Following on a very fruitful week in Guatemala with Father Tommy Greenan,of the Archdiocese of St. Andrew's & Edinburgh, Cardinal O'Brien and Monsignor David Gemmell journeyed on to Chiapas in Mexico along with Father Henry McLaughlin. Fr Henry recently moved from his parish in Huixtian to join a team led by Dominicans in the parish of San Jacinto de Polonia in Ocosingo in the Chiapas region. Here Fr Henry is one of a team serving a 'parish' population of around 250,000 people!
The following is an extract from Cardinal O'Brien's diary;
"The week began on Sunday 23 January 2005 with a day of contrasts. Initially we flew in a small Cessna aircraft (maximum 3 passengers if their total weight was under the limit!) to a clearing in the jungle with natural flat ground which made an ideal airstrip. Flying to this small community of San Gregorio saved a long, long journey otherwise: two days there by jeep, following by 10 hours walking or by mule! The community had been evicted from their previous home and had now settled in this almost inaccessible place hoping for security. When they heard and then saw the plane, the church bell was rung and we received a very warm and tumultuous welcome from the 40 or so people living in the community. All gathered together in the church for a liturgy of greeting and blessings “ and then I led a ˜service of water , sprinkling all of the people and their community with blessed water.
The contrast was with the evening Mass outside the parish church. The church itself had been built some 500 years before and roof repairs were urgently needed! It is a very large, open church, holding about 1000 people “ but because of the repairs the evening Mass at 7.00 pm had a packed congregation within the compound in the open air. This Mass was one of two evening Masses with there being two morning Masses in the central parish and various other parishes throughout the vast area served by the team. I initially thanked the team and the parishioners at the beginning of Mass in Spanish and then celebrated Mass in Spanish, although I used an interpreter for my homily!
On the next morning, my own team took part in one of the monthly meetings of the parish team. These meetings are seen as vitally important with there being some 28 members of the parish team led by Father Gonsalo, the Dominican priest who has served 27 years in this area with there being two other active Dominican priests and one brother, along with sisters from two branches of the Dominican Order, 4 diocesan missionaries, Reparatrice Sisters, Franciscan Sisters, Sisters of St Vincent de Paul, and an Indian lay person. The parish itself is one of the largest in the world, with approximately 250,000 people serving some 350 communities, with people living in about 2000 different places from hamlets to towns of some 15,000 people. There are 100 or so permanent married deacons from the Indian community and a vast army of catechists and other Church workers. It is to co-ordinate the ongoing work of the parish and to see to the formation and instruction of the people that these team meetings are vitally important.
In the afternoon, we visited a hospital in the area known as Altimaro, a hospital run by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul. We were all pleased to see many local Indian women taking a leading role in the ministry in the hospital “ a relatively new building replacing a previous older hospital in the same area. We also visited another community of the Daughters of Charity who were engaged in parish work in the area.
The next day we travelled to an Indian community in an area called Sushila where a further 10 communities had gathered for their own Indian worship. The liturgy itself was very beautiful, beginning with a service of welcome as we approached by road. I had been advised by Father Gonzalo to dress ˜as a bishop as the service was to pray for me and the Archdiocese and country of Scotland, as well as their own needs and, of course, all based on the worship of Almighty God. The liturgy of welcome involved incense, light and flowers “ and also individual handshakes with the whole community who lined the road into the area where the community church was situated. Because of the crowds, the celebration took place outside “ the celebration lasted a total of four and a half hours. I was asked to speak to the congregation with my homily being translated into the local Indian languages “ of which there are some 20 in the area. The Gospel was that of Jesus standing up to preach in the synagogue at Nazara and quoting from the prophet Isaiah. It could not have been more appropriate “ and I developed the theme of God still bringing the Good News to the poor and calling many others to be his followers and to hand on his teaching. Gifts were presented to me representing the desires of the people to be associated ever more closely with the needs of the whole Church “ and following on the conclusion of the liturgy there was a meal provided for all present.
Throughout the week, we were involved in various meetings including meeting with representatives from human rights organisations, Bishop Samuel Ruis s peace process team, and then on our journey to the diocesan capital of San Cristobal de Las Casas, we met many others involved in practical ways in the Church and in the community.
Our visit to Chiapas concluded with a very beautiful concelebrated Mass with Bishop Samuel Ruis in the Cathedral of San Cristobal de Las Cases. Bishop Samuel welcomed us most warmly and fondly remembered his stay as my guest and speaking in our own Cathedral in Edinburgh. In many ways the situation has not changed so very much for Bishop Samuel, despite his retirement “ the Mexican Government provides 7 guards for him with 3 of them constantly in attendance wherever he is. On the next morning, we had meetings with the present Bishop of the Diocese, Bishop Felipe Arismendi and the new Assistant Bishop, Bishop Enrique Diaz Diaz before greeting everyone gathered for the Mass of Thanksgiving with Bishop Samuel on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of his ordination as a bishop. Thereafter, we headed for the airport in the town of Tuxtla Guiterrez, some two hours journey away before beginning our journey back to Scotland.
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1. Father Tommy Greenan and Cardinal O Brien at the foot of a Ceiba, the Guatemalan national tree.
2. Cardinal O Brien and Father Henry McLaughlin meet some local workers in Chiapas, Mexico.
3. Line of priests gathered before Mass with Bishop Samuel Ruis and Cardinal.
4. Bishop Samuel Ruis, Bishop Felipe Arismendi, Bishop Enrique Diaz Diaz along with Cardinal O Brien and Monsignor Gemmell.
5. Cardinal O Brien and Father Henry McLaughlin behind procession with permanent deacons and their wives in San Cristobal de las Casas.
6. Welcome procession to Sushila, Mexico.
7. Cardinal greeted with incense at Indian liturgy.
8. Cardinal, priests and permanent deacons at the altar at Sushila, Mexico.
9. Opening of liturgy at Sushila, Mexico.
10.An exchange of peace with parish leaders in Indian liturgy.
11.Cardinal O Brien meets a young mother and her family in an out-of-the-way mission station.
12.Cardinal visits Jeronimo in Daughters of Charity hospital in Altimaro, Chiapas.
13. Line of priests gathered before Mass with Bishop Samuel Ruis and Cardinal.