For the past several decades, it had been the practice of the San Francisco Philippine Consulate to celebrate Rizal Day on the occasion of his death anniversary on December 30 with a solemn program usually featuring the recitation of Rizal’s “Mi Ultimo Adios” (My Last Farewell) and speakers extolling the virtues of Philippine National Hero Dr. Jose Rizal.
I was a speaker on a number of those forums because my mother was born in Calamba, Laguna, just a block from where Rizal was born, and I grew up frequently visiting Rizal’s home, now a museum, and voraciously reading everything I could find that was written by and about Rizal
There was no such program at the Consulate this past December 30 because a new law moved the observance of Rizal Day from his death anniversary on December 30 to his birth anniversary on June 19. The observance of Rizal Day on December 30 traced its historical roots to a decree issued on December 20, 1898 by President Emilio Aguinaldo and affirmed by the Philippine Commission on February 1, 1902.
When Rizal Day was observed on December 30, students were on their Christmas break and there were no school programs to honor Dr. Jose Rizal. As National Historical Institute chair Ambeth Ocampo noted, “if Rizal Day is observed on June 19, classes have just started and students would be able to actively participate in the commemorative activities.”
Even though Rizal Day has been observed since 1898, there was no systemic effort made by the government to include the writings of Dr. Rizal in the curriculum of the schools. In his novel, Noli Mi Tangere (“Touch Me Not”), Dr. Rizal sought to remove the veil of ignorance and superstition that had kept his countrymen subservient to the Catholic Church and to the Spanish colonial government.
While Dr. Rizal was honored on Rizal Day, his writings were not disseminated because of pressure from the Catholic Church to prevent his “anti-friar” novels from being widely read. This pressure from the Church continued long after the Spaniards were expelled from the Philippines in 1898 and lasted close to 60 years after Dr. Rizal’s execution by the Spaniards for his writings.
This veil was only removed in 1956 after Sen. Jose B. Laurel, Sr. and Sen. Claro M. Recto sponsored Senate Bill 438 requiring the teaching in all schools about the life of Dr.Rizal. The bill also required that Rizal’s two novels, “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo” (the Subversive), in its “unexpurgated” form, be made compulsory reading.
The Rizal Bill was strongly opposed by three senators who were known as stout defenders of the Church- Decoroso Rosales, Mariano Cuenco and Francisco “Soc” Rodrigo. (Sen. Rodrigo’s nickname did not come as short for Socrates, as many thought, but actually stood for “Soldier of Christ”, which he considered himself to be). Together, they denounced Rizal as “anti-Catholic” and charged that his writings were replete with “errors of church dogma”. They said that Filipino students were “immature” and unprepared to understand Rizal’s writings.
Manila Mayor Arsenio Lacson supported the bill and famously walked out of a mass when, during the homily, the priest read a circular from the archbishop denouncing the Rizal Bill.
On April 22, 1956, a week after the Rizal Bill was introduced, the Sunday newspapers all carried a statement from the Catholic bishops describing Rizal’s works as violating Catholic canon law on heresy and schism. Joining in opposition to the bill were the Catholic Action of the Philippines, the Holy Name Society of the Philippines, the Legion of Mary, the Knights of Columbus and the Daughters of Isabela.
When representatives of Catholic schools threatened to close down their schools if the Rizal bill was enacted into law, Sen. Recto responded that he would push for the nationalization of Catholic schools if they closed down.
All kinds of compromises were proposed including one that would put Rizal’s novels under lock and key in the school libraries, an amendment which was rejected. One amendment that was approved allowed students to apply for an “exemption” for religious reasons from reading the Noli/Fili novels.
Barely a month after it was introduced, the bill was passed by both the House and the Senate on May 17, 1956. On June 12, President Ramon Magsaysay signed the bill into law as Republic Act 1425.
More than 50 years after the enactment of the “Rizal law,” Ambeth Ocampo noted that not one student applied for an exemption from reading “Noli” and Fili”.
Although the Catholic Church lost the Rizal Bill battle in 1956, it has won all other legislative battles since then. It has succeeded in preventing the passage of bills that would legalize divorce in the Philippines keeping the Philippines as one of only three countries in the world that does not allow for divorce (the others are Malta and the Vatican City) and one (the RH bill) that would provide for reproductive health education and support which would prevent more than 500,000 abortions a year resulting from unwanted pregnancies.
But the RH bill, supported by presidential candidate Noynoy Aquino, may yet follow the example of the Rizal Bill and pass if Aquino is elected president in the May 2010 elections.