Monday, March 12, 2018

Preparing for Baptism at Easter - the catechumenate

The Catholic Church has a special extended preparation for adults to enter the church through the sacraments of initiation – Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist – at the Easter Vigil.

I first encountered this – the Catechumenate -  in Ames, Iowa, when I was a campus minister at St. Thomas Aquinas Church. Many were university students, but they included a good number of older adults.

Here in our parish we also have the Catechumenate, though most are between fourteen and twenty-one. The other difference is that the formation takes place in disparate communities. This year we will have up to 48 baptized in the Easter Vigil, from twelve different communities.

They came together in Dulce Nombre in December to be received in the catechumenate and in February they participated in the rite of election also in Dulce Nombre. Since our pastor, Padre German, was on a much-needed vacation, I presided at the Rite of Acceptance into the Catechumenate in December. One of the most moving parts of the rite is when the candidates are signed with the Cross on their bodies. There is something holy and humbling to sign another person with the cross, especially when I kneel before them and make the sign of the cross on their feet. (The Rite in the Mexican books doesn’t include this but the Spanish version for the US includes this.)

Padre German presided over the Rite of Election, but there were three who couldn’t make the rite and so I ended up having two small Celebrations with the Rite of Election for them. I took the opportunity to speak with them. One of the most moving was when the catechumen was a young man who was raised by his paternal grandmother, having been abandoned to her by his birth-mother when he was six months old. In this rite he was being chosen, elected, by the whole Church – with his grandmother present. No matter what we humans do, God wants us to be truly be children of a loving God.

During Lent there are also three rites, called the Scrutinies, for the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent. In the rite the elect are called forward and kneel in prayer as the community prays for them. Then the presider, the priest of deacon, prays the exorcisms, asking God to guard them from the power of evil, from the devil, and from all that might keep them from becoming true children of God, members of God’s people.

Because there are so many communities with those who will be baptized, Padre presides at the scrutinies in the communities where he presides at Mass on Saturday evening or Sunday. I go to a different community each Sunday, trying to go where there are the most elect, presiding at the Rite in the context of a Celebration of the Word with Communion.

Padre German praying over the elect during the first scrutiny in San Agustín, Copán

This past Sunday I went to Descombros where there were six young people, three men and three women. I spent a few minutes before the Celebation of the Word talking with them. During the rite, when they knelt I was moved at their piety. They were taking this very seriously.

During the exorcisms, the presider places his hands on the heads of the elect, praying in silence. I felt a deep sense of God’s presence at those moments, praying for each of these young people. But I remembered that I was not doing the praying; the entire Church was praying through me.

As I laid my hands on then, I thought of all that these young people face – poverty, violence, lack of respect for persons, especially women, and more. I prayed – and pray that these powers of darkness do not control the lives of these young people, as well as many others.

The powers of darkness are strong here – the temptations that young people face, the violence and corruption of the political and economic systems, the throwaway culture that regards the poor and the young as persons to be used and discarded.

I prayed and I continue to pray.

This week I will go to another community – but I need to pray for all these elect and for this country, and for myself, that the powers of darkness may be dispersed by the love of a God who became flesh, lived among us, and gave himself up for us.

The prayer I used on Sunday is particularly apt:

Lord, Jesus, when you were baptized the heavens were opened and you received the Holy Spirit, so that, with the strength of the Holy Spirit, you brought good news to the poor and opened the eyes of the blind. Pour out that very same Spirit on those who wish to receive your sacraments, so that, preserved from the contagion of error, doubt, and incredibility and guided by a sincere faith, they can contemplate you with a renewed and radiant vision, you who live and reign forever. (My translation)

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Choose life in the face of death

This morning, sitting in my prayer room, my quiet was broken by the song of two yellow chorchas, orioles, at the window. Their beauty astounded me, since they have been gone since last year. I wasn't able to capture a photo of them but here's a photo of a small bird, the size of a chickadee,  that I saw this morning. 

