Dawn of a New Pentecost for Franciscans in the Americas?

Jacek Orzechowski, OFM Friar News

Jacek, standing in back, a group of friars, and local JPIC and Secular Franciscan leaders of the peaceful resistance movement against the destructive mining project on the outskirts of Guatemala City. (photo courtesy of Jacek).

A fresh, cool morning breeze gently pressed upon my face. The chirping of exotic birds mingled with the tumult of the brown-robed friars hopping in the direction of a large brick church. I was not at Mount La Verna in Italy, nor was I at Mount Nebo in Jordan. Instead, I was at Guatemala’s Mount Saint Francis, located a few miles outside of the capital city.

I arrived there late last month, joining 160 friars, religious sisters and laypeople to take part in the 3rd Franciscan Missionary Congress for Latin America and the Caribbean. Focused on evangelization, the main themes of the Oct. 22 to 27 gathering were: forced migration, care for creation, and the culture of peace. All the presentations, workshops and small group discussions delved into these three matters.

Amazing, inspirational, and empowering are some adjectives that describe my experience at the week-long Missionary Congress in Guatemala City. The best of Latin American theology shone there in full splendor. Firmly anchored in scripture and the Franciscan tradition, all the presentations, workshops, and small group discussions included a social analysis of the signs of the times from the perspective of the poor, and examples of liberating prophetic action.

Sharing Information and Ideas
One of the presenters, Friar Tomás González, OFM, shared his experience of ministering at a Migrant Center called La 72, located in Tenosique, Mexico. He has called upon all the Franciscan family to move out of our comfort zones and help accompany the victims of forced migration through a nascent initiative called the “Franciscan Cord.” Spanning Central America, Mexico, and the United States, the Franciscan Cord aims to create a string of places of welcome and refuge.

Another friar, Rodrigo Peret, OFM, from Brazil, spoke about the deadly consequences of the neocolonial, extractive industries. Many of them are based in the U.S. and Canada. They reap huge benefits from exploiting the natural goods of poor countries while wreaking havoc on the land and the people of Latin America, breeding corruption, desperation, and spawning systemic violence. For example, in recent years, 35% of the territory of Honduras has been handed over to foreign, extractive industries, while over 60% of the people of Honduras live in deep poverty.

The friars, religious and lay leaders gathered in Guatemala in October offered a bold vision for the initial and the ongoing formation of friars. They acknowledged that, in many parts of the Americas, friars do not yet receive adequate formation to equip them to become effective promoters and catalysts of a Culture of Peace. The religious fundamentalism, a nostalgia for a pre-Vatican II past, and clericalism continue to allure and debilitate the Church in her mission. However, the Franciscan parishes, schools and community service centers in Latin America are taking important steps to integrate justice, peace and the integrity of creation into preaching, teachings and pastoral plans. It is recognized that reading and responding prophetically to the signs of the times are part and parcel of an authentic evangelization.

I was grateful for the great hospitality that I experienced from the friars and from the wonderful Guatemalan families that hosted me in their home. As friars in the United States seeking to revitalize our life and ministry in the U.S., we have so much to learn from the prophetic sensibilities of our Latino brothers and sisters. I hope that the U.S. Provincial Administrations, and in fact, every friar in the U.S. is able to read, pray over and reflect on the concluding document from the 3rd Franciscan Missionary Congress.

An indigenous Guatemalan woman in the city  of San Juan Sacatepéquez carrying flowers cultivated by her family to a market.   (Photo courtesy of Jacek)

Getting to Know the Region
After the missionary congress formally ended, I stayed in the area for two extra days. I celebrated Sunday Mass and visited the postulancy program of the Central American Franciscan province. Fray Armando took me on a tour of the vast, very poor area on the periphery of the capital city. With meager financial resources and just a few friars, they are living there, ministering among the poor.

I have also accompanied several lay Franciscan-hearted people organized to address some of the local Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation issues in a visit to the nearby city of San Juan Sacatepéquez. It is an indigenous area renowned for the cultivation and trade of roses and other flowers. This is also the main source of work for the twelve, local native communities. The people have been cultivating flowers for centuries. The trade provides them with a secure income, a stable lifestyle and a cultural cohesion. Yet, those indigenous cultivators of fragile beauty — descendants of the great Maya civilization — have been under a frontal attack.

In 2006, a mega-cement factory was built on a nearby hill, less than a quarter mile away. It began depleting the groundwater. It didn’t care that the local people needed the water for their own consumption and for cultivating flowers. Then the cement dust thrown into the air began to threaten the health of the nearby communities of 40,000 people. It also blocked the sun, making it impossible for flowers to grow. In response, people rose up in a peaceful resistance against this harmful project.

One of the local leaders said to us: “In our country, more than 50% of children are already severely malnourished. If we allow this mega-cement factory to deplete our water, poison our land and air, it is a death sentence for our community.” Their peaceful defense of the right to life has been met with repression. Many people have been severely beaten, imprisoned and further threatened.

The community leaders at San Juan Sacatepéquez have pleaded with us for help. They say they are ready to lay down their lives to defend their right to life, to stay, work and live on their own land, and to protect their mother earth. The lay, Franciscan-hearted people are eager to do their part and work to build up the local solidarity network. But they have no financial resources needed to bolster their community organizing work. In their struggle against tyranny and the neo-liberal economy that kills, how will we respond as Franciscans?

— Fr. Jacek, a member of Holy Name Province, is in residence at the Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Md. He ministers at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington in the area of Parish Community Organizing and Advocacy and also serves as a member of the Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation Animation Committee of the Franciscan Order.

Editor’s note: Information about the topics discussed at the Franciscan Missionary Congress—migration, care for creation and the culture of peace – can be found on the Justice and Peace section of the HNP website.

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