The Italian Jesuit missionary who died for the Lumad

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After Lorenzo Ruiz of Manila and Pedro Calungsod of Cebu, Zamboanga del Norte offers its own bet for a martyr: Fr. Francesco Palliola, S.J. Photo from FR. FRANCESCO PALLIOLA, SJ/FACEBOOK

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The Dipolog Cathedral is packed. On a Thursday morning, mass-goers arrive in their Sunday best; they come in cassocks, dresses, rags, slippers, veils. Some have flown from Manila, taken the bus from the neighboring region, or descended from the mountains of Zamboanga del Norte. They are men, women, children, the middle class, the poor, indigenous, and clergy with little in common except devotion: in particular, to a priest who has been dead for over three centuries, whose proof of holiness is compiled in three boxes to be sent to the Vatican.

This is the closing ceremony of the diocesan process for the cause of martyrdom of Fr. Francesco Palliola, S.J., an Italian Jesuit missionary who died for the Lumad, the indigenous people of Mindanao. He lived in the 17th century, but occurs to every devotee in the crowded cathedral as if he has lived alongside them all their lives. Locals are hoping he will be pronounced blessed and, later, a saint.

“We are happy na ma-elevate sa higher level si Fr. Francesco ... Hindi lang ‘yung taga-Luzon, taga-Visayas ‘yung may santo,” a woman named Rene Bael tells me. She is referring to Filipino saints Lorenzo Ruiz and Pedro Calungsod. “Kahit hindi siya pure na taga-Mindanao, his heart is also Mindanaoan. He volunteered to be here.”

Pusong Mindanao!” one of her companions chimes in excitedly.

The women, who assisted in documenting stories about Palliola for the cause, say that if there is evidence missing, they will go back to the town where he died to look for it.

“‘Yung documentation about Fr. Palliola, parang isa nang milagro na para sa amin,” says Marites Bael, Rene’s cousin.

Tapos hindi iyan mawawala sa hearts ng mga tao,” says another woman named Epifania Cadavedo.

IMG_7277.JPG The women, who assisted in documenting stories about Fr. Palliola for the cause, say that if there is evidence missing, they will go back to the town where he died to look for it. Photo by REGINE CABATO

There is little to tell that the small town of Ponot, now known as Jose Dalman, is slowly becoming a pilgrimage site. The fifth class municipality is almost an hour away from Dipolog, nestled in the middle of jungle, rivers, and other towns.

Strange stories abound in such rurality, as talk of Palliola is dipped in folklore and rural legend: wounded soldiers stuck in the mountains are nursed back to health by a mysterious European priest; Palliola appears as a gigantic fish pushing men to shore before a typhoon, or a white dog that chased locals down the mountain, saving them from a landslide.

The conviction with which the locals tell these stories makes it difficult for a skeptic immersed in their community not to believe them. There is something mystical about Zamboanga del Norte, with its narrow roads, quiet beachfront, and faraway charm. It is as if anything can happen here, and the world would not know it.

So it was the case — for centuries people had been praying to Palliola, and no one had noticed until now. The devotion had been kept alive not by the Church, but by the indigenous. Locals refer to the priest intimately — “si Father” or “‘yung Padre” — as if he was a good family friend who had died only a few years before. Palliola died on Jan. 29, 1648.

In the car on the way to the site, Jesuit archivist Fr. Rene Javellana, S.J. turns from the front seat and says, "We were amazed that this memory survived for 300 years."

***

Padre Francesco Palliola was born to Italian nobility in 1612. He took the stormy 25-month trip from Europe to the Philippines, and landed Mindanao in 1644. Based in Dapitan, Palliola traveled farther to the peripheries to establish posts for the mission — one of which grew to be the city of Dipolog.

"Sometimes we create stories about the person para hindi siya makalimutan, to augment the greatness of a person." — Brother Amado Tumbali S.J.

 

Palliola learned Visayan and mastered the language of the Subanon, an animistic indigenous tribe of the peninsula. Most took to his teachings — save for a native chieftain who left the faith, Tampilo, and another named Toana. They resented Palliola, his strict attendance during masses, and possibly, some theorize, the loss of their status in this new colonial society.

The priest arranged to make amends with them, welcoming them to his house. Palliola likely foresaw it would not turn out well, but still pushed for dialogue and hoped for the best. They arrived in a group, slit his throat, and took a sword to the back of his neck.

