Sharing of Personal Experiences Fr. Sebastiano D’Ambra, PIME

Thank you for the invitation. It gives me the opportunity to share my experience of dialogue through the Silsilah Dialogue Movement. This is a Movement that proposes a spiritual experience of “Encounter” with all. As Catholics on this special occasion in Cebu, we are invited to rediscover the “encounter” of the love of God who became Man in Jesus who is with us in many ways, including in His Eucharistic presence.

I am grateful to the organizers who proposed the general theme: “The Eucharist in the Church’s Dialogue with Religions and Religious Traditions.” This helps me to focus my presentation that, according to the organizers, has to be a “personal sharing of experiences”.   Thus, I share with you my experience of: “rediscovering the Eucharist as an inspiration for dialogue with religions and religious Traditions”.

The presentation of the short documentary about my mission helps me to share a few points of my experience:

–          Since 1977 I have been, most of the time, in the Philippines. I can say that I am a priest of the Vatican II Council and was ordained priest 50 years ago. Among the most fascinating and challenging aspects of the Vatican II that inspired me was the new challenge of the Church to the mission of “Inter Religious Dialogue” and the declaration of “Nostra Aetate”, (October 28, 1965).

–          I still remember before Vatican II, how some missionaries described other religions in a negative way as they met in the mission. But that was before. Fortunately, now we understand that “Dialogue is an integral part of the mission of the Church”.  The many documents and   declarations from Vatican II up to now have helped many of us to believe and experience inter religious dialogue.

–          Well, many theologians and writers have said many things to guide us. For me, it has always been a challenge in this new time of the history of the Church.

–          I think, I remained faithful to my mission and open to Inter-religious Dialogue, thanks to a few things that I learned in my early years in the seminary in Italy. First in a diocesan seminary and later in PIME (Pontifical institute for Foreign Mission) where I went to become a missionary. Among the many things I learned are: the importance of prayer, the devotion to Mary and the silence and meditation in front of the Blessed Sacrament. I often find myself contemplating the creativity of the Love of God and the understanding of the importance of Inter-religious Dialogue.

–          I can also add that my personality has contributed to what I am now.  Usually I do not  “surrender” when I am convinced about something good  and possible that can be  achieved, I believe  that nothing is impossible with God.

–          I am happy to be a priest, a missionary and to be here to share my life with the people of Mindanao. In my first mission in Siocon, Zamboanga del Norte (Mindanao) in 1977, I started to dream of having a real   “encounter” with all, including the indigenous people and the Muslims. The word   “encounter” is a very meaningful word in my language (Italian), but soon I learned that in Mindanao “encounter” has a negative connotation toward conflict.  Always we hear   sad stories of “encounter” as stories of fighting. Thus,  I started to  use the  word “dialogue” but  with  the spirit of  “encounter”, meaning  with a fighting spirit  and determination to share my life with all   and the Eucharist in my daily inspiration and strength..

–          Arriving in the mission, the Catholics expected me to serve their communities. It was a vast area, from the sea to the mountain and I did my best. But moving around I discovered the Subanons (an indigenous group) on the mountain and some Muslim communities near the sea.

–          Often when I recall the beginning of my mission in Siocon I say that I liked the Subanons first over the other tribes. I saw how they were oppressed by all and they were considered the least of the society in that place. This made me curious, challenged, to be with them and I started to discover the richness of their traditions.

–          But after two years I was convinced to give a special attention to the Muslims. Most of them used to live in the Siocon area near the sea where I met thousands of refugees forced to leave their houses because of the “encounter”/ conflict between the military and the Moro National liberation front (MNLF). That was the time of the dictatorship of President Marcos and the beginning of the revolutionary movement called MNLF.

–          To live with the Muslims in the beginning was not easy for me, but I continued telling the Catholics of the Christian communities that I am priest for all.  Meanwhile they wanted to have me full time because, they said, I was sent for the Catholic communities. I also clarified my presence among the Muslims, especially with some muslim religious leaders who looked at me with suspicion in the beginning. In the process I learned from them, not only their language and culture, but also their aspirations.

–          One of the experiences I had living in a muslim village in a nipa house near the sea was that the people were curious about my presence among them. But soon we became friends and we shared the same simple life to the point that some of them used to say: “Father you are so good, what is lacking in you is that you are not Muslim.” I used to smile listening to this comment and on some occasions I used to say: “I am good because I am inspired by the message of love that comes from Jesus.”

–          In the same village one day, a little girl was curious to know what I did inside my nipa house. One afternoon she asked me: “Padel! (Father) what you were doing inside the house   a while ago?” and I said: “I was praying!” and the girl looking at me with big eyes of surprise, said: “Father, do Christians also pray?” Poor girl, up to that point she used to see Christians as soldiers killing the Muslims.

–          In the documentary I mentioned that “I felt that there is a gap between Muslims and Christians and a lot of prejudices”. The gap, the fear and the reaction, on both sides, are becoming more visible, especially now with the new and alarming forms of terrorism that come from international groups supported with a lot of money.

–          I also said in the documentary: “I have to be a bridge of love and I started an adventure with many chapters in my life”.  I was referring first to my experience as negotiator for the MNLF going many times into the forest and in isolated places to meet the MNLF rebels. After the adventure of my life as a negotiator I was misunderstood by some especially by the military and I developed problems with some of them who tried to ambush me and one time they succeeded to kill one of my staff near me. After that I was requested by my superior to go to Italy. That was my first exile to my own country.

–          Among the many experiences of that time I wish to share one that remains one of my guiding principles in living in dialogue up to now. One day, while I was with the MNLF rebels, the military were about to ambush us. It was after a long week waiting for some agreed decisions for the MNLF to surrender peacefully.  When the head of the rebels, a certain Magellan,  a  notorious  commander who had  done a lot of  bad things around, saw the situation he was worried  and told me to   go to a certain direction to save myself and they will take another way to defend themselves. We were a big number, including women and children and I said to Magellan “I have been with you up to now and I remain with you, God will help us.” Well at that point he looked at me and said: “well, Father, ok, stay with us. We defend you. In case we are attacked, you will be the last to die”. Unfortunately, Magellan was killed in another encounter, but our friendship transformed him and other rebels.  I always treasure this experience that strongly confirms that in the deeper part of each heart there is a corner of goodness. Yes, this is my mission: to reach the deeper part of the goodness of all. This is the mission of dialogue we have to develop as Christians.  This is the special message of the Eucharist that we are celebrating now together.

–          In the documentary I also mentioned, in line with the experiences shared to you, that in 1984 I started with some Christian and Muslim friends  the Silsilah Dialogue Movement   guided by the understanding that “dialogue starts form God and brings people back to God”. From this initial reflection and deepening we developed a spirituality of life–in-dialogue with God, with the self, with others and with creation.” I was convinced and I am still convinced that any interfaith dialogue has to be sustained by spirituality. It becomes a style of life to motivate and sustain us in our dream for peace.

–           I know that Minda, the president of Silsilah and one of the first members of Silsilah since 1984 can add more sharing in line with this topic.

–          I am convinced that the Lord is testing us as Catholics in the Philippines and many parts of the world today. In this situation, I often say to myself and now to you, the word of Jesus: “Do not be afraid… I am with you always…”

–          I hope this will be one of the biggest messages of the International Eucharistic Celebration in this time of so much violence in the world in this “special year of mercy.”

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