How Archbishop Capalla dealt with Duterte’s tirades

It was characteristic Rodrigo Duterte venom, said with neither veracity nor restraint, and – as we all know well by now – without objectivity. It was October 2016, when the death toll in the so-called war on drugs was just beginning to rise inexplicably.

Speaking before police personnel in Zamboanga city, Duterte spewed venom against retired archbishop Fernando Capalla of Davao city. The archbishop emeritus of the Archdiocese of Davao had spoken publicly against the extrajudicial killings that Duterte sometimes admits and sometimes doesn’t. That he shrunk before Capalla only confirmed that the killings were state-instigated under his administration.

Capalla had said that Duterte should consider public opinion. “Wrong is wrong even if everybody is doing it and right is right even if nobody is doing it. The end does not justify the means,” he said.

“I would like to ask him to listen to the people, to the poor people who are also suffering, he is the one who loves them and will do everything for them, they have something to say about what’s happening, not just to the experts,” he said.

The Duterte venom was quick and unforgiving. “Sila Capalla, iyung bishop namin doon, kung mag-, pareho man kami, may mga kabit rin, sila obispo, ako mayor noon. Mga pari ang p***** i**, buwisit. Mga pa moral-moral. Paano ko pigilan iyan? Magpigil ako ngayon? Patay ang Pilipinas,” Duterte said. I leave the reader to translate the usual rumbling open-ended Duterte sentences.

Capalla did not answer the slander back. It was years later, after I had known that he had died last January 6, 2024, that a Davao city lay church worker who I shall not name and who was privy to Capalla’s dealings with Rodrigo Duterte related what happened after the false accusation attack.

“Capalla answered every Duterte accusation by messaging him privately.” That was typical Capalla, a man of dialogue who did not resort to a public tit-for-tat. Duterte shamed him, but he did not shame Duterte.

The church worker said Capalla had a template. He was critical of Duterte’s public crimes, but he separated Duterte the man who was his personal friend. For the man Duterte, it was Capalla’s goal to bring him to Rome, to the Vatican, to seek forgiveness for all his public crimes.

Fernando Capalla’s luminous record as a man of dialogue was not forged in Davao city. It was forged in the Islamic City of Marawi, among the M’ranaos that he had loved. For us who personally knew him, his mere presence was a gift. He was kind, sharp, extremely accommodating, and solicitous to all.

In 1977, Pope John Paul II appointed Capalla as prelate of Iligan comprising the Lanao del Norte province. Iligan was then only a prelature. When it was elevated as a diocese in 1982, he became its first bishop.

Iligan city was (and is) the coastal gateway to Marawi and Lanao del Sur. It was here that Capalla’s metal was forged on the cultural diversity of Mindanao. He wasn’t even from Mindanao. But the man from Leon, Iloilo, who became a priest in 1961 in the Archdiocese of Jaro in Panay, became so good at understanding the social realities of Mindanao, and often the conflicts that it fed, that he became a true man of Mindanao.

When the Prelature of St. Mary’s in Marawi was vacant in 1987 upon the untimely death of the revered Bienvenido Tudtud in a plane crash, the pope appointed Capalla as acting apostolic administrator. And so he was made to simultaneously manage two ecclesiastical jurisdictions, that of the Diocese of Iligan and that of Marawi, until 1991. It was just as well. At this time, his friendship with the M’ranaos had widened. Capalla saw the light of dialogue as a solution, that his mission was that of reconciliation.

It was in 1996 that Capalla co-organized the Bishops-Ulama Conference together with the M’ranao politician Dr. Mahid Mutilan and Bishop Hilario Gomez of the Protestant National Council of Churches of the Philippines. Mutilan was of no minor stature. He was a learned man, an Islamic scholar who held a doctorate in theology. He became governor of Lanao del Sur and later vice governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. At the time of BUC’s founding, he was president of the Ulama League of the Philippines. It was of no small surprise that he and Capalla would cross paths.

