Monday, December 28, 2020

The last month of 2020

Advent has come and gone – all too quickly, but It was full for me.
I had five pre-marriage interviews. I assisted as deacon at three ordinations of transitional deacons. I preached at several Celebrations of the Word and at two Masses. I witnessed one marriage. 

I visited several rural communities to help evaluate what had happened and brought supplies for those affected by the hurricanes. The adventures included getting stuck in the mud on the way to Vertientes, in the road just below the white house in the center of the photo.
I helped transport workers to and from the parish coffee field.
I even hosted two young priest in my hone one day, where we worked on the themes for materials for base communities for next year. 

 One of the joys was baptizing eight children in a rural community. They insisted on having a group picture with me afterwards. Some had family members taking individual photos with me. But I noticed one boy, about 10 years old, who was there with an older woman as his sponsor. No one took a special photo of him and so I took a selfie which I’ll have to print and get to him. 

One big surprise for me is that the parish got a new pick up which is for my use. After a visit to the US two years ago, someone sent an anonymous donation for a new parish vehicle. The hassles of bureaucracy and the pandemic delayed everything. We finally picked up the vehicle in San Pedro Sula on December 4. I am still trying to get used to it. 

The mural in the apse of the parish church was also completed this month in time for the diaconal ordination of Fernando, a seminarian who has been with the parish since the beginning of the year. It is a marvel.
Photo by Ana Chavez

One frustration, among many, was waiting in line for six hours at the Registro de la Propiedad, thinking that they would have the license plates for the new parish truck. It seems that I have to get them from the local Toyota dealer. The Toyota dealer in San Pedro Sula didn’t say where to get them. I have to call Tuesday to see if the plates arrived in Santa Rosa (from the Toyota dealer in Tegucigalpa.) 

But Christmas time has also been filled with surprises. 

 I spent the morning of December 24 baking cinnamon rolls.
I had planned to go to the 9:00 pm Mass in Dulce Nombre and so had left time in the early evening to prepare, in case I had to preach. 

But I got a call from the pastor, asking me to go to Santa Rosa to pick up a parishioner who had just been treated for a fall from a truck. I said yes, especially when I heard that it was Adolfo, a communion minister, who is indefatigable going around – on foot – to visit the sick. In fact, he fell while on the way to visit a woman who was seriously ill. He had fractured a rib but was not held overnight in the hospital. I picked him up with a daughter of his and took him home to Vega Redonda. 

It was about 8:30. I didn’t know if I’d get to the 9 pm Mass on time but decided to go to Dulce Nombre anyway. I got there about 9:20 and Mass had just begun. I ended up entering the sanctuary during the Gloria. As the readings began, the pastor leaned over to ask me if I would preach. I said yes. Even though I didn’t feel fully prepared. I hope I was understandable.
After Mass I got home and got to bed at about midnight. I had originally planned to go to Debajiados, but after talking with the delegate of the Word there I decided it might be better to postpone my visit, since the road out of the community was up a hill that was quite slippery with all the reins we’ve been having. Instead, I went to Vega Redonda. 

It ended up being a fortuitous choice, since Adolfo, the communion minister there, wasn’t able to get to the celebration, but still they were able to receive Communion on Christmas day. 

After the celebration, I left for La Entrada, Copán. It’s been a tradition since I got here to spend Christmas with the Dubuque Franciscan sisters. There are now three here in the diocese – two in Gracias, Lempira, and one in La Entrada. It was great to spend the time with them as well with another associate of their community who lives in Gracias, across the road from their house. The conversation was great, including a zoom with some Dubuque Franciscan sisters in the US, including a novice from Central America. 

But what was a real highlight was the food, much more than we could eat. Even more delectable were the desserts, including a pecan pie. I left with a plate of cookies and lots of other treats. I left them with cinnamon rolls. 

Saturday, the feast of Saint Stephen, patron of deacons, I went to San Agustín for a wedding. The pastor officiated but I wanted to be there because I knew both the bride and the groom. The bride has been a catechist for about eight years; the groom entered the church as a catechumen about three years ago. It was a joy to see them joined together in the sacrament of matrimony. 

Sunday, I managed to get to Debajiados in the morning. Part of the road was slippery, but I managed to avoid going off the road. I led the Celebration of the Word with Communion and then spend a little time with the folks. I had brought bags of provisions for three families donated by some folks from Tegucigalpa, as well as a few blankets. I also brought a bag of candy. I learned of other needs – another family could use a bag of provisions and there are about six kids who could use some clothing. I’ll have to make another visit soon.
On the way back I stopped to take a photo of a place near Delicias where half of hte road had fallen in, due to the hurricanes. This is why I try to avoid driving at night!

