Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines

The Early Years

The Early Years

The Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (AMRSP) is the joint forum of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of Men in the Philippines (AMRSMP) and the Association of Major Religious Superiors of Women in the Philippines (AMRSWP). Therefore, it is necessary to look into the beginnings of AMRSMP and AMRSWP in order to develop a better understanding of the history of the AMRSP.

The formation of the AMRSMP and the AMRSWP in 1955 and 1957, respectively, was a result of the directives from the Sacred Congregation of Religious acting through the Papal Nuncio. The original statutes of the two associations suggested by the Sacred Congregations described, among others, the nature of the two associations. The AMRSWP and AMRSMP were defined as “permanent organization(s) of religious communities of (women/men) in the Philippines in the person of the major superiors.” As such, membership is not voluntary but, rather, mandatory. No institute of active life is theoretically allowed to resign its membership.

The original statutes also defined the purpose of both the AMRSMP and AMRSWP. The purpose of the AMRSWP was “to coordinate the aforesaid Religious communities, to study the problems of common interest, and to assure their more effective solution through close collaboration.” The set objectives of AMRSMP, which is similar to that of AMRSWP, was “to coordinate the activities of all institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life of men in the Philippines, to study matters and problems of common interest and to assume their more effective solution through dialogue and cooperation.”

For a time, the two associations confined their activities to “ad intra.” However, at the beginning of the 1960s, the AMRSMP and the AMRSWP were moved to the fringe of the social question which has become worldwide. The widening differences in the world’s levels of life, were rich people enjoy rapid growth while the poor people develop slowly, brought about the acute disquiet that has taken hold of the poor. The major superiors began to question themselves in relation to their relevance to the people’s situation. This social awakening moved the AMRSWP to create the Sister Formation Institute (SFI) in 1963 in order to provide a program of studies that will meet the needs of religious women in the work of evangelization. The AMRSWP also took cognizance of the unanswered needs of the rural poor. These two projects helped in the unification of training facilities and apostolic action.

The 1960s ended with social unrest escalating in neighboring countries — coup d’etat in Indonesia, cultural revolution in China, and racial riots in Malaysia. In the Philippines, the deepening inequities in the country gave rise to dissent.

The Birth of AMRSP

The Birth of AMRSP

The decade of the 70s began with the cloud of Martial Law at the neck of every Filipino despite the holding of the Asian Bishops meeting in 1970 and Pope Paul VI’s visit in 1971. During this period, the two associations came together to discern their orientation towards justice and its option for the poor. This was later spelled out in a joint statement issued by the AMRSWP and the AMRSMP.

Consequently, the objectives of the associations took on a two-fold dimension — one directed to the constituents, the other to the service of the poor — although both dimensions were seen in the total message of the Gospel. Accordingly, the set-up was modified and joint efforts harnessed even without official prompting from the Sacred Congregation. This was done in order to provide a responsive body that will speak out and act concordantly as their charisms may lead them. The activities were then expanded, thus, striking a balance between the “ad intra” and “ad extra.” As a result, the AMRSMP and the AMRSWP became the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (AMRSP).

In recognition of the social inequities and structural injustices that prevail in Philippine society, the 1971 Joint Convention of the AMRSP focused on the theme “Role in Radical Restructuring of the Present Unjust Social Order in Our Country.” Discussions during the said convention gave emphasis on how to build genuine Christian communities in response to the present realities. A year later, 21 September 1972, then President Ferdinand E. Marcos proclaimed Martial Law.

The declaration of Martial Law radically changed and affected the lives of the people. They were deprived of their valued civil and human rights — salvaging, torture, arrest and detention of peasants, workers, urban poor, women and church people, demolition of urban poor communities, hamletting and displacement, closing down of several television and radio stations and newspapers (even the door of the AMRSP office was padlocked by authorities at one point during the period of Martial Law ), violent dispersals, rise in the number of desaparacidos, massacres, and church persecution by the State. Even church people, lay and religious alike, were not spared from persecution and repression. Fr. Daniel Mac Laughlin, MM, Fr. Cullen, SJ, and Fr. Cornelio Lagerwey, MSC, were among the first to be arrested in separate incidents on September 1972, a few days after the declaration of Martial Law. Fr. Jose Nacu, MS, who was then the Chairperson of Zone One Tondo Organization (ZOTO), was arrested in January 1973 after successful march protest led by ZOTO against the declaration of Martial Law.

