Living vocations in violent times

Living vocations in violent times Rufus Halley and Des Hartford’s last meeting, in Carlow in June 2001, a few weeks before Rufus returned to the Philippines for the last time.
Irish clergy in the Philippines served God’s people despite all manner of brutal threats, writes Jean Harrington


It was April 1973 and the island of Mindanao in the south of the Philippines was descending into a war between the Muslim population and their Christian neighbours. No one was safe, not even the priests who worked in the locality. Fr Peter O’Neill from Co. Tyrone had taken to sleeping between sandbags on the floor, as he feared an attack from the Muslim rebels who were targeting Christians in Dimataling.

One night, gunshots blazed through his bedroom window on the second floor of his two-storey residence, which was located between the church and the school. He lay there, terrified, quietly trying to still his breathing until they had gone, and thanking God for his foresight with the sandbags.

As soon as he was sure the gunmen were gone, Peter ran downstairs to check on the two schoolboys who were staying there. He found them alive, thankfully, but traumatised. Quickly, they prepared to leave, gathering water, supplies and as many of their belongings as they could carry. After all, the gunmen could come back at any moment.


In the dead of night, they fled towards Colojo, a small village in the hills that was a trek of an hour and a half from Dimataling. Colojo felt like the safe option, as it was the boys’ home and was populated only by Christians.

There were no proper cement or tarmac roads out of Dimataling, a remote town on the large island, so they trekked instead along dirt tracks and even through jungle in places, in case they came across more trouble. They travelled quickly, refusing to take a break. Still, it was near dawn by the time they reached the village.

Peter spent the next few weeks there in hiding. As the violence intensified, he began to send a constant stream of refugees away from the mountains of Mindanao. And there was only one place he could think of to send them: to his friend and colleague from the Missionary Society of St Columban, Fr Des Hartford, who resided in Pagadian city, a three-hour boat trip away. Des would help them, Peter was certain.


Although he had not personally witnessed the terror the villagers were fleeing, Des Hartford, from the small town of Lusk in north Co. Dublin, knew what had driven the evacuees to abandon their homes in the mountain villages and seek sanctuary. The tension in the air was palpable.

One day a young woman arrived with her three children. Distraught and overwhelmed by unimaginable grief, she broke down while trying to speak about the horrors she had witnessed. Her husband, she said, had been shot dead. Her home was burned to the ground and she’d lost everything.

Perhaps for the first time in his ministry, Des, a tall, quiet Irishman, could not think of any comforting words to say, so he just listened.

The members of the Missionary Society of St Columban were among the few to bear witness to the murderous carnage which, at times, threatened to engulf the entire island of Mindanao but remained largely unknown to the outside world.

In the days that followed the initial attacks, Des listened to more villagers recount stories of how Muslim gunmen had murdered, tortured and maimed Christians in cold blood. To Des, the deaths represented the demise of the last vestiges of trust and charity among the island’s different cultures, which had slowly eroded over the past few decades.

Marcos put the military in charge and gave them permission to do whatever was necessary to keep him and his cronies safe”

While the killings terrified Des, he was more frightened by the utter hatred and mistrust that such murders caused. This was best illustrated by the language each side used to describe the other. The Muslim bandits were referred to as barracuda, ‘the fighting fish’, by the Christians, while the Muslims called the Christians who took up arms against them the ilaga, a derogatory word that means ‘rats’.

Des didn’t believe hatred alone was the cause. He was a rational person who knew there was always an underlying motive for the violence. The killings weren’t truly sectarian in nature; their cause was more complicated than that. The roots of the murderous terror that threatened to engulf the island, he felt, lay in the political corruption that infiltrated almost every facet of society in the Philippine archipelago.

On September 21, 1972, months before this spate of killings began, President Ferdinand Marcos issued Proclamation 1081, which imposed martial law on the whole country and also closed the Philippine Congress. It had a catastrophic effect on democracy. Journalists, student leaders and trade union activists were arrested, along with those who opposed the president. A further effect of Proclamation 1081 was to shut down newspapers and bring the mass media under the control of the president.

Marcos put the military in charge and gave them permission to do whatever was necessary to keep him and his cronies safe. Seventy thousand people who had connections with the workers’ movement and tenants’ rights were arrested and imprisoned. Marcos’s circle of supporters took trading companies and government agencies for themselves. The country’s wealth was going to a small selection of powerful people, who sent the money offshore to foreign banks, all the while overseen and protected by the military.


Like other dictators, Marcos defended his decision to effectively abolish democracy by claiming to be protecting it. He said martial law was necessary to counteract the threat posed by the New People’s Army (NPA), a communist-inspired group, and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a paramilitary organisation dedicated to the creation of an independent Muslim state in Mindanao.

The MNLF was formed in 1971 by Nur Misuari, whose radical interpretation of Islam and proclamations against the Marcos regime attracted a groundswell of support among the island’s Muslim population. It was a disciplined organisation that had a profound influence on other rebel groups because of the tight way it was run.


Misuari wanted all Muslim insurgents to unite and align under the MNLF umbrella. Many insurgent groups did join the MNLF because they were allowed to maintain their individual identity while joining with the larger, more disciplined organisation. Others remained outside the MNLF, but they too were taking up arms against the government’s troops.

