Five Stickers and one Maltese Lira! My day had started in the best of ways! However, I could have never imagined that my whole life would have been forever affected by those few stickers and little amount of pocket money I had received on that day.
I have been planning this missionary experience for the last two years. Today, I thank God for providing me with the opportunity to live through this experience for I believe that it has been truly instrumental to shape my future life.
The Love for Missionary Service
Despite arriving in Guatemala on the 14th of July 2016, the very beginning of my missionary experience can be attributed to the day when I had received those five stickers and that small amount of pocket money.
It was a day like any other, however for some particular reason, I was exceptionally happy with those stickers and the one Maltese Lira I had just received. At around midday, when I went to my family’s restaurant to have my lunch as usual, I met with a Maltese priest and five foreign women who were having lunch around a single table. My mother told me that the Maltese priest was a missionary working in Albania. He was currently hosting five Albanian mothers who wished to raise the Maltese population’s awareness of their living conditions back in Albania in an effort to collect some funds for their home community. I recall that I was particularly struck by the anecdotes of that Maltese priest. I learned how very often, the children of those five Albanian women (who at the time could not travel with their mothers due to lack of funds) had to experience hunger and deprivation form very basic items. In simple terms, these children were less fortunate than me. For the first time in my life I had met “the hungry and poor Christ”. In a humble effort to reduce the suffering of those children, I pulled out the five stickers and one Maltese Lira that were still in my pocket and without hesitation gave them to the Maltese priest. Today, I can still feel the happiness I felt on that day following my simple act of generosity and I still pray to God for he may grant me similar experiences in my lifetime.
I can say that the love I have for missionary service started on that day. Following my meeting with this Maltese missionary, I started to work tirelessly to help children living in less developed countries.
Every year I tried to save a small amount of funds from the pocket money I received and donated it to missionary priests that often visited Gozo to ask for the help of the generous Maltese population. I started to use most of my free time building small items that could eventually be sold in efforts to raise funds for the missionary service. I used to sell a variety of plants that I had planted myself, build simple wooden shelves and simple pencil holders made of pegs. I also used to paint landscape paintings and craft lace bookmarks. During Christmas period, I used to build a crib (“presepju”) and open it to the public to collect donations. With the help of some family members and the generosity of parishioners, I also organised two bazaars with the aim of collecting funds for the missionary service. I never lost an opportunity to either help raise funds for the missionary service myself or convince other people I knew to do the same. During this period, I also experienced the need to meet with the missionary priests that often visited my parish of Xaghra in efforts to raise the parishioners’ awareness of the difficulties they were encountering as well as to collect funds for their missionary service.
When I was nine years old, I was informed by one of my family members that a novel priest was about to leave Gozo to go and work as a missionary priest. Unsurprisingly, I collected seventy Maltese Liri and gave them to him. I cannot help but think that the amount I donated him was at the very best modest, however, the funds I collected on that day were instrumental for my first meeting with Fr. Anton Grech, the missionary priest with whom I lived two missionary experiences in Guatemala.
During my adolescence, my drive to help people living in less developed countries ebbed somehow. Still, deep within my heart I could nonetheless feel the love towards missionary priests and their work. Indeed in 2004, when I was sixteen years old, together with two other adolescents, a seminarian and my mother, I decided to spend some time at San Manuel Chaparon, the parish where Fr. Anton Grech was conducting his missionary work. It was a remarkable experience, which has unknowingly solidified my priestly vocation and instilled in me the desire to return to this land. Indeed, after I started attending the Sacred Heart Seminary in Gozo as a seminarian, I wished to spend my intermediate year (the fourth year of formation which is typically spent outside the Gozitan diocese) in Guatemala with Fr. Anton. This however turned out to be impossible due to unforeseen circumstances.
Twelve years after my first visit to Guatemala and around four years after my ordination as priest, I felt that God was calling me to go back to this land to visit him once again in the joy of poverty. In the two months spent at the parish of “Santo Hermano Pedro” with Fr. Anton, I had the opportunity to live through a number of experiences that have undoubtedly shaped my vocation as a priest. I also had the opportunity to live with as well as to help a number of volunteers that were assisting Fr. Anton in his missionary services. I am sure that you all have already read about their valuable work in this parish. In this light the intention of this short article is not to inform you about the material work that we have done, but rather to highlight experiences which have affected my spiritual and vocational life.
