The first groups of Columbans who came to the Philippines were pastorally-oriented men with a lot of zeal for spreading the faith. Their zeal and commitment were shown in the sacrifices that they made during the Second World War, when they decided not to desert their parishioners.


by Brian Gore

Brian Gore

Director of Programs, San Columbano Mission Center


The first groups of Columbans who came to the Philippines were pastorally-oriented men with a lot of zeal for spreading the faith. Their zeal and commitment were shown in the sacrifices that they made during the Second World War, when they decided not to desert their parishioners. Five Columbans were murdered by the Japanese and one died when hit by shrapnel during the US Airforce bombing of Manila. They died with their people, having stayed with them during the entire war. Thousands of these people were tortured and killed at the end of the war.

Up until the 1970s, nearly all Columban pastoral activities were in parishes and school chaplaincies. Columbans were requested to work in parishes due to the lack of priests. Many took on chaplaincy work to evangelize young men and women and to prevent them from being recruited by other religious groups.

Big changes came in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and later on with the proclamation of Martial Law in 1972. These two events had an enormous effect on the Columbans.

 During the1970s, Columbans in the Philippines, like their conferees in Chile, Peru and Korea, were struggling to come to terms with the Church living under dictatorship.  Columbans in the Philippines

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Fr Niall O’Brien with the sugar cane workers at the hacienda

had access to significant documents coming from Latin America and  theological reflections of many theologians and pastoral bishops. The Philippines could easily identify with its Latin American cousins in terms of history and pastoral experience.

In Negros and Mindanao, for instance, where majority of Columbans worked,  small community groups emerged in response to the heavy hand of Martial Law The experience in Negros was especially drastic because of its strong feudal culture, as exemplified by the Hacienda system. They began to realize that it was not God’s will for them to live in dire poverty. Things had to change and the poor had to be the ones to bring about that change. This was the Good News for them. With this understanding of their faith and the understanding that they were to be the agents of change, they had to organize themselves to make this happen. The power of the poor is in their dominant numbers.

The declaration of Martial Law awakened Columbans to look for pastoral solutions to the challenges of that time. It was clear to many that the current hierarchical Church structure was inadequate in dealing with living under a dictatorship. The Church had to change. Many priests and some bishops, not only encouraged their parishioners to organize themselves, but actively put themselves and parish resources at their service. The communities flourished and, with this new awareness of their dignity and responsibility, started to confront the dictatorship in non-violent ways. This was the preferred way of change of the emerging Small Christian Communities (BCCs, GMCS and KKs).

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Columban Fathers Niall O’Brien (L) and Brian Gore (R), with Fr Vicente Dangan (C), celebrating Holy Mass inside the prison. In 1983, together with six lay church workers, they were arrested on trumped up charges for the murder of a town mayor in Negros Occidental

This emerging church led by the poor was a challenge, not only to the institutional Church, but to the dictatorship. Both were suspicious and threatened by the visual power and commitment of this emerging Church. Traditional leaders in the Church could see their positions in the Church waning and the dictatorship, which was used to the Church being compliant, was fearful that the growth of this “new” fearless church would spread and make life difficult for them to control, and so, would have to be eliminated.

Pope John Paul II’s message on March 20, 1981 in Bacolod, Negros was a defining moment in Church-State relations. In his message to the crowd of 750,000 gathered in the Bacolod Reclamation Area – made up of mainly of “Katilingban” (Small Christian Community) members from all over the Diocese – the Pope declared that: “the Church should never hesitate to be the voice of those who have no voice”. He elaborated on the gap between rich and poor, globally and locally.

The people were ecstatic with Pope John Paul II’s endorsement. The rich and powerful were angry.

A few hours after the Pope left, Bishop Fortich gathered with his priests in celebrating the great success of the Pope’s visit. Suddenly, he was called out to answer a phone call. He was told by the caller, the most powerful politician in Negros, that if that was the Pope’s message, then there was going to be war with the Church. This was the first open declaration of war with the Church.

Subsequently, the Church in Negros, as in other parts of the Philippines, was subjected to harassment and lay leaders were picked up and murdered. The Church now had a new brand of martyrs. There were shocking stories of rape and torture, evacuations and detentions, all because they belonged to small Christian communities. Priests were not spared. Some were killed, some fled to the mountains and others were falsely accused and imprisoned. Columbans were not spared either, although they were luckier than their Filipino counterparts.

The challenge to build a more communitarian Church with a special preference for the poor continues to this day. Many Catholics feel uncomfortable by the assertiveness of  the small christian communities.The concept of real community participation in the affairs of the Church seems threatening to many.

The Columbans continue to respond enthusiastically to both John Paul II’s and Pope Francis’s call to ecological conversion. We have been able to make our contribution in stimulating the Church to take the environmental crises seriously. Unfortunately, many Catholics still feel threatened by the demands that ecological conversion makes – especially those who profit from the destruction of our fragile planet.

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Fr Brian Gore sharing with the Amigo Columbano group about the Negros Nine Reforestation Project  in Batolinao, Kabankalan, Negros Occidental