Newsletters & Reflections
Fr. Herald J. Brock, CFR
This year the date for the feast day of Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, April 16th, happened to fall on Easter Sunday, which meant that his memorial could not be celebrated liturgically. However, since he is the patron saint of the St. Benedict Joseph Medical Center in Honduras, as well as that of Fr. Benedict Joseph Groeschel, CFR, in whose honor the Center is named, we celebrated a special Mass at the Medical Center on the Monday after Easter. It gave us the opportunity to link these two celebrations, the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus and the life of this Saint, and to reflect a little on their relationship, and
Saint Benedict Joseph Labre grew up in a devout peasant family in France in the 1700’s. With the assistance of his family and relatives he was able to do the preliminary studies necessary for the diocesan priesthood. However, as he matured he felt more and more called to an austere monastic life. He tried to enter several different monasteries on a number of different occasions, only either to be refused admittance or else to find himself obliged to leave due to emotional difficulties. He finally came to the conclusion, after much anguish and spiritual darkness, that God was calling him to live the solitude of monastic life in extreme poverty as a perpetual pilgrim. Each year he would make a circuit of the principal shrines of Europe on foot, always making sure to be in Rome for Holy Week. It was there that he died in 1783 at the age of 35 on Holy Wednesday. What could a filthy, foul-smelling, flea-infested, mentally ill man who died a homeless beggar possibly teach us about the Resurrection? A lot, if we’re willing to pay attention.
Unfortunately, perhaps because of some of the currents in contemporary preaching and theology, as well as the influence of high-tech culture and pop psychology, in the minds of many Christians the Resurrection kind of cancels out the Cross. It’s not that we forget about the Cross completely, or that we’re not grateful to Jesus for His sacrifice. Rather it’s that the Cross is a reality of the past – something Jesus did for us, while the victory of the Resurrection is something alive and present. As “Resurrection People” we are supposed to be “over-comers,” charged with the “super power” of the Risen Christ. It’s as though we are to glide through life on a pair of spiritual roller blades, with few, if any, personal problems or difficulties of any kind. We’re supposed to look good, feel good, be good and do good – almost effortlessly. Struggle, sacrifice, and suffering are realities that should be permanently banished from our lives.
It should really take only one serious, attentive and honest reading of the Gospel of Mark to divest us of this kind of fantasy. Jesus in no way conceals what Dietrich Bonhoffer called “the cost of discipleship,” nor do any of the Evangelists attempt to hide the faltering attempts of the Apostles to follow Jesus . Even the very hope-filled and energetic Acts of the Apostles recounts the struggles of the early Christian community. And yet the myth of “effortless, problem-less, well-adjusted, super-duper Christianity” continues. It obviously involves much more of the projection of our own ideas and desires than the content of the New Testament. In all honesty, even in our prayer, we are often more preoccupied by our physical health and appearance, and our emotional wellbeing and financial security, than with living the virtues of an heroic Christian life.
And in the midst of this distorted version of Christianity, smack dab on Easter Sunday, Saint Benedict Joseph Labre comes to our rescue to show us that living the Resurrection doesn’t mean eliminating human weakness, but rather allowing God’s power to shine through our human weakness (cf. 2Cor 12:9, and the Preface for Martyrs of The Roman Missal).
The following quotes from Saint Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians (which at that time was by far not a problem-less local church) show just how deeply the way in which Saint Benedict Joseph Labre lived the Resurrection is rooted in the New Testament:
“For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows… But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus , so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus ’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body… For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him to serve you” (2 Corinthians 1:5, 4:7-11, 13:4).
These passages show just how “un-Gospel” the expectation is that Christians have fewer problems than others. In fact, with refreshing realism that echoes the teaching of Christ, his Master, Saint Paul seems to imply just the opposite: that a serious attempt to follow Christ may very well be accompanied by more difficulties than otherwise. But – and this is the important part – in the midst of those very struggles (what Saint Paul calls “the death of Jesus” – His cross – that “we always carry around in our body”) the life of Jesus is revealed and the power of His Resurrection is manifested. How does this happen? As Saint Paul explains, although we face significant challenges, we’re not defeated; although at times confused, we don’t give up; we may be harassed, but God does not abandon us; life may deal us some tough blows, but we’re able to get back on our feet again and keep going.
We find a very similar message in the well-known passage of Saint Paul in Romans 8: “ Who shall separate us from the love of Christ ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (vv. 35-37). When Saint Paul mentions trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness and danger, one gets the impression that he’s not just speaking theoretically. In fact he is writing autobiographically, from his own direct personal experience (see 2 Cor 11:23 -28).
In the midst of his own poverty, loneliness and mental illness, how did Saint Benedict Joseph Labre live the mystery of the Resurrection? How did he allow God’s power to shine through his human weakness? Principally by the practice of three fundamental Christian virtues: humility, chastity and charity. In this way he allowed the power of the Risen Christ to conquer three of the most deep-seated forces in human nature that stand in opposition to love of God and love of neighbor: pride, slavery to the instincts – especially lust, and selfishness.
Saint Benedict Joseph was perhaps one of the most unassuming human beings that ever lived. He rarely even begged for himself, preferring to live on what people were spontaneously moved to give him. He lived in the “background” of human existence, preferring to be overlooked and disregarded, and in fact often being overlooked and disregarded, at least until – despite his best efforts to prevent it – he began to acquire the reputation for sanctity. During his endless journeying on the rural pilgrim routes of Europe he would pass weeks at a time speaking with no one but God.
The well known English Christian apologist C.S. Lewis reportedly once described himself as a “chastitute,” so enthralled was he with the virtue of sexual purity. He is, in this respect, surpassed by Saint Benedict Joseph Labre , who practiced chastity, and indeed the mortification of all the bodily senses and appetites to an extreme degree. And while it had been said that his penitential practices were more “admirable than imitable,” they produced in him an extraordinary luminous purity. This can be visibly seen in the magnificent painting of the Saint by artist Antonio Cavallucci that is preserved in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In addition to the profound sense self-abasement communicated through his downcast eyes and the exceptional mildness of his facial expression, Benedict ’s skin is almost translucent. He practically glows. The “radiance” of his body reached its apex when he was waked in the Church of Santa Maria dei Monti during Holy Thursday and Good Friday. In the midst of the riotous crowd that thronged into the church to view the Saint’s body was the scornful American Puritan minister John Thayer , who happened to be visiting Rome at the time. The mere sight of the sublime serenity of Benedict ’s face and his undiminished dignity, despite the fact of being little more than a skeleton dressed in rags, was enough to precipitate his conversion. He eventually became a Catholic missionary priest serving in England and Ireland.
The object of all of Benedict ’s penance, of course, was to acquire perfect charity. While it is true that in desperate situations, such as that of a homeless beggar, the rule of life can often be, “Every man for himself. Look out for number one;” the exact opposite is the case in Saint Benedict ’s life. Like Jesus, who was able to “break out” of the reality of His own suffering to console the sorrowful women of Jerusalem on His way to the Cross, and from that same Cross promise paradise to the repentant thief and concern Himself with his mother’s future, Benedict Joseph was able to make of his poverty and loneliness a means of communion with those who shared his plight – often looking to their needs before his own. There are even reports of food multiplied by his prayers.
Paradoxically, it is precisely in the poverty, loneliness, mental illness and abjectness of the life of Benedict Joseph Labre that the light of the Resurrection shines most dazzlingly. He is living proof of the inspired words of Saint Paul: “hard pressed but not crushed, perplexed but not despairing, persecuted but not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed,… carrying around the death of Jesus in our bodies so that in our bodies the life of Jesus may also be revealed.” A prayer he wrote for a family who showed him hospitality reveals his own awareness of this fact:
Jesus Christ, the King of glory, comes in peace.
Fr. Herald J. Brock, CFR
Daniel and Michelle Hinckley, the young lay missionary couple who have served with us in Honduras for the past two and a half years, gave birth to their second child early in the morning of December 20, 2005 . Knowing early on that the due date for the arrival of their son would fall very close to Christmas, they chose a name well in advance of his birth: Emmanuel. It is a beautiful name, full of meaning and promise. It is found originally in a prophecy of Isaiah to Ahaz, King of Judah : “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Emmanuel” (Is 7:14 ). St. Matthew cites this passage in his Gospel, proclaiming that it has been fulfilled in the virginal conception of Jesus in Mary by the Holy Spirit, adding that the name Emmanuel means, “God with us” (Mt 1:23). This is the Gospel read at the vigil Mass of the Nativity of the Lord on Christmas Eve.
Emmanuel is one of the most beautiful names for Jesus. In a sense it sums up His whole life and purpose. Not “God away from us,” but “God with us.” Not, “God against us,” but “God with us.” God present among us in a totally new and accessible way. God on our side, the God who “crossed over” the infinite gap separating divinity and humanity. The God who “showed up,” in person, face to face, in utter contradiction to Sartre’s Waiting for Godot (Godot, being a pseudonym for God, who in the play never arrives).
Presence in the flesh, presence in person, real concrete presence is crucial; it makes all the difference. It basically proves the fact that God loves us, because He’s here, He showed up, He’s present. God’s presence with us in Jesus makes all the difference because it totally transforms our situation and plight. It is one of the great recurring themes of literature and film (as well as in the lives of the saints) that when the hero shows up, he or she, by theirr very presence is able to rally the troops, turn the tide, transform defeat into victory. Jesus is able to give us hope, light, strength, courage, peace and confidence because He’s here, He’s with us, He came, we’re not alone. In an analogous way we can appropriate the experience of Jesus’ own awareness of the unfailing presence of His Father: “You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me” (Jn 16:32).
The presence of Jesus also gives amazing significance to everything we do, even to what may seem small and insignificant, because He’s here. We act differently when
Scripture scholars point out that Jesus is “Emmanuel” both at the beginning and at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. His last words are: “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). But one can legitimately ask, how can this be if Jesus returns to the Father? Doesn’t the Ascension somehow negate the Incarnation? Is He really still with us? A purely spiritual presence just doesn’t seem to cut it and feels like a regression into the Old Testament again. How is this dilemma resolved? Only because Jesus found a way to continue and extend His presence among us in the flesh; real, personal, concrete presence: “This is My Body,… This is My Blood, … Do this in memory of Me.”
One of the more subtle contradictions in the way that Christmas is celebrated in many settings (presumably everyone is aware of the gross contradiction involved in the obscene commercialization of Christmas) is the idealization of “the perfect family Christmas,” with fire, food, festivity, family and friends. It is, as Fr. Benedict Groeschel likes to point out, like the Norman Rockwell painted version of the Christmas that never happened. Obviously Christmas has a profoundly family orientation; the Holy Family is the center of attention. But the emphasis on the “perfect Christmas” with fire, food, family and friends, only makes this season all the more painful and difficult for the poor, the abandoned, the forgotten, lonely and disenfranchised. One is reminded of Hans Christian Anderson’s heartrending tale of the Little Match Girl, outside in the cold looking in at the perfect Christmas and fantasizing about what it would be like to be invited in.
One of the reasons why the myth of “the perfect family Christmas” becomes such a contradiction, indeed almost the exact opposite of the meaning of the feast, is because it seems to forget the fact, clearly stated by St. Luke: “She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Lk 2:7). An inn is the place of human fellowship, of food, comfort, light, safety, warmth. The reality is that Jesus and His family were excluded from that place of human fellowship and left outside alone in the cold, dark, uncomfortable, unsafe stable. This becomes a recurring theme in the life of Jesus: He is excluded, rejected, abandoned, an outsider, an outcast. St. John puts it dramatically in his prologue (the Gospel read at Mass on Christmas morning): “He came to his own, but his own did not accept him” (Jn 1:11). The climax of this personal history of exclusion comes at the end of Jesus’ life: “Jesus suffered outside the city gate” (Heb 13:12), thrown out of the human community like a piece of garbage.
The amazing thing, though, is that by His exclusion Jesus creates a space “outside,” a place for the excluded. Nowhere is this clearer that with the shepherds, quite possibly illiterate, unkempt, unwashed, uncouth, rustic, forgotten campesinos. They are the first to receive the announcement of “good news of great joy,” which includes the fact that: “You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12). As a matter of fact, this excluded baby wrapped in rags and sleeping in the trough of an animal pen is the very “sign” given to them that for them has been born their Messiah, Savior and Lord.
The Manger of Bethlehem becomes the place where Jesus creates a “communion of the excluded,” all gathered around Jesus for Whom there was no room in the place of human fellowship, Whose own did not receive Him, Who died outside the gate. At the very moment of his death, Jesus transforms the instrument of capital punishment that was the Cross, into another place of the “communion of the excluded” when he assures the dying thief who appeals to Him, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” (Lk 23:43). Perhaps that is why the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, after noting that Jesus suffered outside the city walls, invites us: “Let us go to Him outside the camp” (Heb 12:13), outside the inn.
