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Irish Missionary Heroes

March 3, 2005 · 

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Catholicism in the Philippines (Part 2)
Published in The Irish Catholic

In a recent interview with this author, Cebu’s Archbishop, Cardinal Ricardo Vidal, praised the Irish missionaries as ‘models of courage to whom this nation will be forever indebted.’ He particularly singled out the Columban Fathers as ‘exceptional for their courage and dedication; living the gospel as their daily ministry’.
Columban missions in the Philippines have been comprehensive since the 1950s; having earlier relinquished a Chinese mission on account of sustained violence, imprisonments and killings by the Communist forces of Mao who took power in 1949. The Philippines Asia’s only major Christian nation where 83% of the 85m. people are Catholic was the base to which Columbans retreated, and therewith conducted a major programme of running poor parishes, training catechists and evangelising marginalized communities. The country was critically short of priests and pastoral services in the remote areas.

Over ensuing decades, Columban priests from Ireland, Britain, USA and Australia ministered to slum dwellers in Manila and Cebu, while serving outer islands like Negros and Mindanao where starvation and social injustice were familiar hazards. During the martial dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos (1965-86), the Columbans enthusiastic agents for the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on identifying with the poor braved an oppressive military and perverse judicial system. The priests shared in the Filipino peoples’ experience of imprisonments, army brutality, false charges and deportations, all commonplace then. So were arbitrary murders common, something that befell clerics, as well as lay people at the hands of Marcos apparatchiks and local guerrillas alike.

Such a ministry – even in improved times – challenges the most dedicated men. It required a special affinity with poorer Filipino people landless labourers, sharecroppers and tenant farmers along with their language, customs and outlook. Vatican 11 reforms had enabled adaptation of the liturgy, prayers and pastoral practice to meet local needs. Yet missionaries were also called to share the peoples’ poverty; as Cardinal Vidal said later ‘being poor in order to serve the poor’. This was a challenge to which many Columbans rose with distinction, and continue do so today.

The name of Fr Shay Cullen, the Dublin-born Columban running a rescue centre for child victims of sexual abuse in Olongapo, north of Manila, comes to mind among many others.

Two distinguished Columbans both now dead – merit special examination, namely Dubliner Fr. Niall O’Brien and Fr Rufus Halley from Waterford.

Niall O’Brien over four decades of working on the Visayan island of Negros propagated the Gospel of the poor and a Christian ministry that placed peace and social justice at its heart. His whole life was dominated by an ongoing battle to improve social conditions for the afflicted sugar workers of Negros, themselves victims of landlordism, economic exploitation and a military machine that trampled on their rights and dignities. In that cause, O’Brien asserted the emptiness of prayer that denied the prevalence of social injustice or the need for its reform; hence though avoiding the militant revolutionary lure, he openly sided with the people of poverty-ridden Negros in their struggle for survival. He was a priest of the people who drew upon Jesus Christ, the carpenter of Nazareth and preacher of the Beatitudes as his inspiration.

The Philippines, seething with discontent and injustice during the Marcos era, proved conducive to a resurgence of social Christianity, but O’Brien maintained that the inaction of an over-conservative church and quiescent political class helped prolong that regime. Hardly surprising therefore that his relations with sections of the hierarchy proved tetchy, even fractious at times, though there were never any open conflicts. Such was the climate in which O’Brien worked, and where he faced a notorious trial in 1984 on trumped up murder charges which under the weight of international scrutiny eventually collapsed. Having exposed the iniquitous Marcos regime, O’Brien returned to Ireland with his reputation and integrity wholly vindicated. There he remained until Marcos’s fall in 1986, when invited to return by the new president Cory Aquino.

Probably O’Brien’s greatest legacy to his adopted nation lay with fashioning Basic Christian Communities. Those units – modeled on early Christian groups – aimed at meeting a dire priestly shortage while providing structures for prayer, pastoral service, the search for justice and Christian living in remote, deprived areas like Negros. By his death in May 2004 (aged 65), over 350 B.C.C.s had emerged, complete with pastoral leaders. Indeed, two decades earlier, it was their success that led the Marcos machine to fear O’Brien; hence the false charges. O’Brien’s vision was laid out in the three books; Negros: Island of Tears, Island of Hope (1993) enunciating his experience of non-violent justice struggles in Negros, while another, Seeds of Injustice (1985), was a diary of the 14 months imprisonment and trial faced by himself, two fellow priests (an Australian and Filipino) and six lay leaders, collectively known as the ‘Negros Nine’. Finally, a more fulsome perspective emerges in Revolution from the Heart (1987, Veritas). All three texts are worthy of study by anyone interested in living the gospel in turbulent conditions.

Rufus Halley was, a pragmatist, who shunned the intellectual world. Instead his was a practical ministry with a peacemaking goal in an area of tension. This doughty priest declined the relative safety of Cebu and Manila for a parish in Lanao del Sur, a strife-torn province of mixed Christian Muslim cohabitation in southern Mindanao. The 4.5m. Filipino Muslims (numbering just 5% of the total population) are concentrated in that region, and enjoy self-governing autonomy from the rest of the country. There is a militant secessionist Abu Sayaf movement, fighting for a separate Muslim state, whose paramilitary force who have committed multiple murder and kidnappings against local Christians including Catholic priests and Protestant pastors and foreigners.

It was a brave act by Halley to remain in post, given multiple Abu Sayaf beheadings. Yet Fr Rufus was an inveterate peace monger, whose ministry was directed as much at healing inter-communal tensions and building bridges as the normal pastoral duties of a parish priest. He set up joint prayer and action groups, openly befriending Muslims along with Christians, especially those in poverty. Fr Rufus, a man of peace and tolerance was a familiar and regular sight traveling on his motorbike around the mixed barrios of Lanao.

Accordingly, his murder bv a Muslim bandit gang in August 2001 produced shock waves of revulsion throughout Mindanao and across the country. The much-loved Irish missionary’s slaying provoked an outbreak of cross-communal mourning that was both genuine and prolific. Those many weeping Catholics, Protestants and Muslims who lined the streets of Cagayan de Oro City to bid farewell to Fr Rufus as his coffin was borne from Requiem Mass to its last resting place nearby told its own story. Rufus Halley’s violent death served to highlight the cause that went to the roots of his priestly ministry, notably peace, justice and harmony among all Filipinos, Christian and Muslim.

Cardinal Vidal’s tribute, plus the immortal prayer of St Francis of Assisi offers adequate memorial to the life’s work of two heroic missionaries serving in that far-off Asian land. END

May Heaven be the just reward of Rufus Halley and Niall O’Brien

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