Sister Patricia Fox hits BI's definition of 'missionary work'

MANILA, Philippines – Saying she did not engage in political activities, Australian nun Sister Patricia Fox rejected the "narrow-minded" definition of missionary work cited by the Bureau of Immigration (BI) in ordering her to leave the Philippines.

In a counter-affidavit filed before the BI on Friday, May 4, Fox confirmed that she has joined rallies and gatherings of farmers, indigenous peoples, and workers fighting for their rights.

"But they are not political or partisan activities for or against the government, but simply to help promote and protect the rights of the poor and the needy," Fox said. 

She described these activities as "part and parcel of my apostolate and missionary work."

"I am a missionary and I happen to be assigned here in the Philippines. So, as part of my missionary work, I call on the injustices I found here which include imprisonment of farmers or members of indigenous communities for trumped-up charges," Fox said.

Fox submitted this counter-affidavit more than a week after the BI said it was forfeiting her missionary visa because she allegedly engaged in political activities. President Rodrigo Duterte himself admitted he ordered a BI probe into Fox. 

The nun however said that Melody Penelope Gonzales, intelligence officer of the BI Davao intelligence field unit, "conducted a sloppy investigation" into her missionary work. 

She said it was Gonzales who initiated the case for the cancellation of her visa.

'Narrow-minded, delimiting definition'

Fox recalled how Gonzales "quoted the definition of 'missionary' from cambridge.com and vocabulary.com, and 'apostolate work' from merriam-webster.com and Wikipedia."

Based on this, Gonzales supposedly concluded that Fox's apostolate and missionary work excludes supporting or joining rallies, press conferences, and fact-finding missions for or against the government. 

Gonzales said the issues in such assemblies "are political in nature." 

Referring to Gonzales, Fox said, "She has no right to define and delimit what constitute the apostolate and missionary works of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion, a religious corporation registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)."

"To allow Agent Gonzales and perhaps the BI to define and delimit the scope of our missionary and apostolate works would be to violate the provision of the Philippine Constitution which prohibits the government to impair the free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship," Fox added.

She said that based on Supreme Court rulings since the early 1920s, constitutional provisions like this have applied to foreigners like her. 

"There is therefore no basis for the narrow-minded and delimiting definition and understanding of what constitutes apostolate and missionary work," she also said.

Pope's words on missionary work

To better drive home her point, Fox cited Pope Francis, "the highest authority on the matter," on the social involvement of missionaries and lay ministries. 

Fox quoted the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel), where Pope Francis said the Catholic Church "cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.

Pope Francis said in this 2013 papal document: "No one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society."

In her counter-affidavit on Friday, Fox explained: "I thus say that the activities I have been to wherever they may be, including participation in rallies, fact-finding missions, press conferences, and the like, within and outside of Quezon City, are tied to tasks within and of the Church, with a real commitment to applying the Gospel to the transformation of society." 

"For religion should not be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society," said the Australian nun also known as Sister Pat.

Not confined in church

Students of the Loyola School of Theology, a Jesuit-run school based in the Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City, also said they "disagree that the work of Sister Pat among those in the peripheries of society is 'politically partisan.'" 

"We believe that our mission as Christians is not just confined within the walls of either the church or the classroom. Sinful and undeserving though we are, we are missioned by God especially to those who are suffering from corrupt and unjust structures, in a society grown indifferent and oppressive," the LST students said in a statement Friday.

"We, the students of Loyola School of Theology, express our support to Sister Pat. We strongly call upon, and demand from authorities, to honor her inalienable rights as a person. We will never accept that her work as a missionary is 'partisan politics.' We will remain vigilant as she continues her mission in the Philippines," they added.

Fox, a 71-year-old nun who has served in the Philippines for 27 years, earlier said she was sad that the BI ordered her to leave. 

"Whatever happens, I will be forever grateful to all those Filipinos that I call my friends and for all those from both church and sectors who have supported me through this time. I may lose my right to be in the Philippines, but I can never lose the learnings and beautiful memories," Fox said on April 25, the day the BI said it was forfeiting her missionary visa. – Rappler.com