Going about the Lord’s Business in an Occupied Country

Fr. John Burger
December 2, 2013

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to participate in a study program at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute. It is so close to Bethlehem that one can look out across that ancient city from Tantur’s dining room. It was in that dining room that I first met Brother Peter Bray, a New Zealander and a De La Salle Brother.

Peter and I conversed easily when we discovered that I had visited his previous place of assignment, Francis Douglas Memorial College in the pleasant city of New Plymouth, on the North Island of New Zealand. When we say the word “Palestine,” we probably think right away: “a flashpoint of international tensions.” When we think about New Zealand, what comes to mind is one of the more tranquil countries on the planet. Earthquakes like the one in 2011 in Christchurch do occasionally happen, and there are some ethnic tensions, but compared to the West Bank, it is quite serene.

Until coming to Bethlehem, Brother Peter spent most of his career at Francis Douglas Memorial College, a secondary school for boys at New Plymouth, New Zealand that has strong ties to the Columbans.

One of those ties is the school’s namesake Fr. Frank Douglas. Ever since a terrible day in 1943 when the Japanese led him away, no one was to see or hear from Columban Fr. Frank Douglas; his body was never found.

As a young man, Frank Douglas believed in taking time before making important decisions. After graduating from high school, he worked in the post offi ce of his home town Thorndon, New Zealand, for a year before making any plans for the future. He wanted time to think through all his options. When he did decide on a path in life, it was the priesthood.

He was ordained for the Archdiocese of Wellington and spent three years in New Plymouth as assistant pastor. Still, he felt a pull to the missions; he knew “something greater” was still before him, it seemed. Part of that “something greater” he found as a Columban. In 1936 he joined the Columbans and after missionary formation in Australia was assigned to the Philippines.

The first months in this new ministry were spent learning the language and customs of the Filipino people. In 1939, he became the pastor of Pililla, a town of 10,000 on the island of Luzon. Rumors of war were spreading even then. “War or no war, I’ll stick it out here,” Fr. Frank wrote home in 1940. Pililla was his mission; he would remain.

The people were poor, their faith seemed equally underfed. It was a small, struggling town with a half-ruined church, a dilapidated rectory and a mere handful of Catholics when Fr. Frank arrived.

Fr. Frank began with the youth. “They’re the future of the church here, and they also seem the best avenue to reaching other people,” he said. Within a few months he organized a troop of Boys Scouts and began working with the older youths of Pililla organizing recreational activities and a social action committee.

Before long, his efforts began to bear fruit. The Church was repaired, the rectory made habitable and faith was gradually coming back to the people. “Think I’ve made a sound start – but still so much to be done…” he wrote in 1940.

Much did remain to be done, but tragically, Fr. Frank was not the man who would do it. The Japanese invaded the Philippines shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941. Although he had ample time to escape, Fr. Frank stuck to his earlier decision. For him leaving his people in such a time of need would have been letting everyone down. “They have nowhere else to go – nor do I,” he wrote.

For two years, Fr. Frank lived a precarious existence as one who would not collaborate and cannot revolt. As an enemy alien, he was under suspicion by the Japanese, often taken in for questioning, held for hours and accused of being a spy. But he knew nothing to satisfy his interrogators. He was simply a priest, a missionary doing his job in an occupied country, of anything else about the war he had no knowledge.

On June 25, 1943, Fr. Frank was arrested by Japanese soldiers who were trying to stamp out guerrilla activity in the mountains near Pililla. He was taken to a Church in the neighboring town of Paete, beaten and tied to a pillar in the baptistery for three days.

According to one report, the Japanese suspected that Fr. Frank had been hearing the confessions of resistance guerrilla fighters who hid in the nearby hills. The interrogators attempted to make him reveal the guerrillas’ whereabouts and any information confided in the confessional. Whether or not he was aware of the guerrillas, Fr. Frank remained silent.

At his request he was allowed to make his own confession to a Filipino priest in the presence of a Japanese interpreter. That priest later recounted the physical appearance of Fr. Frank at the time. “His face was bloody, one eye was blackened and swollen, and his arms were covered with infected cuts and sores.”

At the end of the third day, the Japanese took Fr. Frank from the church and dragged him to a military truck surrounded by soldiers.

The truck drove toward Santa Cruz. When it returned later that night, the soldiers were its only occupants. Fr. Frank’s “something greater” was completed. His body was never found.

It is an inspiring story. And graduates of Francis Douglas Memorial have been inspired to become Columbans; my friends from the Japan mission, Frs. Leo Schumacher and Brian Vale are alumni.

Brother Peter may also have been inspired by Francis Douglas’s idealism and dedication to youth, because after many years in peaceful New Plymouth, he answered the call to take on an assignment overseas, at Bethlehem University in the Palestinian West Bank. Despite many obstacles, he is, like Fr. Frank Douglas, a friend of youth doing his job in a delicate situation. His current official title is Vice-Chancellor.

Bethlehem University is a Catholic institution of higher learning with an interesting history. During the Holy Land visit of Pope Paul VI in 1964, Palestinians expressed their desire for a university in their homeland. After consultation and study, and in the midst of the post-1967 war era which resulted in the West Bank and Gaza being under Israeli military occupation, a committee of local community leaders and heads of schools was formed in 1972 to establish an institution of higher learning that could offer a broad and practical university education in arts and sciences, open to students of all faith traditions, to meet the needs of Palestinian society.

With the support of local educational leaders and the cooperation of the Vatican’s Congregation for Oriental Churches and the De La Salle Christian Brothers, Bethlehem University officially opened its doors in 1973, becoming the first university on the West Bank. The University is located on the campus of a former De La Salle Brothers school for boys and at the highest point in the town of Bethlehem, just a few hundred yards from Manger Square.

Enrollment began 40 years ago with 112 students and is now over 3,000. The University has gradually expanded its facilities to meet its growing needs. The Institute for Hotel Management and Tourism is among the University’s more distinctive programs.

My tour of the campus included a wonderful lunch there, served by enthusiastic students preparing to work in the hospitality industry. The Faculties of Arts, Science, Education, Nursing and Business Administration also grew in response to the needs of the community as has the Institute for Community Partnership which offers continuing education and professional development programs.

Despite being closed twelve times by order of the Israeli military (once for a full three years), classes have continued to be held on and off-campus. Curfews, travel restrictions, military harassment, and the negative impact of the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, are factors faced daily by the University’s 3,000 students. Most of the more than 12,000 graduates are employed in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza in various professions and leadership positions, though some have migrated.

The University’s story is one of courage in the face of adversity and injustice—working together to build a different future.

I visited the campus again to say Mass for the Brothers’ community, and as I was driven back to Tantur through the military checkpoint, I thought to myself that Fr. Francis Douglas would be proud of Brother Peter’s dedication to youth, his coping with adversity, his going about the Lord’s business in an occupied country.