Conversion and reversion stories never fail to fascinate. Stories of how and why a person freely decides to embrace the Catholic Faith, or return to the Catholic Faith of his or her childhood after having freely rejected it, are intriguing. Such stories edify Catholics in their Faith, giving them more reasons to love it. For open-minded non-Catholic readers searching for truth, these stories open up more avenues for the search.
Rizal Through a Glass Darkly by Fr. Javier de Pedro tells a unique reversion story. Its subject matter is not a canonized saint or a famous apologist, but Dr. Jose Rizal, the Philippine national hero whose writings played a major role in the Philippine struggle for independence from Spain during the 1890s.
Every Filipino learns in school about Rizal’s life and writings. Inevitably, we learn that at one point in his life, he studied in Europe, got exposed to Enlightenment philosophies, became a Freemason, wrote about the abuses committed by the Spanish friars in the Philippines, and was shot by a firing squad on accusations of treason against the Spanish government. His novels, which we also study as part of the basic education curriculum in the Philippines, present the Catholic Church in an unflattering light: lustful, avaricious, cruel, and power-hungry friars; caricatured depictions of superstitious piety of ordinary folk. Most of the heroes of the novels are free-thinkers; in one chapter of the first novel, one of them scoffs at the Catholic doctrine on purgatory and indulgences.
We also learn that before he was executed, Rizal signed a written retraction of his anti-Catholic writings, but historians debate his sincerity in signing it. Rizal’s admirers seem to think that retracting his anti-Catholic writings would reduce his greatness, and surmise that he signed the retraction only out of convenience – an odd position to take about someone whom one is presenting as a hero worthy of emulation (and which, for me, does not make sense because the retraction did not save Rizal from the firing squad).
However, it is documented that before he was shot, Rizal went to sacramental confession four times and contracted a sacramental marriage with Josephine Bracken with whom he had previously been cohabiting. In one of his last recorded conversations before he was shot, he serenely asked the priest accompanying him if he would go to Heaven on the same day if he gained a plenary indulgence.
Rizal Through a Glass Darkly by Fr. Javier de Pedro traces Rizal’s spiritual journey from the piety of his childhood, through his estrangement from the Catholic Faith and his immersion in Enlightenment thought, to his return to the Faith of his childhood before he died.
The author, Fr. Javier de Pedro, is a Spanish priest who fell in love with the Philippines, having lived and ministered here for many years. He has doctorates in Industrial Engineering and Canon law and, according to those who know him, is a Renaissance man like Rizal himself. Thus, he brings to the book a valuable perspective: that of a Spaniard who knows and loves the Philippines and Rizal a lot, who has done extensive research about his subject matter, and who, as an experienced priest in the confessional, frequently encounters the tension between sin and grace in souls.
Indeed, the book is detailed, well-researched, and reveals the author’s thorough familiarity with Rizal’s writings, which the author refers to as “mirrors” of Rizal’s soul.
The book presents not only the life and thoughts of Rizal, but also his historical context, including the intellectual trends in fashion in the Europe where Rizal developed his ideas. Thus, the book is valuable not only as a source of spiritual edification, but also as a work of history. It avoids the common pitfalls of isolating Rizal from the historical context in which he lived, and of giving the impression that Rizal’s thoughts remained static and did not develop throughout his life.
The pastor’s perspective is another valuable element of the book. The author shares his insights and analysis on what contributed to Rizal’s estrangement from the Catholic Faith as well as what helped him find his way back to it. Thus, the book also serves as a cautionary tale on what may lead a soul away from the Faith, as well as a guide on how to help oneself and others regain the Faith when it has been lost.
I appreciate the author’s affection for Rizal even as the author points out Rizal’s missteps. In the Prologue, the author refers to Rizal as someone “for whose soul I am now raising a prayer, even if I am convinced that he received long ago the welcome of the Father to the house of Heaven.” The author understands Rizal and acknowledges Rizal’s legitimate grievances against certain clergymen that arose from Rizal’s real experiences. The author is careful to base his insights on Rizal’s spiritual journey on verifiable facts and texts, and emphasizes that in the end, Rizal’s spiritual journey is an mysterious interplay between his freedom and God’s grace.
The book is a compelling read. I especially like the narration of the last days of Rizal, where the author describes recounts details such as the parallel Christmas celebrations of Rizal’s family and the Spanish guards of the prison where Rizal was incarcerated (Rizal was executed on December 30, 1896). That chapter is full of drama and humanity.
Unfortunately, the book is not widely available. As of now, the only place I know where it could be bought is the bookstore of the University of Asia and the Pacific here in the Philippines (inquiries may be made here). In fact, one reason I reviewed Rizal Through a Glass Darkly was to change this by promoting interest in the book.
Indeed, the story in Rizal through a Glass Darkly deserves to be more widely known. It is of particular interest to Filipinos, but it is of interest, too, to everyone else. It is a touching story of a talented man with great ideals and who is credited for a lot of important things, who was at the same time a flawed human being who committed grave errors but eventually found redemption. Like every other conversion and reversion story, it is fascinating.