1. To be a Christian means being willing to be excluded from all forms of exclusive human fellowship that contradict the love of God; to be willing to be an outsider, an outcast, so as to be able to enter into “the communion of the excluded” centered around Jesus.
2. To be a Christian means to actively seek out, to eagerly search for the excluded, to enter into friendship with them and bring them into communion with Jesus; to share with them the “good news of great joy” that has as its sign, “a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
Two days before Christmas this year I had the opportunity to visit a boys orphanage about 20 minutes from our friary. I had known it was there and had passed it many times along the main highway, but had never had the opportunity to visit until that day. It was a very moving, and actually very disturbing experience for me. The boys listened attentively and responded eagerly when I spoke to them about Emmanuel, God with us in Jesus, and about His special love for the poor and excluded. As I observed them later, poorly clothed, somewhat awkward yet sticking together, alone and without their families in that desolate place, I was shaken by the fact of how forgotten, overlooked and set aside they were. I couldn’t escape the conclusion that, if Christmas isn’t for them, it isn’t for anyone; and if Christmas is for the rest of us, it’s so that it can be for them, and for everyone they stand for, too. I hope to be able to go back and visit those boys more often this year, to bring them the Real Presence of Emmanuel, “God with us,” in the Eucharist, and to find Jesus there, outside the inn, outside the gate, and enter with Him into “the communion of the excluded.”
We received the first threatening letter in late August of 2005, just before I left for my home visit. The anonymous author presented him or herself, unconvincingly, to be a benevolent bystander warning us of impending danger from a third party. The threat was not directed toward us. It was directed, almost inconceivably, against the Ramirez family.
This is the family I wrote about in our Summer 2005 newsletter. The family has two older, healthy children, and three seriously handicapped younger children. They lost their home during Hurricane Mitch and thought they had lost their father in the flooding, too, until he was found amnesiac and traumatized in a shelter in a distant part of the country.
Following the hurricane they were relocated to El Sitio, a small satellite village outside of Comayagua. After being robbed multiple times there in broad daylight as a result of a crime wave that overtook the little village, and when it was discovered that the deed of the house which they had supposedly been given was never properly transferred, posing the thread of eviction, we decided to move them into a rental house near our friary until we could arrange to build a permanent home for them. That took place on Tuesday of Holy Week. And everything seemed fine until late August when the notes began to appear. Who could possibly want to harm such a vulnerable and defenseless family that had already suffered so much?
After talking among the friars here, I decided to show the note to Rosa, the mother of the family. We talked at length about who might be a likely suspect. She recounted to me that their time in El Sitio was more difficult than I had thought. Apparently some of the villagers thought that her handicapped children had a contagious disease that would infect the other residents, and so began to harass the family almost from the outset. Rosa thought that this was also the motive behind the robberies and the deed conflict. But still, since they had moved out of the area, what would be the motive for pursuing them from there? Could someone be jealous because we were building them a house? The results of our discussion were inconclusive, but Rosa was undaunted. She would stay in the house, and leave the doors and windows open during the day as she usually did. A few days later I left for my home visit.
Three weeks later, the weekend after I returned, two more notes appeared in quick succession and with increasing urgency. In the mean time, during my absence, an incident occurred that revealed who the culprit was. Myrna, another woman on our food list who lives near the Ramirez’s, showed up at their house one day yelling and waving a pistol in the window, threatening Leticia (Leti),the eldest, healthy Ramirez daughter. The motive was now clear, too: envy and jealousy concerning a young man who was enamored of Leti, but upon whom Myrna had also set her affections. We have known Myrna for several years. She has had a very difficult and painful life that has left her bruised and broken, emotionally unstable and susceptible to destructive relationships. Twice we have had to help the child welfare authorities remove her children from her care when they were being abused by a shady male companion. We didn’t break off our relationship with her either time, however, and have tried to continue to help and support her. Because of Myrna’s emotional instability, we figured the best way to solve the problem was to move the Ramirez family again, this time even closer to the friary and to the lay missionaries with whom we collaborate. That’s when things really started to get a little crazy.
The week in which we moved the family for the second time had even heavier downpours and more violent thunderstorms than usual for the rainy season. On Monday during our house meeting when we were plotting all this out, our friary was hit by a lightning bolt which blew out most of our phones and left us without phone service for several days. That evening, in the midst of extra sloppy and muddy roads and soaking rain, we moved all the Ramirez family’s belongings (including 8 wet chickens) into the friary while the temporary occupant of the rental house packed up and moved out. The next day they moved into their new residence, which still needed some significant repairs. We found out to our surprise during the next couple of days that the owner of the house had neglected to tell us that it was for sale and could be bought at any time, leaving us in limbo from week to week as to how long the Ramirez’s could stay. That was a particularly busy week for us in terms of meetings and other activities because the feast of St. Francis, which entails substantial preparations, was approaching, some brothers were making their monthly retreats, and three friars would be leaving shortly for a month of intensive Spanish studies. During the course of that week we also sheltered a couple of patients from the nearby St. Benedict Joseph Medical Center who had come from far away to be screened and scheduled for an upcoming surgical mission, and helped the lay missionaries arrange temporary shelter for another family on our food list that had been flooded out of their home due to the heavy rains.
The crescendo came on Monday, October 3 rd. Because it was the first Monday of the month, it was food handout day for the approximately 90 families we provide for on a regular basis. Because it was the day before the feast of St. Francis, it is also the one time of year when we invite about 150 neighbors, friends and benefactors to an evening prayer service, the Transitus, to commemorate the death of our Holy Father. We began with our usual Monday morning house meeting, abbreviated because of the food handout, and then sprang into action. Before we could welcome the families into our chapel for songs, prayer and a message, a distraught Leti appeared at the door. Minutes before Myrna had jumped her and assaulted her. Myrna hit Leti with a soda container she was carrying and Leti defended herself by whapping Myrna with the live chicken she had just bought. The chicken escaped alive, but Myrna pounced on Leti. A bystander pulled her off before she could do much more damage than a few bruises and scratches. Myrna fled and Leti, after stopping briefly at her mother’s house, took refuge in the friary. After welcoming all our families and getting them situated in the chapel and started on the Rosary, we had a pow wow over what to do. Retaliation is always a very real possibility in Honduras , so we had to be careful, but it became clear to us that we had to go to the police about the matter. We decided it would be best to file a complaint rather than press charges, and to talk to Myrna directly, telling her that we would continue to give her food and not take additional legal action if she would just leave the family alone. We followed up on both of these steps a few days later. By the time we reached that conclusion the Rosary was almost finished. I made a dash to my room and grabbed a sheet with the prayers of St. Francis in Spanish and gave an impromptu talk to the families on two or three of his prayers and how they might help us to pray.
Afterward, the roll call of the families began, starting with the ones who live farthest away and need rides. Most of these are exceptional cases (since we normally only assist families in the immediate area of the friary) and many are individuals with some kind of mental illness. That makes the task of keeping them all together and getting them into one of our pickups a little comical and somewhat frustrating since they tend to wander off. As it turns out, we ended up with one person with us in the truck who wasn’t supposed to come, while another lady was accidentally left behind. Once we had sorted out the confusion and were heading up the steep road leading to some nearby mountain villages where we had deliveries to make, Fr. John Anthony (who was driving) noticed the needle on the temperature gage going into the red range: the car was overheating. We pulled over, shut off the engine and were enveloped in a cloud of steam as we opened the hood. I went around to the side and buried my face in my crossed arms as I leaned on the truck: “Why is this happening, Lord? We’re trying to help these people. This isn’t fair!” At that very moment another truck with some people we knew (actually hunters returning from an unsuccessful foray) happened to pull up and asked what was wrong. They quickly assessed that the problem was a small hole in the radiator that had caused all the water to leak out. All that was needed was to refill it for the time being and repair the leak later. In about 15 minutes the truck was running again. We made our mountain deliveries, paid the monthly fee for a few homes we rent for extremely poor families, and made it back to the friary in time for an early Holy Hour and last minute preparations for the Transitus.
Our guests began arriving at 6:30 and it was a full house. Br. Damiano did a wonderful job preparing the chapel. A few minutes after 7:00 the service began in our large entrance area. After an introduction and preliminary reading we processed through the passageways of the darkened friary, carrying candles and chanting: “Bless the Lord, my soul, and bless His holy name. Bless the Lord, my soul, He rescues me from death” (Psalm 103), as we made our way to the chapel, symbolically accompanying St. Francis as he was borne to the chapel of Our Lady of the Angels to make the passage from death to eternal life. I was at the end of the procession, sustaining the chant from the rear, when all of a sudden I was jolted by a shock of panic. I had to sing St. Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures later in the service and, because of the twists and turns of the last few days, hadn’t even looked at it since last years’ Transitus. I ducked into my room as the procession passed by and grabbed my copy, which I was able to hum through during some of the readings of the service and sang without too much difficulty.
In retrospect, all the events leading up to October 4 th turned out to be a strangely appropriate and particularly effective way to prepare us to celebrate the feast day of our Holy Father St. Francis. As I listened to the prayers, songs and readings of the Transitus, two words continued to reecho in my mind and heart: patience and perseverance:
“In order that his merits might increase – for these are brought to perfection in patient suffering – the man of God began to suffer from various illnesses, so seriously that scarcely any part of his body remained free from intense pain and suffering… He long continued speaking about practicing poverty and patience and about keeping the faith of the Holy Roman Church, and he recommended the Gospel to them before any other rule of life… Then he added: ‘Farewell, all my sons, in the fear of the Lord; remain in it always! Temptation and tribulation are coming in the near future, but happy are they who will persevere in what they have begun” (St. Bonaventure, Major Life of St. Francis, XIV: 2, 5).
“I, brother Francis, the little one, wish to follow the life and poverty of our most high Lord Jesus Christ and of His most holy mother and to persevere in this until the end” (St. Francis, Last Will Written for St. Clare and Her Sisters, 1).
“Praised be You, my Lord, though those who give pardon for Your love and bear infirmity and tribulation. Blessed are those who endure in peace, for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.” (St. Francis, The Canticle of Brother Sun, 10-11).
I have a laminated holy card given to my by a Poor Clare nun that shows a ragged and pathetic looking St. Francis and Br. Leo trudging through the snow on a barren landscape accompanied by a quote of the saint from the Little Flowers: “If we bear all things with patience, for the love of Christ, this is perfect joy!”
In his Earlier Rule St. Francis writes: “The brothers must rejoice when they live among people who are considered to be of little worth and who are looked down upon, among the poor and the powerless, the sick and the lepers, and the beggars by the wayside” (IX:2).
St. Paul reminds us that “our light and momentary troubles [especially compared to those of our poor neighbors!] are achieving for us an eternal weight of glory that far outweighs them all” (2Cor 4:17 ), and that “in all these things we are more than conquerors because of him who loved us” (Rm 8:37 ).
God, in the mysterious designs of His mercy, in the days leading up to the feast of St. Francis, gave us a crash course, in the spirit of our Holy Father, in patient perseverance, perfect joy, eternal glory and victory in the midst of troubles through the love of Christ.
It was Easter Week 2002. Fr. Glenn Sudano, CFR, and Fr. Bob Lombardo, CFR, respectively CFR Community Servant and Community Vicar at the time, were visiting. Later that week we would celebrate the blessing of our newly renovated friary with the local bishop at the time, our good friend Monseñor Gerald Scarpone, OFM. We were at our afternoon Holy Hour, somewhere between 5:00 and 6:00 pm in our chapel, located just off the foyer and main entrance of the friary. In the midst of the silence of that time of prayer, we heard a very loud “BANG!” caused by some large or heavy object being hurled against our front metal doors, followed by loud shouting. Several of us immediately sprang to our feet, reverenced the Blessed Sacrament that was exposed in a monstrance for adoration and ran out of the chapel to the front door.
I believe it was Br. Agostino who first opened the door to discover Lenin Zavala, a young man of about 19 who was staying with us at the time while he finished his high school studies, in the midst of being mugged by a local thug. It was Lenin’s body that had been thrown against the door, causing the loud bang, and Lenin who had been shouting for help in the midst of the assault. When the criminal looked up and came face to face with Br. Agostino, he hopped on his bike, having already succeeded in removing Lenin’s watch, and took off around the corner. Br. Matteo sprinted out the back door in hot pursuit, and I took off after them both. Fr. Glenn stayed behind to make sure Lenin was all right.
