San Roque

Today is the feast of San Roque who cared for victims of the plague. He is known among Italians as San Rocco (Rocky) and in English as Saint Roch. But I invoke his intercession as San Roque.

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Statue in the Cloisters Museum, MMA, NYC

I use his Spanish name because my first experience of pastoral work was in the church of San Roque in San Salvador, accompanying the pastor, Padre Pedro Cortes, for two months in 1987. The parish was in an area of San Salvador which was deeply affected bythe October 10, 1986, earthquake.

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The church of San Roque, San Salvador, about 1987

San Roque was, in my mind, a fitting name for this parish.

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Heading out on an excursion with the youth of the parish of San Roque, 1987

San Roque was born in the fourteenth century, in Montpellier, France, of wealthy parents, who died when he was ten. When he was twenty, he sold his goods and went on pilgrimage to Rome. There he began to care for victims of the plague. He contracted the plague and went to the forest to die peacefully. There a dog came, bringing him food and licking his wounds. He was cured and returned to caring for the sick.

There are two versions of his death. He is said to have returned to his native city of Montpelier and continued his care for the victims of the plague, dying when he was about thirty-two years of age. The other version is that on his way back to France he was arrested by soldiers in northern Italy and accused of being a spied. He was jailed and died in prison.

Though little is known of his life, what we learn from him is commitment to the poor, to those at the margins of society, even to the point of becoming one of them.

These past two weeks I have been reading Henri Nouwen’s ¡Gracias! A Latin American Journal, which he published in 1983. It is a book full of wisdom for anyone in ministry and especially for us in missionary countries. He noted that

Ministry is entering with our human brokenness into communion with others and speaking a word of hope.

That is what San Roque was for the victims of the plague. That is what I experienced at San Roque in El Salvador. That is what I hope I do here in Honduras.

Where is your heart?

Some thoughts for this coming Sunday, based on the Gospel, Luke 12: 32-48.

“Where your treasure is, there is your heart,” Jesus tells us in this Sunday’s Gospel.

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There is a legend about Saint Anthony of Padua that might surprise us. Many of us think of Saint Anthony as the saint to find lost keys; I admit I spent several hours searching for some credit cards I had hidden and prayed hard to this saint. He is also known as a wonder worker for all the miracles attributed to him.

But he was an awesome preacher who was not afraid to speak the truth. He denounced the vices of his day – not just drinking and gambling, but especially greed and usury.

One day, Saint Anthony was at a funeral for a rich and avaricious man in Tuscany. He began to cry out that the man should not be buried in the hallowed ground of a Christian cemetery. For his greed and usury, his soul was condemned to hell and his body had no heart – literally!

People were confused and astounded but they sought out some physicians who came and opened the chest of the dead rich man. They found that he had no heart.

But then some people went to the rich man’s house and opened his money boxes. There they found his heart.

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When we put our trust in wealth and power and domination, these take away our heart; they harden our hearts and we live half-dead, since what supposedly moves us is dead matter – gold, silver, cash, coins, and all types of possessions. In fact, we don’t own these possessions; they own us. And so we walk about, heartless.

But there is another story that may help us see how we can live with our hearts in the right places.

For several years, an Oklahoman diocesan priest by the name of Stanley Francis Rother was a missionary in the town of Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, from 1968 to 1981. He learned Spanish as well as the local indigenous language and even translated the Gospels into their language.

He and his pastoral team served the people, evangelizing them in many ways, including projects to improve the lives of the people.

But in Guatemala this was not a time to be interested in the well-being of the poor, especially the indigenous. Many were killed, villages were destroyed, indigenous leaders were disappeared and killed. Even church workers suffered disappearance, torture, and murder.

At one point, things got very dangerous for Father Aplás, as the people called him. He went to the states for a short time but returned, convinced that “the shepherd cannot run and leave the sheep to fend for themselves.” During the night of July 28, 1981, he was killed in the rectory. He was beatified as a martyr in 2017.

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The room where Father Stanley Rother was martyred.

