23 November 2009

Fr Michael Sinnott's release: Days of Thanksgiving

Fr Pat O’Donoghue
Columban Regional Director, Philippines

‘I know the plans I have in mind for you, plans for peace and not disaster, to give you a future and a hope’ (Jer 29:11) [Antiphon for Ferial Mass Sunday, 15 November 2009]

Fr Mick Sinnott was released from his captivity at 4.30am on Thursday, 12 November 2009. It was the moment that so many had waited and prayed for. It was a moment of great joy and thanksgiving and the days since then have been marked by the same sense of joyful gratitude. Right around the world, as people heard the news of his release, there was joyful celebration and praise to the God who had brought him safely back to us. It is indeed ‘good news’ and, as we so often read in the Gospel, when people experienced the presence of God in Jesus’ healing, God was praised and thanked with joyful hearts.

No one who has been journeying with Father Mick in his 31 days of captivity has any doubt that it was God’s providence that led to his release last Thursday. God’s plans for his peaceful release have been beautifully revealed. But I believe that God’s plans for a much broader peace in Mindanao (something Father Mick himself spent so much time and effort on) are also being gently unfolded before us. God has listened to the heartfelt prayers of so many around the world to release Father Mick from his captivity and he has united those prayers with his own desire to release Mindanao (and other places here) from the ‘captivity’ of conflict and fear that has been part of our story for many years. God’s plans for peace are far more wonderful than we might have dared to hope, as the antiphon reminds us
Late Wednesday (11 November) evening I had an indication that Father Mick might be released on Thursday (12th). The previous Wednesday (4 November) we also had our hopes raised. But they did not materialise. This time, I was trying to remain ‘indifferent’ but I did spend time in the Chapel urging Jesus that it might be so this time! I slept but not easily. Then just after 4.30am my cell phone rang with the news that we all had longed to hear – he was free at last. Within a few minutes I had another phone call giving me the news that he was indeed now with government officials in Zamboanga City. How can I describe my feelings? I cried with joy, relief and gratitude. My prayer of gratitude to God was truly heartfelt and I sensed that God was rejoicing with us too. How true it is that God delights in showering his goodness upon us.

But that ‘peaceful prayer’ was cut short very quickly as the news agencies began to call me for my reaction. How lovely it was to share the good news with them, especially those reporters who had journeyed with us these last weeks. They were genuinely delighted when they phoned and asked for my reaction. It truly was a moment everyone could share in. Looking back now there was a ‘comical’ element to it as both my cell phones and the landlines all began to ring at once, even as I was trying to make some phone calls or send text messages to send the good news to those who were still sleeping! But it was a ‘happy chaos’ as the news spread and people wanted both to share in it and get something for their news stories.

Sometime after 5am I got a phone call from Zamboanga City. I believe that it was Ambassador Seguis (undersecretary at the Department of Foreign Affairs). He told me that Father Mick was with him and would like to speak to me. In the moments I waited while he passed the phone to Father Mick I wondered how he would sound. I need not have worried – his voice was just as it always was, though he did sound tired. As I tumbled out my questions, asking how he was etc etc he calmly replied that he was fine but a little tired as he did not get any sleep that night and had been hiking the previous afternoon. And then, in typical fashion, he apologised for causing all the fuss! He sounded so much himself that I began to wonder if he had been ever been abducted!

Shortly after that people began to arrive at the house to celebrate! To be honest, my memory is hazy with regard to those hours. I contacted someone to see about getting to Zamboanga by road (it is a 4-5 hour journey and I would have needed security). Father Mick then phoned me a second time to tell me that he would be travelling to Manila on a government plane and was expected to arrive there at 10.30am. My suggestion that they might set down in Pagadian on the way was treated for the joke it was! So I managed to call Fr Mick McGuire (Columban Vice Superior in the Philippines) to arrange that he would go with Irish Ambassador Richard O’Brien to the airport to meet Father Mick, who would also be met by the President of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Meanwhile, I had to arrange to get myself to Manila via Ozamiz. The four Sacred Heart priests (assigned in Dumalinao) came early to rejoice – they had been through this themselves in 2001 when Fr Pepe Pierantoni was kidnapped in Dimataling, a former Columban parish in the diocese of Pagadian. Shortly after that Bishop Manny Cabajar arrived with some others. He, too, was tired as he had been in the neighbouring province playing a very important part in the whole process of Father Mick’s release. To say that we were all relieved would be the understatement of the day! How different our conversation was that morning from so many other days when news was uncertain and rumour rife.

