Soc Villegas—the name evokes many images: the young priest assisting his feeble but strong-willed archbishop, Jaime Cardinal Sin, the young bishop who was called to serve the people of Balanga, the President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines who did not hesitate to maintain bold positions and to express them with clarity, who was pilloried, maligned and shamed. Today, his term as president of the CBCP comes to an end and he returns to being full-time pastor of the Archdiocese of Lingayen-Dagupan. He always ends all his emails with an accolade to his priests. In Pangasinan, he writes: “The priests of Lingayen-Dagupan are the best there are in the world!”. I know many of his priests, and I know that they revere him. But it was what I saw when I stayed in Dagupan for a few days that convinced me that the words of the revered song for bishops indeed apply to him: Ecce sacerdos magnus qui in diebus suis placuit Deo…behold a great priest who in his days was pleasing to God: Every parish we visited, the youth would spontaneously run towards him to greet him and to express, in myriad ways, their fondness for him.
He was close to Cory Aquino, in large measure due to his role in the ministry of the later Cardinal Sin. But why should that be a sin? In retrospect, Edsa may have made Cory larger than life, but that does not make her evil and still less does it make of all who were fond of her morally bankrupt. The fact is that Socrates Villegas is one of the gentlest souls one will ever have the good fortune of encountering. Troubled priests will not be judged. They will be embraced with the warmth of an elder brother and accepted with the compassion of a father. I too did not think much of him first, because all I knew of him, I knew from seeing him in the shadow of Cardinal Sin. But when he gave me the opportunity to help him wade through the legal and ethical issues that, as CBCP President, he had to deftly but honestly confront and resolve, then I knew that this was a rare gem of a man and a priest!
Why then is he so frequently bashed? It can only be largely because he touched raw nerves by speaking out on such issues as extrajudicial killings, human rights, and the moral obligations of government. Only the jaundiced will find partisanship in those acts. He was beholden to none; but he was not going to be silenced, because his consecration was sacred to him: Unxit me evangelizare…He has anointed me to announce, to preach. It is a sad day for any nation when its prophets are silenced—and they can be silenced not only by being martyred, but also by being slurred and maligned and so stripped of all credibility and respectability. But the latter, you can never take away from a man who is respected not by reason of the fear that he instills in others, or by the popular acclaim of millions of votes, but by the integrity of his person and the sincerity of his motives.
Once he was asked if CBCP would mediate talks between the government and the CPP-NPA-NDF. It was not his call alone to make. He consulted his colleagues in the episcopal conference, and, together with them, he arrived at the decision that there was not enough showing of sincerity that held out the promise of the talks bearing any fruit at all. At the time he made the decision, he was rudely charged by self-proclaimed peace advocates as turning his back on the ways of peace. But events of late have proved him right, and no one is admitting that his bashers were wrong!
When super-destructive typhoons Yolanda and Lawin devastated the Visayas and Northern Luzon, he urged bishops and priests to thrown open the doors of churches so that they could become refugee centers — which many indeed became. With a more aggressive drive against drug-users, he called on Catholic schools and Catholic guidance counselors to make education on substance dependence and counseling services readily available. When one non-Catholic sect was facing the prospect of falling under the weight of in-fighting on the highest levels, he called for prayers for them. Certainly, this is not the monster his detractors have made of him!
He was not one to overlook the sins of the men of the cloth. He initiated the review of the protocols and the rules dealing with priests who were charged with offenses, particularly the abuse of minors. The rules have become more stringent, and bishops are obligated to cooperate with the authorities of state in the conduct of the investigation of such priests, taking such measures as to prevent priests from absconding who are facing charges, and offering the services of church counselors and hospices to the traumatized victims.
Without much fanfare, he has been the Holy See’s “troubleshooter” in the Philippines: visited ecclesiastical jurisdictions reduced to dysfunctional status by internal strife, gently returning troublesome and trouble priests to the fold but also firmly urging loyalty to the Holy See — and to the unity of the Church.
Socrates — he knew himself, and he knew himself very well to be imperfect, even as he was also aware of the gifts with which God endowed him. He was a wise shepherd, and still is, and although many would have him drink more than just hemlock, his strength has never been in princes and kings, nor in possessions and in wealth, but in the God whom he has endeavored to serve faithfully and always humbly!