In The Cocafeilds Of Colombia

By Cora Llamas

Missionary priest Fr. Jimmy Aguilar brings the Catholic faith to war-torn, poor communities of South America, where kidnapping, torture and violent death are a way of life. Fr. Demetrio “Jimmy” Aguilar’s faith has been tested by fire. Literally, and several times. As a foreign missionary of the Society of Divine Word (SVD), he has faced narco-terrorism in Colombia, endured Panama’s persecution of its Catholic Church, and stood with the people as the US troops rained fire on a dictator’s stronghold. In his service in God’s kingdom, this priest was almost killed twice. And at one point in his life, he lived with the knowledge that he could be arrested and killed without due process of law at anytime.

Why not the Philippines

Fr. Jimmy is currently enjoying a brief respite in his home country, after 15 years in the mission fields of Latin America. He will return to Colombia for possibly one last tour of duty. One might ask why he served in foreign missions in the first place, considering the need here at home. According to Fr. Jimmy, the faith of Filipino Catholics remains strong, as seen in the many young men who continue to enter the priesthood. In fact, the SVD has had to turn down some applicants because it could not accommodate their large number. Two reasons contributed to this growth: the empowerment of the laity and strong family ties in spite of encroaching modernization.

Longing for “something more”

The initial spark of Fr. Jimmy’s own faith was kindled in his own home. His parents who are from Lubang, Occidental Mindoro, were devoted Catholics who instilled the same piety among their six children. Jimmy graduated from his altar-boy duties to involvement in the Legion of Mary and Student Catholic Action. Later on, while as a twentysomething high school Math teacher, he continued teaching catechism and visiting the sick in hospitals. His heavy parish involvement did not take away the “longing for something more”.

Road to Priesthood

The road to priesthood was first shown to him by a German priest in his little town. Watching this man tend his spiritual flock everyday, away from the comforts of his own family and people, made the young Jimmy realize that “we have to share this faith with others if we are to be true to the call of the Gospel: Go out to the whole world, preach the Good News, baptize in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Since the Philippines is already a Christian nation, Jimmy thought, “What are we doing sitting here?”

His parents, surprisingly, did not readily accept his new calling. As the youngest who still lived under their roof, Jimmy was all they had. Their five older children had all made their own lives in Manila.

Not wishing to break his parents’ hearts, Jimmy entered the seminary without even saying goodbye. Reconciliation took a year, before his father could finally allow himself to visit his son at the novitiate.

First-level evangelization

There was little time to grieve as seminary life passed by quickly. Prior to his ordination in 1983 Fr. Jimmy applied for mission work in the forbidding continent of Africa. Instead, he was sent to Colombia to minister to parishioners struggling with adolescent pregnancy and drug addiction. Like all young missionaries, Fr. Jimmy had to learn the language, assimilate the foreign culture, strengthen the people’s faith and morals, and fight off bouts of loneliness. It was “routine missionary work”. He hungered for a challenge, his dreams for African mission work unforgotten, “I wanted first-level evangelization or bringing the Goof News to where it has not yet been preached. But in Latin America, the challenge was how to build Basic Christian communities. I always thought Africa was more difficult and challenging.”

The ‘challenge’ came at last

His prayers were answered with a transfer to Panama. A shortage of local priest in dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega’s territory forced religious orders to ask for reinforcement from other countries. The spiritual and moral burden was heavy. Government corruption had emptied the national bank and treasury, causing massive unemployment, economic collapse, poverty, and rising crime. An iron rule silenced the media and the opposition. Illegal arrests and imprisonments went unchallenged.

Noriega also declared the war against the Catholic Church. Freedom of assembly – even parish gatherings – was strictly forbidden. The strongman’s private army, the Battalion de Dignidad, infiltrated the congregations with spies who listened and took note of “subversive elements” in sermons. Suspect priests were marked with the “Traidores” sign painted over their church doors; they could be kidnapped, tortured, and salvaged. Panama’s own outspoken Archbishop, Msgr. Gregorio McGrath, was arrested, stripped naked, and beaten several times.

