Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Gracias and the prophetic church

The city of Gracias, Lempira, founded in 1536, still reflects its colonial roots. Yet there is a part of its history that many do not know.

From 1544 to 1549, Gracias was the center of the Audiencia de los Confines for the area of Central America that was called the Kingdom of Guatemala. It was, as I understand it, the Spanish government’s administrative and legal center.

The portal of the Audiencia de los Confines in Gracias

In 1545 Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas of Chiapas (Mexico) and the future bishop of León (Nicaragua) came to Gracias to seek assistance from the Audiencia in face of opposition to their advocacy for the indigenous peoples. The bishop of Guatemala, Francisco Marroquin was with them, but he did not support their, since he seems to have been a friend of the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado.  

Toward the end of the year, on Novemeber 8, 1545, Antonio de Valdivieso was ordained bishop. His principal consecrator was Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas.

De las Casas and Valdivieso were both Dominican missionaries from Spain who spoke up in defense of the indigenous peoples. De las Casas eventually returned to Spain to advocate for the indigenous at the royal court and to write in their defense.

But Valdivieso went to León, Nicaragua, where he served for about four years. He was killed on Ash Wednesday in Leon, February 26, 1550, by a group led by the son of the Spanish governor - a martyr for the cause of the indigenous.

image by Cerezo Barredo
Valdivieso and De las Casas are the early witnesses of the prophetic church in Latin America. Their witness is still greatly needed in Central America where poverty is rampant and authoritarian presidents oppress the people.

I pray that the witness of these two bishops is not forgotten, especially since there are hopes that a new diocese will be formed with its seat in Gracias.


The image of Bishop Antonio de Valdivieso by Cerezo Barredo, with images of Bartolomé de las Casas,  is found here.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Praying, sleeping, and grace

“Just as a baby is no less present to his or her mother
when asleep,
so we are no less present to God if we fall asleep in prayer.
Presence is everything; it is more important than words.”
Ron Rolheiser, OMI

In the past month or so, I have found myself falling asleep in the middle of morning prayer. Of course, this is often easy. I’m seated in a great rocking chair and have a freshly-brewed mug of coffee at my side. 

Often I find myself going in and out of sleep, conscious of the presence of God. At times, I have fallen asleep reflecting on a word or phrase from the Psalms or Readings of the day. I awake, feeling refreshed by the short nap – and the words of  scripture.

Last Sunday I went to the afternoon Mass in San Agustín. Most Sundays I try to go to a community in the morning for a Celebration of the Word with Communion. Either before or after this I get to a Mass.

Most Sundays I end up preaching, not just at the Celebrations but also at Mass. Our pastor, Padre German Navarro has at least one Mass on Saturday evenings and then four or five on Sundays. When I began assisting at the Masses as deacon, he would often whisper to me, “You’re prepared to preach?” Now, I make sure I am prepared and, after I proclaim the Gospel, I look out the side of my eyes to see if he is sitting down, waiting for me to preach.

This Sunday I was prepared to preach, but I was not prepared for all that happened.

In San Agustín they had prepared families for the baptism of twenty-five babies and children, between nine months and six years old.

Padre often asks me to baptize the children at Mass, particularly if he has had a lot of Masses that day. So I offered to baptize the children.

Padre arrived late and then spent about an hour hearing confessions, mostly of the parents and god-parents of the children who were going to be baptized.

While he was in the sacristy, hearing confessions, I sat in a chair in a corner at the front of the church – reviewing the rite of Baptism, revising my homily, praying, listening to the choir singing.

As I looked out on the congregation, I was filled with love for the people there. I was filled with joy when I say an older woman in the back of the church singing with the choir.

And I fell asleep. (I did not escape unnoticed by a few people - including the father of one of the kids to be baptized, sitting in the front row.)

After about an hour confessions were over and Mass began.

The Mass, the baptismal rites, and the homily went well – as far as I was concerned.

But there was a special moment during the anointing the children with the oil of catechumens. I bent over to anoint one little boy, about three years old; his response was simple, yet profound, “Gracias” – “Thanks.”  Somehow, he grasped in his heart that this was a moment when the grace of God (la gracia) was present to him. The only response was thanks (gracias).

I was near tears.

Then I baptized the twenty-five kids (which included one set of twins). The catechists had done a great job preparing the parents as well as making sure of the logistics. It was not an assembly line of baptisms, but a care-filled bringing of the child to be baptized. It was also a joyous moment. I saw joy in the faces of so many and I hope my being reflected the joy I had of seeing these children brought to the living waters of baptism. My back ached a little afterwards but my heart was glad.

After Mass, I drove home – to see the almost full-moon over the trees and hills. Another moment of grace.

This is what fills me with joy.

And the only appropriate response is “Gracias a Dios” – “Thanks be to God.”

Saturday, February 09, 2019

Racism and my family

Reading about the revelations of the long-hidden racism in the US, I began to think about my life. I am not free from prejudice or racism, but I have been blessed in many ways to help overcome this sinfulness.

Most of all I think of my parents.

My mother told a story of the time she visited my Dad in Mississippi during World War II, when he was in training with the Seabees. My dad got to know a friend, Freddy, whose wife, Dot, lived in the Philadelphia area. My mom met up with Dot and they went to Biloxi and spent time with their husbands. But the men had to be away for a few days and so the women decided to go to New Orleans by bus. When they got on the bus, they noted people standing in front but saw some seats in the back of the bus, where they sat down. The heads of many of the people in front turned to them, for they were sitting in the non-white area of the segregated bus.

My mom’s response was simple. “I wasn’t going to stand all the way to New Orleans. Besides, in Philadelphia we sit with all sorts of people in the busses and went to school with them.”

No moralizing – just the common sense of a woman who grew up in a neighborhood which encouraged living together, the Meadows.

This became clear to me the day we buried my father. I had put together photos and was showing them to my Aunt Mary that evening. I asked whether a Jewish man in one of the photos was one of those who lived near my father’s family. He had told me how he would go on Friday nights to turn off the lights in the Jewish family’s home.

My aunt said, “No.” But then she began to talk of the Meadows where she also grew up. She told how the cantor of the synagogue would come each Friday night to lead her there to turn off the lights. She would take the coin he had left there.

But then she began to talk about the neighborhood. Catholics, Jews, Protestants, blacks, and whites lived together. She told about a Pentecostal black church near where she grew up. She was a little taken aback by their style of worship, but there was no prejudice.

Then she talked about how the local parish, Saint Raphael’s, had a gym where blacks and whites, Protestants and Catholics, and Jewish kids, all played basketball together. And this was in the 1930s

I had neighbors where I grew up you had been raised in other parts of Philadelphia and who regularly expressed what we would now call racist remarks. But I didn’t see this in my parents. They were a little perplexed when the local NAACP picketed a local bank, but they gave me, by their example, an openness to all.

I also recall how my mom was a bit upset when a friend of hers was vocal in opposition to the presence of a black sister in a neighboring parish school.

There was probably more – but I am grateful for their example and for the neighborhood of the Meadows in West Philadelphia, that helped them overcome the racism that permeated their society.

As a result of this, I was open to the civil rights movement which has continued to inspire me to be with those disregarded and treated as less than human.

As a result, I was opened to the message of nonviolence which Martin Luther King, Jr., helped me to see the roots of active nonviolence in my faith.

I am now here in Honduras, where racism and classism exist. But by the grace of God, I find myself opened to those impoverished by systems of power and economic control.

Thank you, God. Thank you, Mom and Dad. Thank you, the Meadows and all those who have helped me to be opened to the God who comes among us, amidst the outcast.

My parents and me on the day of my baptism, June 15, 1967