I got back to Plan Grande where there was going to be a Mass in the afternoon, which would include the funeral of a man about sixty who had died yesterday. But the pastor has a delay and so I ended up presiding at the Celebration of the Word with Communion, as well as Commendation in the church. A delegate went to the cemetery. 

Such is the life of this permanent deacon in rural Honduras, even in the wake of a pandemic and two hurricanes.

The next few days are not very busy – at least I think so. Though I spent this morning, Monday, with Fernando, the transitional deacon and three other people, distribution bags of provisions to people in Dulce Nombre and Caleras. I got to see parts of Dulce Nombre I didn't know existed.

In Caleras

I have enough to do, evaluating some scholarship applications and preparing materials for base communities. I will also try to do a personal evaluation and plan for next year. There are also a few repairs on for the house I need to get arranged. 

 This has been a unique year for me and for Honduras – the pandemic, two hurricanes, and the continuing poverty, corruption, and inefficiency. 

Who knows what next year will bring? 

They are saying that the COVID-19 vaccines will arrive in the second quarter of 2021. We’ll see. 

There is a real need to begin the rebuilding after the hurricanes; two problems I see are the danger of the politicization of the aid and the diversion of the aid for political purposes as well as for the bank accounts of corrupt politicians and their “friends.” 2021 is also the election year and who knows how that will work out. 

 But in the midst of this we keep trying to serve the people. 

 A major challenge will be rebuilding. Our parish will be trying to get people to work together for rebuilding, as well as the possible relocation of several communities. 

But, as Hölderlin wrote (as quoted by Pope Francis), “Where the danger is, also grows the saving power.”

Monday, December 21, 2020

Marvelous nativity sets

Here’s what will grace my prayer corner this Christmas: a wooden image of Mary from Guatemala, a ceramic Jesus with a crib of Lenca pottery that I bought in El Salvador, and a wooden angel from Bolivia, with a candle in a wooden star, from Bethlehem. I wish Jesus was not so white, but… 

I also have a tiny creche, from Ecuador, painted by a woman from Colombia, the wife of a colleague at Caritas a few years ago.
This image of the Holy Family, crafted from olive wood, from Palestine, was at the center of my prayer space one Christmas.

Some people are upset about the creche in St. Peter’s Square. While it may not be to my taste, there is one element that I find absolutely marvelous: an astronaut is bringing the Baby Jesus a moon rock. 

In Honduras, as in El Salvador, many people put a lot of effort into the arrangement of nacimientos, in churches as well as in private homes. The church of San Marcos in Gracias, Lempira, has often had marvelous nacimientos with scores of figures.
A few years ago, the pastor and I stopped at a few houses in Quebraditas and saw a unique one with Snow White on a horse, rubber duckies, Minnie and Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, and even a half-naked Barbie.
If you want to quibble about this, fine. But you may be missing an important message: the Incarnation.

Jesus Christ, God-made-flesh, came into the midst of our lives on this earth. Let all come and worship him – with moon rocks, action figures, dinosaurs, and all God’s creation. 

Different cultures will reflect this differently. In 2013, on a personal pilgrimage in Italy, I came across a display of Nativity sets in the Cathedral of Ravenna. What an amazing variety, reflecting different cultures, nations, and races.
You can find more of these images here

Truly God is born among us - and pitches his tent everywhere.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Don't call me Doctor or Señor Diácono

I have read the condescending and tendentious article of Jacob Epstein, in The Wall Street Journal, castigating Dr. Jill Biden, the future first lady, for using Doctor. I don’t care if she uses the title or not. She earned her doctorate in education and almost no one is going to be disappointed that she is not a medical doctor. 

I have an earned doctorate in philosophy from Boston College, but I don’t use the appellation "Doctor." However, I remember the facetious remark of a dear departed friend, a teacher of philosophy from the University of Scranton, Tom Garrett. I don’t have his exact words, but he noted that we (philosopers) are the true doctors – teachers – and the rest are technicians. He was, of course, joking; his wife was a nurse and he wrote much on medical ethics.

But I do not use the title doctor for other reasons. I may have used it occasionally when I taught a few classes at Iowa State University, but I see no reason to use it here in Honduras. In fact, I think it would be wrong for me to use it here.

Class and privilege are engrained in the Honduran society. The people I work with in a rural parish are often looked down upon by government officials, educated people in the cities, and even some clergy. I remember one remark of the president of the National Assembly in 2008 who called people from our area, protesting for strong mining legislation, “gente del monte,” which could be translated as “hillbillies” or “hayseeds,” obvious terms of contempt.

