Friday, April 07, 2023

How can I preach the Passion among the poor?

This afternoon I will go to an aldea where I have often spent Good Friday, Debajiados.
To get there you have to go up a mountain and then down the other side. It’s about 50 minutes from here in Plan Grande and so I asked a neighbor to help with the driving. 

It is a small poor remote community that at this point does not have a Delegate of the Word to lead celebrations (though there is one in formation.) There was a young man who was in formation to be a communion minister, but he died of pneumonia, leaving his wife and four kids. Recently, the only delegate suddenly left the community,

But they are trying to live their faith. A young woman is in formation to become a catechist. Two young men (including the oldest son of the man who died of pneumonia) were confirmed this past February. 

I visited several times before I was ordained a deacon, the first time on a rainy December Sunday, going down to the church – on a “macho”. The second time, Good Friday, 2016, I took communion to a couple who lived far from the church, riding on a donkey.
I also helped with the funeral of a young girl from the community, accompanying the community to Mass and burial in a village the other side of the mountain. 

How to preach here is a serious question. 

As I prayed this morning one image came to me – suggested by the first two readings of the Good Friday Liturgy: the powerful fragility of Jesus crucified, the weakness of the Cross. 

Is there any image that better reflect the sad reality of the poor and that also give hope by reminding us of the transformative power of the Cross of Jesus and the resurrected Jesus, with his wounds?
from Esquipulas

This image of the suffering God reminds us that Jesus identified himself with the suffering and when we look on the faces of the poor we are looking on the faces of Christ Jesus who suffered and died with and for us. 

Many years ago I learned a famous crucifixion retablo of Mathias Grüenwald in the chapel of a hospital of people suffering from a disease that felt pustules on the skin. Jesus on the cross bears the same wounds.

There are other images of the crucified Christ identified with the suffering and persecuted. Most notable is Marc Chagall's the White Crucifixion where Jesus identifies with the Jews suffering pogroms in Russia. 

There is also Fritz Eichenberg's The Black Crucifixion

All these point to the reality of the identification of God with the suffering of this world.

This is very clear in the Holy Week liturgies. 

As Saint Óscar Romero, reflecting on the Suffering Servant Songs in Isaiah that we have been hearing this week.
The Servant of Yahweh is so closely identified with the people that biblical interpreters cannot really tell whether the Servant of Yahweh announced by Isaiah is the suffering people or the Christ who comes to redeem them.
Jon Sobrino, SJ, Salvadoran theologian and friend of Monseñor Romero, also notes this identification. of the crucified Christ and the crucified of this world.
The crucified peoples of the world are today’s Suffering Servant, innocent but hidden away, “though he had done no wrong nor spoken any falsehood.” If the Servant does not merit such treatment, then it means that we have unjustly inflicted it on him: “He was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins.” The Suffering Servant proclaims the truth about the crucified people, and the truth about their executioners. In the crucified people, we can and must see ourselves. As in an inverted mirror, we can see who and what we truly are by looking at what we have produced. Today the crucified people embody the scandalous and prophetic presence of Jesus among us.
So, what can I do today but remind the people (and myself) that we have a God who suffers with us so that suffering can be transformed by the power of God – both in our personal lives and in our world.

Wednesday, April 05, 2023

An Ignatian contemplation of the Easter Vigil

Yesterday, at the end of the retreat with those who will be baptized at the Easer Vigil, I briefly explained the Vigil liturgy. 


THE LITURGY OF THE LIGHT will begin a few blocks from the church with the blessing of the Easter Fire and the Paschal candle. The community will then process to the church behind the candle, where we will hear the praise of God – in the prayer of the Paschal Candle.

THE LITURGY OF THE WORD will follow with all the readings, with sung responses, culminating with the Gospel of the Resurrection.

THE LITURGY OF BAPTISM will begin after the homily, with the Litany of the Saints, remembering how we are surrounded by millions of witnesses of the Risen Lord. Then the water will be blessed, the elect will renounce Satan profess their faith, and they will be baptized – bathed with the water of baptism. 

