New York—I have always been somewhat mystified by the controversy over whether or not Rizal retracted on the eve of his execution—this December 30th marks the 116th anniversary. The good friars who seemed overly solicitous concerning the fate of the 35 year old’s soul put it as a matter of defending the Catholic Church against his pointed and brilliant critiques. These critiques were especially telling in their portrayal of the clerics’ gross materialism, corpulent and carnal desires, and all too earthly machinations to preserve their power in a colonial state which they effectively ruled. For more than three hundred years, these men of the cloth had established in the archipelago a fiefdom where the civil state more often than not was simply an auxiliary to their supremacy. To them Spain was the church and the church was Spain, and in kind of parody the priests constituted the third element in this not-so-holy trinity.
If you follow the trajectory of the poisonous views the Catholic establishment held towards a man they labeled an apostate, the friars couldn’t care less about his soul. What they sought above all was revenge. They wanted their pound of bleeding flesh, which they got easily, through a mock trial from which the public was excluded and Rizal barred from testifying. He spoke truth to power, exposing the venality and moral turpitude of an all-too-human institution. To be laughed at, mocked, condemned by the accurate depictions of friar power and abuse, of the cruelty of the colonial state, in Rizal’s two brilliant novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, and in his writings for La Solidaridad, the journal of the Propaganda Movement, was not something to be borne lightly. Who can forget the portraits etched in acid of such characters as Padres Damaso and Salvi? Or his satirical take on indulgences and the faux holiness of the parish confraternities? Ever wonder that despite centuries of Spanish occupation, despite royal decrees from Madrid, only a small percentage of Filipinos spoke Spanish? That was due to the dogged refusal of the friars to allow most Indios to learn it beyond their cathecism. In the Fili, university students press for the establishment of an academy to teach Castilian, only to be sorely disappointed—a fictional representation of the real-life attempt of the women of Malolos to learn the language.
The attempt to get the doomed man to sign a retraction wasn’t about regaining his faith and welcoming him back into the fold. No. Rizal never lost his belief in the Divine, as is evident in the correspondence between him and Fr. Pablo Pastells, a Jesuit, undertaken while Rizal was in exile in Dapitan. As quoted by Austin Coates in his biography of RizaI, in a letter dated April 4, 1893, he writes, after affirming his faith in God: “I do not believe Revelation impossible; on the contrary, I believe in it; but not in the revelation or revelations which each religion or all religions claim to possess. Examining them impartially, comparing them and scrutinizing them, one cannot avoid discerning in all of them the human fingernail and the stamp of time in which they were written …”
In such writings the Enlightenment is evident as well as the spirit of reformation. In short, Rizal expresses elegantly a healthy and profound skepticism towards the institutional Church’s insistence on unthinking obedience. No wonder they wanted to get rid of him. Here was their most brilliant adversary, a brown-skinned urbane and cosmopolitan intellectual Indio whom they could never hope to equal in the court of reason, or any unbiased court, for that matter. Getting that retraction, or claiming to have gotten it, would have sweetened their revenge. Of course, from Rizal’s perspective, this would have added insult to (fatal) injury.
This is not new ground, of course. Pro- and anti-retraction advocates have long made their views known. The former include some very well-known and respected names from, according to Wikipedia, the late Nick Joaquin, National Artist for Literature, to the historian Ambeth Ocampo.
Still, I remain unconvinced. To believe that he would have renounced the works and beliefs of a lifetime, simply to escape the sentence of death, flies in the face of how he had lived his whole life. After all, he had decided to return to his homeland, knowing fully well he would be placing himself in the hands of those who hated him and who had the power and means to dispose of him legally—as had been done with the martyrs Gomez, Burgos, and Zamora in 1872 and to whom the Fili is dedicated. He could have easily remained in Europe or lived in Hong Kong, as he did briefly with his family. To believe that he would write and submit a letter—a letter that by the way was only produced in 1935, 39 years after the execution—saying he was in error regarding the Church’s behavior is to imagine a man so completely different from what he had been his whole life as to be unrecognizable, a figment of some clerical imagining. Consider how his body, uncoffined, was dumped unceremoniously into a hole in the ground. You would think a man who had given these priests what they wanted would at least have been accorded a Christian burial. Consider too these last seven lines of Mi Ultimo Adios, particularly the second one, from the writer Edwin Agustin Lozada’s translation:
I go where there are no slaves, hangmen, or oppressors,
Where faith doesn’t kill, where the one who reigns is God.
Goodbye, dear parents, brothers and sisters, fragments of my soul,
Childhood friends in the home now lost,
Give thanks that I rest from this wearisome day.
Goodbye, sweet foreigner, my friend, my joy;
Farewell, loved ones, to die is to rest.
Copyright L.H. Francia 2012