Classism pervades the culture, sometimes in subtle, non-provocative terms. It is not uncommon to refer to someone as “profe” – professor – even when they have been retired for years. I know it’s a mark of respect, but still it strikes this egalitarian gringo as classist.

But what is even more serious is how some with advanced degrees insist on being called “licenciado” (“I have a university degree”), or “ingeniero” (“I’m an engineer”), or “abogado” (“I’m an attorney”). Sure, you’ve worked for that, but that doesn’t make you better than another person who cannot read or write, possibly because his family was poor and there was no school nearby and he had to work to help his family survive.

And so I don’t want to be called “doctor.” 

When I first came to Honduras in 2007, the bishop asked me to help put in campus ministry at the Santa Rosa campus of the Catholic University of Honduras (UNICAH). I soon realized that only the rector of the campus and I had doctorates. Many of the professors only had undergraduate degrees. Part of my style of ministry is to be available and get to know people by just hanging out – which Dominican friar Timothy Radcliffe once called “loitering by intent” (which, I believe, is a crime in England).

I got to know a number of students and professors. There was one young prof whom I often spoke with. He called me “Juan” or “Juancito,” until one day he called me “Doctor.” He had found out that I had a doctorate. I know it was a sign of respect, but I quickly and politely told him that he should address me as “Juan.” He now calls me Juan.

But I also found that this classism is not limited to Honduras. On one of my visits to the US, someone told me that someone I knew was questioning my working so much in the countryside, thinking I was possibly wasting my time and education. My response is, “Don’t the poor deserve people with doctorates working with them?”

And so I'd prefer not to be called "Doctor." 

 Nor should you call me "Señor Diácono."

Four and a half years ago I was ordained a permanent deacon in the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán, the first in our diocese and the third in the country. It was, as I’ve noted in other blog posts, not something I had sought but rather I resisted it, even when my pastor and the bishop suggested it.

But now I faced a new dilemma. What would I be called?

The people I worked with in the parish know me as “Juancito,” a name I got from the kids in the parish of Suchitoto, El Salvador, when I volunteered there for six months in 1992. In many ways, I cherish this name more than any university title. 

Juancito is the diminutive form of Juan in parts of El Salvador and Honduras. It's like calling me Johnny or, better, "Jack" - which my parents calle me and the name my cousins use.

Most of the people here still just call me “Juancito” or, at times, “Diácono Juancito.” That suites me fine, though I don’t hesitate occasionally that the word “diácono” means “servant.”

Yet a few priests began to refer to me as “Señor Diácono,” which could be translated “Mr. Deacon.” I quickly began to respond that “Señor Diácono” is a contradiction, an oxymoron

It is important to note that, in Spanish, “Señor” means “mister,” but it is also the translation for “Lord.” To hear someone call me, “Señor diácono,” feels like someone calling me a Lord Servant.

I know that Jesus told us that we are not to be like the “rulers of the gentiles” (Matthew 20: 25), who ‘lord it over them” (Mark 10: 42) but to be like the Son of Man, “who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:44).

So it is better to call me "Siervo".

More recently, I have occasionally begun to refer to myself as “el mozo diácono” – the servant who is a helper, an attendant – even a hired hand. For me, this expresses more what the deacon is called to be, the one who accompanies those on the margins.

And so, I continue to resist being called “señor diácono,” despite what others say. I believe that to do otherwise is to give into a clericalism that denies my servant vocation. 

This, of course, is not just something that happens here in Honduras with priests. A while ago I wrote a blog post on permanent deacons wearing Roman collars. To put it simply, I don’t see this as fitting, in most cases. The post can be found here. I posted a link on a private Facebook group for deacons. Although I did not argue against wearing the collar in terms of clericalism, I was rather strongly attacked, some questioning my formation, and so on. A couple of response were much more thoughtful and helped me nuance my position. But what struck me was that such a strong reaction from some permanent deacons. I think this may indicate the temptation to clericalism is strong among some deacons. I revisited the issue with another blog post which you can read here.

These reflections lead me back to reflecting on my calling. I am here in Honduras to accompany the people, to be their servant. I bring with me knowledge and experience which I ought to share, but in a way that respects them and, even more, respects what they could be.

Sharing the Gospel in another culture doesn’t mean that one has to accept all aspects of the culture. But it does mean that one has to respect the persons and accompany them on their journeys.