His family arranged to have his body flown back to Oklahoma to be buried there. But the people in Santiago Atitlán asked them to leave them his heart. The family assented. His heart rests in a shrine in the church.

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Last year the pastor of the church I work in and I went to Santiago Atitlán, on pilgrimage. We prayed in the church, we talked to the current pastor, and we served at a Mass at the altar where Padre Apla´s presided; I read the Gospel from the ambo where he preached. We also got a chance to speak over dinner with someone who had worked with Padre Apla´s.

But one moment stands out for me.

We entered the church and noted that there were people praying in Adoration before the exposed Eucharist. We knelt and prayed. I took a picture. Later I noticed that in the front side of the altar there was a reliquary with the blood of Father Rother: Jesus in the Eucharist and the blood of a martyr below.

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Where was Blessed Father Stanley’s treasure? It was in the lives of the people in Santiago Atitlán. And so, in the church from which he served the impoverished, oppressed indigenous people, there is his heart.

What do you treasure? Where is your heart?

Is your heart with the poor, the migrant, the oppressed – as Father Rother’s was?

 

If not, there is still time for conversion.

You are where you’re supposed to be

On August 9, 1991, two Polish missionaries, Conventual Franciscan friars, Fathers Miguel (Michal) Tomaszek and Zbigniew Strzalkowski, were murdered by members of Sendero Luminoso, the Shining Path.  They were beatified in December 2015.

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Today, sitting in the dentist’s office, I was contemplating what I would write tomorrow, when I came across this quote of one of these martyrs, Blessed Miguel Tomaszek, OFM Conv.:

“You are not where you are now to understand the world, but to understand what the will of God is for you. It is a matter of being where you are supposed to be.”

A few years ago I came across a quote on the wrapper of a Dove piece. “You are exactly where you are supposed to be.” It seemed so right for me that I put the wrapper on the magnetic board in my kitchen.

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When the volunteers from the medical group Honduras Amigas came to the house for a discussion on the reality of Honduras last June, one of them saw it and wrote it on the board.

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There are times when I wonder if this is where I really am called to be – loneliness, frustrations, feelings of inadequacy, and more. But in the middle of this, there is a peace, especially on days when I connect with someone here.

I wonder what was going through the mind of Father Miguel and his fellow Conventual Franciscan priest, Zbigniew Adam Strzalkowski, as they served in the people of their parish in Pariacoto, in the diocese of Chimbote. In Give Us This Day, Robert Ellsberg notes how these two young Polish friars were struggling with Spanish, but many of their parishioners deeply loved them as they administered the sacraments, trained catechists, visited the sick, helped with projects of water and community development, and more.

In a letter he wrote before going to Perú, Father Michal wrote:

“I am a happy priest…. Overall, I am very well received. I can feel it over and over, but this isn’t so important to me. I’m myself, and I want to be myself.”

There is a page of the Polish Conventual Franciscans in English with photos and stories that lets you see some of this joy in their ministry in Perú.

When we find where God wants us to be, there can be real joy.

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The photo is taken from the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pg/meczennicy.pariacoto/posts/

 

 

Deacons, beware

Today is the feast of Pope Saint Sixtus II and six companions – deacons of the church of Rome. They were apprehended while celebrating the Eucharist in the private cemetery of Praetextatus and killed on August 6, 258 AD. Saint Sixtus and four of the deacons – Januarius, Magnus, Stephen, and Vincent – were beheaded there and the two others – Felicissimus and Agapitus – were killed probably later the same day. The seventh of the deacons, and the most famous, Lawrence, was killed on August 10.

In a letter to Successus, St. Cyprian of Carthage wrote about the martyrdom:

The truth of the matter is that [Emperor] Valerian sent a rescript to the senate that provides for the immediate punishment of bishops, presbyters, and deacons…. Sixtus was executed in the cemetery on August 6, and four deacons with him…

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How often do we deacons reflect on the commitment of these and other early deacons, to the point of martyrdom?

