Arrested and threatened with death, Fr Peter Geremia has seen it all
Italian missionary looks back on 50 action filled years
In the past four decades, Italian missionary Peter Geremia has been accused of being a communist and a rebel leader, been arrested, forced into hiding and threatened with death.
He has sided with slum dwellers against the demolition of their shanties, worked with indigenous people against large scale mining in the mountains, and stood up for starving farmers during times of drought.
This week marks Geremia’s 50th year as a priest, mostly spent on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. During his early years in the country, he kept asking himself “Where is God?" he says.
"My experience in the Philippines has been very dramatic.”
He arrived in Manila in 1972 at the height of the Marcos dictatorship, ten years after he was ordained in the United States.
In 1977, he was forced out of his parish following a BBC special on the slums. The police, suspecting that the documentary wouldn’t be favorable to the military regime, arrested Geremia, who later went into hiding.
"My special interest became the organizing of indigenous peoples," he says.
The killing in 1985 of fellow Italian missionary Tulio Favali was a turning point in Geremia's life.
"Favali was killed in my place,” he says. “Obviously the plan was to eliminate myself not Favali. I felt responsible.”
On April 11, 1985. Geremia was in the mountains for a celebration, while Favali was in the convent preparing dinner. After being informed that an armed vigilante group was harassing parishioners and looking for Geremia, Favali went to try to address the situation. He was shot and his brains were eaten, it was determined in court. The vigilante leaders were arrested and tried in court, where they admitted their target was Geremia.
Hundreds of lay Church workers died in Mindanao during the 20 years of martial law.
"I survived while others did not. So I feel I have to continue what we started together," Geremia says.
Apart from the threats to his life, the Italian missionary was also accused of being involved in a raid on a government rice warehouse in 1992.
During a bad drought, people were dying of starvation while the National Food Authority warehouse was filled with rice, Geremia says. The people requested rice distribution as a loan, to be repaid at the following harvest. The petition was approved but the rice was not released. Instead, it was sold on the black market, a court later found. Locals cut the warehouse fence, said a prayer, sang the national anthem, opened the gate, and started distributing rice.
When Geremia was called in, he was arrested and accused of "supporting" the break in. He stayed in jail for 28 days until the people paid his bail.
But Geremia says he draws his inspiration and strength from what he calls the "poor, deprived, oppressed, marginalized, exploited and struggling people."
"I was given this kind of passion and charisma. I always have a feeling that I am not satisfied with the situation. I have this drive to see change. And this has become my passion, that is I believe to help build the Kingdom of God, to build this new society," he says.
As he marks 50 years of priesthood and reflects on his mission during Holy Week, Geremia says the hardest parts of being a missionary is understanding God’s plan of salvation and sharing 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 always understand either," he says.
During the early years of his missionary life in Mindanao people had high expectations and were very enthusiastic about social change, he says. But when state repression became more violent, many lost confidence.
"For those of us who continue, from the spiritual point of view, it has become like the passion of Christ," he says.
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