Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ministry growth

I have been back in Honduras, now, for exactly two weeks and it feels as if I haven’t left. The pace of work has increased and should increase more but still at times I feel as if I have a lot of time on my hands. But in the few weeks that I was gone, some of the seeds I had helped plant were beginning to sprout.

Campus ministry in the Catholic University appears to be moving, thanks be to God. A few days after I arrived back, I met a student in the street and he told me that there were about five or six students who wanted to revive campus ministry. I've talked with most of them and the prospects appear good.

This week, on Wednesday, there will be a fogata – a bonfire on the university grounds at 8 pm. It will be accompanied by music, talks, a drama on the passage in John’s Gospel on the woman caught in adultery (John 8: 2-11). I met with a group of students on Monday to help organize the event. It appears that this will go well and will help campus ministry get a new start.

I also met with the director and three priests involved with the Catholic University. We'll be planning a retreat day for faculty members in late April. I think I also persuaded them to have two Masses in the afternoon, instead of all the Masses in morning when there are not many students here.

The university itself is growing. The Catholic University had its largest new class this January – 225 students. The university has three compulsory retreats, including one for new students. There were six of them this trimester, but I only helped with one of them this past Friday and Saturday. There are two retreats for students in the middle of their studies – Christian Maturity – scheduled for the next two weekends. I hope to help with one of them.

I have also been connecting with the parish of Dulce Nombre. Last Sunday I facilitated the first half of a retreat for pastoral workers in one of the zones of the parish. Almost 80 pastoral workers took part. I will help with the retreats for the other two zones of the parish the next two Fridays.

Last Sunday Fr. Efraín and I spoke briefly about the project of training people in some of the poorest communities to construct silos to store basic grains. We'll talk about this soon.

I also have twice gone to the kindergarten in Colonia Divina Providencia. They are building a small room onto the building so that they can get a second teacher to take the smallest students. This is desperately needed since there are now about 62 kindergarten students – 4 and 5 year olds with one teacher. Fortuitously, there are a number of Canadian volunteers here for about two months and some are helping with the kindergarten.

Monday I had the chance to spend an hour talking with the bishop. Monseñor Santos is always so gracious. We talked about many things, including the upcoming visit of five members of St. Thomas parish during Holy Week. He also told me that the comedor infantil – the lunch program for poor kids – may be closer to starting since they will soon be starting some modifications to the bishop’s office and living area to set aside a place for the comedor.

Things happen very slowly here – but at least some things are beginning to happen. Patience, John, and trust in the loving providence of God.

Monday, February 18, 2008


Last Tuesday, March 12, I arrived back in Honduras after three weeks in the US. I saw many friends and family members, though there were many I missed. It was a good visit, especially in terms of spreading the word about Honduras and the dioceses of Santa Rosa de Copán. I gave 21 talks or presentations in 22 days!

After a day of rest, I began to get back into contact with the areas of my ministry. Yet I don’t feel as if I have been away. The three weeks, though very important, are almost a dream – a very good one, in fact. But I feel at home.

In fact the week before I came back I began to feel homesick. As I sat at the Ash Wednesday service at a church in the Twin Cities, I really wished I were home, in Honduras, worshiping with communities here.

There are some things that I savored on the trip, including a meeting in the Twin Cities with former students who are now professionals or grad students that I wished could have lasted all night, but we had stop at 11 pm to travel an hour to where I would stay. I do miss those type of intense conversations, but Honduras is now, in a real sense, my home.

It helps that I got my carné, the card that says I am an official foreign resident on Honduras. But the people, the connections, and the hospitality that have made this a home for me.

And so I think of the passage I just read from Dorothy Day’s From Union Square to Rome:
Gratitude brought me into the Church and that gratitude grows, and the first word my heart will utter when I face God is "Thanks."
Gratitude brought me to Honduras and so I can say "Gracias a Dios!"

Into Great Silence

For some time I have wanted to see the movie The Great Silence, a two and a half hour glimpse into the lives of the monks of the Great Chartreuse in the French Alps. The Carthusians are one of the strictest orders – living in solitude, but with prayer and a weekly meal in common.

Yet this asceticism is not dour, nor is it world-denying. What impressed me about the film is the care the director, Philip Groning, took to show the details of the life of the monks – from the box of buttons in the tailor shop to the fruit that accompanied the simple meals the monks eat in their cells.

