500 Years of Christianity in the Philippines: Growing in the Wisdom of Being Able to Recognize the Call of God

Our faith has continued to grow and develop in so far as we have been able to respond to all these new challenges. It is thanks to the wisdom and faith-commitment of the people with whom we have lived and worked over the years that God has allowed our Columban Mission to evolve into what it is today. We can look back with immense gratitude, as we face an uncertain future with renewed joy and hope.

500 Years of Christianity in the Philippines

Growing in the Wisdom of Being Able to Recognize the Call of God in the Ordinary People (and the everyday situations) with Whom We Live and Work

I ask God to help me in this Easter season to leave behind what does not lead me to life

Fr. Sean Martin

by Sean Martin

Liloan Parish, Archdiocese of Ozamis


Vatican II was in its infancy when I was ordained in 1974. I was assigned to Ozamiz City (Mindanao) with five other Columbans to learn the Binisaya language so as to be able to preach the Gospel. There was great hope at the time that the Gospel would relieve the suffering of the poor and the oppressed.  My work in the parish involved celebrating the sacraments and setting up small shop-like co-operatives so that people could buy their supplies cheaper.  This was long, slow work trying to encourage co-operation. Hunlos (a system of farming households helping each other in the most important seasonal agricultural and village activities) and alalayan (the struggling members of the community being supported by the more blessed) were being practiced in the barangays (villages), with various rules at play depending on the needs of the farmers and the group.   

At that time, I never expected that part of the Gospel message would involve me being the one to be evangelized.  The Mindanao Sulu Pastoral Conference (MSPC) was the main instrument for enabling Vatican II to be honed to the needs of the church in Mindanao. Alay Kapwa (Lenten collection campaign in churches for the alleviation of poverty through livelihood projects, community organizing, etc.) and Duyog Ramadan (initiatives to encourage Catholics to be in solidarity with their Muslim neighbors during Ramadan) became energetic parts of preaching the gospel because of a new realization of who could be saved and how; since Vatican II was changing our understanding of how salvation came about. Other cultures, denominations and religions were to be seen as partners. The work of Dialogue with Islam in Marawi took on new significance and importance.  

Indigenous Peoples - especially the Subaanen for us Columbans - were now being recognized as a group of people who were not just to be baptized and assimilated into the Visayan (Catholic) culture. In 1979, I was assigned to Midsalip where over half the population were Subaanen or part Subaanen.  The logging of the rainforest trees was happening on a massive scale there. There was a good Parish Council set up by Columbans, Jack Bartlett and Vinney Hindmarsh.  It was well organized in that each church had two representatives. The town had two churches so there were only four representatives. This meant that the influential people from the town could not bully those from the rural churches. They were now in the minority. In 1982 the logging company asked to have their new camp in Bibilop blessed. The matter was discussed in the Parish Pastoral Council. People in the town were in favor. Those in the outlying villages asked: “If destroying nature is a sin, how can you bless a sinful activity?”  May 1 was the day set for the blessing and the workers were invited for a Mass in the church. The camp was not to be blessed. No workers came to Mass. This caused a bit of a storm and the logging company said that they would get another priest to bless the camp. At the meeting of Priests, Sisters and Lay People in Pagadian on the next month the matter was presented and it was requested that no other priest would over-ride the decision of our Parish Pastoral Council. This gave encouragement to the people who were aware that indiscriminate logging was destructive of people’s livelihoods.

The Columban Sisters came to Midsalip and were learning the Subaanen language in Lumpunid, a Subaanen village. They had to walk two hours to get there. There was no road that vehicles could travel. The Sisters conversed with the people in their own Subaanen language and organized meetings with the leaders and discussed health and nutrition. A huge part of the work was getting people to hospital and helping them recover after illnesses. A farming program was started to help people grow vegetables and maize. This developed into an agroforestry program which encouraged the planting of fruit trees on the steep slopes, along with contour farming, to limit the effects of erosion. 

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Original group of Columban Sisters assigned for Dialogue with the Subaanens 

(L-R) Sisters Mary McManus, Sally Oyson, Kathleen Melia and Glenda Struss

For me, the challenge of working with the Subaanen people became more difficult when I used to go with the Columban Sisters and their team to the villages. My ability at the Subaanen language was very limited. I could only make out the gist of what was happening.  I had learned the Subaanen Mass and would speak a few words of a sermon mostly in Binisaya. (In fact, many of the people could understand Binisaya better than me) Then Manuela would translate my words into Subaanen. The Subaanen Hymns translated by Columban Sr. Ita Hannaway gave a cultural signature to the mass. Later Bishop Tony Tobias spent time with the Columban Sisters and they incorporated some Subaanen symbols into the baptism ceremony.  These symbols allowed the people to understand that while they were becoming Christian, they were not rejecting their Subaanen Culture. (Vatican II allowed for sacraments to be celebrated in the vernacular) Some sacred symbols could not be used in the baptism ceremony because, according to the balyans (Subaanen religious practitioners), this would be a desecration of their beliefs.  The Columban Sisters’ capability in Dialogue helped avoid hurting the Subaanens and the holy people in their culture. 

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Sean Martin celebrating with some Subaanen friends

I learned that Nature – trees and plants, mountains and streams are sacred to the Subaanen people. From them I learned that Nature needs to be cared for.  The people best able to do so were often the most despised because they could not be bought by vested business interests and many of them could not read. The sad reality in Church structures is that, generally, the generosity of poor people is out-balanced by the demands made for developing buildings and projects that often can’t benefit the people who have to contribute most.

As we experience the reality of the coronavirus, our best hope of a medicine comes from plants and trees whose roots have been used medicinally by ordinary people for generations.

Even though the Mindanao Sulu Pastoral Conference boldly declared that we need to be Self-governing, Self-nourishing and Self-sustaining, the sad reality is that our church tends not to permit people to decide for themselves. “Holy dictatorship is wiser and more efficient in keeping the Holy Spirit under control!”.  In these times of crises, the church needs to be an instrument for building the Kingdom of God, which it is meant to do. 

Many people of faith here in Mindanao have given their lives by standing against oppression. Timuay Ebarle (Timuay means: Subaanen chief/leader) and his son Jerry were murdered in Duilec, Midsalip.  He was a wise man and resisted the arrival of mining companies to their ancestral lands.  

Others like Isidro Gilbolingo, Precioso Tapitan and Colonel Paulino Alecha struggled for years to save the environment from logging and mining. Their lives were threatened for years.  These people and so many others were nourished by their Christian faith to oppose oppression and the destruction of the environment. 

Looking after nature is our new call. The Subaanen and the Indigenous Peoples are best able to take up the challenge to heal nature and to use plants for medicine. As we all know only too well, even among poor people there are many who oppress those poorer than them so that they can climb the social ladder. In times of environmental destruction and crisis, evil people often oppress and kill; and we are powerless to stop them. Planting fruit trees is a way to encourage ordinary people to defend the trees in their areas. Most people won’t allow a fruit tree to be cut down.  There is less objection to cutting a rain-forest tree because it does not bear fruit.

Our faith has continued to grow and develop in so far as we have been able to respond to all these new challenges. It is thanks to the wisdom and faith-commitment of the people with whom we have lived and worked over the years that God has allowed our Columban Mission to evolve into what it is today. We can look back with immense gratitude, as we face an uncertain future with renewed joy and hope.

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The Youth at Sta. Cruz Sub-Parish in a Tree Growing Project initiated by Sean Martin

Liloan, Bonifacio, Misamis Occidental