I still have major problems with the authoritarianism, machismo, and passivity I find among some people, tied to traditionalisms as well as to traditional political parties. I also have problems with the occasional unquestioning acceptance of whatever a priest says (and not just about doctrine.)

But I know that I don’t have all the answers. (I don’t even know all the questions.) But I want to be with the people as we journey together in our efforts to follow Christ and live as citizens of the Reign of God. Call me "hermano juancito,""brother Jack" if you want. It's what the kids in the rural cantones of Suchitoto called me in 1992. I think they got it right. Now I have to live up to it.

Photo in Haciendita II, Suchitoto, 1992.


A friend put a link to this post in a post on a Facebook group for Catholic Deacons. There were several thoughtful responses, some critical. One was particularly helpful for me. I'm posting it and my response below.

A comment from a deacon: 

Well, I happen to come from a Hispanic culture, I am an engineer and a permanent deacon so I feel qualified to comment on this. I'm sure that in his years of service this brother deacon has learned much from the people he serves and yet, I feel he has missed a very important lesson from Hispanic cultures; what people from these cultures call "El Respeto" (The Respect). You see, in Hispanic cultures one form of showing appreciation is by using the appellatives, "Doctor", "Ingeniero" , "Diacono". This is done not to separate or stratify society (Although it sometimes that is the result) but as a way to express respect and appreciation for a person accomplishments. In the same way in Spanish we have the formal "usted" and the informal "tu" tenses. When a priest calls him "Senor Diacono" he is expressing the respect he has for another fellow servant of The Master. I wonder if the good deacon lets everyone call him "Tu" and is bothered by the use of "Usted". Don't get me wrong, I know what my brother deacon is trying to say but he is just projecting his anglicized idea of social relationships into a culture that works in a very different way. 

My response to the comment: 
I noted in the article that sometimes this is a way of expressing respect. But I see it all too often in a context in Honduras - which may be different from your experience. 

I have heard academics speaking down to campesinos; I have also heard disrespect for campesinos by clergy as well as by politicians. 

I have no problem with anyone using "tu" with me, although this is not used much in the Honduran context. With my friends in El Salvador, I am accustomed to have them speak with me using "tu" and "vos." In fact, I find myself thankful when someone uses "vos" with me, since it indicates a sense of equality and friendship. 

As for the question of projecting my anglicized idea of social relations, I think there may be some of that, but you may note that I refer to examples from both the US and the Honduran culture. 

Also, cultures are not static, nor are they always good. Sometimes one might challenge a culture. In my response to priests calling my "Señor diácono," I am very clearly challenging the culture of clericalism which is all too strong here in Honduras. I am also encouraging them to think about the servant aspect of the deacon. 

Today, at the ordination of a transitional deacon, I was sitting at lunch with some seminarians and tried to explain this. I think they understood. Whether they agreed or not is another question.We didn't have enough time for a good discussion, but I think it's important to raise questions that challenge us in the way we live and the way we live our faith.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Another week in the parish in Advent

