Threats and old age fail to slow Italian missionary

Claretian missionaries admire Father Peter Geremia who has spent 40 years in the southern Philippines bringing Muslims and Catholics together.

Time is catching up with Peter Geremia, but even after 78 years the Italian-born missionary who has spent four decades in the southern Philippines, has no plans of slowing down.
Italian missionary Father Peter Geremia chats with children after Mass in a village of Kidapawan in the southern Philippines. (Photo by Bong Sarmiento)

Father Geremia, a member of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, is one of the oldest-serving foreign missionaries in Mindanao. He has defied several attempts on his life and has been detained at least three times, but he has never wavered in his mission to work with the poor, especially in the hinterlands.

Father Geremia arrived in the Philippines in August 1972, at the start of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ two decades of military rule.

Working in remote areas of Kidapawan Diocese in North Cotabato province, the young missionary witnessed the excesses of the dictatorship firsthand.

He protested the killings of poor farmers by soldiers and members of militia groups which resulted in allegations he was a supporter of the communist New People’s Army guerrilla group.

On April 11, 1985, a paramilitary group in Mindanao attempted to assassinate Father Geremia but instead killed another Italian missionary Father Tullio Favali, in the town of Tulunan. The killers were later arrested and jailed.

The Italian missionary remained zealous about his missionary work, even after the killing of other colleagues in Mindanao;  Father Salvatore Carzedda in Zamboanga City in 1992, and Father Fausto Tentorio in North Cotabato in 2011.

In 2006, two lay associates were killed while two other Italian missionaries were abducted.

Father Geremia only describes himself as  a “survivor.”

“Now that I am old, I will still continue my work with the diocese. I have no plans to go back to Italy to retire. I plan to stay here and serve the people as long as I can,” he told in a soft, shaking voice.

He does not tire recalling how he has spent 45 years of his 54 years as priest working in the Philippines. Forty of those years have been in Mindanao where he first worked in a Muslim community considered to be “no man’s land” for Christians in the 1970s.

Father Geremia and his team were able to bridge barriers between the Muslims and Christians in the town through interreligious dialogues that were anchored in respect for each other’s customs and beliefs.

“The people there now live in harmony,” said the missionary, adding that Christians now join their Muslim neighbors in breaking the fast during the month of Ramadan while Muslims attend Catholic wedding ceremonies.

With the late Father Tentorio, Father Geremia helped organize tribal communities’ resistance in Columbio town through the diocese’s Tribal Filipino program.

The priests walked through the jungles in search of tribal communities whose ancestral land claims were threatened by the encroachment of big logging and mining interests.

His work with the poor was recognized this year when he was chosen to receive the Saint Theresa of Calcutta Award for his humanitarian work in Mindanao.

“I was surprised,” he said. “I was nominated by [the tribal people of Mindanao], the Moros, and the Christians.”

Even with or without the recognition, the Italian missionary said he will continue to live and work with the people of Mindanao. Despite his advanced age, Father Geremia serves as coordinator of the diocese’s prison pastoral ministry.

By Bong Sarmiento, Kidapawan,Philippines. UCA News