On 17 February this year, Cardinal-Archbishop Jose F. Advincula of Manila presided over a solemn high mass in honor of the “martyrdom” of Fathers Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos and Jacinto Zamora, known by their acronym Gomburza. The three Filipino priests were executed by the Spanish colonial authorities on 17 February 1872 following a mutiny at the Cavite arsenal on 20 January 1872. It was the first time in 150 years that the three Filipino priests were so honored within the Philippine Catholic Church as “martyrs.”

Cardinal Advincula and the concelebrating priests wore white vestments instead of red, which is the liturgical color for martyrs, during the Eucharistic celebration at the Manila Cathedral. But His Eminence made it unmistakably clear that the Holy Mass was being offered in honor of their “martyrdom” which had contributed to the birthing of the Filipino nation in 1898, 351 years after the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines.

This episcopal recognition does not coincide with any official act of the Pope or the Congregation for the Causes of Saints declaring the three priests as martyrs. To the best of my knowledge, no cause for the beatification or canonization of the three priests is ongoing. In this respect, the episcopal recognition is a watershed moment for Filipinos. It gives Filipinos reason to hope that what the cardinal has proclaimed at his memorial mass could soon evolve into a pontifical proclamation at St. Peter’s Basilica, or even in Manila, if and when the three martyrs are beatified or canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.

For this to happen in the foreseeable future, the process should begin now. I claim no authority on this matter, and I make no prediction, only a prayer. But Pope Francis set a precedent when on February 3, 2015 he declared the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador a martyr and canonized him on February 14, 2018 for having been assassinated while celebrating Mass in San Salvador on March 24, 1980. Gomburza did not suffer a less brutal death, and the love they bore for their own Church and fellow Filipinos could not have been lesser than St. Oscar Romero’s love for his own.

There is reason to believe that had a beatification process been ongoing, the Cardinal-Archbishop’s recognition of that “martyrdom” might have been shared by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. This was not the case. But having gone this far, without an accompanying Church process, the Cardinal may now want to ask the Holy See to open the cause for beatification and canonization of the three martyrs. And the 150th year of their death, on the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines, may be a most auspicious time.

Certainly the Philippines can use many more canonized saints. Although predominantly Catholic, the country has only two canonized saints, both martyrs: St. Lorenzo Ruiz (1594-1637), canonized by St. John Paul II on October 18, 1987, and St. Pedro Calungsod (1654-1672), canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. Some of its non-Catholic neighbors have far too many more.

South Korea, a non-Catholic country, has at least 103 Catholic martyrs, canonized by St. John Paul II in Seoul on May 6, 1984; Vietnam, another non-Catholic country, has at least 103 Catholic martyrs, canonized by St. John Paul II on May 6, 1984. Japan, yet another non-Catholic country, has 42 canonized saints, and more than 400 beatified martyrs, the best known being the 26 martyrs of Nagasaki, crucified on February 4, 1597, before the Tokugawa Shogunate banned Christianity in 1614 and drove it underground in 1630.

The latest report from the Archdiocese of Cebu says the Vatican has recently affirmed the heroic virtues of the late Archbishop Teofilo Camomot, Servant of God, whose cause for beatification has been opened by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. This qualifies the Servant of God to be declared Venerable, after which he can be declared Blessed, upon verification of a miracle attributed to his intercession. A second miracle is needed for him to be declared a saint. Martyrs, however, can be beatified without need of a verified miracle.

This seems to be a golden moment for the Philippine Catholic Church. But the presidential campaign period has intervened, and some churchmen and churchwomen, instead of simply working harder for the Church, have become flaming partisans in the presidential campaign. Using their known positions in the Church, they are doing exactly what the Church is telling them not to do in the name of the Church.

This threatens to repeat some of the worst things we have seen not too long ago. In January 2001, directly against the clearest indications from the Holy See, some prominent Filipino churchmen joined the move to oust then President Joseph Estrada, outside the constitutional due process and the rule of law. Six months later, on the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Philippines and the Holy See, the Secretary for Relations with States for the Holy See, French Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, told an assembly of 70 Filipino bishops and archbishops that they got it all wrong when they joined the move to oust a constitutionally elected president.

Quoting the words of Gaudium et Spes, the 1965 Vatican II document on the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Tauran, who became a cardinal in 2003, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue in 2007, Camerlengo in 2014, and died in 2018, said: “The Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system, nor does she claim competence in proposing solutions to concrete political and economic problems. The Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous and independent of each other.”

This point was repeated over and over during the pontificate of St. John Paul II, and has remained unchanged. Priests are priests, and men and women religious are everything they are according to their chosen vocation—never political or social workers.

But once again, a rising political madness threatens to confuse the delicate position of the Church. The threat is coming from freewheeling partisans who use their clerical titles to proclaim a false Catholic choice, dictated solely by partisanship, without any bearing on any relevant Church doctrine. This poses a real danger to the life of the Church and to the unity of Filipino Catholics. But this can still be arrested and reversed if the leadership of the Philippine Church, notably the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, rises up to the challenge and reaffirms the authentic teaching of the Church, as stated in Gaudium et Spes and other conciliar documents, with the strongest possible conviction and in the clearest possible language.

Like Cardinal Advincula’s recognition of the “martyrdom” of Gomburza, such a vigorous reaffirmation of Church teaching on politics by the shepherds, pastors and consecrated women of the Philippine church could yet be another watershed moment for Filipinos.