Reflections on Settling into a Rural Parish
The road from Lima to Samanco passes through a number of fast growing coastal towns but for the most part the traveler has no choice but to contemplate the bare rocky or sandy hills that fascinate by their ever varying forms and their multiple colors from shades of white, cream, brown and black. It is a truly barren desert but when watered can become lush farmland. We set off after an early breakfast and Fr. Bernie Lane, a fellow Columban working in Lima, kept up the pace allowed by the speed limit, and we arrived at the Samanco parish house five and a half hours later "“ more or less in time for lunch. Columban Fr. Kevin McDonagh was at the door to welcome us.
Samanco is a coastal town with a population of about 4,000. Most residents work in either the fishing industry or agriculture. There was dire poverty in the valley 30 or so years ago, but today people are generally able to make their way with dignity. Unfortunately, as is the case in most parts of the world, exploitation and abuse of power continue to disturb the local communal story.
The main parish church is in the central square of Samanco, but the parish embraces a number of small towns, most of which have their own chapel and Catholic community where Fr. Kevin celebrates Mass at least once a month.
For millennia before the arrival of Spanish colonists in the 16th century this valley was irrigated and cultivated. In those days the crops would have been corn, potatoes and beans. Many residents continue to produce these same crops on their small plots of land. However, today most of the land in the valley is given over to the production of sugar cane and is now owned by agribusinesses. The valley extends for 60 kilometers into the foothills of the Andes Mountains before it begins to rise steeply towards the first range of mountains that form the western wall of the main Andean valley in the Region of Ancash; in Spanish this valley is called "el callejon de Huaylas" (alley closed at both ends).
Kevin drove me half way up the Samanco valley, along the length of which there are seven parishes. They form a deanery and enjoy a lively spirit of camaraderie and mutual support. Each parish takes its turn to host the meetings that are attended by the parish priests, religious who work in the parishes and a number of lay delegates from each parish. The meetings follow a pattern of business in the morning followed by lunch provided by the host parish. Parish delegates to the deanery meetings look forward to them which is a day out with friends plus more.
Previously Fr. Kevin worked in Lima parishes located in the bare, rocky hills to the north and east of the city. He commented to me that the greenery of the Samanco valley is for him most therapeutic following the barren environment that was home for many years. After all, he was brought up on fertile, green farmland in Ireland. For him the hills of Lima were grey and lifeless and so alien to him. He always felt and now once again continues to feel nourished spiritually by the natural beauty that surrounds him.
Fr. Kevin compared life in the Samanco rural parish with his experience of life in Lima parishes on the periphery of the city. The slow pace of the rural scene has been a welcome relief after the aggressive and rapid treadmill of his previous parishes. In Samanco he finds it easier to be with the residents of the various small towns of his parish in a leisurely and peaceful way. He no longer feels overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems that thousands of residents of the big city parishes have to deal with. He felt that while he was physically present in the city parishes he was leaving so much undone and so little done which was in many ways a most frustrating experience.
He finds in Samanco a more natural rhythm of life. He feels a certain harmony as people know each other; they have time for each other; they often sit outside their houses in the evening and chat with each other. Maybe the hustle and bustle of Lima's 10 million people trying to make ends meet creates much stress and leaves little space for healing. Fr. Kevin also finds support in the diocesan pastoral plan, based on the Better World Movement parish model, as it provides the parish communities with a framework for participating in the life of the parish. According to this plan, Samanco functions as five pastoral zones and each of the other towns as a community.
The framework now in place does not exclude a variety of ideas and insights and allows Kevin to work on an agenda that he hopes to introduce to this rural parish. He has now been in the parish one year and decided not make any major moves during his first year. However, he does have a particular interest in the development of a lay-centred church committed to transforming the personal, family and social dimensions of life. He also comes with a strong sense of God's preference for the poor.
He has begun to move on this by joining the diocesan team for social outreach, involving the prison chaplaincy, the commission for social justice, health care, care of the elderly, care for the earth and human rights issues. At parish level the priest can begin to present ideas in his homilies. Fr. Kevin has also introduced a week of formation for lay pastoral leaders. He has organized two seminars on social issues relevant to the 2014 municipal elections. He has also made a point of highlighting the "World Days," such as the day of water, the day of the planet, women's day, etc.
In all this he has felt most encouraged by Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, especially where he speaks of the need for the missionary disciples of Jesus Christ to move out beyond our comfort zone. He believes in going out to meet his parishioners in their space, the space that they call home. During the past year Fr. Kevin visited each of the five zones of Samanco and ended the visitation with a very well-attended street Mass in each zone.
Fr. Bernie and I were moved by our one and half day visit and were grateful to Fr. Kevin for welcoming and making time for us. We left at 6:30 am and arrived in Lima in time for me to head to the airport to meet and welcome a friend who was traveling to New York. Both of us were tired of traveling and enjoyed a most relaxing day at the Columban house in Lima before my friend continued on her way to New York.
Columban Fr. Peter Woodruff lies and works in Australia.