Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Back home in Honduras

After a twenty four plus hour day of travel from Rome to San Pedro Sula and three hours in bus to Santa Rosa de Copán, I arrived home in Santa Rosa de Copán on Friday.

Saturday morning I woke up early to get to Dulce Nombre, to see if they needed help in the new catechists training session. I dropped by and gave them holy cards from Assisi.

I ended up, though, spending most of the day with Padre German Navarro, the pastoral administrator, in two distant communities.

As almost always, it delights me to be out in the countryside; in addition, it was great to see Padre German in action.

Padre German with the quinceañera and her mother

We first went to Piedras Coloradas where Mass would be accompanied by a quinceañera celebration; a young woman in the community turned fifteen. This was only the second quinceañera celebration I’ve seen in the countryside in five years and this was rather subdued, with no attendants, compared to the other. This village is poor, but the family wanted to celebrate this day for their daughter.

Before confessions and Mass, Padre German sat down with the community leaders to talk about a problem that had arisen. Sitting on a step in the church he helped them seek a solution to the problem. 

After spending a little time at the meal that the family offered to the whole community, we went to Aldea Nueva (which Padre German kept calling “Tierra Nueva”).

Again there were confessions and Mass in the tiny church. Before Mass, I talked with Mario from the community in the sacristy which was filled with concrete blocks. He proudly told how the community had fundraising activities to buy a thousand blocks to help build a new, larger church. They only need 500 more. He also told me that the Protestant owner of the place where they bought the blocks gave them 50 blocks free.

Mass in Aldea Nueva

I was impressed by the initiative of the community, raising funds for their new church, not always looking for help outside.

Sunday was a day of rest, cleaning, writing, and getting things arranged. Most of this week will be in Caritas, but I’m looking forward to renewing my ministry in the parish. It’s what gives me animo.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Vatican Museum

I almost didn’t go to the Vatican Museum but decided on Wednesday morning to take a few hours. I’m glad I did, because there were a few surprises.

The museum is outrageously large and so I decided to just walk and look at what might interest me.

There were some beautiful examples of Christian art, including an intriguing image of St. Francis by the 16th century painter Girolamo Muziano.

There was also a room with some beautiful icons. including one of Mary breastfeeding Jesus. 

What surprised me was the small contemporary art collection. There were a few pieces by Matisse, Rouault, Ben Shahn, Marc Chagall, and Jacob Epstein. The presence of Jewish artists like Ben Shahn and Marc Chagall was for me a hopeful sign of turning away from the anti-Jewish diatribes of the past.

Max Weber, Invocation

There was also an intriguing painting by Fernando Botero called “Trip to the Ecumenical Council 1972.” An obese bishop seems to be walking to Rome in full episcopal regalia. I wondered if the bishop would lose weight on the trip and thus represent a leaner church.

I had been looking forward to Rafael’s “School of Athens,” but I found some disturbing themes in the Rafael rooms. Most disturbing were the themes of war, beginning with Constantine and the Battle of the Mulvian Bridge. The dilemma of justifying violence connected with Constantine’s tolerance of Christianity leaves me uneasy. 

The Battle of the Mulvian Bridge

Entering the Sistine Chapel took my breath away. The restored frescos, especially the Last Judgment and the ceiling are full of color and light. I stood still and looked at the Last Judgment with a muscular Christ separating the good, the bad, and the ugly. I strained my neck to look at the images on the ceiling.

In the midst of this the guards were continually calling out to people to stop taking photos (and removing a few offenders) and there was a continual hum of conversations. It hardly felt like a chapel.

I did find a seat in a corner and could sit quietly and look at the images for about fifteen minutes. But I also prayed, especially for the cardinal who might sit where I was during the conclave. May the Spirit guide their deliberations.

One last image moved me – a work that sought to present the Second Vatican Council, set up on three walls of one exhibition room.

Vatican II began in October 1963, fifty years ago this year. It has had a major effect on my life and the lives of many Catholics. The hope that the Council sparked bore some good fruit. I can see that in the faith of the people here in Honduras who know the scriptures, love the Eucharist, and lead Celebrations of the Word in their remote villages.

But some of the fire seems to have gone out, with all too much emphasis on laws and norms and strict doctrinal tests that would probably have made Thomas Aquinas look like a heretic.

