Saturday, May 30, 2009

Continental Mission

No. It isn’t an airline commercial, nor is it a military campaign. It’s an effort being made by the Catholic church in Latin America to reach out and spread the faith throughout the Americas, especially reaching out to alienated Catholics.

The May 2007 meeting of the Latin American Bishops in Aparecida, Brazil, called for a continent-wide effort to spread the good news of the Gospel. The Honduran bishops decided to start the effort on Pentecost. Here in Santa Rosa the kick off event was on the Vigil of Pentecost, Saturday morning, May 30.

Almost all the priests of the diocese and parish council members from almost all the 42 parishes of the diocese began arriving at the cathedral around 9 am. Some had driven in pickups from remote parishes more than four hours away.

Shortly after 9 the bishop, the priests, and hundreds began to march from the cathedral to an auditorium near the Caritas office, singing hymns, carrying banners, and three large statues – Christ carrying the Cross, Mary, and Saint Rose of Lima, the patroness of the diocese.

A group of indigenous came from Santa Cruz, Intibucá, with a simple “throne” for the bible which they carried in procession, incensing it as they walked.

At the auditorium several priests led the people in song. And then Mass began. What surprised me was that most of the hymns were from the Salvadoran campesino Mass – a Mass with a very strong message of justice. It shouldn’t have surprised me because the diocese has made a strong commitment to justice for the poor and to care for the earth.

The offertory was moving. The people brought forward fruits, vegetables, and products made throughout the diocese. There were strawberries and potatoes from Intibucá; coffee from many parts of the diocese; straw baskets from Santa Barbara; even orange wine and cigars from Copán. It was a veritable cornucopia of the goods of the earth. Each was brought forward by the other great gift of this area – the committed people of God, poor folk, but full of love and faith.

At the end of Mass there was a sending of the people on mission. A large wooden mission cross was given to each deanery, as were other symbolic gifts. Each pastor was given a bible and a copy of the document from Aparecida. Each of the mission crosses bore the words – “Woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel.”

People were introduced and several priests who had served for long periods in the diocese were recognized – including an American priest who’s been here for over 40 years and one Honduras priest who was ordained the year I was born (1947).

The bishop even had me come forward after he had introduced Father Efraín Romero, the director of Caritas. I stumbled through a few words, expressing my joy at being here for this event and reiterating the solidarity of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames with the diocese. (The bishop himself mentioned St. Thomas and its connection with the diocese.)

The Mass ended at about 1 pm and a simple lunch was served by the Caritas-sponsored bakery/restaurant. I stood around, talked a bit to some people I knew from workshops, and even helped hand out some of the lunch.

Now it’s the responsibility of the parishes to do the evangelizing in the more than 1900 villages in the diocese.

Evangelizing is important here (and throughout the world) and the church is Latin America is not leaving it to other religious groups.

There is good news. The Gospel is lived and preached here; God is alive in the lives of the people, both in the faith, their devotion, and in their struggle to survive. May God bless this mission.

Photos from the celebration may be viewed at my Flickr set on the Continental Mission

Thursday, May 28, 2009


I woke up about 2:15 am, hot and feeling uncomfortable. I’d fallen asleep with the beginnings of a chest cold.

I got up and walked to the living room to see if more water had entered the house. Last night, during a torrential rain, water had somehow entered the front room and I had spent about 45 minutes mopping up.

As I stood there I heard a noise that seemed to come from the house just up from mine. I wondered if there were some thieves trying to break in. But I heard the noise again and went to look if I could see anything. After the noise subsided for a few seconds I felt the house shaking. So, I went and stood in a doorway – the safest place to stand during an earthquake if you can’t get outside and clear of buildings.

For what felt like a few minutes (but was probably no more than a minute) the earth trembled. The garage doors swayed and made all sorts of noises. Suddenly it was over, but by then many people in our neighborhood were out in the streets.

I went and talked with my neighbors across the street – Yolany and her three children. No, it wasn’t an earthquake , they said, only a “sismo,” a “temblor” - a tremor.

As we stood around Yolany talked about tremors many years ago when the people brought their beds out onto the open patios of the houses to sleep there.

It’s un-nerving to have the earth shake underneath your feet.

But I kept wondering what might be happening in other parts of the country and what we might need to do at Caritas. It appears that there was a strong quake (7.1) that hit northeast of the islands off the north coast of Honduras. Who knows how the tremors have affected other areas of the country.

I’ll try to go back to sleep and then see what needs to be done in the morning.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A second night of thunderstorms

The winter (the rainy season) begins here in May or June. This year it seems to have started early, but last night we had a rather severe thunderstorm. The rains weren’t torrential as I have often seen them, but there was a huge lightning strike and thunder clap really close to the house. The lights went on and off several times and there was only a very low current until this morning.

During the days, though, it has generally been hot and sunny. In many ways I like this weather. Sun and warmth during the day; coolness at night.

I don’t know why I decided to write on the weather – again. But I’m trying to relax a bit after a busy month and really just find myself reading, doing some computer and internet stuff (not really work related), and trying to relax. I was going to go out to do a little shopping but the rain stopped me. Which is probably good.

