Thursday, February 7, 2008

Fr. Geremia forgiving Norberto Manero

What was it that drove a man to such bewildering heights and plunged him to such lonely depths? What voices did he hear? What lights, what darkness had he seen? What visions, what dreams?

Fr. Peter Geremia, a man so outwardly driven yet so inwardly drawn, had written in a diary his experiences, thoughts and more importantly, his painful prayers during his years of missionary work in this country. I was fortunate to be allowed to read his diary which was later published as a book (“Dreams and Bloodstains: The Diary of a Missioner in the Philippines”, Claretian Publications).Long before the book came out I did a magazine feature titled “The Diary of Fr. Peter Geremia.”

Through his raw diary he very reluctantly, almost wearily, let some of us see his core, the shreds of his life and whatever was left of himself. His diary was also an oppressed people’s bitter story, distilled and kept in one man’s prayer cup.

Geremia continues to walk with all of us. In his younger days he waded through the floods of Laguna, the squalor of Tondo and the blood in Mindanao. He has plumbed the bowels of this land.

He should have been dead by now. It was he who was hunted and supposed to be gunned down by paramilitary fanatics who blew off the brains of fellow Italian Fr. Tullio Favali, his co-pastor in Tulunan, North Cotabato Cotabato, on April 11, 1985.

Geremia’s diary of the 1980s is littered with dead bodies, punctuated with bullet holes and drenched with people’s tears. Blood oozes and embers fall. But like unseen fire, his prayers rise above the wailing, the gun smoke and the ashes.

Written unguardedly, the diary sounds like letters to the God he so loves, fears and hungers for; a God so loving but sometimes painfully silent and devastating. There are moments of peace and humor, and one can see the priest riding on a crest of joy. The next moment he is mercilessly smashed against the rocks.

Also part of the diary are theological and historical reflections and reviews of books he found time to read when the guns were silent. In reports to superiors and associates, he could be dispassionate and scholarly, but when he writes about ordinary people, he too becomes ordinary, that is, passionate, prayerful, vulnerable—a priest.

Active men can also be contemplative men, and contemplatives are not people who have completely turned their backs to the world. From the tumult in Latin America have come a wealth of writings that show how inextricably linked active struggle for justice was with the spiritual life. “The Guerrilla Journal of Nestor Paz, Christian” hints at this. From monasteries and prisons have come literary and theological works tackling burning worldly issues. Trappist monk Thomas Merton of “Seven-Storey Mountain” fame had produced volumes of these.

Geremia who belongs to the Pontifical Institute for the Foreign Missions is neither monk nor guerrilla. He simply called himself a “wounded healer” and although his wounds are not physical, they are real, and it is through his journals that his inner experiences find utterance.

Geremia was born 71 years ago in the municipality of Castel di Godego (castle of the Gods) near Treviso in Northern Italy. A child of war and destruction, Geremia carries memories of that dark period in history.

Okay, with all that on my mind, I read with a feeling of peace the most recent news story on Geremia and Manero.

“Manero seeks, receives forgiveness from Italian priest he planned to kill.” This was the headline of a story in the Inquirer’s Across the Nation section.

The story said that convicted priest killer Manero who was recently released from prison met last Monday with Geremia, the priest whom he had planned to kill 24 years ago. (Fr. Tullio Favali was the one who was gunned down by the Manero brothers, Norberto and Edilberto.) Manero, along with his wife Evelyn, relatives and lawyer went to the bishop’s residence in Kidapawan City and met with Geremia.

The story by Jeoffrey Maitem quoted Fr. Geremia as saying, “Manero personally asked for forgiveness (from) me. We already forgave him. He also renewed a 2005 pact he signed with us to prove that he would no longer return to the violent life had led in the 1980s. We had a prayer service too and he reiterated that he was serious in observing his promise.”

He also told the priest that he no longer wanted to be called Commander Bukay. A photo showed Manero visiting Fr. Favali’s the grave.

Here is Geremia’s entry in his diary after Fr. Favali was killed. “Tullio killed last April 11. Killed in my place. I missed my chance. I was given a new life no longer mine. Many say I should be grateful but I am more disappointed. I was rejected even in death. As I wanted to die, they could not do me the favor. Maybe they sensed my desire, maybe they wanted to see me running away from death in panic before they finished me off. I have become a ghost for many, a dead man who has returned to life. I saw Tullio on the road with his brain scattered around, his mouth eating dirt, his blood like a dark carpet. The killer repeated that they would do even worse for me, they would hang me to a post and torture me before killing me.

“Tullio came into my life like a stranger. I did not know him before. We lived together but in separate worlds. I could never share with him my inner struggles and he was taken by his (own) struggle. We were running with all our strength, without looking much at the obstacles or each other.

“Until he fell down without knowing what hit him. And I am still running, waiting to fall at any moment as he did, and without knowing where I am going. Run, baby, run!”

“Dreams and bloodstains” end in forgiveness. In this season of Lent.