One hundred years ago, in 1906, the grace of the Episcopacy was granted to the Filipino people in the person of a Bicolano born in Baao, Camarines Sur, Jorge Barlin, who took as his Episcopal motto: "Bonus miles Christi" --- A Good Soldier of Christ. It was the first time after three hundred years of Christianity in the Philippines that a Filipino was given such a dignity --- certainly, a milestone in the Philippine Church History, an event worth remembering and celebrating.
Dear brothers and sisters, the present-day circumstances pose new and numerous challenges to our faith and ministry. The poverty and suffering many experiences sometimes lead us into thinking that love of God and country are two opposite realities. However, there are to be found in our history persons who had shown us that love for God and country are not incompatible. Among these is Bishop Jorge Barlin.
This letter then is a call to our dear Faithful: clergy, religious and laity to honor the memory of Barlin.
In engaging into this task of remembering, we wish to express gratitude to God for the grace of the ministry, particularly that of the episcopacy, which consists in the service of teaching, sanctifying and governing.
By recalling the memory of Barlin, we wish to remind ourselves too of who we are as a people; of what we have accomplished; and of what we can still do.
Our country, our society, our communities, even our families, need hope. The calamities that have struck us in recent years had been terrible. Yet it is in these same difficult moments that goodness, kindheartedness and hope have also shone. Good as it were is never extinguished. And looking back in history, we find signposts of this in our journey as a people and church.
At a time, when the capability of Filipinos was doubted, especially with regard to fulfilling the task of parish priest, more so that of a bishop, there was Jorge Barlin, who showed us what the Filipino is able to accomplish.
Barlin, Filipino, early in his age showed talent which was immediately recognized by the famous Spanish Bishop Francisco Gainza, O.P. The good bishop took him under his care.
In the early years of his priesthood, Barlin showed docility and humble obedience when from being the capellan de solio and majordomo of the Cathedral of Nueva Caceres, he accepted the humble task of a missionary-curate in the remote and poor fishing village of Siruma, Camarines Sur.
Barlin's capability was once again recognized, when from being an ostracized priest in Libog, Albay, he was appointed Vicar Forane of the whole Province of Sorsogon and parish priest of its capital. It was an unprecedented appointment for he was a young upstart. For sixteen full years he labored with distinction.
During the turbulent days of the revolution, Sorsogon did not suffer a bloody September. This was due to Padre Barlin who commanded the respect and esteem of the people, and his pacification campaign. When the last Spanish Governor Senor Villamil left for safety, he entrusted to Barlin the reins of the government and peacefully surrendered his official prerogatives. Barlin figured prominently in the establishment of the revolutionary government as well as during the arrival of the American government. In all these changes, Barlin was instrumental in rallying the people in the maintenance of peace and order.
In 1902, Gregorio Aglipay, taking notice of his capability, offered him the supreme prelacy of the Philippine Independent Church. To such invitation, Barlin replied: "Prefiero ser lampazero a ser la cabeza de su jerarquia cismatica." (I prefer to be a sweeper than to be the head of your schismatic hierarchy.)
It was the same Barlin who gave the most damaging blow to the new sect from which it never recovered. Elsewhere in the archipelago, many Filipino priests had defected to the schismatic church with the support of their congregations. Because these defectees had moved into the ranks of Aglipayanism without vacating their churches, a question arose for the American authorities to order. To whom did those churches belong?
When Fr. Ramirez, Parish Priest of Lagonoy, Camarines Sur, refused to vacate his church, Barlin, then Apostolic Administrator of Nueva Caceres, struck the blow when he won the case against Ramirez in the Supreme Court, which in 1906 decided in favor of Barlin. The blow to the movement was almost irreparable. Aglipayan sectarian priests throughout the Islands were compelled to vacate their churches, in so doing began to lose hold on their congregations. Had Barlin lost the case, it is probable that many of our churches would have been occupied by the Aglipayans and many would have remained in the sect.
In December 14, 1905, he was named Bishop by a secret consistory. He was consecrated bishop on June 20, 1906. In the words of a historian: "He bore the promise of a new era for the long-suffering native clergy. In his name his countrymen saw the hope of a race." He became the first Filipino Bishop, perhaps also the first from the Malay race, and the only one during his time. His elevation to the Episcopacy proved the capability of native priests who had been regarded as inferior and unworthy of any high office. For at the time, there was a prevailing view that indigenous priests were only good to be coadjutors, let alone unworthy of the episcopacy.
As the only Filipino bishop, Barlin was given the honor to deliver the invocation at the inaugural session of Philippine Assembly on October 16, 1907. Two months later he took a prominent part in the deliberations of the first Provincial Council of Manila, which had been convened to discuss problems under the new government setup. It was reported that: "His experience and the practical knowledge which he had of church affairs in the Islands were a valuable help in the solution of not a few problems in that respectable assembly."
In all these, Jorge Barlin put above all else service to God and people. When the temptation of power and prestige was offered him, he chose to remain faithful to his commitment. When such power was in his hands, he used the same responsibly --- always for the good of those he served.
Although Barlin rose to prominence at a time of schism in the history of the Church in the Philippines, remembering him in such light actually prompts the Church to promote Christian unity all the more, and invite people of other faiths to engage in dialogue.
Our dear faithful, we need men and women whose vision is beyond themselves. Indeed at a time when suffering can impair our memory; when our sense of altruism may be covered by the need for survival; when difficult and severe conditions can make us numb to the needs of our brethren and blind to nobler things. Thus, let us look back to gain inspiration from our elders. They, whose character, integrity and vision cannot be bought. They, who are willing to stand up for the commitment they have made and their fundamental vocation.
Finally, dear brothers and sisters, in recalling the memory of Jorge Barlin we also ask you to continue to pray for us your bishops, that we may remain steadfast in living out our vocation as bishops, and like Barlin may we be, "Good soldiers of Christ.
For the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines:
+ANGEL N. LAGDAMEO, D.D.
Archbishop of Jaro
28 January 2007