As he helps his flock recover from the horrific bombing of their cathedral in Jolo, in the Philippines, earlier this year, Monsignor Romeo Saniel, OMI, said a miraculous event 17 years ago prepared him for his enormous task of the present.
On May 4, 2002, Saniel was on foot distributing Holy Communion to parishioners in downtown Jolo. He noticed two young men approaching him from behind before one of them drew out a pistol.
Saniel felt the gun against the back of his head and heard a loud click—the weapon had jammed. His security escort immediately jumped in to save him, and the assailants ran away.
It took Saniel several years to tell his mother about the near-death experience. What she said back to him changed his life.
At the date and time of his assassination attempt, his mother said she was immobilized with a fever. Feeling that “one of her children was in danger,” she knelt and prayed her rosary.
“I think that rosary, the prayer of my mother, saved me,” Saniel told CNA.
What happened next was a lengthy process of grief, healing, and preparation for a much greater burden to come.
“I was so afraid to go out,” he told CNA, “and I was really full of resentment and anger” toward the assailants. He received treatment for his post-traumatic stress, moving through the various stages of trauma from anger to denial and, ultimately, to forgiveness.
“With much prayer and maybe assistance from counselors, I was able to forgive my assailants, realizing that Jesus Himself was persecuted, forgave those who persecuted Him,” he said.
“With that wound, with that pain, I discovered God was calling me for another mission,” he said.
Monsignor Saniel spoke with CNA in Washington, D.C. last week before he delivered a presentation at a vespers service at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception Nov. 23 on “A Night of Witness.”
The event was hosted by Aid to the Church in Need, a pontifical foundation that serves persecuted Catholics and the poor in 145 countries.
Nearly 17 years after his his brush with death, Saniel was appointed by Pope Francis as apostolic administrator to the Vicariate of Jolo—a territory not yet a diocese, and one which includes an archipelago at southern end of the Phillippines in a heavily-Muslim region.
One month after his appointment, on January 27, 2019, Islamic militants bombed the cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo, killing 26 Mass-attendees and injuring 116. The regional ISIS-affiliated terror group Abu Sayyaf took credit for the attacks.
The ceiling and roof of the cathedral was destroyed; pews were scattered in the sanctuary and blood was everywhere, Saniel said. It was a horrific sight, so much so that the bodies of the dead could not be recognized.
Just one month into his assignment, Saniel was tasked with ministering to a flock reeling in the face of unspeakable tragedy.
A day after the bombing, Pope Francis sent him a message through the papal nuncio to the Philippines. He gave Monsignor Saniel three instructions.
“Number one, make sure that the victims do not feel abandoned by the Church,” Saniel said, and also “to take good care of the victims” and their families.
Finally, the pope told him to “make sure also that this bombing of your cathedral shall not destroy the good relationships between Muslims and Christians built throughout the years.”
The cathedral has been mostly rebuilt, thanks to donations from the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need, and local bishops, among others. On July 16, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, it reopened.
Now, however, the task remains of “rebuilding of the lives of those who have died,” Saniel said—initiating trauma healing sessions for survivors, prioritizing housing facilities for the homeless, and granting educational scholarships for children who lost their parents in the bombing.
“Sometimes people ask ‘where was God during this attack?’” he said. “I think gradually we will be able to discover the purpose and the reason.”
Even in the midst of death and destruction, survivors saw miracles. The cathedral choir was supposed to sing from the loft at the Sunday Mass the day of the attacks—directly above the bomb. At the last minute, the choir moved downstairs and in front of the congregation because the microphone in the loft couldn’t be found.
“People will say, ‘of course it was Bishop Ben who took the microphone,” Saniel said of Bishop Benjamin de Jesus, the former bishop in the area who was assassinated in 1997 in front of the cathedral and whose cause for canonization has been requested by local Catholics. The bishop’s picture was hanging on the wall of the church, never touched by the bomb’s explosion, Saniel said.
And outside the cathedral now sits a statue of the Blessed Mother.
“I believe the Muslims won’t destroy anything when there is an image of Mary, because in the Quran, there are more passages about Mary than the Bible,” he said. “Even fanatics will not destroy the church, because they are afraid.”
Saniel’s third instruction from Pope Francis was to ensure the integrity of Catholic-Muslim relations in the region.
Although the Phillippines is around 85% Christian, only around three percent of the population of Jolo is Catholic, Saniel said, with Muslims comprising the vast majority of the population.
Yet there is much interreligious dialogue and respect between Catholics and Muslims in the area, Saniel said, and they appear determined not to let Abu Sayyaf terrorists drive a wedge in between neighbors. The tragedy brought about solidarity in suffering.
In the wake of the bombing, relations between the communities are even “stronger and greater” than before. At the funerals of Christian bombing victims, over half of the attendees were Muslims, he said, crying and mourning the “death of their friends in the neighborhood.”
“When we are in pain, we begin to set aside our differences, and the pain unites all of us even beyond religion,” he said. “We were in pain because of the bombing, but the Muslims have suffered a lot for the past 40 years.” A 40 year-long Moro separatist conflict in the area, in which Abu Sayyaf is a key player, has claimed more than 120,000 lives and displaced millions of people.
“Once the Church is persecuted, the faith of Christians becomes alive,” he said. “In the First World today, churches are empty, no vocations,” he said. “Their faith is not challenged and tested.”
In Jolo, where only three percent of the population is Christian, “every day, our faith is tested. It becomes real,” he said.