Saturday, June 13, 2015

Finishing Up and Heading Home

As I come to the end of my time in Guatemala, I want to thank all who have accompanied me “virtually,” via my blog and occasional Facebook posts. Thank you also to those who gave financial support to my mission here. The school’s religion curriculum has been revised and strengthened, a chapel was built, and the local bishop has appointed a Guatemalan priest to succeed me. I leave here satisfied with what has been accomplished and am now ready to begin my assignment at pastor at Ascension Parish in Oak Park, IL on July 1.

Below is an English translation of the talk I gave at my farewell Mass: 

 Dear Friends,

The time has almost come when I will have to leave here and go back to my life in Chicago. I want to thank Father Ron Hicks for encouraging me, and Father Phil Cleary for trusting in me without knowing me personally, and for asking me to come here to Guatemala. During my time with you all at NPH, I have had the opportunity to interact with children, adolescents and young adults in a much stronger and more personal way than is usually available for a priest. You have shown me a new way to love and to be loved- something that priests working in a parish do not have the opportunity to experience (at least at this level).

As you know: we priests do not have wives and children like most others. You call me "father,” and a strong paternal sense has developed within me. But you are also my companions and my friends. You have been very patient with me as I struggled with my Spanish. We have shared the experience of living here in NPH, and many of you have allowed me access to your personal lives. I feel a deep sense of connection with many of you, and I will leave having grown personally, spiritually, and emotionally. I have missed my life in the United States, but now I find it difficult to leave. I will return to Chicago a better person and a better priest for having spent these years with you.

I don’t know how often I will be able to return to visit, but I will definitely visit (hopefully for the anniversary in November). Maybe it will be strange. I know it will be different. How many names will I remember? How many will I forget? Will I lose my Spanish, my ability to communicate with you? I am certain that the memories will accompany me forever, and I hope you will remember me with the same affection, even love, with which I know I will remember you. I feel we now have a relationship that will last throughout the years of my life that are left to me. I will remember and think of you each time I celebrate the Mass, and ask you to try to remember me when entering the chapel to pray or celebrate the Eucharist.

I am aware of the fact that I will soon be one more person in the long line of those who have abandoned you throughout your lives. This makes me very sad. The lack of stability of adults in your lives is a shame and very sad. And I feel somewhat guilty for having developed this sense of love and affection ... only to leave you now. Whether it has been a father or mother, uncle or aunt of the house, friend, a blood brother/sister, a volunteer or visitor ... your experience has been marked by farewells, by people who have entered and then left your lives. I hope you will someday discover what it means to have permanent people in your lives, so that you can experience the wonder that comes with enduring and stable relationships. I am sorry that I will not be the person who can show you this ...

There are many disappointments in this life, but you can always count on God's love. It is more than you can imagine, and this love will never abandon you. When I receive communion at Mass, I am aware of the presence of Jesus Christ. But I am also aware of the presence of those whom I love: those who have died, like my dad, and those still living, but far away ...

I do not want to fail to say that if during my time I have here offended any of you: I ask your forgiveness. I am a human being, and sometimes lose my patience. I sometimes show my anger or disappointment in ways that do not help the situation. I usually try to apologize personally, but sometimes I offend people without being aware of it.

Let me mention a few things that I have seen among you that have encouraged me.:
• You are quick to share with your companions food and the few belongings you have.
• You do not hold within yourselves too much bitterness, even if you are sometimes bothered or angry.
• You are genuinely friendly and show real kindness to others.
• You are very accepting of others.
• You know how to show affection. Emotional health is displayed via healthy affection among people who truly love. I love you, and I believe you have loved me; and I feel the affection we have expressed has been authentic.
• You know how to enjoy life. The ups and downs of life are kept in perspective. You are not unduly bothered by things you do not like or that do not sit well with you.
• Some of you have shown a commitment to the faith and to exploring important issues in life- this has inspired me.
• You take care of one another: older ones pay attention to the younger and more vulnerable.
• You are very careful about with whom you share on a personal level, but many have trusted me and shared on a very personal level. Thank you for this trust.

