Last Updated: Wednesday - 01/05/2011
November 12, 2001
Priest walks on the wild side
Fr. Isagani Avinante finds ample opportunity for ministry on Appalachian Trail
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON — Father Isagani Avinante saw eight black bears and heard eight Confessions during his five months and 12 days on the Appalachian Trail.
The former pastor at Grande Cache says he drew closer to nature and to God, as well as ministering to many people he encountered on his hike that ended Oct. 12.
"It was a very physically, mentally and spiritually enriching trip," Avinante told the WCR at the end of his journey. "I thought of all the things that happened and all the people I met as God's special gift."
The priest made the hike to celebrate his 25th anniversary of ordination.
He had many long discussions with other hikers as he walked up the trail that stretches nearly 3,500 km from Georgia to Maine.
He hopes at least one of the three men with whom he had long talks about religious vocations will enter the seminary. And he hopes that some of the people he spoke with who have cut themselves off from the Church will return.
Avinante is now getting phone calls from one non-Catholic man he met who says, "You have turned my life around." The man is asking for literature about the Church and the rosary.
Once he celebrated Mass on top of a mountain with two women — one Orthodox and one Bahai. The women took part in the liturgy but didn't receive Communion.
The Bahai woman, who was on her last day hiking the trail, said she had been praying to God to meet someone special on the trip. "You are the one," she said.
Another couple with whom he celebrated Mass were not baptized, so it gave him the opportunity to explain the sacraments to them.
He met a retired Presbyterian minister who was angry and bitter with his own Church, which he said was disintegrating. The priest encouraged the man to return to the celebration of the Eucharist and eventually the minister said he would do that.
Avinante hiked three weeks with a man from Quebec who was estranged from the Church, so the priest answered the man's questions about the Catholic faith.
Many young people don't take part in the faith because they have misconceptions of what the Church teaches, he said.
One man said he was spiritual, but not religious. The priest explained to him that spirituality can only blossom in community. One can have a personal spirituality, but not a subjective spirituality cut off from any community. "Otherwise, you would be creating God in your own image and likeness."
During his months in the wild, he became more attuned to nature and to the animals, he said. "Those months spent in silence and in hearing the chirping of the birds, the flowing of the water and the rushing of the wind helped me to become part of the trail."
But, from talking to other hikers, he found two dangers that can come out of that heightened sensitivity.
One is the tendency to anthropomorphize animals — to believe that animals are human. The other is the tendency to bestialize the human person. He found that latter tendency in a hiker who contended that Christian sexual ethics are too puritanical and who maintained that sexual organs are no different than other human organs.
When people try to close the gap between animals and human beings, "we dehumanize ourselves," he said.
Avinante said he met numerous "trail angels," people who did unexpected acts of kindness. People he had just met invited him into their homes to let him have a shower and do his laundry.
"I have been touched a lot by the lives of the people I have met just as I have touched their lives."
Still, the hike did have its times of hardship. The priest hurt his knee and was laid up for a few days, endured three weeks of nearly non-stop rain, had a close encounter with a mother bear and her three cubs, and lost 31 pounds off his already-small frame.
Avinante will visit family and friends for two months in the Philippines where he will celebrate his 25th anniversary before he returns to Canada to take up his new assignment as the pastor in Vegreville.
But he has no doubt about the value of the hike he has just completed. "I consider this one of the best decisions I made in my life."
And he hopes that he will be a better priest for the experience. "I see the next years of my priesthood as living in the glory and majesty of God and in his love."
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