God’s Attraction





He went to public schools all the way through high school. When he went to a Catholic college, he was still wondering what he would do with his life. He was getting older and felt that it was time to decide: “I was really uncomfortable. I had finished my first year and I still didn’t know what I was going to do for my life’s work. On the second year, I was enrolled in Political Science. Perhaps, I could become a lawyer. I really had no idea what I was going to do with my life. But I wanted to do something good. The priesthood never occurred to me.”

The idea of becoming a priest and a missionary came to him like lightning. He was walking back home, after attending a students’ retreat at the Jesuits University of Seattle on October 29, 30 and 31, 1956, when the inspiration suddenly struck him. His life began to have a new meaning. He recalls: “I was making good grades in college, I had a good part-time job and was earning good money, everything was OK, but I was miserable because I didn’t know how I was going to spend my life. But on that day, October 31, 1956, that inspiration, that attraction from God was so immense that it motivated me and does so up to now. I remember that experience every day. God touched me.”

The date was memorable: “When the call came, I was 19 years, four months and ten days old.”

It was a very unique experience. His description of what God did to him on that day is clear and vivid: “God attracted me in a way I had never been before by anyone or anything. That attraction continued for a couple of months while I was in the process of getting into a missionary society. Then on June 21, when I was in California for my first seminary engagement, I realized that the feeling of attraction was gone.” 

The feeling disappeared, but the decision remained and its effects are evident: “I knew I was doing the right thing. So I didn’t need the attraction anymore. God gave me a push and the momentum lasts until now. I keep that momentum fresh through prayer. Every morning, I offer my openness and availability to God and I tell Him that I love Him for His sake and I thank God for having done so much for me.” 

Before seeking out Maryknoll, Bob had seen an advertisement of the PIME – the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions in a newspaper. He made an inquiry and started corresponding with Father Henry Bell. A classmate at the university, Charles E. P. Simmons, learned that Bob wanted to become a missionary and told him: “You are an American, you should become a Maryknoller.” He had never heard the name before. So, he started asking about Maryknoll, got in touch with them and did join them. Later on, he asked Charles: “How did you know about Maryknoll?” The answer was: “I have been kicked out of more seminaries than you’ll ever go into.” Fr. Bob kept in touch with Charles, his great friend and benefactor, until the latter passed away last year. 

Before their priestly ordination, Fr. Bob and his companions were allowed to choose their mission field; they were given three choices. Some classmates went to Latin America, others chose to be sent to Asia, especially Korea and Taiwan. Fr. Bob handed in his form blank – he chose not to choose. So, he was assigned to the Philippines. After going to a language school in Davao, he worked in Mindanao – first in Cateel, Mati, Caraga. “Living conditions were simple and the roads were bad, but the people appreciated very much what the missioner taught them. They were migrants from Leyte, Cebu, Bohol… and so knew what it meant to be uprooted. They were hungry for God.” As a young priest, full of energy, Fr. Bob was willing to spend it fully for them. 

Afterwards, with a colleague, Fr. Douglas Venne, he went to the other side of the island, to Zamboanga del Norte, to an area that didn’t have a priest before. They were evangelizing enthusiastically by means of the Cursillos, seminars in the barrios, one after the other. They became an effective team. But the constabulary of the Philippines was not so happy about their success with the people and complained to the bishop who told them to go, after almost two years being there. By that time Fr. Bob had spent 11 years in the Philippines, from 1964 to 1975.

At that time, the Maryknoll Society was looking for volunteers to go to Bangladesh. Both Bob and Douglas signed in and went there (the country was then in its fouth year of independence). Douglas died last December. For 34 years in Bangladesh, the two friends were an apostolic team. 

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