Murder on the Missions. A True Story
by Jean Harrington (Mercier Press, €14.99)
It was the murder of Fr Rufus Halley at Malabang in the province of Lanao del Sur on August 28, 2001 that led to this unputdownable account of the lives and work of Columban Missionaries in the Philippines during the final 30 years of the 20th Century.
The author, Jean Harrington , tells us how she was particularly moved by an article in the Irish Times. She was struck by how palpable Rufus Halley’s warmth was from the way his family friends and fellow Columbans talked about him.
She wanted to investigate further. She did so and those investigations continued intermittently over 18 years finally resulting in this inspiring work.
While Rufus Halley remains the principal focus of the author she also introduces us to another great Columban Fr Des Hartford from Lusk Co Dublin. Fortunately she was able to spend time with him before he succumbed to cancer in 2004.
Des had been kidnapped in 1997 by the Moro National Liberation Front and held hostage for almost two weeks. We learn in detail about this harrowing experience and also about how he befriended his captors.
One of these men confided in him about his terrible pain at losing two infants at childbirth from some mysterious disease. Not only was Des able to comfort him he also gave him practical advice by telling him that as soon as his wife became pregnant again he should take her to a hospital in an adjacent town run by the Sisters of Mercy.
Rufus Halley was an outstanding sportsman at school excelling at rugby, athletics and horse riding. Good enough to play rugby for Munster Schools, he might well have gone on to represent Ireland. Instead he chose the Columbans.
Once assigned to the Philippines he immersed himself in the lives of the local poor and committed himself to peacemaking. His fellow Columbans noted that he rose before dawn each morning to spend an hour in silent prayer and before retiring in the evening he would spend a half an hour in the same way.
When the Columbans began a new apostolate of dialogue with the Muslims in the Southern Province In 1980, at a time when Marcos ruled as dictator, Rufus volunteered for this work.
In order to prepare he learnt two more local languages and spent time at the University of Birmingham where he studied Islam and Arabic. On his return to the Philippines he lived for some time in a hut beside some Muslim friends and worked in their grocery store as an assistant.
At the same time he took a great interest in the parish school at Malabang where 60% of the students were Muslim. He taught these students respect for the Qur’an as well as some Arabic. He also made it his business to visit their parents.
Last August Harry Whelehan, former Attorney General and former President of the High Court, introduced this book to a gathering in Rufus’s home parish in Butlerstown, Co Waterford.
In the course of this address in which he spoke of his friendship with Rufus (they had also been in the same class at Glenstal).
He read an email he had sent at the time he finished the book . This was to Fr Donie Hogan, another Columban, who had been a friend of both Rufus and Des. This email bears repeating here.
This then is a story about the Church in action, the Church at prayer, and the Church deeply involved in local politics”
It reads as follows: “I experienced many emotions reading this book and got to know Fr Des, yourself and many of your colleagues through Rufus and the great mission you share in the amazing, brave, pure and novel approach which you adopted in your labour of love in the Philippines.
“The continuing deep affection which I have for Rufus is now in a real way there for Des and for you and the many great unsung missionaries throughout the world.
“The insight gleaned from the book is much richer than the typically modest accounts I used to receive from Rufus on his visits home.”
The book contains a number of important photographs. A particularly poignant one depicts the five Halley brothers Walter, Gerry, Emmett, Eamonn and John carrying their brother’s coffin to its final resting place.
Looking at this photograph one realises what a great comfort it must have been to Rufus knowing that he had left behind his sister Evelyn and five brothers to care for his parents as he headed out to the Philippines. At the funeral mass Gerry Halley speaking on behalf of the family emphasized that they wanted no revenge.
It was Augustinian missionaries who had brought the Catholic faith to the Philippines in the 16th Century. It is surely noteworthy that it was when he was on his way to celebrate the feast of St Augustine that Rufus Halley was gunned down as he tried to get away from his would be Muslim captors.
This then is a story about the Church in action, the Church at prayer, and the Church deeply involved in local politics through its peacekeeping role.
Pope Francis may never have heard about these Columban missionaries in the Philippines, but they surely embody the Church he so passionately calls for in The Joy of the Gospels.
After a career as both solicitor and judge, Mr Justice Garrett Sheehan retired from the Court of Appeal in 2017.