Saturday, April 25, 2009

Visiting Ames

My intention has been to visit Ames about once a year. However, I’m now in Ames, with Father Efraín Romero, the priest I work with in Caritas and in the parish of Dulce Nombre. We in the midst of a quick trip to the US, visiting the Washington area and Iowa for the sake of making contacts, exploring possibilities of collaboration, and searching out possible sources of financing for major projects.

But this time in Ames has been very nourishing for my soul. Thursday night Father Efraín preached at Thursday Night Liturgy, the 10 pm Mass for students at St. Thomas Aquinas Church. I learned that the Service and justice team had won a local award for youth volunteerism and that a member of the team had gotten an ISU scholarship for service.

Shari Reilly, the director of campus ministry, had invited Father Efraín and me to go with a group of students to the Emergency Residence Project, the Ames shelter for the homeless. The dedication of the students really impressed Father Efraín and I had a chance to reconnect with the ERP director Vic Moss and Troy who also works there. Again it’s amazing to see how the students gave of themselves. I also was reminded of the great dedication of people like Vic and Troy to the lowly of the earth.

Saturday we went to Des Moines to meet with Casey, who had been a Peace Corps worked in Father Efraín’s former parish in Honduras. Casey wants to get his church to get involved in helping in Honduras. They will consider a proposal to help reconstruct one of the churches in the parish of Dulce Nombre. What surprised Father Efraín was the fact that this was a Protestant Chruch – from the Disciples of Christ denomination – which was willing to consider rebuilding a Catholic Church. Such ecumenism is almost impossible to find in Honduras.

Saturday night Father Efraín and I were invited to the dinner at St. Thomas for graduating seniors. It was delightful to see these young people finishing up an important part of their lives. It was even a great pleasure to run across a student I had once taught in a Catholic Social Thought class at Iowa State University about four years ago.

But for me the highlight was to witness the presentation of a 2000 ISU grad , Paxton Williams, which featured a dramatization of George Washington Carver. I saw one of the first presentations he did in 2000 as his senior honors project. He did a marvelous job bearing witness to the legacy of George Washington Carter and the inspiring and thought-provoking witness of Carver’s life.

It’s a blessing to be here – my second home. (Honduras is my first home now.)

Thursday, April 23, 2009


It's officially summer - the dry season - in Honduras. In Santa Rosa it has hardly rained and so my street and much of the country are full of dust. Sometimes I feel as if I am eating dust.

It's also been fairly hot - some days in the high eighties.

But on a visit to the countryside last week I noticed that the coffee trees were starting to bloom. The white flowers are beautiful and give off a fragrance that has reminded me of honeysuckle.

Tuesday, on the way to San Pedro Sula by bus, I noticed the flowering trees. The acacia, called the arbol de fuego - the fire tree 0r flame tree, with its beautiful red flowers. Several other trees with varied hues of red or purple. I have even seen some with yellow blossoms.

It's amazing that with all the dryness and dust, the trees are showing off myriad colors. What a joy.

On Wednesday Father Efraín Romero and I arrived in Washington, DC, for a few visits before going to Iowa. The dogwoods and a pink tree were in flower.

We'll see what Iowa has in store for us.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

What’s to be done?

In the face of so much poverty people often ask, what’s to be done? Often we want simple answers to quickly get rid of poverty and hunger – perhaps so we don’t have to face need in their lives and ours. A magic wand would be nice, but we have to work with real people whose lives are often quite difficult.

But there are small efforts being made here in Honduras.

Wednesday I accompanied two CARITAS workers to the village of San José Quelacasque in the municipality of Gracias, Lempira.

The village is way off the road and only the careful and ingenious driving skills of Manuel enable us to get to the village, over rocky paths which were, in many places, barely wide enough for a car to get through. This is like many other remotely scattered villages in this part of Honduras. Many of them, though, can only be accessed on foot (or horse).

