“Sandigan ang masa; paglingkuran ang sambayanan.” (Rely on the masses; serve the people.) These words of Fr. Jose “Joe” P. Dizon at the celebration of his 40th year as a priest (for the most part assigned to the diocese of Imus, Cavite) sums up his life-long mantra as an activist priest. It also served as the theme of nearly all of the tributes delivered at his memorial last Wednesday at the San Roque Church in the “hustle-and-bustle” city of Caloocan where he was born and raised.
Fr. Joe achieved what the late human rights lawyer par excellence, Atty. Romeo T. Capulong, described as the “highest convergence” between one’s profession and one’s social activism. He conjoined his being a pastor and a social activist in the most meaningful, dynamic and efficacious way.
Thus the legacy he leaves behind is a shining example of a man-of-the-cloth who transcended the traditional role of a priest in Philippine society — celebrating the Holy Mass, administering the sacraments, and doing charitable works for the poor — to become, in time, a consummate patriot, a thoroughgoing democrat, and an unwavering “pastor-servant of the people.”
In his 40 years as a priest, Fr. Joe was tireless in being one with the “poor, deprived and oppressed.” He spent countless hours doing social investigations into the living and working conditions of workers, the urban poor, landless farmers and fisher folk in their communities and workplaces. He joined them in their struggles for their democratic rights and welfare through petitions and dialogues with employers and public officials; at countless picket lines, protest actions and mass demonstrations; and, invariably, by celebrating mass or being part of interfaith prayers to boost the morale and generate political and material support for the beleaguered yet militant masses.
Sr. Emelina Villegas ICM, Fr. Joe’s fellow workers’ advocate in the National Coalition for the Protection of Workers’ Rights, opined that Fr. Joe be called “priest of the people.” As a young priest in Imus, he assisted then Bishop Felix Perez in supporting the peasants in Tartaria who were engaged in a life-and-death struggle for the right to the land that they tilled. Under the menacing conditions of martial law, he fearlessly spoke out against the Marcos’ dictatorship’s oppression of the people. He became national director of the Basic Christian Communities-Community Organizing (BCC-CO) program that sought to develop the Church of the Poor, in accord with the progressive teachings of Vatican II, but he was quickly labeled by the fascist order as “subversive” and the BCO-CO, a “communist front.” To threats of arrest in order to silence him, he retorted, “Kung gusto ninyo akong hulihin, buhatin ninyo ako.” (If you wish to arrest me, you will have to bodily carry me out.)
In the late 1990s, Fr. Joe helped conceptualize and give birth to Kairos Philippines, a grassroots movement of ordinary Catholics centered on the devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary but combining the teaching and propagation of the social teachings of the Catholic Church so as to spur enlightened action on social ills that weighed down on the people. He wanted lay Catholics to have a progressive alternative to the burgeoning Christian charismatic movements, some of which were directly funded and led by foreign missionaries from the US, with a decidedly conservative and fundamentalist bent. He won over a significant number of bishops and religious to lend support and guidance to this endeavor.
Sr. Villegas underscored that Fr. Joe, a stickler for ecumenism, was at the forefront of ecumenical institutions and organizations that provide support services for the struggles of the basic sectors. One such effort is the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Reform (EILER) where he served as a member of the board since its inception and served as chairperson from 2005 to his death.
He also founded and continued to lead until his untimely demise, the Workers Assistance Center (WAC). WAC grew out of a socio-pastoral program he established in his parish in Rosario, Cavite to address the appalling conditions of workers in the Export Processing Zones (EPZs) of the Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon (Calabarzon) region. According to Inquirer columnist, Ceres Doyo, the WAC’s Bahay Manggagagwa has served as a “haven for workers.” In addition, Doyo said, “One of WAC’s important achievements is organizing the Solidarity of Cavite Workers, a province-wide alliance of groups that upheld genuine and militant unionism.” This is no mean feat considering that Cavite has undergone prolonged periods of mailed-fist repression of the trade union movement because of the state policy of ensuring a docile labor force in the EPZs in order to attract foreign investors.
I have never heard Fr. Joe express moral conflict about his being a priest and a dyed-in-the-wool activist. I attribute this to his clear-minded understanding about what it is, and what it must be, to be a priest in a society riven by class exploitation and oppression; with a state characterized by the deceitful and violent defense of the status quo; and in light of an institutional Catholic Church weighed down by feudal tradition as well as socio-economic ties to the ruling elites.
Armed with his experience of sustained immersion in the lives of the basic masses of workers and peasants and his avid study of the Church’s social teachings, Fr. Joe embarked on efforts to build and rebuild projects that would bring church people once more to the front lines of the people’s movement for change. Thus was begun the Clergy Discernment project which counts scores of priests nationwide in their renewed effort to find their “prophetic” role in Philippine society. Fr. Joe was indefatigable in bringing the issues and causes of the people to the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) and individual bishops through such mechanisms as the Church-Labor and Church-Peasant conferences.
It has been said that Fr. Joe’s parishioners are in fact the Filipino people. This truism is perhaps best seen in his work helping to build social movements and alliances on a range of national concerns and issues. These include the multisectoral alliances that fought against the US-backed Marcos dictatorship such as the People’s Alliance for the Pope’s Visit (PAPA), Justice for Aquino, Justice for All (JAJA), the Nationalist Alliance for Freedom, Justice and Democracy, the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) and the Coalition for the Restoration of Democracy (CORD).
He was a leading figure in the Estrada Resign Movement and Plunder Watch that culminated in the people’s uprising dubbed EDSA Dos. In the same manner, he was at the head of the movement to oust Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, highlighting issues of human rights violations, graft and corruption, abuse of power, electoral fraud, and puppetry to US-led wars of aggression such as the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Fr. Joe sustained his passionate fight against the ills of bureaucrat capitalism — the root of endemic and big-time corruption in government, political dynasties, patronage politics, bloody counterinsurgency programs etc. — under the Benigno Aquino administration through Kontradaya, the #abolishporkmovement and Pagbabago (People’s Movement for Change).
As an exemplary priest in the manner extolled by Pope Francis, I have no doubt that Fr. Joe is now in the heaven his faith reserves for good people. But there is a different kind of immortality that awaits those, like him, who become a part of the historic movement for national and social liberation. Fr. Joe will certainly live on, incarnated in a new generation of church people who choose to cast their lot with the “poor, deprived and oppressed” and to dedicate their lives in unstinting service to the people.
Published in Business World
November 7, 2013