A Missionary in Mindoro
– Fragmented Observations on a visit home to Kilsyth -
When I first came to the island of Mindoro in mid 1987 after
some months in Manila, I was appointed as assistant in Socorro,
a medium sized Parish in the centre of the island with a sickly
Filipino Parish Priest. After two and half years I was suddenly
transferred to Bulalacao, a rather wild parish in the south
of the island with a communist insurgency problem, where I stayed
on my own for seven years. This was followed by almost three
years in Inarawan, a relatively remote, recently founded village
parish which was desperately poor and where the people suffered
greatly from recurrent flooding of the river. I was then transferred
to San Maraino, another parish in the south of the island, where
I spent the next six years. During this time Inarawan was closed
as a Parish. It now became part of the larger Barcenaga, twelve
miles away. On leaving San Mariano four years ago I was surprised
to find myself appointed as assistant in Barcenaga with responsibility
Apart from our interprovincial noviciate and a college with
a very high reputation, there are no specifically SVD apostolates
or parishes in Mindoro. SVD’s serve in diocesan parishes
or ministries and SVD missionaries in Mindoro are on exactly
the same level as diocesan clergy. They have the same benefits,
the same respect and the same is expected of them. Only, the
foreign missionaries and those with parents in the USA are allowed
to have some months’ home leave from time to time, although
many diocesan priests also go abroad for various reasons.
The diocesan clergy is still quite young. The oldest (apart
from the bishop himself) is only 1 year older than I am. Some
diocesan priests have died due to illness or accident, but only
now is there a policy being formed for them, and also a retirement
house for which there was no need in the past.
Some years ago there was the feeling that the missionaries should
leave Mindoro because the diocesan clergy was already established,
but in recent time our bishop, the first non SVD one, has acknowledged
that there is still a need for the foreign missionaries. He
invited us to retire in Mindoro, rather than elsewhere, suggesting
activities in which we could still be involved, even in retirement:
‘I hope you die here!’
Many years ago, when I was working in Bulacao, a very difficult
parish, a visiting priest in Manila asked me how things were.
I said, ‘There are far too many problem!’ to which
eh replied, ‘There are always problems in the parish and
the only way to deal with them is to take things easy.’
I’ve followed this advice for a long time and it has served
me well, particularly in adjusting to the different world view,
attitudes and habits of the people with whom I am living. I
no longer rush into situations and expect a quick, simple solution,
instead, I tend to act more slowly now and deliberately, allowing
things to happen rather than forcing them to happen. Some time
ago I heard someone say, “He celebrates Mass very slowly”,
and the reply was, “He’s slow at everything except
for the bike!”
On the mission you soon see your weaknesses. There is always
the temptation to blame other people for what happens, especially
when you are an assistant in a parish, but when you are alone
or become Parish Priest, you may be able to blame the people,
but really you eventually see that the fault lies with yourself
– your ideal of a fruitful apostolate when you are completely
in charge falls to pieces in the cold light of reality. You
know however, that there will be future possibilities where
you will have the benefit of the perspective of experience and
perhaps more ideal conditions, but nothing is ever as good as
has been hoped. Of course nothing is ever as bad as you had
The missionary – the sign of hope.
What greatly stuck me and even gratified me when I returned
to Inarawan in 2006 was the attitude of the people. I heard
one high school teacher say to her principal, “Father
Alan used to be here and was always together with us in the
parish youth apostolate. Then he was transferred to the south...
but he has come back” The former parish priest had been
suppressed and made part of a distant parish. Three times in
the past the local priest has been taken away from Inararwan,
with no immediate successor, and the people feel that they are
abandoned and that they are not valued by the Church. They also
feel that no priest wants to stay with them. Now they actually
have a priest that has come back of his own accord! I have also
noticed this recently when I came back home from leave. The
fact that there is a priest in the area seems to mean for the
people that the Church is interested in them, also that God
has not abandoned them, Mass and the sacraments are celebrated
Also there is the fact that the foreign missionary is seen to
be making an attempt to adapt to the environment in which he
lives and works. When I came back once from home leave, one
person said to me, “You have grown fat and become white,
but in a few weeks you will become Filipino again.” For
me it would suggest that the people know that this country I
have adopted is important to me.
A retreat giver encouraged us all to learn by heart the prologue
of John’s Gospel. The Word became flesh and lived amongst
us. I have always felt that as Devine Word Missionaries we should
follow upon the incarnation of Jesus in our lives and mission.
Jesus became Jewish. I know that I could never become Filipino.
St Paul the embodiment of the Church’s missionary thrust,
tried to be all things to all people. I think I would be content
just to be vaguely assimilated Mindoreño.
