A financial adviser by profession, Wilfredo Gatbonton Villanueva, had taken to Mendiola the Philippine flag and raised it before the Don Chino Roces Monument to protest former President Rodrigo Duterte’s remark on national television about a "stupid God" in June 2018.
Mendiola, a street near the Malacañang (Presidential) Palace is a protest venue in Manila, the country's capital.
Eleven random Catholics—mostly seniors—had joined him, standing up for the faith in the rain.
This roused The Inquirer.NET, one of the leading news sites in the Philippines, to accord him a space in their features days later.
Roughly two years later, the seventy-year-old Marian devotee took to social media to recite the Holy Rosary in January 2020. During the month, Taal, a volcano about a hundred kilometers south of Manila, suddenly erupted, causing heavy ashfall that reached as far as Manila. About half a million people have been reportedly displaced.
The live rosary prayer on Facebook had become nightly.
"I pray with my wife, Renée," Villanueva said. "Members are on mute, so we can proceed smoothly."
Catholics from across the world started following the live rosary prayer. They are from New York and part of California, Toronto, Guam, Melbourne, Sydney, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Dubai.
And, of course, Catholics from Metro Manila, Cavite, and Davao are watching them recite the five decades of Hail Mary’s.
"We have become quite close, although we didn't know each other prior," he said. "We have chemistry. Virtual prayer community is without leaving our homes."
The petitions for intercession are usually dedicated to the good health of loved ones and other people in the circle. They also pray for protection from wildfires, earthquakes, and floods in the country and abroad, where the group's members have loved ones and friends.
The core group is composed of 12 people.
Villanueva enjoys praying for the rosary. He sees that prayer has power.
"It won't hurt," he said. "It won't be inconvenient if you do it nightly because it becomes a part of you. You long for it because it completes you. It defines you."
"Humility follows prayer," he noted. "Pain doesn't exist if you embrace it. People will come and stay if they see simplicity, sincerity, persistence, and holiness."
Villanueva learned to say the rosary at a young age.
"Ever since I was a child," he said. "My parents were dyed in the wool of Catholics. In those days—fifties to sixties—it was normal to recite the Holy Rosary."
Advocate for good governance
Villanueva believes that good parenting involves providing the children with a good home and that he goes to the streets to give his children and grandchildren one.
He and his wife had also recited the Holy Rosary for clean and honest elections. They had also prayed for protection from COVID-19, a viral disease that has infected over 3,000,000 Filipinos and claimed the lives of more than 60,000 people, according to reports.
The septuagenarian had been running and jogging to stay physically fit since 1975.
In his social media post on Sept. 16, he said, "If men and women were angels, there would be no need for government, self-rule, check-and-balance, audit, and a free press to watch over."
Villanueva argues that a good government is necessary for a nation of men and women "because we are damaged, open to temptation, envious, full of pride, ambition, and spite."
A graduate in AB Journalism from the University of the Philippines, he observes the opinions of some people are being manipulated by way of disinformation in favor of some politicians. And one form that disinformation takes is false news, which degrades humanity.
"Fake news condemns us, but are we incompetent in our judgment," he said. "We just have to pray to understand what's going on, which earthly path to choose, to stay where we are needed, to disengage when we aren't using our gifts."
Experts believe disinformation in furtherance of a political agenda is well-funded.
Through disinformation, some people have been manipulated to demonize good leaders and glorify the bad.
"There's a chasm between ground reality and social media hustle and bustle," he said. Prayer will open doors to wisdom and love. Without constant prayer, how can we survive the onslaught of money and fear all around us?"
Villanueva also said, "We need humility to bear our sorrows. It's like running and jogging. Every day is a struggle, and to emerge victorious day-to-day, you need to pray until it hurts. After a while, it doesn't hurt anymore, and you notice that you are sailing along placidly."
Renée also joins him in rallies to call for good governance.
Villanueva was born in Iloilo, a province in the central Philippines known for its Spanish colonial religious structures. He grew up in San Andres Bukid, a district in Manila. But they moved to Naga in 1963, when I was only 11 years of age.
Naga, an independent city in the province of Camarines Sur roughly 400 kilometers southeast of Manila, is known as the "Pilgrim City." Thousands retrace the month-long Our Lady of Peñafrancia festival here, the largest Marian gathering in Asia. Mary, the patroness of the Bicol Region, is fondly referred to by Bicolanos as Ina, which means mother in the local tongue.
Observed during September, the Traslacion on the streets and the fluvial parade of the image of Mary on the river highlight this colorful and well-celebrated Marian event. The Traslacion and the fluvial parade are attended by hundreds of thousands of devotees from across the country and globe. Hotels in the city are usually fully occupied during the festivities.
Right after graduation, Villanueva joined the public information office at the National Manpower and Youth Council (now TESDA). He also worked in the PR industry, serving several advertising agencies in a span of more than a decade from 1975 to 1986.
He chose to not practice journalism after graduation. He graduated during the time of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos, Sr., a time when the country had seen the harshest press freedom repression in the country's history, especially during martial rule.
Villanueva is currently a financial adviser at Manulife, a life insurance company. He and Renée are blessed with four children—all girls. Two are working in information technology in Melbourne and Brisbane. The other two are working in the Philippines. They have three grandchildren.
"I'm proud in the Holy Spirit of all the people who follow our live Holy Rosary," he said. "We'll do it as long as we can, as long as we should."
Radio Veritas Asia (RVA), a media platform of the Catholic Church, aims to share Christ. RVA started in 1969 as a continental Catholic radio station to serve Asian countries in their respective local language, thus earning the tag “the Voice of Asian Christianity.” Responding to the emerging context, RVA embraced media platforms to connect with the global Asian audience via its 21 language websites and various social media platforms.