Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today marks the 21st anniversary of Fr. Rhoel’s martyrdom. However, we are not here to celebrate his death, for our faith does not glory in the demise of a person. We are here to celebrate his exemplary life and to honor it as brothers and sisters who have been touched by his beautiful story of faith, courage and self-sacrificing love.
I was a witness to a part of Fr. Rhoel’s vocational journey. We were together in the seminary for several years. Although, I joined two years ahead of him, he was ordained two years earlier because he was already a college graduate when he entered Claret Formation Center.
During my thanksgiving mass after my ordination, he went to my place in Loay, Bohol to grace the occasion. As young missionaries, we worked together in R.T. Lim and Tungawan, Zamboanga Sibugay, under the Prelature of Ipil (now a Diocese). There, I helped him learn how to drive the motorcycle, which he found not his cup of tea. Moreover, we spent over a month together during our ongoing formation in Spain, Rome and France, as newly-ordained priests.
Today, kindly join me in remembering the four exemplary acts or series of acts of Fr. Rhoel that have made him a martyr of our times. All these begin with letter ‘S’ for easy recollection. He sacrificed, he suffered, he searched and he surrendered. First, his life was a life of sacrifices and renunciations. He sacrificed when he renounced the possibility of forming a family of his own, when he let go of the chance of having a lucrative career and the opportunity to lead a relatively easy life, being born in a middle-class family. Above all, he sacrificed when he volunteered to be assigned in Tumahubong, Basilan, which turned out to be his last [assignment].Second, he had also his share of sufferings: as a seminarian, as a student of theology and as a missionary. I am privy to a few of the struggles of Fr. Rhoel as he tried to be faithful to his vocation and mission till the end. He was a man of few words. He kept many things to himself and, at times, he was misunderstood by a few because of this low-key personality.
He suffered during the days of his captivity: the endless walking as they were pursued by the military, the deprivation of food and the sleepless nights, among others. He suffered as he was hurt by his tormentors. Stories are told that his captors plucked out the nails of his hands and feet. He suffered as he was hit by three bullets in his back until he breathed his last.
Third, his was a life of constant search for God and his people. He was very reflective. We called him “little Claret” not only because of his small stature, but more importantly, because of his life of fervent prayer and simplicity.
He also searched for his sheep. During the 43 days of captivity, he looked for the female teachers because they were separated from the male captives and Fr. Rhoel knew that they were more vulnerable. But every time he would inquire about their situation, the Abu Sayyaf bandits would punish him. In times of danger and crisis, he was a true shepherd searching for his flock.
Finally, he surrendered, but never to the forces of evil. He surrendered to the hands of God. Accordingly, he was asked to renounce his faith, but he refused. Instead, he stood up for God who was faithful to him until the last drop of his blood.
There is an account telling us that one day, while still in the hands of the rebels, Fr. Rhoel was so at peace with himself that he told his companions that it would be nice to go back to the mountain where they were held captives after their release to have their retreat. But it never happened.
Martyrdom is a gift given to those who are worthy in the eyes of God. It could have occurred to any of us who were the young missionaries then, but it was given to Fr. Rhoel because, in hindsight, he was the most prepared to receive the crown. My dear brothers and sisters, if there is one reason to celebrate this 21st anniversary of Fr. Rhoel’s martyrdom, it is because his life of witness reminds us that our life is worth living if we sacrifice for God’s greater glory, suffer the cross of Christ, search the face of God in the most vulnerable and surrender to His will. We may not be given the same gift of martyrdom by shedding our blood, but every single day, we are called to live the prophecy of ordinary life.
Lastly, martyrdom is a gift of God for the whole Church that is why our celebration today is meaningful and relevant not only for us Claretians and the people of Tumahubong, but for the entire People of God. We join in fervent prayer that our brother and friend, Servant of God Father Rhoel Gallardo, will, one day, be counted among the Martyrs and Saints of our Mother Church: a Martyr for Peace!
Devotedly your brother in the heart of Mary,
(Sgd.) Fr. Elias L. AYUBAN, Jr., CMF
May 2, 2021
Eve of the 21st Anniversary of Fr. Rhoel’s Martyrdom