Mission Fields -- Central America
With the blessing of Almighty God the apostolate continues in Central America. The countries concerned are Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. The Society has been in these countries for over twenty years, and the vineyard continues to increase. This article will explain some of the details of this varied missionary effort.
Priory in Guatemala
The Society has its priory in the city of Guatemala. It is part of the Mexican and Central American District. We now have three priests (for the first time) and a convent of seven nuns. The priests are Fr. Michel Boniface, Fr. Pius Nanthambwe, and Fr. Lawrence Novak—yours truly. The nuns are Franciscans who arrived here two years ago to seek protection from the Society from the modernist errors. That is a story in itself. First this article will explain some of the particular Guatemalan customs that are observed in both the priory and downtown church of the Society. Then it will talk about the life at our priory. And finally we will see some of the work of the Society in the mission field.
One of the more impressive things that one notices at church in Guatemala is the emphasis on processions and carrying shoulder-biers with various statues on top. These platforms are well decorated. Eight people at least are assigned with the privilege of carrying the image. And even then it is necessary that there be several teams to continue carrying the precious cargo. A particular custom of our parish church is the regular assembling of different side altars for various feasts during the year. Precious statues in the Guatemalan style are used along with decorations which bespeak the feast being celebrated. These altars require days of work to assemble.
The Society’s priory in Guatemala has the unique situation of being composed of the priory itself—located in a sedate suburban area about 10 miles west of the city—and the parish church, which is located in the downtown area. The difference between the two environments is the difference between sanity and madness, especially when one considers the traffic, but we must do whatever we can to bring the Faith to souls. It is true that the downtown parish attracts many more new people than the tranquil priory chapel.
Speaking of the priory, the life here is how it should be. All priories in the Mexican and Central American District are responsible for giving their own retreats, usually to the souls in their charge either at the priory or its dependent missions. The priory is therefore also a retreat house with accommodations for eighteen retreatants. However, there has been a change within the last two years with the arrival of the seven nuns seeking refuge at our priory. One of the buildings formerly used as retreatant quarters is now the convent. This reduces our retreatant capacity by eight bedrooms.
But the nuns are not without their worth! We are the envy of the district to actually have a priory with nuns. Even though we do not see it very often, the norm envisioned by the Archbishop was that every priory would have at least three priests and a convent of nuns to give solidity to the prayer life at the priory, to teach Catechism to the youngsters, and to support the priests by taking care of the physical needs of the priory. We have all of that with the presence of the Franciscan sisters here with us. They are always present for all the chapel offices, and they take care of the sacristy and kitchen. They are also dedicated to providing all the material needs of the retreats.
One might ask: “But where did these nuns come from?” These nuns come from the management staff of a home for disabled children here in the country of Guatemala. The priest who used to direct them has always been a faithful reader of the Si Si No No newspaper. When Pope Benedict XVI announced the non-abrogation of the Traditional Mass he learned how to say it again. He guided these nuns in an anti-liberal fashion. The problem is that these nuns belonged to a congregation which was bigger than his home for disabled children. They started to be persecuted. Their superiors made sure to separate them and put them in various houses away from each other and the good influence of the anti-liberal priest. There was contact between this priest and our priory, and also between these nuns and our priory. Finally an agreement was reached that the Society would take care of these nuns as a companion order under observation from our superiors. They were given the word that they needed to pass at least three years of probation with us before their statutes and way of life were completely approved. In the meantime the nuns have continued with their religious life and the forming of new nuns. Actually, three of the vocations are novices, one is a postulant, and the other three are professed. To be precise, the convent is actually a novitiate. There are already two more pre-postulants due to enter within the next couple months.
As you can tell, the nuns’ situation is not completely normal, but it is the best we can do for the moment. The ideal is that the nuns have their own piece of property not too far from the priory, so that they can attend the daily Mass and offices and still look after the needs of the priory. This would give the nuns their privacy and personal identity, which is certainly due to them, and it would give us back all the rooms of our retreat center. We pray for it all the time, and we confide in Divine Providence to help this little religious order develop.
And finally, the mission field. Our priory takes care of the city of Tuxtla Gutierrez (in the country of Mexico), the city of Quetzaltenango (here in the country of Guatemala), and the countries of El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras. The visits to Tuxtla Gutierrez, Quetzaltenango, and El Salvador are once a month. The visits to the other four places can be once every three months, six months, or as much as a year, depending. We are definitely in the missionary stages!
Since this author has not yet visited all the locations we will only focus on some of the highlights of a few of the places. To begin with, one must understand that the people of the southeastern part of Mexico (our mission in Tuxtla Gutierrez) and the country of Guatemala are very similar. Both belong to the Mayan Region. The national border is somewhat artificial. Something else that one must understand is that since the 1870s, almost 150 years ago, there has been a huge Masonic effort on the part of the government to Protestantize the people in all of Central America, and perhaps the southeastern part of Mexico by extension. The average ratio of Protestant population throughout all the Central American countries is an alarming 50 percent. It is one of the queerest experiences for a United States “gringo” to run into traditionally dressed indigenous “Christians” telling him how the Catholic Church is not right! One would think that in these countries colonized by Catholic Spain there would not be pluralism. Therefore we have no shame when we go to these areas to use the same “bullets” that they use towards the one true religion. We go armed with pamphlets and Catechism books, ready to engage anyone in conversation.
