From Tribes Of Bukidnon To Korea

By Fr. Leo Distor mssc

I remember that I first wore a “sotana” and held a Bible close to my heart at age 10. That was in a school pageant performed in an elementary graduation ceremony. I was in the 5th grade then but I was asked to deliver the priest’s line making the young minds understand that priesthood is also a choice that one can make. I didn’t have a clue why I was asked to do that. Maybe the role was really not that popular among the graduating students that nobody among them played that role. I believe they would have rather imagined they’re a lawyer in a courtroom or working in the hospital or in school. I liked that role anyway. Now, if I’ll tell about my priestly vocation I would my priestly vocation I would say that the story should begin there.

To do something else

As a child, I grew up watching regularly a priest saying the Mass on Sundays that after sometime I could already understand some of what he was saying. I saw many of them but I don’t remember specially liking any of them but I felt that I was a bit interested in what they were doing. Some people recognized this interest and suggested that I was suitable to be a priest. I had no problem with that. In fact it gave me something to think about.  I did some search-ins in my high school and college days in the local seminaries and I was even invited to enter the seminary. But I decided to finish my college and work, through the seminary. But I decided to finish my college and work, though the thought about priesthood never went away.

Six years with the tribe people

I got this job in Sta. Cruz Mission, a mission for the tribal people, and I worked and lived with the tribal people, and I worked and lived with the tribal people for a good six years. I was first working in an elementary school then transferred to work was tough but interesting. It brought me many tribal communities around the province and gave me knowledge of the indigenous tribal religious practices. Some of the tribal communities were faraway and difficult to reach. I used a motorbike, a horse and walked many hours to visit the communities as a support to make religion program functional in those communities. In times when the priest went to celebrate the Eucharist with the community people. I went before him to prepare and assist at the Mass. In doing such work, I became more familiar in that area of the priest’s work. Those many of beautiful and meaningful experiences, sometimes really tough, prepared a rich ground for me in many ways to re-think my own plans for priestly life.

Being with the marginalized Filipino tribals opened a lot of doors for me. Understanding their “person” dancing to their music, singing   their songs and struggling with them against the ‘beasts of prey’  surrounding them made me learn a lot and gave me enough spirit, depth and courage to move forward and heed the call of priesthood...and be a Columban. Fr. Sean McDonagh was close when I was making up my mind and deciding on which direction I should take. He played his part in this story.

Seminary Dilemma

Starting life in the seminary and doing exactly the same program with three other seminarians very much younger than me was not really a great situation...but, I should say, not the worst thing either. But things turned out favorably. The energy and the wit of my young companions really “woke” me up and pushed me to more work and prepared me to adapt more to the seminary life especially in continuing the Theology program with another group of younger people. In those formation years, I really had much struggle in learning and unlearning things. The sudden change in my dynamics from working independently and as an earner to the seminary structure with full time academic program and depending for all my needs on others again was hard on myself. I had moments then of thinking to go back home and work, but it was God’s wisdom that I saw my direction and came to understand those trying moment as hurdles to jump over.

First Mission Experience

I was sent to Korea for my First Mission Experience (FME). That was quite valuable for it really helped a not in my preparation for overseas mission. My time in Korea was fruitful. Korea is a rich and powerful in many areas, the Church has developed well and the society too and everything seemed to be really stable. With that, I was asking myself what sort of mission should newly arrived foreign missionaries do with the people apparently living a better life that us in the Philippines. Looking for some mission areas to work in after doing a few moths of language study was disorienting because there seemed to be nowhere to go and nothing to work on from the point of view of the social situation of the people.

Identity Conscious

But of course there was somewhere to go and something to do. I worked in two areas: a welfare center for the mentally handicapped and in a parish-based labor counseling office. I was accommodated in those areas not really because of their needs but rather they wanted to give me the experience was very significant to me.  it did open me to the reality of mission in  such an affluent society and a non-Christian country. The experience made me deal with my own resistance and biases about the new environment and culture and opened me to the better side of it. It also made me see my culture more deeply and appreciate it but some part of it I resented. I became conscious of my Filipino identity not only as a foreigner in Korea but as a Filipino Columban.

After my ordination to priesthood in Mindanao, I returned to Korea. As an ordained priest I had to take on more responsibilities and communicate more. That means learning the language again which until this time I’m still struggling with. Working in a Korean parish is a good venue in gaining knowledge about the dynamics of Korean Church. My first parish assignment was with another Columban but now I’m in another parish working with a Korean diocesan priest. Here is the real ground to experience the Korean Church, I am meeting people a lot – adults, youth, children – and this allows me to meet more Korean priest and be with my difference as a foreigner and as a missionary.

I was embarrassed

One thing about the Catholic Church in Korea; it enjoys a powerful status in the society and this implies power to the priest and to the church. People know their own places and keep their priest in their high places. Many Korean Catholics play an active role in the parish and, I would say, they work hard to live a good life. Sometimes I take pride when Koreans tell me how great the Philippines is as Catholics County, but one time I was embarrassed when someone asked, “How can crimes be so rampant in a Catholic Country like yours? Aren’t most of your leaders Catholics as well?” I could smile at it but it bothers me.

Indeed, things are really different in the way people understand religion, I hope my presence in the parish now will speak something. I’m enjoying my time and work here in Korea and I feel blessed. And this story goes on.