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Volume 3,  Number 22               July 6 - 12, 2003            Quezon City, Philippines


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Bishop Antonio Y. Fortich: 
Pilgrim for the Poor 

Most Rev. Bishop Antonio Y. Fortich, known worldwide for his human rights advocacy, passed away last July 1. But even in death, the feisty bishop looms bigger than life itself.


Supporters, friends and the whole religious community deeply mourn the Negros prelate’s demise, all saying his death was a big loss for the Church and the people.

While many compare Fortich to El Salvador’s Archbishop Romero, the popular Negros bishop defies comparison. There is only one Fortich, who was inflamed by the country’s socio-political system and spoke out against it when it was not the fashion to do so.

Fortich was a human rights advocate, philosopher, peacemaker and true leader of his flock.

As a peacemaker, he did not mind being controversial if he believed his position correct. He once said: “Peace is radically rooted in justice. Peace is the flower of justice. Unless the government sees to it that justice is given to everyone it is very hard to talk about lasting peace. Let’s look at some of our real problems. The land belongs to a few, health services in the hinterlands are poor, there is corruption in offices. The solution to these should not be momentary or plastic.”  

As a social reformer, he stirred up a hornet's nest with his pronouncement that if the system of injustice, exploitation and oppression was not rectified, Negros would become a social volcano. History proved him correct.

As a clergy, he preached that the Church must be a Church of the people.

Bacolod priest Fr. Ireneo Gordoncillo summed up the man and his achievements when he said: “Bishop Emeritus, Msgr. Antonio Y. Fortich’s death was a big loss. An era has passed.”

Exemplary leadership

Fortich was from Dumaguete City, Negros Oriental. He was born August 11, 1913. His father Ignacio Fortich was a Spanish mestizo, while his mother Rosalla Yapsutco was half-Chinese. There were only two children, Antonio and his sister Caridad.

After studying in Dumaguete, he decided to enter the Jesuit-run San Jose Seminary in Manila, where he finished his priesthood. Even as a young seminarian, he demonstrated early on his intellectual capacity, pleasant disposition which endeared him to his professors and fellow seminarians, and contagious sense of humor.

Fortich was ordained into priesthood at the height of World War II on March 4, 1944. He took his first assignment in Bacolod. To get there, he took a paraw (a frail and motorless boat) all the way from Manila because there was no other means of transportation. He served in Bacolod until 1949 when he was transferred to Binalabagan town in southern Negros. He so endeared himself among the people that when he was recalled to Bacolod in 1951, there were vehement protests and petitions for his retention.

Barely a year later, Msgr. Manuel Yap appointed him as Vicar General with the honorary title “Monsignor.” Fortich complemented Msgr. Yap quite well. While the latter was as a biblical scholar and  mathematical genius who preferred to study than attend meetings and talk to people, Fortich on the other hand was engrossed with community work.  It was during this period of great social unrest that he showed his ability to reach out and mediate between conflicting parties.

In 1964 he organized the Cursillo de Christianidad Movement, which meant translating the Christian faith into concrete pastoral work and achieving things together with the community. Soon, the Cursillo caught fire and almost everyone in the diocese joined. In the Cursillo, Fortich demonstrated his capacity for leadership, as well as patience in dealing with all types of people.

A year later, he established the Barangay ng Virgen Movement (BVM), a mass-based organization aimed to promote devotion to Virgin Mary through the Holy Rosary.  The BVM caught fire and soon became a national phenomenon. By the end of the ‘60s, it had spread practically all over the country. Fortich initiated similar other Christian movements and, in 1966, was given recognition by Philippine church hierarchy and appointed as national chaplain of the different movements.

In 1966, after the death of Msgr. Yap, he was officially elected Vicar Titular by the diocesan consultants. On January 14, 1967 he was elected by Rome as the third bishop of Bacolod.

Building a Church for the poor

The consecration of Fortich came at the time when the country and the Church itself were in ferment. The Vatican II position, the Papal Social Encyclicals, and the election of Fortich, known for his progressive views, contributed to the brewing atmosphere.

Drawing on his long experience and deep knowledge of the diocese, Fortich reorganized it to become more responsive to the times. A social action program became one of its top priorities. He assigned Fr. Luis Jalandoni, an equally socially-oriented priest, to head the program.

The diocese’s thrusts slowly but persistently brought the Negros Church and clergy closer to the impoverished sacadas or sugar workers. In 1969, Fortich issued a pivotal pastoral letter touching on the inhuman conditions of the sacadas. Showing his strong belief in promoting social justice, he declared,  “The church is organizing all available resources to initiate or release the forces of change.”

In the ‘70s, Fortich opened an experimental cooperative farm, the Kaisahan Farm settlement in Candoni, to help his poor constituents organize themselves and survive. He also helped organize the small landowners in southern Negros by initiating the establishment of the Dacongcogon Sugar and Rice Milling Cooperative and tapping various government and private sources to boost the project.

