Friday, May 22, 2009


Today, May 22, is the anniversary of the assassination of former Puerto Princesa City Vice-Mayor Fernando "Dong" Batul, a close Cooperator. By way of remembering, I am posting below an unpublished article written in 2007.


PUERTO PRINCESA CITY— On July 2, 2006, the ecclesial award Pro Deo et Pro Populo (For God and For Countrymen) was conferred posthumously on Puerto Princesa’s former Vice-Mayor, Fernando “Dong” Batul, at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in this City. The award was given during the ceremonies to close the Jubilee which marked the Fiftieth Year of the Palawan Church. His Eminence, Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, Archbishop of Manila, celebrated Mass with the Palawan clergy on this occasion.

The Certificate of Award, signed by Most Rev. Pedro Arigo, Vicar Apostolic of Puerto Princesa, cites the “heroism” of the former Vice-Mayor in “living the theological and human virtues” as a public servant and media practitioner; the “good example” he presented; his “untiring crusade” for good governance and against the “culture of corruption”; and his having “given up his life for the sake of truth and justice”.

The former Vice-Mayor of Puerto Princesa was also a top-rated radio commentator. He was shot dead by two pistol-wielding assasins while driving himself to the radio station early in the morning of May 22, 2006, two days short of his 37th birthday.

Handbook of Prayers

Video footages of the crime scene (played on global TV right after the assassination) prominently show a copy of the Handbook of Prayers, a prayerbook edited by Fr. Charles Belmonte which is popular among the faithful of Opus Dei. It was on the dashboard of the slain broadcaster’s vehicle at the time he was gunned down.

The former Vice-Mayor had been attending formation-activities given by Opus Dei for some time. He was also known to do the “norms” or prayer-regimen prescribed by St. Josemaria Escriva, the Founder of Opus Dei. These include daily Mass and Communion, daily Rosary, periods for mental prayer in the morning and in the evening, spiritual reading, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, frequent Confession, etc., in hopes of becoming “contemplatives in the middle of the world”, in order to sanctify oneself and others in all the circumstances and events of daily life. Dong also did his annual spiritual retreats with Opus Dei, the last one in December 2005 at the Makiling Conference Center in Calamba, Laguna. He had also been attending weekly Study Circles (he was never absent) as a leading “Cooperator” of Opus Dei in Puerto Princesa City.

In his very last broadcast on May 20, 2006, on the Saturday morning radio program, “Try Ang Gulo” (which he co-hosted with two others), Dong Batul defended Opus Dei and the Catholic Church against the Dan Brown novel, The Da Vinci Code.

While he was yet the Vice-Mayor, Dong met former Finance Secretary Jesus Estanislao, who (with renowned economist Dr. Bernardo Villegas) brought Opus Dei to the Philippines. Dr. Estanislao’s conferences on good governance undoubtedly left an impression on Dong which remained until the former Vice-Mayor’s last days. The last photograph of Dong Batul could well be the one taken at a get-together with Dr. Estanislao on April 9, 2006, when the latter came to deliver the Commencement Address for Fullbright College in Puerto Princesa.

Dong’s attraction to Opus Dei fit in well with the dedication he brought to whatever he did. His drive for excellence found ultimate meaning in an effective desire to become a saint.

Promoting such desires is precisely the mission of Opus Dei. The message St. Josemaria had been propagating since its foundation in 1928 is that everyone is called to sanctity, which means union with God; and that, for lay people, the path to sanctity lies in fulfilling one’s ordinary duties—in the family, at work and in society—with human and supernatural perfection, that is, by doing them well and for love of God. For this, St. Josemaria was dubbed “the saint of the ordinary” by Pope John Paul II who canonized the Founder of Opus Dei in Rome on October 6, 2002.

A large and poor family

The youngest of a brood of seven, Dong had an early education in the value of work. His father, Alejandro, was a carpenter. His mother, Conrada Ulson, sold vegetables in the public market. It was a large and poor family, but also a bright and cheerful home, where everyone was always busy helping each other with some chore.

