Jorge Imperial Barlin was the first Filipino bishop of the Catholic Church. His miter as the 28th bishop of Nueva Caceres was granted to him by the Vatican in secret consistory on December 14, 1905. His Episcopal consecration was held on June 29, 1906 in Manila.
His rise to that exalted ecclesiastical post was not only a personal triumph but also the fulfillment as well of every Filipino Catholic priest’s aspiration. It, too, was a triumph of the Filipino people, of a race that had been considered inferior for over 300 years by a regime which had itself brought Catholicism into the country.
Jorge Barlin was ordained priest when he was 28 years old, at a time when the Catholic Church, headed by Spanish friars, was persecuting Filipino priests who were fighting for reforms within the Church structure. Father Burgos, Gomez, and Zamora were garroted on February 17, 1872 for their alleged complicity in the Cavite revolt, a charge which has since been debunked by history.
As a priest, Father Barlin would have been subjected to the racial discrimination experienced by his fellow secular priest, and permanently relegated to the lowest rungs in the Church hierarchy. This fate did not come to him early, though. Bishop Gainza, his benefactor and mentor, was fond of him and, hence, did his best to ensure the future of his protégé. Right after his ordination, he was appointed capellan de solio and majordomo of the Cathedral, by Monsignor G
ainza. He held those posts, which ensured his proximity to the bishop, throughout Gainza’s term. He discharged his responsibilities with exceptional competence, bearing in mind at all times his teacher’s example.
Upon the death of Bishop Gainza sometime in 1880, father Barlin was assigned to Siruma, in Bicol. The adjustment he had to make from the royal episcopal society to that isolated town would have been traumatic, but he bore the hardship in silence, his patience and obedience fortifying his character. Three years later, in 1883, Barlin was reassigned to the pastoral village of Libog, Albay, which was near Siruma.
In 1887, a new bishop, Monsignor Campo
was assigned at Nueva Caceres. Campo devoted his time not only to religious matters but also to politics. Seeing his tremendous successful spiritual and economic leadership in Libog, Campo named Barlin the vicar forane of the whole province of Sorsogon and assigned him, at the same time, as parish priest of its capital town.
“He became the idol of his parishioners, and was a living example to all the clergy for his excellent virtues and unstinted name…a lover, like a few, of the splendor of the Catholic worship and of the discipline of the clergy, he was at all times a model along these lines; not only did he set an example – he saw to it that, with whatever monetary help he could give, all other priests under his Vicariate would do the same… his circulars to his subordinates were full of wisdom and sound advice.”
The period covered by the Philippine Revolution against Spain and the Philippine-American War showed the best in Father Barlin as a religious and civic leader. Under his able leadership, Sorsogon avoided getting involved in hostilities and remained peaceful during those troubled days even as the rest of Luzon was visited by violence and warfare. With the Revolution heading for Sorsogon, its last Spanish governor, Villamil, realized that he had to vacate his post and consequently needed someone to take his place. His logical choice was the vicar forane of the province, whom he considered perfect for the job. Villamil transferred his authority to Barlin a month before he boarded the vessel Bauan that sailed for Manila on September 20, 1898. With such transfer, Father Barlin virtually became the political and religious head of Sorsogon. This was a clear evidence of Catholic control of politics in Bicol. This development added prominence to his name, and facilitated the peaceful transfer of political authority over the province to Gen. Ananias Diokno, who had been sent there by the revolutionary government of Malolos to liberate it from Spanish dominion.
On April 30, 1901, after the defeat of the Philippine revolutionary forces, Barlin again interceded in the peaceful transfer of political authority from the Philippine revolutionary government to the American forces, headed by Capt. J. C. Livingstone of the 47th Infantry, United States Army.
As a consequence of the American occupation, the political climate in the country became subdued. President Emilio Aguinaldo of the short-lived Philippine Republic was captured in
Palanan, Isabela on March 23, 1901, thus ending all organized armed resistance to the new
colonialists. With the emergence of Filipino nationalism, however, the Catholic Church found itself in a chaotic situation. The Church became divided. Leading a strong breakaway group, Fr. Gregorio Aglipay, a revolutionary priest from the north, officially declared on October 17, 1902, the establishment of the “Philippine Independent Catholic Church,” which severed all ties with the Vatican. It is said that in the whole province of Ilocos Norte, only three priests remained loyal to the Pope, while in Aklan, all the priests in the province, numbering 60, defected to the Aglipay Church. Father Aglipay offered the highest ecclesiastical office of his newly founded church to Barlin who, however, asserting his loyalty to the Chair of St. Peter, vigorously turned it down.
The Aglipay priests who had occupied their respective church buildings and held properties deposited there refused to vacate the premises. They claimed that they were entitled to them on the basis of the American governor’s policy of “peaceable occupation,” which declared that anyone who peacefully possessed a Church property was considered its legal occupier. Aglipayans argued that they lawfully owned the churches since these were occupied by priests who had defected to their ranks.
Father Ramirez, a Bicolano, was one of the priests who defected to the Aglipayans. When Father Barlin demanded that he vacate his Church, Ramirez refused. Barlin brought the case to the Court of First Instance of Ambos Camarines. Invoking Article 8 of the Treaty of Paris which excluded Church property from the sale exacted between Spain and the US, the court decided the issue in favor of Father Barlin in 1904. When the case was reheard in the Supreme Court in 1906, Barlin won it on the same legal ground. Thus, all Aglipayans were forced to leave the buildings owned by the Catholic Church. As a result, their influence on the people gradually declined. This case enhanced Barlin’s prestige as a Catholic prelate.
At the inauguration of the Philippine Assembly in 1907, Barlin, now a bishop, was requested to deliver the invocation. Later, at the First Ecclesiastical Assembly in Manila, which was held to tackle church problems, his remarkable wisdom moved a writer to comment:
“We shall not stop to talk of his virtues. Simply, we shall say that in him, shone a faithful loyalty to the Authorities of the Church and the teachings and dispositions emanating from Rome. He distinguished himself on the zeal, prudence and abnegation of his conduct in the Catholic Offices as Missionary, Parish Priest, Vicar and Bishop.”
Bishop Barlin was born in the town of Baao, then called “Ambos Camarines,” on April 23, 1850. He began studying at the seminary at a very early age and was ordained priest in 1874. He died in Rome on September 4, 1909.
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Malanyaon, Jaime T. Istorya Kan Kabikolan, (Kabikolan- a History). Naga City: AMS Press, 1991.
Reyes, Jose Calleja. Bikol Maharlika. Philippines: JMP Press, Inc., 1992.