Monthly Archives: May 2012

Bearing Christ to the world

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the visitation of Mary, pregnant with Jesus, to her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist. It is a feast of the love between two women who said yes to the presence of God in their lives.

There is much that could and should be written about the implications of the Gospel (Luke 1: 39-56), which ends with Mary’s Magnificat, a revolutionary canticle of God’s Kingdom overturning the kingdom’s of this world.

But what struck me this morning while praying Vigils from Benedictine Daily Prayer: A Short Breviary,  was a selection from Caryll Houselander’s  Reed of God.  The whole passage cited is worth reading, especially the first paragraph. But these words especially recalled to me the vocation all of us have to bring Christ to our daily lives, to our work and not only to our prayer.

If Christ is growing in us, if we are at peace, recollected, because we know that however insignificant our life seems to be, from it he is forming himself; if we go with eager will, in haste, to whatever our circumstances compel us, because we believe that he desires to be in that place, we shall find that we are driven more and more to act on the impulse of his love. And the answer we shall get from others to these impulses will be an awakening into life, or the leap into joy of already wakened life within them.

All work – that is true and just and good – can be a place where God is found. And wherever we can and whatever we do, that is where we can bring Christ.

 

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Getting more by giving up more

Yesterday’s and today’s lectionary readings from Mark 10: 17-31 are very challenging to people like me who have many things.

In today’s Gospel, Peter tells Jesus “We have given up everything to follow you.” It’s a bit overstated, but then don’t we always overstate our dedication.

As I prayed over the reading this morning I reflected that I have given up some things – but far from everything.

Some people see my move here to Honduras as heroic. But it’s not. It just has come as the result of various opportunities that God has given me and of the inspiration and support of so many people. And it has been very good for me.

What touched me in the reading was Jesus’ response to Peter (Mark 10: 29-30):

…there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel, who will not receive a hundred fold in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children and fields, with persecution – and in the age to come eternal life.

Here is Honduras  I often feel as is I have more than a hundred houses – places where I feel welcomed and where I am fed and where I can sleep, if needed.

I have hundreds of brothers and sisters. I especially think of all the campesinos I have worked with in the Dulce Nombre parish as well as in some projects in the diocese with Caritas. I think also of the Dubuque Franciscan Sisters in nearby Gracias, Lempira, who are good friends.

I have a few mothers, people who care for me. I think especially of the Spanish Franciscan sisters down the street who have welcomed me.

I have lots of children. I can hardly go anywhere, even here in Santa Rosa de Copán or int he Dulce Nombre parish, without some kid yelling, “Hola, Juancito.” Sometimes I don’t know how they know me, though some I remember of hte Santa Rosa kids from when the lunch program for kids was functioning.

I don’t have fields and up to this point I have not experienced persecution. And I do have hope for eternal life.

I probably wouldn’t have had such opportunities if I had stayed in Ames. But God has been good – and has filled me with many small joys.

Giving up even a little has great rewards.

A prayer of Dom Helder

Dom Helder Câmara was one of the most amazing bishops in Latin America in the twentieth century. He served the archdiocese of Recife in northeast Brazil, one of the poorest parts of the country at that time. He defended – nonviolently – the poor and marginalized.

This diminutive man, under 5 feet tall, was the scourge of the Brazilian dictatorship. He was so feared that for many years it was forbidden to mention his name in Brazilian newspapers. Once he greeted a man sent to assassinate him who went away saying that he could not kill a man of God.

But that didn’t stop the killing of others. Fr. Enrique Pereira Neto, co-worker with Dom Helder, was killed, in Recife, Brazil, on May 26, 1969.

There is a prayer of his that has moved me for many years after I first read it in the 1970s.

Come, Lord,
do not smile and say you are already with us.
Millions do not know you,
and to us who do,
what is the difference?
What is the point of your presence
if our lives do not alter?
Change our lives,
shatter our complacency.
Make your word our life’s purpose.
Take away the quietness of a clear conscience.
Press us uncomfortably.
For only thus
that other peace is made,
your peace.

Francis among the lepers

Yesterday I joined the Dubuque Franciscan Sisters Brenda and Nancy and Betty, a volunteer with them, for a retreat at their center in Gracias. It was a good time apart, reflecting on the Franciscan charism we share.

Nancy shares a reflection that included this excerpt from St. Francis’s “Testament” which he dictated shortly before his death:

The Lord granted me, Brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way: While I was in sin, it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord himself led me among them and I had mercy on them. And when I left them that which seemed bitter to me changed into sweetness of soul and body; and afterwards I lingered a little and left the world.

Many, but not all, of the groups I welcome experience a sense of sweetness in the midst of the bitterness of life they share spending a few days living in a rural village.

One group was particularly overwhelmed by the signs of poverty – including spiders, cockroaches, and other vermin; they never got over an initial concern about security after they had heard of a few cases of killings in the area. But another group, despite the fact that all of us got bad cases of diarrhea, went away with a deep sense of joy.

Willingness to share the bitterness, the difficulties of the lives of the poor is a gift that not all can accept. At times our concerns for security and comfort close us off to this gift and all we can see is the bitterness, the bleakness, the despair.

I have been blessed many times over by being allowed to share the lives of the poor. And it has given me joy.

I remember working in 1992 in a rural village in the Suchitoto, El Salvador, parish. There was no water; most of the houses were provisional; life was hard. I slept in a hammock in the house of Esteban and Rosa Elbia and their many children. In the rainy season the water came in and soaked the dirt floor under my hammock. But each morning when I awakened my first thought was “Thanks be to God.”

And so today, gifted by that experience and many others, I can say with Francis, “that which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body.”

All this has allowed me, after lingering for a good number of years in Ames, Iowa, to leave that world and begin to enter the world of the poor.

