GROWING up in a bustling city of more than a million people in the Philippines, a young Elmer Ibarra could never have imagined he’d one day be standing side-by-side with a bishop in the dust in the dead centre of Australia celebrating Mass.
That’s part of the great unknown Fr Elmer signed up for when he was ordained a priest for the Divine Word Missionaries in his home town of Manila in 1975 at the age of 31.
His mission now is to serve among the Eastern Arrernte people in the Aboriginal Catholic community of Santa Teresa, 85km south-east of Alice Springs.
Darwin Bishop Charles Gauci visited the community recently and he and Fr Elmer celebrated Mass in the middle of the Santa Teresa football oval.
Unlike the green of the Gabba in Brisbane, there is not a blade of grass on this oval – only dirt and dust.
This is like nowhere else Fr Elmer has known and, as the Church celebrates Mission Sunday today (October 18), he reflects on the mystery and richness of life as a missionary.
His journey to the centre of Australia began as a boy growing up in Manila when he felt the first stirring of a call to serve, about the age of 13.
“I was very active in the choir, and also in the Legion of Mary,” Fr Elmer said.
It was mainly his involvement in the Legion of Mary that motivated him.
“I was very active in that organisation when I was a boy, and I came to realise that for me I think it’s better to dedicate my life full-time in the work of the Church rather than just volunteering and, for me, the way to do it was to become a priest,” he said.
A family friend who was a Divine Word Missionary steered him in the order’s direction.
His challenge then was not only to discern the call to become a priest but also to become a missionary.
Having answered yes to that call, he’s been living it out in Santa Teresa since January, after having served in parishes in Wellington, New Zealand; and Macquarie Field, NSW; as vocations director for the order; and at the provincial house as the order’s Bible Apostolate co-ordinator.
And, just as he could never have imagined celebrating Mass on a dusty footy oval in the centre of Australia, another first happened recently when he blessed the Aussie Rules football team that plays there.
The team was heading off to Alice Springs to play in a grand final.
“Because we also try to tell people that we are also with you in your journey, we decorated our church with crepe paper of green and gold, the colours of our AFL team,” Fr Elmer said.
“Then we also had a special Mass.”
Realising everybody would be in Alice Springs, 85km away, for the grand final on Sunday when Mass was normally celebrated, the decision was made to switch it to Saturday evening instead “so that everybody would have a chance to participate in the Mass”.
“And then Sunday morning we had to all go to Alice Springs to watch the grand final,” Fr Elmer said.
“There were about 70 or 80 people there for Mass and also members of the footy team attended, and I gave them a special blessing, so that the Holy Spirit would guide them during the game, so that they would play the game fair and that they would not suffer injuries.
“I think that’s also mission – the mission is all about being with the people, making the Church closer to them by making the Church part of their lives too.
“The Church is not a separate entity in their lives – we are also part of them and we are also with them.”
Fr Elmer was also there in Alice Springs to enjoy a Santa Teresa win.
He said service was at the heart of being a missionary priest.
“I’m here to serve God through this life as a Catholic priest,” he said.
“I’m here to serve the community, of course first of all, through the sacraments, through the Mass, through Baptisms, and funerals and weddings, but also to be a witness of how to be a Christian, how to be a Catholic, in my own community, because of course, as a priest, it is inevitable that we are public figures.
“And, as a public figure, we should be role models and set an example on how to live our life as what Christ wants us to live – and that is trying to be a good Christian and a good Catholic, not only in what I preach during Mass but, more importantly, on how I live, how I act out what I preach during Mass.
“I think that is even more important, and that is what people will be more keen in looking at.
“For me, that’s the heart of my mission, and that is to serve.”
In celebrating Mission Sunday, Fr Elmer likes to broaden the focus.
“I always believe that mission is not restricted to priests and religious but it’s really for all of us,” he said.
“We’re all sent by God to do this mission, so it’s not just the responsibility of the priest or the religious brother or sister or people who have dedicated their lives to the mission, but mission is for all of us …
“We are all part of this mission by spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ in not only what we say but, more importantly, in how we live our lives.
“Of course, there will always be people who are called by God to serve a particular mission like, for me, being a religious missionary priest of the SVD … But mission is always for everybody.”
That’s reflected in his prayer for Mission Sunday.
“My prayer essentially is first I pray that there would be more young people who would heed the call to become a religious missionary as a priest or a religious brother or a religious sister, and then also I would want to pray for all the missionary priests, and brothers and sisters who are working in various countries where sadly, until now, Christianity is still banned or persecuted, like in China, for example, or in the Middle East,” he said.
“And then I also pray that everybody would realise that all of us are missionaries, even in our own simple ways, like just being a witness to Christ by living in our lives the values of the Gospel, like respect, honesty, love, forgiveness, generosity ..”