First, a unique phot of me - with botas de hule, rubber boots.
It's been a busy week - one of its highlights was the completion of the mural in the apse of the church, which I wrote about a few days ago.
Last week there were two ordinations of diocesan seminarians to the diaconate – as a transitional stage, since they hope to be ordained to the priesthood sometime next year. Although I am a permanent deacon, indeed, the only one in the diocesan, it was important to be present to welcome them to the order of deacons. The first one, of Alex Ayala, was in Santa Bárbara, Santa Bárbara. I was surprised when he quoted me in his remarks at the end of Mass. He specifically noted my remark on the Eucharist as thanksgiving.
One of the priests at the Mass approached me afterwards and told me of a remark I made in a homily I gave at the seminary in 2016, that the deacon is a minister of the Blood of Christ and has a special relation to the chalice. I had been asked to give a talk to the seminarians and preach at one of their Mass, a feast of martyrs. I cannot remember mentioning this, but it is part of my spirituality of the diaconate. I am grateful to be reminded. On Saturday, the church celebrated the ordination of another seminarian, Fernando Nuñez, who has been serving in the parish since early this year. It was a solemn occasion and his proud parents were very involved in the preparations and in the events of the day. What was striking is that the bishop was celebrating with the marvelous mural surrounding us.
On a personal level, it has been a week with many diverse activities. Last Sunday, I did the final pre-marriage interview for a couple in San Agustin. The young woman has been a catechist for many years; the young man was received into the church at the Easter vigil a few years ago. It was a privilege to interview them and their witnesses. Tomorrow, I’ll be going to a different community to interview two couples and their witnesses. Interviewing the couples and participating in some of their wedding Masses has been a joy – and there has, surprisingly, been a lot this year, despite the pandemic. On Monday there was work on the parish field and I went to a nearby community to bring workers. After going to Santa Rosa for some business, I returned and gave the volunteers a ride to their community. There’s another workday tomorrow and I’ll be up early to give a ride for some of the workers.
On Thursday I went to Vertientes, a community with much damage due to the hurricanes. I managed to get stuck in the mud at one point, but someone who has more experience rescued me, driving my truck up the muddy hill. I got to the church where we were going to distribute boxes of provisions paid for by donations of Hondurans in Madrid. The distribution was very well organized; the church committee had sought out those most in need and provided a list. What a relief to have some organization in the community. On Friday, I was at the church helping out in a few ways to prepare for the ordination. It was also the day the pastor gave me the keys to the new parish car, donated for my use, by an anonymous donor in the US. At one point the pastor asked a favor – to go to a distant community to bring a volunteer to help prepare corn and beans for the Saturday celebration. I said yes and went, for the first time, in the new pick up. I’m still trying to get used to it. Today, Sunday, I had planned to go to a community to meet with children, aged 7 to 12, who were prepared for baptism. I presided at the Celebration of the Word and brought Communjon. Afterwards, I spoke with the young people as well as their parents. We set a date for their baptism, next Tuesday. Saturday night I missed a call from the pastor and saw his WhatsApp audio message late, asking me to go to a village today. I didn’t hear the message well and he sent back a message with the time. I also missed that is was a funeral – so I arrived on Sunday morning about 11:30, thinking it was a Sunday Celebration, but learning it was a funeral. Thanks be to God I had a missal with the readings, but I had to improvise the rites. One of the delegates of the word met me by the church and we went to the house where we would have the celebration. He was one of the children of the ninety-five year old man. The man, Vidal, who died had been working in the fields until recently. His wife of 65 years, Alejandrina was there (only 83 years old!) I chose two readings and improvised a homily, recalling that the deceased man’s name, Vidal, is related to VIDA – life. Since I was unsure of the details I asked if the wife was still alive. When she stood up, the only thing I could do was go over and give her a hug. (Side note: I had brought masks and so most had masks. But I find it hard not to hug family members at funerals.) I also asked about the family. The couple had 12 children, 70 grandchildren, 20 great grandchildren, and a few great-great grandchildren. They have a legacy in the village and the world. After the funeral celebration, I left quickly for San Agustín for Mass. It would be the first Mass there in which Fernando would serve as a deacon. He has been in other communities, but I couldn’t make the other Masses. Tomorrow, will be another busy day. Not only will I bring some folks to work on the parish coffee field and do two sets of pre-marriage interviews. I’ve been asked to bring some donated provisions to a community. The needs which the hurricane exposed and made worse will need a lot of work – not just the immediate needs but the rebuilding of major parts of Honduras. We’re hoping to develop a project to help build homes for the most-needy who lost their houses or whose houses are in danger. But the problems of rebuilding the infrastructure will test the country. Sadly, I fear that aid will be politicized, especially since next year is an election year – for mayors, legislators, and the president. In addition, the levels of corruption are so intense that, unless there is serious oversight, funds will be diverted. I try to write more later, but I have to pray, read a bit, get some sleep, to wake up for a new busy day.

Friday, December 11, 2020

The Dulce Nombre mural: the idea

I don’t know when we began to think about a mural for the church of Dulce Nombre de María. The church was being painted and was resplendent, a bright white lightening up the whole church.
The pastor, Padre German Navarro, and I began to think about possibilities. He originally wanted an image of Mary in the center with images of Fr. Juan Gennaro, who built the church, and me, the first permanent deacon here. I quickly nixed the idea of my image there. First of all, I’m not dead yet; secondly, I’m far from being a saint. 

I had seen the work of a muralist, Alejandro Carbajal, in Santa Rosa de Copán, on the front of INEHSCO, the institution founded by Padre Fausto Milla for the promotion of natural medicine.
Finally, I contacted Alejandro in late 2019 and he came to Dulce Nombre to talk with us. Then the pandemic arose and we had to put everything off. 

Finally, in September 2020, Alejandro came and began working in earnest on the mural. We talked about possibilities and modified original plans.

An image of Mary, based on an icon, would be at the center, in the curve of the apse. Below there would be images of Fr. Juan Gennaro on the left, Saint Rose of Lime and Saint Oscar Romero between the windows, and Saint Lawrence the deacon on the right. The artist would put images of the houses and landscape of the parish in the background. 