Groning paid particular attention to water –we see the monks dip their fingers in the holy water font at the entrance to the church; we hear the rain on the monastery roof; we even hear the monks during their weekly time to talk together discussing whether the custom of a ritualistic washing of hands before dinner should continue. The baptismal image is just under the surface – dying with Christ, we rise with him.

The film is deeply sacramental – as are the lives of the monks. All of creation can show the glory of God, from the incredible landscape surrounding the monastery to the drops of water on a plate that has just been washed.

Toward the end of the film the monks in choir are singing the “Benedicite,” the canticle of the three young men in the fiery furnace, in Daniel 3:52-88. All creation is called to bless the Lord – fire, water, whales, humans. Let all that is, bless the Lord.

If you have about three hours and want to experience a Lenten discipline of silence, take time to watch this film. And then take time to bless the Lord.

However, I was a little disappointed in two of the translations into English. The text of Jeremiah should read: “You seduced me, Lord, and I let myself be seduced.” The Gospel text should read, “No one who does not deny himself and follow me can be my disciple.” Minor details, in a film that is almost free of words.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Questions of Children

This past Wednesday, I had the opportunity to speak to the children of St. Cecelia school, the Catholic school in Ames that goes from kindergarten to fifth grade.

After a power point presentation that featured my ministry in Honduras, with lots of pictures of Honduran kids, there was a barrage of questions. Some of the questions were what you might expect from kid, like “Does it snow there?” But there were three very pointed questions.

One of the first questions came from a child who might have been in kindergarten: “Are you poor?”
“No, I’m not,” I responded, “though I do live on less than $500 a month for basic expenses.” I said a few more things, but I had told them that 64% of the people of Honduras have less than $2.00 available each day for their basic needs.

A little later an older girl asked me the most amazing question: “Why are the people poor?” I was floored. I told her that that was a great question and that she should continue to ask it all her life, starting with her current social studies teacher. I tried to explain a few of what I saw as causes of poverty but she left me almost tongue-tied.

Not to be outdone, an older boy asked me. “Why do the people not get more money for their crops?” I responded to him much as I had to the other student.

Out of the mouth of children came the most outstanding questions. I pray that they keep asking these questions and that adults start asking the same questions and keep their hearts open to the poor.
The Beatitudes

This weekend I will be sharing a reflection on the readings at Masses at St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center in Ames, Iowa. Here are my notes.

Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12-13
1 Corinthians 1:26-31
Matthew 5: 1-12

I bring you greetings of God’s love from Honduras.

My name is John Donaghy. Many of you know me but each year St. Thomas is blessed by hundreds of new faces. I served St. Thomas for almost 24 years as a campus ministry and in the parish’s justice and peace ministry.

Since June 2006 I have served as a lay missionary with the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán in southwestern Honduras. One of my responsibilities is to help facilitate the development of a relationship between St. Thomas and the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán. Bishop Luis Alfonso Santos has asked me to help in the campus ministry at the local branch of the Catholic University of Honduras; I also help with a rural parish, Dulce Nombre de Maria, and also help several small projects in Santa Rosa, a town of about 35,000.

Santa Rosa de Copán is a poor diocese in the third poorest country in Latin America, where about 64% of the people live with less than two dollars a day. In this mountainous area with 1 million Catholics, most of the people eke out their existence farming corn and beans, often on marginal land. The diocese has about 50 priests serving these million Catholics, and the bishop struggles to find funds for his seminarians and to provide for the priest medical insurance.

But the people are not left without nourishment in their faith: there are hundreds of people involved in ministries in the church. Many people with less than six years of schooling evangelize their communities. In the rural parish where I help there are over 200 catechists and almost all of the villages have local people who serve on pastoral teams and lead celebrations of the Word on Sundays. There are also 230 base communities in the parish – weekly meetings of people to share the Word of God in small groups.

These people with their faith and their commitment challenge us. As Paul wrote to the
Corinthians, I have seen that
“God has chosen the foolish of the world to shame the wise,
and God has chosen the weak of the world to shame the strong,
and God chose the lowly and despised of the world,
those who count for nothing…”

I would like to suggest that they can teach us what the Beatitudes mean.

A few years ago there was a major controversy in this country about the display of the ten commandments in public places. At least one person, though, wondered why no one ever wanted to post the Beatitudes in our courthouses and schools.

