There we stood, in the hustle and bustle of Houston Airport, reciting the Veni Creator. Quite an unusual backdrop for such a solemn hymn. Yet, I wonder if there has been any other occasion in my life when I said it so wholeheartedly! I had stopped there for our next flight on our way back from Guatemala to Malta, after a fifteen-day experience in the Central American country – alongside Maria Attard and Stefan, her nephew and a close friend of mine – which has been truly a unique and unforgettable one.
For years now I have been longing to visit a third-world country and get a first hand experience of how the Church lives up to its missionary call ad gentes. I had missed earlier opportunities offered at my parish, but the question inside kept lingering: “Come and see”. Being close to Pope Francis’ preaching and writing made me more aware of the urgent plea; the Church, if it wants to imitate Christ, must listen to the call which stands at the very heart of the Gospel: loving and serving the poor. And by ‘Church’ I mean each and every one of us. It’s true… all sorts of peripheries exist in our local milieu, marginalized people live next door, “the poor are always with us” (Mt 26:11). But sometimes one must physically leave behind his comfort zone and make that step further… towards the unknown, the uncertain, towards God who is present in the most vulnerable, those who cannot reward you with anything else but a smile and sheer gratitude. And isn’t that more than enough?
Two years ago, Fr Anton Grech, a ‘young’ missionary priest from my hometown, Victoria, whom I admired from my childhood years in the Legion of Mary, joined us in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Soon after we invited him over to speak to our group of friends. It was then that I was reminded, by his simple yet clear words quoting Jesus himself and repeated so many times by Pope Francis, that we are all called to be “missionary disciples” (Mt 28:19): through Baptism we become disciples of the Lord, only to be sent by him to spread the Good News, each and every one according to his or her own vocation. Somehow I felt compelled to take that call seriously, to widen my heart and listen to God’s voice in the poor. It was time! What finally triggered my decision to buy the tickets for the flight was Maria Attard’s positive energy, clearly motivated by the Gospel, who was now visiting Guatemala for the third time though having just turned 70.
In Gozo we are quite familiar with Fr Anton’s missionary venture in Izabal, Guatamela. The Guatemalta Foundation is doing a lot of good work in promoting the mission, and many groups from Malta and Gozo have been visiting his parish in the last few years. There have also been exchanges of visits and experiences. Recently, Maria Attard, who has been supporting single mothers for the last thirty years or so, helped Fr Anton to introduce the Spiritual Adoption programme in Catholic schools in Izabal, and now a new respite is being built for women facing social hardships at San Hermano Pedro Parish, less than half an hour close to Puerto Barrios, an area which is marked by trafficking and crime. That is mainly why we accompanied Maria on this missionary journey.
Unlike other groups who organised various fundraising activities and made people aware of their visit to Guatemala beforehand, we kept our visit very low-profile. We had no big projects in mind. Personally I just desired to make an experience of the Church in a third-world country, of the authenticity of faith as lived in Central American communities, of what is ‘essential’ in the vocation of a parish and its priests and collaborators. Coming from a Church with a very old and rich tradition of Christian heritage, it is often easy to overlook or even disregard what should be central to the experience of faith: the joy of the Gospel, the centrality of the Word, communion with Christ and the others, serving the needy, to mention but few aspects.
For fifteen days – certainly not enough! – we lived close to two inspirational priests who, notwithstanding their different characters, have taught me what it means to live in fraternity. I don’t want to make eulogies for the many virtues of Fr Anton Grech and Fr Mario Curmi; they are human beings just like any other priest or layman. But one thing I’m sure of is that they seek to live their priesthood to the full. I am very grateful that I could spend such time close to Fr Mario, who I know well from the ministry we shared together at my home parish.
At San Hermano Pedro I saw a Church serving the poor (poverty in Guatemala is more evident in the social context rather than in material deprivation as such, though the latter also exists under many forms), witnessing the joy of the Gospel, taking pride not in her own actions but in the love of Christ for humankind. The two missionaries lead a simple life, but I could clearly see their attention to the details of the lives of their parishioners. They know each by name, they know their faces, their homes, their families, and many times they are also able to read into their hearts, satisfying that thirst with which the poor families of Izabal quench for the joy only Christ can give. They are truly living the ministry of servants of the Good News, restoring light where there is darkness, relief where there is pain, love where there is hatred, healing where there is infirmity. These are beautiful words, aren’t they, but do not think that I am using them in any other way but literal! Love for the poor and vulnerable pours silently from the heart of our missionary priests as if it was flowing from the Sacred Heart of Jesus itself.