Capalla, Mutilan and Gomez would eventually convene the quarterly Bishops-Ulama Forum promoting Muslim-Christian dialogue. The BUF rose to prominence by being instrumental in bridging Mindanao’s socio-cultural and religious divides. Priests, imams and pastors would hold the BUF regularly to plan a variety of Muslim-Christian activities among youth, social workers and other sectors.

In 1997, four former commanders of the Moro National Liberation Front took hostage Capalla’s successor as apostolic administrator in Marawi, the Irish Columban missionary Desmond Hartford. Hartford’s captors made him write a letter. It said that the only mediator the abductors would deal with was Fernando Capalla. He was by then the Archbishop of Davao.

The captors said they would hold Hartford hostage until Archbishop Capalla negotiated with the office of President Fidel V. Ramos on the release of long-delayed livelihood projects promised them as former rebels.

“I know some of them personally. I know they are very poor people,” Capalla told media. The captors, he said, were MNLF commanders who had surrendered when his term as bishop of Iligan had ended. “They know that I will always help them. They know Father Des personally. Father Des speaks with them in the M’ranao language,” Archbishop Capalla said.

Writing for the Davao Catholic Herald in 2017, Capalla once looked back at those harrowing days and said, “My heart bleeds for Marawi and for Mindanao.”

At the time of the raging legislative debates for the Bangsamoro Basic Law under President Benigno Aquino III, a Manila Catholic leader and writer referred to Capalla for guidance. It wasn’t unusual. If the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) wanted the resumption of peace talks with government, they would turn to the Bishops-Ulama Conference for help. The man asking for Capalla’s wisdom had asked me if Capalla was the right person to seek guidance from. This was my response:

His views will be more than nostalgic — he was at the forefront of the
apostolate of dialogue at the right time in history when the governor of Lanao del
Sur was himself a Muslim holy man. I know that Capalla can speak with his feet
— I would think one of the few prelates in this country who can do so. What
guidance can he give us, not just people of Mindanao but of the entire nation who
must participate in this important work of renewing our Filipino temporal order?
My respects to the Reverend Monsignor who once visited our family home in Cagayan  de Oro.”

This was Capalla’s reply: “I have realized that the so called historical injustice done to Lumads and Muslims cannot be resolved by giving them a sub-state or a federated region which is a political solution. From the perspective of faith, Jews, Christians and Muslims are children of Abraham. The real solution, beyond politics, to the Moro problem is a Basic Abrahamic Community where Jews, Christians and Muslims live together in Peace understood as Shalom (Hebrew).”

At the time when the death toll from Duterte’s Tokhang was horrifying the nation, many began to ask questions. Speaking at a public forum at Xavier University Ateneo de Cagayan, Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Caloocan related an anecdote told to him by Archbishop Capalla. The Davao Death Squad killings had shocked Capalla when he was assigned to Davao.

He plotted his move. He befriended the Duterte family. He broke bread with them. He baptized their children. And when he had thought he had their confidence, he spoke to Rodrigo Duterte personally about the killings. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Duterte began shaming him in public after that. And that began Capalla’s public crusade of criticizing the extrajudicial killings when Duterte was city mayor.

For years, Capalla was a voice in the wilderness in scared Davao city when even some priests and religious sided openly with Duterte. In November 2001, he had asked all the churches in the Archdiocese of Davao to read his pastoral letter on the killings. “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” Capalla had written, was a “strong and stern commandment from the author of life – God. It is wrong for any government . . . to tolerate criminal groups like the Davao Death Squad to kill.”

In 2005, Capalla directed all his priests to display streamers in all parish convents the words “Thou shall not kill. Respect life.” In February 2009, Capalla issued a circular for an Oratio Imperata (obligatory prayers) to be prayed on bended knees “as a sign of humility,” to ask for a stop to the spate of extrajudicial killings riveting the city.

When Leila de Lima had her investigations of the Davao city EJKs under the Commission of Human Rights later that year in 2009, the hitmen and barangay leaders who had confessed to her went to the Archbishop’s House. And that was where their testimonies were recorded, under the protection of a humble man named Fernando Robles Capalla who knew how to extend the love of God to his people, whether friend or foe.

The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files.