Each year during May, a second collection is taken up in our diocese for Diocesan Missions abroad. May is a fitting time to do that, for May is Easter time. When Jesus left his disciples after the Resurrection, He said to them, “Go and make disciple of all nations.” That call was further conveyed to the whole church by the Second Vatican Council. Our diocese was particularly mission-minded, with wide-ranging programs which educated both adults and children that everyone, by virtue of baptism was to be mission-minded. In addition, while Religious Orders of women and men had been sending missionaries out for the whole of the twentieth century and before, this was a new moment. Sisters and priests, used to ministering in our diocese, were asked to consider being missionaries.
In our diocese, the Sisters of Saint Joseph were the first to respond, sending five Sisters to the Diocese of Jatai, Brazil, in August of 1964. Initially, we worked in education, nursing and parish ministry. Our sisters are still in Brazil, but spread from north to south, in the interior and in cities, engaged in new works as needs emerged. The Sisters of Mercy went to Santiago, Chile in August 1965 and worked in ministries to families. Eventually they too moved into rural places to do pastoral work among the very poor. The Sisters of Mercy remain in in Chile today.
Our auxiliary bishop, Lawrence B. Casey, met the archbishop of La Paz, Bolivia, in Rome during the Council. A plan was developed to invite our priests to go to La Paz for service. Fr. Peter Deckman and Father Tom O’Brien went in 1966 to work at San Jose Obrero, a parish in the northern part of the city. Priests from other dioceses in the USA also ministered in LaPaz parishes. (The Archbishop was resourceful in getting the help he needed!) Between 1966 and 1974, when the mission ended, five priests and a layman from our diocese worked hard to prepare the people to take over the functioning of the parish, which they do to his day. The original plan was not that our clergy remain there, but that they be interim – in the service of the people at a time of specific need.
I had the privilege of traveling some five thousand miles through Brazil visiting our Sister’s missions. Three brief anecdotes put a human face on their activities. In Goiania, a city of over a million, recent arrivals from the interior were given a small plot of land and some money to build a house. They were relegated to the red clay hills on the edges of the city. All they could afford to build initially were “half houses”. (Think of a house that had a central roof line. Now cut that house in half.) When the people had saved enough money to build a church in their midst, the Benedictines were commissioned to create a tabernacle. As the artists listened to the people, the shape of the tabernacle became clear. The tabernacle was created in the shape of a half house. On it were the words, “God lives here.”
Two of us traveled by bus for 18 hours to get to our Sisters who lived and worked in the Amazon region. The bus was no Trailways! Two drivers were on board. So were people, their chickens and bundles of what not. I held a sleeping girl on my lap fir six hours. When we needed to cross a river, one driver got out and guided the other over two beams that spanned the river.
Later in the trip, near the equator, one of our Sisters took us on a long jeep trip to an area where indigenous people lived. We were going to the funeral of chief who had been assassinated by thugs, who, people believed, were hired by greedy landowners who wanted the indigenous people’s land. At the funeral, the wife of the slain chief stood in the midst of the people. In a strong voice, she proclaimed. “Today, we are not here to bury my husband. No. We plant him, and from his life and death, we draw strength to go forward to be strong and firm in our quest for justice.”
It is mistaken to believe that as missionaries our Sisters and priests went to Latin America to bring faith to the people. The faith was already there. We were, instead, to accompany them on their journey as they discerned their hopes, needs and desires for life.
It was and is a journey worth our taking.