I also want to mention some difficult memories I take with me. I mention them not to scold you, but to challenge you to continue fighting for the good. I have always been honest and frank with you, and do not want today to be an exception:
• I remain saddened by the number of thefts on our campus. I pray that one day the thieves here will overcome this inclination/vice that causes much suffering and sadness among their brothers and sisters.
• I am disappointed that too many here lack interest in studying and learning. Benefactors who support NPH with their donations believe you want to take advantage of their generosity to improve your lives. The time I have spent with parishioners in the town of Parramos has convinced me that you at NPH have opportunities for which many of your counterparts in Parramos would give their left leg. I believe that incredible opportunities will be available to each of you if you dedicate yourselves to academic work while at NPH.
• One last time I want to mention the relatively small number of Catholics here who receive communion regularly at Mass. This lack of coming forward to receive communion has been one of my greatest sorrows here. I feel bad for having failed to motivate more here to practice this part of faith. Given the relatively small number of those who receive communion, the small number of those who took part in the sacrament of reconciliation this year, and the lack of participation in other religious and spiritual offerings ... I understand that everyone has their own individual path, and many find their way to Christ later in their lives. Perhaps in time more will come to appreciate the incredible offer that Christ makes to us when He invites us to His table. I can only pray that my successor will have more success with this I had. Speaking of my successor, I ask you to show him the same respect and affection that have show to me.
• Finally: as I mentioned at Mass a few weeks ago, I worry about how both “Pequeños” and employees leave our home. Certainly there are appropriate reasons to leave (both for those who are kicked out and those who leave on their own accord). But from my point of view, no one who left during my time here had a proper farewell, given the great importance that NPH had in their lives and the relationships that developed here. Those who left of their own accord did not want to say goodbye, and so quietly slipped away. Employees who were either dismissed or left on their own simply disappeared. Those who do receive a decent farewell are those who spend the least amount of time here: the one-week visitors, the one-year volunteers, and now ... me. My challenge to all of you is to try to give the farewell that everyone who has lived and worked here, and who leaves the house, deserves. And if you choose to leave on your own accord, give your fellow Pequeños the chance to say goodbye to you ...

Some words to strengthen you:
With all you have suffered, you are remarkably normal and well-adjusted. Many people think that after having lost so much, having suffered so much, after not having had a "normal" experience of childhood and adolescence in a normal family ...  you would all be emotionally disabled. And I understand that there are wounds; there is sadness; there is still dysfunction ... but there is much here that is healthy.

Pequeños are very resilient. I know, because I've seen, that you can overcome the challenges and disappointments in your lives. Maybe there are some for whom this will cost more, especially those who are still struggling with the effects of a difficult and painful past. But there is always light; there are always possibilities; there are always new opportunities. Father Wasson’s advice to avoid self-pity, the feeling of "poor me," will serve you throughout your lives.

A difficult childhood and a tumultuous adolescence can result in adults who are either hardened by their suffering or compassionate and understanding. They may be selfish and focused only on themselves or adults who are generous and focused on the welfare of others. They may reject God and the Christian faith or they can connect with the suffering Christ and His enormous love that strengthens and compels us.

Friends: in the future we will meet around the altar- I, from my altar in Chicago, and you around this altar, consecrated by our prayers together a few months ago. But all of the altars in the world are extensions of one altar, which is the altar of the cross. And when we find ourselves at the foot of the cross, we are gathered together again, just as we have gathered together here each Sunday.

Since my arrival at NPH, I have always been fascinated by Father Wasson, and I have tried to understand the depth of his love for and commitment to the Pequeños. After only two-and-half years here I think I have a small glimpse of what motivated and moved him. It is powerful; it is religious. It is also something very human. There is no force more powerful than the force of love that binds one person to another, especially when this love is rooted in God. I hope you never lose your appreciation for this force.

I want to conclude with a few words from the First Letter of John (1JN4: 7ff):

This is how we know that we remain in him and he in us, that he has given us of his Spirit. Moreover, we have seen and testify that the Father sent his Son as savior of the world. Whoever acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God remains in him and he in God. We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us. 

God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him. In this is love brought to perfection among us, that we have confidence on the day of judgment because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.

