Tag Archives: Deacon Evan Koop

Deacon Koop at Casa de Hogar

September 29, 2011

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Dear Friends,

One of my main assignments this summer is to visit the various barrios—the different neighborhoods that make up the parish of Jesucristo Resucitado—for catechesis, prayer meetings, Bible studies, etc. each night of the week. On these nights, I get in the truck, say a quick prayer, and drive off to one or another of the barrios. Some of the highlights have included bringing the Blessed Sacrament to the barrio chapels during the week of the Feast of Corpus Christi (it really doesn’t get any better than chauffeuring Jesus around in a Chevy Silverado as He graces the most troubled streets of San Felix with His Eucharistic presence), and guiding the various groups of parishioners through a workbook on how to understand and defend their Catholic faith. It is beautiful to see how each barrio community has its own particular character, and it really is a joy to act, in some small way, as a spiritual father to each of these little families of faith.

Speaking of spiritual fatherhood, what a beautiful privilege it has been over these last few weeks to be able to spend some time with the boys of the Casa de Hogar (literally ‘House of Home’) orphanage. This is an orphanage run by the Salesian Order for street boys who have been abandoned or otherwise neglected, located near our parish church. The house is under the charge of Maria, a single woman who has dedicated her life to serving the boys as a spiritual mother and caretaker. About once or twice a week, I’m able to walk over to the house and see what everyone is up to—and with eleven boys in what is effectively a three-bedroom house, it is certainly never boring. In the mornings the boys have school, in-house tutoring, and trips to the psychologist or local juvenile delinquency officer, but in the afternoons it’s all free time. We’ve been able to play soccer, marbles, board games, watch movies, and otherwise just have fun together in a healthy way.

What amazes me—and this really is a miracle of grace—is just how open, trusting, and innocent the boys are, especially given the troubled backgrounds of many of them. They treat each other as brothers—with all that entails—with the older boys looking after the younger ones. Local volunteers come to cook the mid-day meal, but in the evenings the boys cook for and clean up after one another. They are incredibly friendly with me, and the younger ones especially seem fascinated by even the smallest details of my clerical garb, etc. One thing is for sure: they never tire of asking me how to say their names in English!

On many evenings, Maria organizes some ongoing faith formation for the boys, in which she has graciously allowed me to participate. One evening I used a video of the story of David and Goliath to talk about true and false masculinity. On another evening, the boys were visited by two Salesian priests (missionaries from Italy), and after we talked about the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the boys were able to go to Confession individually.

What strikes me so forcibly about the Casa de Hogar is the tangible presence there of the Holy Spirit. The house is filled with so much love, peace, joy, light, and openness, and I really have begun to see in a tangible way how God Himself is truly the “father of the orphan,” who “gives the desolate a home to dwell in” (Ps. 68:5-6). After all that these boys have been through, God in His mercy has prepared for them a sanctuary, a place of safety and abundant blessing. How many of the other children in this area who have parents are given the kind of personal care, or the depth of one-on-one religious instruction, that these boys receive? How many are able to have personal interaction with priests, religious, and holy lay people on a daily basis? For that matter, how many of their own parents, if they had been present in the lives of these boys, could have possibly raised them with the depth of love, wisdom and grace that Maria does? Having lost their natural families, these boys have now won an even greater spiritual family, so that in them is manifest the great mercy of God, who “raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people” (Ps. 113:7-8).

As always, friends, I ask for your prayers for all the various people and ministries I have shared about here, and for the whole parish of Jesucristo Resucitado. May God bless you all!

In Jesus Christ Our Risen Lord,

Deacon Evan

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Travel Reflections from Deacon Koop

August 23, 2011

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Dear Family and Friends,

 I recently visited a most incredible place; the world-famous Canaíma National Park, which boasts a stunning collection of upland prairies, table-top mountains (called ‘tepuis’), forests and waterfalls—together known as the Gran Sabana.  It was a three-day trip that I took with two other missionary priests of the diocese, one from Poland and the other from Guatemala.

 At a certain point, I found myself standing at a Venezuelan military checkpoint with a skeptical soldier rifling through my backpack looking for contraband.  He did not appear to be in a friendly mood and simply kept repeating under his breath, “American, huh?”  The first item of interest he found was my Spanish Bible which he proceeded to leaf through meticulously one page at a time. “It’s a Bible,” I said, and for a moment I considered asking him whether he cared to read it, but I thought that might be pushing my luck.