The repressive environment found the AMRSP adopting a political line that is one of critical acceptance, with emphasis on critical. This socio-political involvement of the AMRSP was the result of the shift of audience to the poor, especially, the materially poor. The shift was made because a new understanding of the response to the social question demands the need to immerse in these social realities. This is especially true for those in formation and for those who make decisions. The Joint conventions and the Joint Executive Board meetings then became the venue where major decisions on national issues were analyzed, reflected on and translated into action.

In 1973, AMRSP conducted a national survey to gain an objective picture of the effects of Martial Law. The comments of the various congregations and the survey results became the basic discussion paper of the January 1974 Joint convention. The major superiors, after lengthy deliberations, decided to set up new vehicles for conscientization and action on behalf of justice. Task Forces were created to act on issues relating to political detainees (Task Force Detainees – TFD); formation of public information through proper information and reporting (Task Force Data Gathering – TFG); conscientization of the poor (Task Force on Urban Conscientization – TFUC); church personnel (Task Force for the Orientation of Church Personnel – TFOCP); and re-orientation of schools, services to university students (Committee on Education, then years later, Education Forum). A Central implementing Task Force was also created to coordinate the activities of the task forces. This was later discovered and in its place, a joint secretariat of the AMRSMP and the AMRSWP was set up to implement more effectively the thrust and orientation of AMRSP.

Then in 1975, the government imposed a ban on strikes to repress the working class’ struggle for just wage and fair labor practice. The ban did not cow the workers of La Tondeña to fight for their rights. They went on strike as the religious stood by the workers at the picketline. The strike ended in favor of the workers. At the 1975 convention, two resolutions were acted upon by the major superiors: 1) an open letter to President Marcos demanding justice for and the right for self-determination of the sugar-workers; and 2) publication of a pictorial brochure, “Pastures of the Rich,” a study on the condition of workers in the sugar industry where their plight was vividly portrayed.

AMRSP deeper socio-political involvement was viewed by some sectors within the Church as being too political. This observation regarding AMRSP’s involvement was shared by the church leadership in Rome. Thus, followed long and “tedious series of dialogue with the Nuncio.” It was in 1976 when the Mixed Commission of Bishops and the Religious was formed.

In 1977, the Urban Missionaries was created in order to respond to the needs of the workers for support and solidarity. On the other hand, the year 1978 saw the emergence of new ministries in the Church – Basic Christian Communities-Community Organization (BCC-CO), Community-Based Health Program (CBHP), Ministry to Tribal Filipinos, Ministry of Presence (lifestyle identification with the materially poor), lay missionaries and Ministry for Detainees.

It was during the 70s when the major superiors came to a deep awareness of the structure of injustice brought about by men and women. Structures and institutions which they (i.e. major superiors) can and should change. There was a re-examination of priorities followed by the commitment of themselves, their resources, their personnel to the task of working with the poor towards the transformation of these unjust blocks. Before the end of the ‘70s, the AMRSP was considered here and abroad a leading force to reckon with. But not only that, the struggles and difficulties faced by AMRSP during these turbulent times served as a point of unity for the various congregations under the organization. The Martial Law years was a ‘baptism of fire’, so to speak, for AMRSP which was, incidentally, formed only during that decade.

The 80’s did not signal an end to the violence and repression characteristic of the 70s. Arbitrary arrest and detention of religious priests, seminarians, sisters and lay church workers mounted. The increasing persecution of church people led to the creation of the AMRSP Justice and Peace Commission.

The lifting of Martial Law in February 1981 was met with skepticism. True enough, the escalation of repression during the early 80s was proof that the lifting of Martial Law was merely a ‘facelift’ to cover-up the continued existence of military rule. The continuous rule of the Marcos dictatorship and the military, prompted the major superiors to remain open to the prompting of the Spirit as She challenges them to respond relevantly to the calls of the time. Their prophetic leadership, put to the forefront in the 70s carried them through the turbulence and crisis of the 80s. Political upheavals rocked the continent of Asia. Martial Law was imposed in Bangladesh in 1980, the Tamil-Singhalese riots erupted in 1983, and the homefront, the assassination of former senator Benigno Aquino in 1983, and signaled the worsening socio-political and economic crisis in the country.

