THE highest praise I ever heard of a priest paid by another priest was what the late Jose Cardinal Sanchez, former Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy and President of the Pontifical Commission for the Preservation of Artistic and Historical Patrimony of the Church—the first and only Filipino so far to have headed a major dicastery in the Roman Curia—said of Ricardo Cardinal Vidal, on the eve of the April 18, 2005 conclave that elected Pope (now Emeritus) Benedict XVI as successor to St. John Paul II.
Vidal, 86, died in the peace of our Lord at the Perpetual Succor Hospital in Cebu on Wednesday, after he had gone into a coma and attempts to revive him had failed. News of his death came amid requests for prayers for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who, according to his prefect of papal household and personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Ganswein, is no longer able to walk without assistance or to celebrate Mass—and is “slowly and serenely fading, like a candle.”
A noble death
At the Cardinal’s bedside were Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma, who gave him the last rites, five other priests close to him, a cardiologist, a nephrologist, a neurologist, his personal physician friend Dr. Rene Josef Bullecer, and his lone surviving brother Juanito Vidal, 84. His remains lie in state at the Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral, where long lines of people from all walks of life have come to pay their final respects.
Tomorrow, his remains will be transferred to the Shrine of St. Pedro Calungsod, the Visayan martyr whose beatification on March 5, 2000 and canonization on October 12, 2012, the late Cardinal had vigorously worked for in Rome. Interment is scheduled on Thursday after the funeral mass at 10 a.m.
Born in Mogpog, Marinduque, on February 6, 1931, Ricardo Tito Jamin Vidal studied at the Minor Seminary of the Most Holy Rosary (now Our Lady of Mount Carmel Seminary) in Sariaya, Quezon, then at the Saint Francis de Sales Seminary in Lipa. He was ordained deacon in 1955, and priest a year later. He taught at the seminary in Lucena before becoming its rector in 1971. Then he was made titular bishop of Claterna and coadjutor of Malolos in September that same year; Archbishop of Lipa in August 1972; Archbishop of Cebu in August 1982; finally cardinal-priest on May 25, 1985. He served as president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) from 1986 to 1987, and played a pivotal role in preserving the peace during that particularly turbulent time.
He retired in 2011 before his 80th birthday, after serving as archbishop of Cebu for 29 years. He was replaced by Archbishop Jose Palma, who became CBCP president that same year. Palma, however, declined a second term because he wanted to devote full time to Cebu’s hosting of the International Eucharistic Congress on January 24-31, 2016.
Retiring before 80
Because of the late cardinal’s apparent closeness to Pope Benedict XVI, some were hoping the Pope would keep him in harness beyond his 80th year. As it turned out, the Pope himself was thinking of resigning, as he eventually did on February 28, 2013, so he accepted the cardinal’s resignation on October 15, 2010—three months or so before his 80th birthday. The cardinal therefore had no part in the March 2013 conclave that elected Pope Francis as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s successor.
It was at the runup to the 2005 conclave, at Cardinal Sanchez’s residence, on via Rusticucci, across St. Peter’s Square, where I heard that high praise for Cardinal Vidal. It came in the form of a light banter, but it contained a great truth, which has remained engraved on my mind forever. Upon the death of John Paul the Great, my wife and I flew to Rome to pay our final respects to the Holy Father who had received us so many times over the years. A million Poles had descended upon Rome, so a religious sister met us at the airport to tell us that our bookings at Collegio Filipino were gone, and we would have to stay with the Prefect Emeritus, an old friend.
I felt like a turtle being punished and thrown into a pond.
Sanchez, then 85, had retired from the Curia in 1996 and was no longer eligible to participate in the conclave. But Vidal, then only 74, was one of the electors, and regularly visited with his brother cardinal. From the time John Paul II died until the conclave convened, the media had no rest speculating on who might succeed the saintly pope. No one was spared from this concern. Since the conclave had not yet convened, the two Filipino cardinals were still free to indulge some questions from curious laymen. As soon as the conclave convened, no participant may discuss anything related to it with any stranger.
Naturally good and holy
So, in the course of a meal, I asked the brainless question. Who might have the best chances among the papabili? Our Cardinal-host looked at his Cebuano guest with a smile, and said, “Carding (for Ricardo) would certainly make a very good pope, but he is naturally good and holy, he does not have to work for it, so his goodness might lack some merit.” Merit is either condign or congruous, but the Cardinal did not care to elaborate. It was a great compliment, and we all laughed heartily at it.
Then our Cardinal-host said, “If it’s a short conclave, the cardinal best known to the others would certainly be favored. This could mean Ratzinger (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1981), who’s known to everybody. If he is elected, he would probably take the name of Benedict, the patron saint of Europe, and dedicate his papacy to the re-Christianization of Europe.”
