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Bishop Cooney's Journey to the Philippines

11/04/2009

Gaylord Bishop Patrick R. Cooney was elected to the Catholic Relief Services Board of Directors in 2004. As a member of the Board, one of his responsibilities is to make an annual visit to a region where CRS is at work. Last year, Bishop Cooney made the trek to Africa. In September, he traveled to the Philippines. Here we share details of his trip, how CRS is assisting the local people and Bishop Cooney’s observations along the way. The work of Catholic Relief Services is supported in the Diocese of Gaylord by gifts to the annual Catholic Services Appeal (CSA). Ten days 16,050 miles 7,107 islands One country 90 Million people; 72 Million of them Catholic and an opportunity see and share faith at work… Thus was the equation Bishop Patrick R. Cooney faced when preparing his trip to the Philippines arranged by Catholic Relief Services (CRS). An exhaustive journey in terms of distance traveled, coupled with the threat of natural disaster (typhoons are prevalent this time of year in the region) and the country’s civil unrest could give such a trip the feel of a big screen action film. But the Bishop returned unscathed and with a wonderfully profound perspective on the Philippine people and the mission to which CRS has embarked in that country. The Philippines is a small island country that measures only 1150 miles from north to south (a distance equal to driving from Copper Harbor, Michigan to Toledo, Ohio and back.) The country is divided into three major geographical groups—Luzon is northern-most and the largest island; the Visayas is in the center of the country and includes most of the smaller islands; Mindanao is in the south and is the second largest island, plus it includes about 400 smaller islands. By Bishop Cooney’s observation, the wealth in the country seems to follow that same north to south path, with the wealthier areas found predominantly in Luzon and the poorer in Mindanao. “I learned right away that my perception of the size of the Philippines was really inaccurate. I had always thought it was a small area with a few islands and a few million people. I was really surprised to find the Philippines is made up of literally thousands of islands and is home to more than 90 million people.” The administration of the Catholic Church in the Philippines is divided into sixteen ecclesiastical provinces, each bearing the same name as the archdiocese in it and includes 72 dioceses. There are some 2,723 parishes in the country, more than 7,200 priests, and more than 7,400 religious sisters. Bishop Cooney arrived in Manila, on the island of Luzon, and was greeted by Michael Frank, Country Representative for CRS/Philippines. CRS has worked in the Philippines continuously since 1945 when it launched relief and reconstruction efforts needed after the end of the Second World War. While CRS continues to provide relief to victims of natural and man-made emergencies, it has evolved into a premier development agency that supports ongoing programs in Peace and Reconciliation, Health, Enterprise Development, and Agriculture/Natural Resource Management. The Bishop would witness several of these initiatives during his trip. CRS/Philippines manages a central office in Manila, and three sub-offices in Cebu, Davao, and Cotabato. The Manila office plays a strategic role for the country program. Located within the compound of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), in fact just across the piazza; the Manila office maintains regular contact with key government agencies such as the Office of the Presidential Advisor on Peace Process (OPAPP), Department of Health, Department of Social Welfare and Development, Department of Justice, and Department of Foreign Affairs. Maintaining good relations with these ministries is crucial to ensuring government cooperation and assistance in programming and vital administrative matters (visas, agreements, residence) permits. All the key donor agencies also maintain offices in Manila (such as USAID and USDA.) His first morning in the Philippines, Bishop Cooney visited the CRS/Philippines Manila office. He met with Sister Rosanne Mallillin, SPC, Director of NASSA (National Secretariat for Social Action – Justice and Peace; also known as Caritas/Philippines) and with Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez, Chair for NASSA. Bishop Gutierrez spoke of the economic development in his home diocese. Sr. Roseanne was very knowledgeable and disclosed the NASSA partnership with CRS/Philippines and how the two offices work together to reach common goals. After the meeting, Mass was celebrated in the CBCP Chapel followed by lunch with the CRS Manila staff and special CBCP guests. The Bishop then departed for Centennial Airport to continue his journey with a 2-hour flight to the capitol of Mindanao, Davao City. The next morning Bishop Cooney had a meeting with Archbishop Orlando Quevedo, OMI, D.D., Archbishop of Cotabato and President of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conference (FABC). One of the intellectual leaders of the Philippine Church, Archbishop Quevado is also known for his good sense of humor and is touted as an excellent choice as a leader of both CBCP and FABC. While he realizes his is the majority church in the area, he remains very sensitive to the minority Islamic issues that exist across the territory. Establishing peace in Mindanao remains a high priority. For that reason he is very committed to interfaith dialogue and working with CRS. Bishop Cooney then