Friday, July 21, 2017

Marriage in Honduras

This is a reflection that had been going on in the back of my mind for years and I am a bit reluctant to share my concerns. But I think it’s time for me to write something. I recognize that I am writing from the perspective of a non-Honduran, seventy-year old celibate who is still very culturally from the US. But I will dare to share my thoughts, hoping that others can help me think through these concerns.

As I visit the communities throughout the parish, I have found myself by the small number of people married in the church. I also am surprised that there are so many who are not married civilly, even though they’ve lived together for several years and have children. In face of this I keep encouraging people to get married in the church.

But it’s not all that simple.

First of all, I wonder if there really is a culture of marriage and the sacrament of matrimony in the villages. How many young people grow up with single parents or with parents who are not married either civilly or in the church?

There are also the costs of getting married civilly. You have to get married civilly before you can get married in the church. The costs could run to the equivalent of one hundred dollars.

There are also the expectations among some that a church wedding has to be a big affair – and therefore costly.

There are also concerns about commitments and whether they’ll be able to live up to them (and if the man will be faithful). The ideal of marriage is set very high and there does not seem to be a realistic sense of the ways that couples and families can really deal with conflict, complaints and so forth. The presence of significant domestic violence bears witness to this.

Seeing couples breaking up can be another disincentive.  

What I do see happening all too often is two people just getting together. At times, there is a child on the way, but not always.

Recently, according to an article I read, the Honduran Congress just raised the marriage age to eighteen and abolished the possibility of young people getting married if they were sixteen and had their parent’s permission.
Belinda Portillo from children's charity Plan International said Honduras had “made history” by passing the law in a country where one in four children are married before the age of 18. “The fight against child marriage is a strategic way of promoting the rights and empowerment of women in various areas, such as health, education, work, freedom from violence…”  
I don’t think this is good.

Am I wrong or jaded?

The problem is not that, until now, the law permitted marriage under eighteen with parental consent. though the person had to be sixteen.

A new law will not stop young people cohabiting before they are eighteen. They just won't be able to be legally married. 

What is the problem? Why do I see so few couples married?

As I see it, there is not a culture of marriage in many places. A macho culture may also be responsible for part of this. Lack of decent formation in sexuality is lacking.

In addition, n many places, there is nothing to do after sixth grade. Jobs, outside of work on the farm or seasonal work on the coffee harvest, are hard to find.

Even if there is a law that mandates education till ninth grade, how many kids drop out of school even before finishing sixth grade. The other day in one village, talking with kids, three ten-year olds told me that they had dropped out of school in the second or third grade. The common complaint was boredom.

There are classes up to sixth grade in almost every village, at least around here. But in one zone of the parish there is only one place where “educación básica” – the equivalent of middle school – is offered during the week. There is one weekend program. But there are villages where there is no “middle school” within thirty minutes walking distance and there is very limited public transportation. Yes, there are families who value education and see that their children get middle school and even high school education. But these young people often have to go to Santa Rosa – more than an hour away with a significant bus fare.  

To be truthful, there are families that do not value education, especially for girls. They want the young people to help the family by working in the fields or in the house. 

There are other families that make major efforts for the education of their children or grandchildren.

I am a strong advocate of education for young people, but I realize the problems here.

I also am an advocate of marriage. But the challenge is the lack of preparation for adolescence and adulthood among the young people. And sexual education? I once asked a few of the youth group leaders about this. In the schools, it’s about avoiding diseases (and pregnancy). Catechists and religious leaders in the communities seldom speak about sexuality – and most often it’s in terms of what not to do. But there seems to be almost no formation in emotional development.

What do I do? I encourage people living together with children to get married. I see a good number of them who come to the Masses or Celebrations of the Word and, of course, don't receive communion.

I also encourage young men I know who are in relationships to respect the young women and, with those whom I think trust me, I even advise them, mischievously, “Keep your zipper zipped up.”

But more needs to be done, especially among the young. We need to find ways to promote healthy relationships among the young before and during marriage.

A law prohibiting marriage of 17 year olds even with parental permission looks good – but I fear this will not help. I think it may only discourage marriages.

What do you think?

Saturday, July 15, 2017

I have been a deacon for one year.

On July 15, 2016, I was ordained a permanent deacon for the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras. On June 13, this year I celebrated ten years serving in the diocese, first as a lay missionary and now as a deacon. What’s different?

Continuing my service

In many ways, I find myself doing the same as I did before ordination.

