A Portrait of Fr. Rhoel Gallardo, CMF

“The killing of Fr. Rhoel and his companions, has brought the Claretians in the Philippines together as a consecrated community, to look again into their life and mission”.

young rhoel”Little Claret” was how Fr. Rhoel Gallardo was jokingly called by his fellow seminarians when he was still under formation because his diminutive size and saintly countenance resemble that of the founder of the Claretian Missionaries. They never thought that he would become a martyr, something even St. Anthony Mary Claret could only dream of.

Fr. Rhoel is the eldest son of Dominador Gallardo and Raquel Dayap. He was born on November 29, 1965 in Olongapo City, Zambales. He is the second among a brood of five composed of Grace, Rhoel (the “h” was added to make his name five letters), Dominador Jr., Jesse and Edwin. After Rhoel’s graduation from elementary, they transferred to Castillejos, Zambales, where they settled permanently.

Personal Qualities

Fr. Rhoel projected a formal, smart, and “saintly” person. Someone you would be wary of making fun of. Moreover, he was an introvert and silent-type. But once you get to know him, he could be always grinning and clowning around. He had his own brand of humor, which some people may either find “corny” or endearing. His High School classmates in San Nicholas Academy in Castillejos, remember him as the witty but quiet fellow who was ever ready to give advice. Hon. Ding Misa, former classmate of Fr. Rhoel and now Castillejos town councilor, describes him as the “father” of the class.

He had special concern for the “little ones”. Dolor Allojado, a blind woman from Maluso, Basilan, who is a hilot (masseuse) remembers how Fr. Rhoel would come to her aid. “I knew a lot of priests but nobody had ever washed my hands except Fr. Rhoel.” He would tell Nang Lordes, the cook in the convent in Isabela, that he knew that I was blind, so why did she have to put the plate far from me (during mealtimes).

The Abu Sayyaf rebels, however, did not appreciate this concern for others. Mr. Reynaldo Rubio, the principal of Claret School of Tumahubong and Fr. Rhoel’s constant companion during their captivity, revealed the reason of the beating Fr. Rhoel got from four Abu Sayyaf members. This happened when he repeatedly inquired about the whereabouts of Miss Marissa Rante, a Claret School teacher who was missing for several days in the kidnappers’ camp. Irritated by his inquiries, the Abu Sayyaf punched and kicked him until he was badly bruised. During the kidnapping, amidst the tension, the optimistic and prayerful Fr. Rhoel calmed his companions. During those trying moments, he acted like a “Good Shepherd.”

His father, Dominador, sizes up the actions of his son in these terms: “His firm conviction and faith enabled him to do what is supposed to be done by a shepherd, a missionary, a minister of God on earth. Offering his life is part of his mission. He had to be firm with his convictions even to the point of death.” Fr. Rhoel’s father knew what he was talking about because he knew what giving up a son to the Lord is like.

Vocation Storysamcc graduate

After Fr. Rhoel’s second year in the High School, Fr. Cacho, Rector of St. Augustine Minor Seminary of Iba, visited the Gallardo household and talked to the father about the possibility of his son entering the seminary. Dominador suggested that he would discuss the matter first with his wife. However, Fr. Rhoel persuaded his parents in such a way that they were not able to prevent him from entering the seminary.

After he graduated from the minor seminary, Fr. Rhoel decided not to proceed immediately to the major seminary. Instead he took his AB Philosophy at Saint Louis University in Baguio City, where a Claretian missionary contacted him. The summer after he received his bachelor’s degree, he surprised his mother, “Ma, please bring me to the major seminary!” Bewildered, his mother could only blurt out, “Where?” “In Tandang Sora, Quezon City, with the Claretian Congregation.”

Missionary Formation

priestFr. Rhoel had a first taste of the missionary life during his novitiate in Bunguiao, Zamboanga City. Up to this point, his batchmates have always been unanimous in saying how prayerful he was and how he gradually came out of his shell and opened up to them. His novice master, Fr. Emilio Pablo, CMF, observed that in the barrios, Fr. Rhoel had been much appreciated by people on account of his apostolic spirit, interest, initiative and good preparation in conducting seminars. He said further that Fr. Rhoel lived his vocation with much involvement giving much guarantee for his future.

Fr. Rhoel made his first religious profession in Isabela, Basilan on May 1, 1989. Fr. Carmelo Astiz, CMF, his formator during his theological years, agrees with the earlier assessment of Fr. Rhoel. “He is a faithfully prayerful man, seriously committed and dedicated to his religious, academic and apostolic responsibilities, usually kind, understanding, simple and cheerful.” On the negative side, however, he comments “that he lacks initiative and leadership, that academically, he is an average student, and that he seems to be excessively naive in many instances…” However, I feel that the positive aspects overpower the negative ones.”

Fr. Rhoel completed his pastoral year in Maluso, Basilan. In his application for the perpetual profession, he wrote, “My pastoral immersion in Basilan last year made me experience concretely our witnessing and evangelizing life and mission to the poor (as well as) our Community’s presence in the dialogue of life and faith with our Muslim brothers and sisters… These experience as a whole have become a real challenge to me to be a committed missionary and active witness to God’s liberating love for humanity… conscious that our life and mission demand a total giving of ourselves for the greater glory of God and the salvation of humankind.”

Fr. Rhoel made his perpetual profession at the Claret House, Quezon City, on July 16, 1993. He was ordained to the diaconate at the Santo Niño Parish, Surabay (RT Lim), Zamboanga del Sur and to the priesthood at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, Quezon City on December 6, 1994.

ministry in tungawan

Short Missionary

Years After his ordination, Fr. Rhoel was sent back to his previous mission in Surabay, Zamboanga del Sur. He served as assistant Parish Priest and coordinator of the Catechetical Program. Fr. Rhoel stayed in Surabay for a little more than two years before he was reassigned to Bunguiao as Postulant Master of eleven aspirants. Shortly after he volunteered to go to the most dangerous mission of the Claretians in the Philippines, Tumahubong as Parish Priest of San Vicente Ferrer Parish and Director of Claret School. This is where he reached the apex of his short missionary career.

Fr. Rhoel initially had difficulties in his latest post. However, months before his kidnapping, Fr. Rhoel had exhibited a significant change in his perspective on the mission. He became more appreciative of the people around him. The seriousness of his role as pastor of the Christian community troubled by the Muslim extremists had marked a profound impression in him as a missionary. He vowed never to leave his flock no matter what. He was ready for any eventuality.

On the morning of March 20, 2000, the Abu Sayyaf herded Fr. Rhoel along with several teachers and students of Claret School and the neighboring elementary school cruelly to their camp in Mr. Punoh Mahadji. The story of their ordeal is already well known.

Cardinal Sin and Bishop Romulo on the day of burialHis short missionary stint may not have left a dent in the history of Tumahubong or of mission life, but his death was certainly a big bang – its significance of which we are only starting to grapple with. The Church usually proclaims martyr without inquiry into a person’s past life. Nevertheless, we could not help but notice that Fr. Rhoel’s ultimate witness was the product of his firm convictions and predisposition as a person. There are people who become heroes overnight when their life takes a drastic because of a challenging event. They respond heroically to the situation. But, there are people who become great heroes because they possess a history of affirming the values they embrace, the mission entrusted to them. To some Fr. Rhoel may seem like an overnight sensation, thinking he just got entangled in such a widely publicized disorder in Mindanao. But to those who know him well, we could say that had he lived his martyrdom long before he died.

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