Just before 10am the security detail who would accompany me on the road trip to Ozamiz arrived and I realised I wasn’t ready to leave. I did have a bag packed with Father Mick’s clothes etc in it, but my own was not packed. It just took four minutes as I pushed everything in and began the two hour journey to Ozamiz.

As I checked in at the airport people approached to offer good wishes. Everyone said the same thing – we have been praying for Father Mick – and they were all delighted that he was again free, asking me how he was and where he was etc. In the departure lounge, I phoned Fr Mick McGuire to ask where Fr Mick Sinnott was. I wanted to go straight from the airport in Manila to the hospital where I thought he would be. We had our contingency plans ready, as we assumed that he would need to be taken to hospital for a full check-up. How wrong we were! He was back in our Singalong house having lunch! Having arrived in Manila to the formal welcome with President Macapagal-Arroyo, the Irish Ambassador and Fr Mick McGuire among others, he was taken to a private room where he was able to speak with the President and the others who met him. After that meeting, he was taken to a press conference, which was televised live and, to many people’s surprise, he handled himself like he was doing this all his life! He had asked to return to Singalong and have his medical check-up done from there. It was a wise decision. After the press conference a presidential escort brought him home – for once traffic was not a problem!

With the barber and, I think, Dr Navalta

My plane arrived in Manila ahead of schedule and I arrived in our house just before 3.30pm. Father Mick was having his hair cut and his beard shaved off! He looked tired but well. It was great to see him and to see him so well. It was a little awkward to hug him as he sat with the barber’s robe around him, but I did! He had that particular smile of his as if to say when is all this fuss going to be over! How different he looked from what I had feared during those weeks of captivity. Dr Navalta, our doctor, was already there. He has given Father Mick a thorough check-up and was arranging to have a series of tests done in the following days. He, too, was more than surprised as how well Father Mick was, though there were some things that needed immediate attention. By contrast he suggested that I was not looking that great!!

There were some TV cameras already at the gate and others came shortly after, but we asked that they would wait for a while to give Father Mick and the rest of us a chance to catch up. They were more than willing.

We were all so eager to hear Father Mick’s story that we did not tell him much about what had been happening on the ‘outside’ during his time in the swamp and later in the forest! He was surprised by the media coverage and the extent of the worldwide interest in him and his abduction. Around 5pm we allowed the first reporters and TV crews to interview him. He also answered calls from radio stations in Ireland. He was as obliging as he always is – never refusing, even when I wanted to call time. When he was not able to take a call, I became the ‘second choice’!! It was well after 9pm when the last of the reporters left and we refused any more phone calls from the media for that night.

As I listened to him telling his story again and again, I began to pick up more of the details of what it had been like for him during his captivity and my admiration for the man grew even more. Father Mick, as is his style, played down the difficulty of the conditions in which he was kept as much as the discomfort when he was changed from one location to another. He was ten days in what he calls a ‘swampy area’. When he got out of the hammock, which was used to sleep and sit in, he stepped into almost knee-high water and his feet were in the mud underneath. Food was also a problem there as they were unable to cook anything. For those ten days he had no medication. He did find it difficult to walk through this swamp when he had to, but again, while acknowledging the difficulty, he played it down. When they got to the ‘forest area’, as he calls it, which was quite a journey from the swamp, things were better. His captors made a pathway of about ten meters in the vegetation, which allowed him to exercise. He also had his essential medications there. The food was somewhat better also – the emphasis should be on ‘somewhat’! As for shelter, they had a tarpaulin over them and that was it. When there was wind with the rain, they got wet and sometimes he had to sleep in wet clothes. That he never got an infection is one of the great graces that he, and all of us, believe was the fruit of all the prayers being offered for him. Father Mick’s total lack of self-pity is something that has impacted on everyone. Listening to him, if you really did not know the harshness and primitive nature of his conditions, you would be forgiven for thinking that it was just a few weeks on a ‘nature hike’. The reality was much much different, despite what he says.

