On the day we celebrated the canonization of Paul VI, it is nice to remember that the roads of PIME and mons. Montini, the first missionary pope and traveler of the modern era, met in the Philippines, exactly 50 years ago. Paul VI visited the most Catholic country of Asia from 25 to 27 November and it is precisely at that time that PIME lands in the country.
The first PIMEs to arrive, December 6, 1968, were the Fathers Pietro Bonaldo (already a missionary in Hong Kong, head of mission), Egidio Biffi (already a missionary in Burma), Pio Signò (expelled from China), Joseph Vancio (US) and brother Giovanni Arici. They headed for the Province of Laguna, one hundred kilometers southeast of the capital Manila. They were asked to run the new minor seminary of the diocese of San Pablo, but it was also the times when the minor seminaries were going into crisis: between the bishop and the missionaries there were some divergences on the way to conceive a seminar and soon Pime’s relationship with that seminar ended.
What followed was a pastoral experience in Santa Cruz (Laguna) and Tondo, in the heart of the Philippine capital: tumultuous years to say the least, during which the presence of PIME left its mark. Then Tondo. The area along the coast of Manila was then an endless expanse of shacks with over 300 thousand inhabitants (even today it remains a very degraded area). The ancient parish of Tondo was established at the time of the Spanish colony; in 1970 two new parishes were started, one entrusted to the Augustinians and one offered to PIME, the latter was erected in the poorest “block” of Tondo and dedicated to San Pablo to remember – in fact – the visit of Paul VI to Manila in November of that ‘year.
The first two missioners to be destined for Tondo were the fathers Bruno Piccolo and Joseph Vancio, who disembarked in January 1971. Arrived in that degraded and problematic environment, the two began to visit people, making contact with the misery of the slums: a poverty made unworthy of dirt, malnutrition, delinquency and endemic violence. The hovels were piled one on top of the other, with no roads, no sewers, no running water, no parks or playgrounds … In addition, the inhabitants, or the “squatters”, felt all the contempt of the others citizens of Manila, with result of living in resignation and fatalism. A truly missionary situation.
Like in Tondo – as in Santa Cruz – the people were divided into various groups, each of which tried to “grab” the Church and the priests. The missionaries chose the poor, they were committed to helping them, trying to involve all the faithful. The Zoto (Zone One Tondo Organization) was born, which carried out different forma of actions, an organization that extends to various parishes, including that of the PIME. Through the “community organizers” they tried to direct the faithful towards solidarity and collaboration for common projects. In July 1973 the pastoral council of the parish was established with various committees: catechesis, liturgy, charity, but also those dedicated to social problems (water, school, health, electricity, etc.).
But Zoto and the PIME parish began to annoy the authorities.
With the Martial Law, introduced by Marcos in 1972, became easy to accuse foreign missionaries to instigate people against the authorities, especially since the parish of San Pablo extends its influence to the many who do not go to church and outside its territorial borders. In 1974 the hundred members of the parish council met with representatives of other groups of shanty towns, giving life to the Council of the Christian communities, with a totally democratic structure (even the parish priest, father Gigi Cocqiuo was part of it, on equal terms). On November 27, 1974, the three areas of Tondo organize a protest march in which five thousand people participate: Cocquio is stopped for several hours by the police with Fr. Vancio. In October 1975, another striking episode: a strike was announced at the “La Tondena” distillery in the parish of San Pablo (where 800 people worked, of which only 300 were regularly employed) and the Council of the Christian community of Tondo intervened in support to the workers.
Shortly thereafter, the final straw will force the PIME to leave Tondo, where, in the meantime, Father Francesco Alessi, Peter Geremia and Albert Booms had joined Father Cocquio. In December 1975 the World Bank approved a project to clear the slums of Tondo, which started the demolition of the shantytowns and the expulsion of the squatters from the neighborhood began. In January 1976, the Manila slumdwellers organized the Committee of the Poor against Demolition: 20 of their representatives, accompanied by four bishops, were received by Imelda Marcos, who was in charge of programs of restructuring and beautification of the Capital, the President’s wife. Meanwhile, however, the situation of the PIME missionaries’ precipitates because the authorities consider them the soul of the protest movement. On 24 January 1976 the local superior of PIME, Francesco Alessi and the parish priest of San Pablo, Gigi Cocquio, were arrested by the police and made to board an Air France flight to Rome. Father Geremia escaped the arrest by hiding in a hospital; he would not be expelled but he had to go out of Manila and moved to Mindanao were he started to face much bigger challenges. The remaining father in Tondo, Albert Booms, an American citizen, was expelled a few months later, on November 20, 1976.
As for Paul VI after he visited the poor communities of Tondo, on November 29, he became the target of an assassination by a Bolivian expat named Benjamin Mendoza. Mendoza, disguised as a priest, approached the pope and stabbed him twice. He was immediately subdued and arrested, and Paul VI, slightly hurt, continued his trip as planned to other asian countries. Curiously, Marcos himself allegedly tried to take credit for foiling the assassination attempt.