What I feel should happen in Mindoro, or at least in
For a long time I have felt that Church was far too large to
have regular and continuous contact with all her members. Also,
while there was a Chapel in every village, these were usually
locked except for perhaps an hour every month. Was that the
mission of the Church and of the priest, to go to each village
once a month, just to celebrate Mass, preach, hear confessions
and baptise? If that were so there would be no growth. The church
would be priest-centred. This was an impossible situation. The
people would gradually lose interest and the Church would weaken
or die in that part of the world – or perhaps some sect
would come along, which could be there constantly, or more often
than a priest could. In which case the Church would again weaken
or die in the area.
What would seem to be needed in the Parish is a ministry of
presence. How do I achieve this? In a way I am doing this already
by being there for the people, but that is not enough. I can’t
be everywhere at the same time.
It would appear that this problem is fundamental to the response
of the local Church to the situation in Mindoro. Of course,
I have been brought up in Europe, in a totally different situation,
and the local view was at first incomprehensible for me. I have
for time been trying to answer this question for myself. I feel
embarrassed that after many years in Mindoro I have still not
come to terms with my situation. Or rather, perhaps I have in
fact come to accept the situation, but I am not yet ready to
put it fully into practice in my ministry. It has taken me a
very long time to understand that founding small communities
is apparently the only way to meet the problem in the Philippines
and elsewhere. Perhaps this would be the way ahead also in the
West. Pope Benedict seems to feel that it doesn’t matter
if the Church is smaller so longer as it is better. In Larbert
in central Scotland, where I once replaced a priest on holiday,
I attended a St Vincent de Paul meeting. While the society’s
work in Britain has been in many ways circumscribed by the state
which now provided for most material needs, I was impressed
by the apostolate of the members to elderly, sick, lonely and
housebound people in the area. Also, in the daily Mass community
in my home parish I have discerned much goodness and care for
each other among the people. Through these people the love of
Christ reaches out to others who cannot attend, people who are
working, the sick, the housebound, often people who would be
a part of the daily worshiping community but for their infirmity
or other commitments.
Inevitably, however, this community is comprised for the most
part elderly people who were retired and therefore had the time
to meet for Mass every day. Would such a community die out or
would it be replaced by other people as they themselves reach
retirement? I think the Church in Scotland is alive but in some
ways it is a church of the elderly.
How do I see myself?
I am part of a process which I do not fully understand myself,
to work for the purpose of God in the world.
Sometimes I ask myself why I should be a missionary in Mindoro
and not elsewhere. The Mangyan tribes people were the original
inhabitants of Mindoro but they have been marginalised due to
the massive influx of settlers from other islands in the Philippines.
While no one can deny the magnificent work that the Church has
done in the past and is continuing to do in the present, I think
the great failure of the Church in Mindoro is that she has in
the past neglected the Mangyans people, but the bishop told
me that it was felt that my mission should be with the lowlanders.
I do not know why I was not accepted to work with the Mangyans,
but I feel this must be part of God’s plan for me.
The vicariate is at present highly involved in education and
development. I feel that I cannot be involved as much as I would
like to, due to the language, culture, and , perhaps, attitudes
and expectations of others working in the vicariate. Possibly
this is changing now.
However for some time I have seen my role in the vicariate as
to search for God and at the same time to share this with other
people. I think my contribution, for what it is worth, is valued
by my fellow priests and by the people whom I am trying to serve.
Recently I have found myself chosen as confessor for priests,
nuns, seminarians, and perhaps this may become my main apostolate
as I grow older.
Sometimes I feel that I should be working in my home country,
especially when I see the difficulties of our local diocesan
priests with the falling off in vocations. However if I did
go home, I would probably end up in our parish in Bristol, where
i do not see any real need, although of course there is a need
What have I done since I came to Mindoro?
Since I came here I have always been in parish work. I have
done little more than celebrate Mass in different places, and
been there to help the people when they needed me. I have noticed
and been surprise by how many people contact me just to talk
when they are worried. I have worked in four different places
during the last 27 years (7 months at the start helping with
the scavengers in Smokey Mountain, the big rubbish dump in manila,
and to a lesser extent helping the student teachers at the Philippine
Normal College, in manila. I Mindoro, I have usually been on
my own, though I have been parish assistant 2 times. I also
do a bit of confession/counselling at the novitiate and the
local Benedictine monastery.
In my previous place, Inarawan, I have had the unusual experience
of formerly having been parish priest there, but later returning
as assistant parish priest. It was a fascinating and enriching
experience to meet people whom I knew in the past but who are
now, like me, more than 10 years older, with much experience
accumulated in the meantime. I could see this both on the levels
of the adults, often previously young people who were now married
and settled, and of the small children whom I had baptised or
who used to wave and shout when I passed by on the bike, but
who were now at high school or even married and working already.
Recently I was moved to a new parish sandwiched between the
sea and the mountains where everyone is engaged in either fishing
or coconut harvesting. I found life much easier than in all
other places where I had served, partly because I did not have
any expectations of myself as the saviour of the parish or the
people as my unquestioning helpers. Perhaps this has helped
with the reawakening I have witnessed in the parish and the
growth and enthusiasm as we prepare to celebrate the parish
jubilee next year.