Remembering Kumander Tony (Bishop Antonio Fortich)

Thanks to my brother, Nonoy Espina, for the reminder, that Bacolod’s late beloved prelate, Antonio Fortich, would have turned 100 years old today. In his memory, I am sharing the obituary I wrote when he died on July 2, 2003.

Fortich, ‘poor man’s bishop,’ dies at 89

By Inday Espina-Varona and Ma. Ester Espina, Correspondents

IN HIS ELEMENT. The late Bacolod Bishop Emeritus Antonio Fortich holds up a "stop militarization" sign and still manages to draw smiles from his targets. Photo courtesy of
IN HIS ELEMENT. The late Bacolod Bishop Emeritus Antonio Fortich holds up a “stop militarization” sign and still manages to draw smiles from his targets. Photo courtesy of

The man they called Kumander Tony died on Wednesday, 8:15 a.m., in Bacolod City.

Bishop Emeritus Antonio Y. Fortich would have turned 90 on August 11. His doctor at the Riverside Medical Center, where he had been confined since April 28, diagnosed the cause of death as sepsis comitant with multiple organ failure and diabetis mellitus.

Fortich, who served as Bacolod diocese bishop from 1967 to 1989, had been ailing from a succession of mild strokes since November, but his death still surprised many. Perhaps it was because of his larger-than-life image, the clout he retained even after retirement.

Over the weekend, President Arroyo, whose husband, Jose Miguel, comes from Negros, urged prayers for Fortich. “He is singularly distinguished for his commitment to the poor and for guiding the Church toward the less fortunate among us,” Mrs. Arroyo said.

Former Presidents Corazon C. Aquino and Fidel V. Ramos had also called up the hospital to ask about Fortich’s health. As did deposed President Joseph Estrada, who enjoyed bantering with the bishop.

The Archbishop of Manila, Jaime Cardinal Sin, said the Church is blessed for having a valiant pastor like Fortich. “I am sure that wherever he is, he will continue to intercede for us, so that genuine justice and peace may dwell in our land,” Sin said.

Archbishop Orlando Quevedo, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), described Fortich as a great disciple of Christ and a faithful messenger of the gospel of Love and Justice, “a vigorous defender of the poor.”  CBCP secretary-general Msgr. Hernando Coronet said the bishops will miss Fortich’s dedication to his work and that his commitment to justice, peace and development will always be remembered.

A great loss

In Bacolod and the rest of Negros Island, the loss is felt at a deeply personal level, by both clergy and laymen, including non-Catholics. News of Fortich’s death caused many to break down in the middle of work.

Rowena Guanzon, a lawyer, was in a Davao City courtroom when she heard the news. “I wanted to cry,” she told The Times.

Guanzon, who is cutting short a provincial trip to pay her last respects to Bacolod’s fighting bishop, said, “Fortich’s work and life should be remembered as a beacon of light, at a time when the Church faces a great upheaval over tawdry sexual scandals.”

“I thought he would live forever,” sighed Councilor Celia Flor. “In his ailment and old age, he accommodated to say early-morning Mass, with only three of us celebrating with him. This was early last year. Few flock ever had such a good shepherd.”

Not all of Negros Island’s Catholic faithful agree. In the late 1980s right-wing landowners organized rallies to protest Fortich’s strong stand on agrarian reform. They called him and other priests subversives and communists, for fighting against socioeconomic conditions that earned Negros a reputation as a “social volcano.”

In his temporary residence,  Domus Dei, where Fortich stayed following a fire that gutted the Bishop’s Palace beside the San Sebastian Cathedral, landowners would square off with evacuees from military operations and militant sugar workers.

Fortich spent tens of millions in Church funds for social work, especially at the height of the sugar crisis, also during the term of former President Aquino, when hundreds of malnourished children died.

In one of his homilies, he said the scope of hunger and poverty, worsened by Negros’ hacienda system, had expanded the seasonal tiempo muerto (dead season) into tiempo del muerto (a time of death).

People skills

Many of his critics, however, would later change their views. Many of the causes Fortich and his loyal clergy fought for have been vindicated with the passage of laws and the gradual shift in government policy, though Negros remains a hotbed of insurgency.

The vicar general, Msgr. Vic Rivas, said Fortich, born to landowning parents in Sibulan, Negros Oriental, “learned how to use influence and power not for himself but always for others.”

Rivas cried in remembering the bishop, who remains a role model for Filipino priests. “His only extravagance was his fondness for entertaining people, being hospitable to friends, and ensuring that the rich contribute to help the poor,” he said.

Fortich never lost his temper with the landowners or with military officers who had made Negros a laboratory for what they called “low-intensity conflict.” He would thunder from the pulpit but would have a ready smile, a firm handshake and jokes aplenty for visiting personages from the other side of the political divide.

Alluding to the Church’s present-day challenges, Rivas said of Fortich: “If you lived with him, you would be comfortable because of his kindness and compassion.”

Fortich was so famous that Vatican officials swarmed around him during a trip in the 1990s. He was known for his fierce defense of the oppressed and his belief in stretching the limits of the Church’s “preferential option for the poor,” Rivas noted. “Yet his people skills were so good that he never really earned enemies.”

And even conservative Vatican officials were drawn to the prelate with ever ready one-liners, and the ability to seamlessly blend theology with homespun wisdom.

