He called me his Junior. During my short stint in the Tribal Filipino Program, which he directs, he sometimes delegated me to represent him in meetings and gatherings. “My Junior will represent me,” he would joke. But I am not worthy to be called his son.
Aside from the fact that I do not have his blue eyes, I do not have his deep compassion for the poor, especially the indigenous people. I am also not a priest (though I tried, twice, to enter the Diocesan Seminary). Most especially, I am not a Peace Awardee like him. Just recently, Father Peter, or Lolo (Grandpa) Pedro as our kids would call him, received the Aurora Aragon Peace Award for Participatory Development. This award inspired me to write about his life, especially about how he touches the lives of so many people. Honestly, I find it difficult, precisely because no amount of words can describe this man known to many as the “Living Saint of the Lumads (Tribal Filipinos)” in the Kidapawan Diocese. He is an Italian missioner who defied death during the martial law regime and is now a peace awardee. I am referring to Fr. Peter Geremia of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), who was the original target of Fr. Tullio Favali’s killers in 1985. Fr. Geremia, who has worked in the Philippines for almost 30 years, 27 in the Diocese of Kidapawan, is the Tribal Filipino Program coordinator of that diocese. He received his award last February 19, 2001 at the Kalayaan Hall, Club Filipino, Greenhills, Metro Manila.
The Aurora Aragon Peace Awards are given to outstanding individuals and institutions who have significantly advanced the cause of peace in our country. The award was named after President Manuel L. Quezon’s widow, Aurora Aragon-Quezon, whose life and tragic death in an ambush at the height of the Huk insurgency dramatize the stark reality that in war or civil strife there are no victors, only victims, many of them innocent and unarmed.
“Why me? The award should be given to you or to the evacuees who are victims of the all-out war,” Fr. Geremia said to Bishop Romulo Valles just minutes after he was informed that he had been chosen as a recipient. Bishop Valles replied, “You have become the symbol of the previous and present struggle of the marginalized people.”
In his acceptance speech at the award ceremony, Fr. Peter declared: “I was often suspected of being a troublemaker; now it’s nice to be called a peacemaker, even though peacemakers are often in trouble.” He said that because of his social involvement, he was denied a permanent visa after the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA) refused to give him clearance. “Maybe the Peace Award will help me obtain the clearance,” he mused.
According to Lory Obal, Literacy coordinator of the TF Program and co-worker of Fr. Geremia since 1980, Fr. Peter has earned the ire of local officials, especially corrupt and abusive military leaders, because he always took the side of the poor and the oppressed. “Here is this gentle and frail-looking old man, yet corrupt government officials are afraid of him,” said Obal, who added that his image and mere presence always inspires people to assert their rights.
She cites one occasion in Sultan Kudarat province, where thousands of hungry farmers ransacked the government-owned rice warehouse during the El Niño phenomenon. “Fr. Peter was not among those who planned to ransack the warehouse. He was just visiting the people; but he was among the first to be arrested and jailed.”
Atty. Gregorio Andolana, a human rights lawyer who handled the prosecution of the Favali murder case, says: “He is more than deserving of the award. He is a living saint and the Church has a greater impact upon the people with Fr. Peter around. He may seem physically weak because of his frail appearance, but he is powerful and charismatic because of his strong conviction for the people.”
Not only a priest but a true father, friend and mentor. He is so concerned for us that we look up to him as if he were our real father. “There is no inhibition; we can come and confer with him in times of joy and sadness,” shares my wife, a non-government organization worker. “Even if he is very busy,” she says, “Fr. Peter will always find time to share in our happiness and sadness. He is the one who officiated our marriage, baptized our children and the first to comfort us during the death of our son two years ago. Like a real daughter, I am very proud of him. He deserved the award and this should have been given to him a long time ago.”
Fely Singco, coordinator of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) of the diocese adds: “We are very happy! The award of Fr. Peter is also our victory because we have been working with him in serving our community here and he is our inspiration. We get our strength and dedication from him, because he lives what he preaches.
“Here, he is not only a priest; he is our loving father, our dearest friend, our mentor and our
inspiration. Without him, I am not sure I could continue my work here in the Diocese.”
Oftentimes, people would advise him to stay behind on fact-finding and relief missions, but he would always insist on going along. “He really wants to see for himself the real situation of the people,” says Prima Eborda, JPIC worker. In return, it is the whole community who ensures his safety. He is the epitome of a genuine priest, simply and genuinely serving the interests of the deprived, oppressed, marginalized and poor people.
In a conversation with me, Fr. Peter said that his concern for the people started during his nine-year\ stint in the U.S. as a history teacher from 1963 to 1972. “I became active in the anti-Vietnam war campaign. When I applied for citizenship, I did so as a conscientious objector, which was the only way in the U.S. to avoid compulsory military service in the war.” Besides teaching, he was also involved in parish ministry.