Our generous Maltese and Gozitan benefactors should know that their donations are being invested in the right projects. On our arrival in Guatemala, besides the heat which at first I could not stand, we were welcomed by Fr Anton with this comment: “Thank you for not just sending donations, but coming in person”. Any missionary is pleased to share with visitors what the Church is doing through the grace of God and the financial help of many – this is one thing I could read in Fr Anton’s eyes. In fact, we spent our stay in Guatemala mainly visiting village communities together with him and his lay collaborators, attending one mass after the other in very hot temperatures, sharing meals with youth from his parish, and spending various other precious moments where we could see with our own eyes the missionary ministry of our two Gozitan priests in Izabal.
The Guatemala rainforest and Caribbean coastland are a feast for the eyes and one can only wonder how people can still be poor when mother nature has blessed them with what Guatemalans themselves call “tierra de Dios” – God’s own land. But here it also becomes clearer that the poverty and destitution of many is mostly a result of the selfishness of the very few.
There are of course certain projects which are very much to Fr Anton’s heart. At first I personally questioned why he spends so much money and at least three salaries on a TV station, but it did not take long to understand his farsighted vision, as he envisaged Stella Maris TV not only as a centre of activity for youth in his parish, but also as a way of new evangelization reaching the many poor families spread in his vast territory, who might have no commodities at all in their zinc-roofed sheds, but they would certainly own a TV set or even a satellite dish! At Stella Maris, where Fr Anton and Fr Mario live, there is also a football stadium, an IT laboratory and a new spacious and modern church. The whole complex and its facilities remind me of a Salesian oratory.
Then, of course, the two new Blessed martyrs of Guatemala are so dear to Fr Anton’s heart. And I can understand why. Luis Obdulio Arroyo Navarro was a lay catechist. He assisted Fr Tullio Maruzzo ofm in his missionary endeavours, but he himself was also a point of reference for the community. The Church’s ministry in Guatemala, and in the whole Central and Latin American continent, is built on the formation and trust of lay people, who are really and truly perceived as being responsible for an important part of the Church’s mission, the same way the are envisaged by Vatican Council II. Much of the activity in Fr Anton’s parish is carried out by lay people. He totally relies on the integrity of his catechists in far-away villages he visits only once a month, and they are the ones responsible for catechism and liturgical celebrations during his absence. He forks out money to invest in the formation of the lay, and then they are the ones who collaborate actively in the Church’s mission of evangelization. In this sense, in countries such as Guatemala I see a Church which is by far more prophetic than ours when it comes to how we should perceive the mission of “God’s Holy, Faithful People”, to use one of Pope Francis’ most popular expressions. People here are the true actors of Christian life, not just passive believers.
The visits to the villages, though tiring (the two priests have to make five or six of them a week), were the best part of the experience. The simple yet happy looks on the face of children – and loads of them! – running to us, bare-footed, to make sure they get their sweets or pencil… the tranquil life where no one at church is in any hurry to leave… the chicken soup offered to us with love (and which I managed to sip not without hesitation!)… the churches full of joyful Mayan faces and singing voices… the beauty of women open to life and families grateful for what God has provided.
This was for me the experience of the true Church, a Church of the ‘essential’, the same universal Church which is “one, holy, catholic, apostolic”. Much is said today about the many sins of the Church, the erroneous attitudes of the clergy, the shortcomings of the institution… This experience has filled my heart with hope, even more, with faith that it is truly the Holy Spirit who guides his people and keeps his Church alive… that Christus vivit!
In the last twenty days many have asked me “Kif mort?”; how was the experience? As you may see, I find it hard to provide a brief answer which justifies all I have received! Back from Guatemala, I am thankful for all the amazing experiences, the beautiful people I’ve met and learned so much from, all the young people who have taught me how to love God and the Church, the wonder of creation and all the places I’ve managed to visit. Back home the Lord continues to call me to love his flock, even in Gozo, even though I know how limited I am and how challenging the terrain might be. The poor are everywhere, and we are called to serve them with unconditional love – it is Christ himself we serve. May we all continue to give heed to His call to be his “missionary disciples”.
Francesco Pio Attard