The Catholic faith came first to the Philippines as part of Spain’s colonial expansion with Magellan’s circumnavigating the globe. As in that and later journeys the friars accompanied the soldiers and sailors. The Philippines was not a unified nation but rather a collection of various indigenous communities divided by geography, language, religious belief and culture. Some native groups welcomed the Spanish as a defense against Muslim raids from Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago or as allies in struggles with other more local enemies. The Spanish authorities developed a system of co-opting local community leaders to support their rule. As a result, the Spanish did not need a very strong military presence to keep control. Here too they took advantage of the Church’s presence as an aid in their rule.
The interest of the Spanish colonizers was mainly in exploiting natural resources and trade. The missionaries’ concern centered on the spread of the faith and the salvation of souls. In a relatively short time they were preaching the Gospel in many different areas of the island chain. Some missionaries showed an appreciation of the local languages, culture and customs. They defended the native populations against abuses by Spanish colonists. A weakness in the evangelization process was the slow development of local diocesan clergy. Attempts in this direction initially failed due to weak formation programs. Adequate seminary training only began in the nineteenth century.
Over time, hostility developed against the Spanish colonizers. Abuses gave rise to pocket revolts led by native leaders. By their exploitation of people, the Spaniards succeeded in uniting the disparate native peoples against their regime. Gradually, a Philippine nationalism began to arise. The Church was often seen as siding with Spanish colonizers. However, as the spirit of revolution grew, Filipino priests joined the cause, and some became martyrs for freedom.
Spanish dominion did not cease due to local fighting but also because of American intervention during the Spanish-American war. Dewey’s defeat of the armada effectively ended Madrid’s rule and began American control. What is amazing is that despite the end of Spanish rule, Christianity survived. The friars had succeeded by their dedication to implanting the faith in the hearts of the people and by their selfless service of caring for their flocks in times of difficulty.
However, with the American occupation many Spanish priests returned to Spain. Parishes were left vacant. In addition, a breach occurred within the Church. Fr. Gregorio Aglipay split from Rome and founded the Philippine Independent Church which grew popular in some provinces. Later the Iglesia Ni Christo developed. With the Americans came Protestant missionaries. Muslim hostility to Christianity continued to be evident in the south. The Church was in a weakened state. Such was the situation when Columban missionaries arrived in 1929.
Originally the interest of the Columbans coming to the Philippines was for rest and rehabilitation of priests who had been serving in China. Their initial foothold was at Nuestra Señora de los Remedios Parish in Malate, Manila. From there they became involved in direct ministry at parishes east of Manila in Rizal Province and to the North in Pangasinan Province. They also expanded to work south of Manila to the town of Silang in Cavite Province. In the latter part of the 1930’s ministry expanded to include parts of Mindanao in the south of the country. The Columban presence helped secure and expand the faith life of the communities they served. The 1930s also saw the beginning of Columban involvement in student ministry with the founding of Student Catholic Action by Columban Fr. E.J. McCarthy. The Columban Sisters arrived in 1939.
On the political front the realization gradually grew that the American occupation of the Philippines was more costly than valuable. Support grew for granting independence. A Commonwealth Constitution leading to eventual independence gained approval in 1935. Unfortunately, World War II delayed full freedom of the Philippines.
The Japanese invasion challenged church life and brought persecution. Columban missionaries remained faithful to serving their flocks. Some were able to flee with their people into the hills. Others faced imprisonment. Columban Fr. Francis Vernon Douglas and the Malate martyrs were put to death.
After the war in the early 1950s the Columban missionaries extended their ministry in Zambales northwest of Manila and in Negros Occidental in the Central Visayas region. New emphasis arose for better training for Columban members in language and culture. Columban missionaries became involved in family life programs such as Marriage Encounter. Dealing with environmental issues became a major theme in the overall Columban approach to ministry.
In all the places where they served the central task was building the church through developing local lay leadership. Student Catholic Action provided leadership training on the high school and university levels. Emphasis was given to developing lay leaders in the communities that made up the individual parishes. The approaches to doing this varied according to the situation and needs of each area.
Columbans helped to encourage vocations to the diocesan priesthood. They helped fund and staff priest formation programs. They also supported Fil Mission, the missionary arm of the Filipino Church. The later acceptance of Filipino members into the Missionary Society of St. Columban continues to invigorate mission in other lands and in the Philippines.
Compassion and service to the poor and outsider has been an earmark of Columban ministry and mission. Attention to the needs of the poor came through development projects and direct aid. The establishment of schools particularly on the high school and college levels helped to equip many to rise out of poverty. Working with co-operatives and microlending programs like the Grameen Bank aided the lives of their people. Programs for the disabled helped many families in meeting the needs of their special children. Similarly, anti-tuberculosis campaigns helped limit that dreaded scourge. Columban missionaries support housing projects for the poor and for victims of natural disasters. Columban missionaries work with tribal people develop economic opportunities and to struggle against mining and other interests from taking away their lands. Ministry to troubled youth also came within the Columban purview.
Columban missionaries have spent time and talent in promoting Muslim- Christian dialog. This has broken down misunderstanding and mistrust. Working together in common projects for the good of the community brings about respect and affirmation of our common humanity. This is not merely a dialog about beliefs but rather a dialog of life.
The coming of martial law under the Marcos regime gave rise to human rights violations, terror and killings. Columban missionaries have fought for true justice and even faced being jailed because of their defending their people against the abuses.
Over time the number of diocesan priests increased, and Columban missionaries were able to hand over parishes, campus ministries, and schools. The Columban Sisters continue their service in education, health care and work with the poor. Columban lay missionaries bring their own special talents to ministry. They develop close bonds with the people they serve. While the number of Columban priests have diminished due to age and taking on new missions in other lands, Columban missionaries continue to serve with dedication particularly for those who have less in life.
After many years on mission in the Philippines, Columban Fr. John Comiskey now lives and works in St. Columbans, Nebraska.