Frater Damaso in José Rizal's novel “Noli Me Tangere"

The Franciscan monk Damaso belongs - next to the central character Ibarra and his fiancée Maria Clara - to the main characters or protagonists in Rizal's novel “Noli Me Tangere”. In the relatively unpleasant portrayed person of Damaso a good part of the critic is concentrated, which Rizal harbored against the monastic orders in his time - especially to the Franciscans. Based on the novel – in the English translation of Charles Derbyshire - we want to make an attempt, to characterize the figure of Padre Damaso (1).

Appearance, manners and spiritual principles

Padre Damaso is already gray-haired; nevertheless, the mighty physique, covered by a brown habit, still looks vital and vigorous. The face shows a prominent chin, ending in a fat neck. Perhaps the fat neck also results from the fried chicken that he is accustomed to eat every day. With sweeping gestures, he regularly emphasizes his words. Padre Damaso talks a lot, without being asked he begins to speak. He is the one who wants to have the final say. Without any respect he is interrupting other persons. His diction is very direct and appears arrogant. He feels as the representative of God, and is not receptive for criticism. Sometimes he looses control. Then he thumbs on the table, slaps the faces of others or he beats with a cane, to drum the commandments in the heads of his parishioner. Also the gravedigger gets beats. After that the gravedigger calls him – so in the Spanish original of the novel - "truncheon Padre and "Padre garrote" (XII)). No wonder that the Franciscan is feared in his parish. Even at the near approach the believers have to respect some gestures:  

"Hear what the holy decrees say! When an Indian meets a curate in the street he should bow his head and offer his neck for his master to step upon. If the curate and the Indian are both on horseback, then the Indian should stop and has take off his hat  or Salakót reverently; and finally, if the Indian is on horseback and the curate on foot, the Indian should alight and not mount again until the curate has told him to go on, or is far away. This is what the holy decrees and say he who does not obey will be excommunicated "(XXXI).
The "Indian" is in Damasos opinion, "so i
ndolent" (I) and probably also stupid. Even a stay abroad can do little to change this fact. Ibarra had returned from Europe and he speaks about the social, political and religious life and freedom in Europe. Hearing this Damaso barks at him: It was not worth while to squander your fortune to learn so trifling a thing. Any schoolboy knows that (III).  Some chapters later, Damaso gives the following comment: "You know well enough what the Indian is - just as soon as he gets a little learning he sets himself up as a doctor!" (XLIV).

Sometimes the padre is a master of rhetoric, the question is however, if his Spanish and Latin expositions could be understood by his flock. Here an example:

"O ye great sinners, captives of the Moros of the soul that infest the sea of eternal life in the powerful craft of the flesh and the world, ye who are with the fetters of load lust and avarice, and who toil in the galleys of the infernal Satan, look ye here with reverent repentance upon him who saved souls from the captivity of the devil, upon the intrepid Gideon, upon the valiant David, upon the triumphant Roland of Christianity, upon the celestial Civil Guard, more powerful than all the civil guards together, now existing or to exist" (XXXI).

Not go to confession, is a gross violation of the Church duties and can bring about - as we shall see later - serious consequences. Let us now address the issue how Father Damaso engages in the novel plots.

Frater Damasos intrigues

Ibarra returns from his stay in Europe and is confronted with the message that his father has died in prison. The father had been accused of being a "filibuster" (freedom fighter), being guilty of the accidental death of a tax collector. However, the grave of the father cannot be found. In a conversation with a gravedigger Ibarra discovers that Fra Damaso forced him with a stick to dig up the corpse again and to bring it on the Chinese cemetery. A "heretic" - so the argumentation of Father Damaso -, who did not go to confession and did not participate in the sacraments could not find his final resting place in the catholic cemetery. However, it was raining and the grave-digger shunned away from digging the grave and threw the corpse without further ado into a lake. Ibarra considers the memory of his father severely desecrated by the order of Father Damaso, but he still remains quiet.

Damaso himself was transferred involuntarily by the civil authorities to another parish because of his appearance and his actions. Damaso cannot understand his transfer and he complains: "The ruling powers support heretics against the ministers of God (I)".
The transfer shows also the tensions that exist in Rizal's novel between the monks on the one hand, the state authorities and the Archbishop of Manila (superior of the mostly indigenous "secular priests") on the other hand.

In the course of time Ibarra donates a Barangay school. On the occasion of laying the foundation stone all notabilities including the governor are gathered.  Ibarra also climbs down to the excavation, but suddenly the scaffolding with the block and tackle falls to the ground and nearly kills Ibarra. A conspiracy is suspected, but no one could be blamed. Someone, however, claims to have seen earlier a man in a brown robe, climbing down the excavation.