 The next item he found certainly appeared to be more incriminating. “What’s this?” he asked, as he held up a small metal cylinder which, I had to admit to myself, did in fact look suspiciously like a shell-casing or a small grenade.  It was my travel-size aspergilium—used to sprinkle holy water during liturgies—which I had forgotten was in my bag.  As I awkwardly tried to explain it to the soldier, I unscrewed the cap and proceeded to demonstrate its function by sprinkling  holy water throughout the small office.  He looked on in silence, evidently nonplussed.  The soldiers ended up letting us pass through and I suppose that it was the first (and probably last) time that their checkpoint had been blessed with holy water.

Somewhat forgetfully, and perhaps naively (well, in retrospect, most certainly naively) I had failed to bring along with me any form of identification, such as my passport or driver’s license, thinking that I would not need them when traveling within the country.  Yet, about every 100 km or so on our drive we had to pass through a checkpoint, and while most were either unstaffed or barely more than a speed-bump in the road, the soldiers at the checkpoint leading into the national park—who obviously took their job more seriously—asked to see our identification.  Fr. Tadeo, the Pole, calmly told the soldier in charge that he and Fr. Antonio were priests working in the diocese of Ciudad Guayana, and that the deacon, who was visiting for the summer from the United States, had not brought any identification with him.  To that, the soldier retorted, “That’s a lie. That’s a lie. An American without any papers? I can’t believe that.”  Fr. Tadeo calmly answered, “Let me tell you, neither can I, but it’s the truth.” Thanks Father, I thought.

Fr. Tadeo, who had recently visited the Twin Cities along with Fr. Schaffer, went on to explain to the soldier that I was from Minnesota, where all the people are so nice and trusting that they never carry any papers with them.  Not entirely accurate, but flattering nonetheless, I suppose.  In any case, it seemed to work and the crisis was averted.

Aside from that little misadventure we had a wonderful time on our trip to the Gran Sabana.  The place is truly one of the world’s wonders, looking like a strange mix of the African savannah, the American West, and the green hills of Ireland—all interspersed with patches of jungle and cascading waterfalls.  Apparently most geologists believe it is one of the oldest landscapes on earth, which, along with the primeval beauty of the place, makes one understand why it was the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 literary classic, The Lost World.  If ever there were a place where dinosaurs could still be found to roam the earth, this would certainly be it.

Deacon Koop at Park

 The climate in the Gran Sabana is much more temperate than that of San Felix, which was a welcome relief. There is one main highway leading through the heart of the park, which we explored at a leisurely pace, stopping at a few waterfalls and scenic vistas along the way.

 As we traveled around and were treated to the wonders of nature, I found myself reflecting with joy and thanksgiving in my heart that God should have brought me to such a place.  For those of you who don’t know me as well, I spent much of my childhood watching the Discovery Channel and wanting to be a biologist in some wild, far away place like Africa or the Amazon Rainforest—and now, here I was, under circumstances I could never have predicted.  In choosing to pursue God’s call to priestly service, I suppose in some ways I had believed that meant ‘giving up’ such dreams in order to follow His will.  Yet God, in His infinite goodness and personal care for each one of us, marvelously finds ways to fulfill even the smallest desires of our hearts even as He calls forth from us a greater and more perfect love.  It brings to mind the words of Our Lord, “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matt. 6:33).  So often the acceptance of a vocation is portrayed merely as an act of self-denial and sacrifice on our parts—where in fact it is a pure gift to us from God, the One who is never to be outdone in

 Such are the adventures which, in God’s providence, I have been able to experience in the last three weeks or so of my time here at the Archdiocesan mission in San Felix,Venezuela.

More to come!

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Reflections from Deacon Evan Koop – Part 2

July 26, 2011

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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.

Evan with Neli who is ill and homebound

Sacraments

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.

Evan visiting home with St. Vincent de Paul group

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!

Evan reading to 85-year old Epifania

Thank you for bearing with my reflections.  More to come!