The number of armed insurgents in 1973 was estimated at between 15,000 and 30,000. While their fight was with the government, it was the ordinary citizens of the Philippines who suffered the most in this protracted conflict. By the end of the century, more than 100,000 had been killed by the violence.

The motivation behind Marcos’s decision to suspend democracy was not, as everyone knew, to protect the Philippines against a Muslim insurgency; the order was aimed at ensuring that Marcos could retain absolute power. The Philippine constitution limited the presidential reign to no more than eight consecutive years in office. Having held the presidency already for eight years, Marcos was out of time. Martial law allowed him to suspend the constitution and gave him the extension of power he so badly desired.

There were many societal changes under Marcos’s rule. From 1975 to 1983, the country’s debt increased threefold and the local currency, the peso, lost half its value. The government had borrowed money from international banks, allegedly to build dams, motorways and factories, but many of these projects never materialised. The money disappeared into the president’s pockets.

The size of the military also increased hugely during this time, and high-ranking officers became rich and powerful. They attacked the Catholic Church, especially the clergy and lay people who spoke out against them. Soldiers defended land barons and logging and mining companies, and removed people from their lands with little or no compensation.

They imprisoned people without trial. They used local people to go into the mountains to negotiate with the NPA, and if a villager refused to help, they burned down every house in the village. They covered their tracks by saying the villagers were part of the NPA.

In response to Proclamation 1081, the MNLF launched what was to become a fully fledged armed insurgency in Mindanao. They first focused on the city of Marawi, the inhabitants of which were almost all of Muslim faith and culture.

After Marawi, the fighting quickly spread, and the MNLF campaign soon descended into an overwhelming assault, particularly in rural areas. The insurgents murdered those of other faiths and cultures whom they had lived alongside in peace for generations, possibly because the military was viewed as Christian. Des, along with his fellow Columbans, watched in horror at the slaughter thabt ensued.


The Missionary Society of St Columban’s relationship with the archipelago began in 1929 when, at the request of the Archbishop of Manila, it sent two priests, Patrick Kelly and Michael Cuddigan, to serve in the parish of Malate, in Manila. The Philippines was not ‘in the missions’ as outlined by canon law, because approximately 90% of its inhabitants were recorded as being Roman Catholic.

It was seen as an unusual choice for the Columbans, who were intended to do “apostolic work among infidel peoples”. So going to a country where, on paper, the vast majority of people were Catholics was not an obvious choice.

The truth was, however, that hundreds of parishes had been abandoned and some had been left vacant since the Spanish ceded the Philippines to the United States of America in 1898 as part of the Treaty of Paris. The Archbishop of Manila, Michael O’Doherty, needed priests and had pleaded with the Columban superior general, Michael O’Dwyer, to send help.

Des came to realise, like the other priests of his generation, that attempting to strengthen the people’s spiritual life alone was not sufficient”

About a quarter of Catholics in the country at this time had left the Roman Catholic Church to join the Philippine Independent Church, presided over by Gregorio Aglipay, who had led a campaign to free the Church from Spanish dominance. Many saw very little difference between the two Churches. However, the Columban priests were disheartened when they saw that former Roman Catholics were content to burn candles before statues and seemed to know nothing about the Eucharist.

The missionaries had their work cut out for them. Over the next few years, more and more Irish missionaries arrived and began to care for the spiritual needs of the Catholic inhabitants of the islands. The Columban mission, as the missionaries saw it, was to rekindle the faith of the people, rebuild churches and train catechists.

This work ground to a halt for a period during the Second World War, when the Japanese invaded the archipelago. The Columbans suffered greatly during the war and many were forced to leave the country.

For those who were able to stay, many suffered deprivation, living in the mountains where they were protected, fed and sheltered by friendly Catholics. Others were tortured and killed, however. One Columban, Francis Douglas from New Zealand, was hauled away in the middle of the night on July 27, 1943.

He was never seen again and, even today, the Columbans are still trying to learn of his fate and the details of his presumed martyrdom.


The missionary work of the Columbans began again once the invaders were defeated and had left the Philippines. Their mission was successful because the Columbans placed great emphasis on training lay people to work in their own local parishes.

Missionary zeal for the spiritual upliftment of the parishioners was not the only purpose of the Columban missionaries, though. The Columbans were also social advocates, whose religious beliefs were grounded in the struggle for social justice.

It was this underlying aspect of the Columbans’ work that Des Hartford was passionate about. By the time he arrived in the archipelago in 1968, the Columbans had developed an advanced theological approach to their mission. They recognised that the poverty they encountered in the Philippines was structurally related to decisions and behaviour not only in the Philippines, but also in other parts of the world.

Des came to realise, like the other priests of his generation, that attempting to strengthen the people’s spiritual life alone was not sufficient. The Columbans had to support their congregation in all their needs. He and his colleagues believed the injustices and poverty their parishioners were experiencing could not be ignored. They became a part of their communities and took action to help their parishioners in all areas of their lives.

When he was a young boy in Ireland dreaming of joining the missions, however, he had no idea how complex his life would become as a priest.

The above is an edited extract from Murder on the Missions by Jean Harrington, published by Mercier Press.