Every reporter that he spoke with remarked on how impressed they were by his calmness and lack of bitterness, resentment and anger. Many of us will have heard of the Stockholm Syndrome, where an alliance builds between the kidnap victim and his/her captors. I don’t believe that this can adequately explain Father Mick’s own way of responding then or now to his abduction and as the days have gone on I am more convinced of that. He was forthright and honest about what had happened. He did not shrink from speaking of the more unpleasant aspects of the experience, especially the actual abduction itself during which he was roughly treated, but he genuinely feels that they did their best to care for him as much as possible and is grateful for that. Once they assured him that they did not intend to kill him, and once he had surrendered to God’s way (after an initial ‘complaint’ to God as he puts it himself!) he seems to have settled down to wait. He said that he knew from the experience of previous kidnappings that sometimes they take a long time to resolve. His only prayer was that it would not be ‘months’! And he added to one reporter: ‘You could get used to anything’. He has shown us that he can – and those of us who know him, recognise the genuineness of that statement. His own faith relationship with God – and the integrity that that has honed in him – sustained and nurtured him.

But Father Mick himself is the first one to insist that his calmness and peace were also the gift of all the prayers that were being offered for him. And as he has come to know how many were praying for him, he believes that more and more. He has had many reminders as the days go by of just how many prayers have been offered for him. His concern is how he can ‘repay’ all those thousands of people who have been praying constantly for him. We are assuring him that seeing him free and well is the only ‘repayment’ that anyone would ever want. But we can be sure that all those who prayed for him will be included in his prayers for the rest of his life.

He began his medical tests on Friday. But it was also another busy day of interviews with the media who came to the house as much as with those who called from abroad. He spoke with Papal Nuncio Archbishop Edward Joseph Adams early Friday morning and with Bishop Cabajar. He was also happy to speak, using my cel phone, with a number of people who had expended a lot of energy to have him released. One of these was Governor Aurora Cerilles in Pagadian. Mr Micheál Martin, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, and I were both on an early morning radio program in Northern Ireland. [It was afternoon here. Father Mick went on the same program on Saturday morning.] A few minutes after the program, the Minister called me to convey his good wishes to Father Mick and myself. It says a lot for the man that he did not ask to speak to Father Mick as he did not want to disturb him. But I insisted that Father Mick would be very happy to speak to him and he did. They had a lively ten-minute conversation (a Wexford man and a Corkman!) after which I again spoke with Minister Martin who also was ‘taken’ by Father Mick’s simplicity and genuineness.

Saturday was less hectic. One of the more important things was to get Father Mick new eyeglasses. We had tried to send his glasses to him with our first attempt to get medication to him, but they never got to him. We can only wonder who is using them now?! He went to his eye doctor of many years, who graciously saw him immediately. It was his first trip out of the house since he arrived Thursday and he soon realised that he is ‘recognised’ by many ordinary people. Those in the doctor’s office immediately recognised him and told him how they had been praying for him. When he came out from the doctor a group of people, who had heard that he was there, came to greet him and tell him that they too had been praying for him. All wanted to have their photo taken with him. He obliged, his own gentle way of saying thanks to people whom he ‘recognises’ for their genuineness and goodness.

