KIDAPAWAN CITY — He was once a target for assassination, was arrested thrice and has been a recipient of death threats for taking the side of indigenous peoples in their struggles against human rights violations and in their assertions of their right to self-determination.
These are the dramatic episodes of Italian priest Peter Geremia’s missionary life as he marks his 50th year as priest on March 30, a Black Saturday.
“My experience in the Philippines has been very dramatic,” says Geremia, a member of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) who has spent 41 of his 50 year-priesthood in the Philippines, 36 of those years in Mindanao.
“When I came to Philippines, I was faced with the same challenges that the people were also facing,” the 74-year old missionary said.
After he was ordained as a priest in Detroit City in Michigan in 1963, Geremia taught history before he was assigned in Sta. Cruz, Laguna in 1972, the year martial law was declared.
“We experienced flooding when I was in Sta. Cruz, Laguna” he recalled.
Four years later, he was assigned in Tondo, Manila where he was involved in community organizing among informal settlers resisting relocation and pushing for recognition of their rights.
That same year, he was arrested along with other religious leaders for supporting the protesting La Tondeña workers.
In 1977, Geremia was assigned to Siocon, Zamboanga del Norte where he spent the next three years until his transfer to the Diocese of Kidapawan in North Cotabato.
In his early years at the Diocese, Geremia said then Bishop Federico Escaler, assigned him to Arakan town as his mission area.
“My special interest became the organizing of Indigenous Peoples (IP),” he told MindaNews last Tuesday.
Along with missionaries and Lumad leaders, Geremia founded the Tribal Filipino Program (TFP) in 1984 and served as its coordinator for 25 years.
Within the first decade of his stint at the Diocese of Kidapawan, Geremia witnessed the struggles of his parishioners against human rights abuses allegedly perpetrated by government forces.
He served as parish priest of Tulunan in North Cotabato from 1980 to 1985 but also served neighboring Columbio town as part of his mission work.
While in Columbio, Geremia stood up for the Lumads in their fight against the entry of a large-scale mining company.
In 1992, he landed in jail after he was accused to be behind the raid on the National Food Authority (NFA) at the height of the drought, when Lumads were facing near death from starvation.
But after spending nearly a month at the provincial jail in Isulan, also in Sultan Kudarat, Geremia and 19 others were released on bail.
When his fellow missionary Fausto “Pops” Tentorio was killed in Arakan on October 17, 2011, Geremia volunteered in May 2012 to continue his pastoral work in Arakan where he now serves as the assistant parish priest of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.
He also serves as coordinator of the Tribal Filipinos Apostolate of the diocese.
Happy and Grateful
Lory Obal, executive director of the Intercultural Organizations Network for Solidarity and Peace in Columbio, who worked with Geremia for years says they are very happy and grateful because “he is an exceptional servant” and is “very consistent in his vows and commitment to the poor.”
When Italian missionary Tulio Favali was killed on April 11, 1985 in Tulunan, Geremia said it was the turning point of his missionary life.
Geremia was the target of the paramilitary group of killers led by Norberto Manero, Jr., aka “Kumander Bucay.” But while waiting for Geremia to return to the convent from a pastoral visit, Manero’s group harassed the neighborhood, prompting one of them to rush to the parish to call for help. Father Favali rode his motorcycle to Crossing La Esperanza, where the Maneros later burned his motorcycle and shot him dead.
“Favali was killed in my place. Obviously the plan was to eliminate myself not Favali. That kind of killing I felt responsible. It was a turning point, I could not go back immediately to continue my involvement,” he recalled.
Like the Passion of Christ
During his early years in Tulunan, Geremia said he pondered on the situation. “I kept on asking where was God? How can we respond to the situation of these people? Why are people facing death as if it were a collective suicide?”
The missionary was referring to community leaders who were risking their lives in dealing with armed elements from both sides.
He recalled that during the early stages of their community organizing, people had high expectations, were enthusiastic and expected that there will be changes in society.
But somewhere along the way, some changed sides when “repression became so violent.”
“But then those who continued with this kind of understanding, from the spiritual point of view, it is more like the passion of Christ. So many were attracted.”
“How to continue the process of change that was initiated by Christ? Similar to our experience, how to continue after the killing of our companions,” he asked. .
Unite the PDOMES
With all the turmoil he encountered, Geremia said he draws inspiration and strength from what he calls the Poor, Deprived, Oppressed, Marginalized, Exploited and Struggling people (PDOMES).
“I was given this kind of passion, charisma, restless. Out of my sense of being dissatisfied, I always have feeling that I am not satisfied with the present situation. I have this drive to see change. And this has become my passion that is also the Kingdom of God, to build this new society. To unite the PDOMES” he explained.
One of the hardest aspects of being a missionary, Geremia said, is “to understand God’s plan of salvation and to share with the people a sense of hope.”
“God has His own plan of salvation. However, we, people, don’t understand very well. And we missionaries are supposed to make others understand. But we don’t understand also. So how to give this vision, this feeling that God is with the people who are building the kingdom of God, this new society, this new community. God is alive, Christ is alive,” he said.
His wish on his 50th year as priest? “I don’t wish to live so many more (years). But I wish for a quick death, not long, long suffering, and a chance to serve the people as long as I can,” (Keith Bacongco / MindaNews)