Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"When the bishop comes"

There is a saying in some parts of Latin America, to indicate that something will almost never happen, “cuando venga el Obispo – when the bishop comes.” Many Catholics in remote areas almost never saw their bishop in their towns and villages.

But here in the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán, Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos, makes the effort to get out to the remote parishes and the people know and recognize him.

The bishop invited me to come with him for a few days to visit the southern part of the department [state] of Intibucá, one of the poorest areas of Honduras.

After 5 hours on buses from Gracias, Lempira, to La Esperanza, Intibucá, and then over rough dirt roads from there to southern Intibucá, I arrived in Camasca about 2 pm on December 26 . The colonial church in Camasca, dedicated to the apostle Saint James - Santiago Apostól, dates from the 1550s.

The bishop had confirmed several hundred young people that day in the towns of Magdalena and Santa Lucía. On December 27 he confirmed about 172 young people, mostly between 12 and 17 in Camasca. The celebration was very impressive - the young people in white shirts or blouses and black pants or skirts accompanied by their parents and sponsors. It gave me great joy to see a young man with Downs Syndrome among those being confirmed.

Monseñor Santos, despite the long schedule of the day before and the terrible dirt roads over which he had traveled, lead the celebration with a lot of energy. He is an educator and motivator at heart and encouraged the young people to respond with gusto to the responses at Mass and to sing energetically the songs – often with a theme of liberation.

His homily – somewhat stream of consciousness – was filled with gems. He strongly affirmed the dignity of the human person, especially the poor, encouraging them to see that their dignity does not come from what they have but from being children of God.

He spoke of the need for those who were confirmed to be witnesses in their country, their villages, their families. He urged them to know the Constitution of Honduras and suggested that this be one of the themes that should be part of the preparation for confirmation. He specifically referred to article 2 (“The sovereignty belongs to the people…”) and article 3 (“No one owes obedience to a usurper government nor to those who assume functions or public jobs by the force of arms or using media or procedures that violate … this Constitution and the laws. The acts verified by such authorities are null and void….”)

He clearly sees the de facto government as a usurper government. (Many people in this part of Honduras agree with him - and not only the poor.) The bishop noted that Honduras is governed by irresponsible persons of two main political parties that are virtually the same and who have maintained the people in misery.

On December 28, I went with Padre Rigoberto, the pastor of the parish of Camasca, to visit two villages as well as to check on the preparations for an ordination of a young priest on Wednesday, December 30, in the town of San Antonio, near the border with El Salvador. The land is beautiful, though there is a lot of deforestation.

The one village, San Francisco in the municipality [roughly, a county] of San Antonio. It is one hour by car from San Antonio (which is about an our from Camasca.) When we got there, we found out that we had to walk 30 minutes to the site of the Mass. They had brought a horse and offered it to me, but I told the priest to take it (since I thought it was best he arrived fresh at the Mass.) But he insisted that I ride back to the truck on the horse. It was getting dark and was glad to ride the horse since we traveled half the time following a stream and the last ten minutes was up hill! I had taken a picture of the priest on the horse but it was too dark to take one of me. The next time I have the opportunity, I'll be sure take a photo so that you’ll be able to see me, a horseback rider!

We didn’t leave San Francisco until about 7 pm, because one of the tires on the truck was going flat. The priest had to borrow a tire from someone in the village. Then we stopped in San Antonio to check out the site of the ordination and encourage the people working on the preparations. On the way to San Francisco we had stopped where they were preparing the meal, by killing three large cattle which were all donated! We went to one of the slaughter sites in the field behind a house. (My vegetarianism was reconfirmed.)

We got back in Camasca a little after 10 pm. It was a long, but good day to see people who live their faith and struggle to live decent lives.

The people in this region are isolated. The road from La Esperanza is poor – and there is only a wooden plank bridge to cross the Rio Negro to get to the southern part of the department. There is no gas station nearby and so they have to bring in gas from La Esperanza, three hours away by bus. Someone sought to set up a gas station here in Camasca but was refused permission. Why? I don’t know.

What I noted as I traveled on the bus is that in the southern region of Intibucá they plant a lot of sorghum, which they use for animal feed as well as for tortillas. I’ve tasted a few sorghum tortillas and they are quite bitter. I think sorghum is raised in places where the soil is not good enough to raise corn! Of course, most of the sorghum is planted on the sides of hills.

Tomorrow, Wednesday, I’ll be off to the ordination in the town of San Antonio. The Mass and ordination will be held in an area at the edge of town. Interestingly, it is at the site of a refugee camp for Salvadorans fleeing their war in the 1980s.

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