THE LITURGY OF THE EUCHARIST will follow with the first communion of the newly baptized. 

I didn’t try to explain everything because I wanted them to be surprised, delighted, awed by what we are experiencing in the Vigil. 


But I did tell them to pay attention. I told them to be attentive with their whole being, to be especially attentive to their feelings. 

I used the questions suggested by Saint Ignatius: 
What do I see?
What do I hear?
What do I smell?
What do I taste?
What do I feel – with my body and with my spirit? 

I did not tell them what to expect but told them to be present to what is happening in them, around them, and between them.

Here are my first thoughts about what we might sense as we live through the Vigil, contemplating the presence of the Risen Lord in our midst.

What do I see in the Vigil? The Easter Fire, the Paschal Candle, the gathering space illuminated with the lighted candles of the faithful, and more.

What do I hear? The crackling of the fire, the Exultet, the readings, the songs, the Alleluia, and more. 

What do I smell? The burning wood and candles, the aromatic Chrism, and more. 

What do I taste? The Body and Blood of Christ, and more.

What do I feel? The water flowing over the bodies of the baptized, the anointing with the Chrism, the company of hundreds of people around the altar, and more.

What do I sense with my spirit? A beginning, a new life, and more, especially the presence of God.

Simone Weil once wrote that. “[the] faculty of attention […when] directed toward God, is the very substance of prayer.” 

 I pray that those to be baptized and I may be attentive to God at the Vigil and throughout our lives.

Preparing the catechumens for the Easter Vigil

Yesterday we had a retreat for those who will be baptized in the Easter Vigil together with their godparents.

In previous years, the “elect” – as the catechumens are “called” after the beginning of Lent – has their retreat in their villages. But in some places, there is only one person and I thought it would be better if we experienced the retreat as a community.

Since I am trying to conserve my energy, I asked one of the Oblatas al Divino Amor (Oblates of the Divine Love) in our parish as well as a Dulce Nombre catechist who is also one of the parish secretaries. I was so glad to have Sister Gabi and Elias help (since I had moments during the retreat where I experienced my vulnerability and weakness.)

In the retreat we reflected on baptism and the mercy of God as well as the Eucharist and Confirmation. I also did a short review of what would happen at the Vigil. 

I also led the community in the rite of anointing the elect with the oil of the catechumens.

When we baptize infants and young children, we anoint them in the chest, by the heart. Since many are adolescent girls, I decided to anoint them in the palms, which is an option. There was at least one older man whose palms had been hardened by years of hard work in the fields. What a privilege to anoint his hands and the hands of the others, asking God to give them the strength to live the baptism they were going to receive.

We have thirty-eight “elect,” including fourteen who are eighteen or older. But the majority are between fourteen and seventeen, young people who have decided to be baptized.

We do have baptisms and baptismal preparation for children under seven. Parents and god-parents come together in groups in the villages for five sessions and a retreat. 

There is also a year-long baptismal preparation for children between 7 and 13, with all the formation done in the villages.

We also have the catechumenate for those who are fourteen and older. We are one of a few parishes in our diocese who do this with all the rites.

The custom here, until this year, was that those in the catechumenate would receive Baptism and Eucharist at the Vigil. Later they would incorporate into the preparation for confirmation with others in their community.

I really wanted the Easter Vigil to be a celebration of the full Initiation of adults into the community of faith with all three sacraments – Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. Father German, our pastor, and I approached the bishop and asked him to allow Father German to confirm those over eighteen. He agreed. (Those under eighteen will join other adolescents in their communities to prepare for confirmation. My hope is that they’ll form youth groups after confirmation.)

I am looking forward to the Easter Vigil – which is quite the liturgy here. (I include some photos from previous Easter Vigils.) 

We’ll begin with the blessing of the Easter Fire and the Paschal Candle, followed by a procession to the church.

This year, as last year, we’ll hold the vigil in our auditorium since not all those present will fit into the church.

