A pearl in the Orient

90 years of Columban Mission in the Philippines

Centenial Mass in Malate June 28, 2018. Centenial Mass in Malate June 28, 2018. Photo: Fr Kevin McHugh SSC

May 28, 1929, is an historic day for Columbans in the Philippines. Columban Fr Michael Cuddigan arrived from Sydney and the following day met the ship bringing Columban Fr Patrick Kelly from Europe. Our Lady of Remedies Church, Malate, Manila, welcomed these two Irishmen, pioneers in a long line of Columbans who, over the next 90 years, made the Philippines their home.

By means of the Cross and the Sword, Spain had ruled the Philippines for almost 400 years. In 1898, America annexed the Philippines and within a decade suppressed the subsequent revolt by the Filipinos who challenged US occupation. Church and State separated; the Vatican, not the King of Spain now appointed Bishops; a procession of U.S. Protestant Churches arrived; most Spanish missionaries departed; the few Filipino clergy had been given little opportunity for leadership; many parishes now had no priests, and droves of Catholics embraced a breakaway nationalist Church. For the faithful who remained, the outlook seemed bleak.

Philippine Church leaders appealed to Catholic congregations worldwide to send missionaries and many responded generously. Soon, they recruited and trained Filipinos for school and parish ministry. The Columbans had been founded for mission to China and were reluctant to accept a mission in a Catholic country like the Philippines. It was only after protracted negotiations between Rome and the Archbishop of Manila, that the Society leadership accepted Malate.

The 1930s would be an uphill battle, but revival was in the air for many communities of harassed and suffering Catholics. The succeeding decades witnessed the arrival of many newly ordained Columbans plus others recently expelled from China. This allowed for a massive expansion so that by the mid-70s around 250 Columbans (including two Bishops) were ministering in 13 dioceses - five percent of all the clergy in the Philippines.

In early 1942, Japan invaded the Philippines and gradually overcame the Filipino and American resistance to its global expansion. However, U.S troops returned in strength in October, 1944, and a few months later reached Manila and faced an entrenched Japanese military. The month-long battle in February, 1945, resulted in the rampant destruction of the old city and the slaughter of 100,000 people, including the five Columban priests at Malate. The American officer responsible for the slaughter admitted that it “… was really indefensible”. However, the end of the conflict gave Filipinos control of their city.

Columbans had established SCA (Student Catholic Action) in 1936, to strengthen the faith and develop the talents and leadership of the hundreds of thousands of students in Manila’s non-sectarian Colleges. Lay leaders were introduced to Catholic social teaching; prophetic voices for change grew louder. Over the decades these were considered a threat by the ruling elite; political dynasties and well-armed military promoted the lie that socialism was communism; many were imprisoned or liquidated under the Marcos Martial Law Government. By the mid-80s, many countries decided to intervene and withdrew their support for the dictator. When a few high-ranking military leaders abandoned Marcos, Cardinal Sin called the nation to join them, a bloodbath was avoided, and the possibility of democracy was restored.

Meanwhile, encouraged by Vatican ll and subsequent Documents, the global church accelerated people’s participation in worship and in social and political life. Liberation Theology was a positive influence and small church communities multiplied. The Philippines welcomed and adopted these developments. The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines in 1991, where laity outnumbered clergy by two to one, became a prophetic call for the whole Filipino Church “to become, and be, a genuine Church of the poor.”

Despite a collective commitment to peace building and Christian-Muslim dialogue, nine Columban priests, in following their Master, suffered violent deaths in the Philippines.

Around ten million Filipino migrants scattered throughout the world have a huge missionary impact. A second group, also in millions, brings their skills, values, and beliefs to the world. These OFW (Overseas Foreign Workers) include seafarers, engineers and technicians, nurses, caregivers and domestic helpers. A third grouping is the priests, nuns and lay missionaries sent out by their Church. Pope Francis’ call that we not be just disciples, but “missionary disciples,” has indeed been fulfilled by many Filipinos.

A hallmark of Columban parish ministry was their catechetical programs in practically every National Elementary School. We have frequently heard local priests telling how our catechists and their Columban pastors sowed the seeds of their vocation. Columbans, under severe financial limitations, opened High Schools where none existed.

The world was undergoing radical change, and so also was the Church. Columbans, in partnership with the IMU (Irish Missionary Union), developed the Faith and Mission programme for returned missionaries to enable them to keep pace with these changes. In general, secular clergy in the Philippines were rarely given either the time, or the encouragement for renewal.

Columbans have gradually become aware that our present way of living will inevitably put an end to life as we know it on planet Earth. Prophetic voices have opened our eyes to the impending catastrophe brought on by our blindness and greed. Pope Francis is awakening the conscience of millions with his superb presentation of this in the Encyclical, Laudato Si'.

Encouraged by Rome, Columbans made a leap of faith in 1982. From the countries in which we worked, we invited lay people to join us as partners in mission, and we also invited young men into a training programme for Columban missionary priesthood. Both programs have been blessed by the Lord and have become sources of new life and hope for us and for the global church.

Today there are dozens of Filipino young men and women, ordained and lay, serving as Columban missionaries around the world, including Ireland, which nurtured and supported the dreams of those who came and uplifted the spirits of the Filipino Church some ninety years ago.

Columban Fr Michael Martin has served in Columban parishes in Negros and in Malate for over 50 years. He helped to set up the Columban Lay Mission Programme in the Philippines.

Columban Fr Kevin McHugh has been ministering in parishes in the Philippines for over 55 years.

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