As I continued to pray, my reading on the scripture of the day focused on the text from Deuteronomy 30: 15-20:

I set before you: life and blessing, death and curse…. Choose life.

I would be preaching later and focused on the two paths before us – life and blessing, death and curse. I had no idea that I would see glimpses of both.

Padre German had invited me to accompany him in visits to the sick as well as two Masses. He asked me to preach at both.

I arrived at the parish about 8:30 am and we went in search of three sick persons who were in need of a pastoral visit. We only visited one – since the other two had gone to the hospital, because of the severity of their situation.

We visited a very thin elderly woman, confined to her bed, and after prayer, she received communion. The house was simple and the woman was being cared for by a relative.

We then returned to the parish where we met a couple with their six-month old child who was very ill. I had met the couple and the child on Sunday at Mass and noted the yellowish complexion of the child. The child had been in a San Pedro hospital for a few weeks but was still ill. In fact, the parents were so worried that they brought the child to be baptized.

Padre German baptized and confirmed the baby in a moving ceremony, where the child was laid on a mattress to ease the pain in his body. Tears flowed as the child was welcomed into the community of faith.

I found out later that the mother had had a medical condition during pregnancy which could have been cured but the medicine was unavailable in Honduras. The result is a gravely ill child whose survival is in question.

After the baptism we headed to Plan de Naranjo, one of the most remote aldeas (villages) in the parish. The last part of the trip was treacherous as Padre maneuvered the pick-up on roads – If you can call them that – with deep ruts and potholes, some at least a foot deep. I had visited the community in December 2015 and it had been a poor road but this was many times worse – the result of the lack of attention by the municipal authorities.

There was a small group at Mass. After Mass we headed to the nearby village of Joyas Galanas. But on the way we stopped at the site of the house of one of the women at Mass. The house had collapsed last November, with her inside, during one of the intense rainy weeks. It may have been a landslide but there also seems to have been a geological fault that went for at least a kilometer, down the hill and up the next hill. It was a devastating sight.

Her family is rebuilding at another nearby site, further down the road. When we approached the house, her father-in-law came out to greet us from the house just up from theirs. One of his eyes was gone and the empty socket was surrounded by flesh and scabs. He had lost the eye when working in a coffee field. He had not gone to a hospital – because he was afraid to go there. I think that he was afraid that he would not get out of there alive. Padre talked with him and we hope to take him to the hospital sometime soon so as to prevent gangrene and diminish the terrible condition of the wound and his skin. Often people don’t trust the public health facilities. This is not unrealistic, since they are often poorly staffed and have little or no medicine, because of government neglect.

Then we headed to Joyas Galanas – gratefully the road was a little better than the roads closer to Plan de Naranjo.

Almost no one knew about the Mass. A message had been sent but not delivered. So we went to see an eighty-nine year old man who was gravely ill.

He lived with his common law wife, a daughter, and a grandson in a small dirt-floor shack with plastic table cloths lining the wooden walls to try to keep out the cold air.

Padre prayed and anointed him. The man was hardly responsive when Padre asked him if he repented his sins.

We soon learned that his wife and he were not married in the church. He had been widowed and then he and his current wife moved in together and had several children. Three survived – nine others died, some from measles! Padre questioned the woman if she wanted to get married to him. She was somewhat hesitant – perhaps thinking that she couldn’t because he had been married beforehand. However, Padre explained that this was not a problem since the previous wife died.

Padre then questioned them if they loved each other and wanted to be married. It was touching listening to them respond; I could see their love for each other. Padre then heard the woman’s confession and the wedding began.

She sat on the side of the bed as they were questioned about their commitment. They even exchanged rings. She took off one of her rings and put it on his little finger (since the ring finger joint was so inflamed that the ring didn’t fit.)

I stood there with one of the daughters and her son. I explained to the grandchild how significant this was – his grandparents were getting married. Yesterday was the day of friendship (as they call St. Valentine’s Day here), but today is the day of love, expressed in the commitment of his grandparents. He got it. His mother, who seemed rather timid, stood there, watching her parents’ marriage, visibly moved. Tears welled up in me as I witnessed their marriage vows.