Br. Matteo caught up with the assailant on the other side of the block, right in front of the parish church. He grabbed hold of the fleeing thief and took both bike and rider down. While wrestling with the young man and trying to restrain him, the youth reached around his back under his belt. Thinking that he might have been reaching for a concealed weapon, Br. Matteo let the criminal go, but held onto the bicycle. Being unable to wrest the bike from Br. Matteo’s grasp, and seeing me come around the corner, he decided to cut his losses and took off running down one of the neighborhood streets, moving faster on his feet than he could have on his bike on the rutted dirt roads that crisscross our barrio. Several onlookers who had witnessed the spectacle gathered around us once the perpetrator had fled. They warned us that the young man was a known criminal in the neighborhood, that he was bad news and could be dangerous, and that we should return the bicycle to him as soon as possible and forget about the whole matter so as to avoid further trouble. Ignoring their advice for the moment, we decided to take the bicycle back to the friary in the hopes that the young man would come looking for it and so give us a chance to talk to him.
When we arrived back at the friary entrance way a few minutes later, we found a shell-shocked but unharmed Lenin. The mugger had used no weapons and apparently had just ruffed Lenin up a little to induce him to hand over his watch. Later we talked over the whole matter to come to a decision as to how to respond. The first conclusion was that it was unsafe for Lenin to walk home from school alone at that hour, especially as it was almost dusk at that time of year. As for letting the whole thing drop in order to avoid more trouble, that was out of the question. That kind of intimidation was exactly the attitude that encouraged bullies in the first place, and one of their best defenses. It kept people locked up in fear and paralyzed to respond. Not only that, if we didn’t somehow confront this assault it would leave us vulnerable to further similar incidents in the future. We knew that there was no point in going to the police, so we decided to act personally.
It wasn’t hard to discover the name of the young man, Cristian, who his family were and where they lived. We decided to try to track him down ourselves. We went to his mother’s house. We went to his uncle’s house. We went to his grandmother’s house. We went early in the morning. We went late at night. We went repeatedly over the course of several weeks, but without success. We eventually suspected that his family was concealing him. A couple of months after the assault, several weeks after suspending the ‘manhunt’ because we had exhausted all possibilities of finding him, we were finally tipped off that Cristian played soccer almost every afternoon with a kind of shady group of young men on the field adjacent to the friary – right next door! The problem was that they usually played after work at the same time that we were in Holy Hour. We tried to spy him out a couple of times from the little balcony that overlooks the friary courtyard and has a view of that field, but we didn’t have a clear idea of his appearance, especially from a distance.
I should pause here to explain that that shady group of soccer players had already generated a little internal disagreement among the friars. We had had some unpleasant interactions with them on several previous occasions. We had reason to believe that they used drugs. We also knew that they would pass tortillas to our dog, Sol, under the rear truck gate, and suspected that they might be doing that so that she would recognize them and not bark at them if they ever tried to enter the friary. Despite all this, in true Franciscan fashion, Fr. Terry – who himself had had a little confrontation with these marijuaneros about looking at pornographic magazines in public in the presence of children – suggested that we try to show them kindness by putting out a hose with running water for them to drink while they play soccer. I have to admit that I was less than enthusiastic about the idea at first, but eventually agreed to give it a try. After all, St. Francis himself at the hermitage near Borgo San Sepolcro had counseled the brothers to bring food and show kindness to some local thieves who used to come and beg from them, trying little by little to win them over and change their lives. The thieves eventually repented, and some even became friars. Kindness conquers. That forms part of the backdrop of the story.
Because of the logistical difficulties involved, as well as our repeated failures to track the man down, we went so far as to enlist the assistance of little César, who was about ten years old at the time. César is sharp-witted budding entrepreneur whom we jokingly called “the mayor.” Since César knew Cristian by sight, and wouldn’t be suspected of being an accomplice since he’s part of the regular neighborhood scene, we asked him to keep an eye out for Cristian on the soccer field during Holy Hour and come to the door if he saw him.
Things went as planned, and one afternoon soon after devising our stratagem César knocked at the door during Holy Hour: Christian was on the field playing soccer. I wasn’t home at the moment, but Br. Matteo didn’t want to lose this long awaited opportunity. He went out of the door of the friary on the other side of the block and pretended to be walking nonchalantly down the street toward the field. When he rounded the corner of the parish church and came in view of the players, he noticed Cristians’s uncle, Cata, leaning against the wall. He approached him and asked him if Cristian was on the field. Cata said yes, and pointed him out to Br. Matteo. Br. Matteo called to him several times from the side of the field, but Cristian pretended not to hear him. With a show of chutzpah, Br. Matteo strode out into the middle of the field, extended his arms in both directions with palms facing outward to halt the game, and walked up to Cristian. Trembling and with downcast eyes, the young man listened as Br. Matteo told him that he didn’t have to be afraid, that we didn’t want to hurt him, but that we did want to talk to him about what happened. In a voice that cracked he agreed to a meeting.
Shortly thereafter the three of us sat down to a long talk. Cristian pleaded that what he had done wasn’t his fault since he had taken drugs and didn’t know what he was doing. We responded that if he knowingly took something that affected his judgment, he was indeed responsible for his actions. In the end Cristian acknowledged the wrong he had done and we willingly forgave him. I asked him to do two things. First, that he promise never to do anything else like that again, to which he readily agreed. And second, that he apologize personally to Lenin, to which he agreed, but less readily. Saying you’re sorry is a bitter pill for a tough guy in a machista culture to swallow. We made an appointment for the apology.
I wasn’t sure that Cristian would show up. Lenin was terrified. But when the day and the hour came there was a knock at the door; it was Cristian. I let him in and called Lenin. There was an awkward moment when no one seemed to know what to do or who should make the first move, so I asked Cristian if he had something to say. He walked up to Lenin, said he was sorry for what he had done, that it would never happen again, and held out his hand. Lenin took his hand, accepted the apology, forgave Cristian, and let out a sigh of relief. I felt the invisible shock waves of a little spiritual earthquake.
From that point on things have been different between Cristian and us. We greet him when we see him in the street, or – sadly – at the wakes of some of his friends who have died a violent death. At those times Br. Matteo counsels Cristian to be careful and change his life so that he doesn’t meet the same end.
The whole affair came full circle on February 9 of this year. A few days earlier, in the evening, a different uncle of Cristian came to the door. He said that his mother was dying and wanted to go to Confession, and would I come. I brought the Holy Eucharist and the sacred Oil of the Sick, and went with Br. Damiano to see the woman. I brought Br. Damiano along because he is a registered nurse, and there’s a lot of confusion and misinformation about medical matters among our neighbors. As we found out soon afterwards, the woman, whose name was Encarnación, had advanced stomach cancer and died a few days later. I anointed her, gave her Viaticum and we prayed with the family. Christian’s mother and his Uncle Cata, whom we had visited multiple times in the early morning and late evening three years ago, were there.
We attended the wake, which took place in the usual Honduran fashion: women in the house praying, men – among them Cristian and his uncles – outside shooting the breeze. As is our custom on such occasions we prayed Compline and the Rosary with those who were present and offered a few words of consolation and exhortation. Fr. Herminio, the local pastor, was away at the time on a trip to a mountain village, so the family asked if we would do the funeral Mass in our friary chapel.
At 7:00 am on Wednesday, February 9, 2005 – Ash Wednesday, as a matter of fact – the funeral entourage arrived at our front door, the same front door where Lenin had been assaulted almost three years before. Cristian was there as one of the pallbearers, and came into our chapel for the Mass. As I saw him there I couldn’t help but marvel at how far things had come: from wrongdoing to worship, from assault to adoration, from a criminal outside to a son inside his Father’s house. He came, perhaps, impelled by grief. But he entered unafraid because of forgiveness.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression that Cristian’s life has been totally transformed. But he has changed, something has shifted inside him. St. Francis and Fr. Terry were right. Kindness conquers and forgiveness sets free.
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Fr. Herald J. Brock, CFR
Last March 19-20 (2005), I made my regular monthly personal retreat or “hermitage,” as we call it in our community. Taking such times for solitary prayer is a practice drawn from our Capuchin Franciscan heritage. The early Capuchins had a strong eremitical bent and subsequent generations preserved that penchant for contemplative prayer. It is prescribed in our constitutions that each friar set apart a few days each month to go on hermitage.
Those particular days last March carried with them special meaning. March 19 th is the Solemnity of St. Joseph, foster-father of Jesus and husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and March 20 th happened to be Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. Since our community does not run parishes, I occasionally find myself free on a weekend and able to make my hermitage days then, especially here in the Honduran mission. Those specific days, falling side by side as they did, gave me the opportunity to reflect on the chastity and spiritual fatherhood of St. Joseph, and the relationship of these two qualities to the Cross and the Eucharist.
I have loved St. Joseph ever since I first really discovered him when I was a novice. It was in that year, 1989, that Pope John Paul II´s Apostolic Exhortation on St. Joseph , Redemptoris Custos or Guardian of the Redeemer, came out and gave me the opportunity to get to know this extraordinary man through the eyes, mind and heart of John Paul II. Almost every year since then, on the Solemnity of St. Joseph, I have reread my well-worn and much marked copy of this little document.
As I did so this past March 19 th, it struck me that one of the qualities I had always noted about St. Joseph was in fact the quality that defines his existence: spiritual fatherhood. The following words of the Holy Father helped me to come to that realization:
At the same time, because of the unique circumstances in which St. Joseph lived and the demands they placed upon him, I realized that his spiritual fatherhood was the result of his celibate chastity. The way in which St. Joseph embraced and lived chastity out of love for Jesus and at the service of the “mystery of [His] Incarnation and… the redemptive mission connected with it” integrated his manhood to such an extent that it was ‘forged,’ if you will, into spiritual fatherhood.
This is expressed visually for me in my favorite image of St. Joseph by the famous Italian portrait painter, Pietro Annigoni. In it, a solid and sturdy, very believable carpenter-like Joseph is shown standing behind his workbench beside the boy Jesus. Jesus, symbolically presented with golden shining hair and dressed in a red tunic, is leaning over the workbench intent on some kind of activity. The manly bulk of Joseph is hovering over him, with his hand reverently extended over the boy’s head almost hesitant to touch Him, and with an amazing expression of poignant masculine tenderness on his face. The light radiating from Jesus’ golden head is reflected on the chest of Joseph’s dark blue tunic. That reflection is symbolic, for me at least, of the way in which “Joseph’s love as a man was given new birth in the Holy Spirit” and “his fatherhood taken up into the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation.” Or, in other words, the way in which his manhood was transformed by celibate chastity into the “indescribable gift” of his human spiritual fatherhood.
On the following day of my hermitage retreat, Palm Sunday, I decided to re-watch the film, The Passion of the Christ. This was something I had been wanting to do for a while, but had to prepare myself for. It’s not the kind of movie that one can just “sit down and enjoy;” seeing it is really a kind of harrowing experience. I decided to take advantage of the opportunity of my hermitage to watch it and so prepare myself for Holy Week.
Of the many, really almost continuous, powerful scenes in the film, the one that struck me the most during that viewing was when Jesus, His shredded body stripped naked except for a loincloth, climbs by Himself onto the Cross. It is at the same time an eloquent and forceful image of both chastity and the Eucharist: Jesus offering His manhood in fulfillment of the Father’s will, surrendering His “flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51 ).
While the significance of that scene had occurred to me before, it was heightened in the light of the previous day’s reflection, and two things became crystal clear to me: how Eucharistic chastity is and how un-Eucharistic or opposed to the Eucharist unchastity is, and the realization that the “furnace” that “forged” Joseph’s manhood into spiritual fatherhood was the redemptive suffering inevitably associated with celibate chastity. In these matters there is no escaping the Cross. But its power is such that it can integrate human sexuality through celibate chastity and transform it to such a degree as to become able to give life and communicate love in a supernatural yet fully human way.
St. Bonaventure speaks about this transforming fire in the conclusion of The Soul’s Journey into God: “This fire is God, and his furnace is in Jerusalem [Is 31:9]; and Christ enkindles it in the heat of his burning passion,” [trans. Ewert Cousins, Bonaventure (New York: Paulist, 1978) 115].
by Fr. Herald J. Brock, CFR
What does a full-time high school English teacher and widowed mother of three teenage boys, who takes doctoral classes in the evening, serves as minister of a lay Franciscan fraternity as well as volunteers in her local parish, do in her spare time? Coordinate a multi-community effort to collect and store a huge amount of needed goods and then ship them in a forty-foot container overseas to two Franciscan missions in Honduras, of course. This is not Wonder Woman, but rather an ordinary Catholic lay woman who, responding to an inspiration from God, opened her heart in faith to the power of His grace and allowed Him to work through her, touching a whole lot of people along the way. "I don’t know the woman who did that," she told me recently, so conscious is she of how much the whole effort depended on God. I know her; her name is Kathy Weyant and she lives in Sussex, New Jersey. And, if not Wonder Woman, she’s still amazing.
