The death of Catholic priest Rhoel Gallardo at the hands of terrorists in the southern Philippines 20 years ago remains a reminder to church people that “life is worth living if we sacrifice for God’s greater glory.”
Father Gallardo, a Claretian missionary assigned in the hinterlands of Basilan Island in Mindanao, was killed in a crossfire between his abductors and state forces out to rescue him on May 3, 2000.
On March 20, 2000, the bandit Abu Sayyaf group attacked Claret School of Tumahabong in Basilan and took Father Gallardo, the school director, four teachers, and 22 students as hostages.
“We are not here to celebrate his death for our faith does not glory in the demise of a person,” said Father Elias Ayuban, superior of the Claretians in the Philippines, to mark the 20th year of Father Gallardo’s death.
He said that the anniversary is a celebration of the slain priest’s “exemplary life,” adding that “martyrdom is a gift given to those who are worthy in the eyes of God.”
“It could have occurred to any of us who were the young missionaries then, but it was given to Father Gallardo because, in hindsight, he was the most prepared to receive the crown,” said Father Ayuban.
He said Father Gallardo’s martyrdom is a reminder that “our religious and missionary life is worth living if we sacrifice for God’s greater glory, suffer the cross of Christ, search the face of God in the most vulnerable and surrender to His will.”
“We may not be given the same gift of martyrdom by shedding our blood, but every single day, we are called to live the prophecy of ordinary life,” said the Philippines’ provincial superior of the Claretians who will be celebrating their 75 year in the country next year.
Father Gallardo was killed a few days before his 34th birthday. He was found with several bullet wounds on his body and signs of torture.
The Abu Sayyaf Group, which then claimed to have links with the al-Qaeda network and later the so-called Islamic State, killed three teachers and five students during the 2000 abduction.
Inspiration to take courage amid the pandemic
Bishop Leo Dalmao of the Prelature of Isabela de Basilan said the death of Father Gallardo and his companions “has left certain emptiness in our lives.”
The prelate, however, said that their deaths “planted seeds of growth and learning in each of us.”
“They did not die in vain. Something good had blossomed from their deaths,” said the prelate, himself a Claretian missionary.
Bishop Dalmao called on the faithful to pay tribute to Father Gallardo and “give honor to his life and allow his legacy to live on” by “choosing the way of peace and prayer.”
The prelate urged the faithful and the Claretian community to “take courage and inspiration” from the story of life and death of Father Gallardo “as we, together with the rest of the world, face a pandemic today.”
“I pray and hope that our shared humanity will motivate us to continue to choose life over death by strengthening our social solidarity and helping the most vulnerable,” said Bishop Dalmao.
Archbishop Martin Jumoad of Ozamiz, who was bishop of Basilan when Father Gallardo was killed, also called on the faithful to pray “for justice for their death and all victims of lawlessness.”
The prelate also called for prayer “for the unity of all Muslims and Christians so that the next generation may live in peace and harmony where all respect each others’ differences.”
Father Ayuban said the faithful should remember that Father Gallardo “sacrificed, he suffered, he searched and he surrendered.”
The priest said the slain priest’s life was “a life of sacrifices and renunciations” especially when he volunteered to be assigned in the village of Tumahubong.
Father Ayuban also noted that the martyred priest’s life was a “constant search for God and his people.”
The 43 days that Father Gallardo and the other captives spent in captivity were also days of heroism for the priest.
Witnesses said he looked for the female teachers when they were separated from the other captives.
“In times of danger and crisis, he was a true shepherd searching for his flock,” he said. “Finally, he surrendered, but never to the forces of evil. He surrendered to the hands of God,” he added.
Father Gallardo was repeatedly asked to renounce his faith, but he refused, instead “he stood up for God who was faithful to him until the last drop of his blood.”
The missionary priest made his first religious profession in the Claretian congregation on May 1, 1989, in Basilan. He was ordained to the priesthood at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Quezon City on Dec. 6, 1994.