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Encountering Christ in Another Culture

Santiago, Chile

Seminarians Spend Time in Chile

By Fr. Daniel Harding

For the five weeks leading up to Christmas 2017, two Adelaide, Australia, diocesan seminarians, Anthony Beltrame and Olek Stirrat, participated in a pastoral experience with Columban Fr. Dan Harding in the parish of San Columbano, in Santiago, Chile. Here is their story …

Anthony and Olek
Anthony and Olek

"There are many things I will always remember about our amazing experience of the Church in Chile, Chilean culture and the Chilean people. I will always remember the Chilean people as truly beautiful people with warm hearts. They are very friendly and welcoming. They are passionate and expressive people, not afraid to show their emotions and beliefs," says Olek of his time in Chile.

Seminarians Anthony and Olek arrived in Chile just in time to celebrate the Feast of St. Columban on November 23, and to meet the Columban community working in Chile. They also met the Archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzarti at the Columban celebration.

Over the next five weeks, Olek and Anthony lived in the parish of San Columbano, in a poor area, 12 miles from the city center. Despite the initial language barrier, both Olek and Anthony managed to learn a lot of Spanish in their short time and to communicate well with the local people.

Anthony remembers, "Living in a poor area, one has to get used to the somewhat rundown atmosphere of poverty, bad roads, stray mangy dogs, loud music, rubbish on the streets, shoddy housing, hotted up cars and the high level of crime. At night we frequently heard gunshots and fire crackers being let off to announce the arrival of a new, fresh batch of drugs. Brightly colored murals are painted with portraits of gang members killed in the local drug wars. One such mural is about 30 miles from our home."

Anthony and Olek participated in all the regular activities of the seven chapels that make up San Columbano Parish such as weekday and Sunday Masses, funerals, house blessings, baptisms, the anointing of the sick, penitential liturgies and the Parish Pastoral Council. They found the Christmas Eve Masses dynamic and interactive with children dressed up acting out the Nativity story.

Just before Christmas they helped organize and take part in a Christmas party for 70 children from poor families. At another time, they participated in a parish based organic gardening and recycle program and workshop.

When asked to recall some highlights of the visit, Olek shared, "The Church in Chile is alive. It is not unusual to see religious statues and crucifixes in public places. One of the highlights for me was the Month of Mary, with daily rosary, leading up to the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, December 8."

"On that day we processed through the streets carrying a statue of Our Lady, saying the rosary and singing hymns using a loud speaker, on the way to the parish Church. What really made a very big impression on me at that Mass was the presence of a large troupe of traditional religious dancers, dressed in bright, colorful costumes. Accompanied by loud trumpets, drums and whistles, they sang and danced up the main aisle of the church during the Mass for the Blessed Virgin."

"Yes, it was something amazing," recalls Anthony. "I also remember the times we went out at night with different parish groups to visit homeless people, mainly addicts, living in shanties alongside a busy highway and on the footpath behind a large public hospital."

"Also, our visit to the Communist Party enclave in the neighborhood called 'La Victoria'," recalled both Anthony and Olek as a highlight. "Yes," says Anthony, "and all those surprising, colorful murals of communist figures such as Che Guevara and Fidel Castro mixed with the local priests of the parish who participated in the struggle against Pinochet's dictatorship. One of the priests, Fr. Andres Jarlan died in 1984, shot by the military."

Both Olek and Anthony agree that another highlight of their visit, was the warmth and welcome of Chilean families. Olek says, "Chilean culture is vibrant and animated. It is customary to kiss on the cheek when greeting a woman, even meeting for the first time."

"We were fortunate to get to know quite well some Chilean families" says Anthony. "We participated in birthday parties, including my own, a graduation party from primary school for one of the daughters, several soccer matches amongst family members, walks around the neighborhood and even accompanied a family as they watched a play being performed by the local cultural center."

"And of course we had to do a lot of dancing at parties, including contemporary Latin style dancing and the traditional Chilean national dance, the Cueca. Wow, being able to get up and dance and enjoy oneself, is such a wonderful part of the culture."

Becoming friendly with local families was also an opportunity for both Olek and Anthony to see at close hand the overcrowded conditions under which many families live. "In one family three children share a bedroom which measured 6.5 feet wide and 9 feet long. Not to mention how small the living room is!" remembers Olek.

"It was amazing to see how alive and highly appreciated the local parish and priests are by the people. The experience was very fruitful for myself and for my faith. I will always cherish it in my heart as well as the people I met," concludes Olek of the experience.

"I also will always cherish this wonderful opportunity to have encountered Christ in another culture, in another people and another place," says Anthony of his time in Chile.

Columban Fr. Daniel Harding returned to Chile in 2017 and is working in the parish of San Columbano.