When we arrive at the vigil site, we’ll pray the Easter Song of the Exultet. If I am up to it, I’ll try to chant it.

After this, we’ll have all the readings with the sung responses.

After the homily, we’ll celebrate the baptisms and the confirmations. We believe in having adequate signs and so the elect will be baptized and so the pastor uses a lot of water in the baptisms.

After the baptisms, Father German will confirm those over eighteen.

At the end of that liturgy, we will have the Prayers of the Faithful. Two of those baptized and confirmed will read the petitions, participating as full members of the community of faith.

One tradition here is that those receiving their first Communion, gather around the altar with a lit candle during the Eucharistic Prayer.

With Padre German, first communion includes reception under both species – the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. The newly-baptized will drink the Blood of Christ from the Chalice! 

To prepare them for this experience, I told them not to be afraid to take a real drink: they won’t get drunk with the Blood of Christ!

After the Easter Vigil liturgy, which will last at least five hours, there will be tamales and ticucos, as a way to celebrate together.

I look forward to the Vigil and hope and pray that I have the strength for the entire Vigil. 

I will take Sunday off, celebrating the Resurrection in the quiet of my home and garden. 

In other years I have gone to a distant village for an Easter Sunday Celebration of the Word with Communion, but I think it’s best this year to have a real “Sabbath rest.”

Saturday, April 01, 2023

Living the Holy Saturdays of our lives

Wednesday I had my third chemotherapy session. 

I got to the clinic about 7:15 am and began chemo at about 8 am. The transfusion was finished about 8 pm and I left the clinic at about 8:30 pm. I was able to sleep a good bit this time during the chemo and our pastor, Padre German, arrived about 3: 45and stayed till the bitter end. We talked and we even did some parish work. He even brought me dinner!

But I was also able to read. God seems to be guiding my reading. (I also am grateful for Kindle.) This month two books have sustained me and helped me to live my treatments and my live with cancer with faith, hope, and love. Tomáš Halík’s Touch the Wounds: On Suffering, Trust, and Transformation, was first published in 2003 but just now translated into English. Sheila Cassidy’s Sharing the Darkness: The Spirituality of Caring, was published in 1988. 

About a week ago, I opened Seeing with the Heart: A Guide to Navigating Life's Adventures, by Kevin O’ Brien, SJ, part of which I read that afternoon. 

O’Brien has a section entitled “Not Rushing Easter,” exploring the experience of Holy Saturday. It was exactly what I needed to read.

I have been fascinated by Holy Saturday for almost all my adult years. 

In the Creed we profess that Jesus descended into Hell, a reference to his joining the faithful who had died before him. This is what many icons depict. But the moving image painted by Fra Angelico is found in the Saint Mark Monastery in Florence.

In 1955 Pope Pius XII restored the ancient tradition of celebrating the Easter Vigil after sunset on Holy Saturday.

For centuries, the Easter Vigil had been celebrated on Holy Saturday morning, called in many parts of Latin America “Sábado de Gloria,” “The Saturday of the Gloria,” probably because this was the first time since Lent when the Gloria was sung except for feasts and the Holy Thursday Mass.

Since 1955, Holy Saturday has been a day without Mass, a day with the church stripped bare (after the Good Friday liturgy), a time for morning and waiting.

This is very appropriate, because after Jesus was buried without all the religious rites of his faith, the women waited out the Sabbath, the day of rest. They went to the tomb on Sunday morning and became messengers of the Risen Lord.

Fr. Damasus Winzen, OSB, the founder of Mount Saviour, wrote a short pamphlet in 1957 on Holy Saturday, “The Great Sabbath Rest.”