Norma has been working with the community for a year and a half to help organize the community to deal with natural disasters, since the area is subject to landslides during the rainy season. Much of the work is to get the people to organize themselves, to develop plans of development and action in order to confront their problems. One of their projects for disaster prevention will be setting up a nursery and reforesting the area to prevent further erosion and landslides.

This meeting was to introduce the people to participative practices of monitoring and evaluating projects. These were hard concepts for many of the people. Not only are the concepts somewhat foreign – and the explanations not always expressed all that simply. (Which is harder since many in the community have less than a six grade education and I would guess that about 30% are illiterate.) But fifty people took part – in a village with 71 families.

Usually only 20 to 30 show up but more came today because Manuel was going to explain about a new program that CARITAS was offering for 40 families in the village. Many of the people here had lots crops due to a major storm that hit Honduras last October – called “tormenta #16”. Caritas España is funding a one year project to help them catch up after the loss.

The chosen families will get seeds for half a manzana (about .83 acres) as well as fertilizer) They will have to pay back the costs of the fertilizer, without interest, with either cash or crops. But 3% of the payment will go to the local parish for the project and 3% will return to the village for further agricultural projects.

To help decide what families will benefit and how the money will be used, a board of directors was elected. They will pass out the application forms to the families chosen.

It was interesting to watch the process and to listen to the questions. The first one was whether there really was no interest for the seeds. They are so used to outrageous rates of interest and so this was a relief (and also a practice of biblical economics!) The other question was whether the families had to be Catholic. Manuel explained that the criteria for benefits were based on need, not religion. I could almost hear the sigh of relief as this was explained. There is so much competition and bad faith between Catholics and evangelicals in many places. Thank God the program won’t acerbate the divide.

As I left some asked me whether I’d be back. I will probably go in a few months to see what advances there have been, since this is part of my ministry as associate director of Caritas.

But I left with a sense that some thing good was happening there. But we need to find ways to expand this.

For this purpose Father Efraín Romero, the director of Caritas, and I will be going to the US next week to connect with persons and groups that may be able to help us expand the work of Caritas.


Before we left we stopped by a yard where they were boiling sugar cane syrup that will be made into "dulce" - dark sugar. I had to taste the boiling syrup, as did lots of kids as well as the two Caritas workers.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Paschal Mystery

The Triduum – Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil – are the most solemn days of the Church Year, when we Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus, the mystery of the triumph of life over death.

I had the privilege to spend Holy Thursday and Good Friday in the town of San Agustín. The town of about 3000 is about 45 minutes from Dulce Nombre by car. Because Padre Efraín celebrates the liturgies in the parish center in Dulce Nombre, they like most of the 45 plus villages in the parish celebrate with various lay-led liturgies and popular devotions.

Thursday began with exposition of the Eucharist in the church. The seven base communities in town took an hour to pray before the Eucharist, from 9 am to 3 pm.

In the evening they celebrated the “Santa Cena,” the Holy Supper. They read the readings from the day, a delegate preached, and then they reenacted the Last Supper. They couldn’t get enough men to volunteer so they had four women and eight men. They shared bread and grape juice which I supplied. (Last year I noted that in the town where I went they had Coke and crackers; I decided to supply something a little more appropriate.) After this the delegate leading the celebration washed the feet of the twelve.

Friday began with Stations of the Cross throughout the town, beginning at the church and ending at a cross at a hill, a place they call El Calvario, Calvary. At that last station, Jesus is laid in the tomb, I could see the San Andrés gold mine, not too far away. The San Andrés Gold Mine, which has been a point of contention in the diocese, uses cyanide leaching to separate the gold from the earth that it scrapes off away. Recently cyanide was released into a stream and killed fish. The company said that they controlled the outflow but many doubt it. But as I looked out I couldn’t but think of the pain that mine has caused in pursuit of gold.

