Four months after the murder of Fr Mark Anthony Yuaga Ventura in the Philippines in the dioceses of Tuguegarao, who is remembered for his love for the poor, the chapel and convent on top of the hill in the village of Mabuno remains without a priest.
He opted to be with the poor, to live with them on the peripheries, and there he was killed doing what he was called to do — to be a pastor to the Lord’s flock.
Father Mark Anthony Yuaga Ventura took up the challenge to serve in one of the church’s most remote stations in the northern Philippines. He left the comforts enjoyed by a seminary rector, not to have an adventure, but to be one with the people, especially farmers.
The 37-year-old priest, shot and killed by gunmen on April 29, found among the poor a community of Christians who were spirituality and economically hungry.
He first confronted the difficult lives of farmers in the village of Tanglagan, in the northern Philippine town of Gattaran. In 2014, he led a team of five missionaries to minister to the rural poor and the tribal people of Tanglagan.
There he showed his leadership skills that contributed to the growth of Christian communities in the village. “He showed the poor that the church was in solidarity with them by preaching about equality,” said one of the priest’s companions. When Father Ventura and his team left the mission station in 2015, a chapel painted in blue and white, was erected in the center of the village for people to worship regularly.
In 2016, the priest was sent to the village of Mabuno in San Isidro Labrador parish also in Gattaran. The new mission covered five farming and tribal communities at the foot of the Sierra Madre mountain range.
“He asked for the assignment,” recalled Archbishop Sergio Utleg of Tuguegarao.
Father Ventura built a small chapel and a convent on top of a hill overlooking the village and immersed himself in the life of the community.
“Early morning, he would wave from the hill to people going to work,” said villager Zenaida Alejo. She recalled several times when the priest would join farmers in the field. “He would eat with them and laugh with them,” recalled Zenaida.
She described the priest as “a young sweet boy” who loved to call every one uncle or auntie. “He was a son of the village,” the woman said. “He really loved people, especially the communities in his mission area,” said Mae, the priest’s sister. “He would explain to us that the church has to reach out and serve the poor.” Mae said her brother would skip family gatherings on special occasions because “he needed to be with the people … because his community had become his family.”
On the day he was killed, Father Ventura left his hut on the hill at 6 a.m. to say Mass in four villages. An hour later, he reached the village of Pena Weste where he celebrated the Eucharist attended by about 100 villagers. He was preparing to baptize several children while talking to members of the choir when the gunman approached and shot the priest in the head.
Archbishop Utleg later described the killer as “a product of a materialistic society, where a majority of the people are jobless and where there is less reverence for the sacred and for sacred persons.” Police investigators are still trying to find the motive for the killing, but a parishioner said the attack on the priest was “a bloody message” to silence the church.
Under Archbishop Utleg, Tuguegarao Archdiocese led a campaign that put an end to mining operations in the area. Politicians who have an interest in mining were vocal in their opposition to the ban, even accusing the archbishop and members of the clergy of being communists. The ecumenical group Promotion of Church Peoples Response described Father Ventura’s killing as an attempt “to sow fear and terror.”