Beyond the altar: Outspoken priests stand their ground on social media

Erik Tenedero, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 19 2022 08:23 PM | Updated as of Apr 20 2022 10:57 AM

Rev. Fr. Ronald Balase, CSsR and Rev. Fr. Michael Angelo Dacalos, MSC are among the rising number of digitally-savvy Filipino priests who are creating a ripple on social media.
Rev. Fr. Ronald Balase, CSsR and Rev. Fr. Michael Angelo Dacalos, MSC are among the rising number of digitally-savvy Filipino priests who are creating a ripple on social media.

Enough of putting us in a box, said Rev. Fr. Ronald Balase.

For fellow clergy Rev. Fr. Michael Angelo Dacalos, neutrality is never a choice.

The two priests, both millennials in their early 30s, are among the rising number of digitally-savvy Filipino priests who are creating a ripple on social media by being politically outspoken.

But even for a Christian-majority country hailed as Catholicism's bastion in Asia, priests who speak beyond the letters of the scriptures are still frowned upon. For many of their critics, it's taboo for churchmen to speak about politics.

This is a misconception, both priests said, and they believe it is high time they correct this.

"Laging konsepto na ang pagiging Katoliko natin ay sa pamamagitan lang ng pagdadasal. But to be a real Christian is hindi maiiwasan na ikaw ay maging isang pulitikal na tao," said Balase, known to his over 18,000 followers on Twitter as Father Nosi.

"The very instance na sinabi mo 'ako Katoliko ako, ako Kristiyano ako' you are proclaiming something political in the world. You are proclaiming 'this is my identity.'"

(It has been a concept that being a Catholic is only through prayer. But to be a real Christian, we cannot avoid being political. The very instance you say that you are a Catholic or a Christian, you are proclaiming something political.)

This identity, Father Nosi said, makes up all Christian values the Church has taught since time immemorial — upholding truth and justice, championing the oppressed and marginalized, and love for God. And if one truly stands for these values, he said having political implications is inevitable.

"Tama na 'yung paglalagay sa mga pari sa pagkahon (Enough of putting us priests in a box) sapagkat if you will understand the ministry of priesthood, it goes beyond our sacramental, our duties on the altar," he said.

To fulfill this ministry, neutrality is never a choice, according to fellow priest Dacalos or simply Father Myke on social media.

And in the face of social injustice and other circumstances threatening such Christian values they vowed to uphold, he said it is their duty as priests to speak up and stand their ground.

"If I would remain silent, I would remain neutral na dun nga lang ako sa simbahan, dun na lang ako sa kumbento, ayoko nang magpari," Father Myke said.

"Because that's not priesthood, that's being spoiled brat, that's being entitled, that's being enabler."

ELECTION SEASON

With the campaign season for the national and local elections in full swing, both priests found themselves caught up in the intense social media tussle.

The two are open supporters of presidential contender Vice President Leni Robredo and proudly call themselves "kakampriest," a play on the Tagalog word "kakampi" which means ally.

Clergymen's involvement in a political movement is not peculiar in the Philippines.

One of the key figures of the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution that toppled the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos Sr. was the late Manila archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin. Priests, nuns, seminarians, and other consecrated people were also at the forefront of the fight against the deposed strongman.

Father Nosi and Father Myke both spoke on social media against historical revisionism that sought to downplay years of human rights abuse under Marcos Sr. The regime saw thousands of disappearances, torture, and murder.

The Philippine Commission on Good Government said the Marcos family’s ill-gotten wealth is estimated at between US$5 billion to US$10 billion, with the bulk of it deposited and hidden abroad.

Over three decades later, Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., the late dictator's only son, is leading the polls to occupy the same seat his father once held for 20 years. The young Marcos has never acknowledged the atrocities committed under his father's rule.

But since the return of democracy, politically outspoken priests and nuns are often criticized using the Constitution's provision on the separation of Church and State.

Although it has been clarified before by legal experts and other Church figures, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) in a pastoral letter for the 2022 elections once again said that the provision does not prohibit any church or religion from speaking about politics.

