Tuesday, September 29, 2020

September 2020

This September has been hotter than usual and the rains have been rather intense. 

The dirt roads are often hazardous – with potholes and trenches running across the roads. In a few places there have been small landslides and in one place the road is sinking, because of the rains. But the month has been full of joys and sorrows for the people of our parish.

September 12 is the parish feast – Dulce Nombre de María. The pastor asked me to preach and so I prepared a homily. But in the morning, thanks to Terrence Moran, I came across a poem for the feast in English by Dom Pedro Casadáliga, a retired Brazilian bishop who recently died. I was able to find a Spanish version and concluded my homily with the poem. Here’s the English version: 

By Saying Your Name, Mary 
    -Pedro Casaldaliga  
By saying your name, Mary, 
We say that Poverty 
Has drawn the attention of God’s eyes. 

By saying your name, Mary, 
We say that the Promise 
Knows what a mother’s milk tastes like. 

 By saying your name, Mary, 
We say that our flesh 
Clothes the silence of the Word. 

By saying your name, Mary, 
We say that the Kingdom comes 
Walking alongside History. 

 By saying your name, Mary 
We say that we are with the Cross 
And with the flames of the Spirit. 

 By saying your name, Mary, 
We say that every name 
Can be full of Grace. 

 By saying your name, Mary, 
We say that every death 
Can also be His Passion. 

 By saying your name, 
Mary, We say that His All 
Is the cause of Our Joy. 

    I mentioned in a previous post to a tragic and brutal death of a young woman and then the death of her mother. At the instigation of the pastor, I went to visit the families to see what was needed. 
    The pain and the trauma are deep and so I contacted the diocesan Caritas office and arranged for two psychologists to come. 
    The first visit was to the village of the woman who was killed where the psychologist met individually with about ten family members in the church. Since the village is more than 90 minutes from the Caritas office in Santa Rosa, we arranged the second sessions in the Dulce Nombre parish center. A driver in the parish pick up for medical needs went to the community to pick up the people and bring them to Dulce Nombre, while I went to Santa Rosa to pick up the psychologists. The psychologists will come one more time to see the people. 
     For years I have been concerned about the mental health and trauma problems in our parish. The violence as well a domestic abuse leave deep scars in many people. I am glad that we were able to respond to this one family, but the needs remain. Perhaps we need to think about finding psychologists to come on a regular basis. 

     Because of the pandemic, we have generally suspended religious formation classes in the rural aldeas. But there were some people who were prepared for the sacraments before the shut-down. I had about five interview sessions arranged for couples in one aldea who had completed their marriage preparation. But a few days after we arranged the meetings, the country closed down all travel. I am hoping to get back to them this coming Sunday to arrange the interviews, which I will do in their village. There are other couples who have been calling me to arrange the interviews. It is really encouraging to see these young people seeking the sacrament. 
    There were about 14 people in the catechumenate who would have been baptized at the Easter Vigil. I did get to meet with six of them and we are arranging their baptism and first communion for October 10. I will be trying to contact some of the others to see if they are prepared and still want to be baptized.
    Last Saturday, the diocese celebrated the Chrism Mass, which is usually scheduled in Holy Week, most often on Holy Thursday morning. But this year there was no travel at that time. The celebration was held in a large space with just the priests and a few others present. I served as deacon. 

     I have been getting out a bit more. Two Sundays I went to distant villages to preside at a Celebration of the Word with Communion. Next Sunday, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, I’ll be going out to three places – two of them have St. Francis as their patron. The pastor is away and so I am delegated to help them celebrate their feast day in a solemn way. 
     The regulations for circulation have become a little less strict. Now we can circulate and get to the banks once every five days. Before it was once every two weeks and then, more recently, once every ten days. I do have a safe conduct pass, arranged for clergy in the country but I try not to abuse the privilege for personal travel. 
     Getting around means more wear on the car. I have had two problems which were fixed with a minimum of time and money – a starter that wasn’t working and the ball bearings in one wheel. However, I may soon have access to a new pick up because of an anonymous donation. 

 The church in Dulce Nombre is being repaired. The interior has been painted and the exterior will be repainted sometime in the next year. Much of the funding for this has come from the parish itself. 
     As we looked at the interior of the church, I noted the apse of the church, which is rounded in the Romanesque style. I thought we might have a mural painted there. 

    Well, we are beginning this process now. A muralist came about ten days ago and will begin painting soon. I will be writing about this in a separate blog post – with pictures. This is exciting. Without asking, I’ve had three people promise donations to cover the costs. 