In Christ Our Risen Lord,

Deacon Evan

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Reflections from Deacon Evan Koop

July 18, 2011

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Iglesia Jesucristo Resucitado, June 17, 2011

San Felix, Venezuela

Reflections from Deacon Evan Koop

Hello from the parish of Jesucristo Resucitado (‘Risen Christ’) in San Felix,Venezuela!  It’s hard to believe its only been two weeks since I got here to the mission.  The days have been packed with so many pastoral encounters and such a variety of different ministry opportunities that it feels like I’ve been down here for much longer than that. But I know the time will fly and before I know it I’ll be on a plane back home, so I thought it would be good to send you all a few updates while I’m here.  This is the first of what will hopefully be several updates during my time in Venezuela (though I make no promises!). I also hope that each one will include a few photos as well. Though I cannot possibly share the whole variety of beautiful encounters and incredible blessings the Lord grants me each day here, that certainly will not stop me from trying!

My Time at the Mission

 As to my own time here, I can only say that it has been a great blessing, an experience at once beautiful and challenging.  Last year, I was able to visit the mission with my classmates as part of a seminary course, after which, through prayer and discernment, I asked the seminary if I could be sent here for my summer deacon assignment this year.  The previous two years, in fact, two other deacons (now priests, Fr. Erik Lundgren and Fr. Jon Kelly) had done the same.

I had several reasons for wanting to serve here for the summer. First, I had a desire to serve the poor here, where there is such need for the presence of Christ and His Church in the midst of so much suffering and despair.  There is a level and type of poverty here that, realistically speaking, does not exist to any great extent in the States.  Second, I wanted to offer some aid to the priests who serve here, who are incredibly dedicated and self-giving, but also burdened with many pastoral responsibilities.  In fact, though the Diocese of Ciudad Guayana has just about as many Catholics as the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, it has only 46 priests—most of them foreign missionaries—compared to over 300 in the Twin Cities.  Finally, in view of my future priestly ministry in Minnesota, I also wanted to continue improving my Spanish, so that at least I might offer Mass and hear confessions back home for Latino Catholics.

And while it has taken some time to get used to my new surroundings, God, in his goodness, has certainly allowed each of those desires to be fulfilled already in some way. One thing is for sure—I have not yet been bored! Each day is a kind of adventure, as new and unforeseen pastoral needs and opportunities arise. At the end of the day I find myself thanking God for the experiences He has given me, and for the awesome privilege of being His representative at times of both spiritual crisis and human joy.  All in all, it has been very confirming for me in the call He has given me to be his priest one day soon.

In many ways, Jesucristo Resucitado is just like any other Catholic parish around the world—which is what makes our Church so beautiful!  Its life is centered around the celebration of the sacraments, which in turn are centered around the most important moments in human life: birth, maturity, marriage, sickness, death, and the ever-present need for conversion and Daily Bread.

The Mass

As a Deacon, I serve at the daily Mass each day and I preach on occasion: four times thus far, and more often in the future, perhaps. Obviously, since the homilies are in Spanish, it takes me more time to prepare than it normally would—about two hours for a daily mass homily, and four for Sundays. That preparation alone has served my ongoing learning in Spanish well, as I search the dictionaries and grammar books to be able to say what I want, and then seek the corrections of others.  This has been one of the unexpected joys of my time here.  Of course, other than the difference in language, the Mass is the same here as it is throughout the world—though I must admit I don’t know that I’ve ever sensed its power so much as here, as Jesus makes Himself present amid such squalor and want, entering hearts with such simple and profound faith.

In addition to the Masses at the main parish church, the priests here are also responsible for bringing the sacraments to the many surrounding barrios (‘neighborhoods’), since most of the people do not have cars and cannot walk the long distance to church. In order to prevent the faithful in the barrios from falling away from the Eucharist entirely, Fr. Schaffer, the parish pastor, has begun building small chapels in each of the barrios to provide a center for the community’s practice of the faith.  And so, as I get in the truck with either Fr. Schaffer or Fr. McCabe to travel from barrio to barrio to say Mass on Sundays, I sometimes feel like one of those circuit-riding priests of the last century—bringing the grace of the sacraments where they are most needed.  And the need really cannot be overestimated: though the parish has a population of anywhere from 30,000-50,000 people, about 90% of whom are officially Catholic, only about 5-10% practice their faith to any degree.  Even among those who do practice the faith, the level of catechesis is generally lower than that found among Catholics in the States.  The lack of priests here and the inability of the people to frequent the sacraments must have a great deal to do with this growing problem.

Next Blog : read about how sacraments are delivered and some of the many mission activities in the barrios.

Deacon Evan Koop

Next Week: Reflection # 2

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