Instead, the doctrine guarantees free exercise of religion while prohibiting the government from establishing a state religion.

Marcos Jr.'s camp already warned clergymen who "have abused the pulpit" by "openly meddling with politics" — an allegation both Father Nosi and Father Myke have denied.

They clarified three things: the Church as an institution does not endorse any candidate; that their support for Robredo is their personal conviction as private citizens; and that they never used the pulpit to campaign for any politician.

"That's an abuse of our authority as preachers, na you support a candidate, you proclaim a candidate para sa iyong homily... but as a private person, as an individual, I have the freedom to show my support to a person. At hindi 'yun pulpito," Father Nosi said.

"Sinasabi lang namin dun 'wag kang boboto ng sinungaling, 'wag kang boboto ng magnanakaw. Wala po kaming sinasabing pangalan."

(We only say not to vote for liars and thieves. We do not mention any names.)

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And with critics accusing priests of alluding to a particular candidate with such kind of sermon, Father Myke responded through a tweet that has since went viral:

"Ayaw niyong magsalita ang mga pari laban sa pagnanakaw at iba pang pang-aabuso, eh anong gusto niyo, i-revise namin ang Ten Commandments at gawing Ten Suggestions?

Ni-revise niyo na nga ang kasaysayan, pati mga utos ng Diyos 'di niyo rin palalagpasin?"

(You don’t want priests speaking up against stealing and other abuses? Do you want us to revise the Ten Commandments and make it Ten Suggestions? You are already revising history, you can’t even spare God’s commandments?) 

SIGN OF THE TIMES?

Father Nosi and Father Myke were both aware that unlike inside church, their words will not always receive a resounding amen within the social media realm.

While many remain appreciative, there came the notorious bashers and internet trolls. And mockery was their tool.

"To be called names — demonyo kang pari ka, bobo ka, tanga ka, Damaso. The first instances it's really very disheartening, even if it's not true, the allegations are not true, masakit pa rin," Father Myke admitted.

Although he is quick to block bashers and trolls, sometimes you'll find him engaging passionately in a lengthy thread of discourse on various issues.

"May mga dissenting opinions din sa Twitter na hindi ko bina-block kasi kahit na dissenting opinion sila, but they engage soundly, 'yun nirerespeto ko talaga kasi that's part of freedom of expression. So as long as hindi bastos, fine with me," he said.

(There are dissenting opinions on Twitter that I don’t block because they engage soundly. That I respect because that’s part of freedom of expression. So as long as it’s not disrespectful, I’m fine with it.)

Aware of how social media conversations usually work, Father Myke also tailors his manner of engaging people online.

"Kasi sometimes bardagulan doon sa Twitter so I also need to kinda translate the gospel message into a kind of bardagulan pero hindi naman bastos," he explained.

"'Yung parang to the point, frank, and hindi ko pini-filter 'yung message ng ebanghelyo. So like in a way, 'yung 'pag express ko sa Twitter is stronger."

(Sometimes it's all trash talk on Twitter so I also need to translate the gospel message using straightforward and strong words without being disrespectful.)

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This is another contentious point for the Twitter mob. A quick check at both Father Myke and Father Nosi's Twitter feed and it won't be long before you see replies castigating them with "Ganyan ba ang tamang asta ng pari?" (Is that how a priest should act?)

But for Father Nosi, when you speak of the truth, it is inevitable for others to feel hurt, and that the only mistake is to keep silent in the face of tyranny. After all, even the scripture tells of a Jesus who spoke with striking words.

"Jesus Christ said 'you Pharisees, you whitewashed tombs!' That's a very strong message. 'You hypocrites!' You have to do that," Father Nosi explained.

"We have to be meek, humble, totoo 'yan. Mabait ang pari, totoo po 'yan. Pero kapag nasa harapan ka na ba ng demonyo, ng kasamaan, you will be meek and humble? You have to move forward and shout na 'tama na, 'wag mong gawin 'yan, tigilan mo 'yan."