It all started over a year ago when Kathy collected a much smaller amount of items and shipped them to us in fifty-five boxes by FedEx with a special airline employee discount. The local FedEx executives were so impressed (the commercial value of the shipment was over $20,000!) that they paid us a special visit and treated us like preferred customers. That only whetted her appetite, though. Learning from that experience she started even earlier this year to put announcements in bulletins and local papers and mobilize the network of lay Franciscan fraternities to assist in this endeavor. A local hotel provided the space to store the items free of charge, and then donated hundreds of used bedspreads to the cause! A moving company gave boxes. Kathy’s fellow teachers pitched in to help. An Arizona cousin of one of the missionary Franciscan Friars in Honduras coordinated an effort on the part of women from her Mormon church community to sew handmade baby quilts and purchase hundreds of cloth diapers and other baby supplies to send down on the container for struggling single mothers. A flea market was held to raise funds to help cover shipping costs. Local Home Depot stores were bought out of wasp spray to fill a special request from the missionaries. Confirmation candidates and Boy Scouts showed up to help sort and pack. By the time it was over literally hundreds of people were caught up into this spiritual tornado. And some were left thinking: if Kathy can do this for missions in Central America, why can’t I do the same for missions in Africa or Asia or who knows where? Faith and generosity are contagious.
"Your friary looks like a thrift store!" remarked Carol Restaine, coordinator of the Missioners of Christ lay volunteer community that works with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in Comayagua, Honduras. It really was as if an entire thrift store, with all of its contents had been compacted into a forty-foot container and then exploded into our friary to fill the front entranceway, our library/classroom and overflow into our cloister courtyard. A flock of about 35 bicycles had to be herded to three different locations before they were finally all distributed. This gives you some idea of the enormity of the shipment we received: bureaus, tables, chairs, beds, end tables, night stands, desks, shelves, plates, pots, pans, plastic ware, cups, glasses, utensils, sheets, towels, blankets, pillows, soap, shampoo, lotion, tooth brushes, tooth paste, hundreds of rolls of toilet paper and paper towels, men’s clothing, women’s clothing, children’s clothing, and boxes and boxes of shoes. And this is after about one-fifth of the contents (mostly cribs and toys) was picked up and carted off in a large truck by another Franciscan missionary who serves on the Guatemala border. Nor does it include special items sent for the St. Benedict Joseph Medical Center, Missioners of Christ and the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. We’re talking a laaaaahhhhhttttt of stuff!!!!!
And our families? Well, they were ecstatic! It was like a shopping spree for them with no money down and delayed interest charges for purchases on credit! Only in this case, there was no credit, and no later payments, because everything was for free! Each family received a basic (55 gallon, heavy duty, black plastic, special-requested for this occasion) bag of linens, personal care products, household goods and religious images - to which they could add clothing items and shoes for each member of their household, as well as baby items when applicable. They were then able to choose one piece of furniture or, later in the week when the furniture pickings were slim, a bicycle. The later bicycle option produced no little envy in those who had had first round draft pick of the furniture. Some families took a long time to choose their piece of furniture while wide eyes stared out of the rear chapel windows that look into the friary entranceway, hoping that their desired article would be passed over. Gasps, groans and cries of "¡Puchica!" let it be known when it wasn’t.
By God’s providence, a delay in the arrival of the container (which was originally slated for delivery on December 3rd, but didn’t actually arrive until December 31st, due to a three week layover in Jamaica) enabled mission visitors from Boston College’s HELP (Honduras Education and Leadership Project) group to assist us in the loading and home delivery of each family’s items in our friary’s two sturdy pickups. Our favorite photo from the whole event show’s a Honduran matriarch seated like a monarch on the throne of her donated chair in front of the palace of her family’s humble adobe home. There’s no joy like making a woman such as this, who labors under the heavy burden of poverty, feel like a queen!
And that’s what it comes down to, isn’t it: recognizing the royal dignity that these, our brothers and sisters, have in the eyes of Christ the King. And recognizing, as well, our royal responsibility to share with them the riches we have received from our one Father in heaven. St. Francis of Assisi used to say that poverty, when chosen for the sake of the Gospel, was a royal virtue since it shone forth so eminently in the life of Christ our King, and Mary, His Mother, our Queen. But poverty can be more than a royal pain for those upon whom it is imposed without being chosen. Yet, in that case it can become a golden opportunity for us to show where our real treasure lies: in our faith or in our finances. We can grow in the former when we share the latter with those in need. "As we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ" (words we pray at every Mass), is there any better way than by treating the poor with royal respect to prepare for the return of the King?
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by Br. Youssef Mariam Hanna, CFR
I just came back from Honduras after spending one month with our brothers in Comayagua, serving the poor and discerning my next assignment.
My experience was awesome. The poor in Comayagua taught me many practical lessons about spiritual joy, even though they are so poor, simple and suffering from different illnesses.
Some of the people have no running water, no electricity, no fridge, no hot water, no stove, no bathroom. They have only one room for the whole family (with many children) and yet they are all HAPPY!
I worked in construction with another brother fixing the roof of a house and building a bathroom for a poor family. I remember I had a discussion with a particular family about happiness. When I asked the children and the mother if they are happy with the condition they are in, the response was: “Si, somos felices,” “Yes, we are happy.” Not only that, the mother told me suffering is good for you. She meant that her suffering is united to the Passion of Christ, which becomes her spiritual joy.
Wow… They are living the simple, poor life like Jesus and Mary lived 2000 years ago, and like St. Francis 800 years ago. Living in these conditions, it has to be the grace of God that enables a layperson or a religious to be happy.
One day I met a woman in real agony at the door of a hospital. Father Herald and I were moved by compassion to talk to her. We understood that she had tremendous pain and she could not eat. We prayed for her healing and Father gave her a blessing. She became calmer and I started talking to her about offering her pain to the Lord and begging God for graces for the conversion of sinners. She told me that she was doing that and she was accepting her daily crosses.
I heard many stories at our hospital in Honduras about patients (they come from far places) who have no hope for a cure and are dying. And at the same time they are accepting their condition as God’s will and are not angry at us or at God.
Please pray for the volunteer doctors and the patients. The doctors are performing many surgeries this week for the poor in Honduras in our hospital, to relieve them of their agonies.
The suffering Christ with His wounds has brought salvation to us all. The wounds of the poor are bringing grace and conversion in the Church. It reminds me of what St. Paul said in Colossians: “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the affliction of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the Church”(Col 1:24).
We shouldn’t be surprised when we hear about our friends or neighbors having amazing conversions from a horrible lifestyle to holiness. It could be that someone suffering in India or somewhere else in the world is praying and offering all their difficulties for the conversion of sinners.
Thank you all for your generosity to the poor and to our community. May the Lord give you His peace! God’s love is forever.
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by Fr. Herald J. Brock, CFR
It wasn’t exactly what you could call a typical day in the life of St. Seraphin Friary. It was, however, a day on which many typical elements of our life came together in a unique way so as to give a little idea of what a slice of life is like for the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in Comayagua, Honduras. It took place exactly two years ago today, on September 10, 2002, the date on which the Honduran people celebrate the Dia del Niño, the Day of the Child – the child, the greatest and most beautiful but also the most vulnerable and endangered resource of the country.
We live on the outskirts of town where many of the homes still do not have electricity or running water, and some not even a toilet. So when the sun goes down, things get quiet and for that reason we generally do not have activities at night. Into the evening it’s still possible to hear faint noises off in the distance. As we pray the Rosary on the little prayer terrace overlooking our cloister courtyard at about 8:30 each evening we might here the sounds of an occasional evening Mass or parish meeting coming from the Catholic church next door, or music or preaching from the sound system of one of the nearby evangelical churches. A stray radio might be playing in one of our neighbor’s homes or a dog barking at some unknown threat. Occasionally there’s an unusual, suspense-filled kind of silence that hovers over the neighborhood and reveals its source in the sudden outburst of cheers, firecrackers and pistol shots. It’s an the broadcast of an evening soccer match involving one of the major league teams or the Honduran national team in which a goal has just been scored. By 10:00 pm, however, almost complete silence reigns.
At 3:30 am the roosters begin to crow and the dogs begin to bark in unison all throughout the neighborhood, creating a kind of rolling, undulating sound that flows back and forth across the area. At 4:00 am the alarms begin to go off in the friary. First (at that time) Br. Felix’s, then Fr. Terry at 4:10, then mine at 4:20 and so on with the rest of the brothers’. Then the morning procession begins: first to the coffee pot, then to the showers and finally (when the bell rings five minutes before to call us to prayer) to the chapel for Office of Readings at 5:00 am, the first of the “hours” in the Liturgy of the Hours (otherwise known as the Divine Office or the Breviary, the official daily prayer of the Church - a structured prayer consisting of a hymn, several psalms and biblical canticles and responses, readings from the Sacred Scriptures and the writings of the saints, intercessions and other prayers). That’s the way we normally begin our day. The Office of Readings is followed by an hour of personal prayer and spiritual reading in private, then Morning Prayer at 6:30 followed by Mass. But the schedule of this day was a little different.
For some months prior, we had been receiving solicitudes, requests for assistance - of which we receive many, from the primary school teacher in a remote mountain village called San José Injerto. His name is Hermes and his handwriting and manner of expression are distinct. He always began his solicitudes with the greeting: “May the Supreme Maker of the Universe preserve you in good health.” It’s customary here to begin any letter with a friendly expression of good will, but I’ve never encountered one quite like that. Most recently he had been asking us to do something for the children of his school on the Day of the Child. Apparently many of the families of the village were also experiencing hunger at that time: the new harvest of corn was not yet ripe and last years stores were long gone. Without informing Hermes, we decided to do a surprise strike. The Day of the Child looms large in the consciousness of Hondurans. For many children here its more like what Christmas is for American children in terms of candy and gifts, than Christmas itself is – while remaining much more meager in cost and quantity. We decided, then, to celebrate the day by bringing piñatas, candy and gifts for the children and basic food supplies (corn, rice, and beans) for their families.
To pull this off, however, we had to rearrange our daily schedule. San José Injerto is a 3-4 hour drive on back roads into the mountains. To make the round trip in a single day, you have to start early. For reasons I will describe below, we decided to flip-flop our schedule and start the day with Holy Hour (an hour of prayer in the Eucharistic Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, exposed in a monstrance for adoration) and Morning Prayer at 5:00 am. That enabled Br. Matteo to grab a quick breakfast and head out with volunteer Javier Martinez and several members of the youth group for a successful mission that brought a great deal of joy to the children and families of San José Injerto.
The rest of us stuck around for a little more time of quiet personal prayer and the Office of Readings at 7:00 am. Then I grabbed a quick breakfast and was out the door in the other pickup for a full day of activity. The other brothers set to work on the daily chores of the friary, which included feeding the animals (dog, cat, pigs, chickens, rabbits and pigs), gathering the eggs and cleaning the pig pens. My first destination was the local prison-farm where I was filling in for Mass in the absence of the regular priest-chaplain. That was why we flip-flopped the schedule, so I wouldn’t have to celebrate two Masses back to back. Prisons in developed countries are unpleasant. Prisons in developing countries are appalling. During my time in Honduras I have come to realize how much money and effort is needed to maintain an effective police force and judicial system, which at the same time maintains professional standards of behavior and respect for human rights. Developing countries just don’t have access to these kinds of funds and expertise, and so can only take very small steps forward at a time with much faltering and much to be desired from the perspective of those who take their country’s own law enforcement forces for granted.
I had been in the Comayagua prison before with a boy from our neighborhood, Pablo, who wanted to visit his father. Both of his parents had been imprisoned as a result of a conflict with in-laws over money. I had already seen the eight cramped dormitory buildings – each sleeping a hundred men in bunk-beds stacked four high, all the little concession stands that rent space to sell candy and cigarettes and soda to the inmates and their visitors, prisoners attempting to sell hammocks and baskets and other handcrafts they’ve made to try to earn a little money, the pornography and prostitutes for sale in the far corners of the courtyard, and the gang members with their distinctive tattooed bodies roaming throughout the open spaces in between the buildings. This was the first time, though, I had entered the little multi-denominational chapel where Mass was to be celebrated. There were about twenty in the congregation, with others pausing for a few moments at the doors or open windows to look at the gringo priest. Pablo’s father was in the congregation, but this time Pablo wasn’t with me. In fact, his father was worried about him and his younger brother. Since the parents had landed in jail the family had been scattered and he wasn’t sure where his children were and how his children were. And so he asked me to look for Pablo. That would have to wait, however, until after the priests’ meeting at the bishop’s residence which was to start at 9:30 am.
I don’t usually attend the monthly priests’ meeting of the diocese. Normally diocesan business is carried out and things pertaining to parish life are discussed. It’s also an opportunity for diocesan priests to see one another and have a bit of fellowship – especially those serving in remote areas and who may not have a phone or even a car. We’re kind of out of that loop; we don’t run parishes and we have our own local fraternity of friars assigned to the mission. When I do participate in these meetings its usually for a particular reason, almost always – as in this case – to announce an upcoming medical mission. The lack of infrastructure (roads, means of communication, etc.) in Honduras requires one to think ahead and plan longer-term. We begin publicizing missions of visiting surgical teams two to three months ahead of time using every available means: television, newspapers and radio. By far, however, the most effective means of reaching those most in need of this kind of care is the internal network of the Church. Each parish has 20-50 outlying villages attached to it. The parish priest may visit these villages only once or perhaps a few times each year for the celebration of Mass and the other Sacraments. However, each village generally has a small team of lay leaders who conduct a Sunday celebration of the Word in place of Mass and other prayer services such as the Rosary, coordinate sacramental catechesis and otherwise hold the local Catholic community together. It is a common practice for pastors to have monthly formation and information meetings with the various delegados, as they are called. This, then is how we’ve been able to draw patients in need of surgical care from remote mountain villages: we tell the pastors, they tell their delegados and they inform their communities. Something similar happens, but on a much smaller scale, with the evangelical churches which work together in a much looser network, and with the State Department of Health and their various health centers scattered throughout rural areas. And, in fact, my next two stops that day were for those purposes: to drop flyers for the November surgical mission off at an evangelical lay missionary’s home (where I also encountered a young boy carrying fresh-cut firewood and helped him carry it home), as well as at the regional offices of the Department of Health. One additional avenue of dissemination is Caritas, or Catholic Charities, whose field workers in rural communities also help to recruit patients.
Then I sent out to look for Pablito. There were two places where the brothers had seen him. One is an open passageway with shops on both sides that runs through a large building and connects two streets in the commercial district of town. We had seen Pablo there various times begging money from shoppers. I asked some of the street venders if they had seen him or knew his whereabouts, but no one remembered seeing him there in the recent past. The other place was outside of the Registro Nacional de Personas, on the other side of town, where birth certificates and identity cards are issued. I had seen Pablo there with some other street children some time before, but again no luck; he was nowhere to be found. While in that neighborhood, I stopped in the metal workshop of the colonial museum to check on some wrought iron hinges we were having made for our new, extra-sturdy wooden front door. I made one more stop, a quick visit to Ballardo Antonio Morales, a disabled man whom I had met “by accident” in town one day. His sister lives in the US and as a girl in Honduras had a Franciscan sister as a teacher who is a friend of ours. His sister told him to keep an eye out for us, and so one day when passing outside his office he called out to me, and so our friendship began. He has an accounting business and has kept the books for the St. Benedict Joseph Medical Center for free since the beginning of its construction. Finally my full morning jaunt was over. I missed Midday Prayer, which we pray in the friary at noon, and so would have to make it up on my own, but I did get the car home just in time for Br. Felix to head out for an afternoon of errands of his own, that including purchasing an appointment for an interview at the US embassy in Tegucigalpa to obtain a visa for Nersy Suyapa, a handicapped girl we were trying to send to the US for surgery.
If I spent the morning on the road, I spent the afternoon on the phone. I spoke with Fr. Glenn Sudano, CFR, our Community Servant, at St. Felix Friary in Yonkers, NY. We discussed the beginning of the construction of the St. Benedict Joseph Medical Center. In just a few months construction was to begin on the perimeter wall of the property. It was a significant undertaking for us and for the other cosponsor of the project, Light of the World Charities of Palm City, FL, and a real step in faith. However, we had already organized two surgical missions with Light of the World and, as I mentioned above, we were at that moment preparing for our third. Despite the challenges that such a project could entail, all of the indications were that this was something that the Lord wanted us to do, and one by one the obstacles cleared away and all the necessary pieces fell into place. I also spoke with Fr. Glenn about renting a tiny, 20’ x20’ two bedroom house located right across the street from our friary. The most recent tenants had just left and the location was ideal to house lay missionary volunteers. In fact we were able to rent the home and continue to lease it to this day. It first housed some male volunteers, then Carol Restaine of Missioners of Christ, and now our lay missionary family, Daniel and Michelle Hinckley and their infant son Juan Pablo. Some additional calls included speaking with a local young man with a vocation interest, and a benefactor asking for special prayer for her husband, who was struggling with the terminal illness of his sister.
Finally 5:00 pm arrived. Br. Matteo and crew had returned from the mountains and Br. Felix from his errands in the city. We were ready for Mass, in which we also prayed Evening Prayer for the day. As always we carried in our hearts all of the people and needs we had encountered during the day. By listening to the intercessions the friars offer at Evening Prayer, one could almost reconstruct the events of the day. We commend our efforts to God, asking Him to bless what we have done and to do what we have not been able to do, to meet the needs that are beyond our power to fulfill, to do what only He can do.
As we ate our evening meal together, which also serves as our time of fraternal “recreation,” we shared with one another the experiences of the day, expecting a quiet evening after a very full day. Then the phone rang as it often does during supper – it’s one of the times when our family and friends know that we are likely to be found near the phone and able to answer calls. This time it wasn’t a family member or friend from the US, it was one of our neighbors, María, calling about her brother, José Justino. José Justino, a man in his mid-thirties, was once a healthy workingman who lived for a time in the US and has several children. As a result of a tragic accident he became quadriplegic, requiring constant care from his saintly mother with whom he lives in a small, dirt-floor home. Despite the challenge of his physical condition there is real love in that family and José Justino is a joyful man with a ready smile. One of the complications of his accident and his constant bed-ridden state is that José Justino frequently experiences serious problems in his digestive tract and as a result has had to have multiple surgeries. María was calling because her brother was experiencing severe abdominal cramping and needed to be taken to the hospital, but the family had no way to get him there. So a couple of us got up from the table, threw a mattress in the back of our pickup and headed for the family home. With the help of José Justino’s step father we were able to situate him comfortably in the bed of the pickup and headed for the hospital where our friend was able to get the medical attention he needed.
One of the beautiful advantages we have in the mission is continuity in the friendships we have developed with our neighbors and those whom we serve. We have stayed in touch with the individuals, families and communities I describe above. We returned to the village of San José Injerto the following year for Palm Sunday Mass and to distribute additional food, clothing and household supplies to the families there. I have been back to the prison several times for Mass. We eventually found Pablo and his little brother, Christian; they were actually staying with an older sister not far from the friary. His parents were eventually released from prison and his family is on our monthly food distribution list. We discovered that Pablito’s father, also named Pablo, is actually the “brother-in-law” of another mentally ill woman we help, Marta. Terencio, Pablo senior’s brother, was Marta’s long-term common law husband before he was killed. Pablito’s mother, Angelica, recently helped us find an adobe house to rent for Marta. The surgical mission went very well; about a thousand people showed up for screening and 102 surgeries and procedures were done during that week. We have since done three more and are preparing for our seventh this coming November. The most recent mission last May was the inaugural surgical brigade for he St. Benedict Joseph Medical Center which is now up and running; with three fully equipped operating rooms and a procedure room, it will be the site for all future missions. Its free clinic for the poor, which is open year round, sees about 1000 patients each month. Nersy Suyapa got her visa to the US and was operated on in December of 2003 with the help of Light of the World Charities; she is now able to walk on her own with crutches and braces. Her family is also on our food list; we see them every month. As I write, José Justino’s mother, Susanna, is in one of the large public hospitals in Tegucigalpa for cancer surgery. She will be there for almost a month. We are helping the family with the expenses and supplies while she is away. A day in the life of St. Seraphin Friary becomes a year in the life of the friars and eventually a lifetime in the history of the CFR Mission.
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by Fr. Herald J. Brock, CFR
The first Mass on the continental Americas took place on August 14, 1502. It was celebrated by Fray Alejandro, a Franciscan priest who had accompanied Columbus on his fourth and final voyage to the New World – at Punto Caxinas, the end of a thin peninsula that juts out into the Caribbean Sea just outside of the colonial city of Trujillo and the Spanish fortress of Santa Barbara. Today that peninsula hosts a port from which Dole exports containers of fruit and the site of the first Mass is found within the confines of a small Honduran naval base.
On August 14, 2002, 20-50,000 Hondurans and guests gathered at this site to commemorate the anniversary of this First Mass. The papal delegate was the Cardinal Archbishop of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. He was joined by visiting bishops from throughout the Americas, north, central and south. The tiny image of Our Lady of Suyapa, perhaps the most concrete symbol of Honduran Catholic faith and identity, was brought from her sanctuary in Tegucigalpa to be venerated. There were special convocations for priests and religious and a special art exhibit depicting 500 years of evangelization. The whole event received international media coverage and was truly an enlivening celebration of faith.
Unfortunately we were not able to be present for the actual event. Trujillo is a tiny city not offering much in the way of accommodations for the thousands of visitors that were expected. Besides, we had already planned to commemorate the 500th Anniversary by celebrating Mass and blessing the new homes in the mountain village of Los Planes. Instead, we opted for a smaller pilgrimage of just our local fraternity a week later on the feast of the Queenship of Mary, August 22nd. We were able to stay with friends at nearby Finca del Niño (Farm of the Child) – a unique little Catholic orphanage that houses about 50 children in homes with Honduran families and has an extra staff of about a dozen young American volunteers. Our visit also afforded us the opportunity to visit the new Trujillo foundation (at that time just two weeks old!) of the Poor Clares – our close neighbors and friends from Comayagua. The officials of the Honduran navy were kind enough to grant just the six of us friars admission to the base and we were able to celebrate Mass in the now nearly deserted place where the crowds had gathered just a week before. I offer you some of my personal reflections from that experience.
The most solemn occasions apart from the Mass itself in which the Church focuses her full attention on the surpassing gift of the Eucharist are Holy Thursday and Corpus Christi. On each of these days there is a solemn procession of the Blessed Sacrament and periods of profound adoration and contemplation of the Eucharistic Mystery by the whole Church. There is an important reason for this. In his homily on Corpus Christi in 1996, Pope John Paul II called the Eucharist the “Sacrament of Human Pilgrimage.” In the Eucharist Jesus remains with us (Mt 28) and accompanies us on our human journey as He once walked with the disciples on the Road to Emmaus (Lk 24). By His presence with us Jesus transforms this human journey into a pilgrimage, a path with meaning and purpose and a clear destination. What we were celebrating at Punto Caxinas was the beginning of the history of 500 years of the faithful presence of Jesus who has walked and still walks with Honduras throughout its entire existence. What’s more, the continual celebration of Mass throughout the centuries made present the saving and redemptive power of Christ’s sacrifice which works mysteriously within human history to rescue it from destruction and guide it to it’s ultimate goal.
A pilgrimage, a spiritual journey undertaken for motives of faith to some holy place, has much the same pedagogical purpose as a Eucharistic procession; it teaches us something about the pilgrim nature of Christian life. We had journeyed to Punto Caxinas, a place where something happened, where something began. There is something fundamentally different between the Mass and other types of religious services. The Mass is an event, something supernatural takes place: Jesus Christ Himself becomes present in the full saving power of His sacrificial death and resurrection to infuse our lives with that same power and take us and our “spiritual sacrifices” (1Pet 2:5) up with Him into the Holy of Holies, there to offer us along with Himself to the Father (cf. Heb 9:11-12, 24; 10:10, 19-22). That’s what happened at Punto Caxinas 500 years ago and that was the same victory we were celebrating that day: It all started here.
But, there’s another reason to go back to the point of origin, back to the beginning to begin again. First, by retracing the steps and paths of the first evangelization, we are able to thank God for the marvels of grace that have marked this spiritual journey. However it is also necessary to recognize the mistakes that accompanied this journey: the forceful invasion and conquest of a land belonging to other peoples, the abuse of and discrimination against indigenous peoples that continues in some forms and in some places of Latin America right up to this very day – particularly in Guatemala and Mexico. The imperial forces of Spain, and not precisely the Church, were the primary agents of this exploitation. The Church often found herself in the position of the defender and protector of indigenous peoples against the unbridled abuses of colonialism, most notably and eloquently in the persons of Bartolomeo de las Casas, a Dominican friar based in Cuba, and Junipero Sierra, a Franciscan friar who labored along the California coast. Still, at times, the Church was too closely associated with the ruling power and privileged classes of the New World, and so became “guilty by association”. And so there is a need for what Pope John Paul II has called the “purification of memory” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, no. 6) by heartfelt repentance for the past sins of members of the Church and for the sincere quest for forgiveness. This was part of the logic of the Jubilee Indulgence. The purpose of this purification is so that the memory can be once again “above all the undefiled sanctuary where the living witness of the Risen Lord is preserved...making it possible once again to illuminate the great things God has done for us” (John Paul II, Address to the Catholic Bishops of Greece, 4 May 2001). The readings for the day encouraged these reflections. The first reading from Ezekiel (36:23-28) speaks of the Lord sprinkling clean water on Israel to cleanse them from all their iniquities. He promises to remove their stony hearts and replace them with hearts of flesh and to infuse them with His own Spirit thus enabling them to fulfill his commands resulting in the renewal of the covenant: “you shall be my people and I will be your God.” Psalm 51 picks up on the same theme pleading with God for a clean heart and a steadfast, willing spirit.
