I received the text message past last midnight from a friend, informing me that Fr. Piet had crossed over from this life to the next last August 7, 2010 in The Netherlands. The following dawn, i sat for 2 hours in silence, feeling my loss and contemplating on the man who had sculpted a chunk of my religious sensibility as his sacristan and student. This is a sad day for me and for those who have known him and his missionary life.
For those of us who knew him during his missionary years in the Philippines, we knew him to be physically sturdy, his body strong as a rodeo bull. He did not have the bigness nor the regular Dutch height of the late Fr. Gerard Cruijssen. But his physical strength alone that flowed forth into his dictinct and stern speaking voice was commanding, if not intimidating. He seemed to have been gifted with long years of strong stamina to be able to almost singlehandedly minister to a 24-thousand populated parish for years.
Mainit was his last missionary station, outlasting almost all Dutch missionaries in the area. Mission for him was that northeastern part of Mindanao. I remember back in the mid-80s, how the hallways of the MSC District House in Surigao City teemed with frugal beings on conveniat Monday, simple food being served, a few bottles of beer dotting the dining tables, billiard balls clashing and rolling, the collection of exotic seashells with their scientific names of the late Dutch-speaking Filipino Fr. Portillo clasping our curious minds, while the late Bishop MC consistenly insisted for an 8-ounce Coke. Rooms were filled; hallways and the dining halls with boisterous laughter and stories shared. The Dutch had the penchant for mutual screaming even conversationally that is so alien if not freakish for Filipinos. Then the noise slowly faded, gone without coming back, and the rooms eventually constantly closed. The Dutch were leaving one by one. I’m not sure how much of those empty rooms exacerbated his need to belong, enough to decide to leave the mssionary area after less half-a-century of pastoral plowing. But Fr. Peter was also a man ahead of his time, acute in his vision that leaving was a way of saying – “let the Filipino clergies minister to their own people.”
In Mainit where he served for i guess 12 years, he was brimming with energy, financial resources, and vision. In his long years as our parish priest, 4 years of which i was a part of, he had trekked mountains, a hundred times crossed over our huge lake, had Willyz engine troubles while traversing rivers, built close to 30 chapels including the present main church, sustained the wobbly parochial school, paid hundreds of hospital bills of poor patients, dispersed hogs and carabaos to deserving raisers, did pranic healing to a host of patients and energized their drinking water, officiated countless sacramentals, and coached a good number of lay leaders. It is sort of messianic. Yet, he was fully aware and well-read that Vatican II ushered the shift from a highly doleout, priest-centered European-style of doing mission. He would not start a chapel project for example, without the commitment of the community, big or small depending on its capability. In my 4 years or more of knowing him, I had witnessed the consistency of his compassion for the poor and the sick as well as the implementation of his vision of empowering the lay. The truth I witnessed years ago is still the same truth I treasure up to these days. Early in life, I had known that God’s face is compassion and courage to share power.
He was a gifted man of God. But his gifts and work also got caught up within webs of institutional contradictions. Many times did he brush temper with the Diocese for what Fr. Piet had discerned as laxity in the area of social justice ministry, especially in its concern for the poor in remote barrios. He often castigated the Diocesan complacency in supporting small Catholic schools and their teachers who merely survived out of insufficient salaries. Fr. Peter could anytime speak his mind on cracks in social justice without fear, pushy at times but always seem right. Bishop MC, no doubt a gifted musician, in my adolescent impression was unlikely to share his 8-ounce soda with him during those shared mealtimes. Fr. Peter could be bullish with his physical and intellectual stamina.
In our parish, he terrified most of us by his candor and anger. He was loved by his tireless work of building the community, but often misunderstood for his irreverence of Filipino sentimentality and meekness in speech. It was the less inculturated side of him, the Dutch mark, that despite his extraordinary fluency in our local language, that brought him once to the edge of personal terror. Behind his back, a handful of educated, eloquent elite, who no longer could bear his honest scolding in public gatherings, launched a protest rally in front of the convent on All Souls’ Day. “Roll up your mat,” and “respect the solemnity of the mass” were their cry phrases. Enough with the high temper over a misphrasing of Paul’s letter to the Philippians! Had there been a psychiatrist’s clinic in our town, he would have been barraged with referrals for anger management. But he was sturdy enough to stay in his post but more mellow after in his manner.
Anger was his Achilles’ heel; it was his vulnerable side and it ground against Filipinos’ sense of meekness, privacy in criticism or correction, and rebellious spirit.
Fr. Piet, what you have done for the Reign of God in our midst is actually beyond our human measuring sticks. All I know is you have run your race and fought the good fight of your faith. By doing so, you have touched and shaped many lives and many faiths. You have touched and shaped mine in so many self-giving ways and I will remain grateful to you and to God for the transforming meeting of our lives. The last physical token of gratitude I dedicated to you was a manuscript of prayers and reflections born out of my encounter with cancer patients. In the unfolding of time, you became one of them. The healer’s body, seemingly enslaved by cancer cells, but in truth was “bursting out from bondage into boundlessness.” To me, you simply broke away from mortality into eternity. Your passover was one loss of God’s servant in the world. But even then, as i keep running my race, I get the bonus confidence that one more intercessor in you has been in Heaven. I believe you have lived out the main question that your fellow Dutch Henri Nouwen used to ask:
“The main question is not, How much will we still be able to do during the few years we have left to live? But rather, How can we prepare ourselves for our death in such a way that our dying will be a new way for us to send our own and God’s spirit to those whom we loved and who have loved us.”
The meeting of our lives was a meeting of love, fierce love sometimes. It was meant to be. It will never be lost. It will remain to be so hopefully for the joy of anyone in the journey of faith, in our own movement from mortality to eternity. You will surely be missed around. We will miss the unique energy you bring into the world. But soon it will be a more divinely tamed one we will receive. Thank you for fighting a good fight with us. May eternal joy beyond what we can imagine be yours now.