I just finished a novel that is both frightening and hopeful. Steven Galloway’s The Cellist in Sarajevo. The event that provides the background is one that has fascinated me since I heard of it.

On May 27, 1992, people were waiting for bread in a square in the besieged city of Sarajevo. Several mortar shells were fired on the square; 22 people were killed and at least 70 injured. The next day Vedran Smailovic, a cellist, came out the next day, dressed in his tuxedo and played Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor. He did this for 22 days, in memory of the victims.

John McCutcheon has written a song, Streets of Sarajevo. There’s even a wiki page on Vedran Smailovic. The simple courage of his act has inspired me for many years.
The novel. however, follows three other characters whose lives are filled with disturbing events. I read parts of the book at night and, though I did not have nightmares, the evil that the novel narrated filled me with a dis-ease.

Yet the novel ends with small signs of humanity that emerged in the lives of the three very different characters. Not exactly resurrection nor hope, but glimmers of what might be possible in the midst of hellish situations.

I need to read novels like this. But, even more, I like to read biographies of real people who have made real choices for life, for peace, for the poor.

While writing this reflection I thought of the Trappist monks of Tibhirine, Algeria, who were killed in 1996. Checking my notes, I was surprised that the news of their martyrdom by extremists was announced on this day, May 23, 1996. There are several books on the witness of these monks to Christian-Muslim reconciliation. One I recommend is John W. Kiser’s The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria.

But what is most awe-inspiring is the letter that the prior had written about two and half years before they were killed. It was opened by his family on May 25, 1996. Father Christian Chergé, OCSO, wrote of his desire that this not be seen as an excuse for anti-Muslim prejudice. Knowing that his death was possible he wrote,
I should like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity
which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God
and of my fellow human beings,
and at the same time forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.
But the final words, words of tender forgiveness, are heart-rendering, addressed to his future assassin:
And also you, my last-minute friend,
who will not have known what you were doing:
Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this GOODBYE [Adieu]
to be a "GOD-BLESS" for you, too,
because in God's face I see yours.
May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise,
if it please God, the Father of us both.
“May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise.” What a unique way to express the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection that opens the way for all to life with God.

A full copy of the testament can be found at

Sunday, May 17, 2009

When the poor believe in the poor

There’s a hymn that comes from El Salvador in the 1980s that is quite revolutionary
Cuando el pobre cree en el pobre
Ya podremos cantar: ¡Libertad!

Cuando el pobre cree en el pobre

construiremos la fraternidad.

When the poor believe in the poor
we’ll be able to sing: “freedom.”
When the poor believe in the poor,
we will build brotherhood (community).

Friday there was a festival of videos in the town of Lepaera that brought together the efforts of groups in El Salvador and here in the Santa Rosa diocese to help people organize their communities to respond to environmental and other risks. Norma, a worker in Caritas, is working with three communities here in the diocese and they came to participate in the festival.

Part of the documentation of the work is making of videos. The staff worker has been the editor of the videos but some of the people in the communities actually film some parts. This year people in the communities will be trained how to film and edit small videos.

The day began with two videos from the major sponsoring agents. The one from Cordaid, a Dutch Catholic funding agency, is in English but features a lot of the work done by CARITAS of Santa Rosa. Appropriately it’s called “Footprints in the Mud.”

Later the four groups working on the project showed two videos apiece. I especially enjoyed the ones that Norma edited, partly because she herself takes such a background role. She lets the people speak.

What I noticed most was the reaction of the people when they saw themselves in the videos. They were so excited – whispering to each other, like little kids. But it was much more than that. There was a sense of pride, a sense that they were people with real dignity.

What impresses me about this program is that it not only helps people prepare for emergencies, like floods and landslides, but it also give them a sense of their own dignity. But it is a dignity achieved in community. They are no longer isolated helpless individuals at the mercy of the elements. They are people living and working as a community to deal with emergencies that may arrive. They are quite capable people, who are able to do so much with so little. As one of the women there said they are poor people who believe in the poor.

On Saturday, I went with Father Efraín and my visitors, Misty and Jacob Prater, to Dulce Nombre. We spent some time looking at the garden that is on the parish grounds as a sort of demonstration plot for the family garden project.

In the afternoon Jacob spent about two hours with Salvador and Ovidio, teaching them how to use a simple soil analysis test. It was fascinating watching them learn simple tools and simple facts about the soil that they had worked with for years.

Later we went to Plan Grande and stayed for the prayers for Don Luciano who had died earlier this week. It is the custom here and in many Latin American countries to have nine days of prayer after the death of a loved one. More than fifty people squeezed into the small room in the house of his daughter in Plan Grande.

I had first met Don Luciano in Plan Grande in March 2008 when a St. Thomas spring break group helped with the foundation of the church being built next to where he lived with his daughter Gloria, who is a leader in the parish.

He sat watching us. As I talked with him I discovered that he sat outside much of the day, praying the rosary and reading the Bible. His sight was failing but he could read in the sunlight.