I have written on this essay several times, here and here, but Fr. Damasus points to the challenge of Holy Saturday in his first paragraph:
Among the many blessings offered through the restoration of Holy Week is the pause of Holy Saturday. Since the Paschal Vigil has been moved back to its original place in the Easter night, Holy Saturday has become for the great majority a day without any liturgy. To people of the western hemisphere [rather, the northern hemisphere], always active and wanting to be kept busy, a day with nothing is a frightening prospect. Many may be inclined to consider a day without Mass and without communion a loss to their spiritual life.… 
Fr. Kevin O’Brien, SJ, reflecting on his personal experience, notes the importance of living the Holy Saturday moments of our lives:
Whether experienced after the death of a loved one or because of another loss, our suffering usually includes some form of loneliness or emptiness. Some years ago, I left a ministry I loved, and experienced a deep loneliness in the months of transition. Surely the loneliness was tied to the sadness of leaving friends I’d grown close to, but it was more than that. There was a stripping away of identity: a familiar role, a record of accomplishment, a comfortable routine—all those things we can rely on too heavily for a sense of self-worth. For me, this time in my life was a “Holy Saturday moment.” In the Catholic liturgy, Holy Saturday is the day after Good Friday and before Easter Sunday. Churches are left bare. No Mass is celebrated. Quiet pervades. (p. 144)
Sometimes I just want to jump over Good Friday and Holy Saturday to get to Easter. But, as Fr. O’Brien notes:
Enduring the pain of our Good Fridays or the emptiness of our Holy Saturdays is not easy. The temptation to run away, to anesthetize or insulate ourselves from the pain, is understandable but not helpful in the end. Although we should avoid unnecessary suffering, we do well to tend to, even befriend, our suffering. (p. 145)
Many times, I want the chemo to end as soon as possible so I can return to normal. (But then I remember Bruce Cockburn’s song, “The Trouble with Normal is that it always gets worse.”) 

How then to live in Holy Saturday? 

That may be my Holy Week question. 

Yet, God at times sends us messages to help us live in faith and hope. On March 30, the anniversary of the 1990 death of Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA, I encountered again his amazing quote – which now makes complete sense to me:
"When I first found out I had cancer, I didn’t know what to pray for. I didn’t know if I should pray for healing or life or death. Then I found peace in praying for what my folks call 'God’s perfect will.' As it evolved, my prayer has become, 'Lord, let me live until I die.' By that I mean I want to live, love, and serve fully until death comes. If that prayer is answered . . . how long really doesn’t matter. Whether it’s just a few months or a few years is really immaterial."
Lord, let me live until I die.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023


I am in San Pedro Sula today, preparing for my third round of chemotherapy treatments. But the last four days have been adventuresome.


Friday was the feast of Saint Óscar Romero, bishop and martyr of El Salvador. This year there was a major celebration in the aldea of El Zapote Santa Rosa in our parish.
A young man in the community, Darling, is a grand devotee of Monseñor Romero and arranged the Mass with people in their village.
The church was packed. Darling and his brother Ronal provided the music.
We sang the Misa Popular Salvadoreña, a quite intense Mass composed by Guillermo Cuellar. We even sang the grand Gloria which Romero mentioned in his last Sunday homily, with these intense verses.
Pero los dioses del poder y del dinero 
se oponen a que haya transfiguración. 
Por eso ahora vos, Señor, sos el primero 
en levantar tu brazo contra la opresión. 
But the gods of power and wealth 
oppose the Transfiguration. 
Therefore, you, Lord, are now the first  
to lift up your arm against oppression.
This Gloria reflects the central role of the Transfiguration of the Lord in El Salvador, whose national feast day is August 6, the feast of the Transfiguration. 

I think that there is also a subtle – or not so subtle – reference to the statue of the Divine Savior in the Plaza El Salvador del Mundo in San Salvador...
... and perhaps a hint of the revolutionary raising of the fist against oppression. Note this image of Mary of the Magnificat.
It was a good afternoon and I even had the privilege to preach at the Mass.

Saturday, Padre German had a Mass for pregnant women in Dulce Nombre. I had forgotten about this and so didn’t attend. This was probably for the best since Sunday was busy. In addition, I had to work on the material for our parish stations of the cross.


Sunday was busy – but in a very positive way.

At 9 am I found myself in Vertientes, a mountain aldea.

They have nine young people preparing to be baptized at the Easter Vigil. It’s the largest group from a single village. Of these, five are eighteen or older.