Like most poor families of native (Cuyuno) stock in Palawan, the Batuls were also a pious lot. The rhythm of family life and work followed that of prayer. Dong had served at one time as Lector at the Immaculate Conception Parish. In 1999, before he entered politics, as a leader in the “Singles” component of the Couples for Christ community, Dong was sent on an evangelizing tour of Israel and the Holy Land.

After finishing his secondary education at the Palawan National School in Puerto Princesa, Dong went to the Palawan State College (now University), also in this City, where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree, major in Political Science.

While in college, despite the family’s modest means, Dong managed to qualify for the Varsity Football team and to become Corps Commander of the school’s Citizen Military Training Unit. He was even elected President of the University Student Government!

Upon his graduation from college in 1990, Dong worked as a tricycle driver until he was hired as a clerk at the Crocodile Farming Institute (a foreign-assisted government facility) in Puerto Princesa. He eventually came to head its Public Information Office.

In the middle of the world

While still at the Crocodile Farming Institute, Dong teamed up with a friend from campus politics, Edmond Gastanes, to put up a newsletter, Bunyog Palawan, which provided commentary on public affairs. The project led to a first experience in facing a libel charge. (It was subsequently dismissed by the Department of Justice). It was also around this time, as a volunteer, that Dong started his career as radio commentator. By the time he ran for Vice-Mayor in the 2001 elections, his daily program, “Kulog at Kidlat”, was No. 1 in Palawan. It had also earned him libel charges (later withdrawn).

The decision to run for political office was not an easy one for Dong, not least because of an obvious lack of logistical capability. Nonetheless, he agreed to be running mate to Dennis Socrates, who was aiming for City Mayor of Puerto Princesa. The tandem won in the 2001 elections, on the campaign theme, “New Politics, Good Governance,” for an end to feudal (patronage-driven) politics and its “culture of corruption”. Their tenure in office turned out to be short, however. Socrates was removed by a recall election in 2002 while Dong was unseated (in an electoral protest) by the Commission on Elections a few months later.

Despite these apparent setbacks and without any illusions of winning, the Socrates-Batul tandem ran again and lost in the 2004 elections. According to close supporters, it was more an information-education campaign than anything else.

Immediately after the 2004 elections, the former Vice-Mayor returned to broadcasting. His radio program, “Bastonero”, quickly became No. 1. Dong Batul was at the highest point of his career as broadcaster when he was murdered.

For a first in the entire province of Palawan and its capital city, a phenomenal crowd of 20,000 walked more than four hours in Dong’s funeral procession. (Puerto Princesa has a population of only around 200,000).

The universal call to holiness

The idea of becoming a saint would not have sounded strange to the former Vice-Mayor of Puerto Princesa. After all, the town boasts of a canonized saint among its founders: Ezequiel Moreno, a Spanish priest in the Order of Augustinian Recollects, was chaplain of the 1872 expedition that established civil government in area. He later became Bishop of Pasto in Colombia. Ezequiel died in 1906, and for having lived a holy life was canonized on October 11, 1992. (His feast is celebrated on August 19).

But St. Ezequiel Moreno was a cleric and religious. Through contact with Opus Dei, Dong Batul found clear expression of the truth that, for him and for the vast majority of Christians who are neither priests nor members of a religious order, the struggle for sanctity meant engaging in “temporal affairs” and “directing them according to God’s will” (Lumen Gentium, No. 31). It is in these authentically-human endeavors that the lay faithful of Christ must live the supernatural and moral virtues, to “be perfect” as Christ demands (Matthew 5:48). Dong’s presence in the field of politics and the mass media was certainly worthwhile. –D.O. GLORIA


Monday, May 18, 2009


During the retreat he gave in Puerto Princesa in December 2007, Fr. Jim told us this story which happened in the beginning of the Work in Mexico:

Don Pedro Casciaro, one of the earliest members and the one whom the Founder sent to start the Work there, came into possession of an antique crucifix, almost lifesize. The corpus or “crucified” was very well-done artistically even though the wood of the cross needed to be replaced so they decided to place it in the Oratory of the Center after a new cross could be made on which this crucified could be attached. For that purpose, they contracted a carpenter who, on a given date, came to the Center to deliver the new cross.

It appears that this carpenter had to walk some distance through the streets carrying his cross (without a corpus) until he reached the Center where he was told to attach the antique crucified by nailing it to the new wooden cross he had made. While the carpenter was doing this, hammering, he began to weep; and when he was asked what the matter was, he said he could not do it anymore; that all his life that was just what he had been doing: nailing Christ to the Cross.

That story surely moved all of us who attended the 2007 retreat, and during dinner on Saturday night, April 4 (2009), we asked Fr. Jim why he did not relate that same story during the retreat last December 2008. Fr. Jim said it is necessary to vary the stories from one retreat to another.

From hindsight, asking Fr. Jim might have demonstrated that he was growing older and more forgetful (fortunately, it did not turn out so!), since this April 4 dinner-get-together was a slightly belated celebration of Fr. Jim’s 57th birthday (which fell on April 2) at Blue Marlin Restaurant (Doc Leo’s treat).

Aside from the birthday celebrant and host, also present were Sammy, Orphy, Bongsoc, Bing, Manny, Jess, and me. Anyway, we learned that evening that Fr. Jim heard this story of the carpenter and the crucifix from Don Alvaro in person (now Servant of God, the process for his beatification very much underway). Apparently, the story has not yet found mention in a book or other medium for publication so we thought it would be good to relate it on this blog (for future reference). Indeed, it makes a good starting point for any meditation, especially during Lent; and I was informed by Mrs. Devanadera who attended the recollection the following day (April 5), which was Palm Sunday, that Fr. Jim told them this story, mentioning how it came up the evening before.

After the Morning of Recollection for Women, Fr. Jim had lunch with the spouses Nelson and Doody Devanadera, Orphy and Maricon Ordinario, Sammy and myself, at Leslie’s Restaurant.

On April 18, the third Saturday of the month, Henry arrived to give us our circle and receive our chats. Since Bing Cabrera was not available that morning, Bong and I were able to take Henry on a small tour of the city during the time allotted for him. Among others, we visited the Mitra home (it is a regular tourist site) on top of a hill in Barangay Santa Monica with a terrific view of both the Puerto Princesa Bay and Honda Bay (Sulu Sea). Congressman Baham Mitra happened to be home nursing a knee injury (which Henry had been through as well) and we had a pleasant, even longish, banter with him about his political plans, common acquaintances, and the Work in Palawan. The congressman even offered the use of the house as venue for some future activity of the Work. On leaving the Mitra home, we could not help but observe that the estate would be very good for a Conference Center.

From the Mitra home, we paid a visit to Kiko Aquino at his home in the neighborhood; then we went off to lunch with Sammy.

Henry flew back to Manila the following day, Sunday. Orphy and I flew out that same afternoon to attend the annual course for supernumeraries at Samar Study Center in Quezon City.


Wednesday, March 4, 2009


We did not have a recollection last month (February) because Fr. Jim had a biking accident on February 6th, the day before he was supposed fly to Puerto Princesa. Everyone is keeping him in mind.

Last February 13, Pok Estrella and his wife, Marga, and daughter, Risa, arrived in town for a weekend vacation. Pok is a supernumerary whom Sam and I have known since our U.P. days (our frat-brod), before we all got into the Work. In 1999, he brought Fr. Jong Sabandal to Puerto Princesa to give the very first recollection by a priest of the Work in Palawan. It was also Pok who brought Sammy into the Work. We had a get-together at Sam’s house on the night of February 14.

On February 21, Fr. Eugene Elivera celebrated the 8th anniversary of his sacerdotal ordination with a Mass at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral. He is finishing his doctorate in Moral Theology at the University of Navarre in Pamplona and is in contact with the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross. He had to leave for Manila on the 23rd but was back in Puerto Princesa on the 28th to solemnize a wedding. On March 1, some supernumeraries and cooperators had a get-together with Fr. Eugene at our house.