May God bless you always,

Padre Santiago

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Our New Chapel is Dedicated!

On January 8, 2015 the community of Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos welcomed Bishop Gonzalo de Villa y Vásquez to dedicate our new Chapel of the Holy Family. Thanks to the many donors whose generosity made this chapel possible, hundreds of children and young adults from NPH, together with staff and representatives from our local parish gathered in the chapel for a beautiful Mass. The names of all of the donors, the Pequeños living here, the staff, and those who worked on the construction of the chapel had been inserted and sealed inside of the altar which was to be consecrated. We are still waiting for the pews and some statues to be finished, and some other items are also pending- but the total cost will end up being around $250,000. It is amazing to see what this amount of money can provide here in Guatemala. Materials costs are similar to what we would pay in the USA, but labor costs are substantially less. While workers are very grateful to have work, the wages are such that even most of those with jobs continue to live in poverty. But all were both proud and thrilled to have the opportunity to build a church. And it turned out beautifully, as the pictures below will show.

The children here will benefit for years to come by the presence of this chapel. The excitement during the construction was surpassed by the joy seen in their eyes as we gathered for this Mass. In their name I wish to offer my deepest gratitude to all who contributed to this effort. We will maintain the donors and their families in our prayers each time we celebrate the Eucharist here.  Below are some pictures from the Mass of Dedication:
 Arrival of the bishop:

 Everyone is assembled:
First Communicants:
The altar before it is consecrated:
Entrance procession:
Greeting and Liturgy of the Word:

Consecrating the Altar and Anointing the Walls:

Eucharistic Prayer, Communion and Recessional:

Bishop, Concelebrants and Servers:
 First Communicants:

What at day it was!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas in Our New Chapel

Thanks be to God and many generous benefactors, our Chapel of the Holy Family is more or less complete, and we will begin using it starting with the Christmas Eve Mass. Many of the children are away for a couple of weeks, spending time with an aunt or uncle, or with an older brother or sister. But those of us here will gather this evening at 6pm for the inaugural Mass. On January 8th, the bishop will come to formally consecrate the chapel and the altar, and administer the sacrament of Confirmation and First Communion to those children who have prepared. I will post more pictures from that Mass, but wanted to publish a few today so that you can see how the chapel will look its first day of use. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

High School Graduation for "Desconocido Desconocido"

The school year here runs from January to October, which means we have entered the season of graduation from Bachillerato- the Guatemalan version of high school. Because only a small percentage of  Guatemalans attend university, Bachillerato is a terminal degree for most. It follows the 6 years spent in “Primaria” and 3 in “Básico.” In addition to the usual high school curriculum of math, science, language, etc, the “Bachilleres” of Guatemala choose a career focus, like a college major, which offers the vocational training they will need when looking for a job. Individual Bachllerato schools offer a limited number of majors, so our high school kids are spread out over many different schools in Chimaltenango, San Lucas and Antigua. Some have sponsors from the US, Canada or Europe who pay for their “ahijado” to study at a more elite private school. But most are limited to the majors available at the free public schools. These majors include: auto mechanic, secretary, technical drawing, teacher, electrician, physical education, arts and sciences, computer science… To be sure, their high school major does not mean that they cannot choose something else to study if they attend the university studies.  

Because of these various “majors,” our Pequeños attend eight or nine different Bachilleratos. This means eight or nine different graduation ceremonies. I facetiously offer the graduates a “bribe” of 100 Quetzales ($12, but a lot to them) to any willing to excuse me from attending their graduation. Anyone who has been to a high school graduation in the States knows how brutal these can be. They are even tougher here: The Guatemalan flag is brought in, accompanied by a group salute and its special song. That is followed by the singing of the National Anthem (all twelve stanzas), directed by a student in front who tries to wave his arms in sync with the recorded music. Then the graduates process in with their parents, called individually by name, and accompanied by loud music. In fact, a recorded soundtrack accompanies everything, including the interminable speeches by faculty and students. Several hours later the graduates leave the stage, diplomas in hand. I also exit, doing my best to cope with the headache brought on by two-plus hours of audio volume turned up so loud that I fear my hearing has been damaged.

