How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52: 7)
Fr. Peter Robb, CSsR was a Redemptorist missionary who went to the mountains to preach about God but discovered instead that God was there even before he arrived.
He was ordained a Redemptorist priest on 7th September 1947 in Australia. He came to the Philippines in the second half of 1950.
He was a man of great stature and story. And the last to pass of his generation of Australian and New Zealander Redemptorists in the Philippines. He played many roles in the congregation, but his mission to the mountain people was remarkable in apostolic boldness. He himself would always say, “The most enriching period of my life was the 15 years I spent in the mountains with tribal Filipinos.”
How did it all started? He did not look for the tribal people. The tribal people found him. Or shall we say, it was divine providence.
In 1973, he had a severe attack of typhoid fever and was hospitalised in San Juan de Dios Hospital, near Baclaran, Manila. A Philippine bishop and a good friend paid him a visit and asked him if he could minister to a community of 150 families who had resettled in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains. These families were formerly squatters around the Manila Cathedral for many years. And the pope was coming, Pope Paul VI and he must not see this, this mess around the cathedral. So they remove them by force, army trucks and dumped them in the foothills of Sierra Madre in Moltalban, Rizal.
So after his recovery, Peter Robb went to these families in three villages. He spent three months there, preaching a bit and encouraging them. One bright morning, 5 men in g-string appeared. He chatted with them in broken Tagalog on their part and also on him. “Where do you come from?” He asked. They gave a nod of the head with a movement of the eyebrows towards the mountains. Then one of them gave the Gospel invitation: “Come and see”. That’s how his mission in the mountain began.
Two days later, Peter Robb was with the 5 Dumagat trekking the mountains. It did take him almost four hours, climbing steep tropical mountains and down to the rivers. They told him: “Halik tuhod ‘yong bundok”, which means: “You kiss your knee while you climb.” It was a good novitiate for the years to come. On arriving at a community of about 15 lean-tos for homes, the kids all fled to the surrounding forest. “Kapre”, they shouted, referring to a giant of lore who perched atop a tree at night smoking a cigar and preying upon hapless passers-by.
He spent two days with them, ate their diet of carbohydrate roots from the mountains and the tender tips of different plants (Mga talbos). He fished with the men on the rivers, catching prawns and eels. After the simple evening meal, they gathered around the fire. They all bedded down together; men on one side, women on the other, and children all over the place. The dogs were also with them. There was no light of any kind except for the fire. The night was dark. The log caught fire. He could see it in the eyes of all intently looking at the fire. “The fire of the Holy Spirit was in our midst,” he would say. Conversation was very quiet and sporadic. This became the pattern of his life for 12 years.
He described his mission in the mountain in three stages:
From 1974 – 1978, the first four years he called this his education; living with the Dumagat, old time missionary, preaching at them. Gradually, he realised the paternalism of this approach. He said: “It was condescending. I had everything to give and they had nothing. It was creating situations of dependence. No true personal relationships were established. I was a slow learner.”
Yet he felt something was missing. During a five month holiday in Australia in 1979, he reflected on what it might be. “The tribals listened to me but it was one way traffic,” he concludes. “He was the good, white Father with all kind of goodies. It was a demeaning attitude. He had everything and they had nothing.”
On his return to the Philippines, Fr. Robb asked his superior for permission to live indefinitely with the tribals. “No exceptions,” he says. This is the second stage of his mountain mission—from 1979-1981—which he called the stage of immersion, sharing and being ONE with them.
For 18 months he lived with the tribals, shared life and hardships, asked for no exceptions, worked with them, ate their simple diet of root-crops, slept together around the fire at night, made himself dependent on them, tried to show that they were equals, and to some extent captured their values, attitudes and rhythm of life. Any talk of ‘belief’ was useless. It didn’t register. But when any hint of “experience” of his ‘Makedypat’ (or God) came up, He could share with them his experience of his ‘Makedypat’. He supposes He was a sort of “commodity” to be shared. That was evangelisation.
