The Fountain of Wisdom that is Bishop Escaler
At 93, Bishop Federico Escaler is now the most senior of the Filipino bishops. Reaching 93 years of age is a feat in itself, but Bishop Escaler is also a Jesuit, and rarely are Jesuits elevated to the episcopacy. In fact, Jesuits vow never to aspire for offices in the Church, and may only
accept appointments in the hierarchy as ordered by the Pope and “under the pain of sin.” Still, since the days of the 16th century exegete Francisco de Toledo (the first Jesuit to be made Cardinal), Jesuits have been given offices at the insistence of numerous popes. The cardinalate has usually been given as an honor (an ecclesiastical knighthood, if the analogy would not be too vulgar) to Jesuit exegetes and theologians. The episcopacy however, has almost always been a mission order. A Jesuit bishop is an extraordinary occurrence, and the appointment usually means extraordinary circumstances await the reluctant, but obedient appointee.
Such was the case for Bishop Federico Escaler, founding prelate of the Dioceses of Kidapawan and Ipil. The task required courage equal to that of the early apostles; Ipil and Kidapawan were hotbeds of conflict during the time. The nimbi of the Marcos regime darkened the prospects of peaceful coexistence and in resistance, rebel groups such as the New People’s Army and the Moro National Liberation Front waged war against the military. The suppression of the freedom of speech meant that the pulpit would be the de-facto platform for speaking out against the regime’s abuses, at the cost of the priests’ safety. Fr. Godofredo Alingal was martyred for standing up for human rights. Jesuit Bishop Francisco Claver was a staunch enemy of the regime’s excesses. Fr. Arsenio Jesena published the report “The Sacadas of Sugarland,” detailing the abuses committed against workers in sugar haciendas, and earning the ire of the sugar lobby, among Marcos’s staunchest allies. The names of Jesuits Horacio De la Costa (Provincial), Pacifico Ortiz (Ateneo President), among others, were on the regime’s watch list. Priests were always treading on thin ice. Back in the days, it was dangerous to be a Jesuit. It was dangerous to be a servant of the poor. Bishop Escaler had to face both dangers.
Dangerous indeed it was. In February 1985, Bishop Escaler was kidnapped on the way to Zamboanga City and held captive for days. A decade later (and though the Marcos regime was no more), in 1995, heavily armed militants razed Ipil to the ground and shielded themselves from
military fire with civilians. Various reports indicate that 60-100 people were killed during the attack. Remaining firm in his courage and steadfast in his faith, the bishop had to labor twice as hard for the daunting task of rebuilding from scratch.
Having reached the age of 75, in 1997, he retired from the episcopacy. Nonetheless, Bishop Escaler has continued to serve the Church as chaplain of many Catholic formations. Now on his 60th year as a priest, Bishop Escaler remains a servant of Christ and his Church.
Prior to my interview with him, I learned that Bishop Escaler was also bishop of the Titular See of Girus Tarasii. It is titular in the sense that it no longer has a significant Christian population, and that being named its bishop is but an honorary title that accompanies being bishop of a
residential (i.e., “real”) see. Girus Tarasii was a town in the Roman province of Numidia, and is said to have been in present-day Henchir-Tarsa, in Algeria. The similitude should not be missed: Girus Tarasii was definitely a frontier mission for the early Church, but so was Kidapawan in
the 70’s. Evangelization in Christendom’s frontiers would require a certain zeal, a certain resourcefulness, and extraordinary training. For Kidapawan, the Church decided to send in a Jesuit.
One will be confounded by how effortlessly Jesuits seem to transition from zealous missionary service and dedicated pastoral work to dignified old age. How can those who have been through such turbulent times find an inner peace so profound? The question demanded an answer that only those who have been in the frontlines like Bishop Escaler could give. So to San Miguel Street in Manila, where Bishop Escaler lives, your correspondent went, seeking his wisdom.
The ancestral house of the Escalers displays a balance between old-world grandeur and Filipino modesty. Aling Lourdes, the bishop’s caretaker, received me and my friend and collaborator, Dwight Alonzo. Soon enough, the bishop descended the stairs and greeted us. After the bishop, we
sat down and introduced ourselves, notified him of our intentions, and promised to supply him a copy of this magazine as soon as we could.