This year we have permission from the bishop for the pastor to confirm those catechumens who are 18 or older at the Vigil. This is the tradition in most of the world, but until this year the catechumens only received the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist at the Vigil. Of the 38 or so catechumens, about 12 will be confirmed at the Vigil this year.

Since we have the catechumens in scattered villages, we try to do the major rites in the main church but we celebrate the scrutinies in the villages. It was with great joy that I could do it in Vertientes. 

But there was another special reason to be there.

One of the catechumens had missed the rite of inscription (or election) in Dulce Nombre on the first Sunday of Lent. This young man and his brother are both preparing for their baptism. Both have some intellectual deficiencies and the younger one sometimes has difficulty focusing. With great affection, I call him our lost sheep.

He came with the group from Vertientes for the rite of election, but he got lost and didn’t arrive at the church until the end of Mass.

When I went to Vertientes the next Sunday, I met him on his way to Dulce Nombre; he seems to have had no sense that I would be there for the rite. In fact, the next day he showed up in Dulce Nombre for a meeting that had nothing to do with the catechumens.

This Sunday, though, he was there. His presence, and the efforts made to include him make real for me Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep.

After the Celebration, I headed home for a few hours before heading out to San Agustín for Mass. 

There also I celebrated the rite of election with a young man who had also missed the rite in Dulce Nombre. (Some liturgists might not approve of all this, but we have to respond to the pastoral needs of people of all types in all types of situations.) 

When I arrived, I found that Padre German was hearing confessions. He is trying to visit all the communities to offer them opportunities for confession during Lent. The lines are often long, as they were in San Agustín.

Mass was supposed to start at 2 o’clock and he was still hearing confessions at 3 pm. 

So, he started Mass, handed over the Liturgy of the Word and the Scrutinies to me, and returned to hear confessions.

It was a great privilege to be able to pray the scrutinies another time – after leading the San Agustín community in the Celebration of the Word and sharing a homily with them. 

I was moved as I prayed, laying my hands on the heads of the three catechumens there in San Agustín.
Padre German emerged at the Offertory (even though there were still a few people waiting for confessions) and he finished the Mass. He’ll return to San Agustín on the morning of Wednesday in Holy Week for confessions for the sick and others.

After Mass, he had a Mass in Plan Grande in thanksgiving for someone’s safe return from abroad. I opted out since I was rather tired. I also had to prepare the texts for our parish Stations of the Cross this coming Friday.


Monday morning, I had to get lab tests in Santa Rosa to prepare for another chemotherapy session on Wednesday. I got there late – fasting.

After the test I went to a café to have breakfast. Even after eating I felt a little off and, as I put my computer in my backpack, I fainted. I recovered a bit with two large glasses of water and then decided just to sit and rest. 

All of a sudden, Padre Elias, a priest of the dioceses and director of the radio station, dropped in. The owner of the café had called him to tell him of my fainting. I am moved by her concern and the effort of Padre Elias to accompany me. 

So life goes on with many surprise blessings. 


Our parish stations of the cross in the streets of Dulce Nombre is Friday. Next week is full of Holy Week activities. 

I have to evaluate carefully with the pastor what I can do. I don’t want to do either too much or too little.

I have a retreat with the catechumens and their sponsors on Tuesday of Holy Week, but I am already working to involve two other persons in the retreat. (I’m finally learning to share responsibility.) 

There are lots of processions during Holy Week. I won’t be walking in them, though I will probably ride in the car that has the sound equipment and participate in the Masses after the Stations on Friday and on Palm Sunday and the Easter Vigil. 

It’s a great temptation to try to do too much – but learning to recognize my fragility is one of the most important lessons for me this Lent.

Pray for us, especially for the catechumens who will be baptized at the Easter Vigil. May we be signs of hope and resurrection for our parish, our nation, and the world.


Note: I refer to those who will be baptized at the Easter Vigil as "catechumens," even though they are, at this point really the "elect" - after the rite of election on the First Sunday of Lent.