Once one has traveled back to the beginning and purified the memory it is possible to begin again from the same starting point. Perhaps that is the real point of this anniversary celebration and also the reason for our presence in Honduras. Sadly, in these post-modern and post-Christian times, many of those with whom the Church may have been too closely associated in the past – politicians, intellectuals, the wealthy and powerful (always the first victims of secularism) – have rejected the King’s invitation to the banquet for His Son (cf. Mt 22:11-14, the Gospel for the day we visited the First Mass site and an allusion to the Eucharist). They are too involved in their own affairs and, besides, Christianity and the Church are medieval and passé. (Perhaps we have not taken seriously enough the warnings of Jesus and St. Paul about the dangers that wealth and education can pose to one’s relationship with God). And so, in this second beginning perhaps the invitation needs to be directed towards those who are overlooked by the world as insignificant but who occupy a privileged place in the Kingdom of God and the heart of Christ: “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” (in Luke’s version of the same parable: Lk 14:21). It seems to me that what is asked of Christians today is not the construction of new monuments of metal and stone – people already have these in their new temples of mammon: suburban shopping malls decked out in marble and brass in an almost direct and mocking imitation of church architecture. They don’t need competition. No, what is asked of Christians today are monuments of charity and mercy, respect and dignity, justice, solidarity, and peace. In addition to fulfilling what Jesus asks of us (cf. Mt 23:23) - our first concerns as disciples - actions such as these are capable of catching by surprise a world obsessed with itself and startling even the most indifferent of bystanders. Not that Christianity is thereby reduced to a purely “social gospel of good deeds.” No, these actions must become concrete expressions and vessels of faith and love capable of clothing the poor who receive them with human and moral dignity, thereby enabling them to take their proper place at the royal banquet (cf. Mt. 22:11-12). Our great contemporary prophet in all this is the tiny, wrinkled woman from India with a heart as wide as the world who will one day soon be known as “St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta.”
It’s no accident that the original First Mass, the 500th Anniversary or even our little pilgrimage all took place on either the eve or the day of a Marian feast. This is the key. Mary was the first and perfect home in which Jesus was pleased to dwell. St. Francis got it right in his Salutation of the Blessed Virgin Mary: “You are the Virgin made Church... Hail, His Palace! Hail, His Tabernacle! Hail, His Throne! Hail, His Robe!” She was the one who shaped the heart of the home in Nazareth. On the day of the Assumption Jesus responds in turn by giving a home to Mary – a room in His Father’s house, that he had gone many years before to prepare (cf. Jn 14: 2-3). Now it was done, and He had come back to take her with Him – body and soul – so that she would be where He was. Mary’s Magnificat (Lk 1: 46-55), if we take it seriously, because it incorporates so many themes from the Gospel of her Son, could easily become part of the charter of the new evangelization, one that “lifts up the lowly”, and “fills the hungry with good things”. I like to call it “Mary’s Manifesto;” may it be ours as well. In the end, any country, community or family that desires to have Jesus living and dwelling within it Eucharistically or otherwise, and which aspires one day to dwell and live with Him in glory, has to be like Mary. I leave you with a translation of a popular hymn sung in Latin America, Tu Reinarás (You Will Reign):
May Jesus reign forever,
by Fr. Herald J. Brock, CFR
It’s like going back a hundred years, or maybe even two. The only things that would remind you that you’re in the 21st century are some containers made of plastic and a few battery-powered devices like radios and flashlights. Other than that people here live pretty much like their ancestors did as far back as anyone can remember. This is not Colonial Williamsburg or Old Sturbridge Village. They are imitations, this is the real thing. This is Los Planes del Horno, a tiny village situated in the Mountains of Comayagua. A village like hundreds of others in Central America and thousands in developing countries throughout the world.
We first came in contact with this little village through our local pastor, Fr. Herminio. He asked if there was anything we could do for the poorest community in his parish. We decided to take the project on, working in conjunction with Caritas of Comayagua. We had worked with Caritas on a very successful housing project for 30 families in another very poor mountain village when we were here on a short 5-week mission trip in the summer of 1999, just after Hurricane Mitch.
Driving into Los Planes is like entering another world, a little like going to Shangri-La even for us coming from the small colonial city of Comayagua. As a matter of fact, the first time the brothers went there on a several-day trip, they journeyed half the distance on mule. Since then a “road” has been completed, making it easier (not easy) to access by truck. I say “road” because it’s a two-hour trek after leaving the paved highway through several streams and a lot of rocks and mud and across a couple of rickety bridges. The first third of the trip can be done in two-wheel drive, the next third in 4 high, and the last third in 4 low with a lot of prayers. Because of its smallness and remoteness (it’s kind of at the end of the road to nowhere) Los Planes is generally unknown and overlooked even by Hondurans. The exception is during election campaigns when medical teams and piñatas sponsored by competing political parties miraculously appear, only to disappear again for another four years after elections.
Los Planes is located 1859 meters above sea level. It is comprised of about 80 families scattered over a large area of steep mountain terrain. The atmosphere is beautiful, serene, pristine and fresh. Often in the early morning the clouds caress the mountain tops and linger, clinging to the pines until they dissipate under the heat of the sun. At night the stars shine innumerable, bright and clear in a pitch-black sky free from the pollution of artificial light.
In the midst of all this natural beauty, however, is alarming poverty. The people of Los Planes are subsistence farmers. That means they grow only just about enough corn for tortillas and beans to eat and live on. They almost never have any money. A few may harvest a bit extra which they can sell for some cash. Others may be able to get a little spending money by selling coffee. However, with the glut in the international coffee market caused by the recent entry of coffee grown in Asia, that doesn’t amount to much. Otherwise to earn money they have to leave Los Planes and work in the fields of some large land owner. What little money they do earn goes to buy other essential items they can’t grow on their own: rice, salt, sugar, vegetable shortening, soap. There’s only one little “store” in the whole village - really just a shack that stocks these items in small quantities. In the last few months before the new harvest they may have to scrounge to buy even corn and beans if there store are depleted. Because this usually happens in the month of June, Honduran campesinos call this scarcity los junios. This leaves practically no money left for buying things like clothes or medicine. (We bring up medications and first aid supplies along on every visit). And so the people dress in what we would consider rags: old, worn out clothes, patched and re-patched with scraps of different colors and materials or odd assortments of donated clothes: discarded uniforms of various types (school, work, band), pajamas, old suits. Sometimes, unknowingly, men may wear clothing made for women and vice versa. Though it gets very cold there at night and in the early morning, especially during the months of December and January, some of the residents do not have shoes or jackets. We have been able to help a little bit in this regard by giving each family a bag of donated clothing. To those of us with First World sensibilities, the villagers here can seem unnecessarily unwashed and their clothes inexcusably soiled - until one remembers the effort and discomfort involved in bathing and doing laundry by hand in an icy mountain stream and crisp mountain air. Until recently almost all the homes in Los Planes were small, dirt-floor huts with walls made of scrap wood and branches and roofs pieced together out of pieces of sheet metal, palm branches and grass. Wind and rain entered easily. This single room inside served as kitchen (complete with adobe stove in the corner), dining room and bedroom - with several persons (including adults) to each bed. There’s no electricity or running water, although some homes have spring water piped onto their property.
I said “until recently” because thanks to the generosity of our benefactors and the collaboration and cooperation of many people, 64 of these families now have new homes with cement floors, solid walls, aluminum roofs and wooden doors and windows. You can only imagine the logistical nightmare of trying to coordinate a project like this and transport materials to such a remote location. At several points the project nearly collapsed and had to be resuscitated. Because the villagers in their simplicity were not able to copy the construction of the model house, in the end we had to bring in a team of albañiles (builders) to complete the work. With his characteristic humor, Br. Juan Diego describes the high point of the whole building project:
“October 15th was a typically beautiful, clear-skied Honduran day. Perfect for flying. Early that morning we made the three-hour rigorous trip to Los Planes del Horno. From there, with the help of the parish youth group “Luz de Camino” we were to coordinate our end of “Operation Techo.” This joint-multinational task force was being overseen and sovereignly directed by Almighty God, and joyfully collaborating in His handiwork were the CFR’s, the US Military, the US Embassy, Caritas Comayagua, and the people of Los Planes del Horno.
“After 8 months of diligent work the friars petitioned and secured the services of a US military Chinook transport Helicopter (one of those flying things with two big whirly bits on top) to assist us in the delivery of building/ roofing supplies. What, with Gods grace, was accomplished smoothly in half a day would have cost us months of painstaking labor coupled with a large adult-sized helping of headaches and “missing materials.”
“The whole village of Planes came out, including a number of families from neighboring villages, for this once in a lifetime event. We must have looked like a tropical garden from the air. Over 200 people were clustered together on the hill side, everyone in their Sunday best and brightest. Some of the ladies were even wearing make-up and perfume for the occasion.
“We could here the deep wup-wup-wup of the blades cutting through the air for minutes before we could see it. The helicopter rose up above the rugged green mountains topped with pine, coconut and banana trees, and made its way towards us. For a moment the whole thing seemed to me to be a scene from M*A*S*H. Everything about a Chinook is immense. Two Hum V jeeps can fit snugly inside its cargo bay. The aircraft flew by, circled, and made its final descent neatly onto the predetermined Landing Zone (or LZ for those of us who are in the know; Br. Matteo gave us all a crash course in military lingo). The trees, grass and all other greenery in the vicinity seemed in danger of becoming airborne as the 200km/ph winds generated by the props pushed against the earth to accommodate its landing; hence the name Chinook. As the ground began to tremble I found myself thinking ‘wow this thing is pretty darn impressive.’ It was then I realized just how impressive it must have been for these simple mountain villagers who have neither electricity, nor phone, nor running water. To me a cynical, seen-it-all Norte Americano, this was ‘pretty darn impressive.’ Try to imagine how impressive it must have been for the natives of Los Planes to have this engineering marvel, this massive machine of war, drop down in the middle of their village. As the helicopter was coming down, most of the women who had small children in their arms fled up hill in fear. One older campesino yelled out above the noise ‘there won’t be any ticks left in that field!’
“Over the course of the day, with the help of the flight crew and some of the men from Planes, we unloaded approximately 2,500 sheets of corrugated roofing lamina, cases of hinges and nails off of the Chinook. All told, over 12,500 lbs of material. The LZ was about a mile or so from the chapel where the supplies were being stored. We loaded down our pick up, almost to the breaking point; and Fr. Rick’s truck to breaking. Oops! (Only minor repairs needed). Soon after the helicopter departed with an impressive farewell flyby every available man, woman and child shouldered as much lamina as they could, to make the mile trek by foot through the mountain pass to the chapel. As we were returning for more supplies we could see literally hundreds of sheets of lamina filing their way down towards us like some great line of tree ants carrying fresh-cut leaves to their hill. In that moment, seeing this wounded and tired appendage of our Blessed Lord’s Mystical Body working in unison and in joy, it was made clear to me that God was not simply making it possible for these people to build themselves homes but He was building a community.”
