Thursday, February 15, 2018

Choose life in the face of death

This morning, sitting in my prayer room, my quiet was broken by the song of two yellow chorchas, orioles, at the window. Their beauty astounded me, since they have been gone since last year. I wasn't able to capture a photo of them but here's a photo of a small bird, the size of a chickadee,  that I saw this morning. 

As I continued to pray, my reading on the scripture of the day focused on the text from Deuteronomy 30: 15-20:

I set before you: life and blessing, death and curse…. Choose life.

I would be preaching later and focused on the two paths before us – life and blessing, death and curse. I had no idea that I would see glimpses of both.

Padre German had invited me to accompany him in visits to the sick as well as two Masses. He asked me to preach at both.

I arrived at the parish about 8:30 am and we went in search of three sick persons who were in need of a pastoral visit. We only visited one – since the other two had gone to the hospital, because of the severity of their situation.

We visited a very thin elderly woman, confined to her bed, and after prayer, she received communion. The house was simple and the woman was being cared for by a relative.

We then returned to the parish where we met a couple with their six-month old child who was very ill. I had met the couple and the child on Sunday at Mass and noted the yellowish complexion of the child. The child had been in a San Pedro hospital for a few weeks but was still ill. In fact, the parents were so worried that they brought the child to be baptized.

Padre German baptized and confirmed the baby in a moving ceremony, where the child was laid on a mattress to ease the pain in his body. Tears flowed as the child was welcomed into the community of faith.

I found out later that the mother had had a medical condition during pregnancy which could have been cured but the medicine was unavailable in Honduras. The result is a gravely ill child whose survival is in question.

After the baptism we headed to Plan de Naranjo, one of the most remote aldeas (villages) in the parish. The last part of the trip was treacherous as Padre maneuvered the pick-up on roads – If you can call them that – with deep ruts and potholes, some at least a foot deep. I had visited the community in December 2015 and it had been a poor road but this was many times worse – the result of the lack of attention by the municipal authorities.

There was a small group at Mass. After Mass we headed to the nearby village of Joyas Galanas. But on the way we stopped at the site of the house of one of the women at Mass. The house had collapsed last November, with her inside, during one of the intense rainy weeks. It may have been a landslide but there also seems to have been a geological fault that went for at least a kilometer, down the hill and up the next hill. It was a devastating sight.

Her family is rebuilding at another nearby site, further down the road. When we approached the house, her father-in-law came out to greet us from the house just up from theirs. One of his eyes was gone and the empty socket was surrounded by flesh and scabs. He had lost the eye when working in a coffee field. He had not gone to a hospital – because he was afraid to go there. I think that he was afraid that he would not get out of there alive. Padre talked with him and we hope to take him to the hospital sometime soon so as to prevent gangrene and diminish the terrible condition of the wound and his skin. Often people don’t trust the public health facilities. This is not unrealistic, since they are often poorly staffed and have little or no medicine, because of government neglect.

Then we headed to Joyas Galanas – gratefully the road was a little better than the roads closer to Plan de Naranjo.

Almost no one knew about the Mass. A message had been sent but not delivered. So we went to see an eighty-nine year old man who was gravely ill.

He lived with his common law wife, a daughter, and a grandson in a small dirt-floor shack with plastic table cloths lining the wooden walls to try to keep out the cold air.

Padre prayed and anointed him. The man was hardly responsive when Padre asked him if he repented his sins.

We soon learned that his wife and he were not married in the church. He had been widowed and then he and his current wife moved in together and had several children. Three survived – nine others died, some from measles! Padre questioned the woman if she wanted to get married to him. She was somewhat hesitant – perhaps thinking that she couldn’t because he had been married beforehand. However, Padre explained that this was not a problem since the previous wife died.

Padre then questioned them if they loved each other and wanted to be married. It was touching listening to them respond; I could see their love for each other. Padre then heard the woman’s confession and the wedding began.

She sat on the side of the bed as they were questioned about their commitment. They even exchanged rings. She took off one of her rings and put it on his little finger (since the ring finger joint was so inflamed that the ring didn’t fit.)

I stood there with one of the daughters and her son. I explained to the grandchild how significant this was – his grandparents were getting married. Yesterday was the day of friendship (as they call St. Valentine’s Day here), but today is the day of love, expressed in the commitment of his grandparents. He got it. His mother, who seemed rather timid, stood there, watching her parents’ marriage, visibly moved. Tears welled up in me as I witnessed their marriage vows.

