Hola (Hello) from Medillin in Colombia, South America. This is my first message to share reflections on my pastoral visit with the Hermanas Missioneras Siervas del Divino Espiritu/ Sisters Missionary Servans of the Divine Spirit. Father Fabio and I spent Day 1 on 3 different airplanes from Kalamazoo to Chicago, then to Miami and finally to Medillin, all of which were on time and arrived safely at each leg of the journey, thanks be to God. Father Oscar, the Rector of the Salesian House in La Ceja where we have been given hospitality during our stay here, was at the airport to pick us up, along with Mario, a former classmate and long time friend of Fr. Fabio. After stopping for a bite to eat (my first taste of some of the delicious South American foods), we arrived at the Salesian residence, home for 3 priests and 1 brother. We found our rooms and retired for a good night's sleep. So, since we didn't do much but get from one place to another on Day 1, I've entitled this first message "Day 2".
On Tuesday, Day 2, we awoke to a beautiful day here in Colombia. Where we are staying is in a mountainous region, high up in the Andes, surrounded by lush trees and vegetation, with an almost "paradise-like" climate. After the terribly harsh and long winter we have had in Michigan, I was ready for any change of temperatures, but the weather here today (and I understand most days) has been beautiful: high 60's/low 70's, blue skies and no humidity. In the morning, we enjoyed breakfast with the Salesian community, celebrated Mass and relaxed a bit.
Around mid-morning two of the Sisters, Sister Yamile and Sister Maria Theresa, came to pick us up to take us to the Motherhouse for our meeting. Along the way, they showed us a few of the many Religious Houses and Seminaries there are in this part of Colombia.
Just a little background and context. Colombia is a large country, just as the United States is. Rather than "states" they are divided into "departments". We are in the Department of Antiqua, and in the Ecclesiastical Province of the Archdiocese of Medellin. More specifically, we are in the Diocese of Sonson-Rionegro where there are approximately 65 parishes, 450 priests, 190 seminarians, and approximately 578 religious sisters and about 150 religious men in about 40 different religious communities. Of the 450 diocesan priests, about 200 are on loan to other dioceses in Colombia and in other dioceses around the world. As you can see, the Diocese of Sonson-Rionegro is about the same size as the Diocese of Kalamazoo, but as you can see from the statistics, just about 10 times the number of priests, seminarians, sisters and Catholics. The total population of the Diocese is 608,000, 99.9% of whom are practicing Catholics.
This part of Colombia is also extremely "Catholic" in terms of an open display and practice of the Catholic faith. The parish church remains the center of most activity in the cities and towns around, where for example the city of La Ceja, the size of Benton Harbor, has 6 large parishes to minister to the needs of the large number of Catholics. So, there is truly a far different experience of "Church" here than in the Diocese of Kalamazoo, or in the United States in general.
One of the reasons why these Sisters with whom I cam to meet (Sisters Missionaries Servants of the Holy Spirit) focus on sending their sisters to far off places is because they realize there is less need for their ministry here due to the huge numbers of other men and women religious.
We arrived at the Motherhouse which is even higher up in the mountains, perhaps 10,000 feet above sea level. It is beautiful and somewhat difficult to reach due to the condition of the roads in that mountainous terrain. We arrived at the top of the mountain to the Motherhouse to find a very large residence for the Sisters. There are about 150 members in this community, most of whom are out "on mission" in various places throughout South America and in Italy. The new foundation that will be established in our Diocese will be the first one in the United States or in all of North America. Here "at home base" there are about 20 senior and junior sisters, about 10 novices, 20 postulants and about 20 aspirants, all under the watchful and maternal care of Madre (Mother) Blanca. Mother Blanca is the original Superior of this relatively young community which was established in 1982. She had been the Provincial of a Capuchin community of religious sisters and was recruited by then Bishop Alphonso, who established a huge number of religious communities here in the Diocese of Sonson-Rionegro at that time. He also was the founder of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement beginning here in South America, which was an outgrowth of the Charismatic Renewal which began in the late 1960's at Duquesne University (Holy Spirit Fathers) in Pittsburgh, and then transferred it's center to Ann Arbor, Michigan.
We were welcomed by the entire community of sisters, and all those in formation, with joyful happy faces and warm greetings. Mother Blanca, Father Fabio and I first met to discuss our project, to have further explanations and answer questions about the details of the project, and to come to the formal conclusion that I was hoping for: Mother Blanca assures us that she will be sending us 3 young sisters to establish this foundation for the next 5 years, thanks to the generosity of the grant from the Catholic Extension Society. They have already begun the paperwork for the immigration process but she can not publicly announce who the sisters will be until after their Chapter meeting in June. So, the purpose of our pastoral visit has already been realized and, thanks be to God, and thanks to the generosity of Mother Blanca and these dear Sisters, we will be the new home for a small group of their Sisters by later this summer.
After our meeting, we had a delicious lunch (which was more like a banquet), with some beautiful musical selections by some of the Sisters, and a tour of the Motherhouse, along with its large grounds where they raise tomatoes, chickens, and various other things. When it was time for our departure, it felt like we were truly leaving new and cherished members of our Family of Faith in the Diocese of Kalamazoo which now extends to the beautiful heights of the Andes Mountains in Colombia, South America.
Before taking us back to the Salesian House, Sister Yamile, Sister Maria Theresa and Mother Blanca wanted to take us to see "The Rock". It was about a 90-minute drive, but it was worth it to see the lush, beautiful countryside, filled with agriculture and what I would call "step farming" along the rolling hillsides of the area. "The Rock" is a huge meteor that crashed to the ground thousands of years ago. It rises 200 feet in the air, but 2/3 of the meteor is imbedded deep into the earth. It is a local sight-seeing destination and actually the official landmark for this entire area. It was truly an amazing sight to see.
We got back to the Salesian House after dusk. Fr. Fabio and I, along with our Salesian host, Father Oscar, were invited to dinner to the home of one of Fr. Fabio and Fr. Oscar's classmate and his wife and children. It was a lovely evening with a beautiful faith-filled family, and was a perfect ending to Day 2 here in Colombia, South America. Buenos Noches!