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in January-February 2012, Philippines
A vocation story interview with Fr Oliver McCrossan
1. How did you become a priest? We want to know where you started.
I was born in Ireland, in County Donegal. We are five in the family. My background is Catholic. When I was growing up in the 1960s there wasn’t enough opportunities for other work so I got interested in the Columbans. For some reason I wanted to be a missionary, not a diocesan priest because basically I was interested at that time in the Third World and I read in the Far East magazine, which we got at home, about what Columban missionaries were doing. So I was inspired by them. I wanted to go abroad and help others. I suppose it comes from my family, my mother and father were kind people. They were ordinary people, working people who struggled for life. We lived in a small rural community so I know what people have to go through. That’s the reason why I have always been interested in helping people. So I decided to join the Columbans.
2. How old were you when you joined the Columbans?
I was 18. I was ordained in 1975. There was a lot of turmoil then at the time of Vatican II. So many changes in the seminaries, the Church was opening up to the world, and opening up to new ideas. So I wanted to go abroad and was very happy to come to the Philippines. I was sent to Ozamiz in 1976 to study Cebuano but my assignments were in mostly in Pagadian Diocese.
3. How was it for you, when you first came here?
How can you prepare for another language and culture? It’s difficult. The language was very difficult at the beginning, strange food. But the priests who were here before me were experienced and gave me good advice. I wasn’t coming here as a stranger so that helped. My first parish priest in Pagadian was the late Fr Des Hartford. I had a very good experience with the priests.
4. Since you came here, you were never away?
I was away from 1997 until 2002 in Ireland, doing studies. I’m going away now in July  for a sabbatical. I feel the need to have a break from here, visit my family and take time out. I’ve spent 30 years more of my life here and I’ve enjoyed my work. I’m very happy here.
5. Tell us your vocation story.
The gospel means something to me and helping the downtrodden. That is my experience here with the people. The Church here in Mindanao has been very involved with the people. I’ve been involved in small Christian communities, justice and peace, human rights advocacies here. There were many who suffered greatly because of the terrible times under Martial Law. I believe that the Church is tasked to be a Church that stands in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. I’m scared about things like religion or devotion if it’s not contextualized in the suffering of people, if it’s just prayer without connecting with people. It should evolve in communities, like the stories you get from missionaries. I admire people who are working for and with the oppressed and the downtrodden, that kind of commitment.
My vocation, your vocation, our vocation, it’s the same in some ways. The moment that we’re baptized, we belong to the Church, and we try to live out the commitment as best we can. Your commitment, your work in your office is helping spread the gospel by spreading stories of hope. I always like to ask this question: What gets you up in the morning? Why am I here? Why are you here? Why are we here? What keeps you living? Who do you live for? What do you live for? Your family? Your friends? Your work? What kind of commitment?
For me, when you’re helping others, that’s when you get salvation in life. It’s life-giving. It’s not just about concerns with your own little needs but the needs of others. I see these fathers, these pedicab drivers trying to do their best to provide for their children. These people around me, they are the ones who get me up in the morning.
6. In your 30 years here as a missionary priest, was there someone, a young boy maybe who approached you and said ‘I want to become a priest like you’?
Sure, many people have come to me. We didn’t promote ourselves before. We were late in deciding that. We sent interested young men to become priests in their diocese. I’m happy to say that in Ozamiz and especially in Pagadian, some in our youth groups have become priests.
7. The Columbans are getting old, some going back to their home countries to retire. A lot of you have spent more than half of your lifetime here in Philippines doing projects, mobilizing people. Columbans have been our way of life. What happens if you’re all gone?
As for me and my commitment with Pedalling to Live, the reality is that it wouldn’t have started without outside help and funding from overseas that I was able to access through personal contacts and through writing up stories. That started it and we’re trying to be more self-sufficient so the reflow of the money we used for housing.
The Cooperative and the people in it have been doing very well. They have a very good track record so it’s in good hands and I feel I can leave it. It’s not about me, it’s about these people involved in the work. We cannot determine the future, we have to let it go. The Columbans are gone here, everything dies, and things move on, everybody passes off. It’s not forever. The Columbans have left a good memory here generally. We give thanks for that, we think of all the works here, the little projects there, here and all over Mindanao. Even if we are very small we still have an active role.
8. That’s what we quoted you for recently, you used the word ‘tapestry’ in describing the works of the Columbans.
You know, it’s a small drop in the ocean. But every drop counts. That’s what inspires me, that’s what inspired my commitment. I’m grateful for the people I’ve worked with until now. They are the people who have the faith. They have vocation. Those are the people who continue to struggle as they live. As priests, as missionaries, we move and move and move. It’s the ordinary people who are living out the Church’s message more than the priests. I have to go down there and visit and meet the ordinary people, their homes and see their shocking conditions, otherwise I become out of touch. There is a need for a pastoral commitment. And everybody needs it. You also need to be involved, that’s the reason why you have to come here and see people, meet them.
9. In all these things in your missionary life, what image of Christ can you relate yourself to?
He was in Nazareth speaking about serving the poor. And he forgave sinners. He always was forgiving sinners and he went and visited the houses of the so-called sinners and the downtrodden. I’m touched by that message, that commitment. You know the Beatitudes, blessed are the poor in spirit? I’m touched by those things. The life that he lived. That’s what inspires us. He gave his life for others. That’s the essence, that’s the central message. So how do we follow that? We carry our cross. That would be my particular emphasis. What’s the point of speaking if you’re not doing it to action? Our words are useless if we’re not actually involved. We preach the gospel but even more so we live it. And that’s the challenge.
10. In one sentence, what can you tell me about priesthood, something that I could tell my 5-year-old son right now?
Living life to the full. To be a priest is not a lesser life. It means to bloom where you are, use your talents and your gifts, for others. That would be my particular emphasis.