Where this leads me, I do not know. But I may have to leave the comfort of life here in the city of Santa Rosa de Copán to embrace a life closer to the poor in the countryside.

I pray that God give me the courage, strength, and wisdom to follow His call.

 

A peasant witness against Nazism

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of Blessed Franz  Jägerstätter, who was killed by the Nazis on August 9, 1943, for refusing to serve in Hitler’s army.

Franz, an Austrian peasant, was a husband and father who saw through the deception of the Nazis and refused to cooperate with what he saw as an immoral regime and an immoral war. He not only refused to serve in Hitler’s army, but he had been the only person in his village to vote against the Nazi annexation of Austria.

He was urged by many, including a priest and a bishop, to cooperate but his conscience prevented him from collaboration in what he saw as immoral.

His story might have been forgotten had it not been unearthed by Gordon Zahn, a US Catholic sociologist and conscientious objector. Zahn published his research in the book In Solitary Witness, which included many of the letters he wrote from prison.

Since I read this book I have been moved by the witness of a peasant who held firm, despite all the pressure not only from the Nazis, but even from church authorities.

One of his most moving letters tells of a dream in 1938 of “a shining silver train circling around a mountain. ““This train is going to hell,” he hears. But people refuse to jump off. He identified this train as Nazism. A few years later he showed the world that he would not jump on the train.

In another of his letters he asked, “Is there anything the individual can do?” Though I think it is a limited response to the question his answer is worth praying over:

Today one can hear it said repeatedly that there is nothing any more than an individual can do. If someone were to speak out, it would mean only imprisonment and death. True, there is not much that can be done anymore to change the course of world events. I believe that should have begun a hundred or even more years ago. But as long as we live in the world, I believe that it is never too late to save ourselves and perhaps some other soul for Christ.

But the example of people like Franz Jägerstätter has changed the world, moving many people to be willing to speak up for justice and truth, without counting the cost.

Would that there may be more people like Franz.

St. Isidore the Farmworker

On May 15, 1130, outside Madrid, Saint Isidore died. Though he is invoked as St. Isidore the Farmer, he might better be called St. Isidore the Farmworker, in Spanish, San Isidro Labrador. He was not a farmer who owned his land, but – as many people do here – worked on another person’s fields.

From  his teens, St. Isidore worked as a day laborer on the farm of a landowner. He led a life of devotion, attending Mass each morning. But he was also known for his generosity to the poor as well as to animals.

A delightful story is that one winter day he was on his way to grind grain. Seeing some hungry birds, he poured out half his sack of grain to feed them. When he arrived at the mill, the sack was filled.

There are also stories of angels accompanying him farming.

An image I have seen here is Saint Isidore with two oxen, pulling his plough. It must mean a lot to people here in Honduras since in the department of Intibucá I have seen teams of oxen carrying materials and even plowing the field.

Saint Isidore reminds us of the dignity of work but also calls us to work for justice for all farmworkers, that they may have land to work so that they can sustain their lives and the lives of their families.

Let us pray today for justice in the land.

Such a call for justice can be heard in the Guatemalan bishops’ statement  The Cry of the Land:

“We belong to the earth (Gen 2:7) and it belongs to us because when the Lord created us, he charged us to till it and care for it (Gen 2:15). Thus, work in agriculture appears the quintessential task by which we situate ourselves in the world and before God.

“Many scriptural texts express joy at the fruit of our fatiguing labor on the land and our thanksgiving for God’s blessing. When the land bears a crop, we know that God blesses us (Ps 67:7; 85:13)….

“The land does not belong to us, but to God, and what each calls property is in reality the portion needed to live. ‘The land and all in it, the world and those who inhabit it, belong to God” (Ps 24:1)….

“In Recife, Brazil, [Pope] John Paul II told the farmers: ‘The land is a gift from God, a gift for all human beings, men and women, who are called to be united in a single family and related to one another in a fraternal spirit. Therefore, it is not legitimate, because it is not according to God’s design, to use this gift so that its fruits benefit only a few, excluding others, who form the immense majority.’”

 

 

Discerning the call to Honduras

In May 2006 I visited Honduras. In March a spring break work trip with parishioners in the parish where I was working took us to New Orleans. There I was moved to consider whether I should move on to something different, something more.

El Salvador was one possibility and I applied for a position there. But letters I had been reading from a friend in Honduras led me to consider the possibility of offering my services there.

I wrote Sister Nancy about my thoughts and she urged me to come, visit her,  and talk with the bishop. I agreed.

After a visit with friends in El Salvador and a visit to the site of the possible position there, I crossed into Honduras.

I shared a few days with Nancy before visiting with the bishop who welcomed me to come but advised me that the diocese had no money for me.

But on the Saturday before seeing the bishop I went with Nancy to a rural village in the parish of Gracias, Lempira, where she serves.

The lectionary readings that day are those used today.

The first reading is Acts 16: 1-10. Paul and Timothy cannot go to one place, because the Spirit did not allow them One night Paul has a vision, a dream, where a Macedonian comes and tells him: “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

I could not help but think that the message was for me, “Come over to Honduras and help us.”

That reading from Acts helped me to decide to come here. Prayer, discernment with my spiritual director and with friends, as well as the support I received from people at St. Thomas, also helped me to make the decision.

Still, people ask me why Honduras and not El Salvador, which I knew and had visited and where I had worked a few times.

The call of God from the people of Honduras is clearly one reason. The acceptance of Bishop Santos is another. Sister Nancy’s witness also helped me discern.

But the more specific reasons for my presence here is that Honduras is poorer than El Salvador, and is probably the second poorest country in the Americas. Also, there was less solidarity with the church and the people here than with El Salvador.

But central is the call I heard that day, “Come over to Honduras and help us.”

I came and do not regret the call – almost five years now in Honduras.