IT was hoped by the ecclesiastical and civil authorities that Rizal’s life would end with his death in Bagumbayan. But from the day of his execution to this day, Rizal has been in this country a living issue and often a burning one – the soul of contention between Catholics and freethinkers, a bone for the tug of war between church and state in the control of education, and the subject of bitter debate over the authenticity or fraudulence of his supposed retraction of his words and deeds.
It is sickening that so selfless and splendid a death as Rizal’s was followed by so much falsehood and controversy. But this has been Rizal’s peculiar fate, and perhaps finally his triumph. He was so formidable opponents had to lie about him, even when he was already dead and buried.
An ecclesiastical fraud
The morning after the execution of Jose Rizal, the newspapers of Manila and Madrid recorded the event, and announced that on the eve of his death Rizal retracted his religious errors, abjured freemasonry, and in the last hours of his life had married Josephine Bracken.
In most newspapers the text of a letter of retraction supposedly written by Rizal was printed in full. The government sent the announcement to Spanish consulates abroad with the request to obtain for it the widest possible publicity.
Those who had read Rizal’s books or who knew him closely and admired him, both in the country and abroad, took one look at the announcement and declared it “an ecclesiastical fraud.”
In a letter to Ferdinand Blumentritt shortly after the execution, Fredrich Stahl, a Manila pharmacist, wrote: “On the day of the execution, the Spaniards published an article in all the local papers, according to which, Rizal, in a written declaration made by him on the day of his death, retracted all his writings and deeds and proclaims himself to be a repentant sinner and a loyal Spaniard. But nobody here believes this, as the Spaniards publish the same thing about everyone who is shot. Besides, nobody has ever seen his written declaration…It is in the hands of the archbishop.”
Was there a plot among the higher ecclesiastical authorities to perpetrate a fraud?
There was certainly no signed letter of retraction, a contradiction in itself for a man so strong in conviction as Rizal. There was also no marriage with Josephine Bracken, although they did live together during his exile in Dapitan.
Rizal himself believed that there was a strong likelihood of fraud after his death, and that the prime mover in this would be the friar archbishop. It was the friars who were zealously seeking his retraction. They even came up with several retraction formulas for him to sign.
Rizal’s intuition of fraud was not misplaced; what played him false was the involvement of his mentors, the Jesuits, who took part in the effort to make him retract and return to the Catholic faith.
Jesuit vouches for Rizal’s retraction
It was solely one Jesuit priest, Vicente Balaguer,S.J, who laid the basis for the story that Rizal retracted his words and deeds. It was also he who made the claim that he married Jose Rizal and Josephine Bracken at 6.15 a.m. on December 30, just minutes before Rizal was executed.
In the final chapters of his biography of Rizal, Austin Coates totally demolishes the veracity of Balaguer’s claims, which were made the basis of the archbishop’s announcement of a retraction, and which were also contained in a letter from Balaguer to his Jesuit superior, Fr. Pio Pi.
Balaguer’s retraction claim was not corroborated by the two Jesuits who were present at Rizal’s execution. If Rizal had indeed retracted, they would surely have given Rizal a Catholic burial. How would he have been deprived of even a coffin, as in fact happened.
Balaguer himself was not present at the execution. Josephine Bracken was also absent during Rizal’s final moments.
Killing Rizal’s influence on the future
The lie in Rizal’s retraction is soundly thrashed by Austin Coates. He wrote:
“A man of whom there is no record that he ever told a lie can scarcely be considered as having chosen a solemn moment to tell his first one….
“The Jesuits who had visited him knew how unlikely it was that Rizal would retract….
“While one might kill the man, his writings remained, and these were a danger, needing to be sterilized, lest they poison the mind of future generations with anti-clerical views. If he could be made to admit his errors against religion and retract them, it would blunt the point of everything that he had written….
“The Jesuits’ two attempts to make Rizal retract had different motives. The first was undertaken for what the Jesuits sincerely believed to be his own good, and possibly their own as well. The second was undertaken with the main purpose of sterilizing his influence on the future.”
Could Rizal have retracted in order to receive the sacraments of the faith. It is part of Balaguer’s elaborate fraud to suggest that Rizal feared for his soul during his final hours.
He reported Rizal as saying to him: “Father, since faith is God’s grace, I promise that thetime of life remaining to me1 shall spend asking God for the grace of faith.”
The Jesuit declared: “I can certify with an oath that, loving God, Rizal died a devout, holy, Christian death blessed by God. With His grace I hope to see him in heaven.”
Balaguer was born in Alcoy, Alicante, Spain on January 19, 1851. He entered the Society of Jesus on 30 July 1890, and came to the Philippines in 1894. In 1896, he was transferred to Dapitan, where he met Rizal. Months later, he was attesting to have heard the most important final words of Dr. Jose Rizal.
Holes in the Jesuit’s story
The Rizal family did not accept the retraction and the marriage. They knew that that if he had retracted, he would certainly have said so in his 6a.m. communication to his mother on the fateful day of his execution.
Balaguer’s account exposed itself through major discrepancies in his story. His claim of marrying Rizal and Josephine was totally belied by the facts.
In his account, Balaguer was totally unaware that Rizal had written “Mi Último Adiós” on the eve of his execution. Balaguer allowed no time for Rizal to write the poem. The poem in its third stanza carries the exact date and time when it was written.
In his claim of having performed the canonical marriage of Rizal and Josephine, Balaguer said he performed it in front of one of Rizal’s sisters between 6 and 6:25 a.m. on December 30. But none of Rizal’s sisters went to the fort that morning.
For all these contradictions and falsehoods in Balaguer’s story, the church nevertheless adopted the lie. And some Filipinos, including Rizal’s biographer Leon Maria Guerrero, believed that Rizal had retracted.
I find the words of Rafael Palma, who witnessed the execution and saw Rizal turn away from the Jesuit holding out a crucifix to him, most persuasive:
“Of the version circulated by ecclesiastical authorities of that time, the part which refers to Rizal’s abjuration of masonry and to his conversion to Catholicism at the last hour was not considered satisfactory and truthful by Filipino public opinion.”