We left and then returned to Dulce Nombre. There we stopped to greet a ninety-one year old man who had four heart attacks and had spent time in a San Pedro hospital. He was incredibly lucid, sitting on the porch of his rather nice house.

Then I came home.

I needed some time to process the day and went to the Holy Hour (but tuned out the prayers being said). I prayed evening prayer and reviewed the day.

When I entered, one young man in his late teens was sitting in one of the last pews. By the time the Holy Hour ended, there were five young men in their teens in the last pews, praying.

Life and blessing, death and curse.

I saw life – the love between the old couple, the love of the couple with their gravely ill child, people caring for ill and aged persons.

I was the blessing, most of all in the six sacraments what were celebrated today.

I saw death – gravely ill people, including an infant and two aged persons.

I saw the curse of neglected villages, poor medical assistance, and more.

But I also saw people choosing life – from the warm care that Padre German showed to the ill to the people who were caring for those who were ill.

 In this situation, where death and curse seem to abound, I want to choose life.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Male contraceptives in Honduras

A short article in La Prensa on February 2, 2018, noted that the first lot of 10,000 male contraceptive vaccines had arrived in a San Pedro Sula hospital. Does this help the poor and especially poor women?

I have very mixed feelings about contraceptives, which are too complicated to explain in a blog post. But this is not a post about the ethics of artificial contraceptives. (Please use another forum to debate these issues.)

It’s not that I am opposed to careful and thoughtful limitation of children. The Catholic Church, though opposed officially to the use of artificial contraceptives, is not opposed to limitation.

Though I am an only child, I wonder whether many efforts to limit the number of children in the first world is due to a fear of scarcity and a desire for an all too comfortable life for children. I do have some serious questions about the desire to have tiny families, especially when it is connected with maintaining a standard of living which most of the world cannot afford.

Many of the people around me here in Plan Grande have between three and six children. But I do know of families with ten or more. But I also remember when I began to work in Iowa in 1983 that I met a few university students who were one of more than ten children in their family. I remember one family of 18 children. The common element was that the families, in Honduras and in Iowa, grow up in the countryside, where children can be an asset, not a threat to family finances.

But the second paragraph of the article is what alerted me to what I feel may be something very subtly insidious, which is symptomatic of serious problems here in Honduras.
Asimismo informó: serán prioridad los hombres que tengan demandas alimenticias (embargos) luego todo aquel que ya tenga más de 5 hijos, concluyendo con los que tengan ingresos abajo del salario mínimo.
“The priority will be men who have nutritional demands (indigestion), then all who already have five children, and finally those who have income less that minimal salary.”

The poor will, supposedly, benefit. And society will have fewer poor children, fewer mouths to feed, fewer demands on the societal evil of the concentration of wealth and power in a minority. (Honduras has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the world.) There will be fewer poor and the super-rich can continue to eat and control as much as they want.

There is also another insidious element. In a macho culture, where rape, sexual violence, and marital rape are not uncommon, this is another way to let the male off the hook. He can have sex without consequences (children); he can use women without having to be responsible for his deeds (no children possible).

Something is very wrong. In my mind, discrimination against the poor, social inequality, machismo, and male irresponsibility are being furthered by this type of publicity for male contraceptives.

These and other evils won’t be solved by prohibitions of this new contraceptive. A real societal change is necessary.

I have seen the roots of this. The other day I came across a couple getting married. They have one child together but she has two other children from a man she lived with for a while. The husband is accepting and supporting these two children as his own, since their father doesn’t. This is a sign of hope amid the irresponsibility of some males.

But much more in needed – most of all a change of conscience in the rich and in men, together with a change in laws and customs that denigrate women and the poor.

Now that would be a good Lenten penitential practice.


Note: I translated embargos as indigestion, though I'm not sure that this is accurate.