Spiritual Moments that have touched my heart
The aims of my second visit to Guatemala were to accompany Fr. Anton in his daily work and to meet with Christ in the poor. In fact, during these two months I was constantly at Fr. Anton’s side during the celebrations of the Eucharist, during his visits to the ill and the moribund, during difficult family moments, during the day-to-day management of the parish and its communities, during challenging periods as well as during moments of consolation and happiness. I can now affirm that I have successfully seen and met Christ in the joyful smile of those who are adorned with the beatitude of “the poor in spirit”, in the pain and suffering of others, in the lively participation during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, in the dissemination and the explanation of the Lord’s Word, and in other particular moments. I can safely say that these were all spiritual moments that have strengthened my vocation.
During my last visit I was also fortunate enough to live through the same kind of astonishment experienced by Jesus when faced with the unwavering faith of the Centurion (cf. Mt 8, 5-13) or of the Canaanite woman (cf. Mt 15, 21-28). During my visits, I have had emotional encounters with people whose love of priesthood and faith in Christ have touched my heart so deeply that I was often left speechless, with tears in my eyes and silently whispering “Grazzi Mulej, Grazzi Mulej”, thanking God for allowing me to witness such strength in people who at face value seemed so poor and fragile. I have witnessed communities that despite their poverty seek to raise enough funds to be able to build their new church. I can never forget the moment when we informed a catechist of an isolated community, that one of the Maltese group of volunteers were willing to finance part of the building of their new church. His emotional reaction to this news is a true testimony to the love and faith of these people.
It is customary to imagine that due to their living conditions, poor people living in less developed countries do not have the opportunity to be generous with each other. However, throughout my second visit in Guatemala, I came to the conclusion that despite experiencing a significant number of every day difficulties, these people never cease to show their generosity, both materially and spiritually. Amongst other things, I admired the kindness of a number of people that chose to preach the Word of the Lord to a number of communities that reside in villages situated in remote areas of the jungle; I admired a number of parishioners that did not hesitate to donate significant quantities of their own food to two remote communities that were at the time suffering from starvation; I admired a particular man who, every time we visited his small community he donated 10% of his earnings to the poor; I admired the commitment of a number of parishioners that choose to donate their own time to help keep the Liturgy alive, to help in the youth ministry, to catechise the various communities that can be found in the parish, as well as to collaborate in the various construction projects that are under way.
Similar to other occupations, the life of a missionary priest is characterised by a number of challenges and dangers. Still, I can say that throughout my visit to Guatemala, I have witnessed God’s providence; a providence that fills a missionary’s heart with hope, helping him to trust more God’s will. During our visits to isolated or remote areas, we used to rejoice at the sight of the “blue butterfly”; a solitary and very rare butterfly that in popular culture symbolises happiness, peace and love. During our arduous and dangerous travelling in the jungle, the presence of this rare creature reminded us of Mary, our Mother, who is always looking after us whilst accompanying us in our daily lives. Thus, whenever I saw this rare beauty I was always reminded of the daily protections She casts over us, and for this I used to salute her and thank her by reciting a “Hail Mary” in my heart.
Last, but not least, my last missionary experience has thought me to more fully appreciate who I am as well as all the things God has provided me with throughout my whole life. I started to appreciate liberty through our visits to the local jail; comfort whenever we visited households lacking the very essentials; the gift of family when I met children that were abandoned by their own parents; health whenever we visited ill individuals that lacked very basic medical assistance; I appreciated food and fresh water whenever we met communities that were dying of starvation; and last and not least, I appreciated the gift of priesthood whenever I saw people’s love to and longing for the Holy Eucharist and the Word of God. I can truly say that I finally learned how to appreciate God’s unconditional love for me.
“Not the end… but a revival”
Despite the challenges encountered, throughout this two month experience in Guatemala, I have felt extremely at ease. So much so, that at times I felt as if I would never need to leave this land and its people and return to Malta. These past two months have been extremely important for my vocation as priest. Throughout my visit, I have understood the true meaning of a priest called to disseminate the Word of the Lord to those who have been margined. Last but not least, this experience has thought me to be grateful to God for the gift of priesthood he has granted me.
Certainly, I did not write these words to celebrate and share with you the end of an unforgettable experience, but the revival of the “missionary spirit” in me that I would love to spread wherever I will be in the future, with God’s grace.
Fr. Mark Bonello