By Beting Laygo Dolor i Contributing Editor

One of the most influential leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines has warned his fellow priests and bishops to prepare for the worst. This, as President Rodrigo Duterte took a one-week break on his verbal attacks on the Church to which anywhere from 80 percent to 85 percent of all Filipinos belong.

Archbishop Socrates Villegas, former head of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), said during the commemoration of Easter last week that all Church leaders should not only take the president’s threats seriously, they should be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice.

“Death is not a threat. It is our destiny,” Villegas said during a Mass on April 19, Maundy Thursday at the St. John the Evangelist Cathedral in Dagupan City, where he is is based.

Previously, Mr. Duterte had said that it was all right to kill priests and bishops, who were all sinful anyway.

Last week, however, Mr. Duterte toned down his attacks because Roman Catholics consider the Lenten season the holiest part of the year. The president advised all Filipinos to “strive to uphold what is good and just.”

Photo: President Rodrigo Duterte (Presidential Communication Government of the Philippines Official Facebook Page)

Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo sought to tone down the president’s previous harsh words by saying that he was only joking, or that the chief executive’s words should not be taken seriously.

Villegas said Catholic priests and bishops should accept the fact that the president of the Philippines openly mocks God, called the Pope “a son of a bitch,” and said ordinary citizens should “kill any bishop you see.”

Instead of being cowed by Mr. Duterte, Villegas said that Church leaders should be more determined than ever to confront the mass killings of suspected drug users and pushers with “holy anger.”

Figures vary, but to-date anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 mostly poor Filipinos have been killed by authorities and vigilantes in the name of the president’s all-out war on drugs.

Villegas also reminded Church leaders of their history. The Church was founded by Christ himself, but almost all his first followers – the 12 apostles – died as martyrs. In its first few centuries of existence, followers of Christ were persecuted mercilessly.

“There is nothing surprising with priests being threatened with death,” according to Villegas, “We should not have accepted ordination if we were afraid to die or be killed for the Lord.”

While born and raised a Catholic, Mr. Duterte has broken his ties with the Church because he said he had been victimized by a priest-predator in his college years.

On rare occasions, however, he has spoken well of the current Pope Francis, whom Mr. Duterte said he admired because he was one of a kind.

The politically active Villegas has long been an outspoken critic of government corruption and abuse of power.

Of the Catholic Church’s current situation in the Philippines, he said, “We have been through better times when priests were revered, trusted, and esteemed. Those days seem to be behind us.”

A group of Catholics have been trying to create a “Catholic vote,” and have endorsed 10 candidates for the senatorial elections next month.

The move is seen as a step towards neutralizing the bloc voting practice of other Chrisitan sects like the Iglesia ni Cristo, the Jesus is Lord movement, and the Davao-based church of Pastor Quiboloy.

Mr. Duterte is not the first non-Catholic president of the Philippines. Previously, Fidel Ramos, a Protestant, was elected president to succeed the late Corazon Aquino, a devout Catholic.

In recent history, one of the most powerful Church leaders was the late Jaime Cardinal Sin, who is credited with helping to topple the Marcos regime in 1986.