FORTICH, Antonio Y.
Antonio Fortich was one of the Catholic bishops who protested against martial law, convinced that it was devastating to the structure of social and human life in the Philippines.
Fortich became a bishop in 1967 in the troubled diocese of Bacolod in Negros Occidental. The province was known for its huge sugarcane haciendas, an economic system of landownership that ensured great wealth for the few landowners (hacenderos) and extreme poverty to the sugarcane workers (sakadas). Thus the diocese was a direct witness to the direst situations of poverty, hunger, ignorance, and social tension and unrest.
As soon as he became bishop, Fortich started several wide-ranging reforms. One of his first acts as bishop was to call his official residence in Bacolod City (the Bishop's Palace) as "the house of the people" to stress that he was taking the people’s problem seriously. He introduced several breakthrough policies, including the immediate implementation of land reform on church properties in the diocese. He pushed for the establishment of pro-poor programs, including a social action center and legal aid for the poor in the diocese. He allowed and even encouraged his priests to get involved in initiatives for sugarcane workers, including the organization of the National Federation of Sugarcane Workers and the Dacongcogon Sugar, Rice and Corn Cooperative.
Fortich even convinced several hacenderos and businessmen to support his advocacy, infecting them with his enthusiasm, and encouraging them to get involved in his social action projects.
Under the martial law regime, Fortich performed a continuous balancing act in order to ensure the freedom and safety of his priests, some of whom had established connections with NPA guerrillas in their parishes, while keeping the trust and support of the landowners who were at least initially were supportive of the new regime.
Fortich openly supported the cause of the poor people when a land conflict erupted in Bago City. The people from the villages came to a meeting at Fortich’s invitation, convinced that he would plead their cause. But when the meeting was over, the police arrested everyone, including the children.
Fortich supported his priest, Fr. Brian Gore, and eight others who were were falsely accused of killing the Kabankalan Mayor Sola (which the NPA had admitted). Fortich attended almost all the 50 court sessions.
Even as he supported the priests under him who were deeply involved in social action, he also reminded them to continue to value the church’s sacramental life. "It's great to be talking about social issues and to feel you are part of the national struggle. But if someone is sick in your parish, are you there to give them the sacrament" he reminded his priests.
The military accused him of being involved with communists. But Fortich knew exactly where he stood. "I have no problem with a world in which there are rich and poor. You have an automobile, and I have a bicycle, so what? But I cannot accept that some people have to live by scavenging for food in the garbage cans of others."
Fortich always liked to say that "there can be no peace if there is no justice."
In recognition for his extraordinary activism, Fortich given the Ramon Magsaysay Award. He was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
He died of natural causes in 2003. He was 89.