One day I drove Alejandro around parts of the parish so that he could see what the parish looks like. I took a lot of photos so that he could refer to them. He then incorporated houses and scenes from the parish into the mural. 

I helped him find images of the saints and of Fr. Juan Gennaro. We ended up using a woodcut of Ade Bethune as the inspiration for the image of Saint Lawrence. We also came across a photo of Monseñor Romero in a Mass in Chalatenango, El Salvador, where he was receiving a bag of beans in the offertory of an outdoor Mass. The image was captured by Brother Octavio Duran, OFM, who was a seminarian at the time and later, after emigrating to the US, became a Franciscan brother. (We got permission to use both images as inspiration for the art.)

We also decided to incorporate faces from the parish in the image of St. Lawrence. It would be a mural that reflected the reality of our parish. In many ways, we were trying to show the incarnational aspect of our faith – the Son of God became flesh among the people. In our mural, he, his mother, his saints, and his people are present in the lives of our people. I was particular insistent that the image of Mary would not be above the houses at the bottom of the dome. Mary was rooted in the people and so she is in the middle of the homes of the people.
We chose four other images for various reasons. I’ll develop the theology and spirituality in another post, but this is a short explanation. 

Father Juan Gennaro was an Italian missionary priest who spent years in Dulce Nombre. He was well-loved by the people, in town and in the countryside. He also designed and built the main parish church – in an Italian Romanesque style, very different from many churches in Honduras. He also designed several other churches, often using stone, including the church in Piedras Coloradas. He was, as I’ve been told, ecumenical, joining with a local Protestant church, the Central American Mission, in a procession in September, the month of the Bible. He also designed their church. Therefore, it was fitting to include him, together with an image of the Dulce Nombre Church.
Saint Rose of Lima, the first saint of the Americas, is the patron of our diocese, Santa Rosa de Copán; so, it is fitting that she is pictured. Saint Óscar Romero, martyred archbishop of San Salvador, is a Central American saint who identified with the poor and was their advocate. In a poor parish, it is a blessing to have his image before us as we pray.

Finally, there is the image of the deacon, Saint Lawrence. A deacon of Rome, he was called to surrender the treasures of the church to Roman authorities; he distributed the goods of the church to the poor and brought them before the Roman prefect and proclaimed that the poor, those present before him, are the true treasures of the church. Needless to say, he was martyred, according to tradition roasted on a gridiron. He is one of the patrons of deacons. Since the first permanent deacon in the diocese is serving in our parish (that’s me), it was fitting to feature Saint Lawrence. 

There is another aspect present in the mural, which I will develop in a later post. In our diocese, based on baptismal theology, we are organized around the triple ministry of the baptized – the liturgical, the prophetic, and the social. In baptized we are formed in the image of Christ, Prophet, Priest, and Servant-King. In a sense the murals reflect that. Father Juan Gennaro is baptizing – the liturgical. Saints Rose and Oscar Romer make present the Word by their lives and preaching. Saint Lawrence served the poor. 

At the bottom of the mural, above the presidential chair, the parish has placed a crucifix surrounded by a resplendent light. The crucifix belonged to Monsignor James Supple, the founder of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames, Iowa, which is our sister parish. It was given in 2007 to me when I left for Honduras. It is my mission cross. It is so fitting that the link with our sister parish is represented by the cross of our Savior. 

There is much more to say and I hope to be able to write about the spirituality of the mural in several posts, in English and in Spanish. 

For this mural is not a decoration, a mere work of art. We see this as a catechetical work, that may lead those who look upon it to deepen their faith, leading them to live in the presence of Jesus, Mary, and all the saints.

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Hurricanes, rains, and life - an unpdate

When I started this post on December 1, 2020, it was raining again. Today, the sun is out – at least for a short time. 

This year we have seen more rain than usual here in Honduras – and this was even before the two hurricanes that hit. We have had a few days of sun and heat after Hurrican Iota, but now forecast is for more rain. This, I believe, will provoke more problems for the people, especially in our area. In the wake of the first hurricane, ETA, there were landslides in several aldeas, with a number of people losing the houses. One community, San Marcos Las Pavas, has been cut off since the first hurricane.
When Hurricane IOTA struck, there were more landslides with tens of houses destroyed and scores severely damaged. In a few places, houses were washed down the side of a hill. In one case. A family escaped their house when a huge boulder fell and rushed their house and buried. Their possessions, even some stored grains. In at least five communities there are parts of the aldea that are in extreme danger. The people will probably have to relocate and build in safer places. 