As I returned he always greeted me warmly and we talked briefly. But I always remember seeing him sit and pray. He was in many ways living out the contemplative life of prayer.

A few weeks ago his health began to fail. On Sunday May 12 I was in Plan Grande and after Mass Padre Efraín took communion to him on his bed. After this I prayed briefly at his bedside and saw that, despite his drawn face, there was a deep peace. A day or two later he died, at the age of ninety-five.

At the prayer service Padre Efraín and others spoke of his deep love of the Bible, of the Eucharist, of the Rosary, and of the Church. He was one of the first delegates of the Word in the parish. In the mid-sixties throughout Honduras delegates of the Word was chosen and trained to lead Sunday celebrations of the Word in their local communities. Since there were so few priests, the church sought to have a presence in every village every Sunday through celebrations of the Word. Don Luciano was one of these and served as delegate for many years.

On the way back from Plan Grande we gave a ride to a sister whose family lives in the next village. Don Luciano was her grandfather. She spoke of her last visit with him during Holy Week. He gave her advice about her vocation and the life of prayer. She said she’d see him next time about August. He told her that he might not be around then.

Don Luciano is one of the poor who are a real witness to the Gospel here in Honduras. In some ways, I feel as if I met a saint in this man who lived a life of service and prayer.

May more like him abound and give witness to the power of God made present in the poor and humble of this world.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The rains have begun

It’s starting to rain – after a few weeks of really dry and hot weather. It’s still fairly warm and occasionally humid, since the rains usually don’t come until late in the day. And then they are often torrential.

This means that many farmers will want to begin planting. But one major problem is access to land. Many don’t have land and so must rent any land they want to sue for the basic subsistence crops of corn and beans. And sometimes, if they do manage to rent land, they end up promising a certain amount of the harvest, of course at a low price.

It’s a vicious cycle – rent land, pay landowner, buy fertilizers and other inputs, harvest, sell the harvest at a low price, and, when corn and beans run out, buy them at about twice the price that you sold them for.

There’s a real need for serious development for small farmers. Padre Efraín has a request out for funding for a project in his parish and we hope to be able to find some sources of funding for Caritas projects throughout the diocese.

In a world of plenty, it is a shame – and a sin – that farmers don’t have enough to eat.
Something must change.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Back in Honduras

Father Efraín Romero, the director of the diocesan CARITAS and the pastor of the parish of Dulce Nombre de María, and I made a whirlwind trip to the US, from April 23 to May 2. We went to begin to make contacts with potential sources of technical and financial assistance, as well as to strengthen ties to the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames, Iowa.

We met with people from two foundations as well as with staff of Catholic Relief Services and the US bishops’ office for the collection for Latin America.

In Ames, we met with many people from St. Thomas Aquinas. Padre Efraín celebrated a Thursday Night Liturgy and concelebrated two weekend Masses and was introduced at the other Masses. I had a chance to say thank you to the parish at all the Masses and to give them a brief overview of what we’re doing here in the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán.

CARITAS of the diocese of Santa Rosa is hoping to develop an ambitious program throughout the diocese in sustainable agriculture. One idea is to set up pilot projects in two parishes of each of the seven deaneries in the diocese, starting with the poorest parishes, when there is interest and willingness to work. In Ames we talked with a good number of people in agriculture as well as in sustainable development. It was, I believe, quite fruitful as we shared our vision and we heard of their experiences.

What we heard most often was the necessity to recognize and use local resources. This was very encouraging since there are many people here who have incredible knowledge of sustainable agricultural practices and we must respect the local wisdom, I have hopes that there will be some chances for collaboration between Caritas and folks in Ames.

When we got back I faced another whirlwind. There was a diocesan workshop from Monday noon to Wednesday noon on political formation and Catholic Social Teaching. The Honduras national office of CARITAS was going to lead the part on political formation, but we had to plan the part on Catholic Social Teaching. Father Efraín and I planned it – but only while we were in the US. (I have a really hard time with all the last minute planning that happens here.)

I ended up having to do the parts on the biblical foundations of Catholic Social Teaching and on recent church teachings. So I spent all Sunday working on this!

The workshop went well, though not as many came as were expected. (There was a breakdown in communication to the priests and the social ministry in the diocese.) One of the highlights for me was the Tuesday evening session where the participants did dramatizations of parts of the scriptures. Some were hilarious. I especially enjoyed a very creative interpretation of James 2, 1-5, which was a biting commentary on the situation here. The reenacted the reception that the poor often receive from politicians when they ask for help with projects, even though there is money set aside for this. The people from the village of Las Niguas (“the fleas”) couldn’t get through to the mayor but when a rich landowner (maybe even a drug dealer) showed up with his armed bodyguards, the mayor received him with open arms, giving him coffee and presents. When the poor finally got in to see him he treated them like dirt. Quite a compelling commentary on James 2,1: “Show no partiality.”

Needless to say I need a little rest, which I might get this weekend.

But the good news is that I should be moving into a new house today or tomorrow. It's about $75 more a month, but it's more secure and in much better shape than the house I now live in.