Columban Pilgrimage to Pililla and Paete
By Fr Rex Rocamora
The author is a Columban priest from Ipil, Zamboanga Sibugay. He was ordained in 2000 and until this year was based in China. He is now in Our Lady of Remedies Parish, Malate, Manila. His brother, Fr Joseph Joy Rocamora, is a priest in their home Diocese of Ipil.
‘No wonder he was always looking towards the altar’, said Miss Dominga Bayocot who had witnessed as an eight-year-old the man tied to one of the pillars in St James the Apostle Church, Paete, Laguna, after realizing that he was a priest. She was speaking in Tagalog but I noticed the interpreter missed this line and didn’t translate it for the pilgrims who were listening intently to the accounts of two witnesses – the other was Mrs Aurelia Cadapan – to events in the church in July 1943. It was an important line, I thought. They spoke to us after a lunch hosted by the parishioners at Lunal Paradiso Resort in an off-road garden setting.
Manila traffic bogged down the bigger of two buses carrying pilgrims to Pililla, Rizal, where Columban Fr Francis Vernon Douglas from New Zealand had been parish priest in the early years of World War II, and to Paete, Laguna, where he had been tortured and killed by Japanese soldiers. We pilgrims included Columban priests, lay missionaries and workers from many countries and relatives of Fr Douglas from New Zealand. Our bus almost skipped Pililla because we were running very late and we only had one day, 28 September 2016, to do this pilgrimage, to see and hear about Fr Douglas, known to his family as ‘Vernon’.
On the way, conversing with fellow pilgrims, praying and singing as well, and seeing rural of Rizal and Laguna from a front seat was very pleasant. Finally after many hours on the road, including a visit to St Mary Magdalene Church in Pililla, and our lunch, we slowly moved down the narrow street leading to Paete church and parked near the town hall. A local person told me that the name ‘Paete’ comes from the Tagalog word ‘pait’ or ‘paet’, ‘chisel’. The town has been famous for centuries for its woodcarving.
The old adobe church of Saint James the Apostle stands at the foot of a mountain. I entered the church, which was quiet and calm, and approached and, as other pilgrims were doing, prayerfully touched the post to which one of Fr Vernon’s hands had been tied. He held his rosary in the other, or so I imagined.
The post is one of two supporting the choir loft and is near the baptistery, which was the ‘torture chamber’ of Fr Vernon’s three-day ordeal. Then the stirring within my soul began shortly after praying at the post, more so when I witnessed others praying solemnly there as well. ‘Do you feel something within you?’, I had to ask, Verne, one of the New Zealanders, as my emotions were welling up. Had I been foolish in asking her? But she quickly replied, ‘I’m his niece’. Verne was born in April 1945 on the day the Douglas family received news of the death of Fr Vernon, hence her name. I was thinking that she had feelings that could not be expressed in words. We talked and went to the baptistery where we prayed in silence with a few others. We heard of the locals’ plan to install stained glasses in there; the image of St James the Apostle on one side and of Fr Vernon on the other.
While I was praying at the post, a spontaneous conversation with God was quietly going on within me. It happened again during the Mass at which Columban Fr John Keenan, whose article Here was a Strong and Brave Man, first published in 2001, has stimulated much interest in Fr Vernon, was the main celebrant and homilist. Before the final blessing, Fr Dan O’Malley, the Columban Regional Director, an Irishman, spoke briefly, followed by inspiring words of thanks by Verne.
After Mass I walked outside the church and saw a vendor and bought a mortar and pestle chiselled out of molave wood. It symbolizes for me the ‘grinding’ that our fellow Columban, Fr Vernon, was subjected to. Terrible, it must have been. But I wanted to remember it as a graced moment between him and God, a shared moment with the crucified Lord. Martyrdom may not be for many, but everyone is called to holiness. God is alluring and inviting. The memory of Fr Vernon’s death has stirred a willingness within me to listen to God’s call to holiness, to total self-giving. On this pilgrimage to Paete I felt God’s gentle call to move on the path towards Him, the most Holy One.