From the Peripheries to the Centre

Mario Trinidad, 9 March 2023

Mario Trinidad has had, in his own words, a “long journey”. He grew up in the Philippines in a middle class family, and went to an all boys exclusive Jesuit school. But through university, he “realised there is something more to life than amassing wealth, marrying and living happily ever after.” In that era, if you wanted to do something with your life, women joined the sisterhood and men joined the seminary.

So Mario did the latter and entered a missionary group of priests. He served first in ministry in Guatemala, working with landless farmers and their families. This experience was a revelation, and shaped Mario’s understanding of being a Christian, a disciple and a minister in the world. The people showed him that “the message of Jesus was radical and could be seen and experienced in a different light.”

Homilies at Mass at that time consisted of shared reflection. Mario remembers starting with the gospel about having faith the size of a mustard seed that would move mountains. Then he asked the people gathered for the liturgy what it means to believe. One by one they responded: “To believe is to work for the community in such a way to improve the roads so that even in rainy muddy conditions the buses can come through so that teachers can teach our children.” “To believe is to get justly paid for picking cotton in the cotton fields.” Far from belief = the Creed, answers like these made Mario uneasy. But then it dawned on him: “improving their lives and relationships – such a faith would move mountains.” 

That was an ‘ah ha!’ moment, a conversion. However, the government saw Mario’s involvement with these farflung villages as inciting rebellion. After only two years, he was informed that the military was about to kill him. He was the first of his fellow missionaries to leave the country because of death threats. Yet he considered himself lucky. Years later, other fellow missionaries were not so fortunate. One was forcibly disappeared, another was gunned down in broad daylight and two seminarians were killed.

After some time in the Philippines, Mario went to Mexico for 5 years. Although he was sent there, he found that those living in poverty became missionaries to him. The ones who are chosen by God “evangelise the evangelisers.” Mario was told to go to Mexico City, look for the poorest place, and start a community. With 3 other mission priests, he bunked in a 1-bedroom house, sharing a toilet with another family and queuing up for water – one public tap for 60,000 residents – every day. 

Mario, on the left, with some lay leaders during the national meeting of Basic Ecclesial Communities, Nogales, Veracruz, Mexico 1980

This was the “most uplifting experience”, “the happiest moments in my life”, as they became part of the community, who considered the priests as part of them. Without a TV, they would catch up on all the latest shows while waiting for water. And the priests felt that they could only accept money from the parishioners if they lived like them. 

Mario with Sister Theresa SH and two young catechists in Colonia Santa Theresa, Mexico City, 1984

After this time, Mario left ordained ministry, moved to Australia and got married to his wife, Julie. He trained in social work and rose in his career, but she advised him, “Mario, you need to be faithful to who you are.” Some years back, he decided to work with the St Vincent de Paul society, in a struggling suburb in Adelaide called Elizabeth. This, he said, “was like coming home”.

Mario has a simple brief: to develop relationships with residents and find out why they are accessing the Vinnies services. His companions living in poverty teach him that, despite the difficulties, “there is resilience and hope.” Mario always asks people about their dreams. Often they are very hard to articulate or believe in, but he remembers one Aboriginal woman, a victim of domestic violence. At first she said that she had no dreams. However, after months and months of relationship-building, she started to acknowledge dreams for her family. Finally, after more time, with tears rolling down her cheeks, she shared a dream of a career for herself. 

On reflection, Mario says, “The deep encounters with the people where I am privy to their dreams, aspirations, griefs, sadnesses are liturgical moments; we are celebrants and participants. It touches their lives and mine, and transforms both our lives. To the extent that I have listened and related to the people, I leave a better person every time.” His visitations feel like Moses in front of the burning bush: he must tread lightly as he enters the holy ground of their homes. It is where God has chosen to be, where God can be found.

Moreover, the conversations with people on the margins are liturgy for Mario. Together they break open the word of God, which gives life to them all. He is grateful each time they meet; it “lifts us out from the mundane and the profane and the ordinary to the sacred space.” Together, they break bread as ‘companions’, which is a two-way process, a spirituality of mutual encounter. And then Mario brings the fruits of his experiences to his prayer and participation in official liturgical celebrations. At his parish church, “my encounter with the poor of Elizabeth is taken up with the weekly celebration of the eucharist. It becomes life-giving because I have been given life elsewhere.”

Mario dreams that this connection between the margins and the liturgy might shape the diaconate and presbyterate. Like those chosen to serve the widows and orphans in Acts, and forming community, he hopes that leaders might travel from the existential peripheries to the centre. He has seen a model in Mexico where a prophetic bishop ordained 70 permanent deacons to serve the scattered indigenous communities. In Australia, deacons could likewise be community builders, sent to the margins, and returning enriched for each liturgical celebration. “I dream of a diaconate and presbyterate that is inclusive of women and men, for all are made unto the image and likeness of God and can therefore represent Jesus the Christ.”

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