I have been involved with the people of Guatemala since 2016 when I was invited to my first mission trip with Midwestern State University’s Catholic Campus Center. I was learned so much that first year. Even though I grew up poor in a country that was in a period of poverty after the war, I was shocked to see the current state of disparity between the big cities and the people in the countryside in this small Central America country. Those who are in the bigger cities live almost like typical people in smaller towns in the United States, with many similar creature comforts. However, those who live in the countryside, especially the indigenous Mayan people, are living in deprived and poor conditions. I was shocked to see the stark contrast within a small country, between the people in control or have money in comparison to those who go without. There were no real social welfare or assistance programs for those who are in need, and some could care less, especially those who are in power and locked behind their high walls and posh lifestyle.
Even the middle class tend to lose focus of the poor within their own country! They know that some of their workers and many people who are around them have families that are struggling, but they cannot really comprehend the real living conditions of these people who are in the countryside. Schools, different charitable, governmental, and non-profit organizations organized trips to do charitable works with the poor, they heard some stories, but many really do not know the reality and immense political, financial, and social disparities and injustices that exist within their very own nation. It is normal to find in the countryside many people who, still today, live in (hardened) mud shacks with the big branch or leaf-based roofs, with no running water nor toilet.
I was oftentimes at loss for words on my first trip, especially to recognize how many people are forgotten because where they live are out of the way or not close to the typical ministerial or charitable assistance routes. Many people I visited had not seen a priest in a while because the priests would only come to the small villages for Masses and confessions at the parish church, and for some reason, do not have nor take the time to visit the sick and homebound. Perhaps they are overwhelmed with many things on their plates or those matters did not cross their minds, but the people that we visited were so grateful to receive the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick. Many cried because of how much they desire but cannot go to Mass because of their old age. Imagine someone living on top of slippery and steep mountains or hills who were able to go up and down when they were young, but those paths are now impossible with limited mobility! To hear people cried tears of joy and listen to their expressed desires for the Sacraments humbled me deeply, and those whom I encountered strengthened my commitment to the priesthood and desire to serve those who love the faith.
Almost every parish or mission site that we went to, a long line of people, often for hours, wanted to go to confessions. People attended Mass as best as they can, trying to comprehend the message since Spanish is often not their first language, but they were all there for the Eucharist. Every mission trip made me humble and more committed to my priestly ministry! The people that I ministered strengthened my faith. Nevertheless, I also feel so exhausted, physically and mentally tired, from all the treks and numerous hours of listening to confessions, preaching and offering Masses in Spanish. This reminds me of the one thing I personally disliked most from the trips, which was the countless bug bites (probably from fleas, ticks, or chiggers) since we often went into untreated areas, poor living conditions, and only get to shower once during our eight-day timeframe. Perhaps my blood is sweet, or just because I sweated a lot wearing my black cassock while ministering to people, but those bug bites would last for weeks and some left permanent scars. I am always scared of wearing short-sleeved shirts or shorts after the trip (for at least a month) since people often questioned about the bite marks.
My times in Guatemala had not always been wonderful because they were also challenging. Maybe I am human, but those things slowly crept in and became my subconscious reservations. That happened to me before my last (May 2019) trip! I knew I had to go since the team needed a priest to minister to people, and the Carmelite Sisters had been more dependent and given me a lot of priestly duties when I am down there to minister to the people. Over the years, they have been asking us to go to more places to offer Masses and visit more people who are sick when we are down there! I knew of my expected responsibilities and why I had to be down there, yet humanly speaking, I was not looking to the psychological weariness of having to use so much Spanish, as well as the daily physical challenges that naturally arise and expected of us in such a short time. I actually asked the Campus Minister to offer the spot to another younger priest who would be interested. One reason after another, that spot fell back to me and I knew I could not get out of it.
I was not mentally ready for the trip since it had been a tiring year as a priest. Yet, I kept thinking that God kept the door open so I should go (even though I tried several times to back out and even volunteered someone else)! The Almighty humbled me. He knew my reservations and wanted to teach me an important lesson that this is where I need to be (yes, I am using “is” because the country remains the place where He calls me to serve in mission). There were so many signs given throughout the trip that told me that Guatemala and the indigenous people have become another “home” for me and my priestly ministry.
One of the biggest signs was the gift of being able to offer Mass at the Chapel where Fr. Stanley Rother was martyred. I did not tell anyone this, but I kept praying to the Blessed Martyr to intercede for me before the trip, empowering me with the needed energy, wisdom, and tenacity to minister like he did to the indigenous people. And guess what? When Madre Anna Maria greeted us for the first time, she immediately told me in Spanish, “Bienvenido a tu pueblo, Padre!” After our first dinner at the convent, when she met with us, she asked me if I wanted to celebrate Mass where Fr. Rother was martyred. I was shocked and felt so honored! And of course, I said yes.
Before a Mass at the convent later in the week, the Sisters told me that even though they are giving me a lot of works, they are grateful that I come and willing to take the extra time to visit the homebound sicks, hear many confessions and offer Masses for the people since they do not get the regular opportunities with the local priests. Out of the many priests that visit the convent, they told me that there is an unexplained, natural affinity and feel that they can give me more opportunities since “you are so willing.” That humbled me! Is God not humorous? He knew I was resisting, so everything that happened and said basically affirmed that this is where I need to be, this is where God wants me to minister to His people as best as I can and as long as I am able.
You know… The Almighty has a funny way of teaching one a lesson, in a very gentle but humbling, gracious, and loving way. He used the Sisters that I respect, the people who yearn for the Sacraments, and Fr. Stanley Rother‘s life example to remind me that this is where I belong and need to be for mission. To be able to offer Mass at the place where he was martyred was something I never imagined or dared to ask! These gifts were given freely to affirm and dismiss my doubts. I can honestly tell you that the Almighty, through the intercession of Fr. Rother, keeps bringing me back to Guatemala. The holy, martyred priest heard my doubts, interceded for me, and told me that this is where I need to be because “the shepherd cannot run from his flock.” Without a doubt, the people that I have met are not coincidental, they are providentially placed in my life to teach me a lesson I was trying to avoid learning. From all of the recent experiences, I think I finally got the message and lesson! I hope and I pray that I will have more opportunities in the future as He permits and wills. I will continue to say “yes” if he calls me. Fiat voluntas tua!
Please pray for the people of Guatemala.
Blessed Stanley Rother, pray for us.