Larger than life

Fortich was big in all ways; tall, with a nose veering to Roman stature. He walked with gravitas and laughed with his belly. His playful slaps on the back could hurt. Every day at the Bishop’s Palace and his Domus Dei residence was open house.

He was charismatic and earned admiration worldwide when he persuaded the visiting conservative Pope John Paul II to include in his 1980 homily a denunciation of institutionalized injustice in the sugar industry and the Marcos dictatorship in general.

Fortich’s humor put him in good stead as he tried the almost impossible task of mediating between the haves and have-nots among his flock.

He would stride out to greet demonstrating landowners, grinning and dishing out gruff jokes. Journalists would be reduced to laughter as men and women who’d screamed at Kumander Tony minutes before would be reduced to kissing his ring and laughing at his comments.

His championing the poor led to earlier brushes with death. In 1987 members of a right-wing vigilante group lobbed a grenade into the Domus Dei. The attack was clearly aimed at the bishop, who survived only because the grenade landed on the branches of a nearby tree.

Past midnight, he greeted journalists with a slain sparrow cradled in his hands. The bird, he told us, was just like any poor citizen caught in the crossfire of contending ideological forces. The next day he had the sparrow stuffed and mounted on his desk.

Even his critics were horrified by the attack and Negros’ elite sent out a firm message: rallies were all right but the bishop was untouchable.

The incident did not douse Fortich’s fire. At the height of Operation Thunderbolt in 1989, when military officials tried to block Church food missions to evacuees, claiming supplies were being diverted to communist rebels, the bishop thundered with this classic line: “A hungry stomach knows no color.”

Fortich would eventually broker the return from the hills of Brig. Gen. Raymundo Jarque, the officer who masterminded Thunderbolt and then joined the rebels when caught between feuding landowners.

Surveying Jarque’s press conference, Fortich laughed. “Surreal,” he said. “Only in the Philippines.”

A priest’s bishop

So well loved was Fortich by priests that his successor, retired Bishop Camilo Gregorio, found himself scrambling to fill a giant’s shoes.

“He was always there for us,” Rivas said. “He would scold us if we did wrong but he would always go to the mat for a priest in trouble.”

At that time there was little talk of sexual abuse. Almost immediately after taking over Fortich’s post, Gregorio drove off the evacuees that had taken shelter at the Domus Dei. Irate, the rural folk marched to the remodeled Bishop’s Palace, where the new bishop had taken to holding exclusive cultural affairs. They set up camp with the help of priests.

Landowners came to Gregorio’s rescue, manhandled a few of the priests, and started a war of attrition between the new bishop and priests weaned on Fortich’s activist ways. Gregorio would later retire.

Rivas said it was not the bishop’s fault that a number of Negros’ best and brightest priests and nuns joined the communist movement. The times merely called a few to a higher struggle, he explained.

The list of Negros’ rebel religious is illustrious: Luis Jalandoni and Connie Ledesma came from landed clans. Frank Fernandez, alleged head of the regional party committee, was a top scholar and being groomed for higher posts, as were Vicente Pellobello and Alan Abadesco. Other rebels from the Church ranks were Ben Escrupulo–who has since returned to the clergy–and Norma Muger, his wife in the underground movement; and Sol Fuentespina and Carlos Alones.

Fernandez and the Jalandoni couple are with the mainstream communist movement; Fuentespina is with the rejectionist faction. Alones is still involved with the legal labor movement.

“He was an inspiration,” said Fr. Greg Patino. “At that time, the Church marched to a different drum beat.”

Perhaps not, but as Lakas Rep. Apolinario Lozada Jr. of the Fifth District, Negros Occidental, said, “Fortich broke down the walls between the rich and the poor–or tried his best to do that.”

A people’s pastor

“Negros is grieving,” said Gov. Joseph Maranon, “at the untimely demise of a good man who exemplifies the character of a true pastor of the Church, especially amid current developments.”

Fortich won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service in 1973, the only Filipino clergyman to do so, with his establishment of the Dacongcogon Sugar Cooperative, composed of small, almost subsistence-level landowners and sugar workers. The cooperative now runs the sugar mill and remains the clearest proof that the “great unwashed” and the less educated can take charge of their lives if given training and opportunities.

Fortich was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, together with then-President Aquino, for his work in the peace process.

But he was not all activism. He established the Barangay ng Virgen, which has grown into a national movement of Marian devotees. He admitted the organization was aimed at attracting devotees among the poor but, ever the social equalizer, he persuaded several of Negros’ more enlightened rich to join the group.

Fortich was born in 1913 to Ignacio Fortich and Rosalla Yatsutco. He joined the Jesuit seminary in Manila in 1933, but transferred to the San Jose Seminary in Iloilo. He braved a banca ride from Iloilo to Bacolod at the height of World War II for his ordination on March 4, 1944. His first assignment was as assistant priest at the San Sebastian Cathedral until 1949, when he became parish priest of Binalbagan town.

He was recalled to Bacolod on December 31, 1952, and appointed vicar general. He became the third bishop of the diocese on February 24, 1967, until he retired in 1989. Fortich will be buried on July 15. His wake will be at the San Sebastian Cathedral. With Ferdinand G. Patinio, Correspondent

(*This was originally published in The Manila Times and retrieved from

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