In his lifetime Father José Dizon had been called many names, from rebel priest to communist insurgent, and all the variants in between. Now that he’s gone from our midst, all that labeling has been rendered farcically nonsensical. What has been etched forever in the memory of people who have met and known him is comparable to a sharp two-edged sword that will cut through their hearts for as long as they live. Joe will forever be remembered for his passion for justice and his love for the poor.
The twin legacy José Dizon left us was never tainted by the pursuit of celebrity or power. His raging passion for justice and unrelenting love for the downtrodden transcended ideology and politics. He persisted in his commitment to the oppressed and excluded notwithstanding the unavoidable risk and rejection by the established church and civil authorities. In later years there was only total disregard for this consideration of risk and recognition. By then he has concluded calmly that his love for the poor and the struggle for justice constituted his God-given mission, a gift from the Lord. For this very reason to pigeonhole Joe with the tag “activist priest” as media tended to, was to miss the point altogether that Joe was responding to a call from the Lord to put himself at the service of those marginalized and victims, in fact, of the machinations of power. His was the child’s contempt for adults who can’t see and understand that he was having a good time, the time of his life with the Lord’s predilection – the poor of this world.
As a seminarian Joe dared to defy his bishop’s wishes to stay out of the fray and consequently compromised his enrollment in the archdiocesan seminary of Manila when he defended five professors who were dismissed without due process. That early in his priestly journey Joe started paying the high cost of the prophetic commitment to justice. With ten other students he was in turn dismissed and had to seek another bishop who would understand and take him in. The late first bishop of Imus, Msgr. Felix Perez, welcomed him, and that was how Joe ended up in Cavite where he served for forty years till his death on the 4th of November 2013, a Monday.
It would be difficult to narrate a conversion story of Father Joe or single out a turning point in his pastoral life when he started to minister to the poor and the victims of injustice. Long before his ordination to the priesthood he was already advocating and fighting for their cause. It would be better and more accurate to state that consistency marked his ministry, his single-minded dedication to the cause of justice.
What might come across as a curiosity to some who didn’t get the privilege of getting to know Joe Dizon up close was his ever sunny disposition. He was a heavyweight in as far as the people’s fight for justice and their struggle against poverty were concerned, but his touch was light. Even those who opposed his views were disarmed by his roundish smiling face and ever twinkling chinky eyes. Some friends have wondered if he ever got tired doing what he was doing. But then again they failed to see that Joe didn’t consider it a burden to work for the poor. He enjoyed serving them. It was a delight for him to serve the poor because he loved them with God’s love.
Father José Dizon was a rare gem of a person, a veritable apostle of the poor but also a friend to those better off in life whom he inspired to take up the cause of the victims of injustice. Like his Lord and Master who called on the wealthy Zaccheus to welcome salvation by righting his crooked ways by giving to the poor, there was no disdain in him for the rich. Instead he invited and motivated them to care for the poor since they were their brothers and sisters.
In these our times where injustice and poverty are on a rampage, the memory of Father José Dizon should inspire us to learn to take delight in serving our poor sisters and brothers and remain steadfast in staying alongside them in the struggle for their rights and dignity as God’s children.
Let us remember Joe as the smiling apostle of the poor.
"If we are to be pilgrims for justice and peace,”
Dom Helder said,
“We must expect the desert.”
Joe, my friend, he followed the good bishop’s advice.
He wanted peace, of course, but, in equal measure, justice.
He sought them in the desert, difficult and dry.
Notwithstanding, and as always with chinky eyes,
he smiled, a private joke between him and God.
And sure enough he found an oasis from where to drink,
beyond the suffering of the poor and their misery
he found his heart beating with the rhythm of humanity
the incarnation no more a mystery.
-Wilfredo T. Dulay, MDJ
Religious Discernment Group