When Bishop Labayen died, hundreds came to his wake in Manila, Infanta and Baler: bishops, priests, nuns, lay church workers, civic society members, progressive politicians, lawyers, seminarians, students in their teens, activists in their sixties and seventies, farmers, fisher folk, Agtas, foreigners, Filipinos in exile. The mourners who came or sent messagesof condolence and tributes reflect the broad range of people whose lives the bishop had touched in his 50 years as bishop-pastor and bishop-activist.
Bishop Labayen was born to a landed clan in Talisay, Negros Occidental. While administering the family estatefor a brief time, he witnessed the hardships of workers in sugar plantations. “My family background helped me to understand the social teachings of the Church,”he said. “It was thenthat I felt a preferential love for the poor growing within me with great meaning…”
This option grew stronger early in his priesthood. “We owe Bishop Shanley and his companions the spirit of evangelical poverty and how it meant to be a bishopof the poor and a good shepherd truly in solidarity with his flock,” he said.
Bishop Labayen’s lifelong mission was to be a builder of the “Church of the Poor” –a church that has a “special concern and love for the poor masses, for the victims of injustice, and for those whose dignity and rights are trampled upon.” This model, developed by thebishop and implemented in the prelature of Infanta, guided priests, nuns, seminarians and church workers on what roles to take during the difficult years of martial rule.
While the bishop was a most sought-out preacher, he was also a good learner. A Dutch volunteer who worked in his prelature in the late 1980s recalled, “The Bishop would call the farmers and rural workers periodically – every three or six months – to listen to them. These were good meetings! He listened, he asked, he reflected and then put his analysis and guidance… Without ever overruling the people, keeping the connection with all, illiterate and literate alike, he reached all and they reached him. He was a great coach, a great teacher (content- and method-wise), highly intelligent, empathic. As a result of those meetings, he soothed everybody’s worries and fears –of which there were plenty those days, by showing trust and strength andhelping us all to keep head and heart together.”
Bishop Labayen excelled in his studies for priesthood, but was best known for providing guidance and direction to various church groups, non-government organizations and people’s organizations formed during martial law. At that time, the Catholic hierarchy took different positions on martial rule and the Marcos government. There were those who confined themselves to church and spiritual matters, those who opted for cooperation and those who argued for critical collaboration. An equally active number decided to speak out against ills and abuses being committed and it was this group that Bishop Labayen was identified with. Progressive and activist priests, nuns and church workers thus gravitated towards him.
The bishop was asked to head progressive church groups that worked for human rights and supported/organized people’s organizations, especially farmers and indigenous peoples (see list of religious groups organized below).
He was also known internationally. Solidarity groups and foreign funding agencies in Asia and Europe often invited him to speak on the Philippine situation under martial law and the church’s role in political issues and social transformation.
One of BishopLabayen’s most significant contributions during martial law was the founding of social action, a network of programs and services in all dioceses nationwide (see History of Political Involvement). The bishop was appointed by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines to head the National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice and Peace (NASSA), which coordinated and assisted the social action centers.
- Gawad Kagitingan Award (Valour Award) during the 106th anniversary of Philippine Independence at the Monument of Heroes in Quezon City, 2014
- Father Neri Satur Award for Environmental Heroism for Climate Change Mitigation, 2009, for the Adopt a Mountain in Infanta, Quezon program
- Human Rights Defenders Award, 2015, given by the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines
- Bishop Labayen Self-Integrity Scholarship for 10 four-year scholarships, given by the Metro Infanta Foundation, June 2002
History of political involvement
Bishop Labayen was one of the “magnificent seven,” a group composed of Bishops Antonio Fortich, Felix Perez, Orlando Quevedo, Jesus Varela, Francisco Claver and Federico Escaler. In 1973, the seven bishops wrote an open letter to then-President Ferdinand Marcos against the atrocities committed under martial law.It was one of the earliest, if not the first, instance when members of the Catholic hierarchy spoke strongly against martial rule.
Bishop Labayen did not take a high political profile as outspoken critic of the Marcos dictatorship. He preferred to work quietly, helping to form and guide Church groups and grassroots organizations that worked against torture, illegal arrests and detention, and other social issues such as land-grabbing committed by some of Marcos’ cronies and the eviction of communities to give way to government projects.
Under his leadership, NASSA was instrumental in helping curb human rights abuses during martial law, through the following programs and activities:
- Formation of the Church-Military Liaison Commission, which dialogued regularly with top military and defense officials to take up cases of torture, unlawful arrests and detention;
- Formation of justice and peace action groups in social action centers all over the country and training of para-legal groups to act on human rights violations and other social issues;
- Provision of legal services/lawyers for cases which could not be handled by paralegals;
- Evaluation and processing of fund applications of grassroots and non-government organizations, in forming justice and peace groups all over the country, and
- Publication of economic, political and social issues affecting farmers, workers, and other poor sectors of Philippine society such as militarization, summary executions, illegal detention, illegal logging.
Bishop Labayenwas construed, even within the bishops’ circle, as part of the Left; rumors spread that he was a “communist.” Despite such accusations, he continued to express his loyalty to “Mother Church” and collegiality with fellow bishops.