May the new pope be filled with the Spirit of a God who loves us so much that he became flesh and took on our suffering. We need a new evangelization, but one that emphasizes living the Gospel, instead of insisting on the exactly correct formulations of doctrines. Words and formulas can get in the way of the truth of the Gospels and the tradition of the Church. What we need are people on fire with God’s love who live the Gospels in the midst of a world full of fear and insecurity.


More photos from the Vatican Museum can be found here on my Flickr site.

Brief thoughts, with pictures, of Rome

In most ways Rome felt less like a pilgrimage site for me than Assisi.

St. Peter’s felt more like a mall than a church, with hordes of people walking through and taking pictures of everything. I, being only a little less touristy, only took pictures of about half of what I saw.

St. Peter’s did not feel like a church, a place of prayer. Yet, there were moments, as when I gazed up and saw streams of light coming through the windows and did experience a sense of transcendence,

or when I saw, at a distance the statue of St. Peter whose foot is worn thin by the touch of pilgrims (though you can’t get near it now.)

While St. Peter’s is “busy” with lots of images and altars to distract, St. Paul’s outside the Walls struck me as beautiful in its sparseness, uncluttered.

St. Paul outside the Walls

But I really loved a few other small churches, including Santa Maria in Trastevere, where the mosaic shows a tender image of Jesus with his right arm around his mother Mary.

 I didn’t expect surprises but in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva near the Pantheon I found the tomb of St. Catherine of Siena under the main altar.

Tomb of St. Catherine of Siena

 Another day I visited the small church of Madonna dei Monte. I had sought out the church because it houses the tomb of St. Benedict Joseph Labré, God’s bum. He lived as a homeless pilgrim in the streets of Rome but after his death was buried in this church.

Tomb of St. Benedict Joseph Labré

 I visited the four major basilicas (St. Peter, St. Paul outside the walls, St. John Lateran, and St. Mary Major), as well as many other churches, but I was moved in the church of San Bartolomeo on an island in the Tiber. I referred to this church in an earlier post, here, because what most struck me there was being surrounded again by the great cloud of witnesses, in this case martyrs of the twentieth century. 

Reliquary of Fr. Jerzy Popielusko, Polish priest

But a highlight was a visit to Subiaco. Look for a future post on my experience there.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Take the papal conclave out of the Sistine Chapel

I think the papal conclave should not be in the Sistine Chapel

Today I spent about half an hour in the Sistine Chapel. Amid the surging crowds and the guards crying out "No photos," I prayed for the coming conclave, especially for the bishop who might sit where I was sitting.

The chapel is splendid with beautiful frescos and art works, but I'm bold enough to suggest that the cardinals should choose another site to gather to elect the new pope.

First of all, there are few prominent images of women in the chapel, though Mary is at the side of the muscular Christ of the Last Judgment, Eve is taken from the side of Adam on the ceiling, and there are women in the piece on the Sermon on the Mount. Yet women do make more than half of the Church.

Secondly, Michelangelo's Last Judgment, though an incredible piece of art, presents a muscled church with lots of severe judgment. My guess is that few of the cardinals have the muscled mass of Christ or many of the other men there. But should the Church give an image of a muscular institution, or should it be a servant church which seeks to preach the truth in love?

Furthermore, the sad and horrid images of the damned in the Last Judgment may have served earlier centuries to rouse the people to lives of faith, hope, and love, but maybe the cardinals need to listen to the Christ of the Sermon on the Mount on the side wall as well as the loving touch of God creating "Adam" - the human person.

But where should they go to discuss and elect the next pope?

I don't know but I suggest the church of San Bartholomew on the Isla Tiburtina. They could start out in the Sistine chapel, gazing at Michelangelo's graphic image of the flayed skin of the apostle Bartholomew.

Then they might walk in pilgrimage to San Bartolomeo where the San Egidio community has set up memorials of the "new martyrs" of the twentieth century.

There the cardinals would be surrounded by relics of men and women who have shed their blood for the faith from throughout the world:  the missal Monseñor Oscar Romero used at the Mass when he was martyred; a letter from Franz Jägerstätter, written from a Nazi prison; a stone that was used to sink the body of the Polish priest, Jerzy Popiełusko; the stole of an Italian priest killed for working against the Mafia; the sandal of a sister killed in the Ecuadorian Amazon region; the prayer beads of Russian Orthodox priest Alexander Men; and more.