(It’s true, priests need to be meek and humble. It’s also true that priests are kind. But if you are faced with the devil or with evil, will you be meek and humble? You have to move forward and shout ‘enough, don’t do that, stop that.’) 

Screenshots of Twitter posts from Rev. Fr. Ronald Balase, CSsR and Rev. Fr. Michael Angelo Dacalos, MSC about being outspoken on social media even on matters of politics and various social issues.
Screenshots of Twitter posts from Rev. Fr. Ronald Balase, CSsR and Rev. Fr. Michael Angelo Dacalos, MSC about being outspoken on social media even on matters of politics and various social issues.

Sociologist Frederick Rey from the University of Santo Tomas explained that the influx of politically outspoken priests on social media may be due to several reasons, one of which was a disconnect between the values that they uphold and the way other institutions are behaving.

"Hindi kasi pwede na 'pag tinuro ng Simbahan, 'pag tinuro ng pamilya, ng eskwelahan na bawal magnakaw ay pagdating sa political institution ito-tolerate niya. That will be the cause of our social breakdown," he said.

(It cannot be that the Church, the family, and schools will teach that stealing is wrong but then it will be tolerated in our political institutions.)

And since this is a new generation of priests, Rey agreed it may also be a factor since the youth are "natural allies of social transformation" and "agents of reforms."

However, he was quick to point out that it is not entirely the case.

"Our social reform or social revolution or social struggle is not exclusive for the youth. Marami rin tayong mas nakakatanda or nauna sa atin na ipinanday 'yung kultura, ipinanday 'yung mga paniniwala na sa ngayon ay pinapaniwalaan natin. Ibig sabihin 'yung basis ng social movement or ng action natin ngayon is based on the culture that generations before us created," he said.

(Our predecessors helped shape our culture, our beliefs, and our convictions. It means that generations before us laid the foundation of today's social movement.)
 
Indeed, aside from younger priests, several Filipino bishops remain politically outspoken, including Cardinal Sin's protégé Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, and Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, the incumbent president of CBCP. The two bishops strongly opposed the brutal war on drugs of President Rodrigo Duterte that saw thousands of suspected drug peddlers and users killed in cold blood.

Since his election, Duterte relentlessly attacked the Catholic hierarchy, often citing various cases that have tainted the Catholic Church, including cases of corruption and sexual abuse scandals.

Pope Francis, including pontiffs of the recent past, have asked for forgiveness for all the scandals involving churchmen. Since his election, it has been Francis's mission to introduce reforms, including the overhaul of the Roman Curia, the Holy See's central bureaucracy, and the installation of systems to make sure erring priests and bishops will be accountable.

But be it attacks or plain criticisms, Rey believes the Church will continue to wield a considerable influence in the country's political landscape. He said this dynamic between the Church and the government strengthens, not only the institutions, but even society itself. 

"Pwede nating tingnan na from contradiction arises a better version of ourselves, na lalong mas gaganda — iki-critic ng Simbahan 'yung masamang ginagawa ng pulitika at iki-critic ng political system 'yung masamang ginagawa ng Simbahan at ng iba pang mga institusyon. And from there we learn, we become better institutions," he said.

NO BACKING DOWN

Father Nosi and Father Myke are both missionaries — the former from the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, the latter from the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. Both also just celebrated their first anniversary as priests.

For Father Nosi, his journey to priesthood began when Redemptorists, his future confrere, did mission works in his native town of Malinao, Albay.

"Gustong-gusto ko dito sa mission is 'yung nakikisalamuha ka sa everyday life ng mga tao... pumupunta sa bukid kung sa'n sila nagtatrabaho, nakikikain, nakikiluto ng mga ulam... 'yun ang masaya sa misyon. You become more involved in the life of the people," he said.

(What I like about being a missionary is you encounter people in their everyday life... you go with them out in the fields where they work, then you eat and cook with them. That's what I really enjoy in this mission.)

It was in this same spirit of connection to people that Father Nosi is using social media for his ministry. While he was already an active Facebook user since seminary days, he only joined Twitter late in 2021.

