Religious must 'keep fighting and being with the people' - Sr Pat Fox

By Debra Vermeer

Sr Pat Fox, the Australian Sister of Our Lady of Sion who was forced to leave the Philippines because of her work standing in solidarity with the poor and marginalised, says her expulsion has had “a chilling effect” on other Catholic religious congregations and Christian groups.

“It’s had a very chilling effect, not only other congregations, but also on Protestant groups engaged in similar work in the Philippines,” Sr Pat says in an interview for Pathways.

“It’s already resulted in people stopping doing some of the things, especially outdoor things, that they were doing.

“But there are pockets of people who will keep fighting and being with the people. And there are groups who are trying to reignite the prophetic role of Religious. But it’s not easy in the current environment in the Philippines.”

Sr Patricia Fox NDS

Sr Patricia Fox NDS

Sr Pat, 71, who has lived and worked in the Philippines for 28 years on a missionary visa, arrived home in Australia on November 4 after immigration authorities cancelled her visa on the order of President Rodrigo Duterte.

“I wasn’t deported, but I was leaving under protest,” she says.

“I was very sad, and probably naïve, because I was anticipating that I would get an extension on my visa.”

Sr Pat, who began religious life as a teacher and later undertook a law degree and lived and worked among the poor in Melbourne, arrived in the Philippines in 1990 with another Sister of Sion to establish the congregation’s mission in the country.

The decision to set up a mission in the Philippines had grown out of the Sisters’ 1986 Chapter in which they resolved to recommit themselves to seeing the world through the eyes of the poor.

“We realised that the majority of people in the world are in Asia and many of the people in Asia are poor. And we asked, how can we see the world through their eyes?”

The early years were spent learning the language, becoming familiar with the culture, and learning how things were done in the Philippines.

“Our house was in the south and I moved to the north to be with the Justice and Peace Group, and I started to see some of the injustice and I joined with the people in their struggle for change,” she says.

“I began to see that the law isn’t necessarily moral.

“The people taught me so much about hope, justice, commitment, perseverance. I learnt much more from them than I ever gave.”

Sr Pat became the Coordinator of Rural Missionaries of the Philippines and started volunteering in peasant groups to advocate for land-rights. She also became involved with the Agricultural Workers Union.

“They are some of the most exploited people. Farmers have been exploited and killed, tribal people have been killed, workers have been killed with impunity for years, but it’s gotten worse under Duterte,” she says.

“When Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao, we were hearing terrible stories of killing and massive displacement of the tribal people.”

In response, academics, church people, peasant groups, farmers and fishers formed a group to advocate for those being persecuted and displaced. Sr Pat joined the group as a representative of the Agricultural Workers Union.

It was as part of that group that Sr Pat went to Duterte’s home province earlier this year on a fact-finding mission.

“We interviewed political prisoners and the families who had loved ones killed, and the tribal people who had been displaced,” she says. “The young tribal people were saying ‘save our schools’ because they had been bombed and burnt.

Later, Sr Pat’s group was asked to go on another fact-finding mission to visit the striking Coca Cola workers whose lives, she says, were being adversely affected by the contractualisation of the workforce.

“They just wanted decent conditions and wages,” she says. “I felt I couldn’t say no.

“So, I told them I felt really sorry for them, and that Catholic Social Teaching and International Law says you have the right to form associations, the right to secure tenure, a living wage. I commended them for being brave and said I hope you will get your jobs back.”

A week later, six Bureau of Intelligence Officers came to her mission house in Quezon City and said she had to go with them for questioning.

“I thought, ‘well, I’ve done nothing wrong’, so I went with them,” she says.

The officers told her she had been seen attending rallies and was being deported.

“They kept me that night, supposedly because I didn’t have my passport with me, but I now know it was on the President’s orders,” she says.

Meanwhile, on hearing of her situation, the Catholic Bishops of the Philippines and lawyers mobilised to defend her.

The Bureau of Intelligence Officers accused her of attending a fact-finding mission where land issues were in dispute; attending the Coca-Cola fact-finding mission; attending a fast and prayer rally to free political prisoners; and attending rallies to protest the killing of eight indigenous people on Mindanao, an island in the Philippines.

“They said a missionary should only be doing religious work, teaching religion – that’s what they defined missionary work as,” Sr Pat says.

“But that’s not how we see the role of the Church. We see that the prophetic role of the Church is to get out of the convents and churches and be with the people who are struggling.”

The authorities also accused Sr Pat of breaking a 2015 law which said that any tourist who takes part in rallies, forums, press conferences for or against the government should be deported immediately.

“Our response to that was that first, I wasn’t a tourist. I’d lived in the Philippines for 28 years. And second, under international law, foreigners have rights when in another country, to freedom of expression and religion.

“But the Bureau of Immigration never answered any of our arguments.”

Despite earning a brief reprieve on the timing of her expulsion, eventually Sr Pat was forced to leave.

“We had been almost assured my visa would be extended,” she says.

“In the end, we found out on a Wednesday that they wouldn’t extend it and I had to be out by Saturday. The two days in between were public holidays for All Saints and All Souls Days, where nothing could be done.

“There was no appeals process. My lawyers didn’t want me to be arrested under any circumstances and so I agreed to go.

“My deportation case is still ongoing. The Department of Justice will rule on it this month. In the meantime, I’m on the Blacklist and can’t return to the Philippines.”

Sr Pat says the consequences of her experience are far-reaching for Religious in the Philippines and in other countries.

But she says the one thing that Religious cannot do is acquiesce to having themselves and their mission defined by foreign governments.

“We cannot be confined to their definition of who we are and what we can do,” she says. “They are trying to limit Religious and we can’t have that.”

Sr Pat says all Religious should be discerning how to move forward from here.

“It’s made us rethink what is the role of the Church here? How should we be, in a society that is becoming more and more tyrannical, where human rights abuses are happening more and more,” she says.

“It’s not just a question for the Catholic Church but all denominations. What are we called to?”

For Sr Pat, the role of Religious remains clear.

“The heart of my charism is to be with the poor and work for justice. That’s who we are,” she says.

“We need to keep asking ourselves, ‘What sort of society do we want? How do we get there?’

“That is the Kingdom.”