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Family Faith: Going back to Guatemala

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

By Pat McDonough

In the summer of 2007 I took 20 teens from St. Mary’s Parish in Manhasset, N.Y., to visit a small parish in Guatemala. A friend of mine, Father Anton Grech, a young Maltese priest, is the pastor of La Parroquia de Jesús Crucificado, a parish that encompasses more than 200 square miles and includes 8,500 people, most of whom have no plumbing or electricity, no access to clean water or education.

Catholics have an indisputable obligation to care for the poor, to ensure that all lives image the God who created us, but as Pope John Paul II reminded us in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus (Hundredth Year),  “A preferential option for the poor is not limited to material poverty. There are many forms of poverty, especially in modern society, not only economic, but cultural and spiritual poverty, as well.”

There is no question that St. Mary’s teens were as enriched by the Guatemalan families as the Guatemalans were by the gifts that we were able to provide in our brief time there. A generous sharing of time and talents enriched two groups from different parts of the world, creating one community formed in Christ’s name. 

On our first visit in 2007 the kids were taken aback by the lack of food, shelter and clothing, compounded by the lack of schools that could prepare Guatemala’s youth to break the cycle of poverty that surrounded them. When we returned to Manhasset, we sponsored a fundraiser that brought in $100,000, which goes a long way in Guatemala. Father Grech teamed up with a university professor and a group of engineers from Malta to construct a fish farm that would supply a constant source of protein for his parishioners, in addition to the dignity of work and an ongoing source of income. The proceeds from the fundraiser also replaced their stick huts with homes made of cinder blocks and rainproof roofs. We were also able to add a library on to the small parish school, as well as sponsor many of the students’ educations from kindergarten through high school.

Last month we returned to La Parroquia de Jesús Crucificado. We spent our mornings painting the fish farm, which now holds more than 5,000 tilapia, a fish native to Guatemalan waters. We visited parishioners in their new homes and spent time in the school teaching English. We played soccer all afternoon, interrupted only by lacrosse lessons provided by the teens from Manhasset, who brought their equipment with them. I doubt they’ll be forming a lacrosse league anytime soon in Guatemala, but lots of fun was had by all.

Our trip to Guatemala provided plenty of time for prayer, Scripture and a celebration of our sacraments. Each morning we gathered in a circle to reflect on the social teaching of our church, the gospel of justice and the traditions and rituals of our faith. Late one evening, Father Grech showed the movie, “Romero,” and the next day we were lucky enough to meet Msgr. Richard Antall, a priest from Cleveland who has been ministering to the Salvadorans for the past 19 years. He made the three hour drive to La Parroquia de Jesús Crucificado to share with us the heart of his ministry and the history of the struggles in El Salvador.

The teens initiated prayer often, in the churches that we visited as we traveled throughout Guatemala, on the site of a landslide that killed 200 people in their sleep and in the rectory room in Santiago, Atitlan, where Father Stan Rother, an American priest from Oklahoma, was martyred during the war in Guatemala in 1981. More than 20 of his parishioners had been abducted and murdered from the time Guatemalan troops occupied the town in October of 1980 until Father Rother’s death in July of 1981. More than 100 catechists were murdered by the war’s end.

Father Rother’s body was sent back to his parents in Oklahoma for burial, but the people of Santiago, Guatemala, asked that his heart remain with them. His heart rests in a shrine inside the church of Santiago, part of a memorial to all the martyrs who have died there. The teens from St. Mary’s instinctively knelt at the altar where Father Rother celebrated Mass during his time in Guatemala. They knew they were on holy ground.

Our lives were consecrated by our trip to Guatemala, and our hearts converted to a deeper faith, enriched by the poor and by those martyred for their faith. All in all, not a bad way to spend a summer’s week.

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