"Actually nagulat ako the way people interact sa Twitter, nagulat din ako kasi nga 'yung tawag na bardagulan (I was shocked with the way people interact on Twitter, especially the trash talking.) I did not know that 'yung parang nakikipag-away ka. But along the way I realized the more that I need to be here, the more that I need to speak," he said.

Rev. Fr. Michael Angelo Dacalos, MSC (center) and Rev. Fr. Ronald Balase, CSsR together with a fellow priest during the
Rev. Fr. Michael Angelo Dacalos, MSC (center) and Rev. Fr. Ronald Balase, CSsR together with a fellow priest during the "Solidarity Mass for the Moral Choice" at the Baclaran Church in Parañaque City for the May 2022 elections.

Father Myke also started on Facebook. He was behind the Facebook page "Hugot ni Lord" which has over 15,000 followers. He is also active on TikTok with nearly 10,000 followers and over 90,000 likes.

An active member of a theater group in his younger years in his hometown of Tagum in Davao del Norte, Father Myke's calling was inspired by a fellow performer-turned-priest, no other than Saint John Paul II.

"Sabi ko, 'oo nga no, if Pope John Paul II can do that then ano 'yung pumipigil sa akin?' So dun ako na-inspire na I can offer pala my talents for the Church," he said.

"So dun ko nagagamit 'yung naipon kong confidence sa performing arts, that's why I'm also into social media. I'm also into different platforms of social media. Doon ko nacha-channel 'yung performing artist na nasa akin just for especially in view of the mission."

(I said, if Pope John Paul II can do that then what's stopping me? That inspired me to think that I can offer my talents for the Church. I'm using the confidence I gained from performing arts, that's why I'm also on social media. That's where I channel the performing artist in me especially in view of the mission.)

Father Myke admitted that when he started his goal of evangelizing through social media, he intended it to be non-partisan with less political overtones.

"Given the circumstances now kailangan talagang tumindig, kailangan din mag-speak. So sabi ko kung matatakot ako bakit pa ako nagpari?” he said. 

(We really need to stand up, we need to speak up. I said, if I’d be afraid then why did I even become a priest?) 

“I was not ordained to be silent. I was ordained so I can speak out God's truth." 

But in a country like the Philippines, sometimes criticizing those in power can compromise one’s safety; sometimes it can jeopardize one’s life.

In 2018, Vatican News took note of three priests who were killed in the Philippines in a span of 6 months. Human rights group Karapatan called it "clear signs of a thriving climate of impunity in the Philippines."

Red-tagging has also been rampant under the Duterte administration, with several critics of the government accused of being connected with the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.

For both Father Nosi and Father Myke, they have long accepted the danger that comes with the vocation. But because their conviction goes beyond social media followers, likes, and retweets, no amount of bashing, threats, and intimidation would deter them from speaking up.

"Tanggap ko na 'yan simula nung niyakap ko 'yung ganitong buhay. Bahagi siya ng package. At hindi ibig sabihin sa pagtanggap na 'yan ay mananahimik ako. Lalaban tayo. Kailangan din nating lumaban. Labanan natin itong red-tagging, labanan natin itong kasinungalingan, labanan natin ang korapsyon," Father Nosi said.

(I have long accepted it since I embraced this kind of life. It's part of the package. But my acceptance does not mean that I will be silent. We will fight. We need to fight. We need to fight red-tagging, the lies, and corruption.)

Father Myke would not budge either. For him, he will always stay true to the vows he made when he lay prostrate in front of God and the people he is determined to serve.

"If I will stop just because of threats, just because of mockery or red-tagging, then parang ipagpapalit ko ('yung pagkapari ko). Ano'ng pipiliin ko, 'yung pagkapari ko o 'yung comfort o 'yung komportableng buhay? Mas pipiliin ko ‘yung pagkapari ko," he said.

(If I will stop just because of threats, just because of mockery or red-tagging, it’s as if I already gave up my priesthood. What would I choose, my priesthood or a comfortable life? I’d rather choose being a priest.)