MIDSAYAP, North Cotabato (MindaNews/24 Sept) — Seventy five years ago, a group of Catholic missionaries — the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) — reached the shores of the Philippines and dedicated themselves to spreading God’s love through service to the poor and dialogues with people regardless of faith.
Seventy five years may seem like a lot of hard work, yet they continue to flourish, as evident in the large supportive community that OMI has gathered through time.
Did their journey in the Philippines seem like (evangelical) mission impossible?
Fr. Bert Layson, head of the OMI’s Inter-Religious Dialogue, acknowledged the difficulties of their service to the community — like literally climbing mountains to reach people, and dealing with war, threats, and other physical and mental demands — but all the work becomes possible through the strength that they get from being rooted in their faith.
“We do things for the greater good of humanity,” he said.
OMI started in France in 1816, founded by St. Eugene de Mazenod, to evangelize the rural population of his country.
The first OMI missionaries reached the Philippines on September 25, 1939 upon the invitation of the Bishop Luis del Rosario of the Diocese of Zamboanga to establish a mission in predominantly Muslim Cotabato and Sulu provinces.
The Oblates were the pioneers in the then remote Mindanao areas. Over time, they built structures that represented their faith and service to the community, including media apostolate, social action, and formation work.
A student poses beside the chasuble of Bishop Benjamin de Jesus OMI in an exhibition commemorating the 75 years of Oblates of Mary Immaculate in the Philippines in Midsayap, North Cotabato on September 24, 2014. Bishop de Jesus was murdered on February 4, 1997 in Jolo, Sulu. MindaNews photo by Toto Lozano
Typically, their work as a missionary starts in establishing parishes and schools, and end the moment these are developed. They then turn this over to the community before heading to their next destination: into the more remote areas where poor people thrive.
The poor, oppressed, abandoned
“The Oblates have to move on… to the interior… to the mountains… to the poor, the oppressed and the abandoned,” read a caption in one of the panels in the photo exhibit at the Notre Dame of Midsayap College where OMI’s Jubilee celebration was held this week.
The Archdiocesan Shrine of Santo Niño de Midsayap, where the masses of the three-day Jubilee celebration is held, is the first church built by the OMI in 1939.
The Notre Dame of Midsayap, venue of the celebrations and photo exhibit was set up as the Notre Dame Academy in 1941 by Fr. Gerard Mongeau (who later became the first Bishop and first Archbishop of Cotabato).
Aside from their parochial and educational ministries, the Oblates are also strongly involved in mass media supervision; retreat and formation ministries; justice, peace, and ecology discussions; indigenous people reach outs; and interfaith dialogues.
In the last 75 years, the Oblates have always been up and about – literally from one province to another- spreading the good news about the universal values of love, peace, justice, equality and harmony.
Layson said OMI missionaries uphold these values among Muslims, Christians, and Lumads alike.
Education has been one of their core ministries as seen in how Notre Dame schools proliferated from Cotabato to Tawi-Tawi to Kalookan City in Metro Manila, among others. They’ve been witness to countless events in history and have remained resilient even through tough times. They were there when the Notre Dame of Midsayap College reopened after World War II.
“Our belief in faith rather than in fear gives us strength in tough times,” Layson said, adding that without faith, “there will be no hope, and there will be no love.”
Holding on to what they believe in makes the world a better place, he said.
Under martial law, many of them stood up against the Marcos dictatorship, against injustice, against human rights violations. The Oblates lost four missionaries to martial law.
Murder and War
Layson, who was ordained priest on December 10, 1988, has spent his life in mostly predominantly Muslim and Lumad (Indigenous Peoples) areas in Mindanao. He was assigned to Bongao in Tawi-tawi, Jolo in Sulu and from there to Pikit in North Cotabato, Kulaman in Sultan Kudarat and Datu Piang in Maguindanao.
He was parish priest of Jolo when Bishop Benjamin de Jesus, another Oblate, was shot in front of the Cathedral on February 4, 1997.
Months later, he was reassigned to Pikit, only to experience the first of a series of five wars there between 1997 and 2008 where his parish gym and the parish compound serve thousands of evacuees – Christians, Muslims and IPs.
Layson went to the camps of government forces and rebels to promote and appeal for peace on behalf of civilians. It was then when he realized that military men and rebels, no matter how tough and unbreakable they may seem, have a kind heart for humanity, he said.
Respect and cultural sensitivity
How did the OMI missionaries go far in their evangelical mission in predominantly Muslim and Lumad areas? At a glance, one would think that they were here with motivations driven by a purpose to convert, but no, what has shaped up over the decades is a continuing dialogue of life and faith.
Juanita Mamo, a Lumad from Kulaman shared her gratitude for the values imparted to her by the OMI missionaries.
To her, they were not intrusive to their Lumad ways at all.
Instead, they gave her guiding principles for living and respecting her culture and her own religious practices.
She said that in her first encounter with them in the 1980s, her eyes were opened. She found direction in terms of education and in standing up for herself when it came to managing some land properties that she owned.
She learned the value of education over early marriage and this way of thinking she has passed on to her children.
Mamo learned from them a more efficient way of managing her land properties and dealing with the effects of kaingin (slash and burn), which she was then accustomed to.
Jumalyn Abdurahman, a Moro from Jolo, said what she values the most from OMI missionaries is education.
“They don’t discriminate,” she said.
She became an OMI scholar in 2007 and studied in Sulu State College. She said she developed her confidence through the seminars she attended and the mentoring of Fr. Romeo Villanueva, who heads the Justice and Peace ministry of the OMI in Sulu.
The three-day Jubilee celebration – from September 23 to 25 – of “daring” OMI missionary presence in the Philippines saw events that remember and relive history and hope for a brighter future. (Jesse Pizarro Boga / MindaNews)