The first hurricane produced several landslides that prevented passage in a few places, but Hurricane ETA’s rains made some parts of the parish almost completely inaccessible. Many communities were cut off when roads collapsed due to landslides or the rain-soaked soil. The roads were in bad condition before hurricane ETA due to heavier rains than usual and the lack of maintenance. The soil here is very slippery when it rains and if gravel has not been put down it’s treacherous. In addition, the ruts in the roads have only gotten worse. In addition, in at least one place, the river washed away half the road.

In one part of the parish, a road was collapsing and, even though some work was done on it after Eta, it was impassible in the wake of Iota. 

To get to some areas, you had to go on a roundabout route which at one time meant passing three times through a stream and navigating a slippery incline. 

In another part of the parish, which includes about 16 aldeas, landslides prevented access for several days. One aldea was cut off from Hurricane Eta until yesterday. 

In another place there was no access even from the major road on the other side of the parish that goes between La Entrada and Copán Ruinas. A bridge which had fallen about three years ago and had never really been repaired or rebuilt, collapsed; but even more, the road the led from the bridge, with access to two villages, was washed away by the river. 

 Two days in a row I was stopped at the same point on the road into Dulce Nombre. The first day a large dump truck had gotten stuck in one of these ruts and had to be pulled out by a bus. The bus was a former US school bus, perhaps the one that has Minnesota plates. The next day a bus got stuck in the same place. Finally, some work was done yesterday to make the spot more passible. 
Many of the roads have been repaired, but access to some aldeas is still precarious. I also think that the repairs area only stop-gap measures.

Electricity was off in many communities for days. In addition, service for one of the cell phone companies was unavailable for days, leaving people isolated and without communication.

Many communities which had water systems were affected by the hurricanes. Some of them were able to restore water service in a few days. Some didn’t have water for long periods. Some still don’t. Here in Plan Grande, water was restored yesterday, after almost two weeks without water. I have a tank for water and collect rainwater in four barrels (which are now full). But I conserved water – using rainwater as well as dirty water from washing clothes (by hand) to flush toilets. But there are still at least three fairly large communities who still have not been able to restore their water systems. A few smaller villages still don’t have water. 

An aside: much of the water for the water systems in rural villages comes from springs in the mountains. The source is often miles from the village, brought in by tubing to tanks in the communities. Tubes, even metal tubing, were moved by the landslides and the settling of the soil and so had to be replaced or reconnected. It’s a difficult job, not only because of the distances but because of the mud. 

One of our first priorities in the parish has been making sure people re safe and providing them with food and other necessities. Many people here in Honduras have been generous and provided help – food, clothing, blankets, and donations. Some people in Dulce Nombre have provided aid and donations have arrived from family members of people from the parish who are now in the US and Spain. A few days ago, 30 some boxes of supplies arrived from Santa Rosa, a gift from the Association of Hondurans in Madrid, Spain. 

Sunday, we picked up 180 bags of goods plus clothing and blankets donated by a group in Tegucigalpa.

But getting to the communities has been difficult. I got out to Vega Redonda November 19. People were afraid that a landslide which stopped at one point would come down and bury much of the town. Several had lost their houses; others left their houses fearful that they be destroyed by a landslide or be inundated by the rains and mud. Some people left and found refuge with relatives in Dulce Nombre and Concepción.
November 19, we went to Vertientes, on the side of a mountain. The town is split into two parts, by a huge landslide that destroyed three houses and left at least three in danger. Padre German and Fernando, a seminarian with us this year, went to see a distant part of the village where another landslide had buried houses and even a car.
On Thanksgiving I went with three other cars loaded with provisions and clothing to aid two distant communities in the parish - San Marcos las Pavas (Saint Mark the Turkeys) and Barbascales. San Marcos has bee isolated since ETA. At least five houses were destroyed, many have serious damage, and probably close to half the houses are at risk if there are future landslide or sinkholes. We had to go to La Entrada to get there, making it close to two hours. We couldn't get to the village because the bridge (which was in poor condition) had collapsed. In addition, the land that went from the bridges to nearby roads was washed out. While we were there a number of men were trying to put rocks in the river so that people could pass over.

Last Saturday, I went with several others to take basic supplies and clothing to four villages. We could see where the landslides had closed the road in several places.

We couldn’t get to the fourth village because a landslide was being cleared away and we couldn’t pass. We did, however, leave provisions for five families there who had been identified as particularly affected. They managed to send someone to pick up the supplies. 

On our way, we could see some of the damage to coffee crops. 