The third stage from 1981-1989, he called the stage of service as equal partners. Tribals became subjects not objects of evangelisation. He recognised some important features of the tribal outlook on life and their way of life, learnt from experience and reflection. He suspects that many of his reflections here would apply to Australian Aborigines within the framework of their “Dreaming”. He speaks as one less wise!
He learned many things from the tribal Filipino but one of the most enduring things that he assimilated from them was their sort of mystical rhythm of life. Peter Robb describes this rhythm: “To some extent, the tribals have assimilated the deepest core of life and things. Living with this interior harmony and rhythm of nature is a kind of secret prayer… Is not this interior harmony a secret prayer, a prefabricated liturgy hidden in the visible universe? Silently, it awaits the person of reflection and prayer to capture, disengage and make it known in all its splendours.”
In his own unique way, Peter Robb lived this contemplative rhythm of life. He was an apostle of the ministry of presence. He gives full attention to the other. This is perhaps the reason why his memory is amazing. He gives personal attention to people. And this is why he demands the same attention from others especially when he tells his stories. Unfortunately, perhaps we are of lesser mortals than him in this regard.
A tragic experience happened when two of his women leaders both social workers in the mission were killed by the military and declared communist guerrillas afterwards, their bodies dumped into watermelon patch, completely naked, no IDs of any kind. They exhumed the bodies from the shallow grave–mutilated by bullet wounds and badly decomposed. It was shattering, absolutely shattering for him.
He was an angry man after that and it seemed to increase. He had become a victim of the atrocity. It would be foolish to return to the mountains, he said. The problem was solved by joining the Trappists on the island of Guimaras, near Iloilo, 500 kilometres south of Manila. For over three weeks, the monks took him into their community of prayer and work, rising at 2.15am each day. The hurt was healed, but he can’t obliterate such a memory.
But not all experience in the mountain was tragic. One funny experience was one Maundy Thursday, he decided to have a washing of the feet, going to great pains to explain again and again the significance of the ceremony. Some kind of expectancy was aroused. Four men and four women were seated on a bench in the outdoor meeting place. An old tin basin of sorts was provided and he proceeded to wash and kiss each foot. When he finished, the basin was half full of very muddy water. He might have known that the only time they washed their feet was when they waded through streams.
It was not fire and brimstone sermons that impressed in the memory of the tribal people when he left. He saved the lives of many, including diarrhea-stricken children threatened with dehydration. (He told their parents to give them boiled water to replace lost fluids). He obtained medicine for lepers and drove the gravely ill to Tanay or Manila. He raised 10,000 pesos to buy a village water buffalo and worked hard to organize a rattan cooperative to boost tribal incomes (it failed on government red tape and the opposition of middlemen who controlled the trade). And of course, the meaningful masses, baptisms, marriages and other sacraments that he presided over.
Fr. Robb cared for people body and soul—sometimes at his own risk. He vigorously championed local needs and rights, drawing the ire of powerful interests. The national waterworks agency wanted him to convince people to drop their opposition to a massive dam project in eastern Luzon called Kaliwa-Kanan (“left-right”). Concerned about communist rebels passing through, the military invited the missionary for questioning and kept him under surveillance.
By 1988, as much as he might have wanted to fight for his beloved tribals, the onset of painful arthritis in his knees forced him to leave the mountains.
But He brought back more. He came to evangelize the tribals but he left being more evangelized by them. His experience of God in the Makijapat of the tribals, strengthened and deepened his belief in our God. He sought to bring faith to the tribals and discovered himself. This sort of spiritual transfiguration experience in the mountains did not leave him, he would talk about it over and over again. It stayed with him until death.
Fr. Pete died in Melbourne on December 9, 2011.
(This article is an excerpt from the book National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help: Tips, Trivia and Tribute by John Maguire, Joey Echano, et. al., soon to be published)