Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 26, 2004
Priests witness sublime faith
South American Catholics celebrate joy of their beliefs
A Missionary's Musings
By FR. JACQUES JOHNSON
I've just returned with Father Gerry Le Strat from El Salvador, a small Latin American country south of Guatemala. We drove there to meet the five Oblate novices and their novice master, Father Cezar. We also went to have my passport stamped so that I can prolong my stay in Guatemala for another three months.
It was a good long ride which gave us time to discuss the country and the Oblate mission here. As the superior of the Oblate mission in Guatemala, Father Gerry is sensitive to the needs of the Church and he has dreams of seeing the Oblates contribute much more in the service of the people of Guatemala.
We had a bit of a problem as the officer at the border into El Salvador did not care much about stamping my passport to get into the country and three minutes later to stamp it to get out. He felt we should stay in El Salvador at least 24 hours before getting the stamp to leave the country.
Bending rulesWe explained that Gerry did not have his passport and could not come into the country anyway. He suggested we come back in the morning and he'd stamp it, which was bending the rule a bit, but mercifully bending rules a bit is what much of life is about in this area of the world.
After that business was over, we had time to visit the five Oblate novices on a two-month pastoral experience in the area. Atescatempa, where they live, is a border town on the Guatemala side with 8,000 people. They have an impressive church complex but surprisingly no resident priest for a community that size. There is a pastor somewhere in the area but with 15 towns and villages, he has little time to worry about this community, especially since he knows that for awhile there is an Oblate priest around who can look after things.
In the evening, I was invited to join a prayer group that was meeting at the church. I went and was introduced to a group of about 30 people. They wanted me to take over but I told them to carry on and that I'd probably say something down the road. The opportunity came and with my halting Spanish I intervened twice. By their look I could tell that they were actually understanding me which was a good feeling. This was the first time I ministered to a group in Spanish. But mostly, that evening, they ministered to me.
Earlier that same afternoon, since the local Oblates were away, Gerry and I went for a stroll and stopped in a small shop and ordered coffee. We chatted with the young woman who was tending the shop while also attending to her three-year old boy. In the course of the conversation, she mentioned that her father also had a business in town, selling alcohol and selling women to truckers stopping by. He has a few rooms in the back, she explained and he makes a good living out of this business.
I was shocked and wondered about the quality of life these women had, caught as they were in this sort of awful slavery. It all seemed very normal to her, however, as if this sort of thing was simply part of the way of life there.
Celebrating MassThe next day with the Oblate novices and Father Cezar, we drove to an aldea, a small Catholic community up the mountain. When we got there at 10 a.m., the small church was crammed with many people overflowing outside. It was their first and last Mass of the year as it's all the priest can manage, I was told.
They were happy to see us as we were to meet them. Father Gerry presided and preached. Father Cezar heard confessions in the sacristy. I was to hear confessions by the altar, but there was no room for people to move around, so I concelebrated and helped Gerry with Communion.
The singing was remarkable. They had five mature men, two with a fiddle, a couple more with guitars and a bass crafted by hand with three strings which added a lot to the beat. They had chosen hymns that the people enjoyed singing, bringing out wonderful harmonizing, not unlike the great sounds that come from some of the backwoods area of Kentucky. The whole congregation sang along with gusto. I was quite taken by it all and touched by their faith.
In spite of the fact that they're offered only one Mass a year, incredibly these people are in the process of building a new church to replace the old one which is truly too small as many of the people participated from outside the church. They're a small community of about 70 homes.
Yet they gather for Sunday services regularly which they conduct themselves. Because their faith is strong and their sense of community is vibrant, they're able to dream dreams. They act as if they have long realized that they are the Church and that their future as a Christian community is in their hands. This is possibly the most impressive expression of faith and hope I've witnessed in a long time.
The area is beautiful, the land is fertile but most of the people are dirt poor. The main reason is that there are rich landowners who exploit the people who work for them, paying them about 75 cents an hour, about $6 a day. Exploitation of the people and the greed of the few are commonplace. The ministry of justice and liberation of people is still only a dream at best out here.
In that part of God's world the harvest is plentiful and the labourers are many though unordained. Regarding the lack of priests, I found out that there is hope there as well. I met a 22-year old man who told me he feels called to serve his people as a priest. He has contacted Father Cezar and he hopes to join us, giving his life serving God and people. There are many like him in this country, a country of contrasts and of awesome possibilities.
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