HE'S called Padre by the Lumads and farmers who have seen him walked along with them for decades. He is Tatay or Lolo to the younger generations.
Now he is being called "the living saint of the Lumads" by a humanitarian award-giving body.
Fr. Peter Geremia, 78-year-old Italian missionary of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), is the honoree of this year's Saint Teresa of Calcutta Award.
The award, handed by the AY (Alfonso Yuchengco) Foundation and Junior Chamber International Manila, honors people who have dedicated more than 25 years of humanitarian work and exemplary service. Fr. Peter receives such honor for his four decades of service to the indigenous peoples in Arakan, North Cotabato and Colombio, Sultan Kudarat.
Those who know, met and worked with Padre know that the title of saint is fitting for a selfless, exemplary servant of God and of the poor. I guess in his humble way he may say it's a blessing.
But truly, his is a life that speaks of commitment and selflessness. Having spent 40 of his 54 years as a missionary here in Mindanao; he has faced arrests, threats, lost people, and he carried on.
In an interview with Mindanews few years ago celebrating his 50 years as a priest, Padre said his life is dramatic.
Indeed, from the time he set foot in the Philippines, it was Martial Law. He served in the urban poor community in Tondo for four years, and was arrested with other church people for allegedly helping the La Tondeña workers waged the first strike in Martial Law in 1976.
After this he was assigned to Sicon, Zamboanga del Norte. Then in 1982, he and fellow PIME, the late Fr. Fausto “Pops” Tentorio arrived in Arakan, North Cotabato. He remembers them arriving at the port of Cotabato and drove right away their motorcycles across the trails of Cotabato and found their mission.
Fr. Peter set up the Tribal Filipino Program in 1984. At a time when siding with the Lumads involved risk under Martial Law, the PIME priests stood with them. That cost them the life of Fr. Tulio Favali on April 11, 1985, who was killed by the paramilitary leader Norberto Manero. The intended target was actually Fr. Peter.
(Twenty-three years later a reformed out-of-jail Manero asked forgiveness from PIME).
Favali’s death and the sacrifices of others during Martial Law made Fr. Peter strive harder. When he worked in the parish in Colombio in the 90s, he was part of the anti-mining campaign against the Tampakan Gold Project that affected four provinces.
He was again arrested in 1992 for allegedly helping farmers affected by drought that led to the ransacking of the National Food Authority warehouse. Fourteen years later, another drought and another rally in Kidapawan happened and was violently dispersed. Padre interceded for the release of all jailed farmers including the elderly and pregnant mothers.
The killing of Fr. Pops on October 17, 2011 struck Padre hard. He continues to follow up the case with the Department of Justice, and he heads the Fr. Pops Foundation that has opened Lumad schools, health services and farms.
So much sacrifice, so much courage, this is forty years of his life of finding hope and working for justice. In a time when people are revering a demagogue of a president, it is worth looking at just one man who has embodied courage, faith and action. For that, Padre Peter is indeed the saint and the exemplary servant we need.