The cardinals could contemplate the icon of Christ and the martyrs, that includes many martyrs and recall that their own red robes should indicate their willingness to die for the faith as so many have died.

That would probably be a very different type of papal conclave and who knows how God could use that to give life to the People of God who long for faith, hope, and love.

I doubt this will happen, but just maybe God will work miracles within the Sistine Chapel.

We can only pray for this.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Rome and the Gesù

I arrived in Rome in mid-afternoon Friday.

After getting settled into the small lodging, I had to decide how to best use the time I had left that afternoon.

I decided to look to my Jesuit roots; I have my undergraduate degree from the Jesuit University of Scranton and my Ph.D. from Boston College, and I deeply appreciate Ignatian spirituality, the witness of Jesuits like the martyred Jesuits of th UCA in El Salvador, and the writings of the late Dean Brackley and of the Salvadoran theologian Jon Sobrino.

So I went first to the Gesù church, which is very Baroque. (I almost called it a Baroque monstrosity.)

Much of the church was roped off and so I didn't get close to the tomb of Ignatius or the relic of the arm of St. Francis Xavier, with which he baptized thousands in India and other places in the Far East. Nor could I get close to the image of the Madonna Della Strada.

So I sought out the rooms of St. Ignatius in the building next door. I entered and soon ran across a young US Jesuit explaining the exhibit in the rooms on the first floor, I passed him and headed upstairs.

There is what was Ignatius' office and bedroom, as well as the chapel, where he said Mass and where he died.

I looked around and when the young Jesuit came I listened in.  What really was important though was just sitting in the chapel for probably close to half an hour.

I sat without much attempt to develop any thoughts. It as enough just to be there.

Yet, all of a sudden, I recalled the "Suscipe" prayer of St. Ignatius, especially the sung version:

Take, Lord, receive all my liberty,
My memory, my understanding, my entire will....
Give me only your love and your grace;
That's enough for me.

This prayer was all sort a culmination of the message and sense I had of Francis and the Gospel in Assisi.

Give me yourself, trust in me.

I prayed and felt the peace of that call, as well as the challenge of mission and trust in the loving Providence of God.

Last full day in Assisi

There is a story about St. Francis that a bird in one of his retreat settings woke him for Matins, except when Francis was ill or especially tired.

I had intended to get up and go to Lauds and Mass at Santa Chiara. But I woke with only enough time to get to Mass in the crypt of the St. Francis Basilica. I must have needed the extra sleep.

After Mass and breakfast, I went to leave some laundry to be washed. I thought of going to Rivo Torto, the Holy Hovel, but decide to wait until the afternoon.

Wanting through the crooked streets of Assisi, I ran across the tiny chapel of San Francesco Picollino. It's almost literally a hole in the wall.

One tradition is that Francis was born there in a stable - according to the early lives that tried to make Francis an other Chrixt, alter Christus. Another tradition is that this is where his father, Pietro Bernadone, had his fabric shop.

Neither tale may be true - or both may be. It doesn't matter because here is a holy place, simple and small, befitting the memory of Il Poverello, the little poor man.

I sat and prayed, reveling in the presence of God.

After lunch I decided to go to Rivo Torto, walking by way of San Damiano. God had other plans.

I started to go the way my guide sheet said, but decided it was too far and it was better to stop and pray at San Damiano. But I did have the blessing to encounter a beautiful sculpture of Francis praying, in a meditative stance. It touched me deeply.

And so I ended up sitting for a good time in San Damiano, praying quietly, with no one to disturb  me. The peace was palpable.

I returned to Assisi and walked, read, relaxed until I headed to Vespers (Evening Prayer) in the chapel of San Quirico which is a Poor Clare monastery.

What a center of peace. As Vespers began, one of the sisters brought a simple monstrance  with the Host and placed it on the altar, while the sisters sang an Italian version of Adoro Te, devote, accompanied by what was probably a psaltery. (It reminded me of a hammered dulcimer but was plucked, rather than struck.)

The prayer was heavenly.

I left, had dinner, finished Carlo Caretto's I, Francis, and went to sleep.

Friday Mass at the Basilica was followed by my departure for Rome.

I left grateful, finding here an oasis of peace, that nourished my spirit and challenged me to live out a Franciscan life of being with the little people of the world, trusting in a God who is our real security.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Ash Wednesday in Assisi

To celebrate the the beginning of Lent, I got up early and walked to San Damiano, the small church where Francis heard his call to repair the church.

Lauds and Mass were simple, sung by the friars and the congregation, mostly women religious. The priest was young and gave a short, to the point, homily. Then ashes were blessed and we came forward to be signed. I was surprised when the ashes were dropped on the top of the head, instead of being put on the forehead. But the symbol spoke clearly.

After Mass I walked back to the guesthouse for breakfast and spent th day visiting a few places.

But most of all it was a day, dry like a desert. Tuesday had been full of strong emotions, but the strongest I experienced Wednesday was homesickness for Honduras. I really missed home.

But I also became aware of the way I look for and want security and control. From my reading I am beginning to see that a central part of Francis' message of poverty is the need not merely to relinquish stuff, but more important to live in the precariousness of life with faith in the providence of God.

Francis was so intent on poverty because he feared that houses and books would lead people to seek their security there, rather then in God. The poor don't have that type of security and neither did Jesus.

So, to seek things is to look for other sources of security. And,  Francis once said, if we have possessions, we will need weapons to protect them!

So, I struggled Wednesday.

But the day ended well, with Evening Prayer at Santa Chiara.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Assisi, day two

Tuesday morning after breakfast I got a taxi to take me to the Carceri, the hermitage that St. Francis often used, about three miles up the mountain from Assisi.

What an oasis of peace!

I spent some time in the chapel, praying and beginning to read Carlo Carretto's I, Francis. It was providential that I had brought this book with me.

It was cold there, with ice and snow on some parts of the grounds. But I walked and read Carretto as I prayed at the site of Francis' cave.

Toward the end of my walking I found the caves of Brothers Rufino and Masseo up from the church. It was tricky getting down to Brother Masseo's cave, the descent was rocky and icy to the cave perched at the end of an abyss. As I walked to the back of the cave, I experienced a sense of peace. I looked out at the stream and hillside in front of me and felt grateful for the beauty of this place.

To get warm, I went back to the chapel and found a spot where the sun could warm me. Two groups came and went. Even though each group had someone speaking with them in Italian, the chapel was still a place of peace. I read some more and I wrote.

I left about 12:30. I had been there for more than three hours.

I walked back down to Assisi and ate lunch.

After a short rest, I went to the lower town to the basilica of Our Lady of the Angels. The small church, the Porziuncula, where St. Francis lived and died, is under the dome of this immense church. It's rather incongruous but I prayed there and later found a priest from Bangladesh who spoke English hearing confessions.

After confessing he spoke with me and asked me about the situation in Honduras. I started to tell him about the poverty, the instability, and especially my concern about the consequences of the poor coffee harvest. As I shared my fears of every hunger a few months from now, I found myself on the verge of tears. Obviously the people I try to serve have a special place in my heart.

That night, to celebrate Mardi Gras, I had a larger dinner than usual and went to bed content and full of peace.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Assisi, day one

This is a very personal blog entry, but I want to share what is happening to me here in Assisi.

I arrived late Monday morning and signed into the guesthouse where I'll be staying until Friday morning. My room looks out onto the Basilica of St. Francis.

My first visit was to the tomb of St. Francis in the crypt, a simple place to pray. After a Mass in the lower church I walked some more and then headed back for a little rest (since many churches are closed from noon to 2 or 2:30).

My first afternoon visit was to the Basilica of Santa Chiara (Saint Clare). There I stopped and prayed before the crucifix that has been in the little church of San Damiano. Praying before this crucifix, Francis experienced a call to rebuild the church.

I knelt and prayed, "Lord, what do you want me to do?"

I had a very clear sense that Jesus was telling me, "Love."
"Love my people."
"Love the little ones of this world, the poor, the people at the margin."

In one sense this is a reflection on what I've been reading.

A few days ago I finished André Vauchez's Francis of Assisi: the life and afterlife of a medieval saint. Vauchez brings out Francis' radical sense of Jesus as God who became flesh, identifying with those who have no place in this world. 

As Vauchez writes on page 258:
"For Francis, the poor and humble not only constitute the necessary instruments for the salvation of the rich and powerful, as the traditional understanding of the Psalms would have it. They are imges of Christ and acquired by that fact their own human and spiritual dignity."

There is much more in Vauchez that strikes a sympathetic chord in my heart, but his insistence on the place in Francis of a poverty based in the vision of Christ as God emptying himself leads Vauchez to offer a vision of Francis as one who followed an incarnate God. And so, Vauchez also writes, on page 32:
"Francis does not flee the world. On the contrary, he rushes to plunge himself into it in order, like his Lord, to conquer it and to reintegrate back into society the poor and all those whom power and money have excluded of it."

And so the voice of God is calling me to renew my love and commitment with the poor. 

On the train to Assisi an event of the previous night left me with a similar message.

I had gone out to a local laundromat in Ravenna to wash a few clothes. No clean underwear! The washer was malfunctioning and the owner told me to come back in two hours. When I returned two young African guys were there and we struck up a conversation. Between a mixture of Spanish, Italian, and English we manage to communicate on a minimal level. They were middle school students, born and raised in Italy, of parents from the Sahel. At one point the older guy said to his friend that I was "simpatico." I felt blessed that, despite difficulties of language and differences of culture, they felt that I had a sense of them. Maybe they felt that I really respected them for who they are.

I felt at home with them, probably at the margins of Italian society, as I feel at home with the campesinos in Honduras.

I think there is something really Franciscan about this.

Leaving Saint Clare's basilica I walked down to San Damiano and sat in the back of the small church where Francis heard God's call.

Again I felt the call to love and be with the poor of the world.

In San Damiano I experienced a joy, though my eyes filled with tears. 

The basilica of Saint Clare and the church of St. Damian were for me "thin places." 

But I cannot remain in thin places. I need to return to the world with all its pain,  boredom, and difficulties, getting into the muck of things.

This had become clear to me in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. 

There's a labyrinth there which I walked. Beginning I felt uneasy, losing my balance at one point. But when I reached the center round circle, I faced the altar with the mosiac of the youthful Christ and prayed. 

The way out was easier, I felt centered. When I left the labyrinth I saw the large round circle in the center of the nave, right in front of me that reminded me of the similar, yet smaller, circle at the center of the labyrinth, I am called to bring the peace of the center of the labyrinth to the center of the world. 

 That's how my days in Assisi have begun. 

Pray that I am open to God's grace these days.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Last day in Florence

Florence is a city, with a history and a tradition that the people cherish. Walking in the center of the city you continually encounter houses with coats of arms. It has the feel of history.

Of course, it's at times a very sordid history, including the machinations of families and others to control the city. The church is not exempt from these types of activities - witness the burning of Fra Girolamo Savonarola at the stake, where church and state worked together.

But there are beauties to be seen there, among the most amazing are the frescos of Fra Angelico in the San Marco Convent of the Dominicans, now a museum. Sad to say you can't take photos there, but then that enhanced the experience for me. I had to stop and use my senses to take in the beauty of the frescos, especially those that graced the cells of the Dominicans.

My last day in Florence I went to the museums; but after San Marco they were a disappointment except for a few facsinating pieces - of which there were no postcards.

I particlarly remember one image from the Renaissance of Jesus and four saints, mostly because the face of St. John the Baptist reminded me of a friend in the village of Camalote, Honduras. It was striking.

What I also noted is that in most museums there are almost too many images, but even though there are scores of images in San Marcos there is something different. Except for the galleries, most of the images are still in the place where they were made for. And even though the friars no longer inhabit the cells, there was for me still a sense of their presence. Often museum art is "place-less," thus separated from the reality of the world in which they were made. Now that's something for some philosophical and theological speculation!

There was, however, one place in Florence that I visited on the last day that was striking, the Church of St. Miniato, a martyred bishop of Florence who, like St. Denis of Paris, carried his head to the place on a hill after being beheaded. The piece was serene, with a beautiful view of the center of the city, with a three-level Romanesque church.

The last night I went to Trattoria Guelfa, up the street from where I was staying for a nice meal of vegetarian risotto. What I most liked about the place is the atmosphere, locals and visitors,with families.

And so I left Florence, glad to have spent three days there, but wanting to return again to spend even more time in San Marco, contemplating the frescos. That was for me a profound experience of God.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Florence, day two

Yesterday was, in one way, my Franciscan day. Today the Dominicans were central to my time here in Florence.

I went to the church of San Marco, which is one of the Dominican churches here. I prayed before the altar where they have laid the body of St. Antoninus, the Dominican bishop of Florence.

But San Marco, especially the convento, the friars' housing is better known for two other friars. And so I spent more than two hours wandering the museum. Unfortunately they don't allow you to take pictures, but it is the most memorable time of my visit here.

Fra Angelico painted stunning frescos on the walls of the cells on the second floor of the convent.

Walking up the stairs I turned and saw at the top the famous fresco of the Annunciation. I stopped and gazed in awe. There is a beauty there and a simplicity, as Mary, seated with hands crossed, responds to the angel's announcement that she will conceive the Son of God.

There is little ornamentation in the little porch where the meeting takes place and to the left, over the wall, there are only some tall pines that I've seen here.

In this simple setting, the Word was made Flesh.

When I could detach myself from the fresco, I went and visited the cells, each one adorned with a fresco from the life of Christ, many of them with the anachronism of saints looking on.

The first cell had an image of Jesus and Mary Magdalene outside the tomb. I just realized that Mary Magdalen holds a special place among the Dominicans as the "first among the apostles," because she announced that Jesus is risen to the apostles.

But what touched me is that Jesus had a hoe over his shoulder. Mary thought he was the gardener and in this picture he is the gardener. He is preparing the new Garden of Eden for us.

The rest of the cells had a variety of images, many of them of the crucified Jesus.

No wonder that these were the friars who, at the end of the 15th century, followed Fra Girolamo Savonarola, a friar who preached conversion and led the city to make major changes. Caught up in political and ecclesiastical power struggles, he was eventually burned at the stake with two other friars in the Piazza delle Signori,

There is much more that one could say about the Museo One image by Fra Angelico showed St. Dominic with a finger to his lips - as if to call all of us to silence.

After leaving San Marco, I went to the Museum of the Church of Santa Maria Novella, another Dominican church.

There are hundreds of frescos here, some in very poor condition. But what I noted is the recurring presence of three friars -

St. Dominic, the founder of the Order of Friars Preachers (the Dominicans) - at least once with a group of dogs - enlisting his Domini canes, dogs of the Lord;

St. Peter of Verona, the first martyred member of the order;

and St. Thomas Aquinas, who has a whole wall in the Spanish Chapel, dedicated to him, as well as a chapel in the church where Christ is giving him wisdom at the same time as St. Peter receives the keys of the Kingdom.

But what really impressed me was the large cross by Giotto suspended in the church - simply Christ, suspended between heaven and earth.

There were other places I visited Thursday - including the Baptistry and the Cathedral Museum, but nothing can match the experience of God's presence in the Convent of San Marco, especially in the frescos of Fra Angelico.

Florence, day one

It's been less than two days since I've arrived in Florence, Italy, but it feels as if I have been here several days. I've walked more in the past 36 hours than I have for a long time.

I arrived late morning Wednesday, 7 February, and after settling in my stuff in a hotel I went off to explore the city. (I did have a concern, though, since my luggage hadn't arrived with me. Somehow it decided to take a Swiss vacation and landed up in Zurich.)

I stopped at the cathedral and had the chance to pray as well as marvel at the impressive building.

Then I was off to Santa Croce, the Conventual Franciscan church.

In some ways I came away a little disappointed.

The frescos of St. Francis are not in a good condition, though I marvel at the beauty of the death scene painted by Giotto.

In addition, the church is filled with funeral monuments of "important" people. There is also a separate chapel that was built with the money of a friend of the Medicis. So much for Franciscan simplicity.

Since it was a beautiful day, I decided to climb to the top of the cathedral dome, all 493 steps. I made it in decent time, though I let younger people pass me.

The view at the top was beautiful.

After a nice vegetable soup dinner I headed back to the hotel to upload photos. The luggage arrived at 9:00 pm.

Wednesday I woke up later than usual and spent the day walking more. Details to follow.

Monday, February 04, 2013

A change of p(l)ace

Today I leave for Italy.

Last year I turned 65 on June 1 and on June 13  celebrated five years in Honduras.

To celebrate I am taking a pilgrimage/retreat/vacation for 15 days in Italy (plus three days for travel). I had enough miles to be able to get tickets for only the cost of taxes, though lodging and food won’t be cheap.

I am somewhat reluctant to go and feel a little guilty spending so much money, but at this point I feel it’s something that may be a time of grace.

I’ll be spending the first few days in Florence and Ravenna, looking at art. In Florence I’m looking forward to see Fra Angelico’s paintings in the Dominican Convent of San Marco and the images of Francis by Giotto and others in the church of San Croce. In Ravenna I’m be looking at the mosaics.

But at the center of my time in Italy will be five days in Assisi, which will include Ash Wednesday. The spirituality of Saint Francis has been at the center of my life for many years. My recent re-connection by becoming an associate of the Dubuque Franciscan sisters has deepened my connection with the Little Poor Man of Assisi. I look forward to visits to places connected with him.

I did visit Assisi in 1973, while bicycling through Europe. The highlight for me were the visits to San Damiano (where Francis experienced a call from the crucified Christ) and the Carceri (where Francis spent time in solitude). I hope to get up early several days and walk to these places, hopefully arriving in time for an early Mass. (If it’s too cold, I might take a taxi.)

In Rome, I will probably concentrate on some churches – including the room of St. Ignatius Loyola by the Jesuit Gesù, the mosaics in Santa Prassede and Santa Pudenziana that moved the young Thomas Merton, and maybe a trip to Subiaco to recall the witnesses of Saints Benedict, Scholastica, and Francis. If I can I also hope to get to the church of San Bartolomeo when the San Egidio Community has a shrine to modern martyrs.

In Rome I also hope to meet some friends.

 Part will be vacation – I’m looking forward to some good Italian food and wine. But it is also a pilgrimage, a visit to places made holy, a visit to some “thin places,” as Jim Forest notes,  where ordinary matter seems charged with God’s presence…. What marks any thin place is the time-stopping awareness of God’s presence.”

And so I go – my heart heavy about leaving Honduras for this time, but hoping and praying that God may use this time to open my heart even more to His love, so that I may continue to serve Him with the poor of Honduras.

Please keep me in your prayers. May it be a time of conversion.


--> “To be converted is to go out of oneself, to walk toward the other, to be a pilgrim.”
Fr. Jaime Restrepo, martyr of Antioquía, Colombia, 1988  

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Education project follow up


Today I spent about six hours (including driving about 40 miles) to try to tie up some loose ends in regard to the educational scholarships.

I still don’t have the final details but I just heard got phone calls from the last two centers I was waiting to hear from. I am pretty close being able to determine how many scholarships will be granted and how much money will be distributed. I will go out to Dulce Nombre tomorrow morning to give the parish secretary the details.

It’s been difficult but I’m glad St. Thomas agreed to help in this, partly because of stories like this:

Sor Nola who runs the program in Dulce Nombre had told me of an 18 year old young man who wants to study in high school. His father has been disabled for a number of years and so income is very limited. The mother too has recently had some health problems.

There are five children in the family, four boys and one girl who is developmentally disabled. The home is without electricity, water, and latrine.

But the family borrowed 400 lempiras (about $20) to pay for part of the tuition and fees.

I had told Sor Nola that this is a case where we could give more than the half-scholarships we are normally giving. They would only have to pay 165 lempira more (about $8.50).

But they had come to bring another 465 lempiras ($23.50) which the son had earned working in the fields.

Sor explained the decision and returned 300 lempiras (about $15). They were grateful and shared that their son was wondering how he would be able to work to pay for uniform, tennis shoes, and some other things – including the bus fare each week.

Talking to the teacher in one community he told me that some other parents had also borrowed money to pay for the school fees. I asked him about the interest rate. Up to 18% - per  month!

And so the funds will help about 88 students this year.

The process has been difficult and time-consuming, but I’m hoping to work with the teachers, the priest, and a few others to have a better process next year.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Education efforts

School starts next week.

Education in Honduras is a mess.

Some teachers work months, without being paid. I recently heard of a new teacher who worked for two years and never got paid. He went to the US to try to earn some money.

