I became an instant eyewitness of what we human beings are capable of doing as 30,000 civilians fled their homes and sought refuge in the poblacion.
I guess no human being can stand unaffected in the face of human suffering. For after all, helping the poor is not a matter of choice. For us Christians, it is a social responsibility, a duty.
During those difficult times, Bishop Ben served as my inspiration and strength in the midst of criticism from my own parishioners. They did not want to help the Muslim evacuees. I understood them perfectly. They too have their own experiences of injustice in the hands of some Moro elements. Every Moro or Christian, I found out, has his own painful story which created deep wounds in the hearts of the local inhabitants of Mindanao. Wounds that are not easy to heal.
After that war in 1997, I started to reflect about my life especially the contradictions that were happening since I left Jolo. Some people jokingly said that I was the one who brought the war in Pikit. Others said that war was following me. But the thought that was lingering in my mind was the noticeable pattern in my life. What was really God wanted me to do? Why did He always put me in constant contact with death and suffering? Why does He always remind me of Bishop Ben? I began to ask these questions.
Then, it just dawned on me that all the years of my priestly ministry were spent in Muslim communities in Jolo and in Tawi-Tawi. But all those nine years seemed like a collection of letters of the alphabet, devoid of any meaning and difficult to understand.
It was in Pikit that this collection of letters slowly began to form certain connection until they formed into one Word and became understandable. “And the Word became flesh.” Now, I think I am beginning to understand more about my life and about my priesthood. The Word that was formed from what was once meaningless letters is waiting and wanting to born in me. And it is hard to resist.
The spirit of the life and death of Bishop Ben, his dreams, the old and repetitious words of his homilies – they want to be born in us, in our families, in our communities, in our society. The hope that all this will come into fulfillment is with you all.