How the Death of Gomburza Led to a Wholly Filipino Church
On February 17, 1872, three priests—Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora—were killed in Bagumbayan on charges of leading a mutiny of arsenal workers in Cavite with the aim of overthrowing the colonial government.
The three priests were not involved in the mutiny; they hardly even knew each other. What they were, however, were prominent figures in the secularization movement, which wanted to take Church power away from the colonial Spanish and give native Filipinos increased roles in Church affairs.
The Power of the Church Over the State
Colonial Philippines was a completely feudal society, with its institutions propped up to serve the land-owning class of Spanish peninsulares and the friars. The Catholic Church was no exception; in some cases, the Church was even the deciding factor.
The Church was a nexus of power, culture, politics, and ultimately, economy. In early colonial Philippines, land was distributed among church orders like the Jesuits or the Dominicans for them to use as they saw fit. This gave the Church sweeping power in the colonial government.
It also gave them control over the regular Filipino. Religion became an integral part of Filipino society in all aspects, from Church service to a healthy fear of God in Heaven and consequently, a fear of the old traditions as demonic and unknown.
Most important, it gave the Church amazing economic power. Churches reaped massive profits in the form of tithes from church-goers and by exploiting farmers and the land they tilled. Being assigned to a “good” church like the Antipolo Shrine or Quiapo meant you’d be set for life.
This started to unravel in the 1780s as secular priests, priests not under any religious order, began to emerge and were assigned churches. The regulars, priests from the established orders, naturally protested.
Their reasons were mostly racist—they were Filipinos, and they were unfit to serve as priests. But the underlying motivation was purely economic—more Filipino priests controlling key churches would shake the established status quo or, worse, they could lead a rebellion just like in Mexico or Peru.
The fight for secularization picked up in the 19th century, as the idea of liberalism—that all men were equal and had equal right to opportunity and property—washed over Europe and her colonies. More and more secular priests clamored for rights within the Church, while the established colonial and religious government looked on in fear.
Cue the perfect opportunity. In 1872, dockworkers in the Cavite arsenal clamored for better pay and attempted a mutiny, but was crushed overnight. The facts of the case were unclear, but during the trial, three names were singled out—the secular priests Jose Burgos, Mariano Gomez, and Jacinto Zamora.
Mariano Gomez, the Old Veteran
Contrary to the pictures depicting him as a younger man, Gomez was already 72 when he sentenced to die. He was an ilustrado to the core, with his nephew, Dominador, eventually becoming an influential figure in the labor movement.
In his younger years, he was just as militant, fighting for the rights of the secular clergy and agrarian reform, which made him a wholly unpopular figure among the Spanish landed elite. In 1822, he launched a campaign to provide amnesty for Cavite peasants who were forced to take up arms. He was an old liberal, through and through, riding the crest of the liberal wave of the early 19th century.
But the events of the Novales revolt and its aftermath led Gomez to lie low and accept the status quo. By 1872, he was an old man, weary and resigned that little will change in his lifetime.
Jacinto Zamora, the Victim of False Identity
Unlike Gomez or Burgos, Jacinto Zamora was not an exemplary priest. He was anything but—he had a habit of playing cards during mass. While the others could be said to have died for some sort of conviction, Zamora was a gambling priest who had little care in the world.
One day in 1872, he received a letter that one of his gambler friends had “bullets and gunpowder”—code for a lot of cash. That note fell into Spanish authorities and branded him as the one thing they feared the most: a native priest trying to start a revolution.
The cards fell badly for Zamora soon after. An unrelated arrest warrant for another Jose Zamora was given to him and he died in the man’s place. He was 36 at the time.
Pedro Burgos, the ‘King of the Filipinos’
Burgos has been described as a “precursor to Rizal,” the type of secular priest who really clamored for Filipino rights. As a student, he was said to have incited a demonstration that ended in violence when the Letran administration tried to curb students’ rights and imposed its candidate in student council elections.
As a priest, he co-headed a reform committee and was keen on seeing Filipinos taking up more positions in the Church. He saw the Philippine Church as rightfully belonging to the Filipinos—by that he meant the insulares, Spaniards born in the Philippines.
But it was that budding nationalism that made him dangerous. In the eyes of the Spanish elite, he was a young upstart trying to upend the established system. That’s why in 1872, he was implicated in the Cavite mutiny—the mutineers were calling out for Burgos, proclaiming him “Rey indio,” native King. He was 35 when he was sentenced to die.
How the Death of Gomburza Influenced History
In the end, the three priests were killed in Bagumbayan (now Rizal Park) by garrote, and they were buried in Paco Park in unmarked graves. Their deaths were by no means small events at the time. The ilustrado class was furious and demanded an explanation and reforms.
Twenty years later, during the 1890s, a new crop of ilustrados would take inspiration from the deaths of Gomburza. One of them, a man named Jose Rizal, would write his novel, Noli Me Tangere, and dedicate it to the trio.
The death of Gomburza solidified the nascent nationalism felt by so many. The concept of “Filipino” and what is “Philippine” only grew from there. Besides Rizal, the Katipunan also grew emboldened by the liberal ideas which propelled their inadvertent martyrdom, even going so far as using Gomburza as a password.
Ultimately, the secularization movement would grow into a call for a wholly Filipino church. During the Revolution of 1896, two men, Isabelo de los Reyes and Fr. Gregorio Aglipay, would make that dream a reality and create a church that was truly Filipino, the Iglesia Filipina Independiente.
Gomez, Burgos, and Zamora didn’t necessarily die fighting for a cause they championed. But the cause they did die for managed to change our history and create a Filipino identity as we understand it today.
Joaquin, N. (2005) A Question of Heroes. Anvil Publishing.
Uckung, P. The Secularization Issue was an International Issue. National Historical Commission of the Philippines.
Philippine History. The Secularization of Priests During Spanish Period.