United with Father Vernon, a Pilgrimage to Remember
By Mary Joy Rile
The author is Editorial Assistant of MISYONonline.com and Columban Mission.
Columban missionaries and co-workers, with members of the Douglas family, gathered at 5:30am in Singalong St, Manila, on 28 September 2016, the feast day of the first Filipino martyr, St Lorenzo Ruiz. We were commemorating the life and death of Columban Father Francis Vernon Douglas, a New Zealander martyred in the Philippines in 1943. Riding on two buses, 68 of us started our pilgrimage with rain to grace our day, traffic to greet us in between and delays to test our endurance. But these challenges were a small sacrifice compared to the suffering that Fr Vernon bore.
We had Morning Prayer and rosary along the way. The prayer of Fr Dan O’Malley, Regional Director, was truly humbling, ‘We ask for forgiveness for having lost your story over the years. But we rejoice that we have re-discovered this. And in this re-discovery, deepen our own faith, our own commitment in our troubled times in this nation.’
When we reached the church of St Mary Magdalene, Pililla, Rizal, we visited its different parts before having a prayer service in the sala, which Fr Vernon had used as his room.
The readings and silent moments for reflection helped us internalize what he had gone through.
We continued the journey going to Paete, Laguna. We had a stopover for lunch at Lunal Paradiso Resort hosted by the parishioners. Afterwards two eye-witnesses, Mrs Aurelia Cadapan and Miss Dominga Bayocot, shared their personal encounters with Fr Vernon. Their sharing was moving and when we reached the church of St James the Greater we were drawn to venerate especially the wooden pillar to which the Columban priest had been tied. The atmosphere brought us back to the time of his suffering. The thought of his excruciating pain evoked in us deep sorrow, wishing to console him, yet we also recognized that sense of gratitude and awe for his courage in facing such a death. Holding the pillar as if reaching out to Fr Vernon felt like we were united with him. Such a grace!
We celebrated the Eucharist along with some parishioners and students of Liceo de Paete. Msgr Jerry V. Bitoon, Vicar General of the Diocese of San Pablo, was one of the concelebrants. He said, ‘You see, he was a priest in Pililla, Rizal, and he was just brought here. Was it God's design? For what reason? We do not know. But we are happy that we've been part of that.’ Columban Fr John Keenan gave an inspiring homily on the life and death of Fr Vernon.
An ancient Spanish tradition is that the Blessed Virgn Mary appeared to St James the Greater as he was praying by the banks of the River Ebro near Zaragosa in Spain. She was resting above a pillar. This is the origin of the great devotion in the Hispanic world to Nuestra Señora del Pilar, Our Lady of the Pillar. Fr Vernon was a parish priest of St Mary Magdalene but was taken to another church, St James the Greater, where he was tied to a pillar and tortured.
To be snatched from your own people and made to suffer in front of others who didn’t know you at all – what suffering that must have been for Fr Vernon, having no friend to comfort him! Though silent, he was seen moving his lips in prayer, holding his rosary. Was he not in the company of Jesus and Mary? He found that friendship with God, his source of strength that made him conquer all the pain and suffering. He was probably in that state of union with God where he could only submit himself without resistance, denying himself for the sake of others.
Miss Dominga Bayocot recounted the sharing of her uncle who was next in line to be tortured in the baptistery of the church. The Japanese soldiers vented all their cruelty on Fr Vernon so that after him none of the other men were tortured, but freed. They were saved by that one white man whom they had only encountered during those three days. He was then taken away to some unknown place and never seen again. But Mrs Aurelia Cadapan, who told us that the remains of St James were discovered centuries after his death, continues to pray and hope that one day we will also find the remains of Fr Vernon Douglas. If he will be canonized some day, he will then be the first martyr of New Zealand and the first canonized saint to die in the Philippines, as St James the Greater has been traditionally considered to be the first martyred apostle.
It is normally a family’s desire to give one of their members a decent burial. But for a pilgrim such as Fr Vernon who had foreseen his possible fate, does that matter? Will not a man of faith who uttered the words of Jesus, ‘Not my will but yours be done’, a man blessed to have shared in the Passion of Jesus, not to be raised with him? Columbans identify themselves as Pilgrims for Christ with that spirit of leaving their homeland for their mission, continuing their journey wherever Christ leads them. A number of them have died and are buried in their mission lands. Their patron, St Columban, was born in Ireland but died in Bobbio, Italy.
As we continue to search for answers to the mystery of the death of Fr Vernon, we keep the attitude of faith that he himself embraced, expressed in the hymn used during Evening Prayer on the pilgrimage: Holy darkness, blessed night, / heaven's answer hidden from our sight. / As we await you, O God of silence, / we embrace your holy night.
Holy Darkness by John Michael Talbot