By Dean Jorge Bocobo

POPE John XXIII, "the good Pope" as he was called, might have been proud of our Jose Rizal. They were kindred spirits, who stood for religious tolerance and understanding among all faiths and peoples.

So whatever happened to Vatican II and the world ecumenical movement that held so much promise for an end to religious strife in the world? Was all that ''Kumbaya'' singing for nothing?

The priests turned to face the people, but they still preach the same stubborn and intolerant doctrine that Catholicism is the one true faith and all others are infidels.

So, irony of ironies. Asia's only Catholic country has excommunicated Free Mason and apostate for its national hero in Rizál.

This was the man who fought the 19th century's version of the Taliban in the Philippines, not with bombs, but with something more lethal, which are, noble ideas and sentiments, delivered by the technology of Gutenberg.

He sent two B52s in the form of two novels, ''Noli Me Tangere'' and ''El Filibusterismo,'' whose telling truths exploded in the hearts of his countrymen, opening their eyes to the cancer of Spanish oppression.

Like bunker-busters, these powerful stories destroyed the metaphorical caves and dungeons of the friars, full of simony and injustice, into whose oblivion his people had been cast for centuries.

He was shot in the back, like a traitor, on Bagumbayan Field, on Dec. 30, 1896, at the instigation of Catholic friars, who saw in his brilliant mind and satiric pen, the dying light of the Spanish Empire, and the death knell of their centuries-old religious dictatorship.

Rizal's capital crime and essential heresy was to deny the supreme Catholic vanity of being the "one true faith." Pope John was too far in the future to prevent his unjust execution.

Influenced by Miguel Morayta, a history professor at the Universidad de Madrid, Rizal joined Masonry, under the Gran Oriente de Español, adopting the Masonic name, Dimasalang. He was automatically excommunicated, expelled from the Catholic Church, a fate decreed for all Catholics becoming Masons since 1738 and reaffirmed by the CBCP in 1990.

Rizal had plenty of illustrious company including Andres Bonifacio, Apolinario Mabini, Ladislao Diwa, Marcelo H. del Pilar, Juan Luna, Deodato Arellano, Graciano Lopez-Jaena, H. Pardo de Tavera, and so many others in the Propaganda Movement and La Liga Filipina.

It was a Masonic trader, Jose Ramos, who first smuggled copies of the ''Noli Me Tangere'' into Manila. In 1912, Rizal's family rejected a petition from the Jesuits to rebury their famous pupil.

Instead, that honor was accorded to the Masons, led by Timoteo Paez, who, in full regalia, carried Rizal's remains in a long procession to the Masonic Temple in Tondo for funeral rites, before final interment at the Luneta in December 1912.

The true meaning of his life has been obscured by his enemies, who have claimed that in the end, he abjured Masonry and returned to the Faith. If he did, why was he martyred?

Luckily, most of his written work (50 volumes!) has been available, since his birth centenary in 1961, despite strident opposition from the Catholic Church. In this way, Rizal may still get the final word.

The tragedy is, most Filipinos have not read Rizal at all, being mainly exposed to seriously flawed films about him. (These much-awarded movies portray him at his execution, clutching rosary beads around his neck, a sop thrown in to mollify Church hierarchy.)

We treasure his two famous novels, of course. But there is also his poetry (some sophomoric, some sublime). Then there is the epistolary, or long letters, that he exchanged with Pablo Pastells, S.J., a mentor at the Ateneo.

Though portions were published by Retana, the original, complete texts were suppressed and hidden by the Jesuits at a monastery in Spain for over a century. Why? The authoritative bilingual edition by Fr. Raul Bonoan, S.J. became available only in 1998, when some embargo must have lapsed, or their toxicity deemed expired.

Read the letters for yourself and see if you agree with my interpretation of them, because I think they were the damning evidence of heresy and apostasy that were used at his one day trial on Dec. 26, 1896. That is why they were hidden for so long. They were used as a murder weapon.

The 1956 Rizal Law (RA 1425) of Sen. Claro M. Recto should be amended to make these letters required reading in Philippine schools. For in these letters, Rizal speaks for himself, not through fictional characters, but directly and undeniably from his heart, to all of us, in the vast audience of history, about his deepest beliefs.

Even if he had, hypothetically, signed some made-up retraction document, to save his family from persecution and to marry Josephine Bracken, the letters prove he could not have done so sincerely.

Freed from Catholic indoctrination by wide exposure to many cultures and religions, the heart and mind that one encounters in the epistolary just could not have made a genuine retraction, for he was, irreversibly, a global citizen, an ecumenical man.

Rizal believed that you can be a good and moral person without believing in a specific supernatural deity or purported representatives on earth. Of course, faith can also lead to a strong moral conscience, but religion is not the only route to virtue.

Participation in an organized religion may be a sufficient impetus to a virtuous life, as is fear of eternal damnation, but it is not a necessary condition. Rizal upheld democratic tolerance and ecumenism. He rejected dogmatism and the towering vanity of a "one true faith."

In so doing he found true freedom and understood the deepest meaning of democracy before it was born in his country. That is why he chose to die an apostate, excommunicated from the Catholic Church, rather than be a traitor to himself and the future of humanity.

Reprinted from the Philippine Daily Inquirer, December 31, 2001.