Good Friday afternoon there was a service on the Seven Last Words. At five there was another procession, the Holy Burial. A small casket was carried throughout town, from the church to El Calvario, and then back to the church where it was placed in a improvised tomb.

At night we had a service of the reading of the Passion and veneration of the Cross. They asked me to read the part of Jesus in the Passion.

I didn’t do much but the people were glad to have someone with them. But I saw a lot of the popular piety of the people, especially their reverence of the Eucharist, their identification with the suffering Christ, and their love of Mary, the Mother of Christ. I am glad I could be with them.

I had decided to return to Dulce Nombre on Saturday for the Easter Vigil. I spent part of the morning visiting the farm of one of the delegates with two of his sons.

I got into Dulce Nombre about 12:30 and went to the parish. Padre Efraín and I talked for awhile after he ate lunch. He then invited me to go with him for a pastoral visit in town.

He was going to marry a couple in their home. The wife was very ill, dying. She had come to the church on Holy Thursday for confession and wanted to receive communion. He advised her to ask her husband of more than 35 years if they would get married by the church. He agreed and also went to confession. And now they were going to be married, in their home, accompanied by a few friends and relatives.

We went, with some other people, and stopped at a small two-room house, a place of great poverty. We entered and I could see that some women were helping the bride put on her dress in the sleeping alcove.

She emerged with a white wedding dress. Her husband went and sat next to her on a stool, with his black pants and white shirt. Just like a young couple about to be married! Padre Efraín anointed her with the Sacrament of the Sick, ceelbrated a simple marriage ceremony, and then shared the Eucharist with them.

I held the ciborium while Padre anointed the woman, Bernardina, and married her and her spouse. Padre Efraín read the marriage vows in which they promised to be faithful, in joys and sorrows, in sickness and health, all the days of their lives. I looked on and tears filled my lives as I considered how they had already lived these vows and now were consecrating themselves before God, even as the wife probably had not many more days to live.

Then they received the Eucharist, the Bread of Life. I may have been dreaming, but I saw a smile of deep contentment on the wife’s face as she received the Body of Christ. United with her Lord and with her husband, with probably few more days to live.

Tonight I will participate in the Easter Vigil here in Dulce Nombre, but I think I’ve already celebrated Easter in that poor, poor house, as the elderly couple celebrated their love in the presence of poverty and of impending death.

That’s what the Resurrection of Christ is about – the triumph of Life over death.

Christ is risen. He is truly risen.

He is risen in that poor house in a remote corner of a poor town in Honduras.

May He be risen in all of us, especially in those who suffer.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Holy Week

As you may have noticed, I have been writing a lot on this blog since last Friday. I have had a lot more time to write and there has been a lot more happening that has moved me to write. Also, it's Holy Week, which for me began in earnest last Friday, often called the Friday of Our Lady of Sorrows.

In Honduras and other Latin American countries, many people have Holy Week off. Some go to the beaches, some just lounge at home. But there are many church activities all week, especially from Holy Thursday to the Easter Vigil on Saturday evening. In cities like Santa Rosa de Copán there are many processions where the faithful carry images from the church throughout the streets.

This year I'll be spending Wednesday through Sunday morning in the parish of Dulce Nombre de María, where I've been helping out. From Wednesday to Saturday I'll be in the town of San Agustín, accompanying the people for the first two days of the Triduum. I am looking forward to this chance to be with the people during these days. On Saturday I'll go to Dulce Nombre de Copán for the Easter Vigil.

Sister Nancy and Sister Brenda, two Dubuque Franciscans in Gracias, Lempira, have invited me to come for Easter Sunday to celebrate with them. If all goes well I'll probably take up their offer. It's always great to be with these good sisters.

In the meantime, today is a day for some quiet (after helping at the comedor de niños, the munch program for kids). It's a cool day and there was a brief rain this morning, which is quite a relief from the hot and dusty days we've been experiencing.