The laying of foundation stone was followed by a fiesta. Straightway the not invited monk begins to make nasty remarks about the bad architecture of the school and too high payments for the workers. At first Ibarra remains calm. However, when Damaso drops a hint about the imprisonment of his father Ibarra flips out and exclaims: "Priest of a God of peace, with your mouth full of sanctity and religion, and your heart full of evil, you can not know what a father is, or you might have thought of your own! "(XXXIV). Ibarra rushes to the Franciscan, and probably would have stabbed him with a knife, if his fiancée Maria Clara had not stopped him. Curiously enough Ibarra is not arrested by the police, because he enjoys the protection of the Governor General, who quarrels with the monastic orders.

Insertion: It's pretty amazing that Rizal shows the country representative – with the Governor-General at the head - fairly positive, but it will be later other government representatives, which take Rizal to court and convict him to death for treason and rebellion. Perhaps Rizal pays with his positive portrayal tribute to the liberal Governor General Carlos Maria de la Torre (1869-1871). However, there were only a few liberal governors general in the Philippines; most of them have been arch conservative "hardliners" and strong defenders of Spanish colonialism and the alliance of church and crown.

Ibarra gets excommunicated by the Archbishop of Manila for his assault, and this excommunication allows Fra Damaso to prevent a marriage between Ibarra and the lovely Maria Clara.

In the meantime, Maria Clare gets in conversation with the successor of Fra Damaso, the scraggy and taciturn Franciscan Padre Salvi. Let us mention in parentheses that also Father Salvi cannot entirely suppress his desires. This shows the following- a bit encrypted - sentence: "This evening he finds no pleasure in placing his bony hand on his Christian nose that he may dissemblingly slip it down over the bosom of the attractive young woman who may have bent over to receive his blessing (LIV). Salvi has also eyes for the beautiful Maria Clara, but there are no further complications. At their meeting Padre Salvi is pressing Maria Clara for an exchange of letters. She gives him a letter from Ibarra with politically sensitive subjects and she gets letters from her mother, which Father Salvi found in the house of Damaso. The letters reveal that the mother of Maria Clara Padre was raped and was made pregnant by Damaso. Now she knows that she is the daughter and not only the godson of Padre Damaso.

The archbishop of Manila lifts the excommunication of Ibarra, not least thanks to the request of the Governor General, and everything seems to take a turn for the better. However,
Ibarra's enemies will not give up. They stage-manage an attack on the police station and incriminate Ibarra as ringleaders. He is now wanted by the Guardia Civil. He flees with his friend Elijah, but the latter comes in a hail of bullets to death. It is believed that Ibarra was also killed in the incident. Ibarra lives on, however, and appears in Rizal's second novel, "El Filibusterismo" as a jeweler Simoun again. He then worms his way into the confidence of the higher circles of society. Later a revolutionary assassination attempt fails. He has to escape. When the enemies surrounded him, he poisons himself.

The surprising change

Maria Clara is depressed in consideration of the alleged death of Ibarra and the planned enforced marriage by Father Damaso. Her husband-to-be, the Spaniard Linares, is not her favorite. She falls ill. Also Padre Damaso comes to her sick-bed, and we see a very different padre. "Padre Damaso drew her toward himself with a tenderness that one would hardly have thought him capable of, and catching both her hands in his questioned her with his gaze .... Do not cry so, little girl. Your tears hurt me. Tell me your troubles, and you'll see how your godfather loves you!" (LXII).

Under hesitation, he confessed to her that she is his daughter. And now we learn what induced him to all the negative actions against Ibarra and his father:

"Daughter of God," he exclaimed at length in a broken voice, "forgive me for having made you unhappy without knowing it. I was thinking of your future, I desired your happiness. How could I permit you to marry a native of the country, to see you an unhappy wife and a wretched mother? ... . I committed wrongs, for you, solely for you. If you had become his wife you would have mourned afterwards over the condition of your husband,
exposed to all kinds of vexations without means of defense ... I love you as one loves his own daughter! Yours is my only affection; I have seen you grow - not an hour has passed that I have not thought of you - I dreamed of you - you have been my only joy! "(LXII)

It is an open question whether the sudden daughter love of Damaso is honest or only theatrical. The priest was afraid that Maria Clara could have become in close relation with Ibarra and his “radical” political views just an unhappy wife and a long-suffering mother. The overly pious and hypocritical priest, who everywhere saw a den of iniquity, ignores his own crying shame. His
breach of celibacy is out of the question.

