Shapes of Solidarity

By Fr. Peter Woodruff reporting on an interview with Fr. Pat Egan
June 20, 2012

Columban Contributions to the Life of the Chilean Church

I met Fr. Pat Eagan while passing through Santiago, Chile, in May 2011. In my memory of Columbans in Latin America, which only goes back to 1968 when I first arrived in Peru, Fr. Pat has always been in Chile. In fact, he first arrived in Latin America in 1960 and worked in the port chaplaincy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for three years before moving to Chile. I asked Fr. Pat to tell me how he saw the Columban contribution in Chile since his arrival and the following is my attempt to summarize his reply. In the final paragraph Fr. Pat says a little about how he sees the future of Columban mission in Chile, but it is much more difficult to talk about that than what has already happened.

The Chilean Church was much more visionary than the English speaking local churches from which Columbans were drawn, so we arrived to work with a local church with ideas, questions and passion for change. Of course, we tuned in as best we could and, with the help of the local vision, began our work among the poor and marginalized. We were happy to live and work with the ever increasing numbers of poor who, during the latter half of the last century, came by the thousands from the countryside to the major cities in search of a better life, a life that offered the possibility of more choice as regards work and the possibility, slim though it may have been for most, of greater prosperity.

Our main contribution was setting up the Church in poor and marginalized areas of Santiago, Iquique and Valparaiso. We would move into an area in its early stages of settlement. We would look for suitable sites to establish community centers and promote the formation of Christian communities. We would do this in coordination with the residents of the area as we were always intent on promoting the laity to their potential of responsibility and leadership.

We would live in simple houses and share our lives with our neighbors. We did not set ourselves apart. Eventually with the people we would build chapels and encourage the development of communities based in the chapels. We also built bigger central churches which were more open to all and helped draw the chapels out of inward looking isolation. For our building projects, we had both local and foreign financial support.

We helped people organize in order to meet basic needs in a communal way. We could not help solve all the personal, family and social problems but those with whom we worked knew we were on their side and were grateful for our solidarity. While we did our best to help set up a local parish church, at the same time we were involved in a variety of ways in supporting our parishioners in their struggles to make a go of life. Many of the social and educational activities were also community building as they helped residents meet and get to know each other, which was important in the new suburbs of the city populated by people from many different towns and villages, and without previous experience of each other’s customs and history.

In bad times, we helped organize soup kitchens. We introduced the idea of parish centers for the third age, which have now become a standard part of parish life in the Archdiocese. Many of us helped tackle the endemic problem of alcoholism, especially among the men. In the early years, before all had a chance to go to school, we helped organize literacy classes. In many of our parishes we ran short courses in basic skills, such as plumbing, carpentry and electricity, something for which many men were most grateful. In fact, I saw some men at class on evenings when everyone else in Chile was glued to the television screen watching some important international soccer match in which Chile was playing. For a Chilean, that really does point to serious commitment!

Parish development required setting up Sacramental programs run by local laity. We never brought in better educated people from other parts of town, unless it was to help the locals better equip themselves to do whatever needed to be done. Such programs were part of the archdiocesan pastoral plan with which we always collaborated. We did not see ourselves as being here to do our own thing but rather to work with the local Chilean Church.

We would move into a developing area and work there until we had a viable parish up and running. We would then ask the Archdiocese to take direct responsibility for the parish and negotiate a new commitment for ourselves. We have done this in 28 parishes of the Archdiocese of Santiago and also in parishes in Iquique and Valparaiso.

In 1963 I began working in Santa Luisa, San Antonio, then moved to San Marcos, south Santiago, then to San Gabriel, west Santiago, then to San Luis Rey in Conchali, north Santiago, then to Santa Cruz parish in Vallenar, a city founded by Ambrosio O’Higgins (Irish born Spanish governor of Chile from 1788 to 1796) and in the same area as the mine in which miners were trapped and rescued in 2010. I was there for eleven years, the longest I have been in any parish, then went to Maria Misionera in Santiago, and am now in San Matias in Puente Alto, far south of Santiago. Only the last of these parishes is presently run by Columbans.

Other pastoral emphases came into play during the period of the military dictatorship (1973 to 1990). The Pinochet government closed down all forms of popular participation, forbad meetings of more than three people and rode roughshod over the human rights of thousands of individuals and families. The Chilean Church took a strong stand in favor of human rights, and Columbans working in Chile wholeheartedly backed our church leadership.

Maybe not all bishops agreed with the emphasis on human rights, but they went along with it. The Church was unified in its stand. Some of our priests had to leave the country, and all of us were deeply affected, especially when special government police raided our center house and shot Maria Reyes, a Columban employee, as they stormed the house. They took Dr. Sheila Cassidy prisoner and tortured her.

When the Pinochet government demanded that the parishes hand over a list of places where our communities met, the names of those attending the meetings and the topics being discussed, the Cardinal Archbishop of Santiago ordered us to refuse this demand. He insisted that acquiescence to such an intrusive government directive would be the end of us. The grassroots organizers heeded the Cardinal, and the government did not insist. However, we did shift our emphasis from Basic Christian Communities, which met in private houses, to Basic Ecclesial Communities, which met in parish chapels.

We also supported the local church’s organizations, especially the Vicariate of Solidarity, which was on the front line in the defense of human rights. When the military took over the government in 1973 the Church was very well organized, which stood us in good stead. We were used to working in and with the institution, and Columbans had always supported this approach. Even today two of the Episcopal vicars in the Archdiocese of Santiago are Columbans.

Regarding our contribution to the life of the Chilean Church and people, I can say quite clearly what we would like to do but, as in many visionary enterprises, working out the strategies for achieving our goals can become quite complex. We are a missionary society, and we believe that the Church of its nature is called to be missionary, so we want to find ways of effectively inviting the Chilean Church to become more missionary. I see two major factors that hinder this: first, the relative geographic isolation of Chile, bordered on the east by the mass of the Andes mountains, on the west by the Pacific Ocean and between Chile and Peru to the north barren stretches of desert; second, the fact that the Chilean Church is still far from self-sufficient in priests, so the prime focus continues to be the building up of the local Church.

However, we have agreed that despite the difficulties this will be the priority of our mission in Chile. While we strive to work out how we might best go about achieving our goal, we continue to do what we have always done. The composition of our Columban group in Chile has changed a lot in recent years as men and women, priests and laity, from countries such as Korea and Fiji, join our ranks. This puts pressure on us to work cross culturally among ourselves. Despite all the difficulties that slow our progress towards defining and implementing strategies to achieve our goals, I am hopeful.