According to legend, in the precise moment of his death, a pious woman named Maria Uray in Dapitan saw a great light rising in the direction of Ponot. She was perturbed, and when Palliola's body arrived, her suspicion was confirmed.

Palliola’s modern day gravesite is at the end of unpaved road, filled with coconut trees, overlooking the beach. Jesuit historians believe there is no real body there, but it is the site of his martyrdom. The supposed grave, now gated, is elevated by stones. Covering it are bits of coral that some locals boil and put in their drink to relieve pain.

During the day, people from as far away as northern Mindanao come to this quaint place and offer candles and petitions. They ask for everything from simple requests, such as making a headache go away, to cures for cancer — and, they attest, Palliola grants them.

***

Jason Luwague was born with clubbed feet.

His mother, Monica, tended to the priest's supposed burial site. When he was younger, she would carry him with her, and leave him on the grave as she swept up the leaves and cleaned up the melted candles.

IMG_7289 - Jason Luwague.JPG Jason Lumague, who is now 33, was born with clubbed feet. When he was nine, he dreamt of Fr. Palliola. The next morning, he could walk. His testimony is one of those sent to Rome for evaluation. Photo by REGINE CABATO

When Jason was nine, he dreamt of the priest. The next morning, he could walk. A compilation of accounts by lay ministers in 2003 said that his father and mother were on the way home when, to their great surprise, Jason ran to meet them on the way.

This year, Jason, who is now 33, sits at the front row the closing ceremony in Dipolog. His testimony is one of those sent to Rome for evaluation.

In our interview with him, Jason recounted in Subanon how a few years ago, he saw a great ball of light moving in the east. Could it have been similar to what Maria Uray had seen?

Jason could not remember what year it was, but the sighting is not a distant possibility. In 2013, locals in the west coast of Zamboanga City, approximately six hours away, saw a giant fireball traveling from the east, before disappearing into the sea on the west. It is not established this was the same ball of light; the locals claim to have seen it at dawn while Jason saw it at dusk. When it disappeared, he said, he went back inside the house to have dinner.

Word of mouth is a tricky thing in the province. Memory betrays, and stories change shape when transferred from one storyteller to the next, so it is difficult to chisel down bare fact from adorned fiction. But as I would come to learn in Ponot, sometimes alterations are part of the narrative.

***

Fr. Patrick Dalangin, parish priest of Jose Dalman, attributes the transformation of stories to the oral tradition of the Subanon and, by extension, Filipinos. In a context like that of the Philippines, such strange beliefs sometimes curiously walk side by side with Catholic faith.

"Hindi tayo factual, kasi wala tayong proper recording. Ours is more on remembering," says Dalangin.

One such story was repeatedly shared with us since our arrival in Dipolog. It unfolds thus: A parish priest, assigned to the area of Ponot sometime in 1949, heard footsteps outside his door in the convent on two consecutive nights. When he opened it both times, no one was there. On the third night, he prepared a camera to shoot whatever was passing in the hall, thinking it might be a thief. When the footsteps came, he flung the door open and flashed a picture.

"After the film was developed, they were in great [surprise] because it was a picture of Fr. Francesco Palliola ... holding a Holy Rosary with a bolo tacked in his neck," a 2003 account by laymen continued.

IMG_7300 - Fr. Patrick Dalangin.JPG Fr. Patrick Dalangin, parish priest of Jose Dalman, says that the transformation of stories about Fr. Palliola may be attributed to the oral tradition of the Subanon and, by extension, Filipinos. "Hindi tayo factual, kasi wala tayong proper recording. Ours is more on remembering," he says. Photo by REGINE CABATO

The parish priest handed the supposed photograph to a brother for safekeeping, who then turned it over to his niece, a certain Concepcion Poligrates. The woman would keep the picture for many years, until she began to hear voices which urged her to return the picture to a certain “high priest.” She left it with the new parish priest.

When I asked locals what the photograph looked like, they pointed to the prevalent portrait of Palliola — but that picture was a painting, not a photograph.

The portrait shows the young priest, holding a rosary and crucifix, with a bolo lodged in his neck. While it sounds gruesome, the method of death is a common depiction in the portraits of saints.