Let’s bring the story of the novel to a close. In view of the approaching enforced marriage Maria Clara sees only the alternative "death or monastery”. Despite warnings of Damaso she goes to the monastery. She will die there later. - After a short stay in Manila Padre Damaso gets the instruction from his order, to take on a new pastorate in the province. The day after this information, he was found dead in his bed. "Some said that he had died of an apoplectic stroke, others of a nightmare, but his physician dissipated all doubts by declaring that he had died suddenly" (epilogue).


The publication of the book "Noli Me Tangere" caused a sensation in Manila. It is evident that the monks are not delighted with the novel. Never before the monks have been exposed to such a public criticism. They call for censorship. The Augustinian friar Jose Rodriguez writes, for example, without nearer proof:

"The book is full of heretic teachings and ideals against our Holy Religion. On almost every page and paragraph can be read, incitement to violence, those that are detestable and vulgar to the ears of true Christians, defilement of our honorable Superiors of the Holy Church and Christians, frustrations with God, ignorance, malicious encouragement to conspire with the traitor Lucifer and other heretics, wayward teachings and heretical truly thoughts; and further urges to turn us from our faith in God. All these can be read in that perverse book which is why it is being prohibited and whoever reads it commits a great sin” (2) .

Censorship commissions are appointed. The come to the conclusion: The book is heretical, impious, scandalous and undermines the state system. It is banned. Anyone who sells, buys or reads the book runs at least the risk of excommunication. The book is now circulating at exorbitant prices in the underground.

It should be noted in this context that Rizal certainly felt himself as a Christian. His critic is primarily addressed to the Franciscans; Dominicans and Jesuits are getting more lenient judgments. The second book of him “El Filibusterismo" is particularly dedicated to the three executed secular priests Gomez, Burgos and Zamora (3). Some clergymen are here portrayed in a quite positive manner.

How representative is the novel figure of Father Damaso for the round about 140 Franciscans or – to take a higher number - the nineteen thousand clergy men or in the Philippines in the late 19th century (4) ? Is the figure of Damaso more realistic or more fictional? It seems that an accurate answer to this question cannot be given. At first it is comfortable to hear from the well-known Filipino journalist Ambeth Ocampo that he scarcely found monks in the present, which resembled the figure of Damaso. And he adds, if all the clergy had been feared so malicious as Damaso, their freedom of movement in the country would have been limited and not so free and unconcerned. More incidents with the members of monastic orders would have been the consequence. Of course there have been occasional incidents especially with regard to their enormous ownership of land and the partly exploitative nature of some leases. And the Austrian aristocrat writes 1860 in his account of his journey, that he met in the Philippines priests of religious orders riding little horses “with on both sides of the saddle powerful holster for pistols” (5).
What frightened them?  But there are also positive testimonials. Ocampo for example, refers the first President of the Philippines, Emilio Aguinaldo (1869-1964), who praised the kindness of brother Tomas (6).

In the preface of his novel Rizal promises “to reproduce the condition (of the country) faithfully, without discrimination”. He wants to sacrifice “to truth everything”. But isn’t Damaso not a caricature, a figure of political propaganda and literary exaggeration?  We have doubts, if Frater Damaso is really a representative for the majority of the members of monastic orders. Padre Damaso seems to be more an individual case perhaps with the exception of his sexual intercourse (s). There are no published statistics how many children resulted from sexual liaisons with monks and clergy men. The larger number of Mestizo (a) with Spanish blood, however, indicates that there have been not a few cases of discreet sexual contacts with female churchgoers – even if we deduct the illegitimate children of the relatively small group of Spanish civil servants, businessmen and military members.

This little critic, however, does not intend to devalue Rizal's novel “Noli Me Tangere" any way. It is an exciting and well-written novel with plenty of local color, interesting dialogues and enormous political after-effects in the history of the Philippines.

© Wolfgang Bethge, 2009

(1) Quotes from: The Social Cancer, Translated by Charles Derbyshire, in: OnePage # v = & q = & f = false. The roman numerals are referring to the chapters of the novel.

(2) Fr Jose Rodriguez Religious Order of Saint Agustin, Beware, in:

(3) W. Bethge, Die Hinrichtung der Fratres Gomez, Burgos und Zamora (1872), in: W. Bethge, Die Philippinen – Einblicke, Aachen, 2009

(4) Numbers are taken from: A. L. Esmerelda, A New Look at Philippine History and the Friars, in:

(5) Karl Freiherr von Hügel , The Pacific Sea and the Spanish possessions in the East Indian archipelago, Vienna -  Book review: W. Bethge,

(6) Ambeth Ocampo, The Spanish friar, beyond the propaganda, in: