Monday, December 26, 2022

Saint Stephen, deacons, and the poor

Today, the feast of Saint Stephen, deacon and martyr, I’ve been reflecting on my ordination as a deacon on July 15, 2016.
Stephen, “a man filled with faith and the holy Spirit,” was the first among the seven “reputable men” chosen by the apostles to serve the Greek-speaking followers of Jesus who complained that “their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.”

There are some scholars who say that these seven were not really “deacons.” Yet, the prayer of ordination of a deacon refers to the naming of seven men by the apostles, as narrated in Acts of the Apostles 6: 1-6. I remember that day, as the bishop prayed:
en los comienzos de la Iglesia, los apóstoles de tu Hijo, movidos por el Espíritu Santo, eligieron siete hombres de buena fama, como auxiliares suyos en el servicio cotidiano, mediante la oración e imposición de manos, los dedicaron al servicio de los pobres, para poder entregarse ellos, con mayor empeño, a la oración y a la predicación de la palabra. 
"in the beginning of the Church, the apostles of your Son, moved by the Holy Spirit, chose seven men with a good reputation, as helpers in the daily service; by means of prayer and the laying on of hands, they dedicated them to the service of the poor, so that they [as apostles] could devote themselves with greater commitment to prayer and the preaching of the Word." (My translation)
Though I had read and prayed over the prayer before that day, when I heard the words “los dedicaron al servicio de los pobres,” my body shook. It was as if all that I was trying to do in my life here as a missionary and all that I had tried to live in my life before coming here was being confirmed and indeed “ordered” as a public witness and ministry with the People of God. 

The English translation of the prayer of consecration is slightly different: “the apostles entrusted to those chosen men the ministry of serving at tables.” For me, the Spanish version has a fuller meaning: we are called to be at the service of the poor. 

The poor are at the center of my diaconal ministry, as they have been at many times of my life before coming here to Honduras, as they have been part of my missionary calling here in Honduras since I arrived in 2007.

I am convinced that being with the poor, at their side, serving them and accompanying them is central to who I am and to what I have been called. 

This past year, especially the last few weeks, I have been remiss in this – partly due to emotional pressures and, more recently, a series of colds. But I am convinced that we deacons ought to include this question as we examine our consciences: “When was the last time I was in the house of a poor person?” – more specifically, a physically poor person. 

It is good to be an advocate of the poor; it is good to minister to those who are poor emotionally or in terms of their faith. But I am convinced, partly by my experience, partly by the words and witness of Pope Francis, that Jesus calls us to be with those who are impoverished physically and that this is a special call for us deacons. 

In his Mass on December 24,  Pope Francis noted:
"...let us remember that it is not truly Christmas without the poor. Without the poor, we can celebrate Christmas, but not the birth of Jesus. Dear brothers, dear sisters, at Christmas God is poor: let charity be reborn!"
In that homily, Pope Francis cited the sainted archbishop Óscar Romero, who on Christmas 1978 preached these challenging words:
“No one can celebrate an authentic Christmas unless they are truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud of heart, those who despise others because they do not possess the material goods of this earth, those who do not need or want God --- for these people there is no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, and those who need someone to come to them because they have need of someone, someone who is God, someone who is Emmanuel, God-with-us --- only these people are able to celebrate Christmas. Without the spirit of poverty, one is unable to be filled with God.”
Toward the end of his homily, Pope Francis said:
"He who lay naked in the manger and hung naked on the cross, asks us for truth, he asks us to go to the bare reality of things, and to lay at the foot of the manger all our excuses, our justifications and our hypocrisies. Tenderly wrapped in swaddling clothes by Mary, he wants us to be clothed in love. God does not want appearances but concreteness. Brothers and sisters, may we not let this Christmas pass without doing something good. Since it is his celebration, his birthday, let us give him the gifts he finds pleasing! At Christmas, God is concrete: in his name let us help a little hope to be born anew in those who feel hopeless!"
I believe that we ordained deacons need to show the love of God for the poor concretely, being at their side, listening to them, making their cause our own, suffering with them. This is not easy. It takes us out of our comfort zones. It takes us where we sometimes done want to go. It may even get us into trouble. 

But it is where our Lord Jesus, the Servant of Yahweh, is.
“For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich." (2 Corinthians 8:9)

 One extra reminder of all this came in the early hours of Christmas. Just back from our Christmas Mass (our midnight Mass that began at 10 pm), I was doing a little computer work when a message arrived from a young man I know from one of our parish villages, with a Christmas greeting. In the course of our messaging back and forth, I found out that he was at the El Paso/Ciudad Juárez border, hoping to cross the bridge and get legally into the US. Jesus among the migrants.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Advent 2022

This has been quite a different Advent for me.

Apse mural, Dulce Nombre

Advent began with the visit of the image of the Virgin of Suyapa in the parish. This year, the tiny image of the Virgin of Suyapa has been visiting all the dioceses of Honduras. The image arrived in our parish on Saturday, November 26.
After a visit to the church in Concepción, we celebrated with an all-night vigil in the parish auditorium, attended by more than 1000 people.
I took a few breaks and fell asleep for a short time before Mass at midnight as well as in the early morning. We also had a Mass for the first Sunday of Advent in the parish at 9 am – at which I preached. 

That week, I had the first of five pre-marriage interviews I've had in the last four weeks. The couple first meets with the pastor and then has a twelve session formation with leaders in their villages. Before the marriage date is set, I meet with the couple and two witnesses. For me, it is an honor to be able to be present and to help them in their final stages of preparing for the sacrament of matrimony. 

That week, Sister Nancy Meyerhofer, a Dubuque Franciscan sister who is a good friend and has been here in Honduras for 16 or so years, came over for a short visit. We had a two hour long lunch and a long supper and many hours of talk. She was very much responsible for enabling me to be able to come here to work in the diocese in 2007. She and the other Dubuque Franciscans will be leaving Honduras next month, which will leave an empty space in Honduras and also for me.

The second Sunday of Advent the parish received forty into the catechumenate, who, if they persevere, will be baptized in the Easter Vigil.  I work with the catechists and so I was glad to see them there with the new catechumens who were between 14 and 40 years old. I talked with them before the Mass and then I went with them after the Homily for a reflection period. I had a chance to speak with a number of them and it was a joy to hear of their desire to be baptized. One catechist, from a village that has 9 catechumens. introduced me to two young men in their twenties who have learning difficulties; they were so enthusiastic that I could not help but feel the hand of God in all this. A day later reflecting on this I was filled with tears of joy. 

Since I had not been at a complete Mass that Sunday morning and hadn’t had the chance to receive Communion, I went to Mass that afternoon in Dolores and preached. 

Monday through Wednesday we had a diocesan assembly, evaluating and looking toward the future. I found myself often just hanging around, sometimes with the priests and lay people. The last day I was standing around with a number of people. They asked me how long I had been there in Honduras. When I said 15 years, they said that I was in one sense a Honduran – one even saying that I was more catracho [Honduran] than gringo

Also, a number of them from the southern part of the diocese talked with me about Father Beto Gallagher, a US Capuchin priest who worked there for several years. (I wrote about him in part of the past found here.) He is buried in the church in San Marcos Ocotepeque. I find myself humbled and graced that I remind them of him. He was a priest who was really with the people. One man told how if Frey Beto was in a meeting and someone arrived and there were no chairs, he would give up his chair and sit on the floor. He was my type of missionary. 

Friday, I had a meeting for new catechists. The attendance was low, probably because many are working in the coffee harvest. Picking coffee is one of the few ways that many people in the countryside have to earn cash. I completely understand their absence. 

I used this session to help the new catechists understand the Mass. Previous sessions for the new catechists have included discussion of Baptism, grace and sin, and the Bible. The new catechists also are expected to attend the meetings every other month for all the catechists. In this way, I hope that they will be ready in about two years. 

Saturday, there was a get-together of people from the deanery in a rural ecotourism center outside of Corquín, which featured animals, including crocodiles.
What was most interesting was the road to the center, which was by a river that had been diverted by the hurricanes of November 2020.
The third Sunday of Advent I went to the early Mass in Dulce Nombre, where I preached again. Our pastor, Padre German Navarro, is very open to having me preach, which is a blessing that many deacons don't have. I think it is also a chance for him to rest, since he usually has four or five Masses each Sunday in different parts of the parish.

I had been invited to attend the middle school graduation of the students in the IHER program in Dulce Nombre on Sunday afternoon. The student listen to radio programs during the week, fill out a work book, and have classes on Saturdays and Sundays. I was glad to see so many young people, including some I know, continuing to study after sixth grade, since most rural villages only have elementary schools. This program is an alternative to classes on Mondays through Fridays, which would be difficult for many from rural villages. About 150 students receive partial scholarships each year, thanks to our sister parish, St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames.
Monday there was Mass for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the small village of Torreras. Lo and behold, the Mass was held in the home of one of those who had graduated in Dulce Nombre the day before!

That Tuesday two good friends from Central Iowa, Gary and Nancy Guthrie, arrived and I picked them up at the airport. 

They had come mostly for a meeting of the Central American associates of the Dubuque Franciscans. They are associates in the US and it was good to have them here to know the Central American associates, who come from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. 

Gary and Nancy have been here before and speak Spanish (having been volunteers with the Mennonite Volunteers in Bolivia and El Salvador in the 1980s.) We had a great visit – mostly talking and eating a few simple meals before and after the meeting. They even got a chance to work a few hours on the parish coffee fields. I didn't get a picture of them, but here's my pickup loaded with people who helped with the coffee picking, going back to their villages.
Monday, their last night here, we went out to the El Zapote coffee association’s buildings and watched the machines at work.

The meeting of the associates was a good time to get to know a bit more the other Central American associates. Since the sisters are leaving, we have to find our way to live out the Franciscan charism and to keep a relationship with the sisters. This will be a challenge and we all have to work on this.
The sisters and associates
Padre Loncho celebrated Mass (and I served as deacon)
Sister Brenda Whetstone who was visiting sharing bowls with Gary and Nancy.
New associates with Sister Pat Farrell

On Monday, I made a visit to the parish center to talk with a muralist who is there to paint ten images of American saints in the church (above the columns in the nave.) These are the saints we plan to commemorate: Saint Martín de Porres, Santo Hermano Pedro de San José Betancourt, San Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin , Santa Kateri Tekakwitha, Santa Dulce Pontes, San Francisco Solano, San Toribio Romo González, San José Sánchez del Río, San Pedro Claver, and Santa Nazaria Ignacia March Mesa. (How many can you identify?) It was hard to make the choices and we didn’t include the many blessed from the Americas. We hope this helps people recognize sanctity in our continent.

Wednesday, after leaving Gary and Nancy at the San Pedro Sula airport on Tuesday, I met with a urologist in San Pedro and tried to make an appointment for a test in January.

On a personal level, I’ve had bronchitis and then a bad cold. Not fun. As a result, I haven’t got out to visit the sick. 

 Tomorrow, there is a get together for the clergy of the diocese. 

 In some ways this has not felt like Advent – and I don’t feel ready for Christmas. But it ‘s coming. 

Saturday Christmas eve, I’ll spend the morning and early afternoon baking – making cinnamon rolls and more.

Then, I’ll be at a 6 pm Mass with baptisms in Plan Grande. I’ll also go to Dulce Nombre for the 10:00 pm "Midnight" Mass, which has been a custom. Christmas morning I’ve been invited to a community for a Celebration of the Word with Communion.

After that, I’ll head to La Entrada for the traditional Christmas lunch with the Dubuque Franciscan sisters. For me, it will be bitter-sweet since It’s the last time I’ll be at a holiday meal with the sisters. 

The week after Christmas I have two commitments, one will be working with several priests to develop materials for the weekly meeting of the base communities. But I’m hoping to take it easy, cleaning the house, preparing for the new year, and catching up on reading and correspondence. 

In the meantime, I ask you for your prayers for our parish and for me. I pray that your lives may be filled with hope. May God-with-us bless all of you who have read this.

Monday, December 05, 2022

Forty catechumens in Dulce Nombre

Sunday, December 4, our parish celebrated the Rite of Entry into the Catechumenate for forty persons, between 14 and 40 some years old.

We usually celebrate the Rite on the first Sunday of Advent, but this year our parish hosted the image of the Virgin of Suyapa from noon Saturday, November 26, to about noon Sunday. I need to write and post photos on the visit of the Virgin of Suyapa as well as the celebration of the feast of Christ the King on the previous Sunday, November 20.

I have no photos from the Rite of Entry into the Catechumenate since I was in the middle of seeing to the details (and ended up preaching).

This morning, Monday, I was moved close to tears remembering the rite.

Before and after Mass, I had a chance to meet some of the new catechumens as well as their catechists. I talked with one 28-year-old who is single and is preparing for his baptism. There are other young men and women in their twenties and thirties preparing for baptism, though the majority are between 14 and 18. I also talked with two young men in their twenties who are intellectually disabled; they were full of enthusiasm, and we talked a bit about their lives – with the catechist of their village.

After the rite and the Liturgy of the Word, I went with the catechumens when they were dismissed so that we could do some reflection together.

Even though they were not very talkative, I found it a moving experience. The willingness of all these women and men to commit themselves gives me hope. There is one part of the rite that touches me deeply – the signing of the senses with the sign of the cross. The catechumen is signed on the forehead, the ears, the eyes, the mouth, the heart, the shoulders, the hands, and the feet. (Although the signing of the feet is not found in the Mexican rite, I have added it, using the formulas found in the Spanish-language rite from the US.) While the hands are being signed, the priest prays:
Reciban la señal de la cruz en las manos, para que Cristo sea conocido por el trabajo que hagan. 
Receive the sign of the Cross on your hands so that Christ many be known by the work you do.
As Padre German introduced the signing of the hands, he mentioned that the catechumens’ hands were mostly rough from hard labor.

When I was with them after the dismissal, I mentioned that their fingers were probably stained by the coffee berries that they had been picking in the coffee harvest (which began a few weeks ago).

For me and for Padre German, the signing of the hands of a manual laborer are a sign of the holiness of daily work with one’s hands. What a way to affirm the dignity of the work of these poor women, men, and young people. 

I am reminded of a quote of Saint Charles de Foucauld which I recently read in Little Sister Cathy Wright’s Saint Charles de Foucauld:
"Have the greatest regard for the most humble and littlest of our brothers.... Let us mingle with them, be one of them. Woe to the one who, out of foolish pride, would look down on those to whom God has given the highest place. He descended in his incarnation, descended in becoming always taking the last place."
In a world that looks down on those who are poor and work with their hands, the signing of the hands reminds us of a God who also worked with his hands and works through ours.

The other part of the rite of signing which touches me is the signing of the feet. 

As I mentioned, this is not in the Mexican ritual but I added it from the US ritual, because I think it is one of the most significant of the signings. The sponsors go down on their knees and sign the feet of the catechumens. The sponsor is there to serve, to be a sign of a God who washed the feet of his disciples. It is a real sign of what being a Christian is. 

The priest prays:
Reciban la señal de la cruz en los pies, para que puedan caminar siguiendo a Cristo. Receive the sign of the Cross on your feet, so that you can walk, following Christ.
In a society that does not value the poor, the young, the disabled, kneeling before them is the beginning of a new way of being – living as the Body of Christ.

Today, I am off to the diocesan annual planning meeting. I hope that the witness of the new catechumens sustains us in our journey. It will definitely sustain and challenge me.

Friday, December 02, 2022

Santiago Atitlán massacre of December 2, 1990

Today is the anniversary of the massacre of thirteen people in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala.
I have been in Santiago Atitlán a number of times since the late 1980s. 

This morning I had a vivid dream about being there. I have been thinking a bit about this massacre. Also, a friend and his wife who live there a few months a year dropped by last month. In addition, I am asking the intercession of Blessed Stanley Rother for a medical condition; he was martyred there in 1981. 

The first time I went with Gilberto, a Guatemalan young man who had studied at Iowa State University. He had been a seminarian at a seminary on a hill the other side of the lake, with an amazing view.

Lago Atitlán

He had left the seminary and gotten a scholarship to study in the US where I met him. 

We stayed at the seminary but went across the lake to Santiago Atitlán. 

He is indigenous and speaks several indigenous languages, including Tz'utujil, the language of the people of Santiago Atiltán. Since he had done some pastoral work as a seminarian there, he knew some people and we went into the backyards of some families and we saw women weaving there, as he spoke to them in Tz'utujil. 

I went back to Santiago Atitlán several times, visiting the church and at times visiting the room where Father Stanley Rother was martyred on July 28, 1981. 

His body was taken back to be buried in his native Oklahoma, but, at the request of his people, his heart was interred in the church in Santiago Atitlán. 

Here are some photos from a visit.

The room where Fr. Stanley Rother was martyred.
Interior of the church of Santiago Apóstol

The people called him Padre Aplas’, a term of endearment for all the ways he had made himself one with them. He was beatified a few years ago. One time, I went to the site of the December 2, 1990, massacre, which is movingly described here. At that time, there were a number of crosses by the shrine of Padre Aplas’ – people who had been killed by the Guatemalan security forces, including the names of those killed in the massacre.

The crosses with names of those killed in December 2, 1990.
The memorial of Father Rother with crosses of people killed, injured, captured.

They are no longer there.

The memorial 2018

There are metal crosses by a garden outside their room where Padre Aplas’ was martyred.


In January 2018, Padre German and I made a pilgrimage to the site of martyrdom of Padre Aplas'. I wrote about that visit here. We visited the room where he had been martyred, a bit different from my earlier visits.


But one part of the pilgrimage stands apart for me. When we entered the church, there were a large number of people in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament exposed on the main altar. But just below the exposed Blessed Sacrament, in a niche in the altar, was a reliquary of the blood of Blessed Stanley Rother.


That evening Padre German concelebrated Mass there and I assisted as deacon. What a privilege to be able to proclaim the Gospel in a church where a missionary martyr had served. 

 To learn more about Padre Aplas’, I recommend two books in English, Henri Nouwen’s Love in a Fearful Land: A Guatemalan Story and María Ruiz Scaperlanda’ The Shepherd Who Didn't Run: Father Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma, which has been translated into Spanish as El Pastor Que no Huyó: Beato Stanley Rother, mártir de Oklahoma

A friend is working on a book with a man who worked closely with Father Rother. 

But we must not forget the many others in Santiago Atitlán who died or suffered during these times because of their faith and commitment to the people. 

That it is why it’s important to remember those killed on this day in 1990. 

May they rest in peace but may their memory be a blessed call to continue to struggle for the reign of God, a reign of justice, love, and peace.