There were some more interviews in the mid afternoon and then, shortly after 5pm we set out for the Thanksgiving Mass in Malate Church at 6pm. We wanted to arrive a little early to allow time for people to greet him before Mass – and he was ‘mobbed’! It was the last night of the novena to Our Lady of Good Remedy, to whom we had been fervently praying for his release. The church was packed to capacity. The Irish Ambassador, Richard O’Brien, Honorary Consul General of Ireland, Noreen Trota, and other guests were in the congregation. I was the principal celebrant (something that had been long scheduled). I must say that it was a beautiful and joyful celebration with the choir at its best. Father Mick spoke after the Post-Communion Prayer. You could hear a pin drop as people listened intently to him. He spoke simply but powerfully about his experience and about the love of God, urging us twice to allow God to love us. (I now have the recording.) He got a standing ovation when he finished – and you could feel the genuine joy and delight of people. It really was wonderful. Afterwards we all enjoyed a lovely meal in Malate. It was Columban Family – Sisters, Lay Missionaries, students and priests – and a few guests. As someone remarked afterwards, it was one of the most joyful celebrations we have ever had. We got back to Singalong at about 9.40pm but Father Mick’s Day was not yet over. There had been two phone calls from the office of the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, while we were at Malate and the secretary had promised to phone again. She did just before 10pm and Father Mick spoke with the President for about 10 minutes. She told him that she hopes to see him at her residence, Áras an Uachtaráin, very soon!

The days of thanksgiving go on. It is now just a week since Father Mick’s release and things have ‘settled’ a little. When he goes to Mindanao next week for a visit, we can be sure that there will be more joyful thanksgiving celebrations. As I end this, however, I would like to offer my own reflection on these most extraordinary weeks. What I share here is more or less what I shared in my homily at the Thanksgiving Mass in Malate on Saturday, November 14th.

‘My Spirit rejoices in God my Saviour...... He who is mighty has done great things for me [Luke 1:47, 49].

The Visitation, El Greco

Two women, both pregnant, one beyond normal child-bearing years, the other a teenager, rejoice together. Each knows that the child in her womb is a particular and singular blessing from the All-Gracious God. And it is this shared knowledge of the heart that allows them to exult together in God’s goodness. They believe that Yahweh’s promise to Israel, long foretold and long waited for, is being fulfilled in and through them and their children. And they acutely know that this is all gift. And so their hearts overflow with joy as they experience the goodness, faithfulness and tender yet passionate love of God for his people – anew.

We have all read those words of the Magnificat many times. We have understood them, been encouraged by them and maybe even delighted in them. But to what extent have we truly experienced them? I’m sure some people have, especially when God has ‘entered’ their lives in unexpected and life-giving ways. I am not a mother and so I cannot know what it is like to experience the first ‘stirrings’ of the baby in the womb. I am told it is a most beautiful and precious experience, especially so when it is the first pregnancy. On Thursday morning, November 12th, something stirred deep in my heart, in my very being, when at 4.30am I got news that Father Mick was free. I really can’t even begin to describe that experience nor the feelings of joyful gratitude that welled up within me when I heard his voice later on the phone. What I do know is that I experienced his release and his good health as sheer gift of a provident and gracious God – there was ‘new life’. And within this I also experienced my own ‘lowliness’, though not as a burden or an embarrassment, but as a reminder of how much we are constantly loved by the One who is Love. This aspect of Father Mick’s release can only be shared and understood by those who live in the horizon of belief. And during these last five weeks God has built up a worldwide ‘community of believers’ who have put their trust in God and reached out to him in prayerful asking and waited on his promise to be fulfilled in God’s time and way. That ‘community’ now rejoices together as we see God’s promise fulfilled and Father Mick safely and healthily restored to us.

We know that God is good. To experience it is gift. In these last five weeks many have been drawn into a deep experience of God’s wonderful goodness and mystery. It was a journey which led us to “ponder” God’s word anew in fairly extraordinary circumstances and to hold to God’s promise and wait in hope in ways that sometimes ‘stretched’ our faith. I now believe that it was Mary who gathered us, a ‘community of prayer’ from many parts of the world, and accompanied us, as she did when she and the disciples waited for the wonderful promise of Jesus (that he would not leave them orphans) to be fulfilled on Pentecost Day.

