My time here continues to be amazing especially when experiencing the Sacraments and other Catholic activities with parishioners, all devoted to helping the communities in the barrios.
The parish has baptisms twice a month, which I have only observed thus far, but will be celebrating myself in just a week or so. Before each baptism, the parents and godparents are required to attend two sessions of baptismal catechesis, which I will also be leading soon. Many of the children to be baptized here are slightly older than most in the U.S., in part because of family breakdown and lack of catechesis, but also because many parents put off the celebration until they are sure the child will survive and they will have money for a party.
One of the gravest problems facing society here is the incredible breakdown in family life—though whether it is the cause or effect of the poverty and violence in the city is hard to tell. Most children here (who are particularly beautiful, I must say) are born out-of-wedlock. The vast majority of couples move in together before marriage—if they ever get married at all. Anecdotally, it seems, the average home in the parish (even among those who practice their faith) is made up of a single mother with several children from different fathers, none of whom are anywhere to be found. There is a real crisis of fatherhood here, and it is the rare and happy house that consists of a husband and wife and their own children. This reality probably accounts for why such a low percentage of Catholics receive the Eucharist at any given Mass in the parish.
As a result of all this, the parish has a program, which I will be involved in, for couples who are living together (usually with children) and who now wish to be married sacramentally in the Church. They meet every Saturday to receive marriage preparation from mentor couples as well as from the clergy in the parish. Next week I will be giving them two talks, one on “Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and the other on the theology of the sacrament of marriage. I don’t know yet if I will be witnessing any marriages as a deacon while I am here, but I do already have one blessing scheduled for a couple on their 60th anniversary (!).
Another regular aspect of parish life down here, as everywhere else, is the celebration of funerals. Here, however, there are a few differences. First, partly because of the poverty of most families, and partly because of the climate, the dead are buried as soon as possible, which means that most ‘exequias’ (funeral services) take place in the home, and with very little notice—usually we are called on the same day, or even only an hour beforehand. The service is quick, usually about twenty minutes, and then the body is taken immediately to the cemetery.
Another difference between funerals here and back home is that they are a more frequent occurrence here, and not because of an ageing population. Due to the level of poverty and social breakdown, violence is a regular part of life in San Felix, as is, unfortunately, violent deaths. I have already assisted the priests here in two exequias of teenagers who were shot to death, most probably while trying to steal something. Eventually, I will be doing exequias on my own to lighten the load for the priests.
Finally, there is the sacrament of Confession (which is offered several times a week), Confirmation (which usually occurs in the Spring) and Anointing of the Sick. Of course, as a deacon I cannot celebrate any of them—though I have had the blessed opportunity to accompany Fr. McCabe on a few sick calls as he anointed members of the parish.
Other Aspects of Ministry
As I indicated already, the sacramental life of the parish is much as it is in parishes back home. In reality, however, the sacraments are just the beginning of what the priests are called upon to do here. A priest in this environment really has to be a ‘jack-of-all-trades,’ since he is inevitably the first person the people approach for help when they have a need. And so, Frs. Schaffer and McCabe (and I, in my own capacity) do everything from buying medicine for the sick and paying for medical costs, to tutoring young people in English, giving financial aid to help families get small businesses off the ground, and even just offering rides to those without cars.
In addition to this miscellany, I also have several areas of ministry that I will be focusing on during my time at the parish. There is, for instance, an orphanage just a block away from the parish called ‘Casa de Hogar’ (literally, House of Home), which houses boys, from ages 8-18, who have been living on the street. Some of them may in fact be orphans, but most have simply been abandoned or otherwise found themselves without care and having to fend for themselves. This apparently happens frequently when mothers take up with a new boyfriend who wants nothing to do with the children from a previous relationship. As sad is this situation is, the Casa is itself a very bright and happy place and, with ten boys living there currently, full of energy and activity. It is dedicated to St. John Bosco, the 19th century Saint who took in and educated street boys in Turin, Italy, and it is run in part by his religious order, the Salesians. So, in addition to receiving their education at the Casa, the boys are given religious instruction, pray together, and of course, play together. One thing I’ve noticed in my visits there is that the boys seem to be starving for affection from adult males, and so they literally hang off me and hug me spontaneously. I’ll be going over there a few times a week to help out with their education and just to have fun with them. This afternoon we are going to play soccer at a nearby field.
Another aspect of my work here at the mission is with the members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a group of parishioners who go out each week on Saturday morning to visit some of the most desperately poor and sick members of the parish. They bring food, pray with them, and even clean their houses for them on occasion. This ministry has, I think, been the most powerful and fulfilling one in which I have been involved so far. One of the main reasons for this is that the group itself is made up mostly of the youth of the parish, and to see such young Catholics generously giving of themselves with such joy and dedication is intensely edifying.
It has been an incredible privilege for me just to tag along with this group, and yet from the very start they also looked to me—a complete stranger at the beginning—to lead them in prayer at each house we visit. At first this was a bit difficult for me, as I struggled for the words in Spanish that I wanted to say, but that in itself has been a formative experience for me. In this struggle, I really have come to understand better the heart of Jesus who, “though he was rich, yet for [our] sake he became poor, so that by his poverty [we] might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Any missionary who comes to a foreign land, knowing neither the language nor the culture as well as he would like, will go through this experience of feeling a certain poverty before the immensity of the task upon which he is engaged. No longer can he rely on his human resources—such as attempts at eloquence in speech or personal charm—in order to win souls over to Christ. Yet, as Our Lord has been showing me in prayer, the answer to this is not to attempt to become ‘rich’ again in these resources, which are illusory in any case, but to become ever more poor, and to consent to remain so, so that souls may meet in him not his own person, but that of Jesus Christ, and thereby become rich themselves. Indeed, there have already been several occasions on these visits to the sick where, even before I said a word, the person began weeping merely at the sight of the collar I was wearing—because in it, they saw what, or Whom, it represented, the presence of God and His Church coming to meet them in the midst of their most desperate moments. I can tell you, there is nothing more humbling and, at the same time, fulfilling than that!
Thank you for bearing with my reflections. More to come!
In Christ Our Risen Lord,