Dalangin thinks that contrary to rural legend, the so-called photograph from the convent hallway was actually a photograph of the painting of Palliola. What he is curious about, however, is how the story took form.

Word of mouth is a tricky thing in the province. Memory betrays, and stories change shape when transferred from one storyteller to the next, so it is difficult to chisel down bare fact from adorned fiction.

"Bakit na-attribute ‘yung picture na iyon kay Fr. Palliola? Bakit na-hand over [from] generation to generation?" he asks.

According to Jesuit archivist Brother Amado Tumbali, S.J., the painting also shows Palliola was an important figure. The painting was “a trope,” crafted in the manner that other saintly depictions were.

"He was revered like a saint sa picture niya… If you remove [Palliola’s] name, tanggalin mo ang sword sa leeg niya, pwede mong isipin si Stanislaus Kostka ito or si Aloysius Gonzaga ... There are people who are grasping for memory of him," Tumbali explains.

The painting, which originally hung at the church in Dipolog, had been stolen some decades ago at the Katipunan Parish Convent. It was only recently found in the possession of the Central Bank, whose officers said found it at an auction. It is now part of the Metropolitan Museum collection.

One of the church volunteers, Bing Kimpo, shares that maybe the disappearance of the painting had been a blessing in disguise; shortly after it was stolen, a fire destroyed the convent. The portrait disappeared just in time.

***

Archivist Brother Amado Tumbali S.J. stumbled upon the case of Palliola by accident. He was visiting Zamboanga del Norte to check up on another deceased Jesuit, whose remains were temporarily returned to his family. As he left, the locals asked him, “Aren’t you going to see the other dead Jesuit?”

“Who?” Tumbali had said.

He went to see the gravesite and reported back to his superiors, who agreed to provide the diocese with the backup and research they needed for a cause for martyrdom.

Tumbali sits on the panel that probes the historicity of Palliola's life. His commission is in charge of finding evidence that Palliola was real, and tracking documents such as letters and other accounts that could prove he loved the faith and the people he served.

He says that while the stories locals share about Palliola may be far from what can be proven historically or scientifically, it shows that the locals could not forget the priest.

"True or not true, the interpretation there is mahalagang tao si Palliola ... In fact, sometimes we create stories about the person para hindi siya makalimutan, to augment the greatness of the person,” says Tumbali.

Dalangin also pointed out that even though indigenous devotees might not fully understand Catholicism, it does not make their faith or Palliola's intercession less valid.

"Hindi nga siya nag-aral ng theology, that's the way he views it — [but] it doesn't mean Palliola [did not] pray for him,” Dalangin says of indigenous devotees. "But at the same time, universal ang Church, universal ang Diyos. Even if itong tao na ito ay iba ang paningin niya, pero hindi discriminating ang Diyos. Hindi discriminating si Palliola."

IMG_7265.JPG Palliola’s modern day gravesite is at the end of unpaved road, filled with coconut trees, overlooking the beach. Jesuit historians believe there is no real body there, but it is the site of his martyrdom. Photo by REGINE CABATO

Another modern argument against the beatification and celebration of Palliola is his affiliation with a colonial movement. He was, after all, white and Catholic. Were his killers, Tampilo and Toana, not valid when they resisted? Did he not impose his faith upon the local community?

Not necessarily, says Tumbali. “[A] gesture of Palliola that he was very careful not to trample upon the culture was, he learned the language. He did not force them to learn Spanish.”

Palliola even made a Spanish-Subanon dictionary for the reference of future missionaries, but it was lost during the suppression of the Jesuits from 1768 to 1814.

Moreover, Tumbali adds, resistance to Palliola's ministry was only aired by a few.

"Sila na ang nagsasabi na 'Hindi [niya] kami pinapabayaan hanggang ngayon,'" he says of the Subanon.

Dalangin agrees, saying other natives were welcoming of Palliola — and they still are.

"[May] isang Subanon, sabi niya sa akin, 'Hindi man lang siya nagalit na napatay siya ng lolo namin... He never gets tired of helping us, na kadugo namin ang pumatay sa kanya,'" says Dalangin. “Ang lalim... To a higher level: God never gets tired."

The priests maintain Palliola fervently believed in a peaceful route, even amid Mindanao’s history of violence. Tumbali notes, "Politically, Palliola is giving us the advice that violence is not the key to reconciliation."