    The future is very uncertain. One concern of some people is whether people will come back to church when the restrictions are lessened. Now we are supposed to have celebrations with limited attendance, with people using masks and observing other health protocols. Sad to say, many rural communities are not doing this. This bothers me and I will occasionally say something; but I try to always have a supply of masks to give out to people. 
     I am not sure why people are so resistant to the health protocols. For some, I think they don’t realize the seriousness of the pandemic. We’ve been largely spared in our parish, but who knows the future. For some, they just don’t want to be bothered. Others just don’t have masks. 
    Talking with the pastor, we are concerned about those who feel left out and so we have to think about ways of reaching out to them, perhaps encouraging the lay pastoral workers in the aldeas to visit homes. I have been encouraging people to pray the rosary in October in their homes – or with their close neighbors. Even if they do this only once a week, it is a way to begin to foster a spirituality that is rooted in the family. 
    The danger is to think that we can return to the pre-pandemic church, with large meetings, big processions, and more. I think what we need to nurture is a spirituality of the church lived out in the families and in small groups. We will thus need to get out of the church buildings and not depend on old structures to help people live as followers of Christ. 
    There are many challenges. I pray that I may be open to them and to God’s call to be with the people.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Black Consciousness, Black Lives, and Steve BIko

 More than thirty years ago I read Donald Wood’s Biko, retelling the story of the life and death of the young South African freedom campaigner who was killed in detention on September 12, 1977. One quotation from Biko in that book has stayed with me. 

“We are aware that the white man is sitting at our table. We know that he has no right to be there; we want to remove him from our table, strip the table of all the trappings put on it by him, decorate it in true African terms, settle down and then ask him to join us on our terms if he wishes.”


In the context of South Africa and in most of the colonized world this makes sense. The colonizers have come in, have taken control of the land and the resources, have enslaved the people or forced them into hard labor with little pay, and more. Also, as Robert Ellsberg, in All Saints, so insightfully notes about apartheid:  


“Apartheid was based on an ideology of white racial superiority and black inferiority. It functioned not only through over repression but through the colonialization of consciousness—training black people to see themselves through white eyes and thus to accept their own helplessness and sense of inferiority.”


Facing this, Steve Biko and many others developed a movement of Black Consciousness that upset many in South Africa (and the world). It was, as described by Robert Ellsberg, a “movement to foster a sort of price, self-reliance, and resistance among the oppressed.”


If we would let oppressed people be the protagonists of their lives, what would this mean for the future of a nation, or – even more importantly – of a community?


But this is not only about the racist oppressors who come to subjugate people and to steal their land and their wealth. It is about the “white liberal” who comes to “save” the people from their poverty and “backwardness.” It is also about us well-meaning missionaries and church folk.


Will we let the table we set up in another people’s house be dismantled? Will we let them take charge? Will be walk alongside them when they seem to be undermining us?


I don’t know if I can do this, but I see this as a path to redemption, because it begins with a call to conversion. Will I let myself be stripped of my preconceptions and prejudices? Will I let go of my expectations? Will I let the others take control?


This is a question of spirituality – and it’s something I need to let happen in me. It’s a very difficult form of the holy “indifference” of Ignatius, where we let go of our willfulness and open ourselves to the ways of God, often revealed in the most disturbing ways?


And so I give thanks to Steven BIko for upsetting me and helping me. It’s a long journey that I want to keep pursuing.

But it might be helpful for us to contemplate this in the light of Black Lives Matter. I am, of course, talking about the concept that has mobilized thousands in the US and not about any organization.


In the face of violence against black men and women by police and others, in the face of structures of blatant and subtle racism, people have come out into the streets reaffirming that “black lives matter,” because the structures of society are saying that black people are expendable.


We whites need to remember this, but I wonder if we need something more. Are we willing to leave aside our leadership and accept the leadership of the poor?


If we do this, might we let them set the table and then accept their invitation to sit down with them?


I don’t have any answers to this and I need a lot more time of prayer and reflection as well as time to interact with those experiencing oppression, racism, repression, and violence.


The first thing I need to do is LISTEN, leaving my agenda to the side. That’s not easy, but without this first step we can become another kind of oppressor, treating people as children or, worse, as our inferiors. That is not the way to the peace God wants. That is not the way to be ready for an invitation to sit down at the table of the other – as a guest.


Photo from the Steve Biko Foundation, Facebook

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

On the mourning bench: reflecting on death and funerals

“Blessed are you who mourn...”
Luke 6:21

I have remarked in several earlier blogposts (noted below) that one of the blessings of my diaconal ministry has been to be present for funerals.


It is important to recall that often, when there is no funeral Mass, we pray the funeral prayers in the home of the persons who have died, where they have been waked since the last night. Almost all funerals are held within twenty-four hours of death, because there is no embalming.


Since the start of the pandemic in March, I have presided at and been present for at least eight funerals. In the past two weeks I have presided at three funerals.


No funeral is easy. At times, when I know the person I can add something more personal. But often I don’t know the person who died or only met the person one or two times. The hardest are the funerals of babies and of those who have been killed violently.