The Blood of Christ is central to my understanding of the diaconate. The deacon prepares the chalice. He lifts the chalice of the Blood of Christ at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer. He is minister of the Eucharist, especially the Blood of Christ, as I heard on the day of my ordination.

Often when I lift the chalice, I recall the Blood of Christ in my hands, the Blood poured out in love, in commitment. Am I willing to give my life, to the point of shedding my blood, for God and for God’s people? Am I willing to pour out my life in serving Christ and those at the margins?

I often pray that I may have the grace and the courage to do this – most of all in my daily life. Stephen, Vincent of Saragossa, Lawrence were among those early deacons who poured out their lives in service of God’s people to the point of shedding their blood.

I don’t know of any contemporary Catholic permanent deacons who have given their lives for God and for God’s people, though many pour themselves out in daily works of dying to self in order to be present to the poor and despised of this earth.

A few days ago I shared on Facebook a quote from blessed Monseñor Enrique Angelelli, Bishop of La Rioja, Argentina, defender of campesinos, martyr, who died in what was made to appear to be a car crash, on August 4, 1976:

“The thought crosses my mind that the Lord needs a bishop in jail or killed in order to make us wake up to our episcopal collegiality and live it more deeply.”

Maybe we need a few deacons in jail or killed to show the mystery of Christ the Servant.

I don’t think I have the guts for this since I have problems giving myself to the ordinary demands of life and ministry.

I don’t seek it, but maybe I should pray that I may be open to giving myself up for God and the poor, as did Lawrence, Januarius, Magnus, Stephen, Vincent, Felicissimus, and Agapitus.


Image from: https://www.catholicireland.net/saintoftheday/st-sixtus-ii-pope-257-258-and-his-companions-martyrs/

 

Massacre in Platanares, Suchitoto, El Salvador, 1980

It was about 11 am on July 25, 1980. They were meeting in the unfinished church in Caserío Los Leones, Platanares, Suchitoto, El Salvador –  a seminarian, Othmaro Cáceres, and thirteen young men.

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The chapel in Los Leones, where Othmaro Cáceres and thirteen young men were killed.

Othmaro was to be ordained in a few months for the neighboring diocese of San Vicente.  He was from Platanares and often would return from his studies in Mexico. His brother noted how he would help with the labors, like any other campesino, milking cows and working with a cuma in the fields. The young people in the area looked up to him.

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Photo of Othmaro Cáceres inthe hands of a family member.

The young people had taken a break in their meeting and were in the church, sharing candy, but Othmaro was outside. They were talking about their lives as well as about the construction of the new church building. They may have also been talking about plans for Othmaro’s ordination.

Othmaro had just left the chapel when Ventura’s troops arrived, coming from two sides – the road and the fields. He heard shots and hid in the grass. When he thought the troops were gone, he entered a nearby house. But they had not yet gone and caught him there. “You’re the one we’re looking for,” they said and accused him of being a guerrilla leader. He asked them to wait a bit and went down on his knees. He asked God for forgiveness and was then shot. They then attacked his body with machetes. He died of several shots in the chest; afterwards his head was destroyed by blows of a machete.

The other young people were also killed.

This massacre is one of many that happened in El Salvador in the 1970s, 1980s, until the end of the civil war in 1992. Many like Othmaro Cáceres were people of faith, martyred for their commitment to God and the people. Others were like many of the youth killed with him. Some were very involved with the church. A few may have been allied with the opposition forces but most were probably sympathetic to the opposition. Some of them were probably active in their communities, perhaps building underground shelters for friends and family to provide some shelter when the government bombed the area or initiated military incursions into the region.

In the midst of this, they had come together with a friend in walls of a structure they were building to be a House of God in their community.

Victims of war and oppression by a government that had the backing of the US government. But their faith, their resilience can give us strength – as the forces of evil still roam this world.

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Procession to the site of the massacre for a memorial Mass,about 2001.

