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‘Many thought I’d become Muslim’- Fr. Jun Mercado

Because many commonly identify him with Mindanao, he said people could not imagine he actually came from elsewhere, from Obando, Bulacan. His father Eliseo Sr., after whom he was named, joined World War II as a US-trained aviator. His mother was Anita Perez dela Rosa of Bulacan and Manila.

Eliseo Mercado Jr. belonged to that generation that called EDSA Highway 54, that stretch of road where he started as a seminarian. “I did not want to be a priest,” he said. One day, a religious vocation director by the name of Bertrand Demers preached at his school. He found Demers a very good orator. The priest spoke about the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. “What attracted me was Mindanao,” he related. Demers spoke about the OMI as the only religious presence in the then Empire Province of Cotabato and in the Sulu archipelago. As he would now say, the Oblates “deviated” him from his career path as a politician by answering the call “to go to Mindanao.”

“From the very beginning my vocation was tied to Islam.” At that time, it was a pioneering work. In a workshop he had later attended, the priest who spoke was Father Brosnahan, whose hand was hacked by a “juramentado,” a killer run amok. For the young Eliseo Mercado, it was a clear call. “There is the man who dedicated his life even to the point of facing a juramentado.”

As an Oblate scholastic he was assigned to do research assistance work to the anthropologist Fr. Jerry Rickson. For that Mercado immersed himself among the Tao Guimba, people in the outskirts of Jolo who lived in interior village communities in Indanan and Parang . “I was the only Christian there and I was adopted by a family.” His work was to collect all the birth and death rituals of the Tausug Muslims.

“I have been a student of Islam since 1967 (the year he professed his vows). There is a passion, a thirst in me to really study Islam in-depth. Many thought I had become Muslim. That’s why I always requested to say the masses at the (Cotabato city) cathedral – so that the public will see me as a priest.” He had continued to grow his beard, not unlike a Muslim man’s, which is wajib (mandatory).

When he was a student in Egypt, he became involved in the Badaliyya, a movement where Christians offered their lives for Muslims, as inspired by Louis de Massignon and St. Francis of Assissi. His vocation was as Christian presence in the midst of Muslims. “It is a vocation that is hard to understand. It can be understood only in situations where Christians are the minority.” Aside from his Cairo studies, he had also studied Islam and Arabic at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

He tells the story of his greatest challenge as a missionary among Muslims. On July 14, 1975, two grenades were lobbed at the Notre Dame of Dulawan (the old name of Datu Piang town). As parish priest, he immediately went to the scene. There were seven who immediately died; 47 were wounded. Mercado carried the body of Abdul Rahman Tungaw, who he thought was still breathing. The bloodied Tungaw died in Mercado’s arms. He picked up another body. It was the Christian Samuel Chu, who also died in his arms. “My first book was dedicated to Abdul Rahman Tungaw and Samuel Chu, who were second-year high school students in Notre Dame of Dulawan. There is that stain of blood, not only in my clothes, but in me psychologically that I will never forget.”

Mercado’s unique ministry of closeness to the people catapulted him to fame. He was Mindanao leader in the anti-Marcos movement, president of Notre Dame University. He chaired the Independent Ceasefire Monitoring Committee of the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (among many others). He was also in international organizations. In the vast Cotabato river valley, he was a friend of all sides: rebels, governors, and politicians, and, above all, ordinary folks (Muslim or Christian, he did not distinguish). The Institute for Peace Education in NDU was established under his watch. Three presidents – Corazon C. Aquino, Fidel V. Ramos, and Benigno S. Aquino III – awarded him for his role in Mindanao peace building.

In the difficulty of the past year under this pandemic, a confined Mercado at the OMI Novitiate in Tamontaca took to producing videos of biblical commentaries. In between, he would call out sociocultural concerns of the Moro people, like when he asked the National Commission for Muslim Filipinos the immediate release of the dates from Saudi Arabia, a staple in the fasting for the holy month of Ramadan. He would post photos of himself spending iftar with his Muslim friends, the meal eaten by Muslims after sunset during Ramadan.

Mercado was known among the Maguindanao people as “Bapa,” meaning “uncle.” “When the Maguindanao call one Bapa, it signifies acceptance, that he is no longer an outsider but is an accepted member of the community, one who is respected as an elder,” explains the acclaimed Maguindanao filmmaker Gutierrez Mangansakan.

Mangansakan himself has a uniquely poignant memory of Mercado. “When I was in college, he was the new president of Notre Dame University. One afternoon, he was walking around the campus and chanced upon my friends and me. He asked me my name, and then said he knew my grandfather and father when he was living in Datu Piang town. He then proceeded to ask the name of my friend, Hussein. He asked my friend if he knew the provenance of his name. My friend shook his head. Fr. Mercado then explained who Hussein was and gave us a short Islamic history lesson. We were awed that a Catholic priest could know that. Later, we learned of his educational background. And Hussein was so thankful to have finally known the origin of his name.”

In his Facebook account where we are asked our native hometown, Mercado lists the town of Datu Piang as his hometown. That was one of his first missionary assignments. Obviously, he had not forgotten Mangansakan’s grandfather Bitol Mangansakan, who was chief of police of Datu Piang and who was his friend.

From Zamzamin Lumenda Ampatuan: “I take his death personally. He had been a father figure for me since my high school days and up until now. He was a good friend of the Moro secessionist leaders and very well engaged with the Ulama. I loved this spiritual father of mine, with whom I became so comfortable with Christianity as much as he had so much respect of Islam.”

Ampatuan ends his obituary with the Q’uranic command in Arabic that Muslims utter on the death of a fellow Muslim: Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un — “Verily we belong to Allah and verily to Him do we return.” The phrase is commonly recited by Muslims, especially upon hearing the sad news of someone’s death, at the same time acknowledging that it was a death willed by God the Almighty.

I honor him as a personal friend who had unselfishly taught me Moro history and shared with me contacts and resources of Cotabato culture when we had completed the Museyo Kutawato in North Cotabato.

Today, May 29, is Mercado’s birthday. Many grieve for his death — Moro and settlers alike of whatever religious beliefs, a host he had built true to his calling of respecting religious pluralism and love for the Moro that he had sincerely lived out. But what we should grieve the most is if the world will no longer produce missionaries of love like Eliseo Mercado Jr.