The bishop was dressed in a polo-barong, impeccable but not ostentatious. This is a man of the highest dignity and modesty—these seldom come together. How he lives could not be very far from what he thinks the Church should be—a poor but righteous Church. He told us, “The Church thrives when it depends on the poor.” One admires his simplicity even more when one remembers that the bishop is a scion of the Escaler clan. He condenses years of experience with the poorest of the poor: “If the Church is to be revived, we should look to the poor people, develop them, and give them opportunities to exercise leadership.”
How did the bishop handle such difficult assignments? The first step, he says, is acceptance. A theme that resonates in all his answers to our questions is collaboration and development of Christian communities. He acknowledges the help of the priests and the nuns, but says that the best
apostles are the poor: “very poor, but very dedicated.” Leadership, he stressed, was the task of the poor. The clergy were only facilitators. Yet the Christian communities Bishop Escaler oversaw were surrounded by conflict and strife. In such cases, he advises, “always be on the alert.” That the people supported the Church bolstered his courage.
I found it difficult to ask questions about his abduction in 1985. The words would die on my lips. He understood, and began to speak after my long, mid-sentence pause. “I was treated well although the bishops agreed not to promise anything to the kidnappers, for this would make the clergy targets.” He tells us that he constantly prayed the Act of Contrition, preparing himself for anything. Then he laughs. “But I prayed, ‘Lord, wag na sana.’”
He has more distilled wisdom for his brother Jesuits to imbibe: “Try your best with the training you receive in the Society. The greatest training you receive is preparation. Evangelization requires dedication. Do what you can and the rest, God supplies. Leave it up to the Holy Spirit.” On managing difficult assignments, he shares, with some laughter, advice he received from his Jesuit superiors: “You’re a Jesuit. You find out.” The imperative mood obliges the Jesuit, bound by his vow of obedience. I tried to stifle laughter, but chuckle I did anyway.
He was ordered to find out, so he did. He imparts to us: “In a missionary area, you have to find the means.”On the poor and diocesan work: “Organize them, develop Christian communities. Keep your eyes open to potential leaders. Constantly encourage them. Then, gradually, the
Church grows.” He recalls how brave the lay leaders were.
With dampened eyes he remembers, “Some of the lay leaders were tortured during the Martial Law. One night, while I was in the convento, one of the leaders was kidnapped. We later discovered his body. He was tortured before being killed.” In admiration, he says of laypeople, “They understood that leadership would entail sacrifice, sometimes their lives.” In the midst of despair, he says one has to live “a life of hope and trust in the Lord.” To that, I said Amen in my mind a thousand times.
I paused. For how long, I could not recall. Dwight cut the silence by asking Bishop Escaler, “Bishop Freddie, who will win the volleyball match this afternoon, Ateneo or La Salle?” The old man’s eyes lit up. “Of course, Ateneo.”
Bishop Escaler then recalled fond memories of his brother, Ernesto, for whom Ateneo’s Escaler Hall is named. He was beaming with fraternal pride as he told us that Ernesto was an editor of Ateneo’s The Guidon, was captain of the debate team, and was active in athletics. He also remembers how, during his time, Ateneans and La Sallians would have fistfights after basketball games. “We didn’t do it in Intramuros. We did it in Luneta, where the priests wouldn’t see us.” He reassures us, with a boyish smile (what a sight to see: the young Atenean spirit, still vigorous, in a nonagenarian receptacle), “We became good friends later on.”
In retrospect I remember that it was with great certainty and calm that Bishop Escaler predicted a victory for the Lady Eagles. That afternoon, Ateneo’s and La Salle’s women’s volleyball teams fought a close fight, but Ateneo triumphed. Bishop Federico Escaler, the man whose many
prayers God has answered, was right. “Leave it up to the Holy Spirit,” he counsels. Dwight and I suspect he did that afternoon, as usual. Not that Ateneo’s God is not La Salle’s God. It’s not that at all (though at times, we forget). What astonishes is this man’s trust in Providence, his faith in
what can happen and his acceptance of what can’t, and in view of his 93 years (and not of the Ateneo-La Salle match), how kind God has been to His faithful servant. Reflecting on this, Dwight says to me, “I should pray more often.” Me, too.
Christian is in third year college at Ateneo de Manila. He is majoring in Economics.