visited the CRS/Philippines Davao office to meet with the CRS staff and be briefed on the peace building and agricultural initiatives. The CRS program integrates farming practices, environmental protection and marketing through impressive coordination with government, church, local non-governmental agencies and the local businesses. Bishop Cooney was very impressed, commenting that “the CRS staff as a whole is very enthusiastic and dedicated to their work and the people of the Philippines. CRS must have very refined techniques for hiring these people as they all seem to have the nicest touch for the people they are serving.” After the briefing, the group left to visit the Davao River Protection Project, one of the endeavors of the Agricultural/Natural Resource team. Implemented by People Collaborating for Environmental and Economic Management (PCEEM), this is an ecosystem-based project for areas within the Davao river watershed. Traveling to the area, Bishop Cooney was struck by the poverty readily apparent. “The people have so little. Houses are constructed with whatever materials are available and looked as if they were made of tin and would blow down in the slightest of breezes,” he noted. That bleak picture came in stark contrast to the enthusiasm of the people. No matter where he traveled, the bishop was impressed with the willingness of the local people to help and to their genuine caring attitude. The Davao River Protection Project is a perfect example of how the people pitch in. Since improvement and protection of the river is a long-term project, it makes sense that the community be a partner in it, along with PCEEM and the government. Local YMCA, other educational and civil society organizations have been recruited to learn and to help with implementation and training for the effective management of the project in the future. There were several generations of people participating while Bishop Cooney toured and all were enthusiastically working together to improve the water and hence the quality of life for those living in the area. The Magindanao Province of the Philippines, the southernmost province, is home to some of the poorest sections in the country. It is also the area where civil unrest is most prevalent. Because of this, promoting tolerance and understanding among the Christians, Muslims and Lumads (Indigenous Peoples) who inhabit the area is a major goal of Catholic Relief Services (CRS). Staff explained to Bishop Cooney that through experiences working in other countries where there has been conflict, CRS has learned the importance of promoting these initiatives so projects to benefit the common good in the region will ultimately be successful. The CRS promotion of a “Culture of Peace” through these efforts has been very successful. Bishop Cooney was captivated by The Peace and Reconciliation Program which promotes grassroots peace building initiatives. Program components include interfaith dialogue, peace education, peace advocacy, capacity building, and support for community-based peace efforts. The Mindanao Peace Institute (MPI) is an annual training program for peace building practitioners. In this program, noted lecturers from the Philippines and other countries are invited to present two week courses in conflict transformation and other peace building topics. Participants come from the Philippines as well as more than 15 other countries. One example of this success, as well as one of the bishop’s favorite stops, was with Mike Alon, Director of Integrated Mindanaons Assistance for Natives (IMAN), a local Islamic non-government organization. Mike, a Muslim, spoke of his journey towards reconciliation. As a young man he lost his mother and childhood home in the conflict between Islamic factions and the government. He became very angry and bitter and very well could have taken a more militant approach to living in Mindanao. However, as a young man he met and became good friends with Father Bert Layson, who had lost a beloved bishop to the same conflict. That common ground became the foundation for an attitude change in both men. Training provided by CRS helped Mike gain inner peace, and that was the key to helping others. After they met, Mike invited the small group back to his home for lunch. Bishop Cooney was inspired by this man, who had so little but what he did have he wanted to share. The small home was filled with hospitality and Mike’s daughter entertained the group with episodes of impromptu singing and dancing. “Mike’s ‘rock star’ daughter—all of about four years old, was a delight! The warmth and friendliness was typical of the Filipino people,” Bishop Cooney said. “And the same was true no matter where we traveled.” The bishop visited a Filipino health clinic participating in the CRS Child Survival TB Control program, which is funded in part by USAID. He was struck by the sparseness of the facility, noting “there was very little equipment in the room, save a chair that may have been in the corner.” In this area there is only one doctor for 30,000 people, and very limited medical supplies. The project, begun in October 2005 and going through September 2009, has a goal to reduce tuberculosis morbidity and mortality in the 28 municipalities that comprise the province of Maguindanao. The bishop also met with Dr. Tahir Sulalik, Director of the Department of Health for ARMM (Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao) for dinner one evening. Dr. Sulalik was very complimentary of the CRS health program, both past and present. The CRS Child Survival program is being used as a model in his