Tuxtla Gutierrez in the state of Chiapas of Mexico is a ministry that the Society has had for a long time—about twenty years. The mission suffers from not being centrally located. The closest priory is in Orizaba, Veracruz, which is eight hours to the northwest, but they have many responsibilities in Puebla, Oaxaca, and Tlaxiaco. Therefore Guatemala takes care of this mission, which requires between thirteen and fifteen hours of travel. There are several good families there, and the mission has received the visit of the pilgrim statue of Our Lady of Fatima, thus becoming a member of the Cruzada Cordimariana—the Crusade of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The people are very generous and always help the priests in transferring shipments of books and luggage from one country to the next. They are the Mass center which is closest to the border between Mexico and Guatemala.
Quetzaltenango—or Xelaju (its original Mayan name)—is a city four hours to the west of our priory, up in the mountains. We are grateful for the apostolate there because it happens to be the hub where our Franciscan sisters met and worked together. The nuns have a great affection for this city. Because of this there is a well convinced group of people who wish to follow the Traditional Church there. At present we are meeting for Mass in a bakery which belongs to one of our parishioners. It is affectionately called “the Catacomb.” We have thirty parishioners, but we know that there are at least another fifty who are able to find the Traditional Mass by another venue, but not forever. That is why it is essential that we maintain our presence until Divine Providence sees fit to give us more responsibility in that location. The visits are from Friday to Monday. We always visit the local hospital on Saturday, hearing Confessions, giving Extreme Unction, baptizing in some cases, and giving the Traditional doctrine. This is an apostolate which we share with about fifteen of the parishioners there.
Nicaragua. When an American hears the word he thinks of the Ortega / Sandinista crisis that arose there in the early eighties. One thinks of Communism and the stealing of the election. To this day all the trees that line the open highway are painted with a red and black bar of paint in honor of the revolution. All these things are true, but they have not been strong enough to take away the Catholic Faith completely. Two weeks ago (November 24-29) we visited the country for a week. We had the privilege of being accompanied by a young man who fled the country for the United States back during the difficult years. He brought us to his home town of Jinotega, about three hours north of the capital city of Managua, where we were able to celebrate the Traditional Mass and catechize several adults in the Traditional Faith. Some important contacts were made and renewed. We were able to visit a young priest who now is saying the Traditional Latin Mass exclusively. We visited a convent which had received this priest for a length of time and was grateful for the Traditional Latin Mass. We visited two bishops. One of them is well known for his support of Fr. Nicholas Gruner and the Fatima Crusade and for his fight against Liberation Theology ever since the 1980s—and he is located in one of the hottest zones of this error. He is interested in Tradition as a counterweight to all of the Communist influence that surrounds him. It is because of this bishop’s firm stand that the young priest mentioned above has committed to celebrate the Traditional Mass. The other bishop that we visited was more of an occasion for us to show him support and give him our encouragement. He is known to be a friend of the first bishop. He particularly liked our gift of books, principally the books by St. Alphonsus de Liguori. They know exactly who we are, and they do not throw us out.
We visited a monastery which is in the diocese of the first bishop. We celebrated a public Mass there. The monks were grateful to assist at the Traditional Mass. They invited parishioners to come and attend. It was a Thursday morning at 10:00. There were more than thirty people present. We were invited to hear Confessions. After Mass we gave Catechism along with the distribution (in some cases—sale) of many books. On Friday we spent the afternoon as street preachers, handing out pamphlets to all the people that were detained in traffic and speaking to anyone that was interested in the true doctrine of the Church.
The Laborers Are Few
A reflection on Nicaragua: I do not think we are particularly interested in making Mass centers all over the country. For one thing, that would not be possible given our limited number of priests and resources. But we are interested in encouraging priests and bishops who are already leaning towards Tradition. And if we can give a few people hope by presenting the Traditional doctrine to them again, this is already a victory.
And finally, the missions that this writer has not had the opportunity to visit yet. In respect to El Salvador, we have a monthly mission there. Word has it that almost one hundred people attended a one-day retreat given by one of our priory’s priests a few weeks ago. These are not all parishioners, but they are people who are interested in Tradition. In Costa Rica there were four different places visited by one of our priests over a month ago. There was much enthusiasm in each location. Conferences were given. Mass was celebrated. Books were distributed. This visit only happens three times a year at the most. We have yet to consolidate the work there. We are still in the stage of seeing what would be the most productive area to focus on. Honduras is still an area that this author knows nothing about, but there will be more news to come in the future.
It would be good to close with an anecdote: A Jesuit priest dressed as a layman once received one of our pamphlets from us. He said in a tone of rebuke: “Let the sects deceive the people! Stop trying to fight it!” He might have been saying this because as a relativist he would want to respect everyone’s different approach to God. Or because of the priest shortage he might be just as happy with the people going over to the sects. In any case, the same Jesuit happened to meet the same priest that gave him the pamphlet a few days later in an airport. He told the priest: “What you say is true. May God bless you for your efforts.” Conclusion: We may not always be able to see the good results of our work, but the Master of the vineyard still has His effect on souls.
Fr. Lawrence Novak Prior, Guatemala