Then there are some teachers who hardly work, arriving on Tuesday and leaving Thursday. But they get their salaries.

I have also read of teachers with two or three teaching positions which they get paid for - although they don't teach in any of the schools where they have their plazas - tenured positions.

I know that some years the teachers have gone on strike and the students suffer. Sometimes the strikes are because the teachers haven't been paid; sometimes because they are opposed to new education policy proposals; sometimes because they are against other policies of the government.

But then there are the good teachers - who spend their own money for supplies, who stay overtime and work with the kids who need help, who really encourage their students to learn.

But then there are the schools.

In Honduras education is mandatory up to the sixth grade, but I often run across young people who haven't gone past second or third grade.

Also, for a number of reasons only about one-third of those who could go past sixth grade.


The price is one reason. Today I spoke with a pastoral worker who is sending a child to high school in Santa Rosa. It's a public school, but he's already spent about $250 for uniform, supplies, etc., and even though the child will live with relatives he will pay about $30 for housing and food each month. $550 for a year of high school is not cheap here.

Another reason is availability of schools.

About forty thousand people live in the four municipalities in the Dulce Nombre parish where I help. But there are only four public middle schools and one public high school. One of the middle schools does not have a paid teacher assigned, but the mayor has set aside public money for the salary.

And so what do the young people do?

Some go to school, walking or riding a bus to get there.

A few, if their families have some money or can scrape together some money, might go to a school in Santa Rosa or another town. These might be weekday or weekend classes. This means that there are extra expenses - travel, lodging, meals. This is not something many can afford.

Many don't go to school but join the family work force.

For a number of years in the parish of Dulce Nombre, some students have attended the weekend classes of  Maestro en Casa, a study-with-radio program. The students have work books; they listen to an hour long class each night on the radio; and they get together for about four hours each weekend to review the material and to get help for the more difficult subjects.

It doesn't sound like much, but it does offer an opportunity to young people; in fact, I know of a few professionals, some of whom now have university degrees, who studied with the program.

In the past few years the program has grown in the parish, much due to the initiative of Padre Efraín Romero, the former pastor.

In 2008 there were two programs, now there are six, and the mayor of Concepción, Copán, is trying to open two more this year.

The largest is in Dulce Nombre, run by the sisters who live there - the Oblates of Divine Love. It has had more than 300 student some years, though the number is down now that there are other sites. In the past some students walked, rode bikes, or sought other transportation to travel up to an hour or more from their homes just to get to Dulce Nombre.

But still, even though registration and fees are fairly low, there are students who have difficulty getting the money together. And then there are the travel expenses each week.

But there are students and parents who take major efforts to see that their children get a middle school or high school education. I heard of a parent who borrowed $20 to pay for part of the fees for her son. An older student has been working in the coffee harvest to have money to sign up.

In light of this, Padre Efraín suggested to St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center in Ames, Iowa, that they provide some partial scholarships. A funding raising event last year enables us to offer scholarships. We will probably enable more than sixty students to begin to study or continue their education.

Since Padre Efraín was not around the parish much in January before his transfer and because Sor Pedrina, who had runt he program in Dulce Nombre, was transferred to Nicaragua, the details fell on me.

It's been a learning process, with a lot of ups and downs.

One center thought that all new students would get a scholarship. I ended up spending three hours last Tuesday trudging up and down hills in El Zapote visiting the families. It was a humbling experience, especially when I entered the first house. The floor was dirt; one daughter was white-washing the stove. The mother, pregnant with the fifth child was there with her husband and other children. The one daughter will be entering seventh grade and a fifteen year old son will be taking part in the third year of a primary school program that enables the student to finish six grades in three years. This family will obviously get a scholarship.

We did tell one family, though, that they weren't eligible. They have a truck, a satellite dish, and about five manzanas of  coffee.

Today, Saturday, I put over 50 miles on my truck visiting the sites of the program in Dulce Nombre, Prado de la Cruz, and El Zapote de Santa Rosa to make sure that worthy students would be able to attend classes.

Some of the scholarship recipients in El Zapote with their teacher, Melvin.

Sunday I'll head out to another site as well as meet with some of the students in Dulce Nombre. I'll report more on this tomorrow or Monday morning.