It's been up into the high 80s and low 90s for about a week and it's been so dry that dust covers everything in the house and I felt as if I was forever eating dust. And so the cool is a welcome change, though we should be back into the upper 80s the end of the week.

But I shouldn't complain. I hear that there was a snow storm in the Midwest in April!

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Palm Sunday alfombras

Early Palm Sunday morning I got up at 4:15, showered, drank a large cup of coffee, and sat and read before going out to help prepare the alfombras, the carpets of colored saw dust, for the Palm Sunday procession which starts a few blocks up the hill from where I live.

Base community members and others were there, carting the bags of sawdust, spreading them with brooms, smoothing the carpets by hand, or preparing the special colored designs.

People from all walks of life where there – well off and poor, children and adults, and in the block we did people from Honduras, the US (me), and Spain (Sor Inez, a Franciscan sister).

In a few hours the Palm Sunday procession will go down the street and the donkey with “Jesús” will walk over it and scatter the sawdust. A little work of art for a few moments, to give glory to God.

After helping with the carpets I went home to get ready for Mass. I read a reflection on Holy Week by Timothy Radcliffe, OP, from his book Just One Year: A Global Treasury of Prayer and Worship (Orbis, 2006).
“Faced with the powers of his time, Jesus made signs that spoke of the ultimate triumph of meaning, Often what we are able to do may look little more than signs, but they speak of the coming of the Kingdom, and help to bring it about. Small signs are the signature of God. Jesus says that whatever we do to the least of his brothers and sisters we do to him. No sign is too small. Every small act for justice is a little window for God’s grace, with consequences that exceed all that we can imagine or ever know.”

Friday, April 03, 2009

Way of the Cross,
Way of Justice

Diocesan St
of the Cross

For several years on the Friday before Holy Week people from all over the diocese of Santa Rosa have gathered in Santa Rosa de Copán for a stations of the cross through the streets of Santa Rosa.

Most of those who come are from the widely scattered rural parishes, arriving in buses or pick up trucks. For some it is a long ride, four hours or more. But this year 3000 or more came.

The stations are decidedly oriented toward the justice demands of the Gospel and the stages on Christ’s road from Pilate’s condemnation to Calvary – and to the resurrection – are prayed with an eye on the challenges the people of God face here in western Honduras.

This year they used the challenges discussed at the diocesan assembly last November which included institutionalized corruption, organized crime, lack of authentic leaders, political sectarianism and fanaticism, political participation, migration, cultural invasion, abandonment of the land, secularization, squandering of money on political campaigns, selling out by the means of communication.

The day was sunny and very hot as we moved through the streets, starting at the base of a hill in town and ending at the cathedral. But the people followed the statues of Christ carrying the Cross and Mary, the sorrowful mother, with devotion. At each station a different meditation was led by priests and people from different parishes in the diocese. Twice there were skits to explain the challenges to living as faithful people.

Almost all of the priests of the diocese were there and during the stations people approached the priests and made their confessions on the street.

The stations ended with a Mass at the cathedral. Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos gave a strong – and long - sermon on the 15th station – the Resurrection – related to the sell out of the means of communication. He spoke of how the press has often sold out to the powers of empire – the Spanish, the American, the “international empire of money” (words of Pope Paul VI). He noted how the mining interests have often paid off journalists but the diocesan radio station has sought to speak the truth. For this the lawyer for the local mining company, Yamana Gold, recently sent a letter to the Apostolic Nuncio to Honduras (the Vatican’s ambassador) with accusations against Fr. Roel Mejia, the director of the radio and an outspoken opponent of the mining’s activities.

At the end of Mass the bishop offered a prayer for the Chortis, an indigenous group who live around the Mayan Ruins near Copán Ruinas. They are sitting in at the ruins and not letting people enter because the government has delayed so long in giving them lands that were promised and only 35% has been distributed. So they felt driven to take the radical step of sitting in.