In 1981, WITNESS, a joint publication came out. The articles focused on the search for an authentic witness to Gospel values in the context of present realities and concrete situations found worldwide. Though Asian in context, this publication featured articles which particularized on the Philippine situation. The first issue carried reflections on the visit of Pope John Paul II to the country in February 1981.

At the 1982 Joint Convention, the major superiors approved and issued a Mission Statement which embodied the orientation and direction of AMRSP, and the relationship between the Joint Board and the Task Forces. The Mission Statement became the source of direction and guidance of the Task Forces in their work to implement the thrust and mission of AMRSP. The following year, the AMRSP hosted the South East Asian Major Superiors (SEAMS) Congress V from 30 October to 7 November 1983, with the theme “Asian Religiosity and Transformation of Values.” The SEAMS Congress is held in each member country every two or three years for mutual information, inspiration and enrichment through one another’s experience.

The alarming increase in human rights violations and the economic crisis plaguing the country moved the major superiors to evolve a critical stance. Thus, in its Joint Convention in 1983, the AMRSP decided to create a joint commission composed of men and women religious drawn from congregations with justice and peace concerns, service and/or programs. The joint commission became the responsibility of the Joint Board of the AMRSP. Action on behalf of justice and support of such efforts for justice and peace is a consistent and top priority of the AMRSP mission and orientation.

The AMRSP Joint Convention in 1984 carried the theme, “Economic Crisis and Religious Poverty.” It was a result of this convention that AMRSP came out with support for the striking workers of ARTEX. Meanwhile, church persecution continues amidst the worsening crisis faced by the country.

The Birth of AMRSP

Mid 80’s to 90’s

The year 1985 witnessed two of the most celebrated cases involving religious priests. The first was the gruesome murder of Tulunan Parish Priest Fr. Tulio Favali, PIME by a group of ICHDF members led by the right-wing fanatic, Norberto Manero, on 11 April 1985. A few months later in the Visayas, 11 July 1985, Fr. Rudy Romano, CSsR was abducted by the military and was never heard of since. These two cases were concrete examples of the continuing crisis in the mid-80s. This crisis led the AMRSP to focus on the theme “Towards a Better Understanding of the AMRSP in its Response to the Call of the Times” for its 1985 Joint Convention. In 1986 AMRSP came out with the monograph, “Signs of the Times.”
In 1981, WITNESS, a joint publication came out. The articles focused on the search for an authentic witness to Gospel values in the context of present realities and concrete situations found worldwide. Though Asian in context, this publication featured articles which particularized on the Philippine situation. The first issue carried reflections on the visit of Pope John Paul II to the country in February 1981.

A snap-election for President and Vice-President was held in January 1986. Marcos, together with his running-mate, Arturo Tolentino, were declared as winners by the COMELEC. NAMFREL, an alternative poll-watch body, came out with results that showed otherwise. This led Cory Aquino, the opposition candidate for President, to call for a national boycott to protest the results of the election, claiming that such was rigged and was characterized by fraud.

It was in February 1986 when the EDSA “People Power” uprising took place. People from various sectors, including church people, lay and religious alike, took to the streets. This led to the ouster of Marcos on 25 February 1986 and ended his 14-year dictatorship. Cory Aquino then assumed the Presidency, established a “revolutionary” government, and convened the 1986 Constitutional Convention.

The hope for change was characteristic of those times. And everyone wanted to give the new administration a chance by extending its support. In its 1986 Convention, the AMRSP focused its discussions on the theme, “AMRSP: Its Role and Contribution to National Renewal.” The AMRSP had then President Corazon Aquino as guest speaker for the said convention. Some would even remember with fondness how Aquino took time, even braving the storm, just to come to the convention. Sadly though, the ‘honeymoon’ of the Aquino administration with the people, and even with the Church, did not last long.

Peace talks between the government and the National Democratic Front (NDF) took place in 1986. Again, most people were hopeful that this process would work. This gave birth to a number of organizations and coalitions advocating peace. The AMRSP also took part in the ongoing effort for peace, not only through statements, but also through active participation and networking with the peace advocates. The ceasefire between the CPP-NPA-NDF and government troops was declared in December 1986. However, this was cut short with the Mendiola massacre in January 1987, where 18 farmers were killed by government troops while holding a peaceful rally at the foot of the Mendiola bridge.
Shortly after the breakdown of the talks, Aquino declared the “unsheathing of the sword of war” in 1987. The “Total War” policy of the Aquino administration then gave rise to further human rights violations — tens of thousands of peasants and indigenous people were displaced from their homes, salvaging and forced disappearances were on the rise, arbitrary arrest and detention went on — all in the name of the government’s counter-insurgency efforts. Again, even church people were not spared.

