24 November 2009

Return to the heart of mission

Fr Michael Sinnott at Villamor Air Base, near Manila, 12 November 2009

Today I came across a story by Clifford Coonan that appeared in The Irish Times on 16 November, Return to the heart of the mission. I found it on CathNewsPhilippines, the newly-launched news service of the Australia-based CathNews and the Hong Kong-based UCAN.

When I read the opening sentence I thought. 'Here we go again with the assumption that all Columbans are Irish'. The majority are. But Clifford Coonan later points out that there are Columbans from Australia, the UK, the USA and other countries, including the Philippines. He manages too to capture the peculiarly Irish sense of humour in the whole situation. He also made the very understandable mistake of calling the accent of Fr Don Kill of Toledo, Ohio, as 'Tagalog' one. Fr Kill, who was shot in an ambush in 1974, has spent all his time in the Philippines in Mindanao and speaks Cebuano-Visayan, the most widely-spoken first language in the Philippines. Here is the article.

Fr Don Kill

The kidnapping and safe return of Fr Michael Sinnott is the latest incident in the long and eventful history of Irish Columbans in the troubled islands of the Philippines.

IT’S ONE DAY after his release, and Fr Michael Sinnott managed to sleep half of last night, although he is terribly restless since his ordeal. But a lot of this restlessness seems related to his itching to return to Pagadian, to get back to the place from which he was roughly taken by an armed gang, nearly five weeks ago. Back to the Hangop Kabataan Foundation, the school for children with learning disabilities and for deaf children that Fr Sinnott opened 12 years ago.
What an autumn it has been for him. Thirty-two days in captivity, then a boat ride to freedom, followed by meeting president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo at a Manila airport.

In the Columban headquarters, there is joy at his release, but also a peculiarly Irish desire that no one gets too full of himself. In the oratory, when I ask Fr Sinnott to sit in a particular seat for a photo, one of his colleagues says: “Why don’t you levitate for us there, Mick?”

As with so much else in the Philippines, domestic politics played a big role behind the scenes, and it seems that remarks by senior security officials that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was involved could have slowed his release.

His abductors, who appear to have been a splinter group of Islamic fundamentalists, members of the “lost commands” of splinter groups from the MILF, were angry when the MILF said kidnapping was against the rules of the Koran. “My head guard said that it was all very well for them, they had money, but we have nothing,” Fr Sinnott says.

There is happy news. The 200,000 pesos (€2,886) offered as a reward by the Pagadian city authorities, and the same amount offered by the provincial government, was never claimed. One senior cleric reminded the government of this, and suggested it be donated to Fr Sinnott’s Hangop Kabataan school, and it has.

The sum is slightly less than the 250,000 pesos (€3,607) that local sources say was the amount paid to Fr Sinnott’s kidnappers, well shy of the $2 million (€1.35 million) the abductors were seeking. This is also a lot less than the usual “food and lodging” payments made to kidnappers in the region as a face-saving measure.

Part of the reason Fr Sinnott seems so able to deal with his ordeal is that he has endured far worse in his years in the Philippines.

The Marcos years were the toughest for him, and discussing the horrors of that time brings tears to Fr Sinnott’s eyes. He sheds no tears about his personal plight, but his anger and emotion about the disastrous period of rule by Ferdinand Marcos is clear. “There were a lot of killings, a lot of harassment. “That was a far more stressful time than the whole fear of kidnapping in Mindanao,” he says.

Marcos became president in 1965 and introduced martial law in 1972, largely as a pretext to running the country as his own personal fiefdom, with his free-spending wife Imelda Marcos at this side, until Corazon (Cory) Aquino came to power on the back of People Power in 1986.
“There was a lot of pressure from the military because we spoke up for justice. And to say anything was unjust was to be called a Communist,” he said.

A number of parish workers were killed during this time. On one occasion he went to find three missing relatives of his parishioners, who were later discovered shot by a military checkpoint. “At one point 18 people were killed in three weeks. We did research, and nine were killed by the military or the paramilitaries, six were killed by the [Communist group] New People’s Army, and three we could not be certain about,” he says.

Fr Sinnott tells of driving back to his parish one morning on a Honda 60 motorcycle one evening and seeing a lump by the side of the road, which he thought was a dead calf.

“It was a man, dead, the blood running out of his head,” he said. All day was spent trying to find someone who would help him take the body and find who had killed him, but the body was still there by 11pm.

“I remember thinking how cheap human life had become. A human life had less value than the life of a chicken,” he says. For his concern for the well-being of his parishioners, Fr Sinnott was top of a list of Communists.

There was a great sense of elation when Corazon Aquino came to power after the assassination of her husband Ninoy Aquino at the Manila airport in 1983 that now bears his name. But she spent her presidency fighting off seven attempted coups and failing to gain control over the interests that rule the Philippines – the 60 large families and the army.

With President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo at the air base

THE PAST IS past. Now, as heavy rain thrums on the roof of the refectory, there is time to recount some of the details of his release in the early hours of Thursday morning.

Fr Sinnott tells of being driven by a fast boat from the place where he was being held.

“I was hopeful I was being freed, but I’d been let down a few times. I knew I was eight hours away from where I had been taken, but I was made wear a tarpaulin over me, even though it was dark,” he says.

The boat had two 45-horsepower engines, which the local pirates claim can outrun any police or naval craft. He was let off the boat, and stepped down into shallow water.

“I saw three guys. They escorted me 100 yards to where a group of MILF negotiators met me. They had two very nice cars there to meet me. They said: “You are safe, you are safe now. We are the MILF and we will hand you over.”

Fr Michael McGuire, Columban Vice Superior in the Philippines, with Fr Sinnott. The Irish Times mistakenly identified Fr McGuire as our superior, Fr Pat O'Donoghue, who was on his way to Manila at the time.

The Columbans of Singalong Street VOICES OF WEXFORD, Cork and Toledo; Ohio tones mix with Tagalog accents as the priests sit down to eat a hearty meal to celebrate the return of one of their order’s veterans and the hero of the hour, Fr Michael Sinnott, back from a gruelling stint in captivity.

Unusually, there is wine with dinner, to celebrate, and the priests clap as the man everyone calls Mick walks in.

This is a busy religious community, with long experience of living in the Philippines. Fr Don Kill is from Toledo but has spent so long in the Philippines that he is speaking with a strong Tagalog accent. Another priest is keen to talk about debt relief. Fr Mick McGuire is keeping an eye on things because the Columban regional director, Fr Pat O’Donoghue, has been spending so much time trying to help with Fr Sinnott’s release.

It is back to the business of eating quickly, and talk is, literally, of parish-pump politics, as well as new vocations, logistics and other issues close to a missionary’s heart.

The days when you could approach a European-looking priest in the Philippines, ask him a question in Irish and have a good chance of getting a reply in the same tongue, are long gone.

The number of Irish missionaries coming to the country is minimal, and most of the priests in the Columban headquarters in Manila have been there for decades. “I’m one of the youngest here,” says Fr O’Donoghue, who is 61 years old. “The thinking now is to make this a manageable unit to be managed by Filipinos,” he says. He has sold three houses in a process that he calls “rationalisation”, though you get the sense others have called it something else, less complimentary.

There are currently 46 Columbans in the Philippines, of whom four are from the Philippines, and the rest are from Ireland, Australia, the UK, the US and other countries. At its peak in the mid-1970s, there were 255 Columbans. The Philippines is the only country in Asia where the Catholic Church dominates.

The creed was brought by the Spanish in 1521 and remains the religion of 90 per cent of the population. The remaining 10 per cent include various Protestant denominations, 4.5 million Muslims in the southern islands of Mindanao and Sulu, and a smattering of indigenous religions. There is also a kind of folk Catholicism that blends tribal beliefs with more traditional Catholic liturgy.

In recent years, evangelical Christians have made strong headway in the Philippines, but Roman Catholicism is still strong and one of the reasons is that organisations such as the Columbans are deeply embedded in local life.

The order recently moved its directorate to Hong Kong from Raheny, a move that was unpopular, but Fr O’Donoghue believed it was the right one. Since 1970, only Filipinos have been appointed bishops.

The Asian focus is nothing new in the Columbans; it is part of its mandate. The order was founded by Fr Edward Galvin and some colleagues as the Maynooth Mission to China in 1916, and then changed its name to the Missionary Society of St Columban, after the Irish missionary who spread Christianity throughout western Europe in the sixth and seventh centuries. They first went to Shanghai in 1920, and in 1929 went to the Philippines, where they were initially based in Manila and the neighbouring diocese of Cavite.

They went to Mindanao, where Fr Sinnott works, in 1938, and grew steadily in number after the second World War, staffing parishes, schools and hospitals. Since then, more than 400 Columban priests, sisters and lay missionaries have worked in the Philippines.

Their presence in the Philippines has been an eventful one. In February 1983, Columban Fr Niall O’Brien was arrested with two other priests and six lay workers for the murders of Mayor Pablo Sola of Kabankalan and four companions. He embraced the revolutionary form of Christianity known as liberation theology and was a proponent of active non-violence.

The former US president, Ronald Reagan, secured him a pardon from Ferdinand Marcos during his visit in 1984, but Fr O’Brien refused to accept it, as it would look like an admittance of guilt. Charges were dropped on condition that he left the country, but for the months that the scandal ran on, the whole world was able to see the degree of corruption that characterised the Marcos regime. Fr O’Brien left the country, and he died in Pisa in 2004, aged 64, following an accidental fall.

A major reason the Columbans are so engaged in politics is their presence in Mindanao, a desperately poor and isolated region long wriggling under the rule of Manila, and home to so many indigenous tribes and Muslims. None of the small number of elite families, the haciendas that famously run the Philippines, has much of a presence here.

Fr O’Donoghue laughs when asked about the way the order has attracted radicals over the years, saying Columbans have always embraced a wide body of opinion. The Columbans were back in the headlines again in 1997, when Mgr Des Hartford was held by Islamic militants for 12 days, then released. Mgr Hartford was lucky and he survived, but his colleague and Fr O’Donoghue’s friend from the seminary, Fr Rufus Halley, was shot dead during an attempted abduction in 2001.

Fr Halley was very close to the Muslim community but appears to have become caught up in a family feud, and tensions were heightened when the army got involved. Hundreds of Muslims attended his funeral and burial to mark the work of the Waterford priest in Lanao del Sur.

On top of the traditional missionary work done by the Columbans in the Philippines, the order is also involved in inter-faith dialogue with Muslims and indigenous peoples, mostly concentrated in Marawi and Pagadian.

In the early Manila evening, the sky has turned a lurid red, and the traffic is backed up all the way down Singalong Street, where the Columban headquarters in Manila is located.

“I would hope the Philippines will be thriving and that in the future the Columbans have something to offer,” says Fr O’Donoghue.

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