Most conflict, Dalangin laments, is dealt with by either fight or flight — but not with Palliola. He only wanted to reconcile, despite the chasm between their differences.

“He made [a] third option: Can we just talk?” he says. “He never fought back, he never [backed down... He said], 'Sige, mag-usap tayo,' which is the road less traveled. It's either we fight or [go for] flight, but we never confront issues.”

IMG_7271 - Dipolog Cathedral.JPG The Dipolog Cathedral, a 19th century church built by the Spanish, is where devotees gathered to attend the closing ceremony of the diocesan process for the cause of martyrdom of Fr. Francesco Palliola, S.J. Photo by REGINE CABATO

For the parish priest, postulating for the possible patron of the Lumad has pushed him to a deeper commitment to his vocation.

"[As a priest], why can I not sacrifice more of my ministry to the Lumad? Merong mas nauna sa akin na hindi pa Pilipino, mas mayaman pa sa akin... who even learned the language — who even sacrificed sweat, tears, and blood just to be there," says Dalangin.

"In retrospect ... who am I to be [a] postulator? Ako'y isang pari na wala namang master’s [degree] in theology, doctorate in theology. Ang sa akin is, gusto ko lang maging pari sa Mindanao," he adds.

Perhaps that is enough. After all, Palliola was just that — a priest in Mindanao looking after his flock.

***

Moments like the Jesuit historian's fateful discovery of the pilgrimage site, the finding of Palliola’s long lost portrait, and the return of the supposed photo of Palliola to the parish are what drive church volunteer Bing Kimpo to speculate that something divine is at work.

“It’s not just coincidence,” Kimpo said over dinner with clergy and devotees, “but convergence.”

It is also timely how the cause comes at a time when Mindanaoans clamor for peace and representation. In a historical compilation, the archivists write that Palliola brings the plight of the natives to the fore.

They note a history of oppression of the Lumad, dating from the arrival of Islam to contemporary concerns like protests surrounding killings of the indigenous. Where there is talk of bombing Lumad schools, and where the government commission tasked with indigenous affairs almost received a measly P1,000 budget, Palliola’s cause is more urgent than ever.

"He gave his life to the Lumad, and he was killed by a Lumad. In this person, the Lumads have a champion … Mining removes them from their ancestral domains. There's no clear office — they can't even speak up for themselves," says Tumbali.

IMG_7280.JPG At the Dipolog Cathedral, the boxes for shipping to the Vatican are sealed. The stories of Palliola and his devotees will travel from here to the seat of the Catholic Church in Rome. Photo by REGINE CABATO

"If the Lumads of Bukidnon [or Davao del Sur] would hear about ... a priest, a foreigner who was willing to die for them, and supernaturally helps them until now, I think it will boost their esteem," he added. "They should not fall into the trap na second class na kami, third class na kami. Paano mangyari iyon? Somebody died for you."

Palliola’s recognition in the international Church may not just be a success for Mindanao and the peace efforts in the region, but also for tribes in the peripheries worldwide. These groups have the most to ask for, but they ask for so little — rather, they only ask what is enough. At the gravesite, devotees have simple requests: a cure for an ache so they can work, a way to pay for their children’s schoolbooks. They believe God, through the intercession of Palliola, provides.

There is little to tell that a small grave in a small town like this has become an endpoint for pilgrims this side of Mindanao, and a starting point for a possible saint. At the Dipolog Cathedral, as the boxes for shipping to the Vatican are sealed, it is overwhelming to think that the stories of Palliola and his devotees will travel from here to the seat of the Catholic Church in Rome.

Convergence, the perfect intersection of precise moments and occurrences — like the alignment of planets or meeting someone in a faraway place — sounds almost like divine intervention. When Kimpo calls it that, how can you disbelieve him? In a place like Ponot, nestled between mountain and sea, with hospitals and agencies kilometers apart, where every day is so alike that a man from the 17th century occurs so vividly, so recently, so presently to its locals — anything can happen. All it takes is a leap of faith.

***

Update: An earlier version of this article stated that the Palliola painting was stolen at the Dipolog church, instead of the Katipunan Parish Convent. It also stated that the convent was destroyed by an earthquake, instead of a fire. CNN Philippines Life has revised the article to correct the error.