Jose Antonio was one of the graduates this year. He presented me with one of the eight tickets allocated to each graduate of his school and asked me to attend. I thanked him and did my best to smile politely, making peace with the fact that I would lose half a day sitting through yet another one of these events. The reality is that this is a huge deal for the graduates. Especially for our kids, who very rarely are celebrated as individuals, graduation is a rare moment to shine. Individual birthdays are not recognized or celebrated here (some kids do not even know when their birthday is), and the only real accomplishments that seem to get much notice are successes on the soccer field. And so walking down the aisle, hearing their name announced over the amplifier, is indeed a proud moment. And having a few people in the audience present to witness this means a lot. All of the other graduates are accompanied by their parents as they process in. Ours, for obvious reasons, are usually not. But the graduating Pequeños ask people from NPH to assume the role of parents for this event.

People in many Latin American countries, including Guatemala, generally have two last names. The first is their primary last name, and comes from their father. The second is the maiden name of their mother. It can be difficult here at NPH keeping track of siblings, because while they may share a mother, they often have different fathers.

Jose Antonio is one of our star soccer players, and a favorite of the younger kids here. He is outgoing and has a sunny personality. He plays marimba and hopes to be part of the group that will go on “tour” of the Chicago area this winter to play music and raise funds for the house. Brought here as a small child, he told me once that he never knew either of his parents until a couple of years ago, when by some freak circumstance he was reunited with his mother. But his birth certificate reads, “Jose Antonio Desconocido Desconocido.” (Jose Antonio Unknown-Father Unknown-Mother). He still does not have an official last name, although our attorney is trying to resolve that now that he is eighteen and needs to get his government ID.

When I arrived at the place Jose Antonio’s graduation was to be held, he introduced me to his mother and the little daughter from a relationship with some man no longer in the picture. Clearly a woman of humble circumstances, she had journeyed several hours on an overcrowded bus to be here for the graduation, and was clearly pleased and proud of the son she only recently met.

After receiving their diploma, each graduate came down from the stage to greet their parents and have their picture taken. After Jose Antonio descended from the stage, I saw his face as he hugged his mother. And I found myself thinking that this was a moment no one ever would have imagined- certainly, when he began his Bachllerato studies, he never would have dreamed that his mom would be there to hug him after he got his diploma. As much as I loathe these graduations (the graduation I attended the next day lasted five hours), witnessing this moment alone made going worthwhile.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  * *

NPH was founded to serve orphans, but the mission has been expanded over the years to also take in children who come from rotten families, or from situations of dire poverty that put them at risk. Here in Guatemala, I think that about a quarter of the Pequeños are true orphans. Most have at least one parent, or another relative they can stay with during school vacation time. The kids are friendly and flash easy smiles when visitors come. But behind each smile smolders a sense of suffering, hidden from all, only surfacing in very rare moments of vulnerability. At NPH we try to provide a sense of family to those for whom this is the closest they will ever get to the kind of network of relationships that form the emotional base for the rest of us. 

A couple of months after I arrived in Guatemala, a group of visitors asked that I celebrate Mass with them in our temporary chapel. Reinhart Koehler, who is the President of NPH International, happened to be visiting us and attended the Mass. At the end, he offered a few words to the group. He explained that they would have wonderful experiences interacting with the kids, and that many might be surprised by how happy the children here seem. There is indeed often a sense of joy among the kids, especially when they are interacting with outsiders. But Reinhart cautioned the group against taking this apparent joy as an indication that the kids are content. He said that after more than 30 years of working with the children of NPH he has come to see that they would give anything to have a parent.

No one wants to be a “desconocido.”

Friday, October 17, 2014

Chapel Construction Nearing Completion

A view of the chapel nearing completion!
The view of the front from the park (also under construction)
Our Bell (70 lbs)
Hanging the Bell
Inside the Chapel- the left "arm"
View from the front door looking inside (cement floor is being poured- one wheelbarrow at a time)
Artisans work on what will be the Presider's Chair
This will be the base of the "Retablo" in back, upon which will sit the tabernacle
The Ambo is almost completed