Tambuli Ng Panginoon

By Father Colm McKeating SSC

This year the Columbans celebrate their Diamond Jubilee in the Philippines. Our story begins with the arrival of the first priests in 1929 to take up the parish of Malate. Seventy five years on, this Manila parish is still in our care and has the special merit of being the longest standing commitment we have in the Columban mission world. From Malate the Society spread rapidly throughout Luzon and later to Mindanao and the Visayas. In our peak years in the early seventies we had as many as 260 priests stationed here in more than ten provinces. Commenting on this development a well-known Jesuit historian has stated “…it may be seen that there is no other religious order or congregation whose history encompasses, for longer or shorter periods, so many different areas of the Philippines” (J.N.Schumacher, Landas, Vol.17, p.306).

Venture of faith

There are many ways of telling a story but I think the Columban story in the Philippines is best told as a venture of faith. From this perspective we can perhaps get to the heart of what we are about. One thing is sure: Columbans hold this story sacred for it was inspired and nurtured by faith. Men gave their lives for the sake of others in the course of serving the people. Nine priests suffered violent deaths – during the war, at the time of the Huk rebellion and in Mindanao, even as recently as three years ago. But such human tragedies did not deter us from our mission but only deepened our solidarity with the people. As an aid to reflection, therefore, on our history in the Philippines, I turned to the biblical record of faith, to the passage in the book of Leviticus which describes the Jubilee Year.

Channel of God

This Year is to be proclaimed far and wide; it is not to be forgotten or overlooked. The Yobel (from where the word Jubilee comes) or trumpet is to be heard everywhere declaring a time of rejoicing. However, it is the Lord’s horn, the Tambuli ng Panginoon, that must sound; we are not to blow our own trumpets. For the Jubilee is a time of recognition of the blessings we have received, not an occasion for boasting about our achievements. But if we must boast, it is to “boast in the Lord” and tell about the great things God has done through our hands. We must be allowed to celebrate with pardonable pride the past generations of Columbans.

All about memories

In the Jubilee Year the People of Israel were to have a general homecoming, a return to their roots and family. It was to be a celebration of belonging. Like them we are to recall, to remember, to recollect all that has happened on our missionary journey that has now become part of us. Our precious memories invigorate us; our joys and sorrows are retold and celebrated. In this way the Jubilee becomes an exercise of integration and identity. Who we are and where we belong becomes clear under the light of faith. The Jubilee is a return to the center to repossess and own again our vocation as members of the Columban family.

Our abundant harvest

One of the injunctions of the Jubilee is not to eat of this year’s produce of the land. It is to be left free. No one will go hungry however, for the two or three harvests prior to the Jubilee are so abundant that they are sufficient for everyone’s needs. The point of not reaping this year’s harvest is to allow the land itself to enjoy the fruits of its bounty, to share in the Jubilee and have time to rest. The land must not be simply regarded as a commodity. What a lesson this is today for all of us in the sated world of consumerism, of competitive edge and overproduction, where nature has been scarred. The Jubilee is also a Sabbath, a time for the Lord to remind us that the fruit of our mission is God’s work. We are to let go of whatever accomplishments and possessions we might have had – schools, churches, organizations – they all belong to the land and to the church of the Philippines.

Restoring human dignity

The Jubilee Year offers a special opportunity for redemption. I find the passage from Leviticus peppered with this word and concept. Here it applies primarily to land and property that was lost. For a pastoral people like the Israelites, totally dependent on the land, recovering and reclaiming it meant everything to them. It could be bought back either through their own efforts or with the help of relatives. To possess the land was the guarantee of meeting all the necessities of life. Getting back the land that once belonged to the family also meant reinstating the family in the eyes and estimation of the neighbor. The Jubilee was the time for redemption and the restoration of human dignity.

Columban spirit

Our land, lot and legacy is the missionary charism of the Society. It is always possible to mortgage it away by clinging to false securities and possessions. However, there comes a time to reclaim and recover what we may have lost; to redeem in each of us the spirit of the Society described in our Constitutions. We are asked to appropriate the values on which our missionary life is based: “simplicity in lifestyle, a respect for life in all its forms, a readiness to share with and learn from others, an availability to go where we are sent and a loving celibacy for the sake of the kingdom.”

Our lifetime debt

The Jubilee Year is to be marked by the canceling of debts. There is of course the debt of gratitude and love which can never be canceled. We are indebted to so many people who support us by prayer, friendship and their help; the people whom we are privileged to serve and who keep us faithful to our mission. We are indebted also to those who have offered a vision and a path, the prophets of our time who deepened our understanding of mission today. All of these debts can never be repaid; nor should we ever think of trying to do so. They are all gift and grace. And gratitude is the only adequate response to them. But there are other debts that must be canceled, sins that we must seek forgiveness for and hurts and injuries that must be healed. Among these are the resentments we may harbor, the grudges and misgivings we still bear. Let this Year of Jubilee be a time of reconciliation, of freeing ourselves and others of the burdens we have laid and have failed to lift.

Leviticus 25 ends with the reminder that in the last analysis we are but servants of Jahweh. It tells us we belong to each other and to God precisely as servants: “For to me the Israelites belong as servants; they are servants of mine, because I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I, the Lord, your God” (Lev.25:55). This is the parting shot by which we close a glorious chapter of our history in the Philippines. We treasure the story of the past three generations of Columbans. We give thanks to God and pray that we may continue to follow what is asked of us: “to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8)