Henry flew in on the afternoon of February 26 (instead of the 21st) for Bong’s oblation that evening which was witnessed by Sammy, Orphy, and myself, in Henry’s room at Circon Lodge. To celebrate the occasion, we proceeded to Ardent Suites for dinner. Henry flew back to Manila the following day.

Today, March 4, 2009, is the 137th anniversary of the foundation of the town of Puerto Princesa. It is a special holiday by law (act of congress) and those who are not connected with government will simply try to avoid the inconvenience of city streets closed to traffic for the usual parade and street-dancing.

The City Government has tried all sorts of catchy descriptions for Puerto Princesa: as the country’s “cleanest and greenest city”, “sports tourism capital”, a “pro-life and pro-family city” (for “one brief shining moment”, ha-ha-ha)—and now, on the heels of being declared a “highly-urbanized city” (a heartier ha-ha-ha!), as “a city in the forest” (an HUC in the stone age, ha-ha-ha). In fact, a more honest and honorable distinction would be that of being “founded by a saint”, because one of the founders—signatory to the “acta” establishing the town—was Saint Ezequiel Moreno, O.A.R., who was the chaplain of the expedition that arrived in Puerto Princesa on March 4, 1872.

The Palawan mainland was one of the last areas to be settled by the Spanish authorities (outside of Mindanao). It was in connection with the creation of the political-military government of Paragua (Spanish name of Palawan mainland, because it is shaped like a folded “umbrella” on the map) and to establish its capital that the expedition of which Fray Ezequiel Moreno was chaplain was sent from Manila on board the frigate Marques de la Victoria to proceed, after a stopover in Cuyo, to Puerto Asuncion (now Puerto Princesa)—also known as Iwahig to the natives—a place “with a good harbor…inhabited by peaceful natives”. The group led by Jose de Sostoa, ship’s captain and political-military Governor, dropped anchor at noon of March 4, 1872, rushed through the mangroves to go uphill where the Spanish flag was quickly planted. By three o’clock of that same date, Jose de Sostoa, Fray Ezequiel Moreno, and the other officials signed the Act of Establishment (Nilo Ocampo, Katutubo, Muslim, Kristiyano: Palawan, 1621-1901, pp. 59-60).

Fray Ezequiel was born in Alfaro, La Rioja, Spain, on April 9, 1848; became a member of the Order of Augustinian Recollects on September 22, 1865; and was ordained a priest in Manila on June 2, 1871. He served for fifteen years in the Philippines, including his stint as chaplain of the expedition that founded Puerto Princesa and as first parish priest of this town, his service in Puerto Princesa cut short by malaria, requiring his return to Manila to recuperate. Thereafter, Fray Ezequiel served in Mindoro, Las Piñas, Batangas, Intramuros and Imus, Cavite, until his assignment to head a seminary-college in Spain, and later on, as head of a mission to Colombia in South America. In 1896, Father Ezequiel Moreno was made Bishop of Pasto in Colombia. In 1905, he was diagnosed with cancer, which caused his death “in the odor of sanctity” on August 19, 1906.

In 1910, and again, in 1975, the remains of Fray Ezequiel were exhumed and found incorrupt; and with miraculous cures attributed to his intercession, he was beatified on November 1, 1975, and canonized on October 11, 1992. St. Ezequiel Moreno is known as patron saint of cancer patients and his feast is on August 19.

How many towns in the country, and even in the world, can boast of a canonized saint among its founders? We will only know the full import of these connections at the end of time; but even now, it is remarkable that the message of St. Josemaria is being preached in Puerto Princesa at a conference center named after his compatriot, St. Ezequiel, operated by nuns who claim close family relations with both. The “communion of saints” can be palpable at times.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Father Jim’s Cebu Pacific Flight arrived promptly at 9:30 a.m. last Saturday, January 24. Randy Sabenacio (a close Cooperator) fetched him from the Puerto Princesa Airport (with Bongsoc and myself heckling in the backseat).

