Blessed to be a Columban, Blessed to be a Parish Priest
By Fr Leo Distor
Fr Leonito Distor is from Marbel, South Cotabato and is the fifth of six siblings. He was installed as the First Filipino Columban Parish Priest of Our Lady of Remedies Parish, Malate, Manila on May 1, 2014. He is currently a member of the Regional Council of the Society of St Columban in the Philippines.
Before I became a Columban, I was with the tribal people in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato for six years, teaching elementary grade school students and working as kind of a liaison to the different tribal communities in the area. That's where I was coming from. I discovered that I have the inclination to this kind of work and I found joy in it. When I learned about the Columbans’ understanding of mission, which is very different from those I had in mind, I told myself that this is where what I experienced and what I learned will have a place, where I can grow as a missionary.
I joined the Columban Society and was ordained on December 27, 1996. Right after my ordination, I was assigned for two months in Malabang Parish, Prelature of Marawi. It is a parish with a school, which caters to Muslim and Christian students. Together with Columban Fathers Rufus Halley and Paul Cooney, I helped out in the masses and got involved with the youth. We had limited masses then as everything was confined within the church area. The parish was fenced and whatever we did had to be done within the confines of the walls, so as not to offend the Muslims or the non-Christians, in particular. The Malabang Parish was first administered by the Columbans.
Peregrinari Pro Christo, 2010
Filipino Columban Priests L to R: Fr. Darwin Bayaca (Central Administration, Hong Kong), Fr. Leo Distor (Malate Parish, Philippines), Fr. Rolando Aniscal (Vocations, Philippines), Fr. Jude Genovia (Korea), Fr. Philip Bonifacio (Japan), Fr. Jovito Dales (Central Administration, Hong Kong) and Fr. Andrei Paz (USA)
After my assignment in Malabang, I was appointed to go on mission to Korea. When I arrived in Korea, I was assigned to a small parish ran by the Columbans. I stayed there for about eight months, then I did a refresher course of the language. I first learned the Korean language when I went to Korea in 1994 for the two-year First Mission Assignment (FMA) program. After completing the language refresher course, I signed a two-year program staying in a Korean parish, made possible with the help of the then regional director, Fr. Donal O’Keeffe, and his Korean diocesan priest-friend. On weekends, I helped in the ministry for Filipino migrant workers in Korea. I said masses for them, heard confessions and accompanied them in their journey, spending time talking with them and listening to their stories. During this time, I was also a member of an association of Filipino Catholic missionaries in Korea. Most of us were involved in the ministry for migrant workers. These went on for five years, from 1997 until 2002.
The years that followed found me in the formation work.
Fast forward, joining Malate Parish in 2013 and being assigned a parish priest since May 2014 is a familiar call that has become closer to my heart. Looking back at my past experiences in pastoral work, I can say now that I know where my heart is. And I affirm myself. I have always wanted to do pastoral work, to be with people. It has become a source of confidence for me. I may not be as extrovert as others, in terms of verbal expressions, but I speak out. I get energy from my experiences with people.
Parish work has put me in a place where I can be in contact with people and journey with them. Especially here in Malate Parish, there are a lot of people coming from different parts of the country. We have an urban community here. I don’t find it hard to be with them. It comes naturally for me now. I have improved in dealing with people from all walks of life, coming from different cultures and sub-cultures in our country. I can be myself with them. These experiences of people taking me in, allowing me to be part of their lives have helped me grow in the ministry. When they see that I am trying to establish a connection, they feel that and will start to open up. There are instances when I would shy away from people when I feel vulnerable and my insecurities would surface.
I was aware of my own reluctance when I was asked to be assigned in Malate Parish. In saying “yes” to the invitation, I thought that like my previous assignments, I was simply answering to the needs of the Society, somebody has to do it, “I was being sent to it”. Eventually, I realized that I’m learning a lot and finding it meaningful and I am quite happy doing it.
Fr. Leo Distor (playing the guitar) with other Columban Missionaries in Malate joyfully serenading the people with their song during the Parish Volunteers' Night, 2015.
L-R: Fr. Kevin McHugh, Fr. Jason Antiquera, Fr. Michael Martin, Naanise Mo’unga (Columban lay missionary), Fr. John Leydon
Before I became the Parish Priest, I requested if I can be allowed to work with the Parish team for a year before asssuming the role. I made an arrangement with them, "Allow me one year to immerse then I would be ready for anything." And that's the way it happened. That helped me a lot. I had the freedom to explore, with no administrative function that would tie me down to meetings and in the office. I was just happy with that arrangement. There I discovered my inclination, my interest - accompanying and probably living with the people, being present with them and to them. I saw that it was good. And it’s good for me to acknowledge this. It was good for me to go through this experience because this is going to be where I would be going to come from when I do other ministries and responsibilities. If I would be asked what ministry I would like to be involved in, most probably it would be pastoral ministry. I think this is the joy and fulfillment of my priesthood. It is the drive of my missionary journey.
I was asked, “How is it like to be the first Filipino parish priest of Malate?” It doesn't really make much of a “thing” for me. But probably it needs to be said that now there is the first Filipino parish priest, to be noted in the history of the Columbans in the Philippines. It is a mark recognizing that in the region, Filipinos or local people are now taking-on regional or bigger responsibilities such as this.
I am happy because people are happy to have me here in the parish. Since I am a Filipino, people find it easier to express things to me, confident that I would understand them as we speak the same language. Sometimes it creates more demands on me. But I look at it in a positive way – a venue for dialogue and greater understanding.
Fr. Leo with the teachers of Remedios BEC Nursery School, Linggo ng Wika 2015
Atty. Marge Condes (second from left) is the Parish Education Ministry Coordinator.
I sense that the churchgoers here in Malate have already imbibed the wisdom of the Columbans who had worked here before. There are always areas we continue to work on. We work as a team and we meet every week. We talk things out, the issues and concerns in the parish. And that helps me a lot in understanding the dynamics of people working and living in the parish and how things operate. I had been away for fifteen years and this is my first permanent assignment in the country. I’m on my fourth year now in the region and I would like to be realistic in the way I approach things because even if I am a Filipino, I don’t know much about the region as I have been away for a long time.
I keep an attitude of openness to the leadings of the spirit. Sometimes the difficult part is to know what it is. But life continues. I am quite happy in the parish and it is important for me to relish this. I want to savor it fully, as it is a big help for me, personally. I want to hold on to this for a little while longer, probably for more experience.
I carry with me that sense of gratitude. I am happy to be with the Columbans. I am blessed to be a Columban and I can be a blessing as a Columban too. Blessings abound. In the parish, I’ve learnt to be attentive to God’s blessings that can come through people. I always say that the parish is indeed a holy ground even before I came. There are just so many good things happening in here. I am happy that I have become part of it and have also contributed something to it.