The bishop continued to be a strong voice against abuses of human rights even after martial law was lifted and President Marcos was ousted during the EDSA People Power revolution in 1986.He supported the implementation of genuine agrarian reform and protection of the environment.
Motivating factor for political involvement
Bishop Labayen explained his political involvement in one of his many interviews: “I was transformed in the church from being attached and finding my security only in structures into seeing the church as a people of God. I extended this to the poor, taught them to stand by their own rights and dignity, to organize themselves and to resist the military. It is the will of God to promote justice, for according to the teachings of the church, without justice there can never be peace. Justice leads to peace.”
Persecution as a progressive bishop
Aside from the black propaganda against him, Bishop Labayen was also in the military blacklist during martial law. Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Conrado de Quiros wrote: “(Bp. Labayen) was targeted for assassination which he learned from the most reliable source – the assassin. As directed by the military, the assassin monitored the bishop’s move for two months to find a way to stage an accident. He attended the bishop’s forums, holy masses and sermons. The assassin had a change of heart when he saw how the bishop was warmly received by the farmers and fisher folk and provided comfort and solace to those who had nothing in life. Instead of carrying out his assignment, he told the bishop about it and warned him to be careful. He disappeared after that.”
The following were among Bp. Labayen’s many organizational affiliations:
- Bishop of the Prelature of Infanta; 1961 to 2003
- First National Director, National Secretariat of Social Action, Justice and Peace, of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines; 1966 to 1981
- First Executive Chairman, Office of Human Development of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences; 1972 to
- Chairperson, Social Pastoral Institute
- Chairperson, Rural Missionaries of the Philippines
- Revolution and the Church of the Poor, published in 1995
- To be the Church of the Poor
- Crisis and Impasse: the Dark Night in St. John of the Cross
- Incarnational Spirituality
Groups organized or co-founded
Because of his reputation as a spiritual and political leader of the Church, Bishop Labayen was requested to found or co-found, religious congregations and groups, which included the following:
- Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, 1967
- Karmelo (a poor inculturated community of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns in the Prelature of Infanta), 1981
- Apostles in Contemporary Times, 1984
- Augustinian Missionaries of the Philippines, 1999
- Alagadni Maria (seminary), 1990
- Franciscans of Our Lady of the Poor, 1991
- Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary
Impact of activism on family and community
Marivic Abello, Bishop Labayen’s niece, recalled how the bishop would always remind her to “keep the fire burning,” a reminder of the commitment to serve others. Abello, who once worked in the Prelature of Infanta’s health program, called “Tioy Nonoy as the glue that kept the family together.
For people like Tioy Nonoy, who have touched lives, they live on even long after they have passed from this world. We the living stand to be inspired by what they have accomplished and be strong to stand by what is right, what is good and what is according to God’s plan for us.”
Born July 23, 1926 in Talisay, Negros Occidental
Died April 26, 2016
Occupation Ordained priest and bishop, Order of the Discalced Carmelites
Parents Julio Diaz Labayen and Mercedes Alunan Lizares
Siblings Eight (Brothers: Eduardo+, Rodolfo+, Patricio Enrique, Wilfredo, Norberto Alejandro+, Octavio Antonio, Antonio Juan+ and Sister: Ma. Luz Jesusa Cristeta+)
Elementary Bacolod East (now Mabini) Elementary School, Bacolod City, 1931- 1938
High School Negros Occidental High School. Bacolod city, 1938-1941
(graduated in 1944 after the Japanese War)
College Colegio de San Agustin(2-year Preparatory Course in Medicine)
- Associate of Arts, 1947
- Novitiate Order of Discalced Carmelites, Brooklyn, Massachusetts, 1948
- Degree in Philosophy, magna cum laude, Holy Hill, Wisconsin, USA, 1952
- Masteral Degree in Theology, cum laude, Collegio de Sta. Teresa, Rome, 1957,
- Masteral Degree in Canon Law, summa cum laude, Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome (Angelicum), 1959
- 4 June 1955: ordained priest, Collegio Sta. Teresa, Rome, Italy
- Oct 1957: returned to the Philippines after theological studies in Rome
- Nov 1957: first assignment as assistant parish priest of St. Joseph’s parish in Polilio, Quezon
- 1960: first assignment as parish priest, same area
- 1961: appointed Apostolic Administrator of the Prelature of Infanta
- 8 Sept. 1966: ordained bishop at Mt. Carmel shrine and installed as bishop-prelate of the Prelature of Infanta
Bantayog profile sheet and narrative submitted by Lita Gonzales, co-worker, NASSA
Interviews with Ma. Victoria Abello, niece, and Ging Guinabo, co-worker, August 2, 2016
“Sharing on Tioy Nonoy,”by Ma. Victoria Abello, August 2, 2016
E-mail communication between Lita Gonzales and other former NASSA staff and allied religious and lay church workers, April 24 – May 17, 2016
“It is the Lord,” The life-journey of Bishop Julio Xavier Labayen, OCD, by Sr. Maria Dulce Emmanuel F. Inlayo, OCD, with Teresa R. Tunay, OCDSD, editor. Claretian Publications, Quezon
“What kind of Philippine Church will the Pope find? Interview with a progressive bishop,” by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo, Philippine Daily Inquirer, January 12, 1995
“Spirituality of/for revolution,”Human Face column by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo, Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 13, 1995