 I am the main person responsible for the formation of catechists and youth leaders in the parish. I help in the formation of Delegates of the Word, extraordinary ministers of Communion, and base community leaders. 

catechist training
I also prepare materials for parish and other events. I’m working with two young priests on materials for next year for base communities, based on the Sunday lectionary readings. I prepared material for the Corpus Christi processions.

I visit the sick and elderly a bit more than in the past, bringing them communion. I also make greater efforts to visit more communities on Sundays that don’t have a Communion minister to lead Celebrations of the Word with Communion. Our pastor sent me to some communities for special Ash Wednesday celebrations, for a Holy Thursday Celebration with Washing of the Feet Communion in one town, and a Corpus Christi procession with Celebration of the Word and Communion in a remote sector of the parish.

Corpus Christi altar
I continue my concern for the social needs of the parish. I continue to oversee the scholarships for Maestro en Casa, a weekend middle and high school program. I also have been serving as liaison between a newly formed coffee producers association which is exporting coffee to St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames, Iowa. 

With the El Zapote Coffee Association
I have also begun trying to revitalize the social ministry in the villages and sectors of the parish.

What’s new?

I preach often. I usually try to accompany our pastor for at least one of his five Sunday Masses and often for Masses during the week. He usually asks me to preach – to give him some rest.

I have done a good number of baptisms, most often during Mass. I have had one occasion to baptize a group from a nearby village outside of Mass.

I have done one wedding – but our pastor will be having me participate in the interviews for those wishing to be married in the church and then will unleash me to help him with some interviews.

What else?

Most of all I feel a call to deepen my commitment to the poor and see it in light of the Eucharist.

I have served as a deacon at a number of diocesan events:  diaconal ordinations, the Chrism Mass, and, most significantly for me, the diocesan Mass to commemorate the canonization of Mother Teresa. At that Mass, as I purified the chalice, being careful not to leave even the smallest fragment behind, I looked out at the assembly and saw children from Amigos de Jesús, a home for children who are orphaned, abandoned, or come from extremely difficult situations. I recalled that I should be as concerned about the very least of them – and of others – as I was of the particles of Jesus in the chalice. In both I encounter Christ in His most vulnerable and powerless form.

I also feel a call to get out of myself more and visit the sick and elderly. I tend to be an introvert – one person here called me a hermit. But when I do visit I find myself being consoled, even as I try to console the sick. Being present to them in their need and, at times, helplessness opens me to the consolation which Christ offers to me. Being able to bring them Christ in the Eucharist is a privilege that cuts through any notion of rote in terms of communion and assisting at Mass. It also reminds me that Christ loves to be present with the people in times of distress.

Taking communion to the parents of Juan Ángel. He died a few months later of pneumonia.
I also find myself reflecting more on the relation of the deacon to the Blood of Christ and the witness of the martyrs. The deacon is, in a special way, the minister of the chalice, the Blood of Christ. After my ordination I have asked our pastor to allow me to hold the chalice when we distribute Communion by intinction – even if an extraordinary minister is distributing the Host. This has been our custom; I am there to hold the Blood of Christ so that it may be shared with others (and by others.)

The Blood of Christ reminds of a very specific call. When I raise the chalice at the end of the Eucharistic prayer, I often feel the call to give my life, my blood, for God’s people – not necessarily being martyred, but definitely by pouring myself out for the people, especially the poor. Recently at a Mass at which Padre German recalled the witness of the bishop martyrs Monseñor Romero and Monseñor Gerardi, I felt tears well up within me as I raised the chalice. Am I willing to give my life every day for God’s people, especially those endangered by poverty and violence?

I find myself being called to be more available, disponible – to use the phrase of Gabriel Marcel. I need to be more open to others’ needs, especially when I am preoccupied with my concerns, my comfort, my convenience. I was moved and challenged when I heard of a Salvadoran permanent deacon who is working in gang-ridden neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. I feel so small and cowardly when I think of his openness, his availability, his risking his life for people on the margins.

Related to this, I find even more joy in just being here, accompanying the people – whether it be at a church event or when I’m working in the parish coffee field with other people or helping dig a ditch in Plan Grande. 

This provides me a chance to get to know people on a more personal level. It also gives me the opportunity challenge people. I don’t know how many young people I have urged to get married in the church. I used to do it before I was ordained, but now I tell them that I could preside at their marriage! What is a real gift is that I can do this in a way that doesn’t make them feel demeaned. Many of them even get the serious aspect of my challenge, especially in a very light way.