Fortich also assisted several other pro-labor programs and foundations, all for the purpose of ensuring that workers receive just wages and benefits. He also initiated the diocesan radio station, VERITAS, to complement the diocese work for social justice. The radio station is now known as DYAF station.

Later on, the diocese under Fortich’s leadership embraced further the promotion of social justice when it organized the Kristianong Katilingban (Basic Christian communities). KK later spread and became the prime mover in each parish, ensuring that the Church and its flock continued to be responsive to the plight and struggles of the people.

This new mission drew the church in direct confrontation with the local elite families as the KK evolved into an organized dynamo for the basic sectors’ fight against various forms of injustice.  

Jalandoni, now a leader of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP),  recalled in a statement how Fortich "respected the priests, the youth and others who decided to take the option of armed struggle for the cause of national and social liberation."  He said that Fortich used to go up the Negros mountains and talk with New People's Army (NPA) guerrillas.      

Said Jalandoni: "They fondly called him 'Kumander Tony,' which he received with laughter.  Later, the military in its red-baiting and witchhunt would use it against him.  But he remained unfazed by this. He kept on with his firm stand for the people and continued to enjoy being called 'Kumander Tony.'"

Standing firm in a time of fear

There had been times in the Bacolod Bishop’s life when he had to stand his ground, earning him dangerous enemies and bringing grave risks to his life.

A concrete example was when the old Spanish-style Bishop’s residence was mysteriously razed to the ground. The incident was officially declared an accident but many priests believed it was intentionally set on fire by men under the command of a former constabulary officer. This officer was allegedly involved in the infamous Langoni Nine Massacre which resulted in the death nine young men from Langoni Subvillage in Cauayan town. 

The talk among the priests then was that the arsonists intended to set on fire the nearby small building that housed the Social Action Center office and where documents on many cases of human rights violations in the province were stored. During this period of political turbulence, nobody in Negros dared criticized the Marcos regime except for Fortich and some members of the mosquito press led by Cobra-ans. 

Aside from this, Fortich was also once threatened by a warlord from Northern Negros. Fortich talked of the exploitative conditions in the province during the visit of Pope John Paul II in Negros which angered the warlord. Although then First Lady Imelda Marcos flew in early to ensure that everything was in order, she failed to contain the Pope himself who slammed the oppressive situation in the province and expressed concern for Negros’ poor. The Pope's statement was made during a high-profile event attended by tens of thousands of people and watched by the whole world. The incensed warlord, now deceased, blamed Fortich for the “international black eye” he perceived the regime had suffered.

But even when the Marcos regime fell, human rights violations continued. Human rights advocates, including Fortich, refused to be silent.

When President Corazon Aquino who succeeded Marcos declared her total war against the revolutionary movement, the military did not spare even members of the religious sectors. Among many others, Fortich became a target of armed vigilante groups operating in the region. One morning, assassins lobbed a grenade into the courtyard of the Domus Dei compound in Bacolod, an incident which almost killed Fortich. A campaign of vilification against Fortich and other progressive members of the clergy followed. 

Fortich however triumphantly survived all these. Even when he retired as a bishop, he continued to live a simple and disciplined life in his Domus Dei residence, waking up early and taking quiet walks around the Sacred Heart Seminary Ground.

It was in a bungalow-type house which supporters built for him that he received visitors, including government leaders and politicians, especially candidates for elections. Even Imelda Marcos once visited Fortich after a motorcade in the city. She was then running for president and was accompanied by the late comedian Chiquito.

People who knew Fortich will never run out of things and stories to tell about this colorful personality. He was an enduring influence upon many priests in the province, partly because all worked under his guidance as there used to be only one diocese then in Negros. But mainly, it is because of his commitment to human rights, peace and justice. His teachings will continue to inspire and guide not only members of the clergy, but the next generations of Filipinos. 

The bishop's life was a life of pilgrimage, in defense of the high ideals of social justice.  Bulatlat.com

(Data and photos from BCC staff and archives)

A Bemedalled Bishop

Some of the awards and recognition conferred on Bishop Antonio Y. Fortich:

  • Honored domestic prelate 1958

  • Awarded by the University of Negros Occidental Recoletos the Honoris Causa: doctor of Philosophy for Humanitarian service 1969

  • Awarded by the Ateneo de Manila University the OZANAM Award for Public Service Towards Peace 1970

  • Awarded by St.Louis University the Honoris Causa: Doctor of Social Welfare 1971

  • Awarded by the Sugar Club of the Philippines “For Engineering and Experiment in Rural Development in Dacongcogon Valley” 1973

  • Chosen as the 1973 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Public Service 1973

  • Awarded by the City of Bacolod “Ang Banwahanon Award” for Achievement in Civic Actions 1974

  • Awarded by the De Lasalle University the Signum Meriti Medal for being a fearless and courages spokesman on behalf of social justice 1985

  • Awarded by the Ateneo Manila the Honorary doctorate in Human Letters for his contributions towards Agrarian Reform and championing the cause of farmers 1988

  • Awarded by the concerned women of the Philippines the “Human Rights Peace Award” 1988

  • Nominated to the “Nobel Peace Prize Award” 1989

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