By David Jimenez
Originally published in the Spring 2013 Edition of the 
Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers Vocations Newsletter

Late at night in the village of Guadalupe in the Petén region of Guatemala, I encountered what seemed to be an inexplicable presence. Removed from the busy lights and bustle of the city, the sky glimmered with an infinite number of stars.  The wonderful winter breeze felt as refreshing as a summer evening back home.  The small chapel of the town soon filled as stoic, quiet abuelitas took their smiling, adorable nietas into this holy place.

David Jimenez
The young children became fascinated with the saint cards and images of Mary and Jesus brought by our group, captivated by something so simple and seemingly unremarkable.  One could only grin at the innocent giggles and smiles of the children as they heard our broken Spanish and even more awful Q’eqchi'.  The Mass erupted with the sound of boisterous instruments and songs.  Although our Maryknoll Priests and Maryknoll Brother played their part, it was the laity that really brought life to the ceremony as they read the Word of God, surrounded the altar with incense, venerated the Eucharist, and prayed to La Virgen de Guadalupe.  During the Mass, four languages of Spanish, Q’eqchi', English, and Latin were all spoken at one point, the best possible example of the universal Church.  During the handshakes of peace, one could see the friendliness, cheerfulness, and respect that everyone held for one another.  Indeed, it was not the firm handshake one encounters in the United States, one of firmness, strength, and dominance.  It is instead a very warm touch of hands, a sign of communion and friendship.  Far from the great cathedrals of Paris and Rome, one could feel more in this tiny chapel the presence of God than anywhere in the world.

Br. Marty Shea, MM
But was this simply some form of outdated religious piety, Marx’s “opium of the people” whose strong emotional power held no relation to world?  Far from it; rather throughout our trip, we encountered the Catholic faith as a lived reality and commitment.  As we toured a nursing home for elderly people, we saw a small, passionate staff who addressed all of them as abuelitos, grandmothers and grandfathers who needed to be shown continued love in the twilight of their lives.  We walked with the family of Caesar through the new agricultural co-op his village has created, a project that he hopes honors God’s creation and brings a decent, independent livelihood to the community.  In every hacienda, we encountered a corps of committed catechists, lectors, and leaders from Delegates of the Word or Catholic Action who sought to build the spiritual and material life of their home.  In the mornings in Flores, we would see the local bishop and joyful nuns walk young orphans to school.  As we toured the houses of families, we encountered beautifully constructed altars where we lifted up together our prayers and hopes.  We walked with Brother Marty through one town, built by scattered refugees from around the region on vacant land.  There they had successfully built their own farms, businesses, schools, and clinic.  During the evenings, we heard the remarkable stories of our Maryknoll Priests and Maryknoll Brother whose continued labors and sacrifices during the horrors of 1970’s and 1980’s spoke to God’s call for us to be close to the “least of these” in their greatest trials.  During a home visit, one of the young leaders in Guadalupe said that he desired to be a Trabajador de Cristo, “Worker of Christ”.  Catholics here are not passive members of the Church but engaged participants.  For the people of Guatemala, faith is not simply a set of beliefs, rituals, or a cultural tradition.  It is the core and nucleus of their lives, the communion with God and neighbor that illuminates every action and thing.

As a fractured Church in the United States seeks to rediscover its own identity and purpose, my encounter with the Church of Latin America is a powerful reminder to return to our core.  As Father David said, the “Church must be about people not issues”.  We must, as the people of the Petén do every day, let Christ enter into our lives, sharing intimately in our struggles, poverty, and deepest hopes.  We must not treat Christ as an outdated icon, a political tool, or a cultural artifact, but a person who invites us to walk with him, him, to follow him, and labor with him to build the Kingdom of God.  Whether as a Maryknoll or Jesuit, religious or lay person, I hope to take on the same mission that the ordinary people of Guatemala continue to make, the same commitment the Lord revealed to Saint Ignatius of Loyola:

"It is my will to win over the whole world, to overcome evil with good, hatred with love, to conquer all the forces of death - whatever obstacles there are that block the sharing of life between God and mankind.  Whoever wishes to join me in this mission must be willing to labor with me, and so by following me in my suffering and struggle may share in my glory".

[David Jimenez is finishing his freshman year at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.  He joined us for our January 2013 Mission  Immersion Experience to Guatemala along with Daniel Mello of New Bedford, Massachusetts]