Since 2007, Fr. Jim has been coming to Puerto Princesa once a month for our Evening of Recollection for Men. It was initially held at Tropical Sun Inn where the first Closed Retreat for Men was held in November 2006; but, after the Closed Retreat we had on November 30-December 2, 2007, at St. Ezekiel Moreno Conference Center, the monthly Recollection has been at St. Ezekiel’s. The Recollection is normally held on the First Saturday of the month; but since Fr. Jim was on his annual course, it had to be transferred this time to January 24.

Our modus operandi (for almost a year now) goes something like this: From the Puerto Princesa Airport, Bongsoc (and whoever he could press-gang) would take Fr. Jim to coffee at Itoy’s in Barangay San Pedro. It is very convenient because the law office of Atty. Ed Gastanes (brother of Jojo, a Cooperator in realty brokering) happens to be just upstairs, where Fr. Jim receives people for individual Confession and Spiritual Direction. By 11:00 a.m., Fr. Jim would be having his first customer (usually Bongsoc), followed by others according to an order arranged (by text messaging) during the preceding week, each one allotted 20 minutes. Among the pre-lunch regulars are Tisoy Montero (who is in the business of cargo forwarding) and Manny Capinig (long ago dubbed “our big-time fish trader” by Eddieboy). By 12:00 noon, Bing Cabrera would arrive from his “Saturday morning banking” duties at RCBC, in time to host lunch at Itoy’s (normally, bulalo, either “sizzling” or the “traditional” style), immediately followed by a good-sized sans rival and coffee. The party would normally consist of Fr. Jim, Bing, Bongsoc or Manny, and myself. After lunch, Fr. Jim would go back upstairs for more appointments. The afternoon guys would usually include Randy, Homer (Manny’s son), and Gerry Ortega (a doctor of veterinary medicine, but more about him below). At 4:00 p.m., we would all go in for Fr. Jim’s Catholic doctrine class, which normally ends at around 5:00 p.m., whereupon we would all proceed to St. Ezekiel’s to settle Fr. Jim in his quarters and to prepare for the Recollection.

Participants in the Recollection would normally arrive at 6:00 p.m.; someone would be assigned to read Fr. Francis Fernandez’s meditation for the Sunday following (In Conversation With God). The first meditation with Fr. Jim would begin at 6:30 p.m.. As soon as Fr. Jim leaves the chapel (to hear Confessions from newcomers or those who missed their appointments), one of the supernumeraries would read aloud the Examination of Conscience. During the rest of the 30-minute break, most participants would be socializing with each other in the parking lot. The more pious ones would remain inside the chapel until Fr. Jim comes back for the second meditation, around 7:30 p.m., which, in turn, would be followed by the Holy Mass (anticipated Sunday liturgy) at around 8:00 p.m. One of the supernumeraries or close Cooperators would be server. After the period of Thanksgiving after the Mass, the supernumeraries would take Fr. Jim to dinner at the nearby Café Arturo. We would all have (as our fixed menu) San Mig Lights and Chicharon Bulaklak for starters, and Grilled Blue Marlin served with rice for our main course. We would bring back Fr. Jim to St. Ezekiel’s at a little past 10:00 p.m., to get barely enough sleep for his 7:00 a.m. Mass the following morning at San Jose Parish Church (right beside St. Ezekiel’s).

Last Saturday, because Café Arturo was closed, dinner for Fr. Jim had to be at Asturias Hotel (next nearest to St. Ezekiel’s among the fine-dining places), with Sammy, Orphy, Manny, Vincent Escala (a student leader who regularly attends), and myself. It was a pleasant surprise to be served by Eugene Carlos (brought by his older brother, Atty. Allan, to our 2007 Retreat), in his capacity as “acting captain-waiter”. He greeted Fr. Jim before we recognized it was Eugene. We learned that his work was part of the curriculum of his course in Business Management.