Living amid war

Fr. Jimmy awakened one morning to find the notorious “Traidores” sign looming over his door. He took it in stride. “Kung ano ang mangyari sa akin, it’s God’s will. Our concern was to do something to help ease the situation of the people.”

For years, the situation seemed hopeless, until the Americans launched their surprise invasion on December 19, 1989. “It caught us by surprise,” he remembers, “We were preparing for the old folks’ Christmas party. The next day at dawn, sumabog na ang city. We could see the fire in the city,mapulang-mapula. Tapos mayroon nang mga putukan. Na-cut-off ang television, radio, at angtelephones. And then we saw soldiers and parachuters, bumababa sa mga helicopters at eroplano.” The siege lasted three weeks. The Americans established military checkpoints and held a “benevolent” military take-over”. Fr. Jimmy found his town, Alcalde Diaz, the highest peak in the area overlooking Panama City, encamped with US Marines. To the chagrin of many, Noriega sought asylum with the Papal Nuncio, the Popes representative in Panama.

Dictator Surrenders

After 21 tension-filled days – “we were praying, ‘Monsignor Nuncio, please turn over”’ the dictator finally surrendered. The news sparked nationwide celebrations in Panama. America was hailed as a liberator. Fr. Jimmy kept his wits, anticipating the widespread famine that followed soon after Noriega had sin-phoned the funds out of the country, and his troops looted its department stores and supermarkets. Fortunately, the US cushioned the blow with a speedy, organized food rationing in cooperation with the Catholic Church.

Return to Colombia

Fr. Jimmy’s next assignment from 1995 up to the present was equally dangerous. His return to Colombia found the nation torn between the internal bloody warfare between the government and the drug cartel. The drug lords and their guerilla allies forced farmers to plant and grow their cocaine, killing those who refused. The government’s para-military forces, meanwhile, punished those who did obey. Colombia soon found itself under a “culture of death”. It had become their daily bread. Everyday, newspaper headlines screamed the massacres of entire families, including children. Kidnappings and bank robberies became rampant, as the guerillas and para-military groups turned to crime to augment dwindling funds. Whole communities were evacuated as bloody skirmishes broke out in the cities. The brother of a fellow priest was shot because of suspected complicity with the guerillas.

Peaceful zones

Fr. Jimmy found himself at the end of a gun barrel twice. As parish treasurer, he carried funds for projects allocated for the people's livelihood. In two separated incidents, he found armed men waiting for him as he came home from the bank. Matatapang sila, hindi nagmamaskaraKaya alam kong guerilla or para-military,” he sighs. Unlike in Panama, the Colombian Church is very traditional and conservative. Speaking out in the pulpit only discouraged the people. The only weapons left to the priests were prayers and their faith. Recently, the Colombian Church established “peaceful zones” that declare themselves neutral to both guerilla and government forces.

Passing on the Torch

The situation is still far from resolved as Fr. Jimmy went back to Colombia last year. After his tenure is over, he plans to stay in the Philippines for good to help pass the torch of faith to the new generations of priests. One truth he will teach his successors is to look at yourself. Can I be a sign of God's presence? What do I do? How do I live? In the meantime, he had to fight a war, its risks accepted. “When I embraced this kind of life, I was ready for anything.”

The Heart Goes Ahead

Yet, encouragement can also come from the battlefield. In Panama, one of Fr. Jimmy’s parishioners, Pablito, was a sick old man who never missed a Mass. Because the rustic, poor, barrio conditions did not have a permanent assembly place, church venues shifted from one location to another. Despite long miles he had to travel, Pablito was always present in the celebration of the Eucharist. Finally, taking pity, Fr. Jimmy told the old man not to attend anymore – the priest himself would bring the Eucharist to Pablito.

Pablito gently turned to offer down and gave precious advice to his spiritual pastor. “Father, when the heart gets here first, it is not difficult for the rest of the body follows.”

Like all soldiers of God, Fr. Jimmy’s heart goes ahead of him, in whatever mission field God sends him to.

Salamat sa Sunday Inquirer at kay Cora Llamas