Antonio Fortich was one of the Catholic bishops who opposed martial law, convinced that it was devastating to the structure of social and human life in the Philippines.
Fortich served in the 1960s in the troubled diocese of Bacolod in Negros Occidental. The province was known for its vast sugarcane haciendas, a system of landownership that ensured great wealth for the few landowners (hacenderos) and extreme poverty to the sugarcane workers (sakadas). Thus the diocese was a direct witness to the direst situations of poverty, hunger, ignorance, and social tension and unrest.
As soon as he became bishop in 1967, Fortich started several wide-ranging reforms. One of his first acts as bishop was to call his official residence in Bacolod City (the Bishop's Palace) as "the house of the people" to stress that he was taking the people’s problem seriously. He introduced radically new policies, including the immediate implementation of land reform on church properties in the diocese. He pushed for the establishment of pro-poor programs, including a social action center and legal aid for the poor in the diocese. He allowed and even encouraged his priests to get involved in initiatives for sugarcane workers, including the organization of the National Federation of Sugarcane Workers and the Dacongcogon Sugar, Rice and Corn Cooperative.
Fortich even convinced several hacenderos and businessmen to support his advocacy. He infected them with his enthusiasm, and encouraged them to get involved in his social action projects.
Fortich sought to ensure the freedom and safety of his priests, many of whom were active in social action and a good number actually supportive of NPA guerrillas operating in their parishes, while at the same time keeping the trust and support of the landowners who were at least initially supportive of martial law.
Fortich openly supported the cause of the poor people during a land conflict in Bago City. Villagers came to a meeting at Fortich’s invitation, convinced that he would plead their cause. But when the meeting was over, the police arrested everyone, including the children.
Fortich supported Fr. Brian Gore, one of the priests in his diocese, and eight others falsely accused of killing a mayor. Fortich attended almost all the 50 court sessions called to hear the case.
He supported the activist priests in his diocese and those involved in social action, while constantly reminding them their sacramental duties. "It's great to be talking about social issues and to feel you are part of the national struggle. But if someone is sick in your parish, are you there to (give them the sacrament)?" he reminded his priests.
The military suspected the bishop of supporting the communists. But Fortich knew where he stood. "I have no problem with a world in which there are rich and poor. You have an automobile, and I have a bicycle, so what? But I cannot accept that some people have to live by scavenging for food in the garbage cans of others."
The bishop liked to say, "there can be no peace if there is no justice."
Fortich is a 1973 recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for public service, and a nominee of the Nobel Peace Prize.
He died in 2003 of natural cause. He was 89.
Born 11 August 1913 in Sibulan, Negros Oriental
Died July 2, 2003 in Bacolod City
Parents: Ignacio Fortich and Rosalla Yapsutco