Pizza and Beer on the Fourth of July

Fr. G. Chris Saenz
April 5, 2010
A Missionary Leap into Internationalism

On July 4, 1995, I arrived in Chile for the first time. I was greeted by other Columbans and in the evening I was welcomed with an Independence Day party prepared by U.S. Columbans in Chile and others. They had provided pizza and beer. The pizza was prepared very differently than pizza I was used to in the United States, and the celebration was small. However, it was a chance to celebrate the 4th of July in my new home.

In my subsequent years in Chile, I realized that my fervor to celebrate the 4th of July became more subdued. Since I was living and working in southern Chile, far from other U.S. Columbans, I had little chance to celebrate with other compatriots. Also, the atmosphere was not conducive to a celebration. There were no fireworks, picnics or music leading into the celebration. Since July is a winter month in Chile, the weather did not accompany the celebration. It was often cold, cloudy and rainy – not the storybook warm weather, blue sky cookout weather of the U.S.

In 2002, I was alone in the parish on the 4th of July. The other Columbans were away on retreat, meetings or other business. Therefore, I invited out to dinner the two Chilean religious Sisters who were working in the parish. In an effort to acknowledge the date as special for me and to celebrate it, the Sisters surprised me with a homemade U.S. flag that had 20 stars and five stripes (the U.S. flag has 50 stars and 13 stripes). I enjoyed the effort, and it gave me a quiet chuckle. We enjoyed an orange cake with three candles colored red, white and blue placed on top. The celebration was subdued by U.S. standards, but I enjoyed the conversation and sharing. It was the most festive 4th of July I celebrated in Chile.

Fr. Chris Saenz and parishioners in Chile

So, what does this have to do with the missionary life? Often in the missionary life we become acutely aware of who we are because we are surrounded by what we are not. A different culture, language, religion and set of traditions continually remind us that we are on unfamiliar ground. Yet, without losing our own national identities, we slowly begin to assume a new identity, that of the country in which we are missioned. We missionaries begin to hear another voice, another tradition. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10: 16). As I reflect on the years I spent in Chile, I realize that I have celebrated more often the Chilean Independence Day on September 18 than I have celebrated the United States’ Independence Day.

The Chilean Independence Day is unique by most international standards. It is required by law to display the Chilean flag on all houses, businesses and churches on September 18. There is a heavy fine if this law is not followed. Also, the celebration is actually initiated on August 18, a month before the actual date. Generally, on August 18, it is a small celebration of hard cider, or chicha, of apple or grapes with some small appetizers. During the following days the festivities grow, and the atmosphere becomes more festive. In the week leading up to September 18, there are many folkloric events displaying the culture, primarily the national dance of Chile, the cueca. The cueca attempts to reenact the courting ritual of the rooster and the hen with the male dancing quite enthusiastically and the female dancing more elusively and defensively.

Eventually, ramadas, or outdoor booths, are built around the neighborhoods. The ramadas are where families have food, drink and games available to friends and other families who visit. The national food, empanadas, fried or baked pies in the shape of a crescent moon, are served. Often the empanadas are filled with cheese or meat with olives and onions. The day arrives and most families spend the day outside visiting the ramadas, eating, drinking, dancing and enjoying the fireworks in the evening. Actually, the people are given two days holidays, September 18 and 19. Therefore, one can enjoy the festivities on September 18 until the early morning. On September 19 there is a military parade in Santiago, Chile. On September 20, everyone goes back to work. However, some celebrate the dieciocho chico or the “little 18th” on October 18. This officially concludes the celebrations.

The most festive Chilean Independence Day I celebrated was in our parish in Puerto Saavedra in southern Chile. On that day, we Columbans decided to set up our own private ramada in the back of the parish. We prepared the traditional food and drink. Also, we played the traditional music and displayed the Chilean flag. I looked around our Columban group of priests, lay missionaries, associate priests, religious Sisters and visitors. The cultures present in our group were from Korea, Fiji, Peru and the United States. Soon it dawned on me that there was not a single Chilean in our group! Yet, here we were dancing, eating and celebrating just like our neighbors.

A missionary never forgets who he is and from where he comes. Yet, the crossing of borders challenges the missionary to open up to new realities and expand beyond his national boundaries. In my case, empanadas and cider replaced pizza and beer, although I enjoyed fireworks in both countries. The gathering together with family and friends to celebrate a shared cultural experience remained the same even though the location changed. Thus, listening to the voices of the people in the country where he or she is missioned, the missionary leaps from nationalism to internationalism. This leap signifies how God is present in all cultures and traditions.

Fr. G. Chris Saenz