Freedom for Fr Michael Sinnott
Fr Seán McDonagh SSC
On Wednesday November 11, 2009, at 20.45, an official from the Department of Foreign Affairs phoned the Columbans Dalgan Park, Navan, Co Meath, to let us know that Fr Michael Sinnott had been freed by his captors and was on his way from Zamboanga City to Manila. The wave of joy that swept through our community here in Dalgan Park was palpable. The same was true for Father Michael’s relatives in Wexford and other parts of Ireland. The Irish Foreign Minister, Michael Martin put it well when he said. "It has been a tough 32 days for everybody concerned, but particularly so for those who were waiting anxiously at the end of the phone for news of their loved one."
The complex choreography surrounding Father Michael’s release involved the kidnappers, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Philippine army. Both these groups have been involved in a protracted civil war in the Western part of Mindanao, the roots of which go back almost 400 years.
In his bid for freedom, Father Michael experienced a few false dawns. He was led to believe that he would be released on November 4th . However, the sea was rough because a typhoon was lashing the eastern coastline of the Philippines. When freedom came on November 12th, he was moved out of the forest and taken on an eight hour boat journey to Zamboanga City where Rashid Ladiason, head of the MILF handed him over to Major Carlos Sol, of the Philippine Army. Later that day he was flown to Villamor air base in Manila where he was greeted by the President of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. After meeting the Irish Ambassador, Richard O’Brien, he was taken to the Columban residence in Manila where he was warmly welcomed by his fellow Columbans.
While we were overjoyed at the news that Father Michael was free, there was a niggling fear that his health might be permanently damaged. After all he is almost 80 years of age, and living in a tropical forest would test the endurance of someone half his age. Within a few hours we heard him speak, and our fears were allayed. His first words were words of gratitude for all those many people who had helped secure his release. These included agencies of the Philippine, Irish and U.S. governments along with thousands of people both in the Philippines, Ireland and around the world who had expressed their concerns and prayed that Michael’s captivity would end peacefully. The local Church in Pagadian, and especially Bishop Emmanuel (Manny) Cabajar, played a very significant, low key role in the who drama.
As a man of prayer Father Michael thanked people especially for their prayers. He believes that prayers helped sustain him during his ordeal.
Being greeted by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo
On arriving in Manila Fr Michael appeared remarkably well. In a strong and clear voice he answered questions from journalists. There was not the slightest tone of anger or bitterness towards those who had deprived him of his freedom and put him through such an ordeal. Despite being held in the open in the tropics, moved over long distances a number of times, deprived of his heart medicine for the first ten days and without potable water, he did not suffer from gastro-enteritis or even a cold during his time in captivity.
When he was originally abducted we felt that an important value in both Christian and Muslim Philippine culture, namely respect for older people, had been breached. [This is so true.] Now we know that was not so. Father Michael said that after the first initial skirmish involved in his abduction, bundling him into the van and boat, his captors were kind to him, and did things for him that he was well able to do himself. Nevertheless, sleeping out and living on poor quality food is no picnic.
We never doubted Father Michael’s inner strength to meet almost anything he might encounter. He is an exceedingly prayerful person. What he missed most during the 32 days was his daily Mass, breviary and Holy Hour which for 50 years have been an integral part of his daily schedule. He told reporters that, “finding things to do was the most difficult part of his captivity. I’d say prayers in the morning and in the afternoon, I recited 20 decades of the Rosary.”And when asked, “what will you be doing next?” Without hesitation, he said he wished to return to his school for children with special needs in Pagadian City. With a wry smile he added, “they won't kidnap me again, he said, I'm too old, perhaps somebody younger." Everyone would have understood if he had said, “given the shock of this experience and my advanced age, I would now like to return to Ireland and retire.” But that is not how Fr Michael Sinnott and scores of other missionaries think.
Fr Michael getting a badly needed tidy up
In recent years people from both the Right and Left have questioned the ministry of missionaries from Ireland. Those on the Right would like to roll back the clock to the pre-Vatican II era, and push us back into the sacristy. [I think that this is a bit of a cliche. Certainly the Columbans were no 'sacristy priests' in the old days but were involved in building up parishes, including churches and schools in places where there were none. The Mass and the sacramentes were, indeed, at the center of their lives.] They claim that we are mere social workers, which is an insult to the majority of social workers who do extraordinary work in difficult situations. This claim is clearly contradicted by the television coverage of Father Michael and his colleagues giving thanks to God in the oratory in the Columban residence in Manila on November 12, 2009. Those on the Left are equally mistaken. They often refuse to acknowledge that source of Michael’s missionary concern for the poor, for those suffering from injustices and for the destruction of God’s creation, is grounded in the love God made manifest in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. This is the Good News that he and missionaries are proud to proclaim.
The events surrounding the kidnapping and freedom of Fr Michael Sinnott, exemplify what is best in the Catholic Church. During his captivity, prayers for his welfare and freedom were offered in the Philippines, Ireland, Britain and the USA. Catholics from as far apart as the Kachin Hills in Myanmar and the barrios of Lima in Peru were praying for him. [There were also people in the Faroe Islands in the north Atlantic praying for him including an FMM Sister from a village in County Wexford where Father Michael's sister lives.] While he was deprived of his liberty and cut off from his community and friends, people around the world got a glimpse of the selfless devotion of this man, spanning five decades. [More than five decades - Father Michael will celebrate the 55th annviersary of his ordination on 21 December.] Finally, when he was released people encountered a forgiving, loving Christians, who wanted to return as quickly as possible to his ministry. This is a Church of which we can be justifiably proud.