province for community health workers and said it is “much better and more comprehensive than the UNICEF model.” He also noted that the TB program has already met the targets set for the first year. Bishop Cooney spent the weekend traveling back to Manila. He did have a day to take in a tour of Corregidor Island, which was a key port and harbor in the battle for world domination during World War II. The Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941 and the Americans and Filipinos waged war against the Japanese across the small country through July 5, 1945. It is the site of General MacArthur’s famous, “I shall return” declaration. Bishop Cooney also had the opportunity to tour the Malinta Tunnel. The tunnel was originally designed to house huge quantities of ammunition, food and supplies, and the underground Fort Mills Hospital with at 1,000-bed capacity. It consists of a main east-west passage approximately 1.000 feet long and 25 feet wide and had twenty-five lateral passages, each about 200 feet long and 15 feet wide branching out at regular intervals from each side of the main passage. A separate system of tunnels north of this main tunnel housed the underground hospital and had its own twelve laterals. Located beneath Malinta Hill, the tunnel served as a bomb-proof headquarters for the embattled Filipino and American defenders of Corregidor during World War II. Returning to Manila, Bishop Cooney was struck by the contrast in the city between modern architecture and fashions and the slums and poverty that were readily apparent. “It was quite astonishing to witness the disparity between rich and poor peoples, with not much middle ground to be found,” he stated. “On the one hand, parts of the city and architecture are very much comparable to what we would expect to see here in the U.S. On the other hand there are large areas of desperate poverty.” The beginning of the following week brought with it one of the more compelling segments of the trip. Early Monday morning Bishop Cooney and Mike Frank, CRS Country Representative, boarded a flight to Leyte, in the Visayas (middle) region of the Philippines. Here the bishop and delegation would see areas where mudslides have devastated entire villages. Bishop Cooney met with Bishop Precioso Cantillas, a Salesian whose diocese invests heavily in vocational education and is providing scholarships to children who lost their parents in the mudslides. Bishop Cooney visited two sites in Southern Leyete where the mudslides had been especially destructive. Father Fem Gohetia, Director of Dioceses of Maasion Social Center and several other community leaders joined Bishop Cooney’s delegation on the tours. Construction of multi-family homes, one of 44 and one of 81 units, are being built to accommodate those displaced by the tragedy. Each unit is a duplex that will house two families. The developments should be ready for occupation before Christmas this year. In both areas members of the local government and parish were thankful to CRS for their assistance. As the Bishop had witnessed from the beginning of his trip, the villagers were involved with the various projects. In this instance, they help to clear and prepare the land for construction. When he returned to Manila, Bishop Cooney met with His Excellency Fernando Filoni, Papal Nunzio in the Philippines. Archbishop Filoni expressed concern for the oppression of Christians in Muslim countries and admiration for the devotion to the Church by Filipinos who reside in non-Christian countries. In the words of Msg. Filoni, “They are the Church.” His last day in the Philippines, Bishop Cooney met with Archbishop Angel Lagdemeo, President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) and Father Juanito Figura, CBCP Secretary General. There they discussed the Church and its role in relation to the Philippine government. Archbishop Lagdemeo explained, “The Church is constantly asked to give opinions on almost any political and social issue. It is important to be careful, though, exactly what is said as the very active press is willing to print any quotation.” That afternoon the bishop met with the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines, Kristie A. Kenney and Frank Donovan, USAID/Manila, Deputy Mission Director. Kenney, who has connections to Northern Lower Michigan having spent summers here as a child, was very interested in hearing Bishop Cooney’s impressions of the country. Bishop Cooney explained he was very impressed with the work CRS is doing; as well as the enthusiasm and genuineness of the Philippine people. Very early the following morning, Bishop Cooney was off to the airport to begin an arduous trip home to Gaylord. His original itinerary was cancelled due to weather, so there were moments of trepidation as a typhoon approached the island nation. After re-routing he did make it out on a flight to Tokyo, just before the winds and rain came. In an email to the Bishop, Mike Frank exclaimed, “Wow, did you get out of town just in the nick of time! Typhoon Milenyo hit Manila hard that afternoon and most of the city was without electricity for several days; it was the strongest storm to hit Manila in 11 years.” The trip, though exhausting, with several days beginning at 4:00 AM, was also exhilarating for Bishop Cooney in many ways. The Philippine people, the staff of CRS, and the initiatives that they are working toward together are hope personified. Witnessing that kind of humanity, no matter how far you have to go, is one of God’s ways of making believers of us all.

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