Preaching is at times a challenge – especially when I try to get the right words in Spanish to express what I am thinking. At other times a message comes to me that I would have never thought of – pure inspiration from the Spirit. At times, though I have prepared a text, something happens and I am able to connect it more directly with the people at the moment of preaching. Other times, I start preaching and don’t really have to think about what I’m saying. I do, however, try to preach for less than ten minutes and to get to the point as clearly as possible.

Preparing for preaching has at times been filled with blessings. I often read the Sunday readings a week before and then try to let the readings penetrate my heart. At times I have something prepared but when I wake up I spend a few minutes in bed thinking of the readings – and a new message comes to me.

But one of the deepest experiences of this year has been being present at funerals. I find that God gives me words of consolation and compassion that I never thought I’d be capable of. One of my hardest funerals was for a couple who had been machete in their home. Our pastor called me early in the morning and asked me to preside at the funeral later that morning. As I tried to prepare all I could think of telling the people was to put all – the pain, any desire for vengeance, the feeling of powerlessness at the foot of the Cross. I still cannot believe that I was given such words of comfort and challenge.

What next?

The question is how can I serve better – serve God and those at the margins. The words and example of Pope Francis continue to sustain and challenge me.

For me, one of the critical aspects of this challenge is to bring the joys and sorrows, the griefs and anxieties of the world, especially the poor to the table of the Lord and from that table go forth with the love and compassion of the Lord to serve at the table of the poor.

A phrase from Father Paul McPartlin that I read while discerning the permanent diaconate resounds in my heart:
“The deacon stands at the altar and prepares the gifts with clean hands, but he stands also where the practical need is greatest, getting his hands very dirty.”  
May I continue to get my hands dirty, may I continue to get my shoes muddy, as Pope Francis wrote in The Joy of the Gospel, 45:
“[The missionary heart] realizes that it has to grow in its own understanding of the Gospel and in discerning the paths of the Spirit, and so it always does what good it can, even if in the process, its shoes get soiled by the mud of the street.”

Sunday, July 09, 2017

The wisdom of the poor

Notes for a homily for the US from Honduras 
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time 

If I were in the U.S. I’d be tempted to give a homily like this today. 

A prominent US personality recently said,

“’Why'd you appoint rich person to be in charge of the economy?” I said, 'Because that's the kind of thinking we want, because they are representing the country…'"
"I love all people -- rich or poor -- but in those particular positions, I just don't want a poor person. Does that make sense? If you insist, I'll do it -- but I like it better this way."

But the wisdom of Jesus is radically different:

“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones.”

What are our blinders - we who are rich or relatively rich in terms of the rest of the world? What can’t we see? What is hidden from us? Why might our assumed knowledge be disastrous for the impoverished of the world?

As the US bishops wrote in 1986 in Economic Justice for All, ¶87:

As individuals and as a nation, therefore, we are called to make a fundamental "option for the poor." The obligation to evaluate social and economic activity from the viewpoint of the poor and the powerless arises from the radical command to love one's neighbor as one’s self. Those who are marginalized and whose rights are denied have privileged claims if society is to provide justice for all. This obligation is deeply rooted in Christian belief. As Paul VI stated:
In teaching us charity, the Gospel instructs us in the preferential respect due the poor and the special situation they have in society: the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others.
John Paul II has described this special obligation to the poor as "a call to have a special openness with the small and the weak, those that suffer and weep, those that are humiliated and left on the margin of society, so as to help them win their dignity as human persons and children of God."

Enough said.


The statue is found in front of St. Francis of Assisi Church, New York City.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

My thousandth post

This is my thousandth post on Hermano Juancito.

I began on June 28, 2006, as I was beginning to discern whether God might be calling me to Honduras. Twelve years later I am in Honduras, having spent more than ten years here, still blogging.

Much has changed in these twelve years. I’ve lived through a coup in June 2009. In December 2011, I became an associate of the Dubuque Franciscans of the Holy Family, who have been a great source of support and inspiration to me. I lived in Santa Rosa de Copán for more than seven years; but in December 2014, I moved out to the countryside to the aldea of Plan Grande, Concepción. I came as a lay missionary; I was ordained a permanent deacon in the diocese in July 2016. In July 2007 I made my first visit to the parish of Dulce Nombre de María; now I live and minister in the parish as a deacon.

The transitions in my life and ministry have generally been gradual, finally leading me to serve as a permanent deacon in a rural parish.