He arrived in the Philippines in 1972, at the height of the Marcos dictatorship, and was first assigned in Santa Cruz, Laguna on the northern island of Luzon. In 1976, he was assigned to Tondo, Manila where he had more direct involvement in the squatters’ effort to resist relocation and obtain recognition of their rights to shelter. In that same year, he was arrested, together with other religious people, because of their support of the La Tondena strikers. The La Tondena strike was the first open protest action of workers in defiance of the martial law provisions prohibiting strikes. He was nearly deported together with his two more militant but less lucky confreres. He was advised to go outside of Metro Manila and in 1977 was assigned to Siocon in Zamboanga del Sur on the island of Mindanao.
After three years there, he was re-assigned to the Kidapawan Diocese upon the request of then Bishop Escaler. His first parish was in Columbio, Sultan Kudarat, but later he was assigned as parish priest in Tulunan, Cotabato. It was in Tulunan that the issue of landgrabbing and militarization intensified, resulting in the murder of Fr. Tullio Favali. After the EDSA revolution in 1986, Fr. Peter did not stop working for the betterment of the community. He concentrated on giving utmost attention to the indigenous people. The issue of the Mt. Apo Geothermal Project once again put the missioner in the spotlight. The Diocese of Kidapawan has consistently supported the position of the tribals to oppose the construction of the geothermal project on Mt. Apo. Though the project continues, this has not dampened the spirit of the tribals to defend their remaining ancestral lands.
With the outbreak of war in Mindanao, Fr. Peter has been in the forefront of organizing relief and medical missions to remote and risk-filled villages. He joins the group, walking mountain trails to reach the evacuees dislocated by the all-out offensive of the military. Aside from relief and medical services, he also initiated a tri-people dialogue among the religious leaders of the Tribals, Muslims and Christians.
Fr. Peter has been dubbed “The Living Saint of the Lumads.” After the Tribal Filipino Program was organized in 1984, many tribal organizations began to form in different parishes of the Diocese. Later, they were federated into one alliance called the Apo Lumad Alliance of Cotabato. Component programs such as literacy, socio-economic training and Primary Health Care were established. “Fr. Peter is the savior of our culture and our ancestral domain,” asserts Norma Capuyan, secretary-general of the Apo Lumad Alliance. “Without them (the PIME Fathers), we would have no more land, no more culture and tradition,” she adds.
Aquino Manial, chairperson of the Alliance, describes Fr. Peter as intensely immersed with the indigenous people. “He is always with us, the Lumads, walking the mountain trails, crossing the rapids of the rivers, reaching the far-flung villages, touching the lives of everyone, giving our neglected people hope that somehow there are people and institutions who care for us, who are united in our struggle for self-determination and claiming our ancestral domains.
In his desire to serve our people, he even risks his life amid kidnapping and death threats,” says Manial, adding that foreigners here in Mindanao are the prime target for kidnappings.
Wherever there is an occasion or village meeting, even in the most remote tribal villages, you can expect Fr. Peter to be there, talking to the tribal chieftains and sharing in their unique culture. He is so compassionate to the tribal people that they have come to love and accept him as one of their own, and no longer as a foreigner.
Franciscan Friar Fr. Rey Ferrer says that all missionaries are trained to immerse themselves with the common people, but Fr. Geremia is really exceptional. “I’m happy for his award, but challenged because I know I still have to struggle hard to follow his example.” He adds that working for the marginalized sector is not an easy task. “You need to have compassion and charisma to do that.”
Because of his active stand on several issues involving the people and his articulating the need for social transformation, Fr. Geremia has often been misunderstood and labeled as an operative of the underground communist movement, even an organizer of the communist New People’s Army. His response is that he knows of many religious people who have opted to work in the underground, but he is determined to continue working in line with Gospel values. Though very active in articulating the need for a social liberation, Fr. Geremia has refused to take the path of armed struggle, although he doesn’t judge others who take that path. He says that from the very start, he has opposed the military solution or any violent means to achieve a political goal. His co-worker Lory Obal has seen that although he strongly promotes social transformation, he is absolutely against any form of violence as a tool of social change. “He is very optimistic, kind and generous, finding good in even the worst individuals, even the Maneros (the killers of Fr. Favali).”
Fr. Peter says that in order for the peace process to succeed, different stakeholders must overcome the three basic obstacles to peace. First, the wounds of conflict inflicted on both warring parties must be addressed. He says that the all-out war has totally destroyed the 30 years of healing since the 1970 Muslim-Christian conflict. “Now, we have to start all over again. “The second obstacle takes the form of unscrupulous politicians who are encouraging, if not directly organizing, the armed fanatical vigilantes. “These politicians are taking advantage of the situation and further polarizing the populace by giving provocative statements,” he says. Thirdly, there is the “development aggression”, the invasion of multi-national companies into the ancestral domain of Tribals and Muslims and the small Christian communities. According to Fr. Peter, “Let the tri-people (Tribals, Muslims and small Christian
farmers) develop what is left of their lands accordingto their basic needs and according to their culture.”
Fr. Geremia shares his dreams and aspirations for genuine peace in Mindanao: “If we want peace, we must free civilians from terror, free Mindanao from vigilantes and fanatical groups. We all need to work for justice.”
Finally, when asked where he would choose to die, he pauses for a moment and slowly bows his head. Then in a soft but firm voice, he says: “Here. This is already my home. Till death do us part.”