He died a martyr, but he lived in simplicity and service: “I knew a lot of priests, but nobody ever washed my hands except Father Rhoel.”
Rhoel Gallardo was born on November 25, 1965, in Olongapo City, located in the Luzon area of the Philippines. He was the second child of five. He was not only a good student; he was a happy boy and made his parents proud. He seemed a bit shy, but once people got to know him, he would always be joking and laughing. In high school, his classmates said that he was quiet and funny, and always ready to give advice. Everyone liked him.
In 1988 he answered the call to the priesthood, and joined the Claretian Order. Founded by Anthony Mary Claret in 1849, today they are active as missionaries worldwide, with more than 3,000 priests and brothers serving with them.
The Claretians are also known for their deep devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Rhoel took his first vows in 1989. He was given the nickname “Little Claret,” after the saintly founder, because of his small size and saintly manner and his simple and fervent way of praying. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1994.
Father Rhoel had completed his pastoral year in Maluso, Basilan. During that year, he experienced working with the poor and with his Muslim brothers and sisters. These experiences aided him in developing into a committed missionary ready to witness to God’s love for all people.
He especially had an inner desire to help the helpless. A blind woman remembered how Father Rhoel would come to her and help her wash her hands. She said, “I knew a lot of priests, but nobody ever washed my hands except Father Rhoel.”
A few years after he was ordained, Father Rhoel volunteered to go to the most dangerous Claretian mission in the Philippines, a place called Tumahubong. He was assigned as a parish priest serving San Vincent Ferrer Parish and as Director of the Claret School. This is where he reached the high point of his short time as a missionary. Ironically, he had volunteered because the assigned priest had taken ill, and a replacement was needed.
Father Rhoel faced a hard time in his new environment. An Islamist terrorist organization was active on the island, and there was always cause for worry. Father came to appreciate the seriousness and importance of his role in the area. He also developed a deep understanding of what the people had to live with every day. The severity of the ever-present hostile environment led Father Rhoel to vow to never leave his flock, no matter what. He readied himself for the possibility of violence.
On March 20, 2000, the Claret School of Tumahubong was attacked by the Abu Sayyaf terrorist organization. They burned the school to the ground. Father Gallardo and 52 others, including teachers and schoolchildren, were captured and held hostage. The days that followed would be almost unbearable for Father Rhoel and the others. But the kindly priest was treated worse than the others. He endured a severe lack of food, sleepless nights, and frequent beatings by his captors. The priest would ask about his fellow captives, though he was beaten for the questions. They tried to force him to renounce his Faith. He would not do it. They even pulled his nails from his fingers and feet to make him deny Jesus. He refused.
Negotiations between the bishop and the rebels had gone on for weeks but to no avail. During that time, some of the hostages were released. Father Rhoel was not among them. But when the bishop and rebels could not reach a final agreement, the Philippine army stormed the camp to save the hostages. They found the body of Father Rhoel Gallardo. He had been assassinated with three bullets fired into his head, his shoulder, and his back. Three teachers and five children had also been killed.
Father Elias Ayuban, the Claretian Missionaries’ provincial superior, spoke on the Cause for the Beatification of Father Rhoel.
“Martyrdom is a gift given to those who are worthy in the eyes of God. It could have occurred to any of us who were the young missionaries then, but it was given to Fr. Rhoel because, in hindsight, he was the most prepared to receive the crown,” Ayuban said.
He also emphasized “the four exemplary acts or series of acts of Fr. Rhoel that have made him a martyr of our times … He sacrificed, he suffered, he searched, and he surrendered.”
The cause for the Beatification of Father Rhoel Gallardo was officially opened on May 3, 2021.