During its apostolate in the Asian country for over half a century, the Institute has had to face many difficult situations, in addition to the martyrdom of three priests. But the challenges to mission take new trajectories.
People in general consider the Philippines to be a Catholic country; in fact according to the statistics it is the most Catholic in Asia (85% of the population is baptized). They also affirm that it is the country from which many care-givers, sweet and smiling, come, so much so that “Filipina” has become synonymous with domestic help. It would seem therefore to be an “easy” country from a missionary point of view.
The truth is that although the Philippines is a country with a very large Catholic majority, in the South the large Muslim community is prone to the growing fundamentalism. As for the smile, even if commonly seen on the faces of Filipinos, it is certainly not because their country can be defined as peaceful. The return to democracy dates back to 1986, with the fall of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, thanks to what was called the “Revolution of the rosaries”. However, even today, more than thirty years later, after a series of political figures, anything but memorable, (from the former actor Joseph Estrada to the boxer Manny Pacquiao), the Philippines is once again dealing with another disturbing character: the autocratic President Rodrigo Duterte.
PIME’s history in this country — now reaching the half-century turning point — confirms that this is not at all a simple context, on the contrary it is a missionary one from all points of view: This is shown by the fact that, during this fifty-year period, the Institute has seen priests expelled, the vocations crisis and, above all, the martyrdom of three priests, over a span of thirty years: Tullio Favali (1985), Salvatore Carzedda (1992) and Fausto Tentorio (2011) .
PIME’s mission in the Philippines is certainly interesting (and perhaps also paradigmatic of the missionary adventure ad gentes) if read as a series of experimental initiatives the entire Institute and individual members have carried out to respond appropriately to the context’s current demands. Furthermore, this involves a constant personal and community effort to discern God’s will, an exercise that is anything but easy. Indeed, of all PIME’s mission enterprises, it is perhaps the one that has proved the least successful. The “changes in policy”, adopted to meet the complex and at the same time fluid situation, were marked by various problematic factors: especially the thorny question of the political autonomy of Mindanao (historically the area where PIME has worked and works with many more members), the growing fundamentalism of local Islam, as well as the struggle, which has continued for half a century, between the leftist “rebels” of the New People’s Army (NPA) and the central Government in Manila.
It is difficult to count the exact number of PIME missionaries who have been kidnapped in the Philippines, (as were Luciano Benedetti in 1998 and Giancarlo Bossi in 2007, (in the photo on the left) or threatened with death or forced to change residence for a longer or shorter period. However the experience of failure and docility, a history that God alone can truly govern, naturally forms an integral part of the missionary endeavour. We can say that PIME’s history in the Philippines is fine and exciting, albeit complex, precisely if read with the eyes of faith.
Today, there are 16 missionaries working in the country, more than half of whom are over 60 years of age. The Institute mainly works in two areas: Manila and its surroundings and Mindanao, the large island in the south, where PIME is engaged in the rural areas. The Parish of Paranaque in Manila, named after Mary Queen of Apostles, is run by Father Gianni Sandalo. On 1 September, Father Simone Caelli, up to now engaged in formation and pastoral work among other things, will take his place. Father Sundeep Pulidindi from India, who arrived in the country a few months ago is still studying the Tagalog language, also works in the parish. Father Gianni Re, Regional Superior for two terms (2009-2017), and Father Sandro Brambilla, long active in Mindanao, reside in the regional house in the capital and help in the parish. A couple of years ago, Father Giuseppe Carrara began working in the Diocese of Imus, south of Manila-Paranaque. The capital is now spreading out there.
Now let us move to the Mindanao area where Father Sebastiano D’Ambra is engaged in inter-religious dialogue, with the “Silsilah”, in Zamboanga. Father Nevio Viganò was the parish priest of Sinunuc (near Zamboanga) for many years with his assistant, Bengali Father Biplob Lazarus Mollick, who will replace him in a few months. The Regional Superior, Father Fernando Milani, who also resides in Zamboanga, has pastoral commitments in the seminary and in the nearby parishes.
In the Diocese of Ipil (bordering on that of Zamboanga) PIME works in Sampoli, with the Brazilian Fathers Emerson Gazetta and Paulo Cezar Dos Santos. However, the Bishop has requested Fr. Paulo to start a new centre on the outskirts of the city of Ipil.
Fathers Stefano Mosca and Ilario Trebbiani are working in Lakewood, still in the Mindanao area, but geographically far from the places just mentioned. Father Peter Geremia works in the Diocese of Kidapawan among the Tribals and prisoners.
Over the last few decades, some PIME missionaries have worked in other areas, such as the Diocese of Antique and the Vicariate of Western Mindoro, in an effort to find alternatives to the very delicate situation in Mindanao, where they were the only Europeans left. (Actually the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Claretians, have almost only local personnel). But this venture did not meet with success over time.