Think about it. The Ten Commandments were given to Moses by the Lord on Mount Sinai. But Jesus, the Lord himself, gave the beatitudes to his disciples on a mountain in Galilee. He wanted to tell them what the Kingdom of God looks like. He challenged them to live the beatitudes, to live the kingdom of Heaven. It is not insignificant that the first and the eighth beatitudes tell us that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor in spirit and those who are persecuted for the sake of justice.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The Lord is speaking about he poor. I have heard two very provocative renderings of this beatitude: blessed are those who have the spirit of the poor – or, blessed are the poor with spirit, the poor who are infused with the Spirit of God – a spirit of receptiveness to God’s Word and to God’s people. I think of the woman who once a month walks three hours to get to the parish council meeting in the parish of Dulce Nombre de María., or the man who walks four hours. They have the spirit not only to walk those six hours but to work in their communities to bring to them the light of God’s kingdom. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. I think of Bishop Santos. he speaks out forthrightly against corruption and against the systems that keep people poor. He hopes to set up programs to help the poor, including a lunch program for street kids and other poor kids in the town of Santa Rosa. He has spoken out very courageously against open pit mining which extracts gold to the enrichment of the owners, which damages the environment and pays a bare 1% in taxes. For his outspokenness the bishop has been defamed and has received death threats. Persecuted, the kingdom of heaven is his.

Blessed are the merciful. I think of three Spanish Franciscan sisters who live on the street where I live. They help in a kindergarten in a poor neighborhood and have invited me to come and help once a week; they work with a school program for children with special needs; they teach reading and math to illiterate prisoners and have helped to set up a carpentry shop in the regional jail. Sor Inez, under 5 feet tall and in her seventies, works with a very poor neighborhood in the city and hopes to find enough funds to help them build a community center so they have a place where they can have workshops for parents, literacy programs for mothers, play and educational programs for kids. They are the merciful.

Blessed are the pure in heart. I believe that Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, wrote that “purity of heart is to will one thing.” I think of Father Fausto Milla, an 80 year old Honduran priest who celebrates Sunday Mass in the chapel near my home in Santa Rosa. He is a man of deep piety but also a prophet who had to leave Honduras for several years in the 1980s after he was jailed for his advocacy for the poor. In exile in Mexico he learned about natural medicine and the importance of a healthy diet. And so while proclaiming the need to pray he also preaches about the need for justice for the poor. He also urges people to give up pop and chips for a healthy diet. He is among the pure of heart.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Hunger and thirst for righteousness – hungering that people are right with God and right with their neighbors, thirsting that people are justified in the face of God and are treated justly. For the word used in this beatitude for righteousness can also be translated as justice. For love of God and love of neighbor cannot be separated. As Pope Benedict wrote in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est – God is Love,
If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God. But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be “devout” and to perform my “religious duties”, then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely “proper”, but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbor and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well.
(Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, ¶18)
Here I think of Father Efraín Romero, the pastor of Dulce Nombre de María. He has been in the parish less than a year but he has great dreams for the parish and is helping the parish council and the many people involved in the parish work together to respond to the spiritual and material needs of the people in the parish. The parish will be working in several agricultural projects this year to help the people get enough to eat. There is a training program for 77 people in family gardening and natural medicine. he and I have also been talking about a project to help people learn to build silos to store basic grains – corn and bean – so that people can store what they need for the year and don’t have to sell their crops at low prices only to have to buy corn and beans at inflated prices when their food supply runs out. He also is initiating an ambitious program in religious education for the parish, providing training for the more than 200 catechists and getting books for the nearly 3000 children in the first four levels of the religious education classes in the rural villages. He truly has a deep desire to help the people grow in their faith in God and also live dignified lives. He hungers and thirst for justice and righteousness, in all their dimensions. And he will be satisfied.

And in a few ways this hunger is beginning to be filled. Money which has been donated from the parish and many individuals was used to buy the books for the catechists. And I pray that your generosity may continue to help meet the needs of the parish of Dulce Nombre de María and the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán.

I have also heard how the generosity of many in St. Thomas is working to satisfy the thirst of people in a village of Sudan. Your participation in the Lenten Rice Bowl program is another way you are doing this.

What we should all be trying to do is to live the beatitudes – in our lives and in solidarity with all the poor of the world, whether in Ames, in Sudan and Uganda, or in the poor diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán in Honduras where I serve. And thus we will begin to show the world that the Kingdom of God is already in some small ways in our midst and that the fulfillment of that kingdom will come by God’s hand – together with ours.

And so we can pray and act today as we shall soon pray in the words that Jesus gave us – Our Father,… Your Kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven.