Fr. John Boles tells the inspiring story of Fr. Salustino Villalobos, who was born and raised in the mountains of Peru. Today, he serves God's people in the mountains of Taiwan. This incredible journey represents the essence of Columban mission.

Fr. John Boles and Fr. Salustino Villalobos together in Taiwan
Fr. John Boles and Fr. Salustino Villalobos together in Taiwan

The Holy Spirit is a great mover. In the Bible, it moves Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, 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 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 missionary life precisely because he saw how much his home area was so much in need of missionaries.

So, how exactly did it all come about?

Salustino was born in the hamlet of Agua de Leon (‘The Lion’s Spring’, evidence of how, not so long ago, this was an area of upland forest where roamed animals such as the puma), close to the border between Peru and Ecuador. He was the seventh of a family of eleven (“Seven/Eleven”, he smiles) the son of coffee farmers Segundo and Bremilda. To reach the family home you must be prepared to travel the best part of a day from the nearest metalled highway, thrown around on a terrible dirt road in the back of a minibus or 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, and marriages. Salustino was baptized 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 several vocational workshops, got to know more about us and – one thing led to another (“curiosity kills the cat”, as Salustino puts it) – he ended up joining us.

Even then, it wasn’t an easy ride. Literally. Our seminary was several hundred miles away in Santiago, Chile. After taking leave of his parents, Salustino was to embark on that bone-shaking trip to the nearest bus terminal before continuing for another 24 hours to Lima (where I was waiting for him with the other Peruvian students), there to catch the plane to Santiago, early in the morning, two days hence.

Unfortunately, it was the New Year’s holiday. Everyone was travelling. The weather was bad. He’d reserved a seat on the bus in advance, only to find on arriving at the bus station that HIS bus had been cancelled and all the other coaches to Lima were booked up. All he could do was “bus hop” via slow, local services until his money ran out. That happened in the town of Chimbote, still six hours away from Lima by even the fastest transport. He rang Fr. Diego. “Wait there”, came the voice.

Time was ticking away. It was already near midday. He ought to be at the airport check-in desk soon after midnight. Incredibly, Diego drove six hours up, collected Salustino, turned around and immediately drove back. They telephoned an increasingly concerned student director (me!) that they’d be there in time, come what may. They arrived at 11.00 p.m.

The Spirit had certainly moved Salustino.

Needless to say, he 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, believe it or not, is the “Sacred Heart of JESUS”. (It would appear that it’s not only the Spirit that is moving him but the Divine Hearts as well.)

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.

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