He is a model priest and a brother to me… his service to his people was crystal clear.
That is how Fr. Roberto Salac is remembered by his brother, Fr. Rodrigo Salac.
Fr. Roberto or Bert to friends was the third of five children in a family of farmers. His father died early, leaving his mother to take care of their children alone. They planted corn and other crops in their small parcel of land.
Roberto’s mother, who affectionately called him Udo, remembers him as the son who lovingly tells her “thank you very much” whenever she prepared food for him. Diligent and hardworking, Roberto was an honor student at the Queen of Apostles Seminary High School in Tagum City. He went to college at the Regional Major Seminary (REMASE) in Davao City and proceeded with his Theology studies there as well. He stayed in REMASE until his ordination in 1978.
While a student at REMASE, Roberto regularly went to the communities to do pastoral work, immersing with the poor. In these communities, he and his fellow students would witness many instances of injustice. Thousands of farmers were driven out of their land for the expansion of the banana plantations owned by multinational corporations (MNCs) such as Dole, Del Monte, the Marcos cronies and other rich families in the Davao region. This opened his eyes to the social inequality present in Philippine society. Land grabbing of thousands of hectares by the foreign agri-business corporations and the despotic landlords got rampant in the region especially during Martial law where brutality and militarization became their tools of oppression.
After Roberto’s ordination in 1978, he was assigned in the parish of Monkayo, Compostela Valley, a part of the Prelature of Tagum (The other provinces covered by the Prelature were Davao del Norte and Davao Oriental). Vatican II had emphasized that the church should be the church of the poor, deprived and oppressed. Thus, programs such as Basic Christian Communities (BCC), locally called GKK or Gagmayng Kristohanong Katilingban, and Social Action Center were introduced and developed during the time of Bishop Joseph Reagan to provide spiritual and socio-economic support among farmers. With the Liberation Theology as the prime mover of the times, priests (including Fr. Bert), nuns and many church workers were at the forefront undertaking conscientization programs among farmers and Christian communities. The church became supportive of farmers’ organizations such as the Federation of Free Farmers and KHI-RHO.
As a priest, Roberto did not confine himself within the comforts and safety of a convent. He was very much with his flock, living with the poor in the boondocks and in the plantations where oppression and abuse by the military proliferated. He would often be asked to help find missing persons, those who were illegally arrested or abducted by the military. Without hesitation, and at anytime of the day or night, he would go around the camps and detention centers to make sure that the rights of these political prisoners were protected. He regularly visited the prisons to make sure that those captured will be safe.
Friends often describe Fr. Roberto as very easy to get along with, someone with a very assuring and calming presence. He believed that knowing the problem is already half the solution. Thus, in his homilies, he would calmly talk about current issues and problems affecting the people, and remind churchgoers of their responsibilities as Christians. He also stressed the importance of inculcating love for country and humanity in raising families.
In 1979, Fr. Roberto chaired the board of the Ecumenical Movement for Justice and Peace (EMJP) in Davao del Norte. The EMJP was a network of human rights advocates established to address the escalating incidents of human rights abuses of the Marcos regime among farmers, indigenous peoples and church workers. (Bantayog martyr Sr. Consuelo Chuidian, R.G.S. was one of his colleagues in the EMJP).
The EMJP’s stance for the marginalized was challenged when on the same year a big evacuation erupted in Laac, Compostela Valley due to heavy militarization in the area. Thousands of indigenous peoples and farmers fled their homes. Laac was a forestal area, very conducive for planting cacao and coffee. It was home to thousands of indigenous people. The military argued that they were there to crush the NPA. On the other hand, the agribusiness plantation owners were very much interested to operate in the area and collaborated with the Marcos regime to legalize land grabbing through militarization. EMJP conducted fact-finding missions in Laac and strongly condemned the militarization. They organized efforts to provide food, temporary shelter and medical attention for the evacuees.
Fr. Bert and his fellow church workers had earned the ire of the military for their involvement and activities in EMJP and other protest actions against the Marcos regime. Protecting Bert, the Bishop transferred him from one Parish to another in the Prelature. From Monkayo he was transferred to Tagum City, and then transferred again to Mabini, then finally to Cateel, Davao Oriental (a town which was accessible only after a two-day travel from Davao City at that time).
When the salvaging, illegal arrest and torture of civilians worsened in the early 80’s, the bishop offered to send Fr. Bert to Rome to study Canon Law to take him away from danger of getting killed and arrested by the military. But instead, he chose not to leave the Philippines and went underground in 1984 to continue his organizing work among the people. Even in the underground, Fr. Roberto Salac continued with his priestly role, officiating to the spiritual needs of his people. But he was also able to perfectly combine this defending and caring for the marginalized masses especially the peasants and the indigenous people.
He was at the frontline organizing a wide alliance of resistance movement for the National Democratic struggle in Mindanao. Fr. Bert, together with his fellow activists launched People’s Strikes or locally called Welgang Bayan (the nationwide and the Mindanao-wide Welgang Bayan) to call for rollback of oil prices, justice for the killing of Alex Orcullo (a Bantayog Martyr) and all the victims of the recent political killings, end of militarization, and the repeal of Marcos’s power to rule by decree. He led the initiative of issuing a press statement in Mindanao urging the people to support the People’s Strikes.
When Ferdinand Marcos got ousted in 1986 through people power, the door for peace process between the Government of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines was opened under the Aquino Administration. Fr. Roberto Salac was one of those in the forefront of the peace process in Mindanao.
After February 1986, the military elements deployed by Marcos (who were responsible for the grave human rights abuses in the area) remained and continued sowing terror and harassment among communities even as the people were seeking ways to a peaceful solution to the conflict and prevent more human rights violations.
On the fateful day of March 19, 1987, during a consultation meeting in a community in Mawab, Compostela Valley, Fr. Roberto Salac together with fellow leaders in the peace process were attacked by the military. He got shot on his knee cap. Medics who were in attendance tried to save him. He did not reach the hospital and died due to loss of blood.
Thousands attended his funeral mass celebrated by 32 priests.
The people he served wept in silence over the loss of a priest, a friend, a defender of their rights they loved so much.
“His action of faith in God and commitment to people’s welfare is obviously excelling in dedication. Very obvious ang zeal of commitment and dedication. Although during meetings he speaks very very little, a man of few words but so much of action.”– Msgr. Ullyses Perandos