We concluded the project recently by celebrating a Mass of blessing and visiting all the homes, each prepared with a humble altar adorned with flowers. We presented the father of the family with a San Damiano Cross (a copy of the one that spoke to St. Francis, telling him: “Go and repair My house which as you can see is falling into ruin.”) and the mother with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, asking the couple that their home be the home of Jesus and Mary, too. These two images hang in the chapel of every friary of the Franciscans of the Renewal. It was a real “trail of blessings” as we crept like mountain goats from one home to another on narrow trails carved into steep hillsides. Br. Agostino describes the scene in detail:
“After many problems and stalls, the Los Planes house building project finally came to completion. On the solemnity of the Assumption we all packed up and headed out to the mountains for the much awaited house blessings. The basic layout of the day was to start out with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with the ‘official’ blessing of all the houses followed by the sprinkling of water on every one of the 64 houses. To do this we broke up into five groups (one friar per group) and we got moving! I started out with the three Hondurans who were guiding me in high spirits. ‘Where should we start?’ they asked. ‘The furthest one first,’ I called out, ‘And let’s sing a song!’ I was getting into it now. Missionary fever was showing 101 degrees. Then half way into the second verse of Ven con nosotros a caminar, I was dying gasping for air as we steadily climbed up and up while the delegado who was guiding me had a smile on his face as he softly sang the words. We arrived at the houses, called the family, I said a prayer and then I sprinkled holy water all over the place. The style in which the houses are built is called bajereque. This is a wooden framed house filled with rocks and packed with mud. The people of this remote village got creative. They found different color earth to give a little color to the finishing coat of mud (very Latino!). The houses had a sense of dignity about them as barren as they were. Many of the houses were ornamented with bright tropical flowers and we only to happy to provide the first of many religious ornaments- a San Damiano cross and an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. How many Juan Diegos will come out of there I don’t know, but I see rose buds. After the “blessing” I would talk to the family and they would tell me their names. I asked if the kids were baptized and I ‘encouraged’ those who were not married and living together to get the sacrament. I asked the young man, in front of about 15 people by this time, if he wanted to get married. He would usually look around to everyone looking at him and squeeze out a nod of the head. I pray that a public display of commitment will encourage these couples to get married. So after my 12th house (and 5th cup of delicious mountain coffee) we headed back to the little chapel. My companions had now grown to about 20. In true imitation of Fr Robert, I had about 10 bulbs, 7 seeds and a few stems of these cool exotic flowers that I’m going to try to transplant. The feeling in the air was jubilant. There was a grace there and a shine. It was as if, despite all our sinfulness, we were really closer to God on that mountain top with our friends who have nada, nada, nada; but they have so much.”
In the midst of the severe poverty it is the people of Los Planes that are its treasure. They are simple, innocent, humble and pure. They do not understand sarcasm or cynicism. One of the community leaders, a man about 45 years old, came to visit us in Comayagua once on business pertaining to the project. When we handed him the telephone to speak with the people at Caritas he just looked at us bewildered and confessed that he had never used a machine like this and didn’t know what to do. Unspoiled by television, the villagers have a tremendous capacity to marvel at the simplest things: a newspaper, a photo, the ability to write in cursive. I penned some of these lines with a group of children gathered around me, watching me write, saying: “¡Mire! ¡Que bonito!” (“Look, how beautiful!). When we’re there visiting overnight the residents will come and just sit with us, not saying anything, so we won’t feel lonely. They’re very happy when we come to visit their homes and enthusiastically serve us a cup of cafe de palo (literally, “coffee off the branch:” home grown, roasted and brewed coffee). Everybody loves to get a ride in the pickup, even if it’s just a couple hundred yards.
Celebrating Mass in Los Planes is a wonder and a joy. If it’s during the day, sunlight streams through a fiberglass panel in the roof of the adobe chapel. If it’s at night, all is done be candlelight. Nearly the whole village crowds into the chapel: men on one side (having left their machetes in a pile outside), and women and children on the other. Eyes glisten with flickering candlelight as words are preached and prayers are offered and songs are sung by wailing indigenous voices accompanied by primitive, hand carved instruments - all in different keys and at different tempos. If the Blessed Sacrament is exposed after Mass the people will stay and recite a litany of memorized prayers led by Victoria, a warm and friendly woman with a protruding, ulcerated left eyeball; she’s a resadora (female prayer leader) who taught herself to read and one of the lay leaders of the community. The patron of the village is St. Gaspar - one of the three wise men who followed the star and came to do homage to the newborn Jesus. His image is proudly displayed in a glass case above the altar of the chapel.
These people aren’t perfect; they have their flaws. Many of the couples aren’t married. This is due in part to the historical infrequency of visits by a priest. As a result, “alternative patterns” emerge. Recently a somewhat mature 13-year-old girl moved in with a 19-year-old young man. Apart from the marital irregularity, a situation not so different perhaps from that in which Mary and Joseph began their lives together. I spoke with the young couple, urging them to return to their parents’ homes and wait to get married. They listened politely but are still together. I hope that eventually things will work out for them. Although there’s a one room school house in the village (soon to be two thanks to the leftover materials from the building project) and two dedicated teachers, only four students in the last 10 years have completed primary school (6th grade). Many only complete 2nd grade - just enough education to be able to read and write on the most rudimentary level. This is sad because as Jose Cecelio del Valle (one of the national heroes of Honduras) pointed out, the future of Honduras depends on the education of her children. However, given the harsh demands of life and the need to struggle just to survive, school seems to many an unaffordable luxury for children capable of working to help support the family.
Despite all the differences between North Americans and the mountain people of Honduras, there are still some things that are the same. They are human beings who have the same basic hopes and desires we do: a decent home, a good living, security and health for their family, a promising future for their children. The painful difference is the glaring lack of resources and opportunity that leave those hopes and desires unfulfilled for so many.
We hope to be able to continue our contact with the mountain people - they are the real poor of Honduras. Eventually we’d like to be able to have a priest and a brother live three weeks out of each month in a little hermitage in some mountain village, celebrating the Sacraments, catechizing the people and overseeing the construction of homes over a 1-2 year period in imitation of St. Paul and St. Barnabas at Antioch (Acts 11:26).
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by Fr. Herald J. Brock, CFR
And so, early on the original friars decided to focus their efforts on our immediate neighbors, those who live in nearby barrios within the boundaries of our local parish. It was also decided that we would try to help those most in need. This entailed making a home visit to each family who was requesting help to get to know them better and verify the extent of their need. Within a couple of months the friars had a list of 80 very poor local families. These families come the first Monday of every month to receive an ample supply of rice, beans, corn, salt, sugar and laundry soap. The food is packed the preceding Saturday by the friars and a team of US embassy families from Tegucigalpa and young American volunteers at another nearby mission. Members of the parish youth group Luz del Camino help us hand out the food to the families after we spend some time with them in the chapel singing, praying the Rosary and giving a short catechetical talk. This has ended up working very well and running smoothly, and friars, families and volunteers really enjoy it.
There’s only one drawback to the method we’ve developed, and it’s a necessary one due to our limited time, resources and number of friars. That is, for the rest of the people who come to us, and they come every day and sometimes in significant need, we have to say “no.” This is very difficult and sometimes really rips our heart out. But it’s just not possible to visit every family that comes to verify their need (there are some who come who are not in serious need, making home visits a necessity), and to do otherwise would risk returning to the former state of chaos we dealt with in the beginning, making it impossible for us to help anyone.
But sometimes you just can’t say no. And I’d like to tell you about two exceptions to our rule: Martha, and Sara and Alexis.
Martha is a woman in her fifties who could have been a beautiful, even elegant looking woman had life not treated her so harshly. As it is her skin is worn, her hair matted and usually wrapped in a t-shirt serving as a bandana, she walks barefoot, wears tattered clothes and most of her teeth are missing. Martha is mentally ill. She can’t read and never knows what day of the week or month it is. Only once to my recollection did she arrive for the food handout on the right day and at the right time. She sat distractedly in the front row of the chapel, looking out the window and up at the ceiling during the songs, prayer and talk.
Martha lived for years in a tumble down adobe hut filled with garbage not very far from our friary. Just recently, we understand, she was evicted by the owner and we haven’t yet seen where she’s living now. We’ve helped her from time to time with clothes, a bed and mattress, blankets and shoes, but because of her illness - unfortunately - these things don’t usually last too long. As a result of a lifetime of heckling and harassment (“!Mire, la loca!” “Look, it’s the crazy lady!”) Martha has become somewhat paranoid. Every child - even little ones - is a potential marijuanero (drug addict) or marero (gang member) and every adult a potential ladron (thief) or assailant. Martha’s mother is still alive and lives in Tegucigalpa near the Basilica of Suyapa. Every so often she travels alone to Comayagua to visit Martha. This is all the more amazing since she’s blind! Sometimes they come to the friary together. I’m not sure if it’s the blind leading the insane or the insane leading the blind.
In the midst of all this, Martha is a woman of great faith. She’s always speaking of God (!Y Dios, y Dios, y Dios, y Dios, y Dios!) and pointing upward to heaven. She has the absolute conviction that the Blessed Virgin Mary cares for her personally and protects her. When she comes to the friary she likes to visit the chapel. She genuflects profoundly and reverently even if a bit awkwardly too. She waves to Jesus in the tabernacle and rubs both hands all over the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, blowing kisses to her. I once found her sitting in the celebrant’s chair looking blankly off into the distance. She leaves the chapel walking backwards looking and waving at Jesus and Mary.
Despite her general paranoia, Martha loves the friars. She’s always very happy to see us and comes right up to us and gives us a big hug. This sometimes causes me to cringe a little since Martha is home to a whole host of tiny creatures and I’ve had scabies several times since coming to Honduras. Whenever we see her, the conversation is almost exactly the same: “!Hola padresito! ?Como esta? ?Y... las provisiones? (“Hello, Father [literally, “little Father” - a term of endearment]! How are you? And... when is the next food handout?”) It doesn’t matter whether we tell her the next food handout is that same day or a month away, the response is always the same: “!Que lindo!” (“How beautiful!”) Martha will say, clapping her hands and then giving us another hug (cringe!). She is one of the most gracious poor persons I have ever met. These encounters can take place almost anywhere since Martha seems to have the gift of ubiquity. We have run into her downtown, at the market, on the outskirts of town, in the mountains and at the Basilica of Suyapa in Tegucigalpa. We often see her balancing, hands-free, some heavy load of firewood or whatever atop her headdress - a talent she shares with other Honduran peasant women.
The friars, along with the Missionaries of Charity and the Poor Clares, are Martha’s only real family and friends. Apart from us, she’s really all alone in the world. She once stopped in to see us after visiting the Poor Clares. They had given her the scraps from the altar breads they make, what’s left over after cutting out the hosts for Mass. She was taking them home to eat. There’s something mystical about that. The Syro-Phonecian woman in the Gospel begged Jesus figuratively for the scraps that fell from His table (Mt 15:27).
Martha is one of our “exceptions”; we give her provisions on whatever day she’s able to make it to the friary and often help her out in between. The other exception is Sara and Alexis.
Before we knew her name, the brothers dubbed her “the Hair Lady” because her thick hair stands out almost straight in all directions like a mane making her look a little like Phyllis Diller. (We have nicknames for some of the other people we know, too, like: the Meek Family, the Tamale Girls, the Water Girls, the Nudie Girls [small children often go without clothes here], the Leather Lady, the Touchy Girl and Boss Hog. These are “the people in our neighborhood” and maybe someday I’ll write a reflection just about them.) We used to see her from time to time with her companion scavenging for firewood or tin cans in the fields near our friary. They would occasionally stop by and ask for help and we would usually say no, until it became unmistakably evident that the Hair Lady was pregnant.
Sara is 44 years old and extremely simple and perhaps even a little “touched.” I’ve seen her come to our door wearing a bizarre ensemble of donated clothing held together by diaper pins. She speaks very rapidly and almost indistinguishably but is always peaceful, gentle and respectful. She has faith, an awareness of God and a sense of right and wrong. She has three other children who are cared for by her mother. I’ve been told that one of her daughters is mentally ill and that Sara’s mother beats the children even as she beat her. Alexis, the father of the baby, is 16 years old and quite definitely mentally ill. His father was killed when he was a little boy and his mother, also mentally ill, lived in the streets begging for food until she died just before Christmas last year. Alexis has a temper and at times has hit Sara and almost always gets them in trouble with whomever happens to be giving them shelter at the moment.
When I first went to see where they were staying, after we realized Sara was pregnant, I discovered that they were sleeping on a ratty piece of soiled, uncovered foam rubber on the dirt floor of a little kitchen she’d attached to the home of one of our food line families. We gave them a mattress to sleep on but they later told me that they had given it to Sara’s children to use. Because there was now another person living and growing inside Sara, we decided we would help them regularly. I told them they could come by the friary every other day or so. For several months we gave Sara and Alexis our extra tortillas and whatever other leftovers might be found in the refrigerator, along with a glass of milk and a multivitamin. And we watched her get bigger and bigger.
Last week Sara and Alexis stopped by after not having paid us a visit for a while. The Hair Lady had her baby! She’s a beautiful, healthy baby girl. They hadn’t yet given her a name. I was so grateful to God to see her. Unfortunately Sara was still in pain. She still hadn’t recovered from the delivery and shortly thereafter had been pressured into a tubal ligation by her mother and her doctor. In addition to her physical pain Sara was troubled by a vague sense of having done something wrong by undergoing the surgery. It had been more than a week since the operation and the incision still hadn’t healed properly. I urged her to go to the doctor and gave them the small amount of money to cover transportation and the medical fee. But since they didn’t return, I’m sure they used the money to travel to Sara’s mother’s house in a town several miles away. There had been an incident of domestic violence in the house where they were staying and it frightened them into leaving. I don’t know when I’ll see them again nor what the future holds in store for that nameless baby girl. But at least for that moment she was healthy and safe.