None of the John Allens in the press or any of the reigning Vaticanologists ever said anything like it, and its absolute accuracy completely stunned me as soon as it became clear. It then became plain that the poor island province of Catanduanes, where the Prefect Emeritus and I came from, had produced a great prophet, but more than his prophecy about the next Pope, what he said about Cardinal Carding allowed me to see the completely unassuming priest from Mogpoc in a much richer light.
In life as in death, Vidal was and will remain one of the genuine riches of the universal Church. But many will remember him more for what he did in the political realm. This is how we are. He played a major role at certain turning points in the nation’s political history, and this tends to put everything else in the shade. Faced with a brewing storm following the February 7, 1986 snap elections, Vidal as CBCP president tried to calm the storm by issuing the historic statement “Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” which said, among other things, the following:
“In our considered judgment, the polls were unparalleled in the fraudulence of their conduct…According to moral principles, a government that assumes or retains power through fraudulent means has no moral basis. For such an access to power is tantamount to a forcible seizure and cannot command the allegiance of the citizenry. The most we can say then, about such a government, is that it is a government in possession of power. But, admitting that, we hasten to add: Because of that very fact, the same government itself has the obligation to right the wrong it is founded on. It must respect the mandate of the people. This is the precondition for any reconciliation.
“If such a government does not of itself freely correct the evil it has inflicted on the people, then it is our serious moral obligation as a people to make it do so.
“We are not going to effect the change by doing nothing, by sheer apathy…Neither do we advocate a bloody, violent means of righting this wrong…The way indicated to us now is the way of nonviolent struggle for justice. This means active resistance of evil by peaceful means—-in the manner of Christ…
“We therefore ask every loyal member of the Church, every community of the faithful, to form their judgment about the February 7 polls. And if in faith they see things as we bishops do, we must come together and discern what appropriate actions to take that will be according to the mind of Christ. In a creative, imaginative way, under the guidance of Christ’s spirit, let us pray together, reason together, decide together, act together, always to the end that the truth will prevail, that the will of the people will be fully respected.”
Although it was the late Cardinal Archbishop Jaime Sin of Manila who later called on the faithful to come to EDSA and lend support to the military rebels, it was Vidal’s statement that provided the moral basis of that call, and the whole EDSA “revolt.” At the Vatican, the Cardinal would later spend more than an hour explaining everything to a deeply concerned but highly sympathetic Polish Pope. He was rewarded with bigger duties at the general secretariat of the World Synod of Bishops.
In 1989, when mutinous military forces in Cebu threatened to help oust Cory Aquino, the Cardinal pleaded with their commander, Gen. Jose Comendador, to call off their planned strike and to peacefully surrender instead. This saved the day for the government.
In 2001, after the military had withdrawn their support from their Commander in Chief and President Estrada could not decide whether to fight it out or quit, the Cardinal made it easy for him to leave.
The real score
Vidal’s deeds as a patriot occupy a large space in the national fabric, but they cannot possibly put under the shade his works for Christ and for the Church. Under the Cardinal, the Archdiocese of Cebu produced more bishops from among its auxiliaries than any other archdiocese, and largely because of the Cardinal’s personal devotion, two Filipino martyrs have been canonized as saints.
Of course, there are more non-canonized saints than canonized ones in heaven; it takes genuine love, devotion and hard work to push for the beatification and canonization of holy men and women after their death.
Cardinal Vidal made this one of his passions, and the Church is so much the richer because of it. In a thanksgiving reception in Rome, our lady ambassador to the Vatican was so carried away in acknowledging the Cardinal’s labors behind the beatification of a Filipino saint that she said she looked forward to the Cardinal’s own beatification. To this the Cardinal replied in good humor: he thanked the ambassador for her noble thought, but begged off the honor, since he was still very much alive.
That impediment is gone, so the process can now begin.
Joining the saints
At the time of his death, the Cardinal was pushing for the beatification of two holy Filipino priests—Bishop Alfredo Obviar (August 29, 1889 – October 1, 1978), bishop emeritus of Lucena, who was named “Servant of God” on March 6, 2001, and Archbishop Teofilo Camomot (March 3, 1914 – Sept. 27, 1978) of Carcar, a bishop known for his love for the poor. He was said to have once sold his pectoral cross in order to get some money for the poor.
Witnesses have also testified seeing him in two places at exactly the same time: while one witness saw him listening intently to some people somewhere, another witness saw him at exactly the same time up in the mountain giving communion to a dying man.
My fondest hope and prayer is to see our beloved Ricardo Cardinal Vidal join the company of those he had helped to raise to the altar.