 

The Good Central American Samaritan

A sermon for the north for the fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C
Luke 10; 25-37

More than fifteen years ago, St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames was planning to expand its offices and worship space. In the gathering space there was an empty two story wall. The committee decided to seek a local artist who was a parishioner to create a “Story Wall” – combing images of scripture and sacraments with the life of the parish.

Jo Myers-Walker took up the project, using clay images that were mounted on the wall. She sought input from many people and involved many parishioners in the project, some of whom make the clay that she fashioned into images.

One day I stopped by her studio and we talked about one image – the Good Samaritan.

Jo was going to portray me as the good Samaritan, knowing of my work with the poor and especially with the poor of El Salvador. No, I said. The Good Samaritan is the Central American.

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All too often we fail to realize that the Good Samaritan was the outsider, the impure outsider. The pure priest and levite pass by – perhaps to preserve their ritual purity. But the Samaritan saw the man who fell among the robbers. He stopped and, moved with compassion, touched his wounds, and took him to a place of rest.

The Samaritans were looked down on by the Jewish leaders. They followed the Torah but didn’t worship in Jerusalem and had other customs. So, when Jesus made the Samaritan the example of what loving one’s neighbor means, he was shaking up the world of his followers.

The outsider heals the wounded – even if the wounded is the insider.

In my experience, the outcasts, the foreigners, the immigrants, have healed me and continue to help making me whole and holy. They make me realize that I need them. I cannot live and flourish without them, without their help that saves and cures me.

That is very clear for me here in Honduras. The poor almost always offer you something to eat. They have helped me repair my car when it’s broken down. They have even opened me to new understanding of scripture.

There are rumors that this weekend ICE will be making massive raids on immigrants, largely Central Americans, preparing to deport them.

And Catholics will be hearing the Gospel of the Good Samaritan at Mass. Will you make the connection?


I will not deliver this homily anywhere, but I wanted to share my reflections with the wider world.

Forgiveness and forestry – St. John Gualbert

On a hill in Florence there is the beautiful Romanesque church of San Miniato. He was, according to the legends, Saint Minias was a royal Armenian in the Roman army. He converted to Christianity and became a hermit near Florence. Denounced to the authorities, he refused to abandon his faith. After tortures he was beheaded, about 250 AD. Like Saint Denis of Paris, he is said to have picked up his head and carried it to the site of his tomb.

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San Minato, Florence

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Interior of San Miniato

 

But the monastery is also important in the life of another saint of Florence, St. John Gualbert. He lived a frivolous life until an event one Good Friday.

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Altarpiece of Saint John Gualbert, in Santa Croce Church Florence

His only brother Ugo had been killed shortly before. Entering Florence with some armed men, he ran across his brother’s murderer. The man opened his arms in the form of a cross and asked for mercy, reminding John that it was Good Friday. John let the man go.

He then went up to the church of San Miniato. Praying before the crucifix he saw Christ bowing his head as the murderer had done. He cut off his hair and soon joined the Benedictine monastery.

This example of breaking the cycle of revenge was very important for his culture, as it is for Honduras. This then is a good day to pray for an end to violence of revenge.

(A side note: revenge is such a problem here because there is no effective judicial system and so there is little follow-up to violent crime. The criminals get off – sometimes with a bribe, but often due to people’s fear of making public charges.)

John entered the order but after accusing the abbot and bishop of corruption, most notably simony, and desiring a more vigorous monastic life, he left. He eventual founded a branch of Benedictines, known as Vallambrosians, after the name of the place where he established his monastery

At Vallambrosa, he had his monks plant trees. He is the patron saint of parks, park rangers, and foresters. Maybe we should look to him as the patron saint of reforestation.

(Another side note: According to one report, the Vallambrosans left manual work to the lay brothers, a practice which I feel is an error and a deviation from the wisdom of St. Benedict who called his monks to “Pray and Work” – “Ora et labore.”)

He died on July 12, 1073; he was about 80 years old.

May he intercede for Honduras and for all those places in our world where revenge and deforestation are serious.

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Apse mosaic, San Miniato

Photos taken by John Donaghy, February 8, 2013

 

 

 

 

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