I began working, at the suggestion of then bishop Monseñor Luis Alfonse Santos, in campus ministry at the Catholic University of Honduras campus in Santa Rosa. But soon I began to visit and help in the parish of Dulce Nombre de María, not far from Santa Rosa. Later Bishop Santos asked me to help with the diocesan office of Caritas, where I helped for about six years, while I continued to go out to the parish of Dulce Nombre. In 2014, I stopped my work in Caritas and began full-time ministry in Dulce Nombre.

What are the strands that permeate my ministry here?
  1. A desire to accompany and be of service to the poor.
  2. A Franciscan spirituality of being with the poor, even though I can never be poor like them
  3. A methodology of formation that seeks to help the people discover their faith and grow in their love of God and service of their sisters and brothers.
  4. A spirituality that sees service with the poor, formation of people in the church, and a sacramental life centered in the Eucharist as essential to keep me connected with God.

What was unexpected?
  1. The political events that have affected the lives of people here, including the 2009 coup, the militarization of society under the current regime.
  2. The difficulties of living alone.
  3. The call to the permanent diaconate
  4. The election of Pope Francis and his commitment to the poor

What has helped me survive and continue?
  1. Time for prayer, especially in the morning.
  2. The support of two groups of Franciscan sisters
  3. A good pastor who has given me a lot of freedom
  4. The beauty of the countryside
  5. The love the people show me
  6. The development of a sense of humor that helps me laugh at myself and be a bit foolish.

What have been some joys and successes?
  1. Working with some catechists and youth leaders who have captured a spirit of community and participation in their ministries
  2. Introducing many to Ignatian contemplation as a way to read scripture
  3. Preparing materials for catechists, base communities, and parish celebrations (including the parish Stations of the Cross.
  4. Helping a group of small coffee farmers organize themselves, improve their crops, and sell coffee to a parish in the United States.

What are the challenges?
  1. The roads and the drivers who often drive me to language that I don’t dare put into my blog.
  2. Dealing with some people, including leaders, who are stuck in ways of working in the church and elsewhere that are very top-down and controlling.
  3. Some people express their religion in very institutionalized, moralistic, dualistic, and restrictive ways that seem to me to close them off to a faith where they can more freely encounter God and respond in love and community.
  4. A society where corruption and poverty go hand in hand in marginalizing many, keeping many satisfied with handouts and temporary measures, with people isolated from each other and youth marginalized and with little hope.

What have been the disappointments?
  1. I had great ideas and plans when I came here. I have not been able to put most of them into practice, which may be for the best.
  2. The way the US State Department’s reports on Honduras have stopped many people from coming to visit.

Where do I go from here?
  1. Continue to serve in the parish of Dulce Nombre: helping in the formation of catechists, youth leaders, base community leaders; baptizing, visiting rural communities for Sunday Celebrations with Communion; beginning to help in the preparation of couples for matrimony; more visiting of the sick and homebound.
  2.  Being open to help in other ways in the parish and the diocese.

What I want to do?
  1. Continue to serve God and the poor for as long as I can – here, if God wills it.
  2. Develop materials to help the people discover the presence of God in their lives and the call to serve God’s Kingdom.
  3. Write about my journey.
  4. Grow in love of God and availability to the poor.

What I ask of others?
  1. Prayers
  2. Visits; come and see.
  3. Work for national and international policies that serve the needs of the poorest.
  4. Join me in prayer. 

Perhaps we can pray together, once a week, this prayer of the Chilean Jesuit, Saint Alberto Hurtado:
Lord, help me to speak the truth in front of the strong
and not say lies to gain the applause of the weak.
 If you give me fortune, don’t take happiness away from me.
If you give me strength, don’t take reason away from me.
If you give me success, don’t take humility away from me.
If you give me humility, don’t take dignity away from me.
 Help we always see the other side of the medal.
Do not let me blame others of treason
for not thinking like me.
Teach me to love people as myself
and to judge myself as others.
 Do not let me fall into pride if I triumph
nor in despair if I fail.
Rather, remind me that failure
is the experience which precedes triumph.
 Teach me that forgiving is the grandest for the strong
and that revenge is the primitive sign of the weak.
 If you take away my fortune, leave me with hope.
If you take away success, leave me with the strength to triumph from the defeat.
 If I fail people, give me the courage to ask pardon.
If the people fail me, give me the courage to forgive.
Lord, if I forget You, don’t forget me.