Father Niall O'Brien, 64, a good friend, a brave and courageous priest of unquestionable integrity died last 27th of April in Pisa, Italy, after a long struggle with illness. He was an extraordinary Columban Missionary living out his commitment to the poor in the Philippines for the past forty years. An ardent advocate of active non-violence who was unjustly imprisoned during the martial law regime of Ferdinand Marcos for nine months alongside Australian Columban Father Brian Gore and seven Catholic lay workers.
On the sugar rich Island of Negros in the central Philippines, he faced the most appalling destitution and injustice that coexisted with the sumptuous wealth and grandeur of the few all powerful sugar barons. With patience and firmness Father Niall promoted Church teaching on social justice and spoke against the harsh oppression of the military and the death squads earning the ire of the wealthy and the threats of feared military. They expected the Church to accept their pious donations and not meddle in social issues. In their minds social action was akin to socialism and very similar to communism.
Bishop Antonio Fortich, Niall's friend and supporter (who died only last year 2003) described the situation in Negros as a social volcano. He himself was an outspoken pastor committed to the liberation of the poor from suffering through Christian social justice. When Pope John Paul II came to the Philippines in January 1981 he delivered a resounding message in Bacolod, the provincial capital before three quarters of a million peasants many of them poor farmers from Father Niall's parish.
The Pope said that the "Church will not hesitate to take up the cause of the poor and to become the voice of those who are not listened to when they speak up, not to demand charity, but to ask for Justice." Father Niall was one of those voices and was elated by these powerful words that gave the full backing and support of the Church to the justice mission of the Columbans in Negros, led by Fathers Niall and Brian. The Pope's words infuriated the wealthy sugar planters who vowed to get even. In response Father Niall's famous comment found in his book Island of Tears, Island of Hope (Claretian) has challenged Christians everywhere he wrote: "The Church's teaching is unambiguous with regard to the pursuit of justice. Christianity is grotesque when it turns it's back on justice. It's not Christianity, it's something else".
Missionaries in the developing world have no illusions about the suffering of the poor. They work to change the causes of injustice and violence. Together with other Columban missionaries in Negros Father Niall's work was driven by his compassion and identification with the poor. He believed that working for justice is the primary act of love. He centred his work on helping the poor to organise themselves and learn about their human rights and Christian dignity. The peasants scattered throughout the hills and mountains were given hope and were soon forming strong resilient Christian communities that were standing together against violence, torture and state sponsored murder.
Fathers O'Brien and Gore, unafraid of death threats and harassment, continued to give inspiration and lasting hope to the poor and empowered them to act together to protect each other in the Christian community. A peaceful non-violent moral force emerged later to be recognised and called as "People Power." When one farmer was jailed by a rich tycoon out to grab his small land holdings, dozens of farmers marched to the farm and under the menacing guns of the death squad, planted it from end to end saving him and his family and thwarting the land grabber.
Such acts of group solidarity were so numerous they swelled to a peasants movement for justice that staged walks, rallies and strikes to protest the injustice, oppression and starvation wages of the sugar barons and brought the harsh realities of Negros to international attention. This active peace movement was more frightening to the elite than any band of communist revolutionaries.
It was not surprising then that Fathers Niall O'Brien and Brian Gore and their community workers had to be discredited and got rid of. No better way than to manufacture "evidence" and convict them of some heinous crime. When the local mayor, suspected of the abduction, torture and murder of church lay leaders was ambushed and killed, the New People's Army claimed responsibility but Fathers Niall and Brian and their lay workers were accused by the military.
They were arrested and jailed and soon were folk heroes of the poor and called The Negros Nine. An international campaign began to win them justice and freedom. The nine months of imprisonment and the corrupt trial was brilliantly utilised by them as a forum to preach the gospel of justice and non-violence. Rather than being snuffed out candles of hope, they were bright shining lights standing for truth and justice.
The prison compound became a campus, in the court room the Marcos regime was on trial. Thousands of students and teachers, clergy and journalists came to listen and learn. People Power and the self confidence of the people grew stronger and grip of tyranny weaker. Eventually the charges were dropped and the frame up was uncovered. The Nine were proven innocent when the false witnesses recanted their false testimony.
Father Niall wrote books and established the Philippine Misyon magazine that is a lasting legacy through which his mission for peace and non-violence continues to this day.