Fr. Marciano M. Guzman on the Retraction and Conversion of Jose Rizal

by Fr. Marciano M. Guzman

(The author, a direct descendant of Rizal’s younger sister, Soledad, has written extensively on related issues.)
From time to time, some individuals try to challenge the truth about Rizal’s final conversion as well as his retraction of religious errors before his execution.
These attempts to deny our national hero’s conversion and retraction are made without conclusive and documented evidence. They normally do not transcend the psychological arguments devised by the blatant disbelief and stubbornness of some members of masonic lodges.
Typical of such reaction was a statement made in 1908 by a Venerable Master of the Grand Regional Lodge of the Philippines. It was pronounced in a meeting called to counteract the effects of Wenceslao Retana’s personal conviction about Rizal’s retraction, expressed in the book Vida y escritos del Dr. Jose Rizal. “If Rizal did retract,” the high-ranking Filipino Mason said, “he might have done it through altruism and not for personal interest. But still I have not believed and remain disbelieving in his retraction, notwithstanding so many things said about it, and in spite of the assurances of Jesuits and Retana… the idol of the Philippines has never changed his ideas, in a word, he has never retracted.”
A similar type of argument could be found in Rafael Palma’s The Pride of the Malay Race. “Rizal was a man of character,” wrote Palma in his book, “and he had demonstrated it in many circumstances of his life. He was not likely to yield his ideas because his former preceptors and teachers talked to him. They did it in Dapitan and did not obtain any result. Why would he renounce his religious ideas for a few hours more of life?”
Those who wish to deny Rizal’s conversion in the last hours of his life go against solid historical evidence.
Facts of the Case
The most formidable proof is the document of Rizal’s retraction of errors and profession of faith, duly signed and drawn in his own handwriting from beginning to end.
J.M. Cavanna, CM, in his book Rizal and the Philippines of His Days, summarized the hard facts connected with this document. Several eyewitnesses were present when Rizal wrote this holograph. They included three Jesuit priests, four lieutenants of the army, three soldiers of the artillery corps, and a colonel of the Manila Garrison who acted as Judge Advocate in Rizal’s trial.
Moreover, on the day of the hero’s execution, his retraction holograph was presented to and examined by the Archbishop of Manila, the Vicar General, the Secretary of the Chancery, the Provincial Superior and two priests of the Society of Jesus, the Fiscal of the Audiencia, one newspaper editorial staff, a layman administrator of a pious confraternity, and most probably other people in the Ateneo and in the Archbishop’s residence where the document was brought.
On the day of Rizal’s death, the full text of the retraction document was published in four leading Manila papers of the widest circulation in the country. On the following days, another Manila newspaper and three Madrid papers with direct correspondents in Manila, together with at least six other Madrid dailies, four Spanish magazines and one Portuguese periodical in Hong Kong published the text of the document with many details about how it was written and signed by the national hero. One of these correspondents declared that “a sister of Dr. Jose Rizal gave him the news about the conversion and retraction of the glorious convict.”

Besides, as a proof of his unconditional acceptance of the Catholic faith, Rizal, on his own initiative, signed a Catholic prayer-book with a long, detailed, and explicit profession of faith. He did this after reciting publicly, on his knees before the altar, and in the presence of all the witnesses of his retraction, an act of faith followed by two other prayers of Christian hope and charity. Four eyewitnesses corroborated this fact, and 3 qualified witnesses, 4 newspapers of Manila and Madrid at that time, and 4 historians and writers confirmed their testimony.
It is on record that the national hero received the sacrament of Penance 4 times and received Holy Communion fervently during a Mass, before proceeding to Bagumbayan for the execution. At Bagumbayan, moments before his death, in the presence of a “compact multitude which filled Luneta’s esplanade,” Rizal, renewing his contrition for sins already confessed and for whatever he might have forgotten, again asked for forgiveness, kissing the crucifix presented to him by the priest, and for the last time received sacramental absolution.
The last absolution he received was recorded in an official document of the government. His previous four confessions in his prison cell were certified by 5 eyewitnesses, 10 qualified witnesses, 7 newspapers of Manila, Madrid and Hong Kong at that time, and 12 historians and writers including Aglipayan bishops, Masons and anti-clericals.
Moreover, Rizal’s conversion is highlighted by his Catholic marriage with Josephine Bracken, solemnized before the altar by a priest with sacred vestments, pronouncing the sacramental blessing according to the Roman Ritual. This solemn canonical marriage, which could not have taken place without Rizal’s previous conversion, was witnessed and attested to by many people.
Furthermore, the conversion of the national hero is supported by the many acts of Catholic piety—such as kneeling before the altar, praying the Rosary, putting on the blue scapular of the Immaculate Conception—which he spontaneously and publicly performed during his last hours.
Rizal’s death was certainly not that of a rationalist and free-thinker. “Sectarian interests,” J.M. Cavanna, CM, aptly commented, “have vainly wasted ink and paper in useless quibbles and cavils to deny the undeniable, or at least to cast doubts on the document of Rizal’s retraction which is the lasting monument of his unfading glory.”

