The Faith of the People
It was a great joy for me to be invited, two years ago, to return to Santiago, Chile, to celebrate 40 years of the Columban Sisters' mission in that beautiful country.
Sisters Gemma Shelley, Kathleen Mary Riordan and I pioneered the mission there in 1974. This was during the early days of the oppressive military regime when life was very difficult for people. They suffered greatly. Almost daily we would hear stories of people being hauled away, some were never to be seen again. We had great Church leaders under Cardinal Raul Silva who inspired and strengthened us all by his great faith, his unceasing work for justice, his concern for the poor. The Church, though suffering, was alive and vibrant and it was our joy and our privilege to be part of these growing Basic Christian Communities.
Our celebration of 40 years was a time of thanksgiving to God for having accompanied us through those decades as we lived with the people in the emerging communities around Santiago, the capital, and later in San Antonio on the coast. We also went to Copiapo and Iquique in the north and Loncoche, near Temuco in the south. Friends had come from all these areas to celebrate and give thanks with us.
Our pastoral ministry embraced Family Catechetical and Christian Community Development. Members of the catechetical group were eager to hear the Gospel. Vibrant youth groups emerged and were keen to share the good news with their contemporaries. Family catechesis was a major part of our work when we helped prepare people for the Sacraments such as Baptism, First Communion, Reconciliation, Confirmation and Marriage. Young couples were instructed and they in turn helped in the formation of their peer groups. Preparation for First Communion continued for two years. Parents, once they were well formed in the faith, were the ones to prepare their own children.
Sr. Kathleen Mary Riordan has worked for many years in the National Pastoral Programs, caring for people suffering from alcoholism and drug addiction. For several years too, Sr. Angela McKeever has worked in a prison, helping to mend the fractured lives of the victims of drugs. Some of the men have AIDS and are in need of constant care, as are their families. With minimal resources and oftentimes a lack of understanding, this is an uphill struggle.
There was a crying need for medical care as people had few resources. We helped in the formation of health teams to care for the sick in their own homes, and used herbal medicines. People suffering from alcoholism–and there were many– were met and encouraged to attend programs to combat the abuse. Chile had one of the highest rates of cirrhosis of the liver so it was no easy task. The same could be said about the victims of drug addiction. But the commitment of the people in the Christian communities, up against huge difficulties, always inspired us. Despite many failures, when the victims fell back into their old ways and often ended in prison, the volunteers, many of them from the youth group, never gave up hope, never failed to reach out.
Another ministry was the formation of teams to do summer missions in the Northern Andean regions and the remote regions of the South. Here, amid spectacular mountain scenery, the people seldom saw a priest or missionary. We travelled, the catechists, the youth and ourselves, through miles of empty terrain, meeting the occasional lone shepherd, usually a red-skirted woman, looking after a herd of llamas. We stayed in rudimentary lodgings in the villages and met the people for faith sharing and life enhancing exchanges. Oftentimes we were there for the fiesta of the patron saint of the community and delighted in the celebrations. Pope Francis has spoken warmly of this expression of faith, the "Popular Religion." Our catechists and youthful missionaries became evangelizers of their own people and this experience strengthened their own faith and convictions. They in turn became Christian leaders in their own communities.
One of these young missionaries was a 16-year-old called Daisy. Her parents were catechists and were very active in their parish. As a small girl, Daisy used to visit our house to chat and pray in our tiny oratory. She had a lovely singing voice and one of the Sisters taught her how to play the guitar and sing. Daisy used her talent well and played the guitar at the local Sunday Mass. She was an ardent young missionary who impressed me with the ease with which she could communicate her message when visiting the houses during the summer missions. Unable to afford higher education she did various jobs like craft making. A local school asked her to help them prepare the children for First Communion and seeing her ability, other schools soon followed.
One day a music inspector observed her as she sang and conducted the school choir. He was so impressed he offered her further training at a school of music in the city. But alas, the family couldn't afford the fees. When we heard of her predicament we were able to get a scholarship for her. She was so successful that she was offered openings in operas and musical shows. It was felt that she could become a famous diva. But Daisy's heart was elsewhere. She loved the liturgy and decided to offer her services to the small Christian communities where she felt at home. She participated in the Archdiocesan music seminars and in time was offered a position in the education office, preparing programs for schools and training the youth.
So now fast forward to the Liturgy of Thanksgiving for our 40 years of Mission. Daisy, who is now married with three children, was the one to CM conduct the choir. How my heart filled with joy and my eyes with tears as her beautiful clear soprano voice filled the huge church when she intoned: "O all you works of the Lord, O bless the Lord!" Truly we all blessed the Lord that day and felt deeply His blessings on us as the great psalm rang out. Our ministry in Chile may be ending, but God's mission lives on in the faith of people like Daisy and the communities we helped to birth. To God be the glory!
Sr. Mary Ita McElwain now lives in the Columban Sisters Central House "Magheramore," County Wicklow, Ireland.