Bishop Pueblos
FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas () - June 10, 2008 - 12:00am

One of the most influential men in Butuan City is without a doubt the Most Rev. Juan de Dios M. Pueblos, D.D., whose presence in a celebration in the life of parishioners in his diocese is cause for rejoicing. An added feather in his mystique is the perception that he is a most valued friend of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

This columnist met the bishop at his residence in Ampayon last week, and the tall, imposing, 65-year-old  prelate smiled when told of his influential role in his diocese which covers the provinces of Agusan Del Sur and Del Norte and the city of  Butuan, which have a combined population of 1.2 million, 800,000 of whom are Roman Catholics.

On his reputation as the President’s man, he told me, “I’m not for the President, as they say.  I am really a man for the country. Even the bishops are saying I’m the ‘tao’ of Gloria.” Not so, not so, he said. In fact his town mates in Bohol were not so pleased with President GMA’s father, the late President Diosdado Macapagal, for defeating former Boholano president Carlos Garcia in the presidential election of 1961.

But PGMA, said the bishop, has done good things for the Agusan provinces, like bridges and roads and irrigation systems. She makes it a point to check on the completion of infrastructure projects, sometimes to the dismay of her security men who are concerned about her safety. “One thing I like about the President is that if she’s sure that you’re honest and sincere, she will listen to you.” For instance, the bishop told her about the farmers of Buenavista’s complaint of payments for the irrigation facility being too high; the President had the cost whittled down, understandably making Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap shaking his head.

The President, he said, endears herself to people by coming to Butuan not only to meet with political leaders, but also to crown a queen, or say a prayer during a religious meeting. She also showed up at the bishop’s birthday celebration in March three years ago. Her respect for him was evident in her appointing him a member of the Melo Commission, which investigated charges of human rights violations by the military.

Bishop Pueblos’ appointment did not come from nothing. In his younger days, he was a political activist during the Marcos regime, and on his diocesan assignments, stayed on the side of poor people seeking reprieve from military injustices.

In Butuan, he has developed rapport with the military and civil society groups through dialogues. He is organizing a big multi-sectoral conference on peace in Butuan in November.

Justice and peace had been his serious concern since he was a seminary student. Son of a trader peddling goods in the Caraga region, he grew up under the influence of two sisters (who became a principal and dentist) and a doting mother and aunts in the town of Loon in Bohol, known for producing a good number of priests. After finishing his elementary and high school in Loon and college at the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Tagbilaran, he enrolled and finished in 1968 seminary studies at the Mayor de San Carlos in Cebu City. In 1968 he was ordained priest.

His first assignment was at Mocpoc Island in Bohol, each of whose 13 barrios had a chapel. He enjoyed his stint there. There were neither mayors nor policemen, and the men were out fishing in the seas the whole day, so he was ministering to families. “I played the role of head of the island.”

From 1968 to 1984 he was assigned in Tagbilaran, where he became a political activist. His seminary paper, in fact, had been on Marxism. His belief to this day is that one “can use the principles of Marxism without being Marxist, without losing faith in God.” His position, he told me, is that students should be given the freedom to educate themselves and make a firm decision on their faith. That is not a popular view among ecclesiastics of old and even to some extent today.

In 1984, Jaime Cardinal Sin brought the young priest to Manila to serve as one of his secretaries and teach at Assumption College in Makati. After a year he went to Rome to study Focolare spirituality. His plan was to go to the United States, but he  was called to serve as a bishop in Davao, his base the Cathedral of St. Peter.

In Davao he faced tragic events that he had wanted to escape from by going to the US. In Davao there were 5.7 killings every day from New People’s Army and from military and NPA encounters. He became a member of a group that looked into the  conflict, and this, he said, may have helped ease the tension somewhat. But it was odd, he  felt, officiating mass for dead soldiers and communists in the same mass inside the  Cathedral.

He stayed in Kidapawan for nearly nine years, in an atmosphere of violent encounters. It was at this place where the Italian priest, Father Favali, was slain, and  where the infamous Manero brothers reigned supreme, and rape and killings were  rampant. There, the bishop supported  environmentalist groups in opposing the  construction of a geothermal facility which they thought would be more harmful than advantageous to communities around it.

He believes his re-assignment to Butuan may have been an offshoot of his activism. In Kidapawan, he was famous for establishing a “Zone of Life,” a five-hectare area for refugees where no one could enter with firearms. To this day, he believes that the insurgency continues to exist because of the wide disparity between the rich and the poor, and discontent can be remedied “with people elected to public office working for the common good.”

Bishop Pueblos is not against mining exploration, per se, “but I am against mining  that destroys the environment. I am for responsible mining.” He is not against mining of  resources for crop modernization. The trouble is that many are into mining of nickel and gold and other minerals for profit, not for sharing the fruits with the community.

In Butuan, the country’s oldest and biggest diocese, Bishop Pueblos’ and lay leaders’ vision is to nurture parishioners’ spirituality which includes fora and conferences on sharing happiness, pains and hope among small families. The kingdom of God, he said, is “inclusive, so we have ecumenical and inter-religious dialogues among different groups and faiths.” As man also lives by bread, the diocese is into agricultural projects.

Asked about Butuan’s poor, the bishop smiled. “No one has died because of poverty here.”

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