However, in PIME’s record over the last fifty years in the Philippines, apart from various contingent situations, it is possible to trace continuity and orientation which spread in three directions. Firstly pastoral work, in answer to the requests of the local Church, always tried to give priority to the neediest situations and the most geographically isolated communities. This outreach was accompanied above all, but not exclusively, by the commitment to dialogue with Islam; suffice it to mention the long and silent work of Father Vincenzo Bruno — through the “Silsilah” experience well known to the readers of Mondo e Missione. Last, but not least, was the commitment to the Cause of the Tribals, with the struggle to defend their rights and land. In a word: in a country with an ancient Catholic tradition, with about six thousand diocesan priests today, PIME has always tried (and still tries) to work in the frontier contexts most suited to it, as an ad gentes missionary institute.
This has been the policy since the beginning, starting from that decisive 1968, when the first “pimini” landed in the Philippines. Having refused to conduct the Minor Seminary of San Pablo (a position considered to be not very “missionary”), they took over the management of the Parish of Santa Cruz as well as the commitment in the missionary District of Siocon, in the Diocese of Dipolog and, shortly thereafter, the work in Tondo (Manila).
In the most Catholic country in Asia, there are still many missionary contexts
Even if the pastoral commitment required of the Institute was in many ways similar to that of diocesan priests, PIME tried to endow it with authentically missionary features in an innovative spirit. In fact the missionaries, despite errors and tensions, made a decisive contribution to the Philippine Church; namely to assimilate the lesson of Vatican II and embody it in a context marked by deep-rooted popular devotion, if at times somewhat superficial. As Father Piero Gheddo wrote, “history has shown that the line chosen by PIME in the Philippines, both in the North (Tondo and Santa Cruz) and in the South, had the great merit of awakening a still traditionalist Church, including bishops, priests and religious”, (cf. pp. 10-11).
But how did PIME end up in the Philippines? The Institute’s interest in this country started thanks to the initiative of a Canossian priest from Cremona, a missionary on the Island of Samar, Father Angelo Saverio Zanesi. In 1966, he had urged the Superior General Msgr. Aristide Pirovano to send missionaries to the Philippines, since at that time many priests were being expelled from Burma/Mayanmar. In January 1967, Fr Pirovano on his way to Hong Kong visited the Philippines and the following year informed the Nuncio, Msgr. Carmine Rocco, of PIME’s willingness to accept the proposal to undertake a missionary commitment. The first to arrive there on 6 December 1968 were Fathers Pietro Bonaldo (former missionary in Hong Kong, head of mission), Egidio Biffi (former missionary in Burma), Pio Signò (expelled from China), Joseph Vancio (American) and Brother Giovanni Arici .
With the traumatic conclusion of the first experience in Manila, in the following years the Institute concentrated its apostolate in Mindanao. Siocon, Sibuco and Sirawai (with Fathers Biffi, Di Guardo and Biancat) were the first places the members of PIME worked. Starting from the 1980s, work also began in the Diocese of Kidapawan, in Tulunan, Columbio and in the Arakan Valley.
Among its priorities were: closeness to the poorest, dialogue with Islam and tribal rights
In 1981 the mission extended to what was then the Prelature of Ipil (now diocese). The first parishes were started in Kumalarang and Siay. In this area, over the years, the Institute founded three new parishes: Lakewood, Payao and Sampoli.
In 1984 the “Silsilah” movement took off thanks to the Founder and Father Salvatore Carzedda’s commitment, and briefly of Father Paolo Nicelli’s as well.
In the mid-1980’s, PIME faced new challenges, above all in the metropolitan context of Manila. In 1985, the need to establish “strong support” in the capital, near the airport, prompted the missionaries to open a centre in Paranaque, an urban parish in Manila: the pioneers were Fathers Giulio Mariani and Gianni Sandalo. A few years later, due to new challenges, Father Marco Brioschi, who had worked in Taiwan with migrants, undertook to monitor a social emergency (almost 10% of the Filipino population works abroad). The local Catholic Church has shown increasing interest in this sector.
In reviewing the half-century of PIME’s mission in the Philippines, we cannot fail to mention two important initiatives in the field of formation: the opening of the “Euntes” Center, in Zamboanga (active from 1992 —2011). It was a much appreciated place for missionary formation for the Churches of Asia, conducted mainly by Fathers Corba, Bruni and Mariani, and the International Seminary, that was opened in Tagaytay near Manila, but definitively closed in 2013.
Ref: Mondo e Missione – La Rivista dei Missionari del PIME, Agosto-Settembre 2018,