I know that the rules that we have for helping the poor are important and even necessary; without them we would be destroyed. But I sometimes wonder whether the exceptions are more important and more necessary for our salvation and for our humanity, to keep us from protecting ourselves and our comfort too much, to prevent us from becoming Pharisees and excluding these “divine intrusions” into our lives. The parable of the Good Samaritan is haunting (remember it’s the priest and the Levite who pass by the wounded man) as are the words of Jesus: “Whatever you did to the least of these you did to Me” (Mt 25). I sometimes wonder whether in purgatory we will experience not only all the pain we caused others, but also all the suffering we could have relieved but didn’t because of our hardness of heart, selfishness and insensitivity. St. Vincent de Paul tells us that since God surely loves the poor, He also loves those who love the poor. That is why we hope that God will love us for the sake of the poor. God loves Martha, Sara and Alexis; they are the privileged citizens of His kingdom. In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Lk 16:19-31), on earth Lazarus longs for crumbs from the rich man’s table and in the next life the rich man begs Lazarus for a drop of water. If we take that seriously, maybe it will be us begging from them at the gates of the New Jerusalem. If that’s the case, I’ll be glad we made some exceptions.
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by Fr. Herald J. Brock, CFR
It all began with a phone call.
In February of 1995, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR, had preached in Holy Redeemer parish in Palm City, Florida. Theresa Banks happened to hear him and was put on the Grayfriar News mailing list. Theresa is one of the coordinators of Light of the World Charities. She had helped to organize medical/surgical missions in Bolivia and Peru and just a few years ago helped to launch Light of the World. Light of the World is a non-denominational charitable organization whose mission is to bring needed surgical services to the poor in developing countries. Theresa had been praying and looking for a new location in which Light of the World could conduct a medical mission. Nothing seemed to be opening up, …until Theresa received a copy of Grayfriar News with a picture of Honduras on the cover and a description of the friars’ new mission there on the inside. So she picked up the phone and called Br. Michael at Convento San Serafín in Comayagua. Br. Michael then contacted one of our good friends and benefactors in Comayagua, Dr. Wilmer Perez. Dr. Wilmer and his wife Margarita are wonderful Catholics. He is a medical doctor, a general practicioner, and she is a pharmacist. They follow the Neocatechumenal Way and have 12 children. Six of the children were adopted after their natural mother died and their most recent addition, Paula Margarita, was born just a few months ago. With the Perezs on board, things were underway. There was a moment of uncertainty when Br. Michael was detained in New York as a result of a back injury, but after talking with Theresa and consulting with Dr. Wilmer and Margarita, we decided to take a step of faith and move ahead.
Theresa, along with Bob Simpson and Mary Alice Robertson, all nurses with medical mission experience, flew into Tegucigalpa in mid-February as an “advance team.” Mary Alice is a native Spanish speaker, having grown up in South America and Spain. It was decided that the hospital in nearby La Paz presented the best working possibility. The team, along with Dr. Wilmer, met with Dr. Claudia Quiroz, director of the hospital, and Dr. Blanca Dermith, the chief surgeon there. Even though the hospital presented some medical “challenges” (e.g., non-functioning operating tables and anesthesia machines), the personnel were open and cooperative – the most important factor. We decided to take the next step. When the team returned they presented a report to Light of the World’s board of directors who agreed. A key factor in the decision was the presence and willingness of the friars to coordinate things on the Honduras end. The dates were set for early August.
For our part we set to work in Honduras with Dr. Wilmer and Margarita. There were to be two surgeons coming: an opthomologist and a plastic surgeon. Theresa faxed simple descriptions of the types of surgeries they would be able to do. Dr. Wilmer and Margarita provided the translations. Together we put together a one-page information sheet describing the purpose of the mission and for whom it was intended: the very poor. We decided to make use of the parish structure of the Diocese of Comayagua to try to reach the campesinos who live in remote rural areas. Each parish in the diocese has a number (twenty to fifty or more) of small village chapels attached to it. These villages are sometimes hours away in the mountains. Each little chapel has a team of “Delegates of the Word,” who conduct Sunday liturgical celebrations of the Word of God and other services. They are the local spiritual leaders who keep the Church alive during the sometimes long stretches of time in between visits by the parish priests. Bishop Gerald Scarpone graciously allotted us time at his monthly priests’ meetings from March to June to communicate with the priests of the diocese about this project. They in turn were able to pass the information on to the delegados in their respective aldeas. Caritas (Catholic Charities) of Comayagua also helped us in the recruiting of patients with their team of field workers who also serve in outlying areas. This was a formidable task given the complete absence of phones in the villages and the difficulty in travelling due to poor road conditions and lack of public transportation.
All of this was a lot of hard work. There were moments of real frustration and disappointment in the recruiting process and in attempting to try to coordinate the medical dimension of the project here in Honduras. Finally the day for the preliminary examinations arrived: the fourth of July. We had no idea how many people would show up. Well there were about 300 of them for about 50 surgical slots. It was more than a little chaotic trying to determine who had the necessary letter from their parish priest, who was really poor and who was in real medical need. The last part was handled by a team of three doctors: Dr. Wilmer, Dr. Blanca and Dr. Luis Escoto from Caritas. They were assisted by Antonio Martinez, a young man with medical experience from Colombia who is living with us and discerning our life. We finally ended up with about 40 people cleared for eye surgery and about 20 for plastic surgery. As an added twist, the lab at the hospital shut down about halfway through the examinations (even though they knew beforehand we were coming), requiring an extra trip into the hospital for poor people who live far away. Just to give you an idea of the difference in perspective between a Honduran and a North American, despite all the confusion and shouting, Dr. Blanca thought that everything was exceptionally peaceful and well ordered.
The day of the medical team’s arrival was Saturday, August 4th. As with every aspect of the mission, it required a lot of coordination. There were a few last minute curve balls. One of the anesthetists backed out just a week before the trip. Theresa’s sister Cathy graciously stepped in at the eleventh hour. Also American Airlines has a box embargo during the summer months requiring the team to travel “tight and light.” They rented a minivan at the airport and I drove in with our sturdy pickup, onto which was piled about 25 army duffel bags filled with medical equipment and supplies (including a $35,000 microscope on loan for eye surgery). Then we were off to Comayagua! After getting everyone settled at the gringo-friendly Hotel Santa Maria (complete with AC and swimming pool) the team came over to visit the friary and see the neighborhood. They were visibly moved by the poverty of our neighbors and the squalor of their living conditions. There were even some on-site medical consultations! The opening Mass at the friary was also very moving. I shared with them Dorothy Day’s dictum: that Jesus came to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable – there was a little bit of both going on. In place of the collection at Mass, the medical team was offering their time, talents and experience to the Lord; and that was going to make what would happen this week something supernatural, something filled with grace and the love of Christ. Just as through faith we can recognize Jesus in the Eucharist, so too does He say to us of the poor: “This is my Body.” The poor whom we would serve in this week are the privileged members of the kingdom of God, with whom Jesus identifies Himself. Perhaps someday in the world to come we will have the chance to meet some of them, only we will probably not be able to recognize them, so transformed and radiant will they be. Then they may say to us: “Don’t you remember me? I was the one you operated on so many years ago in Honduras. Thank you!” The Mass impressed on all of us the spiritual dimension of the mission.
Sunday, August 5th, we began bright and early with the medical teams own screening of the prospective patients and scheduling of surgeries for the week. Antonio Martinez was on hand again to help with the writing of prescriptions and admittance slips for the hospital. Angela Scannapieco of YOUTH 2OOO New York and Rosann Mucciolo of Papa’s Travel were also on hand, they traveled down to help us during what we knew would be a hectic week. Angela has a degree in medical technology and worked for many years as a medical technologist and laboratory supervisor before coming to YOUTH 2OOO; she jumped right into the lab, despite its primitive conditions, to make sure there wouldn’t be another overload. Rosann had made all the travel arrangements and hotel reservations for the group and made use of her photography skills to capture photos and video footage of the surgeries.
It was a week of miracles. The plastic surgeon, Dr. Luis Viñas, began with an 18 year old man from Guajiquiro, home of the indigenous Lenca tribe; he came accompanied by his older brother. He was followed by a 27-year-old man from a remote area near the border of El Salvador who came alone and seemed to be a loner. Both men had severe cleft lips. It was amazing to see Dr. Viñas cut and piece their faces together in perfect alignment and symmetry. It was even more amazing to see years of embarrassment, self-consciousness and isolation melt away with the surgery. Thanks to the generosity of our benefactors we were able to house these young men along with a number of other families in the local “Hotel San Francisco.” St. Francis would have felt right at home there: 8’ x 10’ rooms with a bed and a cot and no window for $2.50 per person per night.
A number of young children with the same condition (cleft lip and palate) were also “reconstructed” by Dr. Viñas, preserving them from years of humiliation. Perhaps most moving for us was the case of little José. José lives in the village of Los Planes del Horno where the friars are sponsoring a housing project for his family and 65 others. Ron Ashley, the team photographer for Light of the World, was able to accompany Br. Stephen on a trip to Los Planes to distribute clothing to the families there. He was able to capture on film the very poor surroundings in which José and his family live. It was wonderful to see things come together in this way. Other plastic surgery procedures were performed as well. One middle-aged indigenous woman had a scar on her left arm from a burn she had received as a child. It had never healed properly and was infected when she came to us. The woman in the Gospel (see Mark 6:25) only suffered for 12 years. This woman carried her wound for 35 years before finding healing. Dr. Viñas was assisted in the operating room by Claude Gravel, an excellent surgical nurse hailing originally from Quebec and by Mary Alice Robertson in the “recovery room” (actually the hallway outside the operating rooms). We found out later in the week that Dr. Viñas was a classmate of our Fr. Bernard (John) Murphy, CFR at Portsmith Abbey in Rhode Island.
Equally astounding were the miracles taking place in the adjacent operating room under the hands of Dr. Robert Bentz. The age range here was even more expansive; it ranged from senior citizens in their 60’s and 70’s suffering from cataracts to tiny cross-eyed preschoolers. Perhaps the most dramatic case here involved a six year old little girl who had been born with cataracts. She was all but blind, having only minimal peripheral vision. We were present when the doctor removed the bandages from her surgery and she was able to see the face of her father for the first time – it was overwhelming. Dr. Bentz was assisted in the operating room by Theresa Banks and her sister, Cathy, as well as by Linda Liles, a nurse with extensive eye-surgery experience. Yvette Arbelo, like Dr. Viñas a native of Puerto Rico, served in recovery. Bob Simpson, a nurse anesthetist, teaming up with his local hospital counterparts, did double duty by supervising the anesthesia in both operating rooms.
There were of course some sad moments in the week. An elderly blind woman from our immediate neighborhood, whom the medical team examined in her home on the day of their arrival, found out that she had irreversible nerve damage in her eyes and would never see again. I held her as she cried and lamented, “¿Por qué, Senor, por qué?” In the end, however, she was consoled by the fact that one day she would see again and the first thing she would see is the face of Jesus. The most tragic thing we witnessed, however, was a little girl who was brought into the emergency room. She had had an epileptic seizure and fallen to the ground with her arm in an open flame and remained there for several minutes before her family found her – another scene right out of the Gospel (see Matthew 17:5). The only possible treatment was amputation from the elbow down. One of the team members gave the father the money from his own pocket so that he could travel to Tegucigalpa with her and stay there for up to two weeks so that the procedure could be done. We were able to send provisions to his wife and other children to sustain them in the man’s absence. There was one close call during the week. A little boy with a cleft lip and palate began to have a severe reaction to the anesthesia at the beginning of his surgery. It could have become a life-threatening situation. But because the medical team was right on top of the situation he came out just fine and his parents were advised on the steps to take so that he can receive safe medical treatment of his condition in the near future.
So many other people chipped in to make the week a real success. Every day the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception brought a home-cooked meal at lunch time for the medical staff. One evening we all invited to dine at the residence of Bishop Scarpone in Comayagua. After a delicious meal he gave each team member a unique gift: a small petrified clam; that’s right, a petrified clam! Apparently the whole Valley of Comayagua was once submerged under water leaving fossilized evidence scattered throughout the area.
At the end of the week the hospital staff held a little despedida or farewell party for us. The pediatrician of the hospital shared a very moving personal testimony. She said that she could not make excuses for the state of health care and medical facilities in Honduras. This is the reality that they have to deal with there. But as Honduras struggles to improve this aspect of their lives the presence of medical mission groups like Light of the World continues to give hope to the people and encouragement and inspiration to the medical community. We spent the last evening of the mission together in the dining room of the Hotel Santa Maria in a kind of extended fellowship dinner. Near the end the team thanked us for helping to make their mission run so smoothly. We thanked them for making it possible for us to give to the poor whom we serve something we greatly desired to provide for them but could never have done on our own: quality surgical care.