Throughout this time, the AMRSP continued to reaffirm its prophetic role in society, as evident in its convention themes from 1987 to 1991, “Consecrated Life in Today’s Mission of the Church” (1987): “The Present and Future Life in Prophetic Mission of the Church” (1988); “Religious Spirituality in Our Prophetic Ministry in the Philippines Today” (1989); “Rerum Novarum: AMRSP in Solidarity with Labor!” (1990); and “PCP II: Its Implication and Challenges to AMRSP” (1991).

1992 and beyond

Fidel V. Ramos became President in 1992. He paved the way for Philippines 2000, which in turn heightened the adverse effects of globalization, free trade and development aggression. At first, it appeared as if Ramos’ program of Philippines 2000 will truly usher in economic progress. But events in his latter years in office exposed the frailty and failure of this model.

Peso devaluation, trade deficits, capital flight, oil deregulation and oil price hikes, increase in prices of basic commodities, labor contractualization, anti-terrorism and crime-control bills, national ID system, environmental destruction, land conversion, displacements and demolition, and charter change are just some of the problems and issues faced by the country under the present administration. And through all these, AMRSP has joined hands with the people to struggle against the continuing poverty and repression. AMRSP was there in vigilant protest against GATT (1995); the anti-terrorism bills and the establishment of a national ID system (1995): APEC (1996); oil deregulation and oil price increases (1997); charter change (1997) and the overall effects of globalization and Philippines 2000.

In the decade of the 90s, the AMRSP affirmed its response to the challenges of becoming the Church of the Poor as envisioned in PCP II. AMRSP’s leadership and general membership have continuously met the demands of peace-building through statements and letters of concern and solidarity. Moreover, AMRSP has given witness through its Mission Partners — men and women, lay and religious — in their commitment to the AMRSP Mission Statement which upholds the Gospel values of justice and peace. They have persevered, at times, despite the risk of being alienated, misunderstood, even salvaged. They continue to denounce injustices in their pursuit of a Christian community, of life characterized by truth, love and peace.

The “groans and growth” of AMRSP in the words of one of its former Co-Chairpersons best describes AMRSP as it was in the past, present and the future. Though written in the context of AMRSP’s struggle during the dark days under Martial Law, it remains real up to this time when rights and liberties are still under constant threat. To quote:
we became close to the reality of the life and struggle of the people and thus can be in solidarity with them;

  • we went beyond the confines of our well-served institution and sisters were sent to live among the poor;
  • we learned to work together in common projects with the Task Forces and in short-term activities with other groups, POs and NGOs;
  • we learned to share even more and to put at the disposal of the poor our facilities and other resources;
  • there were radical changes in the formation — from the greenhouse type to what we now call contextualized formation;
  • we learned a new way of being religious — being partners with the lay, of being evangelized while evangelizing;
  • we developed a new method of reflecting and theologizing leading to a new way of the Spirit;
  • most of all, we overcame our fear by acting inspite of the fear; the work of justice and liberation was a dangerous act because of the control of the powerful over the powerless; and the best control was to sow fear; this was an ever present dilemma of the (AMRSP). But by the grace of God and by the support of the masses of suffering people, the (AMRSP) was able to overcome fear falteringly but never giving up.

In the 1997 AMRSP Convention, the members, together with past AMRSP chairpersons gathered to celebrate the 25th anniversary, to recollect their prophetic witnessing and to reflect on the prophetic mission challenges of the third millennium in the light of Gospel imperatives and of the teachings of the Church. The Mission Partners were there to present their programs and activities. As expressed in the Convention Statement, there were touching, albeit disturbing moments as the Mission Partners shared their efforts to realize the transformation of the Filipino nation into a new people who enjoy the fullness of life. But the evil forces of greed and corruption which stems from the menace of globalization have, more than ever before laid a stranglehold over the people’s lives through government’s pseudo-reforms imposed by external agents often beyond ordinary human control. In the context of these realities, the major superiors gained a deeper understanding of consecrated life. Imperatives for prophetic mission reminded them that the common mission of integral human liberation requires a distinctive contribution from consecrated communities, namely, the Good News of Jesus and of total salvation in the Reign of God.