The Philippines is one of the most populous Catholic countries in the world. About 80 percent of the country’s 100 million people belong to the faith.
Now, the country’s Catholic bishops’ conference has elected a new president: Archbishop Romulo Valles.
Since 2012 Archbishop Valles, 66, has headed the Archdiocese of Davao, on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao. Davao is the largest city in the region.
Over 60 percent of Mindanao’s total population is Catholic, while Muslims make up 20 percent. In the past the island has suffered a communist insurgency and an armed Moro separatist movement, Vatican Radio reports. The region is currently suffering an insurgency of Islamic insurgents who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group and have captured Marawi City, burning the Catholic cathedral and taking hostage a Catholic priest and several church workers.
Archbishop Valles served as the most recent vice-president of the bishops’ conference. He has chaired the conference’s Commission on Liturgy.
His election took place at the beginning of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ July 8-10 plenary assembly at the Pope Pius XII Catholic Center in Manila.
Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of the Manila-area Diocese of Caloocan was elected the conference vice-president.
The newly elected leaders will take office Dec. 1. The Philippines bishops’ conference covers 86 ecclesiastical jurisdictions.
Archbishop Valles’ archdiocese is the home base of controversial President Rodrigo Duterte, a past mayor of Davao City. The president has vocally insulted the bishops who criticized his harsh crackdown on drugs.
In his final keynote as conference president, Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan stressed the need to reach out to society with an open hand.
“Closed fists do not love; they hurt. Closed fists do not touch, they strike and injure. Closed fists and prayer do not match,” he said.
Without mentioning by name President Duterte, Archbishop Villegas alluded to how the bishops had been “calumniated and slandered.”
“We have been cursed and ridiculed but you our shepherds have chosen to fly high when the mockers of the Church chose to go so low,” he said.
“I know that the values of an open hands, fortitude and listening will be same pastoral tools that we will use to serve and guide the flock of God,” he added.
Archbishop Villegas’ tenure included a massive earthquake in Bohol province and a major typhoon in the Visayas. Pope Francis visited in 2015. The country also hosted the 51st International Eucharistic Congress.
Politically, during the archbishop’s tenure the Philippines bishops clashed with previous president Benigno Aquino over a population control bill and over issues of corruption, Vatican Radio reports.