We left and then returned to Dulce Nombre. There we stopped to greet a ninety-one year old man who had four heart attacks and had spent time in a San Pedro hospital. He was incredibly lucid, sitting on the porch of his rather nice house.

Then I came home.

I needed some time to process the day and went to the Holy Hour (but tuned out the prayers being said). I prayed evening prayer and reviewed the day.

When I entered, one young man in his late teens was sitting in one of the last pews. By the time the Holy Hour ended, there were five young men in their teens in the last pews, praying.

Life and blessing, death and curse.

I saw life – the love between the old couple, the love of the couple with their gravely ill child, people caring for ill and aged persons.

I was the blessing, most of all in the six sacraments what were celebrated today.

I saw death – gravely ill people, including an infant and two aged persons.

I saw the curse of neglected villages, poor medical assistance, and more.

But I also saw people choosing life – from the warm care that Padre German showed to the ill to the people who were caring for those who were ill.

 In this situation, where death and curse seem to abound, I want to choose life.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Male contraceptives in Honduras

A short article in La Prensa on February 2, 2018, noted that the first lot of 10,000 male contraceptive vaccines had arrived in a San Pedro Sula hospital. Does this help the poor and especially poor women?

I have very mixed feelings about contraceptives, which are too complicated to explain in a blog post. But this is not a post about the ethics of artificial contraceptives. (Please use another forum to debate these issues.)

It’s not that I am opposed to careful and thoughtful limitation of children. The Catholic Church, though opposed officially to the use of artificial contraceptives, is not opposed to limitation.

Though I am an only child, I wonder whether many efforts to limit the number of children in the first world is due to a fear of scarcity and a desire for an all too comfortable life for children. I do have some serious questions about the desire to have tiny families, especially when it is connected with maintaining a standard of living which most of the world cannot afford.

Many of the people around me here in Plan Grande have between three and six children. But I do know of families with ten or more. But I also remember when I began to work in Iowa in 1983 that I met a few university students who were one of more than ten children in their family. I remember one family of 18 children. The common element was that the families, in Honduras and in Iowa, grow up in the countryside, where children can be an asset, not a threat to family finances.

But the second paragraph of the article is what alerted me to what I feel may be something very subtly insidious, which is symptomatic of serious problems here in Honduras.
Asimismo informó: serán prioridad los hombres que tengan demandas alimenticias (embargos) luego todo aquel que ya tenga más de 5 hijos, concluyendo con los que tengan ingresos abajo del salario mínimo.
“The priority will be men who have nutritional demands (indigestion), then all who already have five children, and finally those who have income less that minimal salary.”

The poor will, supposedly, benefit. And society will have fewer poor children, fewer mouths to feed, fewer demands on the societal evil of the concentration of wealth and power in a minority. (Honduras has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the world.) There will be fewer poor and the super-rich can continue to eat and control as much as they want.

There is also another insidious element. In a macho culture, where rape, sexual violence, and marital rape are not uncommon, this is another way to let the male off the hook. He can have sex without consequences (children); he can use women without having to be responsible for his deeds (no children possible).

Something is very wrong. In my mind, discrimination against the poor, social inequality, machismo, and male irresponsibility are being furthered by this type of publicity for male contraceptives.

These and other evils won’t be solved by prohibitions of this new contraceptive. A real societal change is necessary.

I have seen the roots of this. The other day I came across a couple getting married. They have one child together but she has two other children from a man she lived with for a while. The husband is accepting and supporting these two children as his own, since their father doesn’t. This is a sign of hope amid the irresponsibility of some males.

But much more in needed – most of all a change of conscience in the rich and in men, together with a change in laws and customs that denigrate women and the poor.

Now that would be a good Lenten penitential practice.


Note: I translated embargos as indigestion, though I'm not sure that this is accurate.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The start of the year

A letter sent to St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Ames, Iowa, which is the sister parish of the parish of Dulce Nombre de María in Dulce Nombre, Copán, Honduras

As Lent begins, I’d like to send St. Thomas Aquinas parish our heartfelt prayers and thanks for you continuing solidarity with our parish, Dulce Nombre de María. You were especially remembered in our prayers at Mass on the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas.

