Born and raised in the mountains of Peru, Columban missionary Fr Salustino Villalobos now finds himself serving God’s people in the mountains of Taiwan, writes Fr John Boles.
The Holy Spirit is a great mover. In the Bible, the Spirit moves Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, and the Apostles from Jerusalem to “the ends of the earth”. It moved St Columban from Ireland to continental Europe. Now, it has moved Columban Fr Salustino Villalobos from his home in the mountains of northern Peru in South America to the mountains of central Taiwan in the Far East of Asia.
I was in Taiwan recently and had the privilege of assisting at Fr Salustino’s ‘Welcoming’ Mass in the parish of Tai An, an area mainly populated by the Atayal indigenous people. The event had particular significance for me as I’d also been able to visit Salustino in his Peruvian mountain home, just as his life with the Columbans was beginning, at a time when I was in charge of our South American seminary.
It seems appropriate that Salustino should now be pastor of a truly missionary parish in Taiwan, for he comes from what could be considered “virgin mission territory” back in his own country. That both places are in the highlands only adds weight to the comparison. As Salustino himself tells it, he was drawn to the missionary life precisely because he saw how much his own home area was in need of missionaries.
Salustino was born in the hamlet of Agua de León (‘The Lion’s Spring’, evidence of how, not so long ago, this was an area of upland forest where animals such as the puma roamed), close to the border between Peru and Ecuador. He was the seventh of a family of eleven, the son of coffee farmers Segundo and Bremilda. To reach the family home you have to be prepared to travel for the best part of a day from the nearest highway, be thrown around on a terrible dirt road in the back of a minibus or an open truck, before scaling a steep track to the house by foot or donkey.
It is difficult to describe just how isolated this place is. There are no shops or services nearby. The secondary school is a two-hour walk away. Salustino was 19 when he first saw a doctor, 24 when he first went to a dentist. Health treatment comes in the way of herbal and traditional practices based on accumulated local wisdom. When Salustino was born, there was no such thing as the internet. Even today there isn’t any TV.
“Where I live there is no formal Church presence,” Salustino explains. The priest comes once a year to the chapel in the closest village, where he celebrates all the sacraments in one go – Mass, Confirmation, First Communions, marriages. Salustino was baptised on one of these occasions. Subsequently, up to the age of 15, “I’d only been to one Mass in all my life”. Religious faith is nurtured in the home and by the efforts of itinerant catechists. It is a credit to Salustino’s parents, in particular, that his faith grew so strong.
“When I was finishing secondary school our religion teacher asked me to make my First Communion and receive Confirmation at one of those annual Masses. I did half a year of preparation. It was then that I first began to think about the religious life.”
As a start, once he’d received the sacraments, he entered a training course for catechists. The attraction to priesthood grew and, especially, to missionary priesthood, perhaps with Salustino reflecting on how his family might have benefited from a robust missionary presence. By chance, his elder brother had heard about the Columbans. He got hold of our telephone number in Lima. Salustino called and at the other end of the line was our Vocations Director, Fr Diego. “Come to Lima”, Diego invited.
So off Salustino went. He was impressed by Diego’s hospitality, took part in a number of vocational workshops, got to know more about us and ended up joining us. Even then, it wasn’t easy. Our seminary was several hundred miles away in Santiago, Chile.
Needless to say, Salustino turned out to be an excellent student. I was present at his ordination Mass in 2017. He went to Taiwan as a priest the following year. He worked in a parish called the Immaculate Heart of Mary before his current appointment to that highland parish of Tai An, whose patron is the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
In a way, Salustino has now come full circle, from the mountains of Peru to the mountains of Taiwan, drawn by the Spirit, guided by the Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Surely, even St Columban would be hard pressed to match that.
Fr John Boles is from Britain. Ordained in 1996, he served on mission in Peru and Chile. He is now Regional Director in Britain.
If you would like to support Fr Salustino’s work with the Atayal indigenous people in Taiwan, you can make a donation online here: https://columbans.ie/donate/ Alternatively you can send a cheque payable to ‘Columban Missionaries’ to the Far East Office, Dalgan Park, Navan, Co Meath C15 AY2Y
Published in the January/February 2024 issue of the Far East magazine. If you would like to subscribe please follow this link: https://columbans.ie/far-east-magazine/