The following morning, Sunday, January 25, Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, Fr. Jim celebrated the 7:00 a.m. Mass at the San Jose Parish Church, followed by breakfast at St. Ezekiel’s, then gave a Morning of Recollection for Women at the Chapel of St. Ezekiel’s, followed by Sunday Mass for the participants and their families, which ended around 12:00 noon. Sammy served at this Mass, since January 25 is also the anniversary of his oblation in the Work. A sister of Dr. Ernie Dawson—Mrs. Josephine Dawson-Soliven—attended the Recollection for Women and the Mass. Her husband, Ed Soliven, attended his first Opus Dei Recollection and the Mass the night before. They happened to be vacationing from the United States and had in fact arrived in Puerto Princesa on the same flight with Fr. Jim. Doc Ernie is, of course, the very first native Cuyuno to join the Work (as a numerary, at that) and is now Chief Medical Officer of DBP with his own mini-hospital at the Bank's Head Office in Makati.

After Mass, Gerry Ortega came along to pick up Fr. Jim, Sammy and myself for a tour of his “Ecotourism Village” Project in Sito San Carlos, Barangay Bacungan, 20-something kilometers away from the City proper. Since it was along the way, we had lunch at the now-deserted Vietnamese Village (fortunately, the restaurant is still in business, despite the repatriation of most of the former refugees), then a quick pass at the Honda Bay pier, and the final drive to Bacungan.

Gerry’s Ecotourism Village is an undertaking of ABS-CBN’s Bantay-Kalikasan Foundation (where he now works, after a stint as Provincial Board Member and, prior thereto, as Director of the Crocodile Farming Institute), in partnership with the residents of the rural community whom Gerry helped organize into an NGO or PO (People’s Organization). Apparently, the idea is to make the place a tourist-attraction (because of its natural features, i.e., the richly- mangrove- forested and navigable Bacungan River that flows out to Honda Bay) while preserving its quaint character and ensuring that the residents have a large say and share (especially of the profits) from the operation. In this case, Gerry and his company have helped the residents clean up and beautify their surroundings, and even built a river barge that could ferry around 40 passengers on a one-hour (back-and-forth) cruise to the mouth of the river (opening to Honda Bay) from a small wharf in the Sitio center. Fr. Jim, Sammy and myself all took the cruise with Gerry as our tourist guide.

The barge is actually a platform set on top of twin hulls (actually, a catamaran), with nipa roofing, towed by a pumpboat. The whole operation is staffed with residents of Sitio San Carlos (named after St. Charles Borromeo). When it becomes fully operational, the Bacungan River Cruise would include a smorgasbord of grilled sea-foods on board, plus a five-man string-and-bamboo-flute ensemble (“tipano" band) for entertainment. Gerry’s Community Organizer, Marlon Tamsi (who is also a resident of San Carlos), informed us that one such voyage would directly employ around 16 local people (including the cook, waiters, boatmen and guide). The cruise, by itself, is a treat, because of the different varieties of mangrove along the banks—100% virgin forest and no settlements in sight—and the occasional wild fauna. Fr. Jim had several tips for the operation: the noise from the tug-pumpboat should be lessened (a muffler, perhaps, could be used on the engine), the barge could have a roof-less area for caucasians to sunbathe in, and the seats could consist of several small sala sets, to allow different groups their own space.

Beautiful experience would be an understatement. Fr. Jim could not help toying with the idea of organizing a triathlon competition in Puerto Princesa (similar to the one he is organizing to be held next month in Marikina) where the participants could start at Gerry’s Ecotourism Village, swimming the river (never mind that Gerry’s people caught a 10-foot crocodile from there some 20 years ago), then biking to town (Gerry and his wife, Patty, are avid mountainbikers), and running on foot around the poblacion. Another possibility raised was to hold a Work-Camp (of the University Center Foundation) at the Ecotourism Village of Sitio San Carlos.

From Sitio San Carlos, Gerry drove us back to Sammy’s house (pictures of which are posted here, along with those taken at Sitio San Carlos) where Orphy joined Sammy and myself to bring Fr. Jim to the airport for his return flight to Manila. As usual, Manny had already checked-in Fr. Jim’s ticket, this time without the normal pabaon of fresh fish because of the amihan that deters fishermen from going out to sea. We all wished Fr. Jim a bon voyage with our hearts on fire.