January is not a very busy month in the parish because many of our parishioners are involved in the coffee harvests, which for many is one of the few ways to earn cash. Some people work their own lands, but many work on the lands of large coffee farmers. Work is hard, especially if it is cold and rainy. The pay is minimal – for a five-gallon bucket of coffee berries, a worker usually gets 30 lempiras, about $1.25; most can harvest about 5 buckets, though a few can harvest up to 8 or 9.

The parish has two manzanas of coffee – about 3.5 acres. (One manzana was purchased with a gift from St Thomas.) We have had three harvests and are awaiting the fourth and final harvest in a week or so. The coffee berries mature at different times and so there are several harvests. More than 400 parishioners came out to help with the harvest. It was great to see such participation. This will help the parish even though coffee prices are low this year.

The parish's coffee land
In February classes begin throughout the country. With the help of St. Thomas 125 students were given partial scholarships in the alternative program Maestro en Casa, in which students study at home and listen to radio programs to prepare themselves for weekend classes. Two of these students will do an accelerated program for two years of primary school, 61 will be studying the equivalent of junior high school, and 62 will be studying high school.

The sacramental life of the parish continues, even during the coffee harvest. There have been a good number of baptisms in several communities and there are an increasing number of sacramental marriages.

On the first Sunday of Lent we expect to have 55 catechumens participate in the Rite of Election, leading up to their baptism at the Easter Vigil.

Pastoral formation begins in earnest this month. This week there is a training session for the leaders of youth groups in the parish, a parish assembly for catechists, and a formation session for Delegates of the Word, those who lead Sunday Celebrations of the Word in their communities since the pastor cannot get around to the fifty or so communities.

The pastor, Padre German Navarro, usually has at least four Masses each Sunday. In addition, he tried to visit each village once every two months for Mass, which usually means two Masses at least five other days. Since feast day celebrations are special occasions for the communities, he often has more. Last Saturday, the feast of Our Lady of Suyapa the patroness of Honduras, there were more than six Masses.

Church in Plan Grande, dedicated to the Virgin of Suyapa
Ash Wednesday Padre will preside at five Masses. Delegates of the Word will receive ashes at these Masses to distribute at Celebrations in their villages.

During Lent, most villages have Stations of the Cross each Friday, often in the streets. On the Friday before Holy Week, we will celebrate a parish-wide celebration of the Stations of the Cross in Dulce Nombre. Since one of the concerns of the diocese is care for creation, we will have an ecological slant to the Stations.

During Holy Week, the parish will send out missionaries, two by two. These parishioners will visit homes in different villages, encouraging people to participate in the life of the church, especially at Easter.

During Lent there will be retreats in each of the eleven sectors of the parish, led by the sisters who live in Dulce Nombre. There will also be a youth retreat on the Tuesday of Holy Week.

In the communities, the faith is sustained by Sunday Celebrations of the Word, visits to the sick especially by the communion ministers, weekly meetings of the base communities, and religious education of children and youth. There are also about 12 active youth groups, one charismatic renewal group, and one married couples group. There are eleven active communion ministers and 14 in formation.

As deacon, I continue many of the formation activities that I have done for years, especially training catechists and working with youth leaders. I also accompany the formation of the current communion ministers and assist in the formation of the new ones. I also assist the pastor in our formation activities with Delegates of the Word and community church councils.

I try to visit communities two or three Sundays a month for a Celebration of the Word with Communion. I also assist at Mass each Sunday, almost always preaching, and assist at a few other Masses during the month. I have baptized a good number of infants and children, most often during Mass but now more often after Mass. I have also interviewed a number of couples in their final interview before marriage.

I also visit the sick, usually bringing them communion. Because there are more than 25 sick or aged home-bound persons in one town, with only one minister, I have begun to visit there once a month, trying to visit five persons each time.

I also try to keep in contact with the coffee association in El Zapote, especially now as they prepare their crop to send coffee to the US. I also am working with a project to bring English classes to children and youth in Plan Grande with a Honduran friend who has an English school in Santa Rosa de Copán.

The parish, as you can see, is going forward, step by step. There are plenty of challenges. The area is poor and so donations and offertory collections are small. St. Thomas’s quarterly donations go a long way to cover basic parish costs.

This January has seen more rain and colder weather. This makes travel really difficult at times. At least once a community called the pastor to tell him that the road was inaccessible. At least once I got stuck in the mud; but people helped me out.

We go forward, seeking to show signs of God’s reign in our midst.

Pray for us, as we pray for you.