On the way back, I passed over this sunken part of the road near the cemetery in Delicias, Concepción. It sank because the cement drainage pipe was falling into the hillside.

Right now, we have supplies in the parish which we hope to get to the communities when we can arrange the delivery. The problems are numerous – the roads, the lack of electricity in some villages that makes communication by cellphone difficult (because of batteries running out), and more. But we will keep trying. 
Thanks be to God, up to this moment, there have not been any deaths in our parish from the hurricanes. 

What the future holds is difficult to discern. There will need to be massive efforts to restore the infrastructure – particularly water systems, electricity, and road. There are houses that need to be rebuilt in safer places. There are portions of at least five villages that need to be assessed because of the ongoing risks. The people may need to relocate and build in other areas. That will be a long-term project. 

 In the meantime, please pray for us and, if you can, find ways to help.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Thanksgiving in times of hurricanes and COVID

It's Thanksgiving in the US, but I will give thanks here.


1992 was an extraordinary year in my life. It was a time of grace, a time of learning to say “gracias a Dios” – thanks be to God. 

I had managed to persuade the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center in Ames to provide sabbaticals to lay employees and I was the first to take advantage of the opportunity after eight and a half years of service in the parish.

But I took a different type of sabbatical. Instead of going off to study in a university. I spent almost seven months in El Salvador, serving for most of the time in the parish of Suchitoto. The parish, at that time, was served by a Salvadoran priest and had five US sisters working there, mostly in the countryside. 

I arrived in time to celebrate a ceasefire and the peace accords that brought an end to a bloody civil war, in which many perished at the hands of a US-supported military. The war also precipitated the displacement of hundreds of thousands.

I ended up in Suchitoto thanks to my connections with the sisters – four Dubuque Franciscans and one New Jersey Sister of Charity, who had served the area during the war. They ministered to the many communities that had returned to the countryside and lived in precarious situations, not least of all war and poverty.

Dubuque Franciscan Sisters Nancy, Pat, Kay (RIP), Carol

The pastor and they sisters ended up sending me to a remote part of the parish. It was a four hour walk to get to the community where a family took me in. I stayed there usually for four or five days at a time, participating in the life of the village, visiting other communities – training catechists and other pastoral work. 

I stayed with the Clavel family in their provisional housing, that Esteban, who had to flee the country to escape being killed, had fashioned out of the cattle stalls that once stood where he, his wife Rosa Elbia, and their children lived. I brought along a hammock for sleeping so that I wouldn’t displace anyone from their beds.

Esteban and Rosa Elbia

Life was simple. A makeshift latrine, water brought by the family from a stream about thirty minutes away, bathing in the stream, eating tortillas and beans (often very salty) with the family. The housing was so provisional that during the rains water streamed in under my hammock. But, in the midst of this, I experienced the grace of God. Almost every morning in that simple home, I woke up in my hammock with the words, “Thanks be to God,” on my lips and in my heart. In that poverty, sharing it with good people, I experienced the giftedness of God. The only appropriate response was thanksgiving. 

Today, Thanksgiving in the US, I find myself giving thanks. I had plans to spend Thanksgiving with the Dubuque Franciscans (two of whom I know from Suchitoto) but the access to a major bridge between Santa Rosa de Copán was washed out and is provisionally repaired. So, I’ll have a different Thanksgiving. This may help me recall how I have been blessed to serve in rural Honduras. 

I don’t live nearly as poorly and simply as I did in Suchitoto 28 years ago. But we are in the middle of a pandemic that has restricted my ministry. Also, we have been buffeted by two hurricanes that have left villages in the parish isolated and many places without electricity for several days. Many villages also lack water because the water lines from the springs up the mountains have been broken. 

But God is good. And people have responded to the needs.

Local people have collected clothing and basic grains to share with those who have lost their homes or been displaced. Others, including some Hondurans who live in the US, have sent money to help buy basic food stuffs and cleaning supplies. Two friends are sending some money and our sister-parish, St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames, will be sending money for reconstruction efforts and may have a fundraiser for our needs. Today, God willing, I'll be going with the pastor and others to take food, clothing, and more to a village that has been isolated since the first hurricane. It may be a grueling trip since we will probably have to take the highway to La Entrada and then the highway toward Copán Ruinas, since there is no access to that part of the parish from Dulce Nombre. 

But I am grateful that we can help. 

This will be a different Thanksgiving, perhaps getting to the essence of what this day should mean – recognizing the graciousness of God, remembering that all is gift, and responding in joyful love. 

Thanks be to God.