 The past two weeks I’ve presided at three funerals and have been accompanying family members of a woman who was violently murdered.


The first was of an infant, under three months, who had been hospitalized. The mother was almost inconsolable. I saw with her in her bedroom, surrounded by relatives. At one point I was between the grieving mother and her mother (whom I know.) All I could do was put my arm around them. (At this point, “social” distancing was not conceivable.) Her husband embraced her on the other side. As I was there with them, in silence, I felt the sorrow in the two persons at my side. It was a pure moment of grace that helped me say a few words of hope and comfort around the tiny coffin.


The second was of a woman here in Plan Grande who has been ill for quite some time. As I entered the house I recognized so many people, friends and family. It was a little easier to pray there since I knew many of those who were grieving and knew that the woman who died had a deep devotion to the Eucharist.


In the middle of these funerals, I went twice to distant villages to meet with family members of a woman who had been violently killed. I spoke with her husband, her five children, her parents and other friends and family members, including a mother-in-law who had arrived as the woman was killed.


Because of the serious trauma I am arranging a visit of a psychologist from the diocesan Caritas office to help them deal with the trauma. I also decided to visit the community where the woman was killed to preside at the Sunday Celebration of the Word.


That evening I got a called that the mother of the murdered woman had died of a festering sore on her leg. I offered to come for a funeral. The pastor couldn’t get there and so I arrived and we had a prayer service in their home. I had met the woman’s husband the previous week and could see his grief as well as the grief of other family members. As we gathered to bless the body at the end of the service, I always give some time to the family to say something. One son also prayed for another brother who had been killed six or seven years ago. The grief was palpable.


What does one say?


I believe there is almost nothing we can say – except that God is here. Often I note how Jesus cried at the tomb of his friend Lazarus – because he loved him, as those gathered had loved the one who had died. I also try to give some hope of resurrection. Jesus is alive; death does not have the final word.


I don’t try to offer trite words of consolation. I don’t urge “resignation” as many people here do. I just try to be there – to share the grief.


As Pope Francis noted in the Joy of the Gospel (88), “…the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction.”


How do we do this?


About a week ago I remembered a phrase that I had read more than twenty years ago – “Come sit with me on my mourning bench.”


I first encountered this phrase from Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, at the end of  a book of Stanley Hauerwas, God, Medicine, and Suffering. Reflecting on the tragic death of his son, Wolterstorff wrote:


“Death is awful, demonic. It you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered. it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.”


Often no words help. What we need to do is draw near to the one who is suffering, open to share their grief, their loss.


Today, as I reflect on what I have been experiencing and on today’s reading of the Beatitudes in the Gospel of St. Luke, I am reminded of the reflection of Pope Francis. I’ll conclude my thoughts with these words from Gaudete et Exsulate- Rejoice and Be Glad (74-76):


“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”


The world tells us exactly the opposite: entertainment, pleasure, diversion and escape make for the good life. The worldly person ignores problems of sickness or sorrow in the family or all around him; he averts his gaze. The world has no desire to mourn; it would rather disregard painful situations, cover them up or hide them. Much energy is expended on fleeing from situations of suffering in the belief that reality can be concealed. But the cross can never be absent.


A person who sees things as they truly are and sympathizes with pain and sorrow is capable of touching life’s depths and finding authentic happiness. He or she is consoled, not by the world but by Jesus. Such persons are unafraid to share in the suffering of others; they do not flee from painful situations. They discover the meaning of life by coming to the aid of those who suffer, understanding their anguish and bringing relief. They sense that the other is flesh of our flesh, and are not afraid to draw near, even to touch their wounds. They feel compassion for others in such a way that all distance vanishes. In this way they can embrace Saint Paul’s exhortation: “Weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15).


Knowing how to mourn with others: that is holiness.


May God grant us the grace of tears – summoned by the Lord to “the revolution of tenderness.”


Here are links to previous posts. Double click on the title;

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Update on the parish of Dulce Nombre

Honduras has been on a curfew and lock down since March 16. It has gone through various phases – at first only once a week; then, once every two weeks; now, once every ten days (depending on the last number of your official ID).

Schools are closed, although in some places teachers come out once a week with tasks for the kids. This has created major challenges since most people don’t have internet access. Even having students do work at home can be a challenge, since there are many parents who have had limited formal education. A neighbor has been doing school work with some kids and I am delighted to hear her having the kids work on their letters.

Some older young people have limited access to smart phones and a very few have tablets or computers. One I saw a young man working on his high school classes at home. I think he was in one of the Maestro en Casa schools that St. Thomas has helped fund.

