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Priests prepare to swap their stoles for politics

MANILA (Mabuhay) : As the season for filing for candidacy for the thousands of political vacancies in The Philippines opens prior to each presidential and mid-term election, clerical politics take on a new meaning.

While the round of priests lobbying for pastoral plans in various dioceses continues as usual, there are always a few who want to take their political life into the secular realm as well. This year is no exception.

Although taking up a political office is banned except with the express permission of a local bishop, at least three priests are saying that they will defy a warning from  the Filipino bishops and run for public office in the national elections next year.

UCAN reported that all face being banned from acting as a priest or administering the sacraments if they stand in the elections, but they say they believe that they can serve their people better by going into politics.

Father Jeemar Lucero Vera Cruz, the vicar general in Iligan, is seeking to become vice mayor of the city in northern Mindanao. “I will be leaving my role as a priest, temporarily, in response to God’s calling to help the constituents of Iligan City,” he said on October 27.

Father Vera Cruz added that there is a need to transform the city after the arrest of the mayor, who is facing charges of conspiring in the attempted murder of a member of congress.

Father Vera Cruz has come under fire from critics who accuse him of using the pulpit for his political ambition, a charge the priest denies.

“I do not use the Church or the pulpit for my political aspirations,” he retorted. 

“This is about justice and standing up for and hearing the cry of the poor,” he said in an interview.

Father Vera Cruz said he is running for office to help families still suffering after falling victim to the devastation brought about by Typhoon Washi, which struck the southern Philippines in 2011.

He pointed out that almost four years after the tragedy, the housing needs of hundreds of families are still unmet, despite millions of pesos of funding pouring into the city.

“The poor have lost so much. We must help them rebuild their lives,” Father Vera Cruz said. “This requires a measure of justice, charity and fairness,” he added.

In Catarman in the central Philippines, Father Walter Cerbito has announced his candidacy for governor of Northern Samar province.

“Now is the time for Northern Samar to rise, for someone to stand up for real change,” Father Cerbito said.

A retired priest, Father Jack Sasu, from the same diocese, also filed his candidacy to become a councillor in the provincial capital of Catarman.

All risk being asked to hand in their stoles after the nation’s bishops warned members of the clergy not to run for elective posts.

“Priests should serve the Church. There is a way of serving the people as a priest,” Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, the retired archbishop of Manila, pointed out.

Bishop Honesto Ongtioco, from Cubao, said the rule prohibiting priests becoming politicians is clear.

“There is a clear rule that they are not to enter politics, because the Church is non-partisan in its mission,” the bishop said.

The last high profile priest to run successfully for a major post in government was Father Eddie Panlilio in Pampanga. 

He was elected as governor of the province in 2007, but in 2010 the Commission on Elections ruled in a recount that he had lost out to Lilia Pineda, better known as the Jueteng Queen.

Father Panlilio ran on a no corruption ticket, but made many enemies in his attempts to stamp out various rackets that were running in the province, especially in the quarry industry.

He became famous when he sent a receipt back to then-president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, for a paper bag containing 500,000 pesos ($90,910) in cash he had received at a function in Malacañang, asking her what category he should declare the money under.

He was suspended from his priesthood and although he did apply to be readmitted after he lost the governorship, he eventually drifted off into a government job.

The Inquirer named him Filipino of the year in 2007.