What strikes me most about this day is the way the people combine a deep, very traditional piety with a deep desire for justice. Although most of the meditations were probably written by the priests, the themes resonated in the hearts of the people, mostly campesinos, country farmers.

For me, though, the two images that most affected me – but I didn’t capture them on film – were the sacramental celebrations.

As I looked on, a man confessed his sins to a young priest. As he gave absolution, the priest placed his hands firmly on the man’s head. You are forgiven, embraced with God's love.

And during Mass the priests walked into the crowd to distribute the Body of Christ. Some received on the tongue, but the most poignant moment for me was seeing people reach out their hands to the priest – often between the bodies of people in front of them, longing to receive the Body of Christ.

God’s call for justice, God’s merciful forgiveness, and Jesus’ loving presence were there today for those who had eyes to see.
Obama and Notre Dame

Here in Honduras I’m far from the US, but news of the controversy over President Obama speaking at Notre Dame has reached me via cyberspace. I, at first, hadn’t even thought of commenting on the controversy.

In 2006 Boston College, my Ph.D. alma mater, invited Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice to speak at their commencement and receive an honorary degree. Faculty, students, alumni, and others protested this decision, because of her support for the Iraq war which many of us believed is immoral as well as her support for abortion. She described herself as “moderately pro-choice.” Two theologians on the BC faculty initiated a petition; I wrote my letter to BC’s president, Jesuit Father William Fahey, expressing my concerns.

I was not in Boston at the time and so I don’t know if the environment was extremely divisive. According to a report in the Boston College Magazine, which may or may not be “objective,” the protest was very civil.

But the brouhaha surrounding Obama and Notre Dame is far from civil. As always, Fr. John Kavanaugh in America offers poignant commentary in his column subtitled “We Catholics are in danger of becoming known not by how we love but by how we hate.” I urge you to read it.

Should President Obama be disinvited? I am not sure, because it might create more harm than good at this point. But what should happen is that both proponents and opponents should not resort to name-calling and preposterous claims.

But what I would hope is that President Obama would take seriously how many of us oppose his decisions on abortion and embryonic stem cell research and begin a real dialogue about the issues. If he really wants to decrease the number of abortions, Notre Dame might be the place for him to make a serious proposal, not only for assisting pregnant women but also for a careful examination of US abortion laws.

Let us pray that the current controversy will not leave open wounds that might fester in the life of our Church and in the nation. Let’s purge the uncivil speech, seek serious debate, and above all support and defend pregnant women.

PS I recommend almost everything that Jesuit Father John Kavanaugh has written, especially Following Christ in a Consumer Society: The Spirituality of Cultural Resistance (Orbis Books, 2006).
Saint Benedict the Black

April 3 the Franciscans celebrate Saint Benedict the Black, also known as Benedict the Moor or Benedict Massarari, who lived in Sicily from 1526 to 1589.

For some reason or other – perhaps my concern for racial justice – I have had a devotion to him since the 1950s. But as I read more I find him a marvelous example for us, even today.

Born a slave of African parents he was freed when he was about 21 years old. After working a while he joined some Franciscan hermits. Their group was abolished – perhaps by papal decree – but Benedict joined a nearby Franciscan friary as a lay brother, where he served as cook.

After several years he was chosen guardian (leader) of the local friary where he served for several years, after which he returned to the kitchen.

What is remarkable is that though he was an illiterate black lay brother, and former slave, he became the guardian of the friary. As far as I know this could not happen today because the Vatican has decreed that lay brothers cannot be superiors of priests (though I know that there have been a few dispensations from this law.)

But the holiness and simplicity of Benedict helped dissolve any barriers of race, education, or class in that friary and enabled the friars to live as signs of the kingdom of God.

Maybe that’s why I have this devotion to Saint Benedict. He has been for me a sign of the Kingdom of God.


Today, the Friday before Holy Week, the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán celebrates a diocesan Way of the Cross in the streets of Santa Rosa. The stations will be very much oriented to the reality of injustice here in Honduras.