by Bryan Anthony C. Paraiso

      Akin to walking on a mine field, the issue of José Rizal’s alleged retraction of his religious errors stirs up the emotions of historians, flaring up into fiery debates between the pros and cons, without any resolution in sight.
      The thought of a disavowal of his beliefs is almost sacrilegious and improbable to Rizal’s character and vehemence against oppression, as evidenced by a letter to Mariano Ponce on April 18, 1889: “…At the sight of those injustices and cruelties…I swore to devote myself to avenge one day so many victims, and with this idea in mind I have been studying and this can be read in all my works and writings.  God will someday give me an opportunity to carry out my promise.”

      Of the religious orders, he writes: “…the friars are not what they pretend to be nor are they ministers to Christ, the protector of the people, nor the support of the Spanish government…Don’t they show cruelty?  Don’t they instigate the government against the people?  Don’t they manifest terror?  Where are sanctity, protection, and force?”
      Rizal knew that his crusade might end in death, but revealed that he was unsure of his reaction: “…no one knows how one should behave at that supreme instant, and perhaps I myself who preach and brag so much might manifest more fear and less energy than (Fr. Jose) Burgos at that critical moment.” 

      Arguments on the retraction revolve around the veracity of the confession Rizal purportedly signed prior to his execution and testimonies of several witnesses who had seen the act carried out.

      However, if Rizal did retract, when did he come to this decision? Was he weary of the struggle that he decided to give in to the continuous urgings of the Jesuit fathers who were present at his death cell? Or is it possible that Rizal had ruminated on retracting while still on exile in Dapitan?
      Noted historian Fr. Jose Arcilla’s monumental multi-volume Jesuit Missionary Letters from Mindanao contains several letters of the Jesuit Antonio Obach to his Mission Superior, which may shed light on this matter. Obach wrote on July 28, 1895: “Rizal has just seen me and said (what has been jumping from mouth to mouth of some who heard it from him), ‘Father Antonio, I no longer want further battles with the friars, but live and work in peace.’

      ‘What you ought to do is retract all your errors and you will be at peace.’
      ‘I am ready to do what Your Reverence says, but under certain conditions.’
      I gave him a pen and paper for him to write these conditions. In his own hand and style, he wrote: ‘Conditions I ask to retract references to the matter of the friars, and no longer meddle with them.’
      —José Rizal

1. His freedom
2. Return to his family what has been confiscated or give its equivalent.
3. P50,000 to start a business to support himself

      On fulfillment of these conditions, Rizal will write to the bishop.”

      Does this letter provide irrefutable proof that Rizal had decided on retracting beforehand? What is intriguing is that he had arrived at this decision, evidently, to spare his family from further suffering and maltreatment.
      Fr. Obach continues: “…Rizal says his family owned two houses of heavy materials, and he asks that they be returned or their equivalent…I answered that the only thing I could do was to look into the situation and if there is no difficulty, for I do not know how things are…As for the third, I said that I do not think they would give him such a big amount. His plan…is to raise a huge cement plant which, on a small scale…has been quite successful. But this third condition is not important, for without it, he is ready to make a retraction provided his family is provided for. Besides, if they grant him this amount, it would be on condition that he repays it.” 

      Obach’s letter also details Rizal’s initiative of opening a wholesale store in Dapitan to compete with the Chinese traders, “who do nothing but cheat the Indios.” In fact, Rizal had prepared the statutes and regulations of the Society of Dapitan Agriculturists, aiming to facilitate the easy buying, selling, and storage of products for export, and curtailing the trade monopoly of the Chinese.
      Obach believed that they had successfully persuaded Rizal to turn away from his errors: “I am convinced that Rizal is now tired and wants to retract, but his pride strongly holds him back…I think he will immediately break away from everything and he would be an excellent Christian.”

      In a letter on the following day, Obach reports: “Regarding the letter I sent to Your Reverence which contains Rizal’s retraction. I would ask you to send me a model retraction…In demanding that Rizal indicate what has been taken from his family, perhaps it will be humiliating for the Dominican Fathers. Rizal refuses, because in this way they will (have) him bound more tightly under obligation. On the other hand, retracting is acknowledging his errors, and so it is his turn to humble himself…I await your letter which  I can read to Rizal to convince him what is better to do for God’s greater glory.
      By August 28, 1895, Obach recounted that Rizal requested for a detailed account of his errors:  “…Rizal came and asked me if I could draw up a list of his errors. ‘You can tell Fr. Ricart, I am ready to write, and tell him that I myself will retract all errors I may have committed against the Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church in my writings, and that he can make this same retraction public in the manner he wants.’ But with this he stands to lose everything…”
      Obach wrote that Rizal insisted that he and his family should receive some form of compensation for all the troubles they endured: “But on condition that they give me P50,000 since I have no means to support myself in decency, and with that amount I could bring my parents with me anywhere.” He no longer talks of machines and cement, and so on, and he thinks that this amount is owed him because of the harm inflicted on him.”

      Are Father Antonio Obach’s letters a reliable source about Rizal’s situation? Will these revelations provide new clues to his frame of mind during the few hours before his death? The mystery of Rizal’s retraction deepens.