Remembering is at the heart of our faith. We are constantly called to ‘remember’ who God really is and how he has shown his love throughout history, despite infidelity and ‘forgetting’ and betrayal of his goodness. Eucharist is central to our ‘remembering’ as Christians – there, more than anywhere, we are led into the most intimate self-giving that God could ever give us. Mary gathered us into ‘remembering’ her Son and his presence and word to us, which became the source of our deepened trust and hope and surrender. She helped us see, as she herself came to see in her lifetime, that even in the darkest moments God is to be trusted. She held us, as ‘community of prayer’, in hope even when our expectations did not materialise, when we felt disappointment and dejection and when we wondered why God was not answering our prayers as we may have wanted. She helped us persevere, surrender again and again and trust that God does indeed make all things work to the good ultimately. I truly believe that the ‘surrendered hope’ which sustains waiting was Mary’s gift to me and many others these last weeks. It gave me a confidence to do what was possible and then wait in trust. I lovingly thank her for that precious gift and ask that it may last.

It is only now, perhaps, that we can better see how God was and still is answering our prayers in ways that are more wonderful than we could have imagined or foreseen. As Father Mick’s captivity lengthened more and more people were ‘joined’ to the community of prayer. But they were also joined to the greater desires of God’s heart that exceeded our ‘focus’ of Father Mick’s safety and freedom. It is for this reason that I believe we need to keep our prayers going – that God’s further desires may blossom soon.

There are three fruits of our prayer that I would like to focus on here. I am sure there are many more.

Firstly, there is Father Mick’s good health. He said he had no aches or pains despite the rough conditions. He did not get any infection, which medically speaking was nothing short of miraculous. And the care of his captors can be added in here.

Secondly, his safe release, which was secured through understanding, negotiation, patience and compassion. From the beginning I believed that his captors were capable of compassion and a number of times I said this publicly, adding that if they showed this, it is what we would remember them for. That nobody was injured, or worse killed, is a wonderful answer to prayer.

Thirdly, I believe that God desires to use our prayers for a much broader purpose. Father Mick has spent time and effort working with others for peace in Mindanao. He has been a member of the Interfaith Forum for Peace and Solidarity in Pagadian for many years. If plans work out, the welcome prayer gathering for him will be on Thursday, November 26, the beginning of the Mindanao Peace Week. I have a real sense that, in ways we might never fully know, the Peace Process negotiations with regard to Mindanao have been given ‘new life’ as a result of Father Mick’s abduction and 32 days in captivity. Might I then suggest that all of us, whether in our individual prayer or when we gather to pray, would continue to ask Our Lady of Good Remedy to bring peace to Mindanao and all of this beautiful and wonderful country of the Philippines. In this way we will be one with God who knows what plans he has in mind for us here for a peaceful and hope-filled future. May we see the ‘great things’ God has in mind come to fruit in Mindanao. Then we will have even more reason to rejoice.

I am aware that during Father Mick’s time of captivity, I have, on a number of occasions, thanked all of you who prayed with us, waited with us and offered your support and solidarity in all kinds of ways, as we sought his safe and speedy release. Now, I wish to reiterate that thanks and to also say thanks to the many people who emailed and/or called to offer their good wishes to Father Mick and to us here. Maybe, in time, we may get a thank you to all of you. I would also like to say a special word of thanks to all those who worked in often unseen ways but whose efforts and influence were crucial in securing Father Mick’s release. I include here those from the highest positions in national and local governments, to those in the Diplomatic Corps, to bishops and priests, to those very ordinary people on the ground. Many of these people showed courage and commitment that goes well beyond even the highest sense of duty. Many also became a source of inspiration to me. They all have our deepest gratitude. May they know that God, in whose providence we trusted, will not be outdone in generosity.

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