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A Filipino Jesuit: Priest and doctor in Timor-Leste

A Filipino Jesuit has been working in Timor-Leste for more than 20 years as both a priest and a doctor.

Father Martin Antonio Abad Santos is a doctor and the grandson of Filipino hero Jose Abad Santos, who fought in World War II.

Martin was sent to Timor-Leste 20 years ago when East Timor was just starting to get back on its feet after fighting for freedom for decades.

The priest, who is better known as "Bong," went to Timor in 2002 with Father Samiel Dizon, another Filipino Jesuit.

As soon as they arrived at the airport, they went straight to their mission area in Railaco, which is about 27 kilometers from Dili, the capital of East Timor, and has a large Catholic community that badly needs a priest.

Martin started his mission to help the people in the remote mountain towns of Ermera right away by giving them medical care and food. Meanwhile, Father Samiel set up the parochial school right next to the parish church. Both oversaw the mission church.

Samiel, who is also known as Sammy, is now 90 years old and back in the Philippines, where he prays for the church and the Society of Jesus. Martin is still in Railaco, running his mobile clinic and food program.

Martin has spent many years in Timor driving around the mountains on winding roads to help people in very remote towns get spiritual and physical healing.

He takes a mobile pharmacy with him every time he goes on a medical trip, and the young woman is a volunteer pharmacist.

As Martin's truck drives through small towns, it's clear that the people there know the sound of it. Children would run up to the road and wait for his truck to go by. They would smile, wave, and shout "Bom dia, amu!", which means "Good morning, father" in Tetum.

He has been doing medical projects since long before those kids or even their parents were born.

His participation goes back to when he was just starting out as a doctor in Sapang Palay, Philippines, as a novice.

"I did the same thing when I was a young parish priest in Zamboanguita, Bukidnon. He said, "I've been doing this for a long time."

His team isn't afraid to take sharp, head-banging turns and even cross a new bridge made of wood and mud by the locals, which is a stunt that could kill them.

One of the places they often go to help people is a small church on top of a lonely hill. Mount Ramelau, which is the highest point in Timor-Leste, could be seen from afar.

It is not his first thing to do to help people get free medical care and drugs.

"First, admit it. Then I'll study medicine," he says. "Then we'll have lunch!"

When Martin goes to a small town in the middle of nowhere, about 20 people go to confession, and as many as 70 people go to the Holy Mass.

"This is what we do every day," says Ellie, a French nurse. A way of healing that looks at the whole person. Before we can heal the body, we must take care of the mind and feed it. Before he became a doctor, he was a priest. Everything ends with a healthy lunch."

After the Mass, the church is turned into a clinic without any trouble.

Someone takes care of the sign-in, and two nurses write down the patient's vital signs.

Martin has a station where he writes his prescriptions and notes. Several Monobloc chairs are stacked on top of each other to make a table.

Outside of the church, a pharmacy is ready to help anyone who needs it.

The Office on Wheels is open for about two hours. Families, kids, and older people wait in line to talk to Martin or Dr. Maria Ha, an Australian volunteer doctor.

Many of the patients leave without a prescription, but the mobile pharmacy makes it easy for those who do need medicine to get it.

Martin would ask how or what the person was feeling in Tetum, which is what a doctor usually does.

One time, though, instead of writing a prescription, he started to draw shapes that looked like a sun and two circles.

Martin came up with a clever way for the old lady who couldn't read to remember when and how much of her medicine to take.

Martin says this about the most common illnesses in the area: "They often get lung infections, heart problems, and ear and eye infections, but nothing too significant. We often give them medicines or other things to keep their illnesses from getting worse, but many of them don't even have illnesses. They might just want to know that everything is fine."

Here is a Jesuit missionary and his team, thousands of miles from home. Every day, they leave in their worn-out truck to bring medical help to people in remote mountain villages, but they don't leave until they have celebrated Christ's healing and peace by taking part in the Eucharist with the people they will be helping.

People in this area live miles from the nearest hospital and even farther from the nearest health center. Twice a month, a group of trucks would stop by their church to let them know that God hadn't forgotten about them.

Even though they live in remote places where government health care can't reach them, they are close to the heart and arms of the Holy Mother Church. Bien Emmanuel C. Cruz


Radio Veritas Asia (RVA), a media platform of the Catholic Church, aims to share Christ. RVA started in 1969 as a continental Catholic radio station to serve Asian countries in their respective local language, thus earning the tag “the Voice of Asian Christianity.”  Responding to the emerging context, RVA embraced media platforms to connect with the global Asian audience via its 21 language websites and various social media platforms.