CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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Missionary to the mountains and streets dies quietly

MELBOURNE (SE): “I am sure that the old men and women of the Sierra Madre Mountains are telling and retelling the stories of the big, white, generous man of faith who once dwelt among them,” Father Joey Echano said of Redemptorist Father Peter Robb at his funeral Mass in the Melbourne suburb of Deepdene on December 13.

In the eyes of all he met, Father Robb would search for the fire of the Holy Spirit, which he first discerned smouldering in the eyes of the Dumagat and Remontado tribal peoples with whom he lived for almost 20 years, as they stared at the orange tinged coals of the camp fires in the deep heart of the mountains of Sierra Madre, The Philippines.

A missionary life spent wandering the mountains of The Philippines, the streets of Hong Kong and finally his home town of Melbourne, Australia, ended on December 9, when Father Robb breathed his last.

Father Echano described him as a man with the beautiful feet that the prophet Isaiah spoke of, bringing good news, and proclaiming peace and salvation on the mountains.

The son of Norman and Esther Robb, the boy who was born in 1922 and grew up with three brothers, four sisters, 20 sheep, 70 cows, a coop of chickens and turkeys and a long run of pigs, left school at the age of 14 to manage his grandfather’s farm.

But a week-long mission given by Redemptorist Father John Green in his local parish of Alexandra on the outskirts of Melbourne took him away from the land and back to the classroom at the Redemptorist house in Galong, near Canberra.

Ordination in 1947 saw him packing his bags for Manila, only to be thwarted in his departure for two years, because of a ban on visas by the government in Quezon City in protest against the White Australia Policy.

But Father Echano notes it was good preparation for him, as he learned the ropes of a Redemptorist parish mission well, before taking up the challenge in his broken Tagalog of taking morning Mass, daily instruction, home visitation, evening prayer and Redemptorist fire and brimstone to towns and villages in Batangas, Quezon, Mindoro, Laguna and Nueva Ecija.

“He would introduce himself as Pedrong Magnanakaw (Peter the Robber),” Father Echano said. “But in the 1950s, he gave hundreds of the traditional, week-long parish missions.”

However, in 1960, he began the first organised vocation campaign ever run by the Redmeptorists in the country. “He visited 160 schools,” Father Echano explained. “Then he became the first rector of our seminary in Antipolo in 1962.”

By 1970, he was the local superior in Baclaran. That was when the tribal people found him. Initially, he had been asked to work among the 150 families that had been cleared out from around Manila cathedral in order to protect the papal eyes of Pope Paul VI from their view.

They brought him to the Sierra Madre Mountains. He lived in their villages. One day, five men dressed in G-strings appeared. Both parties chatted in broken Tagalog, but Father Robb asked the question once asked of Jesus, “Where do you come from?”

A jerk of the head directing his gaze at the top of the mountains gave him the biblical reply, Come and see, and Father Robb began the long trek up the steep slopes, kissing his knees as he climbed, as the locals describe it.

Father Robb later reflected that he spent four years sleeping around the fire with the men, women, children and dogs; fishing, eating roots and, most importantly, getting educated.

“I was a slow learner,” he reflected in later life.

Father Echano said he would describe that time as creating dependence. “He had everything to give and they had nothing. No true personal relationship was established.”

Father Robb would say, “The tribals listened to me, but it was one-way traffic. It was a demeaning attitude.” But he would go on to say, “In 1979, I graduated from novitiate to immersion.”

Father Echano explained, “He made himself dependent on them. The people became the subjects, not the objects of his evangelisation. He learned from his experience and began to recognise important features of their outlook on life.”

Father Robb reflected, “The tribals have assimilated the deepest core of life and things. Living with this interior harmony and rhythm of nature is a kind of prayer… Is not this interior harmony a secret prayer, a pre-fabricated liturgy hidden from the visible universe? Silently, it awaits the person of reflection and prayer to capture, disengage and make it known in all its splendour.”

The guns of the military put an abrupt end to the magic in 1981 with the murder of two women leaders in his tiny community. 

They had been declared communist guerillas by the military brass. Father Robb found their bullet-riddled bodies in shallow graves. He was shattered.

The Filipino Redemptorist describes Father Robb as being consumed by anger. “He had become a victim of the atrocity. He said that it would be foolish to return to the mountains.”

Instead, a 500 kilometre trip to the Trappists in Iloilo allowed him to calm down, but while the hurt may have been healed, the memory remained.

But he returned to the mountain for a further eight years until the feet that carried this messenger of good news to evangelise the people, brought a man half crippled by arthritis back down again, but this time, as a man who had been evangelised by the very people to whom he wanted to bring the good news.

Coming to Hong Kong in 1989, Father Robb worked in the Catholic Centre, in the Grand Building in Central, and was later the parish priest of Homantin, Kowloon.

He also worked with AITECE (Association for International Technical, Education and Curriculum Exchange), which recruits foreign English teachers for Chinese universities, especially in the poorer parts of the country.

“He was the treasurer,” Father John MacGrath says of him. But, it was the migrant workers who found his inner heart and to them, together with his colleague, Father Frank Pigeon, he became a faithful friend.

He returned to Melbourne in 2003. May he rest in peace.

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