Why did it take us so long to learn that God was there before we arrived; that every local church is both mission-sending and mission-receiving; to respect rather than to disrespect local culture; to be culturally sensitive rather than culturally dismissive?
These questions arose from a return trip to South America after an absence of 10 years. Reflecting from a different perspective made me also wonder about the virtues and vices of money coming from home dioceses, and how we moved from being clergy-focused to becoming true partners with local lay people, serving the poor and being served by the poor.
This trip was motivated by the Society of St James’ golden jubilee. The St James Society was founded following a request from Pope Pius XII in 1957. There were incidentally many of these societies founded to facilitate priests from, in the main, Europe and North America, working in Africa and South America. They were called Fidei Donum (gift of faith) societies.
I arrived in Lima, Peru, to join more than 40 current members of the Society of St James, more than 50 past members like myself, and numerous bishops from sending dioceses from all over the western English-speaking world, and receiving dioceses, these latter bishops from Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. We were privileged to listen to some wisdom by different speakers, mostly reflecting on the work of the past 50 years – the positives and the negatives.
We had interesting Masses, lots of talk, lots of laughter, lots of song and of course moderate amounts of celebratory food and drink.
On to Ecuador, where I based myself in two Spanish-speaking houses. Ecuador has both changed, and stayed the same. Where I had worked has become quite well developed. Where I stayed with my priest friends is now the periphery of the city, so was the same as I experienced during my time there.
I visited both of the parishes I served in. It was rewarding; some people still remembered me. I had a real thrill on the last day I spent in Ecuador. I’d worked with a youth group and one of the priests who followed after I left still maintained contact with some of the members, and while we were in Lima contacted them for me. I met with some of them on Sunday afternoon. They were all 36-48 years old now. I met their spouses, children and even a grandchild. It was great fun.
The church there has a shape and character like our church has a shape and character. Youth and elderly involvement was and is strong there, here it was and is family and elderly.
There, they have a far more political focus than we, united in struggle for their human rights, health, welfare and education, which we take for granted. Here, we have no such point of unity.
There, they are following their same structure-patterns of parish development as in the past. Here, we are learning how to restructure our parishes.
Here, and there, it is the Mass that gathers people, and other activities flow from that.
It was great to go back and enjoy again what was an important part of my life, but I did find that an older body does not manage the third-world life-style as easily, so I told our parishioners that they’d probably have to be kind to me for a while longer.