One month after his appointment, on January 27, 2019, Islamic militants bombed the cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo, killing 26 Mass-attendees and injuring 116. The regional ISIS-affiliated terror group Abu Sayyaf took credit for the attacks.
The ceiling and roof of the cathedral was destroyed; pews were scattered in the sanctuary and blood was everywhere, Saniel said. It was a horrific sight, so much so that the bodies of the dead could not be recognized.
Just one month into his assignment, Saniel was tasked with ministering to a flock reeling in the face of unspeakable tragedy.
A day after the bombing, Pope Francis sent him a message through the papal nuncio to the Philippines. He gave Monsignor Saniel three instructions.
"Number one, make sure that the victims do not feel abandoned by the Church," Saniel said, and also "to take good care of the victims" and their families.
Finally, the pope told him to "make sure also that this bombing of your cathedral shall not destroy the good relationships between Muslims and Christians built throughout the years."
The cathedral has been mostly rebuilt, thanks to donations from the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need, and local bishops, among others. On July 16, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, it reopened.
Now, however, the task remains of "rebuilding of the lives of those who have died," Saniel said-initiating trauma healing sessions for survivors, prioritizing housing facilities for the homeless, and granting educational scholarships for children who lost their parents in the bombing.
"Sometimes people ask 'where was God during this attack?'" he said. "I think gradually we will be able to discover the purpose and the reason."
Even in the midst of death and destruction, survivors saw miracles. The cathedral choir was supposed to sing from the loft at the Sunday Mass the day of the attacks-directly above the bomb. At the last minute, the choir moved downstairs and in front of the congregation because the microphone in the loft couldn't be found.
"People will say, 'of course it was Bishop Ben who took the microphone," Saniel said of Bishop Benjamin de Jesus, the former bishop in the area who was assassinated in 1997 in front of the cathedral and whose cause for canonization has been requested by local Catholics. The bishop's picture was hanging on the wall of the church, never touched by the bomb's explosion, Saniel said.
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And outside the cathedral now sits a statue of the Blessed Mother.
"I believe the Muslims won't destroy anything when there is an image of Mary, because in the Quran, there are more passages about Mary than the Bible," he said. "Even fanatics will not destroy the church, because they are afraid."
Saniel's third instruction from Pope Francis was to ensure the integrity of Catholic-Muslim relations in the region.
Although the Phillippines is around 85% Christian, only around three percent of the population of Jolo is Catholic, Saniel said, with Muslims comprising the vast majority of the population.
Yet there is much interreligious dialogue and respect between Catholics and Muslims in the area, Saniel said, and they appear determined not to let Abu Sayyaf terrorists drive a wedge in between neighbors. The tragedy brought about solidarity in suffering.
In the wake of the bombing, relations between the communities are even "stronger and greater" than before. At the funerals of Christian bombing victims, over half of the attendees were Muslims, he said, crying and mourning the "death of their friends in the neighborhood."