“From the earliest days of childhood, I thought about becoming a priest,” reflected Rev. Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M., Ph.D., S.T.D., holder of the 2021–22 Vincentian Chair of Social Justice; and Visiting Professor, St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
As holder of the Vincentian Chair, Fr. Pilario will present four lectures this academic year, in addition to the one he presented at last month’s Vincentian Convocation. A theologian with a practical bent, Fr. Pilario always strives to connect his academic research to events currently shaping the world in which we live.
The eldest of 11 children, he grew up in the province of Cebu in the Philippines, where the Catholic faith was central to his family’s way of life. The son of very devout parents, he initially struggled with his vocation because it was expected he would go to work and assist his family financially as soon as his education was finished. His father was a public school teacher, and the family was quite poor.
“Being the devout Catholics they were, they supported me” he said. “They believed God would take care of them.” Theologians have debated about the notion of Divine Providence. His parents believed in it.
In college, Fr. Pilario chose to enter the Redemptorists, a congregation of priests and brothers, who, like the Vincentians, are steeped in missionary work. Ironically, Fr. Pilario’s uncle was a Vincentian priest, but he was away for most of his life. “I didn’t really know him, but when he heard I was joining the Redemptorists, he asked me to consider the Vincentians, about whom I really knew nothing.”
After learning about the Vincentians, Fr. Pilario believed he was a good fit for the order. Of paramount importance to him was working within the peripheries, which was St. Vincent’s original vision.
“I wanted a life where I would live with people on the margins of society who had no access to resources and/or were victims of violence—where instead of guns that killed people, there would be an offer of the cross leading to life,” he said. It was a time of repression during President Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorial rule.
Despite his vision for missionary work, Fr. Pilario immediately found himself assigned to teach philosophy at the local seminary. “I thought this was not the life for me, and I was afraid to lose that original fire that drove me to the priesthood.”
His Provincial allowed him to choose a far-away island off the Pacific coast in which to minister and gave permission for Fr. Pilario to start a mission there. Two weeks before his departure, the Provincial reassigned him to a poor parish in a city. “I cried, but in hindsight, it was my most joyful experience as a priest.”
He recalled that the parish was located in a small, urban area that faced many challenges. “We started organizing small Christian communities, like in the Latin American countries, and got much accomplished. Many of the communities we organized are still alive.”
From there, Fr. Pilario attended the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium for six years, completing his doctorate. Since then, all of his academic scholarship has been rooted in his experience with the poor.
“I was looking for a theological method that gives a voice to the poor and their experience in the context of high academic discourse,” he explained. “It should not be abstract. It should listen to their voice.”
He added that theology traditionally comes “from above,” through books, documents, and pronouncements from the Magisterium. “But where is the voice of the poor in our discourse of God? In my experience, they are the most articulate in terms of their experience. When they are asked to share about their lives, they readily speak of their God experience. If theology is not found there, where is it found?” Fr. Pilario stressed that his life’s work consists of inserting the voice of the poor into theological discourse.
Another cause close to Fr. Pilario’s heart are the extrajudicial killings, mostly of young men, that have occurred during the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, who assumed office in 2016. According to Fr. Pilario, a policy has been implemented whereby anyone who is identified as a drug addict or drug seller is marked for assassination; in his last parish, on average, six to eight men were killed a week for several months. Surveys now show more than 30,000 people killed all over the country in five years.
“This does not make the international news,” he stressed, although President Duterte is presently being tried in the International Criminal Court at The Hague, the Netherlands.
“I am a theologian, and I ask myself, ‘How should a theologian do theology after extrajudicial killings, like German theologians after the Holocaust,” Fr. Pilario said. He has friends charged with crimes or in prison; some dissenters have been killed—yet he continues his advocacy.
“I have to ask the question, ‘What does the Vincentian do in front of this? How can St. Vincent show me how to deal with abuse of power?’ I have to tell the stories of the widows and the orphans.”