There has been no public transportation nor even taxi service in the cities and towns until very recently; now there is very limited public transport (between the major cities). Transport by private vehicle is limited. Until two weeks ago, there was to be no circulation of cars on Saturdays and Sundays and only once every two weeks depending on your ID number.
This, of course, has affected pastoral work in the parish. People cannot get out.

The government has put major limits on public assemblies and so, for several months, it was not permitted to have public Masses or Celebrations of the Word. Some people still did have them, though I think this was imprudent, especially since there was little adherence to health safety protocols. Except for a few funeral services I did not go out.

I did go out twice with the local government efforts to bring some basic foodstuffs to the communities.

The parish has assisted some families that still have needs for food and basic supplies. Also, the parish has been distributing corn and beans to families in need. (For years people have donated corn and beans to the parish to help in feeding people who come for parish formation activities, as well as for those in need. Since there are no parish meetings, there are moe basic grains available for those in need.

In June the bishops’ conference put out protocols for public Masses and so I began to participate in the Sunday Celebrations of the Word here in Plan Grande, partly because they were trying to practice some safety measures. Soon, I found out that though use of masks was mandated by the government (and the church), some people didn’t have masks, even though the government claims to have distributed several million masks. I decided to purchase several hundred masks to have available for folks.

Masses in the main church in Dulce Nombre have sometimes been broadcast over Facebook. In other communities, some people have sought out Masses on the television from one or two Catholic stations. The pastor has gone out to several communities on Sundays for Mass.

Protocols on the door of the main church in Dulce Nombre.

Religious formation has been restricted because of the difficulties of observing basic safety measures, especially with kids. However, we are beginning to open up the possibility of receiving the sacraments for those who had almost completed the formation. This particularly is affecting a good number of couples (20 or more) who had been in the middle of their pre-marriage classes. I originally had more than six interviews of couples scheduled for the first week of the curfew. They have, been postponed.

I have met with catechists in one major town where there are six catechumens who were preparing for baptism at the Easter Vigil. I hope to be able to meet with other catechists to see what we can do. I also started a Facebook group for catechists to try to do a little formation on line.

One of my concerns is that we need to provide materials and assistance for families. I’m planning to prepare a book on the Rosary to promote praying the Rosary in families, especially in the month of October.

In July I got letters from three of the local mayors to ease travelling around. Then I got a safe-conduct pass from the government, in my role as a member of the clergy. I then began to go out to several communities for the last pre-marriage interviews as well as for some formation on baptism or communion for those who had not received these sacraments. I also have gone out twice for baptisms.

I also assisted at the wedding of five couples in a distant village.

Several times I have gone out to visit people in difficult situations. Twice I arranged to deliver medicine. Several times I’ve visited the sick. And then there are the funerals. Friday, the pastor asked me to go to a funeral of a two month old infant; it was very difficult since the mother was severely traumatized.

I’ve also gone out a few times just to listen to some people who need accompaniment. In one case I arranged for a phone visit of the troubled person with a psychologist from the diocesan Caritas office. Yesterday I went out and talked to members of a family who have experienced a traumatic killing of a woman. I will be trying to talk with some folks to see what can be done to get them some professional help. The need for professional psychological help is becoming ever more apparent. We need to think of what can be done to provide places where people can be listened to and begin a process of healing.

The health situation continues to be problematic. The Honduran health system was extremely poor before the pandemic, but it has been stretched to its limits. Even the Secretariat of Health speaks about a broken system. This is exacerbated by ineptitude and inefficiency on the part of the government and the failure to pass on reliable information. The number of tests is limited and there seems to be some problems (including the disappearance of some thousands of tests.) And then there is the corruption. Millions of dollars of aid have supposedly been given to Honduras; field hospitals and respirators have supposedly been purchased, but some of them have not been delivered, others are not the right equipment or are defective; the prices paid have been extremely high in some cases, which leads many of us to suspect that there is wide-spread corruption. It has gotten so bad that people have taken to writing on the streets: “Where’s the money? We demand it.”

The pandemic has mostly affected the large cities and the north coast. The drastic measures have perhaps slowed the spread to other areas, though there are a good number of cases in the department of Copan where I lived, especially in the cities of La Entrada, Copán Ruinas, Cucuyagua, and Santa Rosa de Copán. There are cases in the main town of the parish, Dulce Nombre de Copán, as well as in one aldea.

But many people don’t seem to see that this is a serious problem, going about without masks. A further problem is the stigmatization of those who are COVID-19 positive. To avoid this, some people have hidden the fact that family members have tested positive.

In the midst of this the pastor has had people working on the church grounds in Dulce Nombre, repainting the church, repairing some structures, and more. We hope to have a muralist paint the apse of the church when he can get here from Tegucigalpa.

Where so de go from here? We're still trying to find our way.

I’ll try to write more on this in a week or two.

In the meantime, let us keep each other in prayer.