IF you’ve had the chance to join historian and tour guide Carlos Celdran in one of his regular walking tours of Manila, including Intramuros and the Manila Cathedral, the supposed scene of his “crime” more than two years ago, I’m pretty sure you were drawn to the man, and how articulate, spontaneous and funny he could be.
More than a historian with a firm grasp of Manila’s past, Celdran is first and foremost an engaging showman, who, like fellow historian, academic and Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Ambeth Ocampo, is gifted with a rare and enviable ability to connect past events with present-day realities in a relevant and amusing package.
Dressed in period costumes, Celdran, who also dabbles into painting and acting, never fails to command the attention of passersby and regale tourists, both local and foreign, with his flawless English, perfect timing and off-the-cuff asides.
If you don’t know him well, you’d readily dismiss him as KSP (kulang sa pansin or lacking [and wanting] in attention). I’ve had the chance to interview him and join a number of his tours, but I don’t have his cellphone number nor are we friends on Facebook. Nevertheless, I like the guy.
To his friends and admirers, Celdran was (and is) simply being himself: fun, outspoken and occasionally irreverent. As a journalist, I admire him for his intelligence, guts and ability to constantly provide us with good copy.
That’s why I wasn’t surprised at all when he pulled off the unthinkable sometime in 2010 by dressing up like Jose Rizal before barging into the Manila Cathedral waving a huge placard and shouting the word “Damaso,” which was written on it. He did this at the foot of the cathedral’s main altar, and in full view of several bishops and parishioners.
Not a few papers say it happened during mass. But Celdran’s friends and sympathizers insist that he pulled off the stunt during a so-called ecumenical service. But to devout Catholics whose religious sensibilities were deeply offended by his actions, it doesn’t really make any difference.
It was the height of the RH Bill debate between the Philippine government, including a good number of women’s and pro-choice groups, and bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. Like many liberal-minded Filipinos, Celdran wasn’t only pro-RH. Like me, he was clearly fed up with certain bishops’ meddlesome, obstructionist and sometimes underhanded methods not to get the law passed.
While I dare not venture beyond Facebook, Twitter and this blog to make my sentiments known, Celdran took matters into his own hands the best way he knew how by making a statement in the flesh, and inside the heart of the supposed enemies’ lair. If you ask me, it was a pretty brave move bordering on the foolhardy.
Of course, every Filipino who went through high school in this country know who Padre Damaso is, as Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere,” a novel depicting church and government abuses in the Philippines during Spanish colonial times, was required reading.
In Celdran’s mind, likening the greedy and abusive Damaso to certain members of the influential Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines was apropos.
For his pains, he spent several nights in jail soon after the incident before being freed, I assume, on bail. Well, the verdict has been handed down recently, and a Manila Trial Court judge has found Celdran guilty of “offending religious feelings.”
A certain Judge Juan Bermejo Jr. sentenced Celdran to a minimum of two months and maximum of one year for violating Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code.
In a PDI report, Bermejo cited a law, which penalizes “anyone who, in a place devoted to religious worship or during the celebration of any religious ceremony, shall perform acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful.”
Celdran, who was in court with his wife to hear the verdict, said his legal team was preparing to appeal the decision.
In a more recent development, even President Aquino, a vocal supporter of the RH Bill, which, after 14 long years, was passed recently (no thanks to the bishops), appealed to church leaders to forgive Celdran for his supposed transgression.
For his part, Celdran, according to the PDI report, had already apologized to the Archdiocese of Manila soon after the incident: “The Church leaders had forgiven me in the name of the Lord, but not on the earthly realm.”
What do I think of all of these? By doing what he did, Celdran only managed to convert the converted (pro RH hardliners). I’m pretty sure a good number of people, particularly Catholics, who somewhat shared his views before he did the Damaso act, were aghast, even alienated by his actions.
My recent Facebook status (it generated all sorts of reactions both for and against what Celdran did), which came with a link of a PDI online report containing the President’s appeal to church leaders to forgive him, sums it up:
“Should the Church forgive Celdran, or should he spend time in jail for supposedly offending religious sensibilities?
“In my own way, I’m quite against how the Church often oversteps and encroaches on areas it has no business encroaching on. Nakakapikon talaga! (It can really get to your nerves!)
“But I draw the line at what Celdran, who barged inside the Manila Cathedral during mass [which turned out to be an ecumenical service] dressed as Jose Rizal and holding a ‘Damaso’ placard, did.
“His actions drew more attention to himself than to what he was fighting for. He’s lucky (we live in a supposed democracy). Had a similar thing like this happened in a Muslim country, especially in a closed society like Saudi Arabia, he would have probably never seen the light of a new day.
“We don’t have to go far. Russia, a supposedly Christian country, with no small help from Vladimir Putin, jailed members of the Pussy Riot, sentencing some, I think, to hard labor in Siberia, after their lightning protest concert at a Moscow cathedral.
“My point: we can protest and make our voices heard all we want, but we have to learn when to draw the line. The Church, in keeping with the teachings of Jesus and the Gospel, should forgive him. But civil law [read: laws of the earthly realm, as Celdran himself puts it] is not that forgiving.”