What Caused His Conversion
Rizal’s Jesuit friends were not optimistic about the hero’s change of attitude regarding his religious ideas by noontime of December 29, 1896, the day before his execution. He was adamant about his religious beliefs and did not want to abjure Masonry.
Towards mid-afternoon, Fr. Vicente Balaguer, the Jesuit missionary who dealt with Rizal in Dapitan, had a serious discussion with the latter in his prison cell about religious matters. During their conversation, the priest frankly told him that unless he renounced his errors, he would surely be condemned in hell. Rizal finally gave his priest friend a faint glimmer of hope. He promised that he would sincerely pray to God for the gift of faith.
Close to 7 p.m., Rizal asked Fr. Jose Vilaclara, SJ, his former professor of Physics at the Ateneo, who had arrived less than an hour earlier, to hear his confession. He was told that he had to make a retraction of his religious errors first, and that a retraction formula was being sent to him from the Archbishop’s residence.
The hero eagerly awaited the arrival of the retraction document. It came at 10:00 p.m. Fr. Balaguer sat down with Rizal at the writing table and read to him the long formula prepared by the Archbishop. After hearing the first paragraphs, Rizal did not want to sign it.
He told Fr. Balaguer: “Father, do not proceed. That style is different from mine. I will not sign that, because it should be understood that I am writing it myself.”

Fr. Balaguer then produced the brief formula written by Fr. Pio Pi, SJ, Superior of the Jesuits in the Philippines, which the Archbishop had earlier deemed adequate. After listening to the first paragraph, Rizal signified his acceptance of it, since its style was simple, like his own writing style. While Fr. Balaguer read out the formula, Rizal proceeded to write it in his own handwriting, making at times some observation or adding some phrase. Thus we have a clear, undeniable proof of Rizal’s conversion.
What caused this radical change in the soul of the national hero? Was it primarily brought about by the way his Jesuit mentors and friends “directed the attack” to the sentiment, and not to reason, as Wenceslao Retana, the well-known Rizalist, charged? Did he, during those last hours, act under suggestion, influenced by “a series of phenomena” or “abnormal circumstances?” Was his conversion, in Retana’s description, “a romantic concession of the poet,” and not a “meditated concession of the philosopher?”
It is true that the Jesuits tried to appeal to Rizal’s feelings and sentiments in their effort to bring him back to the Catholic faith. Thus, in an early morning visit on December 29, Fr. Luis Viza brought him the little statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus carved by Rizal when he was still a student at the Ateneo. Rizal took that image, kissed it, and placed it on his table.
Moreover, as we have earlier seen, during their discussion, Fr. Balaguer warned him that if he persisted in his errors, he would be condemned in hell. He also told him that his Jesuit friends would give their lives if by doing so they could attain the salvation of his soul.
However, we will not reflect the entire truth if we fail to consider the long conversation Fr. Balaguer had with Rizal about religious matters. Arguments, objections and refutations, with their strict appeal to reason and logic, were brought up during their discussion, as disclosed by Fr. Balaguer himself in his account.
In spite of all these, we still cannot rightfully say that Rizal owed his conversion to the influence of those good priests who were his former professors and friends, the sight of the image of the Sacred Heart that brought so many memories of the happy years of his boyhood, and the lively religious discussion he had with Fr. Balaguer. Neither can we truthfully say that his conversion was brought about by the special circumstances he was in, heightened by his imminent death.
God’s Grace
No external circumstance, no matter how special or extraordinary it may be, can cause a person’s conversion. Commenting on Retana’s allegation, J.M. Cavanna, CM, clearly explained this basic point.
“What happens after some event,” he said, “is not always due to that event. History proves that no amount of exterior circumstances can determine necessarily a conversion; and on the contrary, conversions may take place in the absence of the most powerful exterior stimuli and incentives.”
Of course, God can and does make use of human instruments and external circumstances to produce a conversion. Nevertheless, we have to affirm that a conversion is the exclusive work of God’s interior graces.
In Rizal’s case, we should not underestimate the supernatural efficacy of the prayers and penances offered by unidentified and unacknowledged members of religious communities to whom the Archbishop of Manila appealed in a circular, in his ardent zeal for Rizal’s conversion. With a few notable exceptions, our history books prefer to keep silent about such events.